by Al Avery

Illustrated by

Paul Laune





The party was about to break up. It had not been very successful. Lieutenant O’Malley had devoured only one blueberry pie. This meant he was feeling far from par. He sat sprawled in a big chair that once had belonged to a Moslem prince, his skinny legs elevated to the top of the mess table.

“Sure, an’ you fellows are skunks, beatin’ it off to do a soft stretch in Alexandria,” he growled.

Lieutenant Stan Wilson, United States Army Air Corps, grinned at his Irish pal.

“They need brains in Alexandria to tell them what to do.” Stan sipped his coffee and continued to grin.

March Allison leaned across the table. Allison was British, slight and neatly dressed. There was always a mocking smile lurking at the corners of his mouth.

“I say, old fellow, you should be crowing. You are now a flight commander and I understand you are to rate nothing less than a major.”

“’Tis not the stripes I want,” O’Malley muttered. “Sure, an’ I’m told this Colonel Benson who is to be in command is a spalpeen of the worst sort. Niver did I care fer brass hats an’ now I am to be near one all the time.”

“I understand Colonel Benson holds to a strict diet, no coffee, tobacco, or pie,” Stan said gravely. “He expects his men to follow his example.”

O’Malley snorted. “Sure, an’ I’ll be after eatin’ pie right off the top o’ his desk.”

“He is said to be the best-dressed officer in the Army.” Allison had his gaze fixed upon O’Malley’s sloppy uniform. The shirt was open at the neck to allow O’Malley’s huge Adam’s apple to roll up and down, free and unencumbered. O’Malley’s cap was wrinkled and sagging as it attempted to cover his shock of wild hair.

“I’m a fightin’ man,” O’Malley said gravely. “As such I waste no time on trifles.” His big mouth was tightly clamped shut and a frown wrinkled his homely face.

Stan and Allison broke out laughing. Colonel Benson would have to take O’Malley as he was, that they well knew. They had fought side by side with him in the Battle of Britain, in the Far East, and now in Africa. O’Malley was known as the wildest pilot in the service and one of the best.

“We better get going,” Stan said as he rose to his feet. He held out a hand to O’Malley. “Hold off the invasion of Sicily and Italy until we get back, pal.”

“I’ll be startin’ it tomorrow,” O’Malley said sourly.

“Cheerio,” Allison added as he shook hands with his pal.

O’Malley watched them walk out of the mess. He had to admit, as the door closed after them, that his gloom was due entirely to parting with the two men he had fought beside for so long. Such things as colonels who were tough did not bother O’Malley. Having Stan and Allison walk out on him was the thing that hurt. It was his own fault that he was not going with them. He had refused to quit the front for a month or so of ease and rest.

Gazing out through an open window, he watched a group of natives herd a flock of donkeys down toward the main part of the city of Bizerte. He certainly would kick himself if no invasion came off for a month. Lowering his feet from the top of the table, he strolled out into the sunshine. Colonel Benson was due to arrive that morning and he had orders to be on hand, along with other flight commanders, to meet his superior. O’Malley yawned. Meeting brass hats always bored him. He was not sure that he was going to like being one of them. O’Malley considered even a flight commander a brass hat.

Colonel Benson was late in arriving. He was exactly three hours late and that made O’Malley exactly two hours late for his dinner. Dinner was a very important item in O’Malley’s day, and he was in a very dour mood when an orderly called the boys in to meet the new commander.

The commander’s room once had been a lounge and music room. It was part of a huge old mansion located on an estate. An Italian political boss had taken it over from a native prince. O’Malley crowded in behind the first man entering the room. At once the man ahead of O’Malley clicked his heels and snapped a smart salute. O’Malley looked the colonel over, then dabbed at the front of his cap with a big hand.

Colonel Benson was a big, rawboned man, standing six feet two inches and weighing two hundred and ten pounds. His red face looked as though it had just been scrubbed with soap and water. It had a pink and white smoothness under the sunburn which reddened it. The eyes of the colonel took away the softness of his smooth face. They were green and hard as agate. At the moment they were looking Lieutenant O’Malley over with a decidedly unfavorable glint.

The other boys shoved in and lined up. There was no mistaking the atmosphere in the room. It fairly vibrated with military correctness. The colonel’s uniform, his carefully parted hair, his smooth, freshly scraped chin, all added to the feeling of tightness.

Most of the boys in the room were used to dirt and dust and bearded faces. They recently had come through a dusty, dirty, and bloody battle. During those months on the desert they had forgotten all about military correctness. The colonel’s expression plainly indicated that he thought them a sloppy outfit. He remained standing as he talked, and the men remained at attention.

“I have been sent here to teach you men some of the combat tricks developed recently.” His eyes roved over the men and stopped upon O’Malley.

“I am not going to insist upon strict military observance, but there are a few details I will insist upon.” The colonel’s voice was rising and his face was getting a bit redder.

“You.” He stabbed a finger toward O’Malley.

“Lieutenant O’Malley,” O’Malley informed him.

“Lieutenant O’Malley, nothing can excuse the sloppiness of your attire. In the future you will give more attention to your uniform.”

“Yes, sor,” O’Malley said and grinned.

The grin made Colonel Benson rise up on his heels. He came down with a thud, but he said no more. His eyes moved from O’Malley.

“We will soon be invading Italy.” The Colonel paused to let this sink in. It was exactly what the boys had been expecting, and therefore they showed no sudden interest.

“How about Sicily, sor?” O’Malley asked. He had been flying missions all over the proposed routes and knew something would have to be done about Sicily.

“That will be merely a step in taking Italy, Lieutenant,” the colonel explained. He looked about the room. There were plenty of chairs. “You may be at ease, gentlemen. Seat yourselves and we will proceed with our conference.”

O’Malley grunted. Dinner hour was long past and here they were settling down for a conference. He picked the chair nearest the door and slumped down into it. The colonel seated himself and launched into a lengthy and detailed talk upon tactics and plans. O’Malley listened for a time, then stretched out his legs and made himself comfortable. His mind wandered far from the droning voice of the colonel.

An hour passed and Colonel Benson was still outlining plans and driving home things he felt were very important. O’Malley had not exactly been asleep, but he had failed to hear more than just a small part of what was said. Suddenly he roused himself. Colonel Benson had just made a remark that brought him up sharply.

“Gentlemen, I will now outline the procedure we will follow in handling the various flights assigned to my sector. This will not take longer than one hour. Give me your close attention.”

O’Malley looked about as though seeking a way to escape. He saw an orderly standing at the door. Nodding

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