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CHAPTER XV


THE PICKED SQUADRON


"All ready, Jack?"

"Just a moment, Tom. I want to go over my struts and wires to make sure everything is taut. I don't want any accidents."

"That's right. Got plenty of ammunition drums?"

"All I can carry. I've got some tracer bullets, too."

"That's good. Glad you reminded me of them. I must put in a stock. The last time I went up I wasted a drum before I got my man."

Tracer bullets for aircraft guns, it might be observed, are balls of fire which enable the pilot to see the course his machine gun bullets are taking, so he may correct his fire.

"Well, how about you now?" asked Tom, as he added these useful supplies to his ammunition.

"I guess we're ready to start," replied Jack.

They climbed into their machines, each pilot using a single-seat, swift-flying craft, equipped with a Lewis machine gun. The squadron was going out on patrol duty, and each pilot was to observe what he could behind the German lines, and come back to report—that is if he did not happen, as was too often the case, to be bagged by a German flier. The small, swift machines did not carry the wireless outfit, and no reports could be sent back to headquarters save those the pilot himself came in with.

There was a rattle and a roar as the motors of the ten machines started, and then over the ground they went, "taxi fashion," to get the necessary speed to rise into the air. A moment later all went aloft, and were headed toward the German lines.

Tom and Jack kept as close together as was safe, but it is dangerous for two aeroplanes to approach too closely. If they do, and are not under good control, there may be a suction created that will cause a collision.

"Well, I hope I get one to-day," thought Tom, as he manipulated his "joy stick," so as to send his plane up on a sharp slant. "I want to make good, and then I'll have so much better chance to get after that German gun." And the same thought was in Jack's mind.

The squadron was to remain aloft on a two-hour patrol, that is unless something should occur to make it advisable to remain up longer. The keen eyes of Tom and Jack, as well as those of their companions of the air, were searching for signs of the Hun planes. As yet none were in sight, but it would not be long before they would come out to give battle.

Whatever else may justly be said about the Germans, their airmen are no cowards, and, when conditions are favorable, they seldom decline a chance to combat above the clouds, or lower down. So it could easily be guessed that when Tom, Jack and the others found themselves over the German lines that the Boches would be out in force.

Somewhat off to the left Tom caught sight of a captive German balloon, looming through the mist, and as it is always the desire of a French flier to destroy one of these, thus preventing the observer from sending by wireless news of the Allied front, he started for this enemy. Jack saw his friend's act, and, desiring to aid, turned his machine in the same direction.

But they had not gone far before they observed a number of black specks in the sky over the German hues.

"The Huns are coming," reflected Tom. "Now for some hot work."

And it came to him, to Jack, and the others, almost before they realized it. Tom never got a chance to attack the balloon he hoped to force to descend or to set on fire, for his attention was taken up by two German machines, which, separating from the others, headed straight for him. The lad gave one glance in the direction of Jack, and noted that a single Hun craft was about to engage with his chum.

"It's a regular German circus," thought Tom, referring to the number of hostile craft. "They delight to go out in numbers."

By this time the battle in the air had begun. It was a fight above the clouds, for both the French and the German machines were flying high, and had gone up above the bunches of fleecy vapor that now hid the ground from sight.

Tom headed straight for one of the Hun machines, seeking to get above it, always a point of vantage in an air battle, and as he rushed on he realized that his machine was being hit by bullets from one of the Hun guns.

Each bullet, as it struck, made a loud noise, as it punctured the tightly-drawn linen that covered the wings. But Tom knew that his craft could stand a number of such holes, if only the struts, the supports, and the guy wires were not broken. He had no time, now, to note what Jack or his comrades were doing, for his whole attention was taken up with the two Hun machines engaging him.

One seemed to be more skillful than the other, and to this one Tom gave his attention first. He emptied a stream of bullets full into this flier's craft, noting, after the first few bad shots, which he could tell by the tracers, that he had perfect range.

Guiding his craft with one hand and his feet, Tom worked the Lewis gun with his other hand, and he had emptied a whole drum at the daring Hun before he had the satisfaction of seeing the machine crumple up. Tom's bullets had struck some part that had caused the wings to collapse, and the airman went down to earth, his craft out of control.

