THE REILLY & LEE CO.
COPYRIGHT 1929 BY THE REILLY & LEE CO.
PRINTED IN THE U.S.A.
"By the shore of life and the gate of breath, There are more things waiting for men than death."
The New Instructor
Tex Yancey, called "The Flying Fool" by his comrades in the —th Pursuit Squadron of the American Expeditionary Force, entered the mess hall with lips pressed into a thin, mirthless grin that seemed entirely inappropriate in one who was thirty minutes late to mess and must therefore make out with what was left. The other members of the squadron had finished their meal and were now engaged in the usual after-dinner practice of spinning some tall yarns.
Yancey stalked slowly to his place at the long table, but instead of seating himself stood with hands thrust deep into his pockets and with his long, thin legs spread wide apart. For a full minute he stood there, seeming to be mildly interested in the tale that Hank Porter was telling. But those who knew Tex, as did the members of this squadron, knew that the cynical smile on his thin lips was but the forerunner of some mirthless thing from which only "The Flying Fool" would be able to wring a laugh. His was such a grotesque sense of humor; a highly impractical practical joke was his idea of a riotous time. Someone in the squadron, who had once felt the sting of one of his pranks, had called him a fool, and another member had responded, "Yeah, he's a fool, all right—but a flyin' fool!" The tribute had become a nickname, and Yancey rather reveled in it.
Just now his smile was masking some grim joke and his eyes held the mild light of pity.
"Well, Hank," he drawled at last, when Porter had wound up his story, "that yarn, as much as I get of it, would lead the average hombre to pick you out as a sho' 'nuff flyer. I would myself. Me, I'm easy fooled that way. I reckon all you buckaroos think you know somethin' about flyin', eh?"
Standing a full six feet two, he looked down upon them, the look of pity still in his eyes in strange conflict with the mirthless smile still on his lips.
"What's eatin' you?" Porter growled. "We can't help it because you're late for mess. Where've you been?"
Siddons and Hampden, not greatly interested in what they felt was some new strained humor on Yancey's part, pushed back from the table and started for the door, their objective being the French town of Is Sur Tille.
Yancey waited until they were near the door before he answered Porter.
"Oh, I've just been over to Is Sur Tille havin' a look-see at this new instructor that's comin' down here to teach us how to fly."
Siddons, with his hand upon the door, wheeled abruptly and studied Yancey's face, trying to discover the jest hidden behind that baffling, masking smile.
"Are you joking us?" he demanded from the doorway, but sufficiently convinced to turn back.
The "Flying Fool" smiled sweetly. "Why, Siddons, I wouldn't kid you-all about that sort o' thing," he drawled. "I saw him myself, in town, ridin' in a car with the C.O.[A] Like as not the Major will bring him in here this evenin' for a little chin-chin."
A suppressed growl arose from the other pilots.
"What is he coming here for?" young Edouard Fouche demanded, knowing the answer but anxious to have it brought out in the open where it could be attacked and vilified by all.
Yancey seated himself, tilted his chair back from the table and bestowed another sweet smile upon a room filled with scowling faces. It was a delicious moment—for Tex.
"Why, he's comin' here to teach you poor worms how to fly. It seems that someone back in the States made a mistake in thinkin' we were pilots. We're here by accident. Ha! Ha! That's what we are—just accidents. Did you boys think we were sent over here to get all messed up in this little old war? Tut, tut! We're here just to add grandeur to the colorless scenery. Now be nice to this fellow when he comes. Maybe after he has labored with us for a while we'll be turned into ferry pilots and be sent to ferryin' planes up to the regular guys. I'm so glad I horned in on this scrap; it's so well planned and—and thrillin'."
More growls. Tex wasn't being at all funny. Indeed, if this ridiculous story were true, then it was the last straw on the camel's back. Had they not already suffered enough?
The squadron had been in France for two weeks, an interminable time to the restless group of young airmen who, booted and belted and ready for the fray, now found themselves suddenly faced with the prospect of still more training and when as yet they had not the haziest notion of the type of ship that was to be given them for mounts. One rumor had it that they were to get American ships powered by a much-talked-of mystery motor. Very well, but where were those ships? Another rumor, equally persistent, was to the effect that they were to draw French Spads. Very well again, but where were the Spads? Still other rumors included Camels, Sopwiths, Nieuports and Pups. One rumor, uglier and more maddening than all the others, was to the effect that the entire squadron was to be used in observation work. Fancy that! A pursuit pilot being given a slow-moving observation crate with a one-winged, half-baked observer giving orders from the rear cockpit! It was enough to make a man wish he had joined the Marines. What was the good of all their combat training if they were to poke around over the front in busses that were meat for any enemy plane that chanced to sight them? It was enough to make a sane squadron go crazy, and the —th Pursuit Squadron was known throughout the service as the wildest bunch of thrill chasers ever collected and turned over to a distressed and despairing squadron commander.
Some swivel-chair expert must have been dozing when the order went through sending them to France. In wash-out records they were the grand champions. They had left behind them a long train of cracked props, broken wings, stripped landing gears—and a few wrecks so complete that the drivers thereof had been sent home in six foot boxes draped with flags. But whatever may be said against them, one thing was certain in their minds and in the minds of all who knew them: They could fly! To them, any old crate that could be influenced to leave the ground was a ship, and they were willing to take it up at any time, at any place, and regardless of air conditions. Perhaps their record had been less black had they been given better ships.
A student, seeking a perfect cross-section of American youth, would have found this squadron an interesting specimen. War drums, beating throughout the land, had summoned them from the four points of the compass. How they had ever been assembled at one field is a problem known only to the white-collared dignitaries who sat in swivel chairs and shuffled their service cards. The result of the shuffle caused many a commander to tear his hair and declare that the cards had been stacked against him.
No two members of the squadron came from the same town or city; no two of them had the same outlook on life; no two members thoroughly understood one another. A Texan, such as Yancey, from the wind-swept Panhandle, may bunk with a world-travelled, well educated linguist, such as Siddons, and may even learn to call him Wart, but he never thoroughly understands him. A tide-water Virginian, such as Randolph Hampden, of the bluest of blue blood, may sit at mess by the side of a Californian, such as Hank Porter, but he will show no real interest in California climate and will never be able to make the westerner understand that Virginia is American history and not just a state. A nasal-voiced Vermonter, such as Nathan Rodd, brought up among stern hills and by sterner parents, will never fully understand a soft-voiced Louisianian, such as Edouard Fouche, who has found the world a very pleasant place with but few restrictions.
Leaving out the question of patriotism, the members had but three common attributes: They had scornful disregard for any officer in the air service who knew less of flying than they had learned through the medium of hard knocks; they were determined from the very beginning to get to France; and they were the most care-free, reckless, adventurous, devil-may-care bunch of stem-winders that had ever plagued and embarrassed the service by the simple procedure of being gathered into one group.
It may be that the War Department, in despair, at last thought to be rid of them by sending them overseas where their ability and proclivity for stirring up trouble could be turned to good account against the enemy. In any case, they were at last in France and from the moment of their landing had been exceedingly voluble in their demands for planes. They wanted action, not delay. And now that Yancey had brought word of this last crushing indignity, they opened wide the spigots of wrath, all talked at once, and the sum total of their comments contained no single word that could be considered as complimentary to management of the war. More instruction in flying! It was unthinkable. But then, perhaps this grim joker, Yancey, was spoofing a bit.
"Come on, Wart," Hampden called to Siddons from the doorway. "Tex has just been listening to old General Rumor. I'd like right much to see this instructor before I get excited about it. Come on, let's go into town. The night's young—and so am I."
"You'll get excited when you see him," Tex responded, sagely.
"Who is he?" Nathan Rodd asked, which was about as long a sentence as Rodd ever spoke. He saved words as though they were so much gold.
"He's an English lieutenant," Tex answered. "Red-headed, freckle-faced, and so runty that he'd have to set on a stepladder to see out of a cockpit."
"A Limey!" chorused half a dozen incredulous, angry voices. "Whatdya know about that!"
Tex nodded solemnly. He was enjoying the situation. Inwardly, he was as furious as any of the others, but he had the happy faculty of being able to enjoy mob distress. "Yeah, a Limey! Some gink in town told me he was a famous ace. I forget his name. Never could remember names. But you boys'll love him. Like as not he'll let some of us solo after a month or so. Ain't the air service wonderful?"
More growls, and a half dozen muttered threats.
"Now boys, you-all be good, or Uncle Samuel'll send you back home and let you work in the shipyards at twenty per day. I'm surprised and hurt that you take this good news in this fashion. I should think you'd be delighted to have a Limey show you how he shot down a few of—"
"Attention!" Hampden called from the doorway, a warning quality in his voice.
The men looked up. There in the doorway stood Major Cowan, and by his side was a neatly uniformed, diminutive member of the Royal Flying Corps. The men scrambled hastily to their feet. Yancey upset his chair with a clatter as he unwound his long, thin legs from around the rungs.
