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   Chapter 16 THE CONFLICT

Our Pilots in the Air By William Perry Brown Characters: 16609

Updated: 2017-11-29 00:03


For another day many quiet yet suggestive movements were made in the vicinity of these headquarters where most of the activities of this tale have taken place. That night secret word went out among certain picked birdmen that they were to be ready that night for literally anything

"What do you think is up, anyhow?" asked Erwin, who had been busy with a mechanic nearly all that day putting his favorite scouting flier machine in complete readiness.

"How should I know?" snapped Anson, hurrying by. "We know we gotter be ready any old time, night or day. I 'opes I may niver see Blighty ag'in though, ef I don't think we're in fer somp'in' damn big and hard." And he passed on, vouchsafing Orris a wink that might mean anything.

That next night other planes from near-by sectors began flitting in here, there, until, with the planes already at the aerodrome, there must have been at least fifty of the various types of battle and scouting planes on hand. Many of the airmen were French, many British, not a few Americans, inclusive of the Lafayette Escadrille, composed mainly of men from overseas.

The early evening passed, the dark hours flitted by, and so came midnight with a long line of planes stretched far and wide over that war-scarred expanse. Here and there the pilots had gathered in little groups, receiving their last instructions from majors, captains, lieutenants, even sergeants of the various aviation corps or squads who had, in turn, received theirs from commands higher up.

Some of these groups were studying maps and photographs which had been made by recent reconnaissance trips and prepared for distribution among those whose task it was to proceed along the various lines thus indicated.

One group near the center of the line deserves attention. There was Erwin, Blaine, Bangs, Brodno, all seemingly in fine fettle, gathered over sundry maps, photos, and instructions. Amid these was Captain Byers, somewhat at the rear, conferring with Senator Walsen, who had still deferred his return to Paris, more than likely through the persuasions of his daughters.

Where were they? Let us look more closely among the airmen. Who is that whispering coyly to Sergeant Bangs, who stands cap in hand, despite the frosty night air? He talks earnestly, rapidly, western fashion, ending with"

"I don't know bow I shall come out of all this! But I do know that

Montana and Idaho are side by side. May I come to see you then?"

"Yes, provided that neither you nor Mr. Blaine forget that Paris leave which I feel sure you will get." And Avella Walsen blushed prettily. "But I must go back to father now. Good-bye."

She was gone, flitting towards the rear not unlike a star gleam in

Buck's eyes as she vanished, leaving him to sigh regretfully.

Near by Andra Walsen had taken an almost tearful leave of stalwart Ensign Blaine, now completely restored, and naturally keyed up by a prevision of the night's probable happenings.

Further to the right both Brodno and Erwin, still fussing round their respective planes, were interrupted by no less a personage than the Belgian Queen, accompanied by Baroness Suvahl and her sister, Miss Daskam, who had come round to them on their night round of visiting encouragement which they were making among their acquaintances that night.

"We are so glad to see you boys on duty again," said the Queen, who was most unassuming and kindly in manner. "Both the King and the Baron had to leave again for our front, but I persuaded them to let us bid you lads good cheer and Godspeed in your risky night's adventure."

Meanwhile Miss Daskam was whispering to Erwin:

"Do you remember the last night at the chateau, how you would not take all the quilts I wanted you to, though the night was cold and we had plenty?"

"Indeed I do, miss!" Orris was grinning now. "I just knew we did not leave you and Brenda enough! Did we, Brenda?"

Turning to that stalwart guardian in petticoats who watched over the two sisters from Chicago, one of whom had married a Belgian nobleman, Brenda shrugged her massive shoulders.

"You must ask Mademoiselle Aida. I was mooch too warm; yes, vera mooch. Yes la - la! We Flemings know what cold is more than what it is to be too - too warm. Don' you bodder, sar!"

And so the many more or less friendly, even solicitous conversations went on until the midnight hour had fled. By then the groups of friends and visitors had melted back to the rear into the misty regions where lay the small French village that had sheltered them together with the aerodrome itself.

It might have been one o'clock or later when a bugle sounded. Up and down the long, long line aviators were scrambling into their machines while the sputter and throb of many engines punctured the night air. Some of these engines had as much as three hundred horse-power. The long continuing roar was nerve grating, yet inspiring. Swarms of small scouting machines were humming, spitting; these were the vipers or wasps of the air service.

The fleet commander and his observer had taken their places and soared into the night air. The other machines, some fifty odd in number, swiftly followed him into the misty heavens, all maneuvering like a flock of swallows until the air formation was at last right. Then a crack from the commander's revolver, and they were off like bees, following the queen, straight for the far-off enemy lines.

