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´╗┐Title: Dave Dawson in Libya
Author: Bowen, Robert Sidney
Language: English
As this book started as an ASCII text book there are no pictures available.
Copyright Status: Not copyrighted in the United States. If you live elsewhere check the laws of your country before downloading this ebook. See comments about copyright issues at end of book.

*** Start of this Doctrine Publishing Corporation Digital Book "Dave Dawson in Libya" ***

This book is indexed by ISYS Web Indexing system to allow the reader find any word or number within the document.



                              DAVE DAWSON
                                  IN
                                 LIBYA

                          by R. SIDNEY BOWEN

                           _Author of_
                       "DAVE DAWSON AT DUNKIRK"
                     "DAVE DAWSON WITH THE R.A.F."

                   THE SAALFIELD PUBLISHING COMPANY

                       AKRON, OHIO     NEW YORK

                 COPYRIGHT, 1941, BY CROWN PUBLISHERS
                PRINTED IN THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA

     [Transcriber's Note: Extensive research did not uncover any
  evidence that the U.S. copyright on this publication was renewed.]



                     CONTENTS


    CHAPTER                              PAGE

       I MEDITERRANEAN PATROL              11

      II ORDERS FROM G. H. Q.              23

     III ACTION ALOFT!                     38

      IV PILOT'S LUCK                      56

       V ENEMY MANEUVERS                   67

      VI DESERT MYSTERY                    80

     VII FATE LAUGHS LAST                  96

    VIII BLAZING SANDS                    111

      IX WINGS FROM TRIPOLI               126

       X COURAGE AGAINST FATE             143

      XI PRISONERS BY REQUEST             157

     XII THE COLONEL'S TRAP               176

    XIII DESERT DOOM                      189

     XIV R. A. F. LIGHTNING               205

      XV VULTURE WINGS                    216

     XVI DESERT WRATH                     230

    XVII CLAWS OF THE BRITISH LION        246



CHAPTER ONE

_Mediterranean Patrol_


It was high noon and the Mediterranean sky was like a vast expanse of
blue silk with a golden ball pasted exactly in the middle. Far below,
the placid waters of the Mediterranean seemed to catch the blue of the
sky, keep some of it and fling the rest up heavenward again. Between
the blue sky and the blue water, at eighteen thousand feet to be exact,
a lone Blackburn "Skua" of the Royal Air Force, Fleet Air Arm, coasted
slowly about in a series of unending circles. At the controls of the
combination fighter and dive bomber, powered with a 830 hp. Bristol
Pegasus XII sleeve valve engine, sat Pilot Officer Dave Dawson, R.A.F.
Behind him, in the gunner-observer's pit, sat his pal and flying
comrade, Pilot Officer Freddy Farmer, R.A.F.

For the last two hours they had been aloft doing their trick as advance
air scout for the H.M. Aircraft Carrier "Victory" and her four
escorting destroyers, steaming eastward for a rendezvous with the
main unit of the British Mediterranean fleet. Two hours of coasting
around high in the air far out in front of the Victory, and keeping
their eyes constantly peeled for the first sign of approaching enemy
air attackers. Thus far, however, they had seen nothing save the blue
sky, the blue water, and the golden ball that was the sun. At regular
fifteen minute intervals Dave had made his radio check in code with the
flight operations officer aboard the Victory. Each time there had been
nothing to report. And each time there had been no special orders from
the Victory.

Two solid hours of flying, looking, and reporting nothing. And still
another whole hour to go before another Skua would be sent aloft
to relieve them and they could slide down to a landing on the long
flat deck of the Victory. Dave sighed, shifted to a more comfortable
position and looked back at Freddy Farmer.

"My legs feel like they'll stay bent at the knees for the rest of my
life," he said, after removing the "flap-mike" from in front of his
lips. "How about you, my little man? How do you like active duty with
the Fleet Air Arm, huh?"

The English youth shrugged and made a face.

"Not even a little bit, so far," he replied. "And, by the by, my
lad, let me remind you it was your idea we put in for duty with the
Fleet Air Arm. Frankly, I wish we'd stayed with the Fighter Command in
England. It's been so long since I've had an air scrap I'm wondering if
I still know how to fire my guns."

"Stop fishing for compliments," Dave said with a chuckle. "Just do what
you always do. Close your eyes, pray, and press the trigger button. If
there are enough Jerry or Muzzy ships about, one of them is bound to
fly into your bullets."

Freddy Farmer scowled darkly and lifted a warning finger.

"You seem to have forgotten something, my little American friend," he
said in mock reprimand.

"Who, me?" Dave echoed. "Impossible! For even suggesting that I'd
forget anything, I think I'll challenge you to a duel with cup-cakes at
ten paces. But what have I forgotten, anyway?"

Freddy Farmer tapped his own chest and closed one eye.

"That I happen to be a pilot, too, though I'm serving as your observer
on this show," he said. "In other words, one more insulting remark
about my shooting ability and I shall be forced to dump you overboard,
parachute and all, and finish this patrol alone. You think I can't?"