Major Cowan, always maddeningly correct in military courtesies, turned upon Hampden with a withering look.
"Lieutenant," his voice had the edge of a razor but its cut was not so smooth, "do you not know that attention is not called when at mess?"
"You do, or you do not?"
"Double negatives bother me right much," Hampden replied, his eyes on the English pilot and caring not a whit for court-martial now that he saw in the flesh the proof of Yancey's report, "but I do know the rule."
"Then observe it," Major Cowan responded, testily. "Gentlemen, this is Lieutenant McGee, of the British Royal Flying Corps, who has been assigned to us as flying instructor."
Lieutenant McGee felt that the room was surcharged with hostility, and he found himself in the position of one who is ashamed of the acts of another. Major Cowan, altogether too brusque, failed utterly to impress McGee, whose service in the Royal Flying Corps had been with a class of men who thought more of deeds than of rank and who could enjoy a care-free camaraderie without becoming careless of discipline. Discipline, after all, is never deeper than love and respect, and McGee felt somehow that Cowan was not a man to command either. McGee felt his face coloring, and tried to dispel it with a smile.
"I am glad to meet you, gentlemen," he said, "and I want to correct the Major's statement. I am not here as a flying instructor, in the strict sense of the word, but to give you, first hand, some of our experiences in formation flying, combat, and patrol work. I dare say you are all well trained. In fact, I have heard some rather flattering reports concerning you."
Yancey cast a sidelong glance at his neighbor; Siddons nudged Hank Porter. Porter pressed his foot against Fouche's boot. Not a bad fellow, this. Something like, eh?
Major Cowan was not one who could permit others to roll the sweets of flattery under their tongues. He must qualify it with a touch of vinegar.
"Lieutenant McGee is modest concerning his duties," he said. "In fact, you will find all English officers becomingly modest."
"But I am not English!" McGee corrected. "I am an American—born in America, and that's why I have been so happy about this assignment."
Several members of the squadron began edging nearer. Perhaps things were not going to be so dreadful after all.
"Indeed?" Major Cowan lifted his eyebrows in surprise. The points of his nicely trimmed moustache twitched nervously as he began to wonder just how he should treat an American who happened to be wearing the uniform and insignia of a lieutenant in the R.F.C.
"My parents were English," McGee decided to explain, "but I was born in the States. When the war broke out, my brother, who was older by a few years, came over and joined the balloon corps. I was too young to enlist, but my parents were both dead and I came along with my brother, remaining in London until—" he hesitated and cleared his voice of a sudden huskiness, "until word came that my brother had been killed. His balloon was shot down while he was up spotting artillery fire. Naturally, I began to try to get in. I had to put over a fast one on the examining board, but I made it. And here I am at last, with my own countrymen. Top hole, isn't it?" His smile was so genuine and compelling that none could doubt the sincerity of his pleasure. All barriers of restraint were broken down. This chap actually courted conversation.
"Why don't you get repatriated, Lieutenant?" Yancey asked.
"The tactless fool!" Hampden thought, but dared not say. Of course the Texas clown would rush in where angels feared to tread. Didn't the fathead have any conception of pride of uniform and pride in a nation's accomplishments? Hampden felt that he would like to hit Yancey with one of the water carafes.
"What's that? Repatriated?" McGee repeated. "How can that be done?"
"Haven't you seen the General Order providing for it?" Tex continued, despite Major Cowan's silencing frown.
"I'm afraid not," McGee replied. "I've been pretty busy—and I don't get a great thrill out of G.O's. Tell me about it."
"Well—" Yancey began slowly, enjoying to the fullest the opportunity to provide information uninterrupted, "as you know, a lot of Americans joined the English and French air forces before we came in. Some of 'em, just like you, maybe, had a sort of score to settle. But I reckon most of 'em went in because it offered something unusual and a lot of thrills. Huh! You tell 'em! Then when Uncle Sam got warm under the saddle and came hornin' in, a lot of the boys who'd come over and joined up began castin' homesick glances back in a westerly direction. Natural-like, Uncle Samuel is willin' to welcome home all his prodigal sons, if he can get 'em back, and he's specially forgivin' considerin' that his army at the beginnin' of hostilities is just about one day's bait on a real war-like front. As for flyers, he hasn't got enough of 'em, trained, to do observation work for an energetic battery of heavies. So he makes medicine talk with Johnny Bull and with France, and for once he comes out with all the buttons on his trousers. They agree to release all the Americans servin' under their colors who express a desire to get into O.D. under the Stars and Stripes. 'Repatriation' was the flossy name they gave it, but I call it homesickness. A lot of the wayward sons jumped at it quick, and we're 'way ahead on the game, any way you look at it. Now take some of those boys in the Lafayette Escadrille. Why, if they—"
Yancey's voice droned on, but McGee no longer heard what he was saying, though to all appearances he was paying courteous attention. But as a matter of fact his eyes were resting upon Lieutenant Siddons, and he was cudgelling his brain in an effort to remember where he had seen him before. The blond, curly hair; the rather square face and brow; the thin lips, the calm, cold grey eyes; and the air of self-satisfied assurance, all were part of a memory which was vivid enough but which refused to come out of the back of the mind and associate itself with identifying surroundings. Where had he seen that face? New York? No, not there. He knew very few people in New York. Well, after all, perhaps it was only a strong resemblance. But resembling whom? Surely no one of his acquaintances looked like Siddons, at least none that he could remember.
McGee's gaze must have been a little too steady, at least enough to prove discomfiting, for Siddons half turned away and began speaking in whispers to Hampden. He talked out of the corner of his mouth, as one who is ashamed of the words he utters, and McGee felt the stirrings of a faint dislike for him.
Yancey reached the end of his monologue. The moment of silence that followed brought McGee sharply back to the present. He smiled graciously at the Texan.
"That's quite interesting," he said. "Strange I missed that order, and stranger still that no one mentioned it to me. But we've been pretty busy up in the Ypres salient—too busy to think much about what flag we were fighting under. I've enjoyed being with the English, but of course 'there's no place like home'. I'm very happy to be assigned here, and I am glad Major Cowan gave me this chance to meet you. The Major tells me that you are to get several new Spads in the next two or three days. Until that time, I won't disturb you. I'm driving back into town. Anyone want a lift?"
"Thank you, Lieutenant," Hampden spoke up, "Siddons and I are going in. Have you room?"
"Certainly. Glad to have you along. Major Cowan, how about you?"
"Sorry," the Major replied, dourly, "but I have to pay the price of command by poring over a lot of detail work which would be spared me if I had a more efficient staff."
Mullins, the peppery little Operations Officer, felt the full force of the sting but he passed it off by winking wisely at Yancey. Why worry? Cowan was always looking for work and for trouble. He was never so happy as when bawling someone out.
McGee felt sorry for Mullins and sorrier still for Cowan. One with half an eye could see that Cowan was about as popular with his command as would be a case of smallpox. McGee had been trained in an atmosphere where discipline was a matter of example rather than a matter of fear, and as a result had always known a sort of good-fellowship which he felt instinctively would be impossible with such a commander as Cowan.
"I'm sorry you can't come with us, Major," McGee said in a voice that carried no conviction. "However, I must toddle along." He turned to Siddons and Hampden. "Ready? Right-O!"
During the short motor trip into Is Sur Tille, McGee's curiosity finally got the better of his natural dislike for admitting that his memory had failed him. "I think I have met you somewhere before, Lieutenant," he said to Siddons.
"Yes? I do not remember it," Siddons replied, with the air of one who is making no great draft upon his own memory. He himself evidently sensed the lack of courtesy, for he added, "New York, perhaps. Have you been around New York much?"
"No, I haven't. Somewhere else—"
Lieutenant Hampden's mellow laugh interrupted.
"Siddons has the idea that one never meets anyone outside of New York," he said. "He's terribly provincial, Lieutenant. He thinks there are only two places in the world—New York and everywhere else."
Siddons displayed no resentment at the taunt; he seemed quite well satisfied with the opinion expressed. In fact, he appeared quite satisfied with everything—especially with himself.
McGee wondered how a likeable chap, such as Hampden, could choose as companion one so utterly different in manner, in ideas, and in speech. But then, war brings together strange bedfellows and establishes new standards. McGee dismissed the matter from his mind as the car swung into the narrow streets of the darkened town.
"Where can I drop you?" he asked.
"Going by the cafe down on the main drag?" Hampden asked.
"That will be fine. I hope to see you again soon, Lieutenant."
"Thanks. The Spads are due to arrive on Monday. That's three days. See you then. Well, here we are," as the car swung in to the curb in front of the cafe. The shutters were closed, no light came from any of the stores or houses along the street, but from behind the closed door of the cafe came the sound of voices and laughter mixed with the metallic banging of a very old piano beating out tuneless accompaniment to a bull-voiced singer roaring through the many verses of "Hinkey Dinkey Parlez Vous".
