The Guns of Europe/Chapter V

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The Guns of Europe by Joseph Alexander Altsheler
Chapter V:The Fight In The Blue

JOHN turned his glasses toward the northwest, where cloud wrack hung. At first he could see nothing, as the dark blue sky was obscured by the darker mists and vapors, but he presently discovered in the very midst of them an object that looked jet black. It was moving, and slowly it took the shape of an aeroplane. He wondered at the keenness of Lannes' vision, when he was able to pick out so distant an object with the naked eye.

"What do you make of it?" asked Lannes.

"It's an aeroplane, or some other kind of flying machine."

"And which way do you think it's going?"

"The same way that we are. No, it seems to be nearer now."

"Likely it's running parallel with us in a sense; that is we two are moving down the sides of a triangle, and if we continue long enough we'd meet at the point."

"Perhaps it's Castelneau and Mery in the other plane?"

"Impossible I They would certainly stay on the mountains far behind us. They would never disobey orders. We're back into a bank of fine air now and the machine almost sails itself. Let me have the glasses a moment."

But he looked many moments. Then he calmly put the glasses away in the tiny locker and said:

"It's not a French machine, John, and it's not a friend's. It's a German Taube, and it's flying very fast. I think the man in it has seen us, which is unfortunate."

"And there's another!" exclaimed John in excitement. "Look! He's been hidden by that long, trailing sheet of vapor off toward the north. See it's close to the other one."

"Aye, so it is! And they are friends, twin foes of ours! Two Taubes, but only one man in each, while there are two in this tight little machine! They have certainly seen us, because they're bending in rapidly toward us now!"

"What do you intend to do? Meet them and fight?"

"Not unless we have to do it. I've news for France which is worth more than my life, or yours either for that matter—or more than my honor or yours. No, John, we'll run for it with all our might, and the Arrow is one of the prettiest and sweetest little racers in all the heavens!"

Lannes' hand pressed upon the steering rudder, and the machine, curving from it's western course, turned toward the south. The motor throbbed faster and louder and John became conscious almost at once that their speed was increasing. Although the heavy cap was drawn down over his ears he heard the wind whistling as it rushed past, and it was growing much colder. In spite of himself he shivered, and he was sure it was the cold, not fear.

John's nature was sensitive and highly intellectual, but his heart was brave and his will powerful. He remembered that while two planes were in pursuit only one man was in each pursuer while there were two in the pursued. His gloved hand slipped down to the butt of the automatic.-

He had no idea how fast they were going, but he knew the speed must be terrific. He grew colder and colder. He wondered how Lannes, taut and strained, bent over the steering rudder, could stand it, but he recalled the words of Castelneau that he was the best flying man in the world.

Lannes, in truth, felt neither stiffness nor cold, then. The strain of daring in the French nature which the Anglo-Saxon would call recklessness responded fully and joyfully to the situation. Not in vain, while yet so young, was he a king of the air. Every pulse in him thrilled with the keen and extraordinary delight that comes only from danger, and the belief in victory over it. His hand touched the rudder as the fingers of a pianist touches the keys of a piano, and in either case it was the soul of an artist at work.

Oh, it was a beautiful machine, the "Arrow, strong, sinuous, graceful! Sure like the darting bird! It answered the lightest pressure of his hand upon the rudder, and he drew from it harmonies of motion that were true music to him.

But while the hand on the rudder did its work his eyes swept the heavens with a questing gaze. Had he been alone in the Arrow he could have left the German Taubes far behind, but the extra weight of the passenger was a terrible burden for so light and delicate a machine. Yet he was glad John was with him. Already Lannes had a deep liking for the young American whose nature was so unlike his own.

That questing gaze lingered longest on the southern heavens. One who flees on the land must pick his way and so must one who flees through the skies. Now, the mind of the flying man was keyed to the finest pitch. He thought of the currents of air, the mists, the vapors, and, above all, of those deadly pockets which could send them in an instant crashing to the earth far below. No engineer with his hand at the throttle of a locomotive was ever more watchful and cautious.