Dave shivered and shook in mock alarm.

"Please, kind sir, spare me such a fate!" he cried. "It's a long way
down. Besides, you wouldn't want me to be court-martialed, would you,
and perhaps be kicked out of the Service?"

"I fancy it would jolly well be a good thing for the Service,"
Freddy came right back at him. "But I'll bite. Why would you be
court-martialed?"

"For losing one perfectly good Blackburn Skua monoplane fighter," Dave
said gravely.

"For losing one?" Freddy echoed before he could stop himself.

"Sure." Dave nodded and widened his grin. "You'd be at the controls.
Same thing, isn't it?"

Freddy's eyes snapped fire and the blood rushed into his cheeks. He
glared at Dave for a few seconds, and then slowly grinned sheepishly.

"Okay, okay," he finally said. "To use your terrible American slang, I
walked into that one. But beginning with now, my lad, watch your step.
A Farmer always has the last laugh."

"You bet, of course!" Dave hooted at him. "After everybody else has got
the point of the joke. Kidding aside, though, Freddy, I feel like you
do. I mean, it's nice to be down here where it's warm, and the sun
shines every day. And a boat ride on an aircraft carrier isn't tough to
take, either. But I sure could do with some more war. I feel--well, I
sort of feel as if I were cheating."

"Cheating?" Freddy murmured. "What do you mean? Or is this another
wise-crack of yours? You seem full of them today, for some reason. Was
it what you had for breakfast?"

"No, I'm talking seriously now," Dave replied. "I feel as though I were
cheating the lads we left back in England. You know, sort of running
out on them. The Jerries have been giving London and Liverpool, and
Manchester, and those other places, a pretty good pasting. It makes me
feel pretty punk to think I put in for a transfer to the Fleet Air Arm
down here in the Mediterranean, and--well, nothing's happened. See what
I mean?"

"Yes, I do," Freddy said, and nodded gravely. "Feel a bit that way,
myself. However, when we put in for transfer, General Wavell's troops
were knocking the Italians forty ways from Sunday in Libya. It's not
really our fault we got down here after the show was all over."

"No, I suppose not," Dave grunted. Then, frowning slightly, "I've been
wondering about that, Freddy."

"About what?"

"Whether the Libya show really is all over," Dave replied. "Heaven
spare me from trying to be a military expert, like those crystal ball
gazers you hear on the radio, but I've got a hunch Hitler will do
something before he lets General Wavell kick the Italians completely
out of Africa. And he sure seems to be doing it."

"Quite," Freddy nodded. "And once again I agree with you. If you want
my opinion, I think British Middle East Command is jolly well _sure_
that Hitler _is_ going to do something about it. In fact, he already
has."

"Yeah?" Dave breathed and widened his eyes in interest. "What? And how
did you know, or do you?"

"As you would say," Freddy replied with a grin, "I get around, pal.
I was talking with Group Captain Spencer on the Victory yesterday.
He said that there were reports the Germans were flying troops and
supplies from Sicily across to the main Italian base at Tripoli.
He also said he was sure that there would be an Axis drive against
Wavell's troops very shortly."

"Flying stuff from Sicily to Tripoli?" Dave exclaimed. "Then what are
we doing way over toward the eastern end of the Mediterranean? We
should be off Sicily knocking them down as they start over."

"That's the way I feel," Freddy said with a shrug. "However, I fancy
Admiral Cunningham, of the Mediterranean Fleet, knows what he's doing.
There's probably a bigger job to do first. Don't worry, if things get
hot in Libya, I fancy the Fleet Air Arm will be called on to do double
duty. The first job, though, is to find the rest of Mussolini's navy
and put it out of action for keeps."

"There's a guy for you!" Dave snorted disgustedly. "Mussolini! Will he
give our grandchildren a lot of laughs! What a big bag of wind."

"And I'd rather like to puncture it," Freddy added. "I feel sorry for
the Italian people. I've always liked them. But Mussolini! What a
rotter!"

"What a dope!" Dave echoed. "He and that Ciano are a couple of first
class--"

Dave didn't have a chance to say what Mussolini and Count Ciano were,
for at that moment he heard the brisk voice of the operations officer
aboard the Victory in his earphones.

"Crimson to Patrol! Crimson to Patrol! Over!"

Crimson was the code word meaning that the Victory was calling the
advance scouting patrol. And "Over" meant for Dave to reply that
he was receiving the signals. He quickly turned front and slid his
flap-mike up into place.

"Patrol to Crimson!" he called. "Patrol to Crimson! Signals clear.
Over!"

"Crimson to Patrol!" said the voice in the earphones. "Crimson to
Patrol. Relief patrol is off. Return to your base at once. Crimson to
Patrol! Return to your base at once. Over."

Dave impulsively glanced at his instrument board clock and saw that it
still lacked forty-two minutes before the patrol trick would ordinarily
be through.