"The Yank Marine went over the top, Parlez Vous, The Yank Marine went over the top, Parlez Vous, The Yank Marine went over the top And gave old Fritz a whale of a pop, Hinkey Dinkey, Parlez Vous."
McGee smiled as he sat for a moment listening to the words. All his service had been with the English, who of course had composed many songs highly complimentary to themselves, and only in the last few days had he come in contact with the forerunners of the mighty American army now pouring into French harbors from every arriving boat.
"Quite a fellow—this Yank Marine," he said to Siddons.
Siddons nodded, rather stiffly. "So it seems. Though he hasn't been over the top yet. Prophecy, I suppose." He stepped from the car to the curb with the bearing of one accustomed to being delivered in a chauffeur-driven car.
McGee was on the point of calling out, "When shall I call, sir?" but at that moment noticed young Hampden's genuine smile and heard him voicing words of appreciation for the lift.
"Don't mention it," McGee said. "It was a pleasure. Cheerio! old man!"
"There," he thought, sinking back in the tonneau. "I said 'old man'. Singular case, and that lets Siddons out rather neatly. Hum. I'll bet a cookie he knows more about flying than I do—or anyone else, for that matter. Well, we'll see. I wonder what sort of outfit Buzz drew."
Lieutenant "Buzz" Larkin was closer to McGee than any person in the world. Close bonds of friendship had been formed while they were in training in Cadet Brigade Headquarters, at Hastings, England. During their months of service together in the Royal Air Force, on exceedingly hot fronts, those bonds of friendship had become bands of steel, holding them together almost as firmly as blood ties. Both were Americans, but the motives back of their entrance into the R.F.C. were as widely divergent as possible. Larkin, the son of a wealthy manufacturer, had never disclosed the real reason for his entrance into a foreign service. Perhaps he sought adventure. McGee, however, made no secret of the motives back of his entrance. When word reached him that his brother had been killed while doing observation work in a captive balloon, young McGee, not yet eighteen, employed a trick (which he thought justified) to gain entrance to the Air Force. He felt that he must carry on an unfinished work, and few will find fault with him if his actions were motivated by a slight spirit of revenge. After all, blood is thicker than water.
Whatever the motives of the two youths, once in the uniform of cadet flyers, the spirit of service seized them. Side by side, encouraging, entreating, helping and driving one another they plugged through their training with their eyes fixed upon the coveted reward of every air service cadet—a pair of silvered wings!
Together they had won their wings; together they had gone to the front; together they had gone out on patrol, high above the lines, and met the enemy. Thereafter, the fortune of one was the fortune of both. Each had saved the other's life, the culminating tie in their friendship, if indeed their friendship needed any further tie.
Both had become aces, though in combat work McGee was easily the superior. This, however, he constantly denied and was forever admiring Larkin's work. Larkin, if inferior to McGee in a dog fight, was better disciplined. He could go up in formation, keep his eye on his flight commander, obey orders, and keep his head when he saw an enemy plane. McGee, on the contrary, went as wild as a berserker the moment he laid eyes on a plane bearing the black cross. Orders were forgotten and he dived, throttle wide open, stick far forward, every thought gone from his mind but the one compelling urge to get that other plane on the inside of his ring sight. McGee had his personal faults, but he was a faultless flyer. The same may be said of Larkin, for men in aerial combat never make but one vital mistake. Those who become aces have no great faults; those with great faults become mere tallies for the aces. Now and then, of course, the grim scorer nods during the game and a fault goes unpenalized, but as a rule it can be said that a man who can become an ace may well be called a faultless flyer, for an ace is one who has rolled up a score of five victories against those whose skill was less than his own. Of course, there is the element of luck to be considered, for luck and skill must go hand in hand when youths go jousting in the clouds. But luck can only attend the skillful. With skill wanting, luck soon deserts.
Beyond doubt both McGee and Larkin had enjoyed a full measure of luck, and were still enjoying it. For example, wasn't it luck that had sent them both down here on the French front to act as instructors to newly arriving American squadrons? Wasn't it luck that they were still billeted together in the lovely old chateau at the edge of town, and could look forward to many, many more days together?
These latter thoughts were running through McGee's mind as his car swung under the trees lining the drive that led up to the chateau. Why, but for luck both of them might now be pushing up the daisies instead of being happily, and comparatively safely ensconced in such comfortable quarters. No more dawn patrols—for a while at least; no more soggy breakfasts—with comrades missing who banteringly breakfasted with you twenty-four short hours ago.
McGee's thoughts took unconscious vocal form as he stepped from the car. "Lucky? I'll say we are!"
"What did you say, sir?" asked the driver.
The question snapped McGee back to earth.
"I was complimenting myself upon some very narrow escapes, Martins, but I'll repeat—for your benefit. You are a very lucky boy."
Martins blinked. He held opposite views. "You think so, sir? I've gotta different idea. I wanted to be a pilot, like you, sir, and here I am toolin' this old bus around France with never a chance to get off the ground unless I run off an embankment. And this old wreck is no bird."
"So you really wanted to be a pilot, Martins?"
"I sure did, sir."
"Um-m. That's why I said you were a very lucky young man. I know the names of a lot of young fellows who wanted to become pilots—and did. But they've gone West now and their names are on wooden crosses. Hoe your own row, Martins, and thank the Lord for small favors."
"Yes, sir," aloud, and under his breath, "It's easy enough for them that has wings."
"How's that, Martins?" McGee asked, rather enjoying himself.
Martins fidgeted with the gear shift. "I said I had always wanted a pair of wings, sir."
"Well, be a good boy and maybe you'll get them—in the next world. Good night, Martins."
"'Night—sir." Gurrr! went the clashing gears as the car got under way with a lurch that spoke volumes for the driver. It was tough to be held to the ground by a wingless motor.
McGee caught a gleam of light through the shutters of the upstairs windows. So Larkin was back already? He took the front steps in a jump and raced up the stairs in a manner most unbecoming to a First Lieutenant with a score of victories to his credit.
"What kind of an outfit did you draw, Buzz?" he demanded as he burst into the room.
Larkin was buried behind a Paris edition of the Tribune, his legs sprawled out into the middle of the floor where the heel of one boot balanced precariously on the toe of the other.
"Oh, so-so," never bothering to look from behind his paper. Phlegmatic old Buzz, McGee thought, what was the use of getting excited over an instructor's job?
"Are they good?" McGee asked.
"Um. Dunno." Still reading.
"Mine are great!" McGee enthused. "Stiff, crusty young C.O., who needs a couple of crashes—one fatal, maybe—but the rest of them are fine. Great bunch of pilots."
"Yeah?" Still reading, but doubtful. "See any of 'em fly?"
"No-o," slowly, "of course not."
"Um-m. Well, wait until they begin sticking the noses of those new Spads in the ground, and then tell me about 'em. They've been trained on settin' hens. Wait until they mount a hawk."
McGee jerked a pillow from the bed and sent it crashing through the concealing paper. "Old killjoy! If a man gave you a diamond you'd try it on glass to see if it was real."
Larkin began rearranging his crumpled paper. "Well, why not? If it wasn't real I wouldn't want it. And I wish you'd keep your pillows out of my theatrical news. I was just reading about a play at the Folies Bergeres, called 'Zig Zag'. They say it's a scream. By the way, Shrimp, how'd you like to fly to Paris to-morrow morning and give it the once over?"
"But nothing! We can see it to-morrow night and be back the next day. That fine bunch of pilots of yours can't get off the ground until the Spads get here—and maybe not then."
"See here!" McGee challenged stoutly. "I'll bet you anything you like that those boys—"
"Will all be aces in a month," Larkin completed, knowing the extent and warmth of McGee's habitual enthusiasm. "All right, Shrimp, so be it. But what has that to do with the show? Want to go?"
"Sure. But what about passes? I don't know just who we are answerable to down here, in the matter of privileges and so forth. I've been sort of lost for the last few days."
Larkin shoved his hand into his inside blouse pocket and brought forth two folded papers which he displayed proudly.
"Here are the passes—all jake! Marked official business and authorizing fuel and supplies, if needed. I'm a great little fixer. And about that question of not knowing who you are answerable to, don't forget that it's little Johnny Bull—capital J and B. You're liable to get jerked off this detail so quick you'll leave toothbrush and pajamas behind. Every morning now when I wake up and remember that I don't have to go out on dawn patrol I start pinching myself to see if I'm awake. Boy, in this game it's here to-day and gone to-morrow. Wasn't it old Omar who handed out that gag, 'Ah, make the most of what we yet may spend, before we too into the dust descend'?... Yeah? Well, he must have written that for war pilots. The minute J.B. finds out how comfortable we are down here we'll be recalled and sent to chasing Huns back across the line. In fact, I think we're both asleep and having nice dreams."