Much ammunition had been distributed, for they were going on a general bombing and foraging expedition over those trenches upon which the now ready offensive was to be let loose. Dimly they rose up, up, still up, six thousand, eight, even ten thousand feet, the last height mainly for the fighting scouts, the battle and bombing machines keeping lower down.

Over No-Man's-Land they flew towards the battle-torn trenches behind which lay the Boches. Tiny specks began to rise up far to the eastward in the German rear. They were the enemy planes coming to meet them. In number they seemed to be somewhat equal to our own fleet. The Allies might have fought these, but such was not the present game. They were there to protect their side; while the Allies were out first to destroy, to smash the morale of the soldiers below, to shatter and mutilate and terrorize those in the trenches before our infantry, now probably starting out, should be where their own conclusive work would begin.

Those lads whom we have followed through these pages were flying close together, keeping well to the front, watching signals from the commander and ready, more than ready, each to do his part. With Blaine was Stanley, his observer, both closely watching. When over the first line trenches, they at once let go the first rack of bombs. All the other planes, in accord with their individual capacity, did the same. A veritable hell beneath was let loose by that swiftly moving line. Lower down came the signals and more racks of bombs were let loose. So swift were their movements that one might hardly see what results were being obtained; but from the yells, shrieks, explosions and clouds of debris below, it was evident that the destruction was great.

Lower and lower still they flew. Blaine's control was perfect. So was that of his subordinates. Bangs himself, excited yet steady as a clock, was talking to his plane as a cowboy might talk to his pony. Machine guns could now be used most effectively. The cleaned, burnished mechanism was already vomiting death. in showers upon the trenches below. Their spitting, purring roars were drowning out the whir of the engines.

All at once Blaine saw to his left a spurt of flame shoot upward from below, and almost simultaneously a blinding glare arose from Brodno's plane. For an instant he caught sight of the Polish face, ashen gray as the night above, under which the fight was going on. His petrol tank had been hit from an Archie below and exploded. Another burst of flame and his plane swooped dizzily towards the mangled earth below.

"God help him!" gasped Lafe. "That must be the end of poor Brodno!"

Down it went, zigzagging crazily. All at once it dropped like a plummet. For an instant Blaine felt sick; then he recovered. His own situation, and that of Stanley, Erwin, Bangs and the rest was not less ri

sky. Yet only one thing was there to do. Fight it out - fight it out, to victory - or death.

Then all at once the German planes were upon them. Where and how they came was a matter of indifference. The thing was to meet and fight, to out-maneuver them if possible. In another minute they were dodging, diving, eluding, darting among each other, inextricably intermingled, yet now, on the whole, rising higher. Just over to the right of Blaine one of the Boche fliers was already dropping to the earth. Blaine saw and noted the cause. It was Erwin, rising from a dexterous side-loop to higher elevation, yet peering over at his fallen foe.

"Good boy," murmured the ensign. "He'll do! No use to worry about flying position now. It's fight or die!"

What the Allies mainly cared about now was to dodge the enemy fliers, and still pour the remainder of their explosives down upon the mangled trenches until the Allied infantry should come up. By this time Stanley, back at his old post, was whirling round on his seat for more racks of bombs. He had already used his own machine gun with deadly effect. Blaine was reaching for another drum of ammunition for his Lewis when he saw Stanley lurch forward. He was hit. Not a word though; not even a struggle.

"My Gawd, man!" called Blaine. "Are you hit bad? Slip down under cover!"

No reply as the observer slowly sagged back and down into the manhole.

Then a sudden rage filled the stalwart American. He loved Stanley, who he knew was game to the core. Just then a German machine sped by full tilt, sending spatters of bullets right and left. Instantly Blaine tried the tail-dip, always risky yet worth while if successful. Doubling under the tail of the passing Boches - there were two of' them in the machine - Blaine came up right under the German's propeller, his own gun in straight line for the center of the other's fuselage. As he came up he began a spatter of bullets that fairly riddled the body of the big Taube, and directly thereafter came a burst of flame so bright and searching that Blaine had to dip again, sidewise to avoid its scorching significance. The German's tank was exploding and in a mass of flames the two men fell, the skeleton of their machine about them as the whole dropped to the earth.

Hardly had Blaine cleared this aerial ruin than came the commander's signal to retire. Somehow, after that, Lafe felt that in a measure he had a certain revenge from the Boches for poor Stanley's death; for Stanley was dead - no doubt of that. At least so Blaine thought.