John, too, was looking into the south, where he saw a loom of cloud and haze. It appeared that the heavens had drawn a barrier across their way, and he saw that Lannes was turning the Arrow again toward the west, as if he were seeking a way around that barrier.

Then he looked back. The Taubes, beyond a doubt, were nearer, and were flying in a swift true line.

"Are they gaining?" asked Lannes, who kept his eyes on the "country" ahead, seeking to choose a way.

"Considerably. They have been flying close together, but now they're separating somewhat; at least it seems so, although my eyes are tricky in an element so new to me."

"They're probably right in this instance. It's their obvious course. It's impossible for us to fly perfectly straight, and whenever we curve one or the other of their machines will gain on us. I've heard that a troop of lions will adopt this method in pursuing an antelope, and that it's infallible."

"Which means that we can't escape ?"

"There's a difference. The antelope can't fight back, but we can. Don't forget the automatic I gave you."

"I haven't. Not for a second."

"But it won't come to that yet, and may not at all. See, how those clouds and vapors are stretching. They hem us in on the south, and now they're curving around in our front on the west, too. We can't lose the Taubes, John, here on this lower level, as we're not fore than two thousand, perhaps not more than fifteen hundred feet above the earth, but we may be able to do it higher up. Steady, now! We're going to rise fast!"

The machine tilted up at an angle that made John gasp, but he quickly recovered himself and resisted a desperate inclination to grasp anything he could reach and hold on with all his might. He knew that the strap passed about his body held him so firmly that he could not fall out. Still, it shortened his breath and made his pulses bound, rather than beat.

Up! up they went into the thinner air, the nose of the Arrow again turned toward the south. Lannes did not look back. His mind and soul were absorbed in the flight of his machine, and his heart throbbed with exaltation as he knew that it was flying beautifully. But he called upon John to note the pursuers.

"They're curving up, too," said John. "They're very steady, and I think they're still gaining."

"Daring men! Yes, the Germans have good flyers, and we'll have a hard time in shaking them off. Still, we may lose them among the clouds."

"I think they're rising at a sharper angle than we are."

"Trying to get above us! Ah, I know what that means! Why did I not think of it at first? We must not permit it! Never for a moment!"

"Why not?"

But Lannes did not reply. Apparently he had not heard him, and John did not repeat the question.

"Watch! John! Watch!" said Lannes, "and tell me every movement of theirs!"

"You can depend on me!"

The nose of the Arrow was still tilted upward, and John knew that they had come to a great height, as the cold struck to his very bones. The air also was darker and damper, and he saw that they were in the region of mists of vapors. Mentally he already used terms of land as terms of the air. Before them lay banks of cloud which were the same as mountains.

"One Taube is directly behind us and it seems to me a little higher," he announced. "The other has cut off to the right and also a little higher, if I see right."

"Then we must rise fast! We can't let them get above us!"

The nose of the Arrow tilted up yet farther, and shot into colder and darker regions. John saw mists and vapors below, but the earth was invisible. He was truly hanging between a planet and the stars, and this was the void, dark and thin, cold and infinite.

"Steady again!" said Lannes. "We're going to descend for a while."

The nose of the Arrow dropped down many degrees, and then they seemed to John to slide through space, although they slid like lightning. The air felt damper and thicker, and the area of vision contracted fast. They had plunged into a bank of vapor, and search as he would with both eye and glass he could see no sign of the Taubes.

"We've lost them for the time at least," he said.

"I hoped for it," said Lannes. "That's why I made for this area of vapor. It's exactly like a ship escaping in a fog from a fleet—only we haven't escaped yet."

"Why not?"

"We can't hang in here. If we do they'll explore for us, and if we go on and through it they'll follow. Yet we can hope for a gain. Isn't it a beautiful machine, John, and hasn't it behaved nobly?"

He patted the Arrow as a man would a horse that had saved his life with its speed.

"We'll go slowly here, John. Have you got good ears?"

"Yes. Why?"