"That reminds me," McGee said, drawing up a chair and sitting gingerly on the edge after the manner of one about to indulge in confidential disclosures. "Have you heard anything of this repatriation business?"
"Sure. Haven't you?"
"Not a word."
"Where have you been? It came down in a G.O."
McGee scratched his head. "So I've just learned, but it's the first I've heard of it. Funny you didn't mention it to me."
Larkin eyed him curiously. "Well," slowly, "I knew you were English and—"
"But I'm not, and you know it!" McGee flared.
"Calm, brother, calm! I mean, I knew your father and mother were English, and so was your brother."
"But I was born in America. I'm just as much of an American as you are!"
"Calm, brother, calm! No one says you are not. But because of your family nationality, I supposed you would want to finish out the string with the R.F.C. and," he reached over and tousled McGee's mop of flaming red hair, "I'm just fool enough to want to stick around where you are—you little shrimp! So I thought I wouldn't bring up the subject."
McGee gave him a look of deep understanding and appreciation.
"Fact is," Larkin went on, "I just got a letter from Dad the other day and he seems to be pretty hot under the collar because I haven't made any move to get repatriated."
"Why haven't you?"
"You poor nut! I've just told you."
"No you haven't, Buzz. There is some reason deeper than that."
Larkin fingered his newspaper nervously and tried to simulate an interest in some news note. He hated to display sentiment, yet the fates had given him a double burden of it. As a matter of honest fact, he was as sentimental as a woman, and was forever trying to hide the fact behind a thin veneer of nonchalance and bluster.
"Did you see this communique from our old front?" he asked, trying to shift the subject. "They're having some hot fighting up there."
"Yes, I know. Things look pretty dark for the English. But answer my question: What is the real reason why you haven't thought of getting transferred into the United States forces?"
"I didn't say I hadn't thought of it," Larkin avoided. "Maybe I didn't want to trade horses in the middle of the stream."
"Any other reason?"
"Well, hang it all! a fellow builds up some pride in the uniform he wears. A good many of our buddies have gone out for their last ride in this uniform and—and it stands for a lot. Of course I am proud of my own country, and sometimes I feel a little strange in this uniform now that my own country is in the war, but it isn't a thing you can put on or take off just as the spirit moves you. It becomes a part of you. Say! What's eatin' you, anyway? Are you anxious to change uniforms?"
"Um-m. I'm not so sure. I like that bunch I met over there to-night."
"Yes, and they are all afoot. The truth is, our own country hasn't enough combat planes to send out a patrol. They are developing some mystery motor, I hear, but I'm not very keen about trying out any mystery motors. Our Camels are mystery enough to suit me. When I'm up against the ceiling with a fast flying Albatross or tri-plane Fokker on my tail, I don't want any mysteries to handle. No, Red, for the time being I guess I'm satisfied. Besides, they might chuck me in the infantry, and I have a horror of having things drop on me from overhead. Let's to bed, old topper, so we can hop off early in the morning. The sooner we start the sooner we get to 'Gay Paree'. Besides, early to bed and early to rise makes a man ready to challenge the skies. How's that for impromptu poetry?"
"Rotten! Omar and Ben Franklin both in one evening!" McGee yawned as he began pulling at a boot. "But it makes me sleepy. Go on, say me some more pretty pieces. Or maybe you'd like to sing me to sleep."
[Footnote A: For definitions of military and aeronautical terms, as well as certain slang peculiar to army life, see glossary at the back of the book.]
A Pass to Paris
The following morning dawned with the quiet splendor and benediction which April mornings bring to the rural province of Cote d'Or. By the time the sun had climbed above the low hills to the east and was turning the dew covered fields into limitless acres of flashing diamonds and sapphires, McGee and Larkin had hurried through breakfast and were on their way out to the hangars where the mechanics, following Larkin's orders, would have the two Camels waiting on the line. As the car rolled along the smooth highway leading to the flying field, McGee sank back in the none too comfortable cushions and drank deep of the tonic of early morning.
"Some day!" he said. Larkin merely nodded—the only reply needed when Spring is in the air.
"It would be more fun to drive up to Paris," McGee offered.
Larkin looked at him in surprise. "Where'd you get that idea?"
"Well, nearly all of my impressions of France are from the air. It stands for so many squares of green fields, of little rivers gleaming like silver ribbons interlaced through squares of green and brown plush, of torn up battlefronts where there is no life, no color—nothing but desolation. But this seems like another world. Here are spring flowers, the orchards are in bloom, and children are playing in the narrow streets of the towns. Flying over it, you look down on all that. You see it—and you don't see it. But in driving we would feel that we were a part of it. There's a difference. It gives you a feeling that you are better acquainted with the people, and you get a chance to smell something besides the beastly old Clerget motors in those Camels. I'm getting so I feel sick every time I smell burning oil. Let's drive up, Buzz."
Larkin, being in a different frame of mind, shook his head.
"No, you're too blasted poetic about it already. Besides, we have permission to fly up, not to drive. I suppose we could get the pass changed, but why fool with your luck? And the quicker we get there the more we see."
"All right, but on a day like this I could get more pleasure out of just wandering through the countryside than in seeing all the cities of the world rolled into one. Look!" he pointed to the flying field as the car turned from the highway. "There are the Camels, warming up, and filling this good, clean air with their sickening fumes. Bah! I hate it!"
"Say, have you got the pip? You talk like a farmer. Snap out of it! We're headed for Gay Paree!"
The car had rolled to a stop at the edge of the field. McGee climbed out slowly. "All right, big boy. You lead the way. And no contour chasing to-day. I'm too liable to get absent-minded and try to reach out and pick some daisies. Besides, this motor of mine has been trickier than usual in the last few days despite the fact that the Ack Emma declares she is top hole. So fly high and handsome. Know the way?"
Larkin was crawling into his flying suit and did not answer.
"Know the way?" McGee repeated.
"Sure. That's a fine question to ask a pilot bound for Paris. We land at Le Bourget field, you know."
"No, I didn't know."
"Where'd you think you'd land—in the Champs Elysees?"
"I'm liable to land on a church steeple if that motor cuts out on me as it did yesterday afternoon—for no reason at all. Remember, no contour chasing and no dog-fighting. We're going to Paris."
Larkin grinned. Rarely did they go into the air together but what they engaged in mimic warfare—dog-fighting—before their wheels again touched the ground. It was the airman's game of tag, the winner being that one who could get on the other's tail and stay there. It was a thunderous, strut singing game wherein the pursued threw his plane into fantastic gyrations in a frenzied, wild effort to shake off the pursuer and get on his tail. It was a game in which McGee excelled. Although Larkin recognized this fact, he was always the first to start the dog fight and had never found McGee unwilling to play. As for contour chasing—well, they had broken regulations times without number, and to date had paid no penalty.
McGee, knowing what thoughts lurked behind Larkin's grin, wagged a prudent finger under his nose.
"Mind your step, Buzz," he warned. "We are supposed to be sedate, dignified, instruction-keeping instructors. Fly northwest to Auxerre, then follow the railroad toward Sens and on to Melun. Then swing straight north and come into Le Bourget from the east."
"All right. All set?"
"Yes. You lead off and I'll follow. Wait! On second thought I think I'll lead and pick my own altitude. And if you start any funny business, I'll leave you flat!"
They climbed into the waiting planes, whose motors were still warming idly. Members of the ground crew took up their stations at the wing tips. McGee was on the point of nodding to the crew to remove the wheel chocks when he remembered that for the first time in his experience as a pilot he had climbed into the cockpit without first casting an appraising eye over braces, struts and turn buckles. He promptly cut the motor and climbed from the plane, saying, half aloud; "I must be getting balmy. It's the weather, I guess."
"How's that, sir?" asked the air mechanic.
"I say, it's balmy weather we're having."
"Oh! Yes, sir."
"You've checked her all over, Wilson?"
"Yes, sir. And fueled her according to Lieutenant Larkin's instructions."
"Hum." McGee slowly walked around the plane, giving every functional detail a critical look, nor was he the least hurried by the fact that Larkin was displaying impatience. Satisfied at last, he climbed back into the plane. A member of the ground crew took his place at the propeller.
"Petrol off, sir?"
Whish! Whish! went the prop as the helper began pulling it over against compression.
The motor caught, coughed, caught again and the prop whirled into an indistinct blur. The sudden blast of wind sent clouds of dust eddying toward the hangar, but ahead lay the cool, fresh, dew-washed green of the field. McGee turned to look once more at the wind sock which, for want of a breeze, hung limp along its staff. He nodded to the men at the wheel chocks, waved his hand to Larkin and gave her the gun.
No pilot in the service could lift a Camel off the ground quicker than could McGee, but this morning he taxied slowly forward and was getting dangerously near the end of the field before he began to get the tail up.
