by Al Avery

Illustrated by

Paul Laune



Swing music was blaring from the radio set in the mess when Stan Wilson entered. His blue eyes, which gleamed with a great zest for living, gazed levelly around the room. There was a look in them which had been born of penetrating the blue depths of Colorado canyons and, later on, at the limitless spaces a flier sees. As usual, a half-smile, seemingly directed at himself, played at the corners of his mouth. There was seldom a moment so danger-filled that Stan Wilson could not laugh at himself.

Here he was, really a fugitive from his distant homeland, standing in the Royal Air Force mess while outside the closely curtained windows all of London lay under an inky blackout, listening and waiting for the whine of the bombers. Stan was to be a member of Red Flight, which had been taking on replacements so fast that even the Flight Lieutenant wasn’t able to get chummy with his men before they left him.

Stan smiled as he looked over the group in the mess. He had met Judd, a plump youth who was unofficially known as “jelly bean”; McCumber, a silent Scot who seldom smiled; and Tommy Lane, who never ceased to whistle tavern tunes. At a reading table scanning a paper sat Irish Kelley whose dark face and hawklike features made him look like a real lead slinger.

A man he did not know sat at a low table with a cup of black coffee before him. He was slender and even though his uniform needed pressing it seemed to fit him like a glove. His blond hair was closely clipped and the cool, gray eyes he lifted to meet Stan’s gaze held a hint of insolent mockery. This was March Allison, Stan knew at once. A crazy Flight Lieutenant who was fast making a name for himself by his savage fighting heart and his dizzy flying ability. Stan stepped toward the table.

Allison nodded to a vacant chair beside the table and Stan dropped into it.

“I’m March Allison,” he said and his cool eyes moved over Stan with irritating boldness. The superior air of the Britisher provoked Stan, but he refused to show it because he did not intend to lose his temper.

“I’m Stan Wilson,” he said, “the new member of Red Flight.”

“Stan Wilson, Canadian test pilot?” Allison clipped the words off in a manner that was almost derisive.

“That’s what my card shows,” Stan said testily.

“You’re a Yank,” Allison snapped. Then he grinned and little wrinkles crinkled the corners of his eyes. “I can smell a Yank,” he added.

“If you don’t mind suppose we leave it as the card reads?” Stan said coldly.

“All right with me, old fellow,” Allison answered. “Only I hope you’re a faster flier than the planes the Yanks have sent us so far.”

That nettled Stan. A picture leaped into his mind—the picture of a trim fighter plane with low wings, and two banks of Brownings on each side of a 2,000-horse-power radial motor. Stan had nursed several of those babies into the blue. He didn’t have to close his eyes to remember the test flight card he had filled out.

“Climbed to 20,000 feet in six minutes. Performed two barrel rolls, three loops. Checked all controls in neutral. Fired all guns and checked temperatures of gun-warming units. Did a series of sharp dives with steady pull-outs.” As Stan’s thoughts wandered back he grinned into Allison’s face. He had put a number of Spitfires through their paces and knew that they were mud hens compared to the new babies which would soon be coming over from the United States.

“You’ll soon get one with 2,000 horses up ahead and then you’ll junk your Spitfires and Hurricanes,” he said.

Allison cocked an eye at him and grinned widely. “Do you suppose you and I will be hitting the glory trail then?”

“I figure I’ll be around doing something,” Stan answered and matched the Lieutenant’s grin.

A mess corporal was standing near by hopefully fussing with Stan’s chit book which had just been issued to him. Stan gave the corporal a nod.

“Black coffee,” he ordered.

At that moment Tommy Lane strolled over and flopped into a chair. He winked at Stan as he elevated his lank legs to the top of the table, almost upsetting Allison’s coffee.

“If the notch don’t get you the Messerschmitts must,” he hummed softly. He seemed to be trying to tease Allison. When the Flight Lieutenant failed to show any interest, Tommy said, “Your treat, Allison. I’ll have black coffee with a big jug of cream on the side.”

Allison ordered Tommy’s drink and watched the corporal mark it up in his chit book. He rolled an eye lazily toward the lanky youth.

“Stan Wilson from Canada,” he drawled.

Stan grinned at Tommy Lane. His eyes bit into Allison. He did not like the way Allison was acting about his past record. If he was to have his chance to get a whack at the Jerries in this war, it was important that he be considered a subject of the British Empire, and he had come a lot of miles to get that chance.

All his plans would be ruined if the truth about him came out. Posing as a Canadian he had a good chance to get by, but there would be embarrassing questions about his past if his true nationality was found out. Questions that Stan Wilson couldn’t answer without having his new officer’s commission stripped from him. He waited breathlessly to see if Tommy would notice the challenge in Allison’s voice, but the tall youth merely grinned cheerfully and said:

“We get darn good men from Canada.”

Suddenly the intersquadron speaker rasped and began snapping orders. Every man in the room stopped talking and listened. A sudden tenseness filled the air of the room.

“Red Flight, all out! Red Flight, all out!”

“Well, well. Out for a breath of night air,” Allison drawled. No one else said anything and the men of Red Flight barged toward the door.

“Green Flight, stand by,” rasped the speaker.

Stan moved out behind Tommy Lane with Allison striding ahead. In less than three minutes they were bundled in flying suits, with parachutes batting their legs. Like waddling Arctic explorers they shoved out into the damp blackness of the night.

On the cab rank three Spitfires were shuddering under slow throttle. Flight sergeants were clambering down after warming up the motors. The ragged flare of exhausts whirled grotesque shadows across the ground, and oil fumes mixed with raw gasoline sucked up into their faces.

Sidders, Recording Officer, waved a sheaf of papers at Allison as he halted before the Flight Lieutenant. Sidders looked like a big bear with his greatcoat muffled around him. “Take the notch at 2,500. Landing signal, K. Good luck.”

Allison grinned as he saluted. “Landing signal, K,” he repeated mechanically.

A moment later Allison was jerking his hatch cover back and pinching one wheel brake. He rammed the throttle knob up and swung the Spitfire around. It lurched away and his voice came through the earphones of Tommy Lane and Stan Wilson.

“Slide up, Lane, Wilson.” His voice was cold and impatient.

The three Spitfires shoved their noses into the black wall of the night, their exhausts snarling flame. They hesitated, waiting for the take-off signal.

“Check your temperatures,” Allison droned into his flap mike.

Stan Wilson settled himself against his crash pad and got his chute squared under him. He had taken up his belt a notch beyond what he thought was possible. Tension gripped him. This was combat with a flaming trail ahead. He wasn’t test diving and stunting now, he was hunting and would be hunted. And up there the night was as black as the inside of a cellar.

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