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- Our Pilots in the Air - 5/30 -
ammunition tossed to him earlier by Blaine, when his own had been exhausted. He signaled to his partner:
"Gun jammed! Must cut for home -- understand?"
"All right! Go up - up -"
A burst of flame from Blaine's machine, and the toppling down of the nearest adversary was the first result of this new encounter. Evidently that flag waving from Blaine's captured plane had fooled the Boches again.
Down, down went the hostile machine, its pilot frantically but ineffectually trying to right himself.
Passing Erwin, the latter saw the Boche, evidently a mere lad, working at the controls as the plane dropped down like a dead leaf in the air.
"Poor fellow," sighed Orris, beginning to spiral upward. "What a deadly cruel thing war now is!"
Up, up he climbed, two of the enemy following, while Blaine was engaging another, the last. The final view Erwin had of his bunkie the two were engaged in a close duel, dipping, darting, flashing about each other. Now came interchanging machine gun fire, with both gradually following Erwin higher, higher, until the latter began to feel that the thin air of these upper regions was getting on his nerves. A glance at his own register showed eighteen thousand feet or thereabouts.
Still his adversaries climbed after him. Now and then a spurt of flame and a spatter of bullets indicated that his own plane was being more or less perforated. The lad became doubtful as to the wisdom of waiting longer for his comrade. Evidently Blaine would fight on as long as his ammunition lasted or until disabled himself. After all, two hostile planes dropped and the third one brought home with its occupant was not a bad conclusion for a night's bombing raid on the enemy trenches.
Here a sudden, fierce gust of wind from the north catching him unawares half tilted his machine and then as he righted it sent him scurrying at terrific speed southward. At the same time a black cloud, belching and flaming thunder and lightning, swept down on him with almost the force of a hurricane.
Looking back, Orris saw his nearest foe, apparently caught by the same whirlwind that had nearly unseated him, go side-looping over and over as if in the grasp of mighty, invisible forces that he was unable to meet or control.
"It's safety first, I guess, for us all," he thought, at once diving into the nearing thunder burst that closed round him like a black pall, a pall now threaded and convulsed with electric forces that showed only in vivid flashes and deafening thunders.
The winds, too, picked him up, whirled him about and otherwise so tossed his machine here, there, yonder, that for five fearful minutes he hardly knew where or what he was. The wind, now bitter cold, would have frozen his flesh but for his sheathing of wool and leather that protected his face, arms and body. Blinding gusts of rain, sleet and frozen snow buffeted the planes, the shield of the fuselage, and all of himself that was visible.
By this time Blaine, the German planes, his own late adversary, had all vanished. He was alone, like a buffeted, tossed, shaken twig, in that wild vortex of darkness and storm.
With his machine gun jammed and his petrol running low, what was there for him to do but descend and make for the home aerodrome?
"Might as well," he reflected. "We've already overstayed our time."
Pointing gently downwards, he suffered himself to drift. That is, if one in the midst of a blinding storm and seated in a war-plane may be supposed to drift. Rather it was being tossed about, constant vigilance at the controls alone keeping his plane from literally flopping over and somersaulting here and there, like a dead leaf.
Then without warning he felt the machine dropping down, down, down. Yet the planes were level and the whole natural resisting power of the machine was at its usual operation.
"By George! This storm has made an air cave underneath. I must get busy."
Another twist of the levers and the plane jumped forward, for the first time feeling no resistance of the storm. And, while he was glancing around for more light, out he shot like an arrow from a bow into the clear sunlight, the earth near -- too near, in fact.
Back of him the storm clouds were whisking themselves away so rapidly that the transition was almost staggering. And below -- what was it he now saw?
For answer, almost before his own mind had sensed the change, there came the spatter of Archies by the dozen and the menacing roar of machine guns, sheltered here and there over the scraggy plain within the pill-boxes that have of late been substituted for the vanishing trench lines. Artillery bombardments by the Allies have so devastated certain regions that trenches have become impossible; hence the concrete pillboxes.
