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   Chapter 17 BUCK AND THE BOCHE ALOFT

Our Pilots in the Air By William Perry Brown Characters: 15559

Updated: 2017-11-29 00:03


Meanwhile what had become of Buck Bangs, whom we left following the Boche flier that had first assaulted him, but who soon seemed to have enough of the game?

The truth was that Buck, who was plucky to the core, did not want to give up and return to the home base any more than did Blaine. Both were fighters and loath to abandon what looked like success as long as there seemed a chance to win out.

As he had told the Walsen girl once, when she remonstrated with him upon his temerity in the face of what more than once looked like certain death:

"Reckon I don't know that, miss? You bet I do! But, somehow, death don't come just then and - and I keep on riskin' some more. I - I guess I'm jest built that way."

The German, who was rather clumsy, kept on along his eastward flight, with Buck in hot pursuit. Getting closer, Bangs again opened up with his Lewis. What was his surprise to see the clumsy German crumple up in his seat and fall forward, his hands and part of his arms out of sight, as well as the other could see in the starlit night.

"I believe I got him at last," thought Buck, maneuvering to a closer position. "I'll fill him and his tank full of holes, then see what has happened."

But just before Buck came into position, the German's plane suddenly veered athwart the nose of the other and deftly dove almost directly downward. The turn was a surprise. But Buck instantly knew that no machine, unless some one was handling the controls, would do a thing like that. Instantly he knew that the clumsiness of that Boche must have been assumed for the purpose of inducing Bangs to follow, thus leading the two planes away from the Allied squadron.

"Fritzy is sharper than I gave him credit for being," thought Buck. "But he'll not get under me in that way without doing more stunts yet." Instantly the nimble scout machine darted upward, at the same time turning on its tail in such a way as to bring both opponents side by side with Buck now still higher up. By the time the German had gotten into a firing position Buck had his Nieuport slanted nose downward and pointing straight at the enemy. But scarcely had this been done, before the German was veering off to the left and sliding down, down with scarcely conceivable rapidity.

Instantly Buck was after him, and for several minutes the two spiraled, twisted, dove, looped and performed other aerial feats accomplished only by expert fliers. By this time both were undeceived as to the skill of their opponents. Each knew that his adversary was worthy of all the dexterity and strategy the other might employ.

And all this in the dark, as it were. That is, in the dark as darkness is in the upper air, a sort of transparent twilight, when the mists are either absent or the light haze is as a gauze curtain stretched between our eyes and an upper light beyond.

At length the German, no longer clumsy, but most expert, seemed to be waving something that looked white. Then came a low megaphone call that made Bangs wonder if his ears were all right. It came in good United States English.

"Hullo, you!" it began. "Let's rest a bit and have a pow-wow!"

Buck could still hardly believe that he really heard, and he hesitated.

Finally he returned:

"Don't know you! You talk like us, but you act like a Hun. Can't trust you Huns further than you'd -"

"Aw-come on down! I'm tired of fightin' a will-o'-the-wisp like you.

Been in Akron lately?"

"Don't know the burg. Montana's my stampin' ground - when I'm home."

"I used to live in Akron - worked in the rubber factories. Come on down. I know a good place. We can yarn there - mebbe have a zwie-bier."

The two machines were now hardly fifty yards apart, with the German rather lower down than Buck.

"Not much, old man! I don't know you, I say. Now - you watch out!

I'm -"

But Buck never finished that sentence. The German, having consumed as much time as he thought proper with his hyperbolical peace propaganda, suddenly dove sideways, executing what is now known as the Emmelin turn, that would bring him, nose up, somewhat below and on the other side of Bangs.

But Buck was not to be caught napping by any Hun making seemingly friendly proposals. Before the German had more than half executed the maneuver, Bangs was already shooting upwards in a zigzag course and by the time the other had gotten into position, Buck was swinging round far above, from whence, to outdo the other, he pointed his Nieuport downward pointblank at the fuselage of the German's Taube.

Swiftly he came, apparently reckless of consequences. It so turned out that the Boche did exactly what Bangs thought he would do: tried to avoid the descending avalanche. His machine swung to the right, yet not enough to clear the other. Full tilt the Nieuport struck the nearly motionless Taube near the center of the fuselage. Nieuports are strong and sharp in their prow, and the metal edge clove through the side of the German machine not unlike one destroyer ramming another.

