Ta-ka-ta-ka-ta-ka-ta-ka! Crash! Splinters flew from Larkin's cowling and two gashes suddenly appeared in the fabric of his left wing. So! The crippled eagle had loyal kingbirds for protectors, and they had plunged, pecking, at the Camel pursuing their leader.
Larkin dived clear of the streaming bullets, zoomed upward into a half loop and rolled into position to fire at the leading attacker. The German was slow and Larkin poured a stream of lead into the cockpit. He saw the pilot stiffen, as one who has received a sudden shock or surprise, and then slump down. The plane thundered on for a moment, then nosed down, out of control.
Ta-ka-ta-ka-ta-ka-ta-ka! Larkin saw tracers zipping past the nose of the plane. He side-slipped, out of the line of fire, and glanced back. Two more kingbirds coming to the relief of the fleeing eagle.
Ta-ka-ta-ka—the Spandaus again began their monotonous, metallic stutter. Into the cockpit of Larkin's plane streamed a half dozen deadly pellets. Two of them pinged against the instrument board, another passed completely through the cockpit, just in front of his stomach. He felt suddenly cold at the nearness of death as he zoomed steeply into a quivering stall and slipped off into a spin.
He was conscious of the fact that both the Fokkers were thundering after him. Then a Camel, with the speed of a thunderbolt, flashed across his line of vision. He could see the Lewis gun quivering with little excited jumps as it poured out lead. Good old McGee! He always turned up when needed most.
Larkin neutralized the stick, then ruddered hard left against the spin, and thus stopped the tail spin. Then, gaining speed by a quick dive, he looped with a suddenness that brought the Camel squarely on the tail of the remaining pursuer who was diving steeply. Both guns began jumping with delight as Larkin thumbed the releases. What luck! Square in the ring sight! The telltale tracers poked their white fingers into the vitals of the Fokker tri-plane. A serpent-like tongue of red licked out, fluttering for a moment like a wind blown candle flame, and then leaped afresh in an enveloping burst of flame and smoke.
He glanced around. McGee was in a merry game with the other kingbird. Round and round they plunged in steep spirals, each trying to get a glimpse of the other across the sights. A tight, breath-taking game, but one which cannot last long. The circle becomes too small, the pace too swift. It was a game in which, Larkin knew, the tri-plane Fokker could excel the Camel, granting that the pilots were of equal skill.
Larkin jockeyed for position, but in that moment when his eye was taken from the mad game of ring-around-the-rosy, McGee demonstrated that the skill was not equally placed. The Fokker was now spinning down, obviously out of control, and McGee was following, filling it with enough lead to sink it. It spun earthward, sickening in its erratic gyrations.
McGee pulled up on his stick, banked sharply, bringing himself alongside Larkin. They waved to each other, exultantly. Larkin, who a few minutes ago had decided that his luck had played out its string, swallowed his heart, murmured "Whew!" and surveyed the field.
The green and gold plane of von Herzmann was now a rapidly diminishing speck against the cloud bank toward la Chapelle, streaking for the Fatherland. The others, lacking a leader, and facing unequal chances with the timely and unexpected appearance of the French Spads, were withdrawing from the action with all the speed they could get out of their wonderful motors. And that was speed enough.
The French Spads had come out of a cloud bank just in time to upset the well laid plans of the German ace, and that worthy, never expecting such a dare-devil, self-sacrificing move as made by Larkin, had for once been taken by surprise. He had been damaged enough to force immediate retirement. The celerity with which his group abandoned the project and followed in his wake gave glowing tribute to the true value and leadership of that youth who flew the green and gold plane. With him as leader, they would have taken a toll, despite the unexpected arrival of the Spads. But with von Herzmann, their idol and their pride, forced from the fight by a hated Englander flying a dinky little Camel—well, the Fatherland could be served some other day.
But von Herzmann had been right in his boast that he would scatter the Americans like quails. As the French Spads pursued the fleeing Fokkers, which were numerically strong enough to make a too vigorous pursuit unwise and unhealthy, Major Cowan took up the task of gathering his brood. He flew around, bringing them together, signaling instructions to take up positions, and pointing westward along the line of flight. Three of his brood, however, were crushed and crumpled fledglings on the ground far below. Carpenter, and fat, jolly little McWilliams, had collided while engaging an enemy. Their crumpled wings had locked fast in an embrace that spun them down dizzily to a crashing, splintering death. And Nathan Rodd, he who spared his words, had also been a bit too provident or tardy with his fire and had been sent down out of control. Cowan had avenged Rodd a second later, sending his attacker down spinning and thereby gaining his first victory.
The score, in that far flung encounter, stood one in favor of Cowan's squadron, but it was a heavy-hearted group of pilots who at last took up formation and headed westward. Their faces had a new, grim look. Flying was not all a matter of shooting the other fellow down. Those who had witnessed the sickening crash of Carpenter and McWilliams learned at a tragic cost that one must be all eyes. The gateman, who controls the airways of the skies, was taking his toll, and every one of the group that flew westward toward La Ferte, leaving three comrades behind, now more soberly considered the alarming casualty figures of eighty per cent per month—and wondered!
A month! It is such a little while.
McGee Makes a Discovery
Three nights later, while members of the squadron were engaged in the usual after mess gab fest, an orderly entered with a summons for McGee and Larkin to report to Major Cowan. Larkin had just that day secured a misfitting regulation issue uniform from the Supply Officer, Robinson, and the group had been having a great deal of fun at his expense. Yancey now saw another chance.
"Old Fuss Budget is goin' to have you shot for impersonatin' an officer in that scarecrow riggin'," he taunted. "You should have kept your old uniform on, like McGee."
"Huh! Robinson didn't have one small enough for McGee," Larkin retorted. "They only have men's sizes in the American Army. What's wrong with this uniform?"
"Uniform?" Yancey repeated. "Oh, I thought it was a horse blanket."
Larkin thumbed his nose at Yancey as he passed through the door with McGee. He knew the Major would have a long wait if he stayed to get ahead of Yancey.
Major Cowan appeared to be in an unusually happy frame of mind.
"I've good news for you," he announced as they entered the headquarters hut. "In losing Carpenter, McWilliams and Rodd, we have gained you two. And instead of the bawling out I expected, I was congratulated for unusual foresight. The order assigning you to this squadron will be down to-morrow. I hope you are as well pleased as I am."
"Of course we are," McGee answered for both. "We wouldn't feel so much at home anywhere else. I'm sorry, of course, to come as a replacement for any one of those other chaps. They were fine fellows."
"Of course," Cowan responded, heartily. "Their loss demonstrates the value of experience. There was no reason at all for the collision between Carpenter and McWilliams. They simply forgot there was anyone else in the air. A tough break."
"Any break is a tough one when you don't come back," Larkin said.
The Major seemed to see him now for the first time. "Where in creation did you get that gunny sack you're wearing?" he demanded.
Larkin grinned, foolishly. "From Lieutenant Robinson, sir."
"What's it supposed to be?"
"A uniform, sir."
"Thanks. I didn't know." He turned to McGee, who still wore his British uniform. "Didn't Robinson have any more masquerade costumes?"
"Not my size, sir."
"Oh, you go in for size? I see Larkin doesn't. Why don't you get uniforms?"
"We haven't had a chance, sir," Larkin answered. "There is no tailor around here, so I chinned Robinson out of this enlisted man's issue. Perhaps," he offered, smiling, "the Major will give us a pass to Paris to have uniforms made."
"The Major will not! We've some real work ahead. But—"
The door opened and Siddons entered.
"But don't put that thing back on in the morning," Cowan completed. "Your British uniform is at least presentable."
"You sent for me, sir?" Siddons spoke from the doorway, his voice having the quality of one who is extremely bored—especially bored with being sent for.
"I did." Cowan's voice was crisp. The ends of his moustache began twitching jerkily. "I suppose you wonder why I have said nothing to you about your failure to rejoin the squadron the other day after you cut out at Vitry?"
"Why, no sir," Siddons responded, perfectly at ease. "You said that if any of us developed trouble that delayed us, to come on here at the earliest possible moment. I was here when you arrived."
"So you were." Cowan was making a stern effort to control his temper. "And it is true that I gave you orders to come on here should delaying trouble develop. But," he shot a quick, silencing look at McGee, "I conducted a little investigation into your landing at Vitry, Lieutenant, and I discovered that you took off again within an hour."
Siddons started, almost imperceptibly. His face colored, for a moment, but he quickly assumed his habitual nonchalance. It goaded Cowan to an inward fury, but he controlled himself well.
"I suppose you can think of some reason why I shouldn't ground you," Cowan said.
"Why, no sir. No reason at all."
"Then I can!" the Major snapped. "You like joy-riding, eh? Like to tour France, eh? Very well, I'm going to give you a bit of it to do."