"Then uncover them and listen. In case one of the Taubes draws near you can hear its humming and throbbing. My hearing may be deadened a little for the time by my tension in sailing the Arrow, so you're our reliance."

John listened intently, and in a few minutes the sound they feared came to his ears.

"I hear it," he said suddenly, "and as sure as we live it's directly over our heads!"

"Then we must mount at once!"

Up shot the Arrow, and passing through the vapor it flew again with nothing above it but the clear, cold stars. John looked down, but his vision was lost in the mass of floating mist. He exulted. They had lost the Taubes! But joy lasted only a moment. Out from the bank shot a dark shape. It was one of the machines, and in two minutes the other appeared.

"They've come through the mist, too, and they see us," he said to Lannes. "They seem to be trying to rise above us."

"I thought it would be their plan, if we didn't lose 'em. We've got to make another dash. We're pointing toward Switzerland, now, John, and maybe if we have luck we can descend in a neutral country. But I don't want to do it! I tell you I don't want to do it!"

He spoke with uncommon energy, but relapsed afterward into complete silence. The humming of the motor increased, and the icy wind rushed past John's ears in a perfect hurricane. He drew his cap down further and sank his neck and ears deeper in his collar, Nevertheless he thought he would freeze. The fingers that still clasped the butt of the automatic felt stiff and bloodless.

"What are they doing now, John?"

"They are gaining again—Ah, and there's a change!"

"What's that change?"

"One machine seems to have dropped a little lower than we are, while the other is rising higher."

"And that has come, too! I expected it. This, John, is what you might call an attempt to surround us. I'm surprised that they didn't attempt it sooner. Watch the Taube that's rising. Watch it all the time, and tell me everything it does!"

He spoke with the most intense energy and earnestness, and John knew that he had some great fear in regard to the upper Taube. So, he never took his eyes from it, and he noted that it was not only rising fast, but that its gain was perceptible. As it was his first flight it did not occur to him in those moments of excitement that his own weight was holding back the Arrow, and Lannes had been willing to risk death rather than tell him.

"They're coming very fast," he said to Lannes, "and the upper machine seems to be the swifter of the two."

"Naturally. That's the reason why it's now the upper one. Is it above us yet ?"

"No, but in fifteen minutes more it will be, at the present rate of speed."

"About how much higher above us do you think it is?"

"A thousand feet maybe, but I never calculated distances of this kind before."

"Likely it's near enough. Let me know when it's about to come directly over us, and on your life don't fail!"

John watched with all his eyes. He saw the hovering shape, and he caught a glimpse of the arm of the man who steered. But it became to his fancy a great bird which, with its comrade below, pursued them. That name, Taube, the dove, called so from its shape, was very unfitting.

While he was watching he saw the Taube swoop down at least five hundred feet, and at the same time make a burst of speed forward.

"It will be over us! almost directly! within a minute!" he shouted to Lannes.

The Arrow swerved to on side with such suddenness that John reeled hard against his seat, despite the strap that held him. At the same moment he caught a glimpse of some small object shooting past the Arrow.

"What was it? what was it?" he cried.

"A bomb," replied Lannes. "That was the reason why I didn't want either of the Taubes to get above us. I was sure they had bombs, and if one of them fell upon us, well, nobody would ever find our pieces. Hold hard now, we're going to do a lot of zigzagging, because that fellow probably has more bombs, where the one he just dropped came from."

John's interest in what followed was, in a measure, scientific. He realized afterward that he should have been terribly frightened. In fact, he felt more fear later on, but at that moment the emotions that produce fear were atrophied. The extraordinary nature of his situation caused instead wonder and keen anticipation.

The Arrow shot to the right and then to the left. It dipped, and it rose, and then it darted on a level line toward the south.

John wondered afterwards that the delicate fabric was not torn to pieces, but Lannes was not a supreme flying man for nothing. Every movement was part of a plan, executed with skill and precision. Once more his hand played upon the rudder, as the fingers of a great pianist play upon the keys.

