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- Our Pilots in the Air - 2/30 -
Blaine promised to do his best. His pal and comrade, Orris Erwin, was also good, safe -- in short, reliable.
"Never fear, Monsieur Cheval! Unless they get us up yonder," pointing vaguely upward into the sky, "we will fetch her back all right. Good luck! Try to be out as soon as you can. We miss you on these little trips after Fritzy."
An hour later Blaine, accompanied by Erwin, stood before Sergeant Anson in the latter's cubbyhole of an office, while a stream of khaki-clad young men filed in one by one. Anson waved them aside until the others had left, then turned to Blaine.
"I saw Cheval myself," said the Sergeant grimly. "He wanted to go but it will be a week before he can use that arm, aside from other injuries. I spoke to Captain Byers about you. He was reluctant, but owing to the newness of so many of you Yankee airmen, he was unable to make suggestions. Only this- you two must be careful, cautious --"
"Not too cautious, I hope, sir!" came promptly from Blaine, while Orris smiled behind his sleeve. "A pilot has to risk things, you know."
"Don't interrupt!" Anson ordered sharply, though his eyes twinkled. "You know what I mean. Can you bring the plane back, Erwin, if anything happens to Blaine?"
"Yes, sir, I think so. I've often flown before, alone --"
"Under fire?" This sharp reply from the Sergeant.
"I was in the last raid after Vimy Ridge, Sir. Brenzer, the pilot, was killed. I managed to get back to our lines."
"You been over some time?"
"Yes, Sir. Only part of the time I was stationed at Aldershot, as assistant trainer for a bunch of raw rookies from our side."
One long look at both Anson gave, then turned away with:
"You'll do. Both of you be on hand for chow at regular time. Then await instructions." He waved them off.
THE WHIR OF WINGS
Shortly after a bugle call the following order was posted in the general mess hall for all concerned to read.
"Members of Bombing Squadron No. - will carry out the following order. 10 a.m., 12 midnight, 2 a.m. are the respective times to start. At each time three machines, each carrying eight 25 pound bombs, will bomb respectively R-----, C------, L------. Secrecy is imperative. Each member of the three squads thus assigned will be ready at Hangars No. -, No. -, No. - at times mentioned above."
Meantime each aviator, with his observer, had been privately notified by the Sergeant in person. This was an every-day operation order and was taken as a matter of course. These night raids are mostly for the purpose of keeping the Boche busy and nervous after hard days and nights in the front trenches, thus supposedly lowering his morale. Usually the points thus selected are the shell-torn villages back of the front, where Fritz has been sent for a brief period of rest before being sent to the front again. About the time he lies down in the half-ruined house that is his billet, and dreams of home and conquering peace, a bomb falls inside. The walls are further shattered, some of his comrades killed or maimed, he perhaps among them. Other bombs fall, heavy explosions result, and Fritz finds that his night's rest is lost in general turmoil. This continues night after night and the damage to German morale is enormous.
From the point of view of the air-service, things are different. These night raids are a matter of course with the pilots. It is part of the regular work.
When Blaine and Erwin climbed into the Bleriot, bombs already stowed, and it was wheeled out in front of the hangar, everything was very quiet. A minute later they were climbing up into the inky darkness at the appointed signal, the only noises being the whirrings of their own and two other two machines appointed for the two A. M. hour.
Watching for the signal of the leader of the squad, at the right time they headed for the further front.
Over the trenches star-shells from the infantry could be seen. Under direction they headed over No-Man's-Land, keeping at sufficient altitude, hugging the darkness, avoiding glints of light, dodging occasional searchlights, and all practically without a word spoken.
"You've been out here before, Lafe"' said Orris at last. "How much further are we going?"
"Be there in two minutes. Keep easy! I'm going lower. Get your bombs ready."
Silently Erwin obeyed. Below lay blackness, relieved at one point by a few dots of light that marked the ruins of the hamlet on which they were to let loose the bombs. So far no sign of life in the air or below appeared.