Larkin, watching him, chuckled. "Guess he wants to take a spin on the ground," he commented to himself. "Fancy that bird wanting to go to Paris by motor!" Then to show how little he thought of the ground he advanced his throttle rapidly and took off on far less space than should ever be attempted by one who knows, from experience, how suddenly a crowded Clerget-motored Camel can sputter and incontinently die. And as a parting defiance to his knowledge, Larkin pulled back his stick and zoomed. Altitude was what McGee wanted, eh? Well, here was the way to get altitude in a hurry.
McGee, glancing backward, saw the take-off and the zoom. "The poor fish!" was his mental comment. "If he shows that kind of stuff to this squadron they'll be needing a lot of replacements—or yelling for a new instructor."
But the appreciative ground crew, watching, expressed a different view. "Boy!" exclaimed an envious Ack Emma. "Can that baby fly! I'll tell the world! Watch him out-climb McGee. Did you see how McGee took off? Like a cadet doin' solo—afraid to lift her. And they say he's one of the best aces in the R.F.C. Huh! I think he's got the pip! Ever since he first touched his wheels to this 'drome he's been yellin' about his motor bein' cranky. And it's all jake. She takes gas like a race horse takes rein."
"Yeah," growled a mechanic by the name of Flynn, who by nature and nationality stood ready to defend anyone bearing the name of McGee, "a lot you know about those little teapots in them Camels. You was trained on Jennies and—and Fords! What you know about a Clerget engine could be written on the back of a postage stamp. Say, do you know why he took her off so gentle? Well, I'll spread light in dark places, brother. He took off slow because he knew you didn't know nothin', see?"
The quarrel went on, despite the fact that the two pilots constituting the meatless bone of contention were rapidly becoming specks in the sky to the northwest.
At five thousand feet McGee leveled off and swung slightly west. He looked back and up. Larkin was five hundred feet above him and somewhat behind, but at McGee's signal he dived down, taking up a position on the left. In this manner they could point out objects below and engage in the sign language which they had perfected through many hours spent in the air together.
As they flew along McGee felt his spirits mounting. It was a good world to live in and life was made especially sweet and interesting by the soft unfolding greens of a land brought to bud and blossom by April's sun and showers. In the beautiful panorama below there was nothing to indicate that a few miles to the eastward mighty armies were striving over a tortured strip of blasted land that for years to come would lie fruitless and barren. Here all was peace, with never a hint—yes, far below on the white ribbon of roadway a long, dark python was slowly dragging itself forward. It was a familiar sight to Larkin and McGee—troops moving up to the theatre of war. And over on another road a long procession of humpbacked brown toads were plodding eastward. Motor lorries, carrying munitions and supplies. Strange monsters, these, to be coming from the green fields and woods of a seeming peaceful countryside. Forward, ever forward they made their way. Never, it seemed to McGee, had he seen roads choked with returning men and munitions. Was the maw of the monster there to the eastward bottomless and insatiable? Where were the roads that led men back to the land of living, green things?
As they passed over a town, McGee saw Larkin point down. On the outskirts of the village a great cross in a circlet of green marked the location of a military hospital. Ah!... Yes, some came back. But even then they must brand their pain-racked sanctuary with the mercy imploring emblem of the Red Cross so that enemy planes, bent on devastation, would mingle mercy with hope of victory and save their bombs for those not yet carried into the long wards where white-robed doctors and nurses battled with death and spoke words of hope to the hopeless.
It was a sorry world! McGee, who but a few short minutes ago was entranced by the beauty of the world, now felt a sudden, marked disgust. He pulled his stick back sharply. He would climb out of it! He would get up against the ceiling, where the world became a dim, faint blur or was lost altogether in a kindly obliterating ground haze.
On McGee's part the action was nothing more than an unconscious reaction to distressing thoughts. Larkin, however, on seeing the sudden climb, grinned with delight. This climb for altitude was nothing more than the prelude to a dive that would start them into a merry game of hare and hound. So McGee had forgotten all about his doleful sermon against dog-fighting? And so soon. Ha! Trust the freckled "Little Shrimp" to feel blood racing through his veins when motors are singing sweetly.
Instead of following, Larkin decided to nose down and offer more tantalizing bait.
McGee, seeing the dive, found it more than he could resist. Besides, a merry little chase would serve to wash the brooding thoughts from his mind. This was a morning for sport, for jest, for youth—for hazard!
Forward went the stick and he plunged down the backwash of Larkin's diving plane, his motor roaring its cadenced challenge. This was something like! Sky and ground were rushing toward each other. The braces were screaming like banshees; the speed indicator hand was mounting with a steady march that made one want to dive on and on and on until—
Larkin, in the plane ahead, brought his stick backward as he made ready to go over in a tight loop. McGee smiled and followed him over. When they came out of the loop they were in the same relative position—Larkin the hare, McGee the tenacious hound.
For the next few minutes the open-mouthed countrymen in the fields below were treated to a series of aerial gymnastics which must have sent their own pulses racing and which might well serve them for fireside narration for years to come.
The two darting hawks Immelmanned, looped, barrel-rolled, side-slipped, and then plunged into a dizzy circle in which they flew round and round an imaginary axis, the radius of the circle growing ever shorter and shorter. Every action of the leading plane was immediately matched by the pursuer.
Larkin, realizing that his skill in manoeuvering was something less than McGee's, decided to bring the contest to a close with a few thrills in hedge hopping.
Of all sports that offer high hazard to thrill satiated war pilots, that of hedge hopping, or contour chasing, occupies first place. This is particularly true when the pilot is flying a Sopwith Camel powered by the temperamental Clerget motor with its malfunctioning wind driven gasoline pump. The sport had been repeatedly forbidden by all the allied air commands, but these commands had to deal with irrepressible youth, which has slight regard for doddering old mossbacks who think that a plane should be handled as a wheel chair.
Larkin dived at the ground like a hawk that has sighted some napping rodent, and so near did he come that by the time he had leveled off, his wheels were almost touching the ground—and wheels must not touch when one is screaming through space at the rate of a hundred and forty miles per hour.
He glanced back. Sure enough, McGee was still on his tail. No hedge hopping, eh? Huh! Trust The Shrimp to keep young, he thought. Fat chance they had of getting old. Who ever heard of an old war pilot? Ha! That's a good one! And here's a double row of tall poplars fringing the road directly ahead. Hold her close to the ground and then zoom her at the last minute ... landing gears just clearing the topmost branches ... make it, and that's hedge hopping. Fail to make it—and that's bad news!
Larkin made it, a beautiful zoom that carried him over the trees by a skillful margin. Then he swooped down again, skimming along the level field on the other side of the road.
McGee's zoom was just as spectacular and as nicely timed, but as his nose climbed above the first row of trees his motor died as suddenly as though throttled by the strangling hands of some unseen genii. Sudden though it was, McGee had sensed that he was crowding the motor too much and had tried to ease her off and still clear the trees. It was too late to relieve the choked motor but he did clear the first row of trees. He was about to close his eyes against the inevitable crash into the poplars on the other side of the road when he saw that two of the trees had been felled, and that so recently that the woodsmen had not yet worked them up. There was one clear chance left. If only he could slip her over just far enough to clear the outstretched limbs of the tree to the right.
At such a time seconds must be divided into hundredths, and action must be instantaneous, instinctive, and without flaw. McGee felt one of the spreading limbs brush against his right wing tip, felt the plane swerve for a moment, then respond to rudder and aileron. It was a case where one moment he was supremely thankful for flying speed, and the next, as the ground of the level field was flashing under the wheels, wishing that he had held to his resolution concerning hedge hopping.
The wheels struck hard. The plane bounded, high, and again the wheels touched. Again the plane bounded, and this time came down with a shock that left McGee amazed with the realization that the undercarriage was intact and that he still had a chance to keep her off her nose if only he could get the high-riding tail down.
Crash! Crack! The tail was down now ... and broken to splinters, like as not. Never mind.... By some great mercy he was at last on three points and rolling to a stop.
He suddenly felt very weak. A narrow squeeze, that! Stupid way for an ace—and an instructor—to get washed out. Like a Warrior falling off his horse while on the way home from a victorious field.
He saw Larkin bank his ship into a tight turn, set the plane down in a perfect landing and come careening down the open field to stop within a dozen paces of McGee's plane.
Larkin, white-faced, tight-lipped, crawled from his plane and came forward on the double-quick. Not a word did he speak until he stood by the side of Red's plane, his hands gripping the leather piping at the edge of the cockpit until his knuckles were white.
"What happened, Red? Gee, you're white! All the freckles gone."
"Lucky I'm not gone!" McGee answered. "My knees are too shaky to crawl out yet. It looked like finis la guerre pour moi for a second." He turned and blew a kiss at the gap in the trees. "Thanks, Mr. Woodchopper, whoever you are. Buzz, never repeat that old poem about 'Woodman, spare that tree!' If he had spared those two—well! Take a look at my tail skid, Old Timer. Is it broken off?"