"Is the fellow directly above us yet, John?" he asked.

"Not at this moment, but I think he must have been several times. He has dropped at least three more bombs."

"Then his supply is probably getting small, and he'll be extremely careful with what's left. It's no easy task, John, to drop a bomb from a height, and hit a small target, moving as swiftly as the Arrow. Let him alone for the present, and look out for the fellow below. See what he is doing."

John looked down quickly. He had almost forgotten the existence of the second Taube, and he was surprised to find it beneath them and close at hand. The dark, hooded face of the man in the seat looked up at them. As well as John could judge he was using the superior speed of his Taube to keep up with the Arrow, and, at the same time, to rise slowly until they approached the point of contact. His apprehensions were quickly transferred from the upper to the lower Taube.

"The second machine is under us and rising," he said.

"And the second attack is likely to come from that point. Well, he can't drop bombs on us. That's sure, and we can meet him on his own ground or rather in his air. John, did you ever shoot at a man ?"

"Never!"

"You're going to do it very soon. The automatic I gave you is a powerful weapon, and when the fellow rises enough you must shoot over the side at him. Take good aim and have no compunction, because he'll be shooting at us. But you've the advantage. You're free, while he has to steer his Taube and fire at the same time."

John drew the big automatic. He felt a shiver of reluctance, but only one. He and Lannes were in desperate case, and he would be fighting for the lives of both.

Clutching the powerful weapon in a firm hand he looked down again. The Taube had come much nearer, and he heard suddenly a crack sharp and clear in the thin air of the heights. A bullet sang by his ear. The man in the lower machine had a pistol or perhaps a rifle—John had not seen him raise any weapon.

Lannes glanced at John, whose face had hardened, but he said nothing. John pulled the trigger of the big automatic, and he saw the Taube waver for a moment, and then come on as steadily as ever.

"I don't think I hit him," he said, "but I believe the bullet flattened on his machine."

"You're getting close. Give him another. There went his second. I felt its wind past my face."

John pulled the trigger again, but marksmanship at such an immense height, between two small machines, flying at great speed was almost impossible. Bullet after bullet flew, but nobody was hit, although several bullets struck upon the Arrow and the Taube, doing no serious harm, however.

"I'm doing my best," said John.

"I know it," said Lannes. "I notice that your hand is steady. You'll get him."

John looked down, seeking aim for his fifth bullet, when he suddenly heard an appalling crash, and the Taube, a flying mass of splinters, disappeared in a flash from view. It had happened so quickly that he was stunned. The machine had been and then it was not. He looked at Lannes.

"The fellow above us dropped another bomb," said Lannes in a voice that shook a little. "It missed us and hit his comrade, who was almost beneath."

"What a death!" said John, aghast for a little while. Then he pulled himself together and looked up at the other Taube. It was hovering almost over them like a sinister shadow. As John looked something flashed from it, and a heavy bullet sang past.

"He has a rifle! Give him what's left in the automatic!" shouted Lannes.

John fired and he knew that his bullet had struck one of the exposed arms, because a moment later a drop of blood fell almost on his face.

"You've winged him," said Lannes. "Look how the Taube wobbles! You must have given him a bad wound in the arm. He'll have all he can do now to save himself. Good-bye to the pursuit. Luck and your skill, John, have saved us."

John, feeling faint, leaned against the seat.

"I think I'm air-sick," he said.

"It'll pass soon, but you're tremendously lucky. It's not often a fellow gets into a battle in the air the first time he goes up. See what's become of the Taube."

"It's descending fast. I can see the man struggling with it. I hope he'll reach the ground all right."

"He did his best to. kill us both."

"I know, but I hope he'll get down, anyway."

"He will. He's regained control of his machine, but he can use only one arm. The other hangs limp. And now for a glorious flight in this brave little Arrow of ours."

"Will you return to our original course?"