He turned and walked over to a large wall map. "Take a look at this—all three of you," he said. "This is a detailed map of our sector. G 2 believes that the Germans are planning to strike north of here, perhaps just south of Soissons. One of their reasons for this suspicion is that information has reached G 2 to the effect that Count von Herzmann's Circus has pulled out from Roncheres. Where is he now? That's the question! The Intelligence sharks at Great Headquarters believe that if we can locate his new base we will know something more about the plans of the enemy. As a result, every squadron along this front has been ordered to make an effort to locate his new position. Personally, I am of the opinion that Larkin winged him the other morning, and as a result his Circus has been withdrawn, pending his recovery."
Larkin shook his head regretfully. "I wish I could think so, Major. I'd like to boast that I had given von Herzmann a little lead poisoning. But I don't think so. The tracers showed that my burst was going into his motor. I winged that, all right, but he didn't fly like a wounded man."
"Modest enough," Cowan approved. "It seems that G 2 thinks the same thing. They have reason to believe that he is in the neighborhood of this point here,"—he put a finger on the map—"where the railroad between Soissons and Chateau-Thierry crosses the Ourcq."
He turned now directly to Siddons, his eyes cold and piercing. "Lieutenant Siddons, you seem to be a most excellent map flyer. You find your way here alone, and you tour this part of France with admirable ease. To-morrow morning, if the visibility is good, you will take off at dawn, cross the line above Bouresches, push on toward Bonnes and as far inland as the railroad crossing on the Ourcq—if possible. Is that clear?"
"Perfectly, sir." Siddons was as unconcerned and unruffled as though he had received an order to fly to Paris.
"You will get the greatest possible altitude before crossing the line, and you are to avoid combat. Your mission is to bring us information, if possible, concerning the location of enemy 'dromes—and especially von Herzmann's base. Am I clear?"
One could not but admire the cool confidence of the fellow. His complacency was not what Cowan had expected.
"If you think the risk is too great, alone," Cowan said, after watching his face for any hint of quailing, "I will send two other planes with you. They might help reduce the odds in case of unavoidable combat."
"Oh, that's not necessary," Siddons replied. "In fact, one plane has a better chance to escape combat, especially if there are some clouds to duck into. Anything else, sir?"
Cowan made a clicking sound with his tongue. The fellow wasn't human; he was an iceberg!
"That is all. And I wish you luck."
"Thank you, Major. And thanks for the mission." He gave McGee and Larkin the pitying look of one who has just drawn the grand prize in an open competition, and without another word turned quickly and passed through the door.
Cowan's face had a baffled look. "Well," he finally said, "he acts like a gamecock, anyhow."
"Do you realize the danger of the mission?" McGee asked.
"It's not for me to consider that angle," the Major replied. "G 2 wants information, and I am under orders to help supply it. Danger? Yes. That's war. If we lose—well, I'd rather not discuss it."
At that moment the door opened. There, framed against the night, stood Nathan Rodd! In salute he brought a gauze-wrapped hand to his head, a head so thickly swathed in bandages that only his face was showing and his service cap sat perched at a ridiculous angle.
"Lieutenant Rodd reports for duty, sir," he said.
Cowan, McGee and Larkin had stood transfixed, as men might who thought they were seeing a ghost. But Rodd's words, concise and strikingly characteristic of the taciturn Vermonter, snapped them into action. This was no ghost!
"Rodd!" Major Cowan exclaimed, and rushed across the room to grip Rodd's unbandaged left hand. "You here?"
Rodd considered it unnecessary to waste words on so stupid a question. He merely offered his hand, when the Major released it, to McGee and Larkin, who were pounding him on the back in great glee.
"We thought you were dead," Cowan said.
"So did I—until I woke up," Rodd answered.
Cowan, noting the pallor of his face, pressed him into a chair. "Tell us about it," he urged. "Were you badly hurt? What happened? Didn't you crack up—"
Rodd lifted his good hand in protest. "One question at a time, Major. That German found my motor and it conked. I regained control just in time to level off, but not in time to miss a tree. After that I don't know what happened. Came to, flat on my back, fifty feet away from my plane. It was burning. That's all there is to it."
"All there is to it!" Cowan snorted. "You're not sending a telegram. Words won't cost you anything. Where have you been since then?"
"Hospital. Waiting for a chance to skip out."
"You mean—you ran away from the hospital?"
"You are crazy, man! Why did you leave?"
"I don't like hospitals."
"But you are hurt! Is your head badly injured?"
"And your hand?"
Cowan could not escape laughing. McGee and Larkin joined in.
"I'm not laughing at your injury, Lieutenant," Cowan explained, "but at your way of telling it. If that should happen to Yancey he'd write a book about it. Of course, I'm delighted to see you alive. I had the good fortune to wipe out the one that shot you down. He went down spinning."
"See him crash?" Rodd asked.
"No. Things were pretty thick. I didn't have time to watch."
"Didn't kill him," Rodd announced.
"He made a better landing than I did. He was trying to bring me to when some Frenchies came running up and nabbed him. Decent fellow. The Frenchies treated him pretty rough. Put the screws to him, I guess."
"See here," Cowan leaned forward in his chair, "either tell all this story, or back you go to the hospital. You say the French questioned him?"
"French Intelligence did. Pretty game fellow, they said."
"But he talked?"
"Had to. That was von Herzmann's Circus."
"We know that. Anything else?"
"Yes. He said they knew all about our plans, and were out gunning for us."
Cowan's face colored, but with confusion more than anger.
"Anything else?" he asked crisply.
"Well—the Frogs found out something else, but," he cast a quick, furtive glance at McGee and Larkin, "but I guess I've talked enough. Someone is talking too much, that's certain."
Cowan had seen the glance, and the inference irritated him. "These officers have proved their loyalty by service, Lieutenant."
"Yes, sir," was Rodd's meatless reply.
McGee felt genuinely hurt, but at the same time he recognized the fact that Rodd's statement was all too true.
"Rodd is quite right, Major," he said, and arose from his chair. "If he has any real information, it belongs to you alone—or to G 2. If you've nothing further, Larkin and I will be going."
"No, nothing further."
"No orders for to-morrow morning?"
"May I speak to you a moment—privately?"
They moved over near the door.
"You gave Siddons a mission I would like to have, Major. Any objections if I take a little joy-ride in the morning?"
Cowan's eyes narrowed. "Where?" he asked.
"Over the lines. I'd like to do a little looking for myself."
"No, sir. Alone. Don't even want Larkin to know I'm going. I think I know where to locate von Herzmann's Circus."
"What are you driving at, Lieutenant?"
"Major, if I told you half of what I think I know, you'd call me crazy."
"Hm-m! Well, I can't give you permission to go—but I will not be looking for you before noon." His sly wink told Red all that he wanted to know.
"Yes, sir. Good night, Major. Good night, Rodd. The gang will be mighty glad to see you back, old hoss! Come on, Buzz, let's go to bed."
Outside the door Larkin's fuming rage exploded. "Say, what did that tongue-tied sap Rodd mean by that dirty dig? If his head wasn't already in a sling, I'd—"
"Calm yourself, brother!" Red laughed. "If you had landed on your head from as high a point as he did, and then found out it was all brought about through a leak, you'd be suspicious of everyone too."
"Maybe so," Larkin answered, somewhat mollified. "What were you buzzing old Fuss Budget about?"
"I'll tell you that to-morrow night—maybe."
"Humph!" Larkin snorted. "I guess Rodd's disease is catching. You're tongue-tied too!"
Without reply Red led the way across the flying field to their hut. Entering, he began fumbling around in the dark for a candle stub. Larkin took up the search, by the aid of flickering matches, but the candle was nowhere to be found.
"It's a fine war!" Larkin growled, as he began undressing in the dark. "All the letters from the States bear the postmark, 'Food Will Win The War.' I guess the Army is trying to save on candles, too."
Before sunup the following morning McGee awoke and began quietly dressing. He did not want to awaken Larkin. When he had finished dressing he tiptoed cautiously across the floor, opened the creaking door ever so slowly and closed it with the same care.
Dawn was just streaking the east. A few birds were offering their first roundelays; the grass and trees were wet with a light rain that had fallen during the night, and to the northeast the distant guns were rumbling their morning song of hate—evil dispositioned giants, guttural in their wrath when dawn awoke them to a new day of devastation. Two or three sleepy-eyed air mechanics were making their way toward the hangars.
McGee stood for a moment outside the hut, studying the sky, which was a patchwork of clouds scattered across grey splotches that would turn to blue with the coming of the sun. Evidently the sky had been quite overcast during the night, but the clouds were broken now, though by no means dispersed.
It was an ideal morning for crossing the lines. Convenient cloud banks were excellent havens in case of surprise, and Archie fire was less accurate when the gunners had to contend with a ship that plunged into concealing clouds and out again at the most unexpected places. Of course, those same clouds offered concealment for enemy planes, but a pilot crossing the lines alone is considerably advantaged by such a sky as McGee was now studying approvingly.
As McGee started toward the hangars he saw that some of the ground crew were wheeling out Siddons' Nieuport. Well, the Major had stuck to his resolution and the order had gone through.
"Where's Lieutenant Siddons going?" McGee asked the Ack Emma who was making a careful check of the plane.