"No. It's cracked and sort of cockeyed, but a piece of wire from that fence over there will fix it all O.K. What happened?"
McGee fixed him with a baleful glare. "You should ask—with as much experience as both of us have had with these tricky motors. I choked it down, that's all. That same little fault has sent many a pilot home in a wooden box. Go get me a piece of that wire. We'll fix the skid, somehow, and when I get to Le Bourget I'll set her down on two points. And listen! From here on in we do—"
"No contour chasing," Larkin completed, forcing a thin smile. "Seems I heard that somewhere before. Crawl out, Shrimp. You said you wanted to be out among the flowers and sweet things. Well, here's a sweet thing, and this field is full of flowers. I brought you down low so you could enjoy them."
"Yeah! I said I wanted to be among 'em—not pushing 'em up. Hurry over and get that wire before I do something violent."
Thirty minutes later two chastened pilots took off from the level field, with a half dozen curious French peasants for an audience, and laid a straight course for Le Bourget. No more acrobatics and no more hedge hopping. To an observer below they would have resembled two homing pigeons flying rather close together and maintaining their positions with a singleness of mind and purpose.
When they reached Le Bourget they circled the 'drome once, noted the wind socks on the great hangars, and dropped as lightly to the field as two tardy, truant schoolboys seeking to gain entrance without attracting notice.
A newly arrived American squadron was stationed at the field, jubilant over the fact that they were trying their skill on the fast climbing, fast flying single-seater Spads. Five of these swift little hawks were now on the line, making ready for a formation flight.
McGee and Larkin introduced themselves to the officer in command, presented their passes and authority for refueling, and McGee requested that his tail skid be repaired and his motor checked over.
"Let's stick around and watch this formation flight," McGee then said to Larkin. "I want to see what these lads can do with a real ship."
"All right, but don't get goggle-eyed. I came up here to see Paris, and I'm thirty minutes behind time now."
The take-off of the five Spads was good, and in order. McGee noticed with considerable satisfaction that the flight commander knew his business, and the four planes under his direction followed his signaled orders with a precision that would have been creditable in any group of pilots.
"Nice work!" Red said to an American captain who seemed not at all impressed.
The captain was six feet tall, burdened by the weight of rank and the ripe old age of twenty-four or twenty-five years, and was somewhat skeptical of McGee's judgement. He wondered, vaguely, what this youthful, freckle-faced, five-foot-six Royal Flying Corps lieutenant could know about nice work. Why, he couldn't be a day over eighteen—in fact, he might be less than that. A cadet who had just won his wings, probably.
"Oh, fair," the captain admitted.
McGee, sensing what was running through the captain's mind, and having no wish to set him right, winked at Larkin and said:
"Let's go, Buzz. It isn't often that two poor ferry pilots get a twenty-four hour leave."
Later, as they were bounding cityward in a decrepit, ancient taxi driven by a bearded, grizzled Frenchman who without make-up could assume a role in a drama of pirates and freebooters, McGee said to Larkin:
"You know, Buzz, I think a lot of these American pilots are better prepared for action right now than we were when we got our wings. And we had hardly gotten ours sewed on when we were ordered to the front. These fellows will give a good account of themselves."
"I think so, too. Do you remember how the Cadets of our class were sent up for solo in rickety old planes held together by wire, tape and chewing gum? Poor devils, they got washed out plenty fast! I've seen 'em go up when the expression on their faces told that they had forgotten everything they had learned. No wonder a lot of them took nose dives into the hangars and hung their planes on smokestacks and church steeples."
McGee frowned, remembering some of the friends who had tried for their wings and drew crosses instead. Quickly he threw off the mood with a laugh.
"Yes, and I was one of those 'poor devils' who forgot. I'll never forget that! I had no more right being up in that old Avro than a hog has with skates. But England needed pilots and needed them badly. I guess it was a case of 'what goes up must come down' and the government gave wings to the ones who came down alive. The others got angels' wings."
"I suppose so. And before another month passes the need will be greater than ever. Look what the Germans did to the British Fifth Army just last month. I'll never know what stopped 'em. But they're not through. What do you make of that long range gun that is shelling this very city?
"Um-m. Dunno. Seems to me that well directed reconnaissance flights should be able to locate that gun."
"Maybe; but locate it or not, its purpose is to drive war workers out of Paris, cripple the hub of supplies and make it more difficult for us to coordinate the service of supplies through here when they make their drive at Paris. It'll come within a month. Then we'll need every pilot and every ship that can get its wheels off the ground. I'm tellin' you—a month!"
"I know so! America is going to have her big chance—and may the Lord help us if she doesn't deliver! I don't know how many combat troops she has landed, but I do know that her eyes, the air service, is in need of ships. The French and English are willing to give them all the old, worn out flying coffins that they can pick up out of junk heaps—old two-seater Spads, old A.R.'s, 1-1/2 strutter Sopwiths, and crates like that. If they can get new Spads, like those we saw 'em flying this morning, or Nieuport 28's, or the Salmsons which their commander has been trying to get, then all will be jake. Otherwise—" he shrugged his shoulders expressively.
"Otherwise," McGee took advantage of the pause, "Otherwise they'll deliver just the same, even if they have to fly Avros, Caudrons or table tops. Buzz, these Americans over here have fight in their eyes. They've got spirit."
"Yes, but spirit can't do much without equipment."
"Huh! Ever read any history?"
"What's on your mind now, little teacher? I read enough to pass my exams in school."
"Then you've forgotten some things about American history, especially about spirit and equipment. Where was the equipment at Valley Forge? What about the troops under Washington that took the breastworks at Yorktown without a single round of powder—just bayonets? What about the war of 1812, when we had no army and the English thought we had no navy? You don't remember those—"
"That's just what I do remember," Buzz interrupted, "and that's what I'm howling about. We never have been prepared with anything except spirit. Right now we have a lot of good pilots over here and the air service is having to beg planes from the French and English. And here we are, sent down to this front to act as instructors to a shipless squadron, at the very time when the Germans are making ready for another big drive. It's all wrong. Every minute is precious."
McGee had been looking out of the window of the swaying, lurching cab that was now threading its way through hurrying traffic. "Forget it!" he said. "Give Old Man Worry a swift kick. Here we are in Gay Paree. The war's over for twenty-four hours!"
To all allied soldiers on leave of absence from the front, Paris represented what McGee had voiced to Larkin—a place where the war was over for the time limits of their passes. Forgotten, for a few brief hours, were all the memories of military tedium, the roar of guns, the mud of trenches, the flaming airplane plunging earthward out of control—all these things were banished by the stimulating thought that here was the world famous city with all its amusements, its arts, its countless beauties, open to them for a few magic hours.
The fact that Paris was only a ghost of her former self made no impression on war-weary troopers. What mattered it, to them, that the priceless art treasures of the Louvre had been removed to the safety of the southern interior? Was it their concern that the once mighty and fearless Napoleon now lay blanketed by tons of sand bags placed over his crypt to protect revered bones from enemy air raids or a chance hit by the long range gun now shelling the city? What mattered it that famous cafes and chefs were now reduced to the simplest of menus; what difference did it make if the streets were darkened at night; who that had never seen Paris in peace time could sense that she was a stricken city hiding her sorrow and travail behind a mask of dogged, grim determination?
Paris was Paris, to the medley of soldiers gathered there from the four points of the compass, and it was the more to her credit that she could still offer amusement to uniformed men and boys whose war-weary minds found here relief from the drive of duty.
Everywhere the streets were swarming with men in uniform—French, English, Australian, Canadian, New Zealanders, colored French Colonials, a few Russians who, following the sudden collapse of their government, were now soldiers lacking a flag, Scotch Highlanders in their gaudy kilts, Japanese officers in spick uniforms not yet baptized in the mud of the trenches—a varied, colorful parade of young men bent on one great common objective.
At night, the common magnet was the theatre, and the Folies Bergeres, featuring a humorous extravaganza, Zig Zag, in which was starred a famous English comedian, drew its full quota of fun-seeking youths.
It was this show that McGee and Larkin had come to see, and at the end of the first act they were ready to add their praises to the chorus of approval. During the intermission they strolled out into the flag bedecked foyer to mingle with a crowd that was ninety per cent military and which was in a highly appreciative frame of mind. One particularly pleasing note had been added rather unexpectedly when one of the feminine stars, in singing "Scotland Forever," had been interrupted by a group of Highlanders who boosted onto the stage a red-headed, bandy-legged, kilted Scotchman who had the voice of a nightingale. And when, somewhat abashed, he took up the refrain, he was joined by a thunderous chorus from the audience that made the listeners certain that Scotland would never die so long as such fervor remained in the hearts of her sons. The English soldiers, not to be outdone, had followed with "God Save the King" and then, down the aisle with a flag torn from the walls of the foyer stalked an American sergeant, holding aloft Old Glory and leading his countrymen in the singing of "The Star Spangled Banner."