At the same instant Bangs, pointing his Lewis gun obliquely downward, sent a spatter of bullets full into his opponent just before the collision occurred.

Smash went in the side of the Taube. An instant before, the shower of bullets had penetrated not only the petrol tank but also the body of the too plausible German. Anticipating what might happen, Buck clapped down upon his rudder, reversing his engine, and drew back from the shattered enemy just in time to escape the burst of flame that almost at once enveloped both man and machine.

"I settled him, " panted Buck, almost breathless despite himself. "He may have lived in the U. S., but he lacked much of American love for fair play. I wouldn't have run into him if he had acted at all white."

So ran Buck's thought as he sat breathing heavily, watching the plummet flight of the dead German and his flame-shriveling plane to the earth.

Rising again to a higher altitude, he surveyed the surroundings as well as the night's dim light would permit. Nothing to be seen anywhere. All at once Bangs thought of Blaine. Faintly he had heard the sound of explosions down near the earth; but whether the same were bombs, or guns, or if any other cause were responsible the lad did not know.

"Ought I to look him up or not?" he more than once asked himself. "No better chap anywhere than Blaine, or for that matter Stanley either."

Circling round a wide aerial expanse while cogitating along these lines, he thought he heard the sound of far-off explosions somewhere below. His timepiece showed that the hour was near three A.M. Daylight would soon be showing. In the far west and southwest the thunderous roll of artillery was incessant, mingled with sharper minor concussion of small arms, machine guns and musketry.

"That drive must now be in full swing," he thought. "Ought I to circle round there and see if I can do any good? Might take a squint at the Boche front and let our artillery know."

He was about to follow out this when another rattle from below came up. Somehow he felt that it might be connected with Blaine and Stanley, nor would the notion rest until he began to descend.

The course followed took him somewhat to the north of where the great battle was raging in the southwest, and presently he saw quite an expanse of war-torn forest underneath, or so it seemed from the height at which be flew.

Then a third explosion shattered the air, seeming to rise from directly below. Bangs hesitated no longer. Ascertaining that his petrol was still plentiful, he began gliding downward, over a hamlet or two, mostly in ruins, then over a few small fields, and at last over the scraggy trees. Suddenly he saw to the right a broad oval with what looke

d like a battered wall around it. It might have been three to four hundred yards in length, by half that in width.

The dim view perplexed him greatly as he flew, not more than from one to two hundred yards above this singular ruin, completely surrounded, as it seemed by forest, or the remains of forest.

All at once, gliding from out some deep shadows, something came rushing along inside this oval, and stopped. A moment later it appeared to rush again over the same course but in the opposite direction. All this dimly came to Buck, swinging easily along overhead. Then it was all clear to him at once.

"I'm certainly gettin' nutty," he owned to himself. "That's a plane. Looks like a biplane and it's trying to rise. Why in Hades don't it rise? Probably because it can't."

He knew that the Boche in his Taube had gone down considerably to the northeastward. And the Taube was on fire. No doubt about that. This was not a hostile machine, was it? Bangs did not feel that it was. He had heard along that front tales of a big concrete oval, once erected in the small Duchy of Luxemburg, close to the town of Arion, which town was near a large area of forest. It had been constructed about the era when a revival of old-time Olympic games had roused more or less interest in a modern worldwide participation in the same, as a sort of antique revival of ancient times. Several celebrations had come off, notably at Athens, at Paris, and elsewhere. Then the interest died out but this concrete oval had remained.

After certain minor uses it had fallen into neglect. When war came that region became more or less ravaged, though somewhat off the track of the main struggles. And here was Buck hovering over this modern relic of an old-time futility, while below him was a mysterious plane trying to rise but apparently not succeeding.

With this train of thought, Bangs got out his remaining signal flares and flashed one of the code signals most in use among the Allied aviators along this front. His pulses leaped when it was answered. Before Buck could do anything more, there came the sounds of a much nearer explosion somewhat off to the south, fairly jarring the earth with its impact.

The plane below was now motionless. All at once a series of flashes came upward that Buck instantly understood as saying:

"You must be of our side. If not, I'll have to take a chance. We are out of petrol: tank 'prang a leak. Can you help us out?"

"You bet!" flashed back Bangs. "Got enough so that we can both get home again. Who are you?"