"Don't know, sir. Got orders last night to have her ready."
"Did Sergeant Williams get orders for my plane?"
"Yes, sir. Are you and Siddons goin' over on patrol, Lieutenant?"
"I can't answer for Siddons," McGee evaded. "You'd better ask him."
"Huh! A lot of good it would do. Honest, Lieutenant, that fellow talks less to us than a cigar store Indian talks to the customers—and that's less than nothin'. He thinks we're worms!"
McGee was about to offer his sympathies when another crew, under Sergeant Williams, came rolling the Camel out to the line. McGee began checking it over with the same minute care which had doubtless gone a long way toward making him an ace. He left inspection to no man. His air mechanic, knowing this, was equally careful in his work. This diminutive lieutenant was as mild as an April morning so long as all was well, but when something went wrong he could say more than a six foot Major-General.
"All set, Sergeant?" McGee asked, finishing his inspection.
"All set, sir. I just put a new valve in that wind driven gas pump. The guy that invented that trick should have been tapped for the simples. Why don't you hang this thing on a church steeple, Lieutenant, and get one of those Spads?"
"Well, I rather dislike entering a church from the steeple, and I'm sort of partial to this old crate. She's tricky on the ground, but I'm used to her ways and she's a Lulu upstairs."
He swung into the cockpit and the Sergeant stood at the prop.
The sergeant pulled over the propeller two times.
The motor caught, and after it had idled a few minutes McGee began revving it up.
Just then he noticed Siddons come from around the corner of the hangar, carrying what appeared to be a canvas covered pillow. Seeing McGee's plane on the line he stopped in surprise, then proceeded to his plane, where he fitted the pillow into the seat, patting it in place as a woman pats a divan pillow. Then he came across to the side of McGee's plane.
"Did you get orders, too?" he shouted.
McGee cut the gun. "No," he answered truthfully. Satisfied that this would not end the questioning, he added, "The Ack Emma has made some repairs. I'm going to give her a test."
"Oh, I see. Thought maybe I was going to have the pleasure of your company—and your help. Nice morning for my little jaunt, isn't it?"
"Bully!" McGee looked at him closely to discover any hint of fear. It simply wasn't there, and Red was forced to the mental admission that he had never seen such a cool, confident manner displayed by any pilot going over for the first time. "Good luck!" he called, and again began revving his motor.
Siddons turned back to his own plane, and with the most casual inspection, and with no comment to the mechanic, crawled into his cushion padded seat.
McGee, satisfied with the sound of his own motor, nodded to the wing boys to remove the chocks, and taxied to a quick take-off. At two or three hundred feet he turned, came back across the 'drome and headed in the general direction of Paris, climbing steadily and maintaining the direction until to the watching ground crew he became lost to view.
Then McGee swung north and began working back eastward. He passed to the west of La Ferte, and having gained an altitude of fifteen thousand feet, headed directly for the front, intending to cross the line to the north of Belleau and proceed toward Fere-en-Tardenois. Then, if fortune favored him, he could decide upon a deeper thrust into enemy territory.
The cloud strata was exceptionally deep and yet ragged enough to provide frequent glimpses at the world below. The one great danger lay in the fact that he might any minute come unexpectedly upon a German pursuit group. It was probable, however, that on such a morning they would be operating at a lesser altitude.
The trenches, as he crossed the line, were only faintly discernible, the detail obscured by the blue ground haze so common to the eyes of the pilot operating at high altitudes. But the strip of barren land on each side of the trenches gave visible evidence of the grimness of the struggle far below, and here and there along the line, miniature geysers spouted fan-shaped eruptions of earth with a grotesque, unexpected suddenness. Then a second later a new pock-mark on the face of an already over-tortured earth showed where the shell had exploded.
It was fascinating to watch. Nerve-racking and ear-splitting as it must be to the mud-splashed creatures in the trenches below, from on high the land within the neighborhood of the zig-zag trenches took on the appearance of a pot of boiling mush—here a crater, there a crater, springing into being with an amazing suddenness that lured the observer into the game of guessing when the next crater would appear.
McGee was engaged in exactly such mental speculation when he was brought to the realization of his own nearness to war by the plane-rocking explosion of a well-placed Archie. Then two other giant black roses bloomed directly in his path. Now he was presented with his own guessing game. Where would the next one be?
He swerved sharply left and dived toward a neighboring cloud. A cloud, while seeming from below to have both form and substance, is in reality but little different from a dense ground fog. It is enveloping, misty, eerie, and cuts off all visible contact with the world. If it covers a large air area, then the pilot may face some nice problems in correct and stable navigation, but if it is only a patch, he drives straight along his course, knowing that he will plunge out into the sunlight with the same suddenness with which he left it. Clouds are particularly welcome when Archie gunners begin to plaster the air with high explosive shells.
As McGee came out of this cloud, his attention was drawn to a number of black bursts some three thousand feet below, but which clustered around a lone Nieuport flying at a forty-five degree angle to the line of flight which McGee was pursuing. That Archie crew knew their business, and McGee thought they appeared uncomfortably near the Nieuport. Then, as he watched, the Nieuport did a strange thing. Instead of making a sudden change in direction or a quick dive, either of which would compel the gunner to make another quick calculation in his range, it merely rolled once, then dipped twice, and proceeded on its way. The Archie fire ceased as suddenly as it had commenced.
McGee streaked across another open patch of sky and entered another cloud. Coming out of this one he again spotted the lone Nieuport and corrected his own line to correspond with that of the lone flyer below. Now, studying it more closely, and with more time, he felt sure that it was Siddons' plane. One thing certain, the red, white and blue cockades established it as an American manned plane, and who, save a novice, McGee reasoned, would roll and make a slight dip to escape Archie fire. That particular battery must have been too convulsed by laughter to continue their fire. Had that stupid pilot, whoever he was, forgotten what he had been told concerning Archie fire?
With the same surprising suddenness with which Archies always proclaim their presence, three more black puff balls inked the air directly ahead of the Nieuport. They were off the mark, but they furnished data for other guns which began filling the air. Evidently the gunners had not yet seen McGee, who was much higher and considerably behind the Nieuport, for they were concentrating on that plane.
To McGee's surprise the Nieuport again rolled, then dipped twice, and the guns below immediately ceased firing. McGee decided it was time to seek the seclusion of a nearby cloud and while driving through it, do a little thinking.
What he had just witnessed was enough to make any experienced pilot think. Someone, flying a Nieuport, had a most novel way of treating with anti-aircraft gunners. He merely rolled over, straightened out, dipped twice, and the guns promptly left off their quarreling. No one could be stupid enough to reason that such manoeuver would discomfit the gunners, and yet in this case the effect was more efficacious than any manoeuver yet invented.
McGee smiled at the stupidity of the thought. It was effective only because it was a signal, prearranged and understood by the anti-aircraft gunners. The pilot of that Nieuport was in communication with the enemy, and McGee believed that man to be Siddons!
It all came to him in a flash. Who, better than Siddons, could have supplied the enemy with the information that brought them over to bomb the green squadron when they were stationed near Is-Sur-Tille? Someone supplied it, for Cowan had found in the pocket of the German flyer whom he, McGee, had brought down, an order disclosing the very fact that the raid had been planned on Intelligence reports. And where had Siddons gone that day after landing at Vitry on the slenderest excuse? The French Major said he had taken off within an hour. And the very next morning the squadron stumbled into a net spread by von Herzmann, and but for the timely and unexpected arrival of a large group of French Spads the harvest would have been great indeed. Could it be that Siddons had crossed the lines the previous afternoon, escaping Archie fire by a simple code of air signals, and disclosed the entire plan to the enemy?
McGee felt a hot wave of ungovernable anger sweep over him. He no longer had any doubts whatsoever. Two and two make four. Siddons was a traitor to his country. To his country? No, doubtless he was one of the many who had been trained for years against this very hour of need. On false records he had gained admission to the American Air Force, and now—
McGee came out of the cloud into the clear sunlight, and began searching the sky for the Nieuport. It was not to be seen. He flew on, encountered other clouds, came out again, but the Nieuport had miraculously disappeared.
McGee flew steadily northeast until he spotted an exceptionally large group of enemy planes, working up from the direction in which he was headed.
It was time to turn around. He was quite too far into enemy territory to feel comfortable, and that swarm of planes made him unusually homesick, even though they were far below him.
But just as he banked into a left turn he noticed that they were nosing down, sharply. He flew along the misty edge of a cloud, watching closely. Down, down, they went, becoming mere specks against the blue-grey ground haze.
They were about to make a landing! There could be no doubt of it, though at this distance and altitude he could not make out their hangars. On down they dropped, until at last they seemed to be engulfed by a greyish sea that shut out all definite form.
McGee had come for information, and here it was within his grasp if he were only willing to take a chance.
The strata of clouds against which he was flying stretched in the general direction of the place where he had lost sight of the large flight of planes.
He ducked into the clouds and drove along until he estimated that he was somewhere in the right neighborhood.