The three machines in this detachment had scattered in order to distribute their supply of bombs at a given signal from the leader. In this night raid an escorting fleet that usually accompanied the daytime raids was omitted. There was little need.
"Now!" cautioned Blaine to Orris and the latter began to drop his first sheaf, a rather heavy one as the bombs weighed twenty-five pounds each. Others were at work also and the village below, already in half ruins, began to detonate with sharp explosions, lurid flashings and an uproar of human cries. It was evident that the raiders had struck the right spot.
For some minutes the work went on, Blaine swooping still lower, until glimpses of hurried scurryings of the soldiers thus rudely disturbed were mingled with the larger glares from the continuous explosions.
Orris Erwin, through though smaller and slighter physically, worked away until the last sheaf was exhausted.
Then, and only then, the scene below was illuminated by the flash and roar of hostile artillery. A shell exploded with a deafening report so near their Bleriot that it was evident that the firer had sighted them during Lafe's last lower swoop.
On the instant Blaine pressed a trigger, elevating the sharp nose of the machine. As the deflected planes responded to sundry manipulations at certain levers and they began to climb spirally into the upper air, the powerful engines, exerting greater strength, shot them rapidly upward where height and obscurity lessened the danger of further shots.
"Well, Archie came near getting us then, eh?" This from Lafe.
Receiving no answer, he glanced aside. What was his dismay to see Erwin's slender figure drooping nervelessly, his head sinking, and the emptied sheaf of bombs sprawling neglected in his lap!
"You're hit, Orry? For God's sake buck up! I've still got to climb or they'll get us yet."
Clamping his knee round the wheel, he managed with one hand to pull Orris forward and sideways, so that the boy's curly head, now capless, lay against his thigh. With one arm half around and upon that senseless head, holding the slight frame from slipping, he still manipulated the alert Bleriot, that responded instantly to each human spur with a mobility that was almost life-like.
The two other machines had vanished in the darkness, doubtless cleaving the higher air strata in a backward flight to the home aerodrome, which was now the goal of all. Meantime searchlights were flashing here, there, yonder through the inky sky. The swift reports of anti-aircraft guns split the night's silence in a most disconcerting manner. Erwin groaned and twisted his body.
"Stay still, Orry! We must 'a' been the last to quit, and they're making things hot back westward."
Here a blinding gleam of light flashed athwart his eyes and , letting go of Erwin, he darted aside suddenly on a differing course. Erwin's body crumpled into a heap. A heavier man might have toppled over the edge, perhaps hanging helplessly at peril of falling out, unless held by the straps which many old aviators neglect. As it was, the nerveless lad was held by the high rim of the opening that fenced them both in. For the moment the boy was safe.
Giving his whole attention to the machine, Blaine zigzagged and dodged, mounting ever and ever higher. Yet his trend was unavoidably towards the east, further within the enemy lines.
"For the present I've got to go this way," he thought. "I hope Lex and Milt got away west before those 'cussed Archies broke loose. We'll have to stay quiet until this ruction below settles down." Lex and Milt were the pilots of the two remaining machines of this, the third and last section of the bombing squadron of that night.
"Orry! Oh, Orry! Wakeup! Aren't you all right yet?"
These and other adjurations Blaine would make from time to time. A chill came over him more than once as he wondered if Erwin would not recover. Once only as Lafe moved his own leg, pressing it unduly hard against the other, Erwin gave another groan.
A whir as of wings sounded in his rear, and Blaine became aware of shadowy movements through the faintly growing light in the east. Undoubtedly it must be a hostile machine. He had been spotted as he flew eastward. In addition to the now waning fire from the Archies, planes were now out after him. Divining this, Blaine wheeled, put on more power and flow towards the northwest, the German keeping after him at increasing speed. As the light increased the clinging shadow in the east grew more plain. Whoever it was, the pursuer was determined not to be shaken off. Soon he would begin firing.
At this junction Erwin gave Blaine's leg an undeniable kick. He was at last reviving. The pilot leaned towards his bunkie.
"Say, Orry, are you coming to at last?"
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