Up he mounted and presently saw Buck Bangs engaged with a rather clumsy German, who seemed bent upon peppering Bangs and his machine full of holes. He flew to Buck's assistance, when the German straightened out and made for his own rear, with Bangs in full pursuit. In his present mood, instead of returning with the rest of the home squadron, Blaine took after the German, and for five minutes there was a mid-heaven race towards Belgium. But Bangs, in his small scout, was easily the fastest and soon he and the German were engaged in a running duel.

All at once Buck signaled to Blaine in code:

"Leave this Boche to me. There's a train off eastward. See if you can't do something. Get up higher: you'll see better."

Mutely Blaine obeyed and, as he rose up another thousand feet, he saw more than one row of cars, upon a single track hurrying towards the front, whence already the distant bellow of earthly struggles was going on. Evidently the big Allied offensive was on. If he, Blaine, could hinder the troop trains from reaching the front trenches, it might be a big help to the infantry, that was now attempting its part of the big stunt.

Straightway the biplane, with the body of Stanley still nestling in the bottom of the observer's, manhole, was shooting downward in a gradual slant towards the two trains. One of these was filled with soldiers, at least a brigade, for the train was a long one. The one ahead seemed to be loaded with munitions and with artillery on the rear cars.

Swooping down closer, Blaine laid his plan. When within three hundred feet he saw some Archies posted at a crossroads who at once began firing. In his present mood he would have cared little for any obstacle as yet untried.

Above the noise of his propellers he detected something behind, and, turning, what was his amazement to see Stanley's ashen gray face peering up over the observer's seat. Blaine was startled, as if he looked at a ghost.

"Get down, boy!" he adjured. "You ain't strong enough. Get down!

I've got a stiff job just ahead. Give me time and room."

Whether Stanley understood or not Blaine was not certain. But just then the stricken man crumpled back again into his former nest at the bottom of the manhole. A slow groan came up.

"Poor chap! He's in misery, no doubt. But I've just got to try this job -"

Just then the Archies began to cut loose, but Blaine went to zigzagging, at the same time increasing his speed, swooping still lower - lower. At last directly over the front train, with machine guns, Archies, and rifles peppering away at him, he let go with one side of his bomb rack. With the sound of the resultant explosion he wheeled and let go the other.

Both racks landed directly upon the leading train loaded, as Blaine suspected, with all sorts of ammunition.

Instantly he pressed the upward controls and his machine darted on towards the rear just in time to escape the tremendous blaze and roar as that string of loaded cars began to explode one after another. The noise, flames and confusion were indescribable. Regardless of the still up flying shrapnel and shot, the daring man turned loose the controls and instantly whipped into place another rack or two of bombs.

By this time he was directly in the path and, right over the long troop train already slowing down to avoid collision with the exploding ammunition train. This in itself was almost impossible, so closely had one train followed the other, a most incautious thing to do.

He felt that his big spread of wings offered too great a bombarding surface to the forces at the crossroads below, but he was bound to finish the job so well begun, no matter what resulted to himself and Stanley.

Still further down he went, and at the pivotal instant began again with the first rack of bombs. Down they flow, crashing upon car after car. Though half conscious of something at his rear and left, he did not dream the cause until, turning, he saw Stanley's pallid face contracting with pain. The observer was shoving forward the second rack into the essential groove for firing. Blaine in his baste had missed fixing it in the notch necessary for accurate discharge. At untold bodily cost to himself Stanley had again risen and completed the task, just in time for the second rack to fall along the rear half of the train, the last bombs crashing into the rear engine pushing the heavy train from behind.

So far as could be seen from above the wrecking of the two trains was complete. Amid the din of exploding munitions rose the cries of hundreds of wounded, dying men, while the debris of the burning wreckage was strewn up and down the single track for a mile or more.

As Stanley sank back again, more deathlike than ever, Blaine put on all his power and strove to rise. Still roared the anti-aircraft guns, the machine guns and the rest of the snipers below; that is, all that were still on the job after the terrifying disaster so deftly accomplished by Blaine.

The biplane would not rise to any great degree. But it would travel at a gentle upward trend and as rapidly as ever.

Off he flew, more than anxious to get out of; range from the vengeful fire that pursued him.

Another groan from Stanley. Blaine, looking back, saw the lad crumpling up with a new red stain trickling down his scalp.

"How I would like to help him!" thought the pilot. "But the only chance for either of us is to keep on and get out of this hell."

For a wonder there did not appear any more Boche fliers, and as soon as he was outside the immediate range of the Archies, Blaine found that he was sailing northeastward over an opaquely indistinct expanse of country which he felt in his bones must be that of the foe.

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