But matters were not to go easy with the American. The other German was now in a better position for getting Tom than the latter was for potting him, and Tom felt a stream of bullets flying around him. One chipped his gun, and another grazed his cheek, the close call making his heart stand still for a moment. But he never faltered.

"I've got to get above him," Tom thought fiercely.

He made a risky spiral turn to one side, and began to mount, seeking to get in position to fire to better advantage. It was touch and go for a while, and he felt, rather than heard, his craft receive several bullets.

"If only the gasolene tank isn't hit," thought Tom.

But good fortune in this respect was with him, and he got in a position where he could point his machine (and the gun at the same time, for this is how the guns are aimed in the single aircraft) at the Hun flier. And then Tom sent forth a rain of bullets.

For a moment they seemed to have no effect, and yet Tom knew he had shot straight. Then, even while he felt a sharp pain in one hand, showing that he had been hit, he saw the other machine start down in a spinning nose dive. That meant he was going downward head first, and at the same time spinning around like a top.

This spinning nose dive may be intentional or accidental—that is, with the machine in control, or out of control. The spinning nose dive was discovered by accident, but is now part of the regular flying features, and is often used by aviators to escape from an enemy.

It is almost impossible to hit a plane doing a spinning nose dive, and if an aviator is over his own lines he may be able to come out of it before he reaches the ground, and so be safe. Many German planes have escaped in this way, and often a French airman has thought he has sent his enemy down disabled, when, as a matter of fact, the other has merely adopted this ruse to get away.

"Well, I don't know whether I got him, or whether he got frightened and went down to fool me," thought Tom. "Anyhow they're both out of the way, and I can go after the balloon."

But Tom could not, for two reasons. One was that the wound in his hand was bleeding profusely, and he knew it ought to be attended to before he was incapacitated. Another was that the balloon was being hauled down, and as more French planes were in the air now, making a number superior to the Huns, the latter turned tail and retreated.

It was inadvisable to follow them over their own lines now, and the squadron, or what was left of it, began to retreat. Tom noted the absence of three of the French planes, and among the missing was Jack's.

"I wonder if they got him," Tom mused, his heart becoming like lead. His eyes sought the air about him, but Jack's machine, which carried a little United States flag where it could easily be seen, was not in sight.

It was impossible to get any information up in the air. Tom would have to wait until they got back to the aerodrome. And he put on speed to get there the sooner, in order to end his suspense.

"And the other brave fellows—I wonder what happened to them," mused Tom. In his worry over the fate of Jack and the others he scarcely minded the pain in his hand.

He made a good landing, but being rather weak and faint from loss of blood, he scarcely heeded the congratulations of his comrades, who had received word, by telephone from the front, of the fate of some of the Hun machines.

"Where's Jack?" Tom gasped, while a surgeon was putting a bandage on his hand.

"Right here, old scout!" came the unexpected answer, and Jack himself stepped out from amid a throng of airmen. "Why didn't you wait for me?" Jack went on. "I was coming back."

"Coming back? Did you come down safely?" asked Tom, beginning to feel a little better now. Then Tom realized the futility of his question, for was not Jack there in the flesh?

"Of course I came back, old scout," was the answer. "I had hard luck, though, but I'd have gone up again if they'd only waited for me."

"What happened?" asked Tom.

"Oh, just after I potted my man—or at least sent him down out of control—I got a bullet through my gasolene tank. Luckily it didn't set the petrol on fire, but I knew I'd better not take any chances. I tried to plug up the puncture with some chewing gum, but it wouldn't work. Guess the gum they sell now hasn't as much old rubber boot stock in it as it used to have. Anyhow it was leaking like a sieve, and I had to head for our lines."

"Tough luck!" consoled Tom. Jack did not add that he had, as soon as he landed, got into another machine, and was about to go back and join his comrades when they returned, having practically won the battle above the clouds.

Congratulations were extended to the members of the squadron, who accepted their honors modestly enough, as was characteristic of them.

Then, after Tom's wound had been dressed, and he and Jack were talking over the events of the day, there came a communication from the commander of the air division in that sector. It was an order calling on certain men to report at once for special duty. A picked squadron was to be detailed for a hazardous enterprise, it was said.

"And our names are there!" cried Jack. "Tom, old man, we're going!"

"But where is it?" asked another American flier named Boughton. "What's the game?"

Knowing the secret would be safe with him Tom said:

"We're going to pot the big German cannon that's bombarding Paris!"