"I think we'd better not. The German flying men are out, and we might have another fight, from which we would not emerge as well as we have from this. No one must ever underestimate the Germans. They're organized to the last detail in every department. I, a Frenchman, willingly say this. I'll make our flight more southerly. We'll come down in Switzerland. I'd like to go on to France, but we must make a descent soon. We're both cold and overstrained, and it won't be a real violation of neutrality just to touch Switzerland once."

The Arrow now sank to a much lower level, and that planet, which they had left came again into view. It was not much more than a dark shadow, save for the sheen of high mountains in the south, but John was glad to see it again. It was like the return of an old friend. It was the fine Earth, not one of the great planets, but the only planet he knew.

He felt a great weakness, but they had descended so much that the intense cold was going away. The thicker and warmer air lulled him, and he sank into a sort of stupor from which he soon roused himself with anger. He considered it a disgrace to him that he should sleep, while Lannes still picked their way through the currents, and pockets and flaws of the heavens.

"You might sleep if you feel like it," said Lannes. "You did all the fighting, and I ought to do all the flying, especially as it's my business and I've had lots of experience. Go ahead, old man. It'll be all the better for us if you get back your strength."

Under Lannes' urging John leaned back a little more in his seat, and closed his eyes. It was true that he was horribly tired, and his will seemed to have weakened, too. Flying was new to him, and now the collapse after so much tension and excitement had come. In a few minutes he slept, but the Arrow sailed swiftly on, mile after mile.

John's sleep was sound, but not long. When he awoke it was still night, although the dark bore a suspicious tint of silver in the east. The physical and mental weakness had departed, but he was singularly cold and stiff. When he sought to move, something firm and unyielding about his waist restrained him.

His eyes opened slowly and he looked around. On three sides space met his vision, just dusky blue sky with floating banks and wisps of vapor. But far off to the south, rising like mighty battlements, he saw a dim line of mountains clad in snow. Then it all came back to him. He was aloft in the Arrow, the first time that he had ever awakened in the void between the stars and his own planet.

There was Lannes at the rudder, looking a little bent and shrunken now, but his hand was as delicate and true as ever. The machine hummed softly and steadily in his ears, like the string of a violin.

"Philip!" he cried in strong self-reproach, "show me how, and I'll sail the Arrow for a while and you can rest."

Lannes shook his head and smiled.

"You're an apt student," he said, "but you couldn't learn enough in one lesson, at least not for our purpose. Besides, I'll have plenty of rest soon. We're going to land in an hour. Behold your first sunrise, seen from a point a mile above the earth!"

He swept his free hand toward the east, where the suspicion of silver had become a certainty. In the infinity of space a mile was nothing, but all the changes were swift and amazingly vivid to John. The silver deepend, turned to blue, and then orange, gold and red sprang out, terrace after terrace, intense and glowing.

Then the sun came up, so burning bright that John was forced to turn his eyes away.

"Fine, isn't it?" said Lannes appreciatively. "It's good to see the sunrise from a new point, and we're up pretty high now, John. We must be, as I said, nearly a mile above the earth."

"Why do we keep so high ?"

"Partly to escape observation, and partly because we're making for a cleft in the mountain straight ahead of us, and about on our own level. In that cleft, which is not really a cleft, but a valley, we'll make our landing. It's practically inaccessible, except by the road we're taking, and our road isn't crowded yet with tourists. Look how the light is growing! See, the new sun is gilding all the mountains now with gold! Even the snow is turned to gold!"

His own wonderful eyes were shining at the tremendous prospect, outspread before them, peak on peak, ridge on ridge, vast masses of green on the lower slopes, and now and then the silver glitter of a lake. The eyes of him who had been so stark and terrible in the battle were now like those of a painter before the greatest picture of the greatest master.

"The Alps!" exclaimed John.

"Aye, the Alps! Hundreds of thousands of you Americans have come all the way across the sea to see them, but few of you have ever looked down on them in the glow of the morning from such a height as this, and you are probably the only one who has ever done so, after an all-night fight and flight for life."