Trust a group of soldiers to take charge of a show and run it to suit themselves. But they were pleased, beyond question, as was evidenced by the buzzing conversations during the intermission.
"Great show, eh?"
"I'll tell the world!"
"Hey, Joe! You old son-of-a-gun! How'd you get down here? Thought you were wiped out up at Wipers."
"Huh! Not me! They haven't made the shell that can get me. Look who's over there with a nice cushy wound to keep him out of trouble. Old Dog Face himself. Hey! Dog Face ... Come here!"
Such were the greetings of soldiers who hid their real feelings behind a mask of flippancy.
McGee drew Larkin into an eddy of the milling throng where they could the better watch what Red termed "the review of the nations." A strapping big Anzac, with a cockily rosetted Rough Rider hat, strolled arm in arm with a French Blue Devil from the Alpine Chasseurs. A kilted Highlander, three years absent from his homeland and bearing four wound stripes on his sleeve, was trying vainly to teach the words of "Scotland Forever" to a Russian officer whose precise English did not encompass the confusing Scotch burr. Mixed tongues, mixed customs, variety of ideals; infantrymen, cavalrymen, artillerymen, war pilots; men with grey at the temples and beardless youths; here and there a man on crutches, here and there an empty sleeve, and many breasts upon which hung medals awarded for intrepid courage; here grizzled old Frenchmen with backs bowed by three years of warfare, and there fresh, clean young Americans recently landed and a little amazed that they should be looked upon as the hope of the staggering allies. Color, color, color! Confused tongues, the buzz and babble of a thousand half-heard conversations, the fragments of marching songs! Here was a cross section of the Allied Armies, all of them with but one purpose. How could they fail!
The scene had a telling effect upon McGee and Larkin. Wordless, for a few minutes, they stood watching the throng. It was McGee who spoke first.
"Did you ever see anything like it, Buzz? Just look at the different uniforms. There—look over there! A bunch of American Blue Jackets. Wonder how they got here?"
"Humph! Wonder how all of us got here? That's what I've been thinking about. This is just a moment snatched from the lives of all these fellows. What went before? What homes did they come from, and who is waiting for them? And what comes to them to-morrow? Gee!" He shook his head, slowly. "It doesn't do to think about it. You want to find out about them ... and you get to wishing they could all go on back home to-morrow. Say, who started this talk, anyhow? Come on, let's go back in."
"Wait a minute!" McGee seized his arm and turned him around. "There's plenty of time before the curtain. Look, Buzz. See that black fellow over there in French Colonial O.D.? Came from Algiers, I guess, or Senegal, maybe. What brought him here, and what sort of stories will he tell ... when he gets back home? Will he tell about what he did, or will he talk about what he saw and what others did?"
"Well, this has set me to thinking. We're all here on exactly the same business. The uniform doesn't count so much, nor does the branch of the service. It's just a question of getting the job done—a sort of 'Heave Ho! All together, now!' Get me?"
"Yes—I guess so. What are you driving at?"
"This. See that American sergeant over there—the one who carried the flag down the aisle and jumped up on the stage?"
"Yes. Big fellow, isn't he?"
"You said it! The biggest duck in this puddle, in more ways than one. And I want to get into the uniform he is wearing. Understand, Buzz? Oh, I'm proud enough of the one I'm wearing, but when he started the national anthem, and they all came in on that chorus, 'Oh, say can you see, by the dawn's early light,'—well, I felt cold shivers running up and down my backbone. None of the other songs did that to me. Do you get me, Buzz?"
"Sure. I felt it, too." He put both his hands on Red's shoulders, holding him off at arm's length. "You want back under the old Stars and Stripes, don't you? ... you little shrimp!"
"Yes," slowly, "and—yet—"
"I know how you feel. I'm with you, fellow, when you get ready to make the change."
McGee's eyes lighted with surprise and joy. "Really, Buzz?"
"Surest thing you know!"
"And you don't think we'd feel like—like—"
"We'd feel like two Americans, going home. Shake, little feller! There, I feel better already. Come on, let's go in; that's the curtain bell."
On the following Tuesday morning a group of two Spads and several Nieuports were delivered to Major Cowan's pursuit squadron at Is Sur Tille. A Lieutenant Smoot, one of the ferry pilots who had flown up one of the Nieuports, sought to ease the pain caused by his own lowly calling by taunting Tex Yancey—an extremely dangerous pastime, for Tex had a ready tongue.
"When you buckoes have washed out these planes," he said, "the Old Man will see the error of his way and send us up to do the real flying. What's left of this gang will then be put to ferrying. Did any of you ever see a Spad or Nieuport before?"
Yancey, standing well over six feet, looked down on him pityingly. "Did you say your name was Smoot, or Snoot? Smoot, eh. Well, transportation to the rear is waitin' for you at headquarters. Don't let me keep you waitin'. I'm surprised you're not pushin' a wheelbarrow in a labor battalion, the way you set that Nieuport down a few minutes ago. Clear out, soldier! This squadron is gettin' ready to do some plain and fancy flyin'. I don't want you to have heart trouble."
"Humph! You'll have heart trouble the first time you try to land one of those Spads. You'll think you have been trained on a peanut roaster. Who's the Britisher over there snooping around with Cowan?"
"Name's McGee. But he's not a Limey; he's an American. I'm told he won a coupla medals in the R.F.C., and has sixteen Huns to his credit. He must be good—though he doesn't wear the medals to prove it. Not a bit of swank."
"What's he doing here?"
"He's an instructor," Yancey replied without hesitation.
"Oh Ho! So you still need instruction? I heard that Cowan knows it all."
"Naw, he only knows half, and you know the other half. Too bad both sets of brains wasn't put in one head. In that case somebody would have been almost half-witted. Better toddle along, soldier. The animals are goin' on a rampage in a minute."
"Yeah? Well, turn 'em loose. I'm something of a big game hunter myself. What sort of a flyer is this instructor?"
"Dunno. We'll see in a minute, maybe. He's crawling in that Spad. Yep, they're turnin' her around. Don't go now. You can learn a lot here."
During the next ten minutes the entire squadron, and the ferry pilots, were given an excellent opportunity to form their own conclusions about McGee's ability to fly. He took the Spad aloft, in test, and plunged through a series of acrobatics that served to convince all watchers that here was a man whose real element was the air. Ship and man were one.
The group on the ground watched, open-mouthed, despite the fact that they themselves were flyers of no mean ability. But they had never flown such ships as the Spads, and the prospect and possibilities made their hearts race with feverish eagerness to take off in one of these trim little hawks.
Yancey and Smoot had now joined the watching group around Major Cowan, and as McGee rolled at the top of a loop, Yancey turned to the doubting ferry pilot.
"Yes, I think he can fly. What do you think, brother? When you can do stick work like that, you'll be sent up here to join us."
Major Cowan was equally envious, but he was not one to betray it. "A very bad example," he commented, testily. "An excellent pilot, doubtless, but reckless. His take-off, for instance. He zoomed too long. I want to warn you against such a mistake."
The ferry pilot, Smoot, decided to take a chance. "The example seems good enough, and if that fellow's flying is a mistake, I'm sure Brigade would like to see a lot more mistakes like him."
"The commander of this squadron will answer to Brigade for the conduct of this group, Lieutenant Smoot," Major Cowan retorted with such acidity that the poor ferryman decided it was time to join his own group and head for the base. But before taking his departure he relieved his mind in the presence of Yancey, Siddons and Hampden, who had drawn away from Cowan through a desire to watch the flying rather than listen to his lectures on the art of flying.
"If you had a flyer like that one up there for a C.O.," Smoot said to them, "you'd get somewhere in this little old war. But as it is, you have my sympathy. Well, toodle-oo, mes enfants. Be careful with those Spads. They were built for flyers."
"You be careful that you don't fall out of that motor cycle side car on the way back," Yancey retorted. "They look like baby carriages, but they're not."
As Smoot walked away, stung by this last retort, Yancey turned to Hampden and Siddons. "How'd you like to have a flyer like that in this outfit?" he asked.
"He's all right," Hampden replied. "A lot of the ferry pilots are crack flyers—just a tough break in the game. It might have happened to you."
"I wasn't talkin' about him" Yancey replied and pointed to McGee's plane, now banking in to a landing at the far end of the field. "I meant that bird down there."
Hampden laughed, skeptically. "Fine chance to get a flyer like that!"
"Oh, I dunno. Some American outfit will draw him. He and that other fellow, Larkin, have asked to be repatriated."
"How do you know?"
"I was with 'em in town last night and they told me all about it. They flew up to Paris day before yesterday, and on the way back they landed at Chaumont and made a call on G.H.Q. They put their case before the Chief of Staff and asked him to use his influence. They've made out formal application. Both of them are tickled pink over the prospect. McGee said he would like to get with this squadron."