This last query was instantly replied to from below by the private sign denoting that the parties below were of such and such squad or escadrille quartered at Aerodrome No. -.

Buck drew a long breath, then he flashed forth his own number and began to descend. Nothing more happened until Buck brought his nimble Nieuport to a smooth standstill a few yards distant from a big biplane that Bangs at once recognized as Blaine's.

"Well, well!" he exclaimed, dismounting and hurrying across the intervening space. "Isn't this luck - why - why what's the matter, Lafe? Sick?"

But Blaine was only sick at heart. Already be had taken Stanley out of the observer's manhole, had laid the lad down, pillowing his head on a blanket, and was bending low, massaging Stanley's immobile limbs. Stanley's face looked deathlike under the flare of Blaine's flashlight.

In an instant Buck understood. Stanley had been wounded, perhaps mortally, during the course of the night raid. Blaine, being unable to keep on his course longer owing to the gradual draining of petrol from the tank as the engines consumed the heat, had managed to descend to this retired place.

With not more than a word or two of explanation, Buck also set to, and both lads did their best to revive Stanley, who had fallen again into unconsciousness. The deadly swoon had been strengthened by Stanley's effort to put the last rack of bombs fully in place during the train bombardment, as we have already seen.

They tried cold water, brandy, and also some medicine Buck produced from his own kitbag, but all to no apparent avail. Meantime the explosions to the southward were increasing and, worse still, were drawing nearer, though slowly.

"We got to get out of this," said Lafe at last. "While I put Stanley back in the biplane yon draw as much of your petrol from your tank as you can spare and put it in to mine."

"All righty oh! We got to get a move on, too. Look yonder!"

A bluish-green roll of flame was moving along the plain beyond the forest, showing dimly above it certain flying specks that were undoubtedly airplanes, but whether hostile or friendly was not apparent.

"Course it's Fritzy, Lafe," was Bangs' comment who, after aiding Blaine to stow the wounded man as comfortably as possible in his own manhole, was already at work replenishing the biplane's tank from his own. "To be square, I'll divide up, giving you a leetle the most. We gotter to get back - eh?"

"If possible, yes. I don't hanker after a German prison camp. It would sure kill Stanley, if he isn't dead already."

By the time they had their brief preparations completed, the fire, steadily approaching, struck the edge of an opening through the woods and suddenly burst into tremendous flame, with an accompanying report.

"Wait, Lafe," cautioned Buck, for both were in their seats. "Let, me rise first. I'll mosey towards that fire. As for you and Stan - you make your get-away. Sooner you get back to the home plate, the more you'll be apt to do for Stan. Stan's a bully chap - durn 'im."

Up into the air rose the Nieuport, while Buck was thus delivering himself. Over towards the line of fires and the shadowy circling of planes he went while Blaine himself made an attempt to rise. What was the latter's consternation to find that his plane would not rise sufficient to clear the concrete oval by which the open space was surrounded!

"What will I do now?" Blaine almost gasped. "Must be something wrong with the machinery that I failed to notice."

Another explosion, much nearer, that seemed to tear up trees within the forest. At the same time he distinctly saw Buck's machine circling round and round, high up in the air, and directly over where the last explosion had occurred. It looked puzzling. But Lafe had no time just then to observe Buck's doings except that, during the last flash, the concrete oval had given way.

Meantime the biplane was trying to lift itself a trifle higher, and happened to be beaded towards where the explosions were occurring.

"Damn if he ain't droppin' bombs, too," Blaine gasped, then quickly solved the riddle of Buck's maneuvers.

Without waiting further, but applying all his power, Blaine drove the biplane forward at full speed, at the same time using both forward and rear steering blades to assist further elevation of the prow.

"Will we make it?" he asked himself. "If we do, what will we do then?"

Too late to consider pros and cons now. The die was cast, either for good or ill. Then, all at once, he saw Buck's small triplane rise at a marvelous speed, while from the south came several other planes, almost skimming the ground in their onward rush. Also, still further on, was a confused mass that was struggling rearward, though what it could be was puzzling. It was still too dark to distinguish things clearly when unaided by the fires.

A whistling, whirring swish swept startlingly near his own plane, now at last rising high over the ruins of the oval, forty yards of which were scattered over the earth. From this sounded a well-known voice through a megaphone:

"Follow me - you - Lafe! Boches ahead. Follow me - dodge 'em."

That was all, but it was enough.

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