Coming out into an open sky he located a considerable forest far to his right and another one several kilometers directly ahead. Directly between these a ribbon of white marked its twisting course. That would be the Ourcq, and the forest beyond would be the Forest de Nesles. And—yes, there just beyond the river was a town—which McGee concluded must be Fere-en-Tardenois—and a little way from its outskirts a group of drab square blocks that caught and held his eyes.
Too much ground haze to make them out. Well, a chance is a chance, he reasoned, as over went the Camel's nose in a long dive.
Twice he checked the dive, only to dive again. He hated to give up altitude, but he was determined to get a look.
After the third dive, and the loss of several thousand feet, he made out the drab-colored canvas hangars of a German 'drome, and poised on the open field was a veritable swarm of little moths appearing to be drying their wings in the sun. Three of them began racing along the ground and bounded into the air. At the same minute an Archie battery opened from the town. The burst was wide of McGee's plane, but there was no mistaking their sincerity nor the fact that those three harmless appearing moths below were climbing to the attack.
Red gave his Camel all he thought it could stand as he climbed for the protecting clouds. Information was of no value if sealed by a dead man's lips. He had learned far too much this morning to chance any fight with anyone that could possibly be avoided.
The Archie fire continued until he had regained the clouds, and even then two or three more shells burst harmlessly somewhere ahead in the grey mist wall. He changed his direction sharply and roared along on a full throttle.
His heart was racing with his motor. He felt convinced that the 'drome he had located was a new base for the squadron he had just seen, for were they not coming up from the interior? Doubtless he had stumbled on to a movement of some importance. Just how important he could not know, but G 2 would be delighted with such information. Could that squadron, he wondered, by rare good fortune be the Circus of the famed von Herzmann?
Over Etrepilly an Archie battery hurled aloft a smashing, plane-staggering burst of black puff balls. A jagged piece of steel tore through his left wing. Too close, that!
He dived steeply. More shells burst above him. Above, but still uncomfortably close. Those gunners were real marksmen.
Suddenly he thought of what he had seen the lone Nieuport do. It might be worth trying. Acting on the impulse he rolled, straightened out, then dipped twice. One more shell came screaming aloft and then the batteries became abruptly silent.
Well, that was that! There could be no question now as to the movement being a prearranged signal. Archie gunners would not ordinarily leave off firing at any such stupid performance—they would chuckle while they locked the breach on another shell, and forthwith blow that fellow into Kingdom Come.
McGee was in high fettle as he streaked across the lines south of Belleau and laid a course for home. He had a great deal to report, and someone, flying a lone Nieuport, was going to have a great deal of explaining to do.
When McGee swooped low over his own hangar, preparatory to a landing, he was surprised to see Siddons' Nieuport resting on the tarmac. So he was back so soon!
Larkin was the first to greet McGee when he crawled from his plane.
"Where've you been?" he demanded.
"Oh, just up for a little test," McGee replied, assuming an air of indifference.
Larkin pointed to the jagged hole through the fabric of the left wing.
"Don't kid me!" he said. "Where'd you pick up that little souvenir?"
"I'll tell you later," McGee answered and started toward the Major's headquarters.
Larkin seized his arm and spun him around. "You'll tell me one thing right now, little feller! What's so funny about hiding my uniform so I'll get bawled out again by Old Fuss Budget for wearing this misfit?"
McGee looked at him blankly.
"What do you mean?"
"Mean? I mean you got up so early a respectable milkman wouldn't think of being up, and with your brain a bit foggy you thought what a clever idea it would be to hide my English uniform and give this gang of Indians another day of pleasure. What's the big idea?"
McGee shook his head. "I never touched your uniform, Buzz. Come to think of it, though, I don't remember seeing it this morning while I was dressing. Did you see it last night?"
"See it last night!" Larkin snorted. "How could I? We couldn't find the candle and it was so blasted dark that I hung my shoes on a chair and my pants on the floor. Quit foolin', Red. Where's that uniform?"
"I don't know, I tell you. But if I were you I'd go ask Yancey that question."
Larkin's eyes snapped. "That's the bozo! That Texas longhorn is just before meeting up with a real cyclone."
"Better go easy," Red warned. "He's used to cyclones, and I've always had a sort of feeling that he could take care of himself in heavy weather."
Nothing daunted, Buzz went bowling off in search of Yancey, and McGee crossed the 'drome to Cowan's headquarters.
The excited enthusiasm with which McGee began his report to Cowan was quickly cooled by the Major's expressionless indifference. Throughout McGee's narration of the events of the morning, Cowan continued studying a sheaf of papers lying on the desk before him, now and then penciling thereon some memorandum or brief endorsement. That part of the report dealing with the actions of the lone Nieuport, which seemed to have a system of signals to insure safe passage over the lines, brought from the Major no more than a throaty, "Hum-m." It angered McGee, and brought from him a heated charge which under other conditions he would have hesitated to make.
"And the man who was piloting that plane is a member of this squadron," he blurted out.
Cowan casually turned a sheet of paper. "Indeed," he replied, continuing his reading. It was maddening.
"Has Siddons reported to you, sir?" McGee asked, pointedly.
"Yes." Cowan arose and looked straight at the flushed young pilot. His eyes were uncommunicative. "Lieutenant Siddons just left here with Colonel Watts, going back to Wing headquarters," he said. "I may tell you, Lieutenant, that the Colonel came down a short time after Siddons hopped off, and gave me a most uncomfortable half hour for sending him over. We will discuss it no further, and I charge you with absolute silence in the matter. You are to say nothing, to anyone, concerning this entire matter. You understand?"
"I understand that I'm to keep silent, sir—but I don't understand the rest of it."
"It isn't necessary that you do. That is all, Lieutenant."
"But what about that 'drome I located at Fere-en-Tardenois? I think it is Count von Herzmann's Cir—"
"You think wrong, McGee, but whatever you think, don't think out loud. That is all, Lieutenant."
"Yes, sir. And there are no orders for—"
"Orders will be a little more secret—in the future." Cowan's voice was crisp, and carried a note of dismissal.
"Yes, sir." McGee saluted stiffly, turned on his heel and walked from the room, steaming with anger. Outside the door he picked up a small stone from the newly graveled walk and hurled it singing through the top of a nearby poplar. He simply had to throw something.
"You poor prune!" he addressed himself. "You never did have enough sense to know when you were well off."
Lady Luck Deserts
There followed three days of maddening inactivity, during which time the squadron fretted and became as edgy as so many caged tigers. McGee made use of the time by securing a trim fitting uniform, the very sight of which threw Larkin into new outbursts of rage concerning the disappearance of his English uniform. A joke was a joke, when not carried too far, he argued, and admitted that he was exceedingly weary with the comments made concerning the fit of the issue uniform that he was compelled to wear. Every man professed innocence, but Larkin did not believe a word of their stout denials. The manner in which he took the joke was evidence of the irritability caused by the days of inaction. Every member of the squadron was looking for something over which they could quarrel.
Then one night, about nine o'clock, orders came down for a dawn patrol of two flights of five ships each.
Cowan summoned McGee and Larkin to his headquarters and gave them leadership of the flights. McGee protested, pointing out that he did not want to gain the honor at Yancey's expense, and particularly since he considered Yancey worthy of the command. But Cowan was sure of the wisdom of the move, and made his own selection of the men who were to go on this first patrol.
The posting of those names on the bulletin board brought shouts of delight from the lucky ones and growls of disgust from those who were not selected.
Even Nathan Rodd, still wearing bandages on his head and right hand, broke his silence and wolfed loudly over the fact that he had been left out.
"Aw, dry up!" some other unfortunate pilot growled at him. "You're still seein' stars from that last crack you got on the head. What do you want—all the luck?"
It was an expression peculiarly fitting to the situation. Some of the names on that bulletin board might next appear in the casualty reports, yet every man wanted his name on the board, firm in the belief that death would somehow pass him by.
In McGee's flight appeared the names of Tex Yancey, Hank Porter, Randolph Hampden, and of all luck—Siddons!
McGee started to make protest, thought better of it, and biting his lips savagely left the group around the board and went to his quarters. Of all the good men in the squadron, why should that traitorous scoundrel be included and other loyal deserving pilots be left behind? Someone was being pig-headed indeed!
Along about two o'clock in the morning the eager pilots, tossing on their beds in a sleeplessness induced by the promise of the coming of dawn, were more fully awakened by the deep and sullen thundering of thousands of big guns hammering at the lines. It was no fitful, momentary outburst; it was the constant earth-shaking roar that presages a drive. To the north and east the sky flickered with the light coming from thousands of cannon mouths. It was like the coming of a summer storm when the thunder god growls his wrath and lightning plays constantly over the giant thunderheads.
There could be no sleep now for the anxious pilots. Something had popped loose up there, and in a few more hours they would be on their way up to witness this far-flung duel.