"Which makes them look all the better, Philip. It's been a wonderful night and flight as you call it, but I'll be glad to feel the solid mountain under my feet. Besides, you need rest, and you need it badly. Don't try to deny it."

"I won't, because what you say is true, John. My eyes are blurred, and my arms grow unsteady. In that valley to which we are going nobody can reach us but by way of the air, but, as you and I know, the air has our enemies. Do you see any black specks, John ?"

"Not one. I never saw a more beautiful morning. It's all silver, and rose and gold, and it's not desecrated anywhere by a single German flying machine."

"Try the glasses for a longer look."

John swept the whole horizon with the glasses, save where the mountains cut in, and reported the same result.

"The heavens are clear of enemies," he said.

"Then in fifteen minutes the 'Arrow will be resting on the grass, and we'll be resting with it. Slowly, now! slowly! Doesn't the machine obey beautifully?"

They sailed over a river, a precipice of stone, rising a sheer two thousand feet, above pines and waterfalls, and then the Arrow came softly to rest in a lovely valley, which birds alone could reach before man took wings unto himself.

The humming of the motor ceased, and the machine itself seemed fairly to snuggle in the grass, as if it relaxed completely after long and arduous toil. It was in truth a live thing to John for the time, a third human being in that tremendous flight. He pulled off his gloves and with his stiffened fingers stroked the smooth sides of the Arrow.

"Good old boy," he said, "you certainly did all that any plane could do."

"I'm glad you've decided the sex of flying machines," said Lannes, smiling faintly. "Boats are ladies, but the Arrow must be a gentleman since you call it 'old boy.' "

"Yes, it's a gentleman, and of the first class, too. It's earned its rest just as you have, Philip."

"Don't talk nonsense, John. Why, flying has become my trade, and I've had a tremendously interesting time."

John in common with other Americans had heard much about the "degenerate French" and the "decadent Latins." But Lannes certainly gave the lie to the charge. If he had looked for a simile for him in the animal kingdom he would have compared him with the smooth and sinuous tiger, all grace, and all power. Danger was the breath of life to him, and a mile above the earth, with only a delicate frame work holding him in the air he was as easy and confident as one who treads solid land.

John unbuckled the strap which had held him in the Arrow, stepped out and fell full length upon the grass. His knees, stiff from such a long position in one attitude, had given way beneath him. Lannes, laughing, climbed out gingerly and began to stretch his muscles.

"You've something to learn yet about dismounting from your airy steed," he said. "You're not hurt, are you?"

"Not a bit," replied John, sitting up and rubbing his knees. "The grass saved me. Ah, now I can stand! And now I can move the rusty hinges that used to be knees! And as sure as you and I live, Philip, I can walk too!"

He flexed and tensed his muscles. It was a strange sight, that of the young American and the young Frenchman capering and dancing about in a cleft of the Alps, a mile above the valley below. Soon they ceased, lay down on the grass and luxuriated. The heavy suits for flying that they had worn over their ordinary clothing kept them warm even at that height.

"We'll rest until our nerves relax," said Lannes, "and then we'll eat."

"Eat! Eat what?"

"What people usually eat. Good food. You don't suppose I embark in the ship of the air like the Arrow for a long flight without provisioning for it. Look at me."

John did look and saw him take from that tiny locker in the Arrow a small bottle, two tin cups, and two packages, one containing crackers, and the other thin strips of dried beef.

"Here," he said, shaking the bottle, "is the light red wine of France. We'd both rather have coffee, but it's impossible, so we'll take the wine which is absolutely harmless. We'll get other good food elsewhere."

He put the food on a little mound of turf between them, and they ate with hunger, but reserve. Neither, although they were on the point of starvation would show the ways of an animal in the presence of the other. So, their breakfast lasted some time, and John had never known food to taste better. When they finished Lannes went back to the locker in the Arrow.

"John," he said, "here are more cartridges. Reload your automatic, and keep watch, though nothing more formidable than the lammergeyer is ever likely to come here. Now, I'll sleep."

He rolled under the lee of a bank, and in two minutes was sleeping soundly.