"Lucky I've some gasoline left," thought Erwin, surprised but not unduly alarmed. "It's a race now between me and the bullets."
Instantly he put on high speed, at the same time rising in zigzags while the bombardment continued increasingly.
Right ahead, however, he saw what looked like a communicating underground trench; and at certain intervals were openings. These openings revealed to him a blurring, moving mass, muddy gray, yet with glints here and there as of some substance brighter. Closer yet he flew, regardless of safety. His air tabulator was not working. That was a sign that he was within two to three hundred feet of the earth. All at once something flashed out from this moving mass that presently disappeared underground again.
Archie had momentarily stopped. But an unmistakable whistle of lead was accompanied by a metallic puncture below. The bullet hit the near end of his petrol tank almost at his knee. Now he knew.
"Lordy!" he palpitated. "That's too near!" Already his fingers were twisting the speed accelerator, while up went the nose of his machine. Still the Archies spake not, but the spat, spat, spat of real rifle bullets followed his retreat.
Just then his hand, feeling below, came in contact with the hand grenades which he had forgotten amid the excitement of his later flight. Ahead rose a swell of land that he knew terminated in a bluff abutting upon one of the smaller streams of that region. This underground trench, evidently dug at great cost of labor and life, went straight for that bluff.
Their own aerodrome lay only a few miles opposite.
By actual and repeated reconnaissance both from below and in the air, this bluff was considered as deserted, or held at most by a very small force. This was owing to its supposed isolation.
Evidently Erwin had just made a great discovery. At least he hoped so.
On he flew. His machine was hit in many places, principally the wings, the tail and along the under side of the fuselage. Through this had come the ball that nearly perforated the tank.
There was one more opening ahead and then the trench sank out of sight near the base of the low bluff. Orry's hand closed over the first grenade. He was really an expert bomb-thrower. At great risk he dipped gradually until, when about at the point overhead he desired, he threw two bombs in swift succession. Then-up, up rapidly. With all the power of his engine he climbed, while two sharp explosions sounded from below.
Had the lad looked down he would have seen the trench walls at the open space crumble inward, while the mass of moving gray appeared to disintegrate, to vanish for the time being.
But with the throwing of the bombs, Erwin had other work on hand. Archie had broken loose again. One larger molded shot ripped through the tail of the Bleriot, ricocheted obliquely and hit that same tank again, but with more force. His head lowered, the lad saw what had been done. More than that he saw what impended. The petrol was low.
Being under fire, at any moment a stray shot might ignite what little was left. Pointing the machine still more upward, he seized a bunch of loose lint, used to sop up recurring leaks here and there, and with a handy screw driver he managed to stop the rent in the metal with a few sharp adroit punchings.
Again to the machine, now over and beyond the bluffs; over the crinkling muddy stream, now almost overflowing its banks. On the bluff behind a squad of men in gray were training one of the Archies that had been dragged up from somewhere underneath.
"I've got to give her all the head she'll take," he thought. "That gun will get me if they understand their business."
Over beyond the stream a low embankment rose well up at perhaps three to f our hundred yards from its first bank. Erwin was rising in a steep climb, zigzagging crazily for the machine was giving out, owing to lack of fuel. But he made a last effort to thus dodge the rain of bullets that began to pelt upon him from the rear. Another larger gun came up. Both joined in firing.
A shell splinter struck his shoulder, tearing loose the leather garment, while a searing, hot agony seized him, paralyzing his left arm.
He was over the second embankment when the final crisis came. Were these foes or friends that were popping up, pointing weapons at those behind? Friends surely! Down he had better go. The pain was so acute that only one arm was now at his service, while the dizziness that accompanies the pain of severe gun wounds filled his brain, dimmed his eyes, palsied his last despairing effort to land somehow behind that sheltering embankment.
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