The flickering, flashing light of cannon fire faded at last before the salmon and rose colored morning light that streaked the smoke clouds lying across the pathway of the coming sun. Long before that orb of light arose, red-eyed, over a new scene of carnage, ten planes were out on the line, motors warming, while the pilots and mechanics made last minute inspections. Every member of the squadron was present; the unlucky ones to bid good luck to those chosen for the mission and to see the take-off of this first dawn patrol. Their interest was intensified by the throaty rumbling of the distant guns.
It was an hour of high suspense. For this hour every man present had waited with a keen desire that had been his prompter and spur through all the long, wearying months of training. All the schooling in theory was now behind. Experience, that hard teacher, was now at the controls. The school of machine gunnery, where dummies and swift moving targets had served as theoretical enemies, was now to become a real school where the enemy was also armed and where mistakes and misses were likely to hurl the pupil out of the class with never a chance to profit by the mistake.
The dawn patrol! The day! From this hour they would begin to tally their earned victories. On this night, if lucky enough to encounter the enemy, some of them would send in reports that would start them up the ladder toward that coveted rank—an ace! It never entered the mind of any one of them that some enemy pilot, already an ace and rich in experience, might send in a report fattening his record and increasing his fame. No, no! Air battle is made possible only by thoughts of victory.
McGee walked over to Yancey's plane. The gangling Texan was testing his rudder controls and flipping his ailerons with jerky movements of evident impatience.
"I want you to know," McGee said to him, "that I did not ask for this flight. It is yours, by rights."
Yancey's grin was genuinely friendly. "Shucks, that's nothin'. I'm glad to be out. Bein' a flight leader sorter cramped my style anyhow. This way I can do a little free-lancin'—if I see some cold turkey."
"You leave cold turkey alone and stay in formation," McGee replied. "Just remember, old man Shakespeare was talking about the air service when he said 'things are not always what they seem'."
"I'll be good unless I spot some of those German observation balloons. I've a sneaky feelin' I could eat up two or three of those sausages before I come back here for breakfast without havin' my appetite spoiled."
McGee shook his head in serious warning. "Leave them alone, Yancey. They look easy, but the Archie gunners can fill the air around 'em so full of lead that a bee couldn't fly through. And as for flaming onions—boy! We are out on combat patrol, remember. This is no joy-ride."
That moment Major Cowan came running across the field and hurried up to McGee. His excitement was evident in every movement.
"Orders just came," he began, hurriedly, "for every available ship to proceed to the bridges at Dormans and Chateau-Thierry. Bombers are going up, also. The Germans have started a big drive."
His manner, and the electrifying words, had drawn every man around him in a close circle. "That's what all the gun fire is about—barrages and counter-barrages. Disregard the patrol orders, Lieutenant, and proceed with these two flights to Dormans—at once! You are to do everything in your power to retard the enemy advance, harass their troops, and especially harass their advanced positions and lines of supply. Do you understand?"
"Good! Take off at once! I will at once get out all other available ships and lead them against the lines at Chateau-Thierry. You've the head start, and must, therefore, take Dormans. Snappy, now!"
A cheer went up from those pilots who a moment before had been cursing the luck that had left them behind. They started running for the hangars.
As McGee climbed into his plane, Yancey "blipped" his motor and shouted, "Who said this wasn't a joy-ride?"
The revving motors drowned out all other sounds. Helmets were given a last minute tug.
McGee looked along the line and lifted his hand. The nine others chosen for dawn patrol signaled their readiness.
Out came wheel chocks, motors roared into the smooth sound of ripping silk as one by one they lurched down across the field and took the air.
The heart of every man in the flight, save McGee's, was racing in tune with his motor. Here was a mission so much more exciting than any dawn patrol.
Harass the advancing enemy! And their line of supplies! Storm down and spew out lead on the bridges where the troops would be crossing! Here was action of the highest order, in which, in all probability, formation flying would be broken up and it would be every fellow for himself.
McGee alone knew the danger and hazard of their mission. In a big push the enemy planes would be out in great number, determined to sweep the air free of resistance. To harass troops, McGee knew, they must fly low. In so doing they would run a constant gauntlet of machine gun and rifle fire, in addition to frequently traversing the line of flight of high angle heavy artillery. It was not pleasant to think of meeting up with one of those big G.I. cans loaded with enough high explosive to demolish a building. Just get in the way of one of them and what would be left could be placed in a small basket. Added to all this was the fact that all altitude was sacrificed, and a green pilot, out cutting eye-teeth, needs altitude in case of attack.
To McGee the outlook was gloomy enough. Doubtless the venture would run up a stiff casualty list, but every needed sacrifice must be made here! And now! The French and Americans below must not let the Hun break through. Paris, all too near, was the objective of the drive. If they broke through and reached Paris—well, they must not break through!
McGee saw the planes of another American squadron working up toward the front on his left. High above his flight was a large group of French Spads. He watched them, turning his head aloft from time to time. They seemed to be hovering over him and following his course. Far ahead, and below, he could see enemy observation balloons straining at their cables. Black geysers of earth, sand, and mud, were spouting from the tortured strip along the river. The earth below was an inferno of flashing, thundering shells. The front! And the drive was on!
He glanced up again. The French Spads were still above, a trained, experienced group of war hawks sent up to take care of the "upstairs" fighting while the Americans did the dirty work below. Cowan had not mentioned this. Perhaps he did not know of it. McGee knew that in big operations, and especially in such emergencies as this, orders were issued without disclosing the whole plan to all participants. If each unit obeys and carries out the orders received, then all goes well.
So far, all was well, and McGee was extremely grateful for that protecting flight of Spads.
He determined to cross the river west of Dormans, make a thrust well back of the lines, cut out again over Dormans and then, if luck were with them, repeat the performance. No need to lay plans too far in advance. Too much can happen in the tick of a second—things that knock plans and the planner into a cocked hat.
Below them now was a far-flung battle of raging intensity. German troops could be seen moving along toward the river, and a little farther inland McGee spotted a long line of infantrymen along a road paralleling the river. But they were moving westward, in the direction of Chateau-Thierry, instead of toward the bridgehead at Dormans. And in addition to the marching men, the road was choked with artillery, caissons, ammunition wagons, and ambulances.
Here was an opportunity made to order, and just as McGee was preparing to give the signal, he saw Yancey cut out and dive toward an observation balloon that was being rapidly drawn down by excited winchmen. No use to try to signal Yancey; that wild Texan was off on his joy-ride.
Archies and machine gun fire tried vainly to stop Yancey's wild dive. Flaming onions began surging upward in their terrifying circlets, but Yancey was as scornful of them as is a Texas steer of a buzzing deer fly. His guns rattled in a short burst and the balloon exploded with a terrific blast of flame and smoke. Yancey's plane rocked perilously. His inexperience in "busting balloons" had come near being his own undoing. But he righted his plane, somehow escaped the hail of shot and steel all around him and came plunging back down the road filled with fear-stricken men and plunging horses, his guns rattling joyously.
McGee, followed by Siddons, Porter and Fouche, swooped along the road from the opposite direction, scattering the troops like chaff. With death raining down on them from opposite but converging points, the German infantrymen broke wildly for cover. Their less fortunate comrades, the cannoneers and drivers of caissons and supply wagons, stuck to their posts, trying to calm the rearing, plunging horses and cursing the inexorable wasps that sent stinging death down on them.
Yancey, in particular, seemed to be in his glory. Half a dozen times he swung around, gained a little altitude, and again went plowing down along the road, his guns jumping and smoking in fiendish delight.
Harass the advancing enemy, eh? And the line of supplies? A job exactly suited to Yancey's heart and spirit.
But McGee was wise in such matters, and having delivered a blow drew off and sought other fields to conquer. It was not wise to stay long in any one place.
He had expected Yancey to follow, but that worthy was too delighted with his find, and when he tired of it at last it was to discover that he was very much alone. Nothing could have suited him better. Now he was answerable only to himself—and to Luck!
He began climbing, and casting an eye over the sky for balloons within striking distance. After all, strafing infantrymen wasn't half as much fun as knocking down balloons. They went up with such a glorious bang! And it was delicious to watch the frightened observer tumble over the side of the basket in an effort to escape by parachute. That last one had somehow gotten fouled in the rigging and had been clawing frantically when the bag exploded. As for that, Yancey had been sorry; not for the man, but because he had wanted to see the parachute poof-op! into a suddenly blown white flower at which he might take a few shots by way of testing his aim. Well, maybe he'd have better luck with the next one.
With no thought of danger, and with his heart racing in a new exhilaration which he had never before felt, Yancey started out alone on a career that was to bring him a fame coveted by every man in the squadron, but a fame which they did not care to gain by this most hazardous of war sports—"balloon busting." Only men who cannot, or will not weigh danger, become balloon busters. And of these was Yancey, the "flying fool" of the squadron, concerning whom there was never any agreement among the others as to whether he didn't know any better or knew better and did it because it was dangerous.
* * * * *
McGee, with Siddons, Porter and Fouche following, swung eastward toward Dormans. Above them, as a protecting layer, flew Larkin with his flight, and still above them, much higher, were the French Spads.