"Bully for him!" Hampden enthused. "Maybe we don't look so bad, if fellows like that are willing to throw in with us, eh, Tex?"
Siddons was coldly skeptical. "You have the weirdest imagination. Why should he want to be with us?"
"Dunno. Ask him."
"I shall," Siddons answered as he moved over toward the point where he estimated McGee's taxiing plane would come to a stop.
"Big stiff!" Yancey said under his breath. "He'll ask him, all right, and right out in meetin'. He never believes anything he hears until he has asked a thousand questions about it. What do you see in that fellow to like, Hamp?"
"He's all right, Tex. He was pretty decent to me while I was acting as Supply during that time Cowan grounded me. Came around to help me with the paper work and put in a good word for me."
"Yeah, he's always chummy with Supply and Operations—but only because he thinks he can get some favors that way. I despise him."
"Oh, come now! You mustn't feel that way. We are all in the same boat, and we'd as well be chummy."
"Huh! If you ever get in the same boat with that fellow he will do the steerin' while you do the rowin'. He gives me a pain!"
Two weeks later orders came down concentrating several pursuit, observation and bombing groups in the neighborhoods of Commercy and Nancy. The members of the squadrons to which McGee and Larkin had been detailed were feverish with excitement. Operations and armament officers were busy with the duties incident to making all planes ready for combat. This could mean but one thing—Action!
Three nights after the move McGee and Larkin sat at a late dinner in one of the little cafes on the main street of the small French town. They were discussing the progress of their work and each was heatedly contending that his own group was superior in every way.
"Just come over and watch my flight do formation work," Larkin urged. "They'll open your eyes."
"Humph! You'd better open your own eyes! I have watched you. We were up in the sun this morning—five thousand feet above you—and watched you for half an hour. A fine bunch you have! We could have smothered you like a blanket. Have you ever shown them anything about looking in the sun for enemy planes?"
Larkin's face evidenced his chagrin. "Are you kidding me?"
"Not much! We kept right along above you, but in the sun. I'll admit they did good work, but oh, how blind! Boy, we're not too far back to get jumped on. There have been fights farther back from the lines than this. You know Fritz dearly loves to raid 'dromes where new squadrons are in training. Believe me, their spy system is perfect. I'd be willing to wager my right eye that they know these groups are stationed in this area, how long they have been in France, and just what types of planes we are using. They've the best spy system in the world. You know how many times they have raided green squadrons. They figure it puts the wind up a bunch of inexperienced men. So keep your eye peeled. And if you want to see something pretty, come over and watch my gang. They're ready for combat work right now—except Siddons."
Larkin looked up in surprise. "I thought you told me he knew more about the planes and about flying than any of the others."
"He does. But he can't—or won't—keep in formation. He cuts out, and goes joy-riding."
"Seems to me I remember someone else who used to do that same little stunt," Larkin said, smiling reminiscently.
McGee flushed. "Yes, I suppose I did, but not in training. I never cut formation until—"
"Until you saw something that looked like meat. Don't try to kid me, Red. You've dragged me into too many dog fights. Do you think I have forgotten the day we were out having a look-see, five of us, and spotted five Albatrosses below? Bingo! Down you went like a shot, and the rest of us had to follow to keep you from being made into mincemeat. Talk about being blind! All the time a bigger flock of Fokkers were in the sun above us and they came down like 'wolves on the fold.' Fellow, you had your little faults. Don't be too hard on Siddons."
"Cutting formation to get in a fight and cutting to go joy-riding are two different things. If it were anyone else but Siddons I'd ask Cowan to ground him."
"You like him?"
"Emphatically, NO! And he knows it. That's why I hesitate to make an example of him. He would think that I was satisfying a grudge. Besides, he has some sort of a drag with someone. Cowan thinks he is a great flyer. He is, too. Knows more about both the technical and practical side of the game than any of the others. That's what's wrong with him. He is so self-satisfied, so arrogant, and so cocksure of every word he utters and every movement he makes. He is the coldest fish I ever met. He reminds me of someone—but I can't remember who it is. Sometimes I think he is—Listen! What's that?"
McGee's question went unanswered as the shrill blasts of the air raid siren shattered the peace of the village with its frenzied warning. It moaned, deep-throated, then became panic-stricken and wailed tremulously in the higher registers. It was a warning to all to seek the comparative safety of the abris which the town had constructed against just such an emergency.
The cafe emptied quickly, but even the quickest followed on the heels of McGee and Larkin who, once outside, ran briskly down the street toward the house where they were billeted. They halted at the drive entrance to gaze upward as great searchlights began playing upon the dark inverted bowl of the heavens. The long, shifting beams of light were accusing fingers seeking to point out the unwelcome, stealthy nocturnal sky prowlers.
"Listen!" McGee gripped Larkin's arm.
Sure enough, from the east, and high above, came the sound of German motors, a sound unmistakable by anyone who had once heard their unsynchronized drone. It rose and fell, rose and fell, like the hurried snoring of a giant made restless by nightmare. The sound was drawing nearer. Doubtless it had been heard by the soldiers manning the searchlights for the beams now swept restlessly across the eastern sky. To the eastward, two or three kilometers, an anti-aircraft battery opened fire, and from aloft came the dull pouf! of the exploding shells. Vain, futile effort! It was only the angry thundering of admitted helplessness. One chance in a million! The motors droned on, coming nearer and nearer. Excited townspeople, in wooden sabots, clattered down the streets seeking shelter; fear-stricken mothers and fathers spoke sharply to their little broods as they hustled them along.
"Buzz," Red said, "it's dollars to doughnuts they're coming here to lay some eggs on our 'drome—just to put the wind up these boys. Remember what I told you a few minutes ago."
Larkin was more hopeful. "I guess not," he said. "Headed for some supply base or ammunition dump farther in, would be my guess. But if they are coming here, there's little we can do about it. It's up to the anti-aircraft boys."
"Hum-m," McGee mused. "I wonder."
A motor cycle, with side car, running without lights, came popping down the street. Without hesitation McGee ran out into the middle of the street, waving his arms and shouting wildly. The motor cycle swerved sharply, missed the dancing, gesticulating figure and skidded to a stop.
"Say, what's eatin' you, soldier?" demanded the irate American motor cycle orderly.
For answer McGee sprang into the side car and barked a few crisp, sharp orders that brooked no hesitation. The responsive little motor roared its staccato eagerness as the machine lurched forward, leaving Larkin speechless and wondering.
"What do you know about that?" he mused. "Now what can that little shrimp be up—" he hesitated, struck by the same thought, he felt sure, that had plunged McGee into such sudden action. Then he began shouting for the driver of their motor car.
"Martins! Martins! Oh, Martins!" Blast the fellow, doubtless he was already in some place of security. "Martins! Oh, Martins!"
A door flew open, letting out a beam of light as Martins came out, clad only in his underclothes and yawning prodigiously.
"Did you call, sir?" he asked, blinking foolishly as he studied the flashing rays of the sky-searching lights.
"Yes! Get the car! Snappy, now!"
"Yes, sir. Just as soon as I can get on some clothes."
"Hang the clothes! Get the car—and set the road afire between here and the 'drome. Move! Don't stand there blinking like a blooming owl."
Martins sped around the house, a white-clad figure racing bare-footed for the car and muttering under his breath every time his flying feet struck bits of gravel and sharp stones. The sound of the airplane motors was now much nearer; the siren was still screaming its fright; anti-aircraft guns were futilely belching steel into the air, and the searchlights were getting jumpy in their haste to locate the intruders and hold them in a beam of light.
Martins, with Larkin seated at his side, hurled the car through the narrow streets and out to the airdrome with a daring recklessness known only to war-trained chauffeurs who could push a car faster without lights than most people would care to ride in broad daylight. But their speed was slow compared to that made by the surprised motor cycle orderly who had thundered off with McGee, and when Larkin sprang from the car as it screeched to a stop at the edge of the 'drome his ear caught the sound of a Clerget motor pounding under an advanced throttle as it lifted a plane from the ground at the far end of the dark field. An excited, buzzing group of pilots and mechanics were huddled together on the tarmac near the circus tent that served as a hangar, and still more men were emerging hastily from the humpbacked, black steel elephants that served them as quarters.
Larkin ran toward the group near the hangar entrance,
"Where's McGee?" he shouted, knowing the answer but hoping for some word that would give the lie to what his ears told him. He knew that the plane which had now swung back over the field and was roaring directly above as it battled for altitude was none other than McGee's balky little Camel. But no one answered him; they merely stared, as men who have just witnessed a feat of daring too noble for words, or as girls who face an impending tragedy and are too horror-stricken for action.
"Where's McGee?" Larkin shouted again. "Don't stand there like a bunch of yaps! You'll be getting a setting of high explosive eggs here in a minute. Don't you hear that siren? Those Boche planes? Where's McGee, I asked you?"