This state of affairs could not last long, McGee knew. It was only a question of time until German planes would come up and accept the gage of battle. It was a situation, therefore, calling for the greatest effort possible in the shortest length of time.
Every movement below offered positive proof that the enemy were concentrating in the direction of Chateau-Thierry, and if they were in fact making a thrust to the eastward it was only to draw attention from the real objective.
For once McGee decided to disregard the Major's orders and, instead of proceeding to Dormans, swing back and do all he could at the bridgeheads at Chateau-Thierry.
He swung around, and as he banked caught sight of seven or eight German planes coming up from the northwest. He looked aloft. The Spads had seen them, too, and were closing in.
McGee began climbing, and noted with satisfaction that Larkin, on the alert, was waggling his wings as a signal that he too had seen them and was prepared.
Then, for apparently no reason at all, Siddons cut out of the flight and started streaking it for the lines.
For a brief moment McGee felt a burning desire to take after him and turn his guns loose on him.
"Traitorous hound!" he muttered to himself. "I wondered how you could follow when we were strafing those troops. I'll bet anything he never warmed his guns. Of course he wouldn't!"
But just now there was business at hand more urgent than chasing after a man whom he felt sure was both a traitor and a coward.
Above him the Spads were engaged in a merry dog fight with the German Albatrosses. But two of the Germans had somehow eluded them and were diving down on Larkin's flight.
The action of the next moment was too swift for words. The two Albatrosses came bravely on, scorning the odds against them. Larkin's plane engaged the first one, but the second one got in a lucky burst that sent one of the Nieuports nosing down in a disabled effort to make a safe landing. And perhaps the luckless pilot could have saved his life to spend the rest of the war in a German prison camp but for the fact that the German who had crippled him, tasting blood, wanted a more complete victory. Down, down, he followed the plane, spitting lead at the poor pilot who seemed unable to think of anything except getting to the earth.
As the planes came down to a level with McGee's flight, Red whipped around and closed in on the pursuer. Too late! Flame came curling, licking from the motor of the Nieuport. That second, for the first time, McGee recognized it as Randolph Hampden's ship. Poor Hampden! The only man in the squadron who ever had a good word for Siddons, and now he was going down in flames while Siddons, supposedly his friend, was high-tailing it for home.
With bitterest venom McGee thumbed his trigger releases as he caught a fleeting glimpse of the Albatross in the ring sight. But that German was not only courageous—he was a consummate flyer. He whipped around with surprising speed and came streaming at McGee with both guns going. Head on he came, and there was something about the desperation of the move that told McGee that the battle-crazed fellow would actually ram him in mid-air.
McGee dived. So close was the other upon him that he imagined he could feel the wheels of the undercarriage on his own wings.
He Immelmanned, only to discover that by some brilliantly rapid manoeuver the German had rolled into position and was rattling bullets into the Camel's motor. Crack! One of the bullets struck a vital part and the motor started limping. McGee's heart came into his mouth. He was disabled and—
That moment Hank Porter and Fouche closed in on the German and Larkin came diving down from above. Three against one! McGee, despite his own predicament, felt like saluting the fellow's dare-devil courage. Larkin could take care of him alone, even should Porter and Fouche fail.
Certain of the outcome of the now unequal struggle, McGee turned the nose of his pounding plane in the direction of the lines near Mezy, and prayed fervently that the failing motor would not conk completely before he reached and crossed the river. He had no desire whatsoever to spend the remainder of the war in a German prison. Even that, however, was preferable to being sent down in flames, and he kept a sharp lookout for any attack that might come from some keen-eyed German looking for "cold meat."
Presently he noticed a shadow sweep across his plane. He glanced up fearfully, and then smiled with delight. It was Larkin, following along to give battle to any or all who might pounce upon his friend. McGee felt a new surge of hope. Why had he even thought he would have to make the trial alone? Larkin, who never deserted, who never failed in a pinch, had disposed of that German in great haste and was ready for whatever the next few minutes might bring.
For McGee those next minutes were filled with a thousand misgivings. The ship was losing altitude rapidly, and the motor was pounding furiously, but if it would only hold up he could make it.
When he flashed across the river at Mezy, with some eight hundred feet to spare, he turned and waved a light-hearted O.K. to Larkin, and began to look for some landing place free of shell craters.
It was not unlike looking for land in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean. Barrage after barrage had marked the earth with the deep scarred pocks of war. He must push on toward the rear with the last inch that could be wrung from that motor and then land straight ahead, leaving the outcome to Lady Luck. She had never deserted him completely—
That moment she deserted. The motor conked with a non-stuttering finality. Now for a dead stick landing, straight ahead! If he could only pancake her down just beyond that big hole, maybe she would stop rolling—
He pancaked, but in doing so struck too hard. The undercarriage was wiped out completely. He felt the bound, followed by a terrific up-fling of the tail, and then a thousand stars went shooting before his eyes and it seemed that a lightning bolt rived his brain. Then darkness—and an infinite peace....
Medals and Chevrons
When McGee next opened his eyes, it was upon a world in which white seemed to be the shockingly outstanding scheme of things. White walls, a white painted fence, which he at last concluded must be the end of an iron bed, and just beyond this, near at hand yet seemingly miles and miles away, a woman in spotless white. He couldn't quite make out her face, in fact all detail was lost in a dim haze that refused to be cleared up by a blinking of the eyes. And there was such a roaring sound, as of a mighty waterfall thundering down into an echoing canyon.
Oh, yes! His head. He tried to lift his left hand to feel of his head, but the muscles failed to respond. Indeed, the arm seemed not only lifeless, but to be clamped firmly across his chest by tight bonds. He tried the right arm. It responded, and the hand came up to touch and wonder at the large bundle of cloth that should be his head.
The woman in white moved toward him, quickly, and he was about to form a question when she faded before his very eyes, and the thundering waterfall left off its roaring as he floated out of the world of white into a black, obliterating nothingness.
Hours later he again opened his eyes. Again he saw a woman in white at the foot of what he now knew to be a bed. She smiled, a sort of cheery, wordless greeting. He could see distinctly now, and the thunder of the rushing torrent had subsided until it was little more than a wind whispering among the tree tops. But the left arm was still lifeless and numb, and his head felt as large as a tub.
"Where am I?" he asked, and was startled by the feebleness of the voice which seemed in no way related to him.
The woman in white bent over him, smoothing the pillow and pressing him back upon it.
"You must be quiet," she said, "and not talk, or try to move."
Funny thing to say. Why shouldn't he talk—especially when he had so much to learn about this strange place?
"But where am—"
The figure in white began fading away again, a most distressing habit, and darkness again rushed at him from the white walls.
Hours later he again opened his eyes, realizing at once that it was night, though objects could be dimly seen by the glow of the one light at the far end of the room. He could hear voices, and with a slight turn of the head saw a man in uniform talking with the white-clad woman who could so suddenly and miraculously disappear. At the movement the man turned quickly.
It was Larkin, and the worried lines in his face were swept away by a quick, cheery smile as he bent over the bed and pressed McGee's right hand in a manner that spoke more than words.
"What happened, Buzz?" McGee asked, and was again surprised at the thin quality of his voice.
"You're all right, old hoss," Larkin evaded, "but you mustn't talk yet. Be quiet now. To-morrow night I'll be back and tell you all about it."
"Quiet now! See you to-morrow," and with another squeeze of the hand he was gone.
Well, McGee thought, it was rather tiring to try to think. Sleep was so easy—and so soft.
The following evening Larkin came back again, just as the nurse had finished giving McGee a light, liquid meal.
"Hello, you little shrimp!" he sang out cheerily. "Eyes bright and everything! Old Saw Bones just told me I could see you for five minutes—but to do all the talking. You can have three questions only."
A thin, tired smile came to McGee's freckled face, a face almost hidden under the bandages that completely covered his head.
"All right," he said. "First question—will I fly again?"
"Of course! In four or five weeks you'll be good as new."
"Four or five weeks! What—"
"Careful now, or you'll use up all your questions. When you set that Camel down in a shell hole she flipped over and your head was slightly softer than a big rock that happened to be handy. I would have bet on the rock being softest, but it seems I'd lost. You went blotto. A bunch of soldiers dragged you out from under what was left of that Camel—which wasn't much. Then an ambulance brought you back here. This hospital is about five kilos from squadron headquarters, and I've been back here twice a day for the past five days, worrying my head off for fear you'd never come to."
"Five days?" Red responded, his voice indicating his disbelief.
"Yep, five days. Three days passed before you even opened your eyes. Try and land on your feet, next time."
"The nurse tells me my left arm is broken," McGee said. "Wonder how I got that?"
"You've used up all your questions," Larkin told him, laughing, "and I've used up all my time. I want to be good so that Old Saw Bones will let me see you to-morrow night."
"Wait," McGee began, but the nurse interposed herself.
"No more to-night," she said. "In a day or two you can talk as much as you like."
The next two or three days passed slowly for McGee. Each night Larkin came back from squadron headquarters in a motor cycle side car, but his stays were so brief that Red had no chance to get any but the most fragmentary news.
As for news from the front, he could drag nothing from the nurses or from Larkin, and when he inquired after members of the squadron Buzz would reply with an evasive, "Oh, they're all right," and shift the conversation into the most commonplace channels.
Ten days of this, and the surgeon gave his O.K. to the use of a wheel chair, which was pushed around the grounds by one of the hospital orderlies. The grounds were extremely beautiful, the hospital having been a famous resort hotel before the exigencies of warfare required its conversion into one of the thousands of hospitals scattered throughout France.
Great beech and chestnut trees covered the lawn, and to one side was a miniature lake, centered by a sparkling fountain, on whose wind-dimpled surface graceful, proud swans moved with a stately ease that scorned haste or show of effort.
On the second day of exploration in the wheel chair, Larkin came in the afternoon and, relieving the orderly, pushed Red's chair down to a deep shaded spot by the side of the pond.
"I can't see why they won't let me walk around," McGee complained. "There's nothing wrong with my legs."
"No, but they're not so sure about that head, yet. Another few days and you'll be running foot races," Larkin assured him.
"How long does it take a broken arm to heal, Buzz?"
"Two or three weeks—maybe four. You had a bad break. Maybe a little longer. You're lucky, after all—maybe."
"What do you mean, lucky?" Red looked at him quizzically.
"Well, some of the boys haven't gotten off so easy."
"See here, Buzz, I'm tired of snatches of news. Tell me all you know about—about everything. Back here the war seems so far away—and unreal. Except for all these wounded men, and the uniforms, I'd never think of it. No guns, no action, no—no dawn patrols. I feel like a fish out of water. But there must be some little old war going on up there. I've heard about Chateau-Thierry, by piecemeal. Boy! It was the big show starting the very morning I got it, and we didn't even know it. Just my luck to get forced down at a time like that!"
"Maybe not so tough," Buzz answered. "A Blighty, if it doesn't cripple, is not so bad. Our casualties have been nearly forty per cent, from one cause or another."
"No!" Red exclaimed in surprise.
Larkin nodded, dourly. "They sure have! We've been up against von Herzmann's Circus most of the time, and that fellow hasn't any slouches on his roster. That was one of his outfit that cracked your engine."
"Really? Did you get him?" Red asked, his face alight with interest.
Larkin shook his head. "No luck. I ducked to follow you. But Fouche got him—his first that morning."
"That morning? You mean he—"
"Got another one, a flamer, just back of Chateau-Thierry. That boy is some flyer! He's an ace already."
McGee's delight was genuine. "That's great! Never can tell, can you? I didn't think much of his work." He hesitated, wanting to inquire about the others but held back by that statement of Larkin's to the effect that casualties were above forty per cent. He feared he would ask about someone whose name was now enrolled in that sickening total.
"What about—Yancey?" he tried.
Larkin laughed. "Oh, that Texas cyclone is as wild as a range horse and is due to get potted any minute. In fact, he's overdue. He's a balloon busting fool, and no one can stop him. He has nine of them to his credit and every time he goes out he comes back with his plane in shreds and just barely holding together. You'd think it would cure him, but he eats shrapnel. Has two planes to his credit, but he doesn't go in for planes. He cuts formation exactly like you used to, Shrimp, and goes off high, wide and lonesome, looking for sausages. He got one just this morning, and I give you my word his ship looked like a sieve when he came in. The Major threatens to ground him if he doesn't quit cutting formation, but he's only bluffing. He's as proud as the rest of us."
"So Cowan is all right?" Red asked.
"He sure is all right," Larkin enthused. "He's an intolerable old fuss budget and hard to get along with when on the ground or out of action, but he's square, he's developed into a real commander, and he's got sand a-plenty. He's coming down to see you to-morrow—and that's going some for Cowan. He likes you a lot."
Red colored, and to change the subject, asked, "What about Hampden? Didn't I see him go down just before I caught it?"
"Yes. Flamer. Poor devil!"
To Red's mind came the picture of Siddons, fleeing from the field of action a few minutes before the tragic death of the only man in the squadron who really called him friend. Friend, indeed!
"I suppose Siddons is still on top," McGee said, somewhat bitterly. "His kind never get it."
A troubled look spread over Larkin's face. "You know," he began slowly, "none of us can figure out that fellow. He didn't get back to the squadron that day until just at dark. The news of Hampden's death seemed to daze him, but he didn't say a word. Two days later he left the squadron, and we thought he was gone for good—grounded for keeps or sent home. But yesterday he turned up again, big as life. If Cowan is displeased, he doesn't show it. We can't figure it out."
"I can!" McGee flared, then suddenly remembered that Cowan had charged him with absolute secrecy concerning the discoveries he had made.
"Well then, what's the dope?" Larkin asked.
"Oh, he's got a heavy drag somewhere," Red replied, remembering that he had passed his word to Major Cowan. "What about Hank Porter?" he asked, to shift the subject.
Larkin shook his head, dismally. "Another one of Herzmann's Circus filled him full of lead, but he tooled his ship back home before he fainted from loss of blood. He's in a hospital for the rest of the war. May never walk again."
McGee decided to do no more roll calling for the day. It was altogether too depressing. For a while they talked of lighter, commonplace things and then fell into that understanding silence that is possible only with those whose friendship is so firmly fixed that words add little to their communion.
Watching the swans that moved around the central fountain in stately procession, McGee fell to thinking how little those lovely creatures knew of tragedy and sorrow. Theirs was a world secure in beauty, unmarred by the things which man brings upon himself, and this was true because they knew nothing of avarice or grasping greed. Could it be that man, in all his pride, was one of the least sensible of God's creatures?
The day following, Major Cowan called, and in his elation over the success of American arms at the recent battle of Chateau-Thierry, told McGee more in a short half hour than Red had been able to worm from all others with whom he talked.
The Germans, Cowan told him, had been stopped at Chateau-Thierry in an epic stand made by the 2nd and 3rd Divisions, A.E.F., and a few days later the Marines had crowned themselves with a new glory when, in liaison with the French, they had stormed the edges of Belleau Wood, gained a foothold, and then tenaciously pushed slowly forward in the bloodiest and bitterest battle yet waged by the untried American forces. Counter-attack after counter-attack had been met and repulsed, with the net result that the Germans had been definitely stopped in the Marne salient. Their hope of breaking through to Paris was shattered, and though they were still pounding hard, their sacrifices were vain.
It was, Cowan declared, the real turning point of the war, and even now men were joyously declaring that the war would be won by Christmas.
As for the air forces, they had delivered beyond the fondest hopes of the high command. The casualties had been high, Cowan admitted, but not higher than might be expected and not without giving even heavier losses to the enemy. The squadron losses could have been held down had the members been less keen about scoring a personal victory over von Herzmann. Every pursuit pilot along the entire front was willing to take the most desperate chances in the hope of plucking the crest feathers of this German war eagle.
"I guess there's one member not particularly anxious to pluck any of the eagle's feathers," McGee put in at this point.
"No?" Cowan's voice was quizzical. "Who's that?"
"Siddons," McGee replied tersely.
A look of aggravation, or of pained tolerance, crossed Cowan's face.
"We won't discuss that," he said, deserting for the moment his air of good-fellowship and returning to the quick, testy manner of speaking which was so characteristic of him in matters of decision. "I take it you have said nothing to Larkin, or anyone else, concerning your—ah, our suspicions?"
"Nothing, sir. But I can't—"
"Good. Let Intelligence work it out, Lieutenant. One little rumor might upset all their plans. I can assure you, however, that G 2 knows all that you know. They are waiting the right minute—and perhaps have some plan in mind. Silence and secrecy are their watchwords. Let them be yours." He arose and extended his hand. "I must be moving along. I'm glad to see you doing so nicely. You'll be more than welcome when you get back to the squadron. Don't worry. There's plenty of war left yet."
Perhaps there was plenty of war left, but McGee soon discovered that a badly broken arm and a cracked, cut head can be painfully slow in healing. Days dragged slowly by, with Larkin's visits as the only bright spot in the enforced inactivity. Then, to McGee's further distress, the squadron was moved to another front. Larkin had been unable to tell him just where they were going, but believed it was to the eastward, where it was rumored the Americans were to be given a purely American sector.
This was unpleasant news to McGee. It meant that he would be left behind, and he could not drag from the hospital medicoes any guess as to when he would be permitted to leave the hospital.
Hospital life, with its endless waiting, sapped his enthusiasm. At night, in the wards, the men recovering from all manner of wounds would try to speed the lagging hours by telling stories, singing songs, and inventing the wildest of rumors. Occasionally, when the lights were out, some wag would begin an imitation of a machine gun, with its rat-tat-tat-tat, and another, catching the spirit of the mimic warfare, would make the whistling sound of a high angle shell. In a few moments the ward would be a clamorous inferno of mimic battle sounds—machine guns popping, shells screaming toward explosion, cries of gas, and the simulated agonized wails of the wounded and dying.
"Hit the dirt! Here comes a G.I. can."
"Look out for that flying pig!"
"Over the top, my buckoes, and give 'em the bayonet."
Thus did men, wrecks in the path of war, keep alive their spirit and courage by jesting over the grimest tragedy that had ever entered their lives. And then they would take up rollicking marching songs, or sing dolefully, "I wanta go home, I wanta go home."
Invariably, when some chap began a narrative of the prowess of his own company or regiment, the others would begin singing, tauntingly:
"The old grey mare she ain't what she used to be, She ain't what she used to be, Ain't what she used to be. The old grey mare she ain't what she used to be Many years ago...."
It wasn't really fun, it was only the pitifully weak effort to meet suffering, loneliness, homesickness and fear with bravado.
There is no one in all the world more lonely than a soldier in a hospital. Time becomes what it really is, endless, and without hope of a change on the morrow.
And the pay for it all was a gold wound chevron to wear on the sleeve, or a dangling, glittering medal testifying to courage and sacrifice!
The Ace and the Spy
So slow was McGee's recovery that it was the middle of September before he received his final discharge from the hospital and was given orders to rejoin his old squadron, now operating in the St. Mihiel salient. Three days prior to his release the American Army, operating on a purely American front, had attacked the Germans in the St. Mihiel salient with such determined vigor, and the entire preparation conducted with such successful secrecy, as to take the Germans by complete surprise, overrun all opposition and recover for France many miles of territory long held by the invaders. Thousands of prisoners, and arms of all calibre, were captured in the swift stroke, and all France was ringing with praise of the endeavor.
News of the progress of the battle reached McGee just before his final discharge. He entertained high hopes of rejoining the squadron in time to participate in the feast of victory, but by the 15th, three days after the battle was begun, the salient had been pinched out and the battle won.
On the 16th, when McGee reached Ligny-en-Barrois, which had served as General Pershing's field headquarters at the beginning of the operation, he found that his squadron had been withdrawn from the sector and sent somewhere else.
Where? No one seemed to know. Furthermore, no one seemed to care a great deal. A pilot lost from his squadron, or a soldier lost from his regiment, was no new thing in France. It happened daily. Men were discharged from hospitals, ordered to a certain point to rejoin their commands, only to discover on reaching there that the outfit had seemingly vanished in thin air.
McGee spent a full day trying to find someone with the correct information as to the location of the squadron.
At last an officer on the General Staff looked over McGee's papers and gave him a transportation order to a little town west and south of Verdun.
"Is my squadron there, sir?" McGee asked.
"They should be," the officer replied. "At least near there," and he closed the conversation as though that were quite enough for any pilot to know.
But when McGee reached the town, part of the journey being by rail and part by motor lorries, he found himself as completely lost as possible. Again no one seemed to know anything about the squadron. His search was made doubly difficult by the fact that there was an unusual air of activity; all the troops seemed to be on the move, and officers were far too busy with their own cares to listen to the troubles of a lost aviator.
That night McGee watched two or three regiments pass through the town, fully equipped for battle. It came to him, suddenly, that all this activity and night marching could mean only one thing—a new attack along some new front. Encouraged by the success of St. Mihiel, the Americans were going in again. But where? McGee put the question to a dozen officers, and not one of them had the foggiest notion of where he was going.
This served all the more to convince McGee that a new operation was being secretly planned by Great Headquarters, and from the many different divisional insignias which he had noticed, he felt convinced that it would be a major offensive. Regiment after regiment of soldiers marched through the little village; then came lumbering guns and caissons clattering over the resounding cobblestones of the street. Battery after battery passed by. They were followed by a long train of motor transports; then came some hospital units with their motor ambulances; then more infantrymen, singing and joking as they swung along in the darkness.
Watching them, McGee was suddenly seized with an idea which no amount of logical thinking could exclude from his mind. Where these troops were going, there he would find action. Somewhere, between this point and their final stopping place, the trenches, he would find some unit of the air force. The army must have its eyes, and any member of any air unit could tell him more than he could learn here.
The spirit of this new type of adventure moved him to action. He had often wondered about the life of the doughboy. Now, for the night, he would fall in and march along with them. It would be fun just to be going along, answerable to no one and making his way forward on foot, by hooked rides, or by whatever means that presented itself and seemed attractive.
Slinging his musette bag over his shoulder, and buttoning up his flying coat, he stepped into the street, followed along the dark buildings for a few yards and then fell in alongside a long line of infantrymen.
A mile beyond the edge of the town he regretted his action. Rain began to fall in torrents. Ponchos were quickly donned by the men and they again took up the splashing, sloshing line of march, grumbling a little, joking about "Sunny France," and complaining over the harsh order that forbade smoking.
From that one thing McGee knew for a certainty that they were being sent forward under orders of the utmost secrecy. Men on the line of march under cover of darkness were never allowed to smoke. An enemy airman, should he pass over, would see a long line of twinkling fireflies. From that he would know there was some sort of movement, and this information would be speedily carried to the German High Command. So, without displaying any lights whatsoever, the men and motors moved ever forward along the muddy road.
The rain ceased as suddenly as it had come. The night was warm, for September, and grey fog wraiths began rising from the ground. The sweating horses, straining at the big heavy guns at the side of the road, were blanketed in steam.
The traffic on the pitch black road was becoming increasingly heavy, and now and again halts were made until someone, far ahead, succeeded in working out the snarl. Then the troops would move forward again.
McGee no longer had any doubts concerning what was in store for these thousands upon thousands of men, but he was beginning to question the wisdom of his own move. He made no attempt to engage anyone in conversation, fearing that it would result in some officious commander ordering him to the rear.
Far ahead, against the black night sky, flashes of gunfire showed now and then, the following thunder establishing the fact that the front was within three or four hours' marching time. The gunfire, however, was not heavy, being merely the spasmodic firing incident to such nights as communiques spoke of as "calm."
After another hour of marching, McGee noticed that they were on the edge of a shattered village. Not one single wall stood intact. As he reached the center of this stark skeleton of a once happy village he saw that here the enemy had concentrated their fire. Here was a wall, standing gaunt and grim against the night sky; and over there, facing a little square, a shattered church still retained the strength to hold aloft its cross-capped steeple. The Cross ... in a broken, blood-red world!
McGee slowed his pace, gradually, and dropped from the line of march. He had considered himself fully recovered, but the last hour had sapped his small reserve of strength. He seated himself on a pile of stone in the dark corner of a protecting wall and wiped his brow. What with the long, hot march, and the steam arising from the soaked earth, he was wringing wet. The experience had served to increase his respect for these plodding doughboys who considered this as only one more night like dozens of others they had experienced.
Sitting there on the damp, cold stone, McGee considered his position. This town, battered by shell fire, would be forward of any position taken up by a pursuit group. To push on would be but to retrace his steps. It would also be folly, for he had no gas mask. Shells had reached this town before, and they might do so again. He was willing to take a chance with flying shrapnel, but deadly gas was something else again.
He decided, therefore, to make his way to the edge of the town, find shelter if possible, and await the coming of dawn. Daylight, he reasoned, would be certain to bring him in sight of planes from some group, operating on this front, and if he could locate a 'drome his problem would be near solution.
He made his way back along the lines of infantrymen, artillery, ambulances and wagon trains until he reached an old stone stable that had miraculously escaped destruction.
Having no light, he groped around in the black interior, seeking a place where he might spread his coat for a bed. He stumbled against a ladder, which mounted upward into the cavernous mow of a loft. He climbed the creaking rungs, found footing on the dry floor, and stopped to sniff at the odor of the few wisps of dry, musty hay scattered thinly over the rough boards. He took a step forward, stumbled over a pair of legs and landed headfirst on the stomach of another sleeper.
"Whoosh!" went the escaping breath of that truant soldier, followed by an angry outpouring of abuse.
"Say, soldier! Get your foot out of my face! What do you think this is—a football game?"
"Pipe down!" came a gruff voice from another corner. "Do you want some smart Looie to come up here and chase us out?"
McGee smiled, wondering what would be their reaction should he announce that "a Looie" was even now in their presence. Perhaps it was his duty, as an officer, to rout them out and order them to rejoin their commands, but he felt no responsibility for these men of the line, and if they were as weary and sleepy as he—and doubtless they had more reason to be—then he could hardly blame them for falling out. With the morning, he knew, these army-wise soldiers would go down the road until they found their outfits and there pour forth a plausible lie about becoming lost in the tangle and how they had searched all night for their company.
McGee knew little enough about the American infantrymen, but he did know that "for tricks that are vain" Bret Harte's famous heathen Chinee had nothing on the average soldier of the line, be he American, English, French or a black man from Senegal.
Cautiously he felt out a clear space, spread his coat over the rough timbers and was soon sound asleep.
While McGee slept soundly, blissfully removed from all scenes of conflict and completely ignorant of his exact location, a midnight conference of gravest nature was taking place in the little settlement of Landres-et-St. Georges, far behind the German lines of defense.