"Patrol to Crimson!" he spoke into his flap-mike. "Orders received.
Coming in, Crimson. Over."

"Okay, Patrol!" the earphones said. And then the radio went silent.

Dave turned to see if Freddy had had his radio switched on. The English
youth had, of course, and he gave Dave a wide-eyed stare of wonder.

"What's up, do you think, Dave?" he asked.

"Search me," Dave replied with a shrug. "But orders are orders, and so
down we go. Hang onto your hats, children."

As Dave spoke the last he eased back the throttle and sent the Skua
seaward in a long three quarter throttle power dive. He had dropped
some five or six thousand feet before he saw the relief patrol climbing
up into the blue. He waved a hand in greeting and continued on down. At
ten thousand feet he leveled off and banked west. A couple of seconds
later he picked up the aircraft carrier Victory. In the golden glare
of the sun it reminded him a little of a long narrow flatiron floating
upside down in the water. He headed straight for it, then suddenly
grinned and turned around to Freddy.

"Figured it out yet?" he asked.

"Naturally not," Freddy replied. "Have you?"

Dave struggled to keep his face straight.

"Of course I don't know for sure," he said, "but I think I've got a
pretty good hunch. It's Group Captain Spencer. He's a very considerate
officer, you know."

"Group Captain Spencer?" Freddy echoed unsuspecting. "What has being a
considerate officer got to do with it?"

"Well, I've got a hunch he likes me," Dave said. "So I suppose he
figured that being aloft with a guy named Farmer for three whole hours
was just too much to take. Ouch! Hey, lay off! Want me to dive us down
into the drink?"

The last was because Freddy had moved swiftly forward, unsnapped
Dave's helmet strap and tilted the helmet down over his face. He held
it there as Dave struggled with his free hand.

"Apologize?" Freddy demanded.

"Okay, okay!" Dave cried. "I take it all back. Boy! Am I glad I didn't
make that crack just as we were sliding in to land."

"Oh, I'd have waited a bit, I fancy," Freddy said, and grinned at
him. "No sense cracking up a nice airplane just to teach you a bit of
manners. Now, my lad, close that pretty mouth of yours and get us down
safely."

"For two cents," Dave growled as he adjusted his helmet, "I'd--No, let
it go. Okay, my fine feathered friend. Watch, and learn."

The Victory was now just ahead and steaming straight into the wind.
Dave roared by on the port side and took a look at the landing officer
(or flag officer) standing in a box-like structure that jutted out to
the right of the bridge. The officer held a yellow flag in each hand,
and as Dave and Freddy thundered by he signaled with the flags that the
deck was clear for a landing.

After continuing on a certain distance astern of the carrier, Dave then
banked around and headed straight back, one hand on the stick, the
other on the throttle, and his eyes fixed steadfastly on the landing
officer. Landing on a carrier is not the same as landing on a ground
airdrome. When landing on a ground airdrome, the pilot does the whole
job. Not so on a carrier, however. There the landing officer tells the
incoming pilot exactly what to do. He does this with his signal flags.
He signals whether the pilot is too high, or too low; whether he is
too much to the left, or to the right; or if his plane is not trimmed
correctly. The pilot (if he is a wise pilot) does exactly as the
landing officer signals, and does not rely on his own judgment at all.
It has been proved time and time again that the incoming pilot who does
not obey the landing officer's signals implicitly winds up in a whole
lot of trouble, if not in the ship's Sick Bay.

And so Dave kept his eyes fixed on that officer with the yellow
flags and brought the Blackburn Skua down closer and closer to the
Victory's polished flight deck. Finally he caught the signal to cut his
throttle way back. He did so, and the plane sank down onto the deck.
Almost before the secret arresting gear had pulled it to a full stop,
mechanics were rushing out to take over.

As Dave and Freddy climbed out and stretched their cramped legs, the
deck duty officer came over.

"Get out of your duds and get polished up, you two," he said with a
grin. "All pilots are to report in the Ready Room in twenty minutes. So
hop to it."

The deck duty officer was no more than a couple of years older than
Dave and Freddy, and his flying rank was the same. His name was
Talbert, and he ate at the same mess table as the boys. Dave gave him a
searching look, then spoke in a low voice.

"You wouldn't know, would you, Tal?" he asked. "I mean, what it's all
about?"

"Not a blessed thing, Dawson," the other replied with a shake of his
head. "Big doings, though, I shouldn't wonder. Group Captain Spencer
looks quite hot and bothered. I fancy he isn't collecting us to serve
tea. Now off with you. Mustn't clutter up the flight deck, you know."



CHAPTER TWO

_Orders from G.H.Q._


Group Captain Spencer was a big man with iron grey hair and a face that
made you think of chiseled granite. He had served as a fighting pilot
in World War No. 1, and the double row of decoration ribbons under his
wings were proof enough that he had served his country well. A bullet
scar just over his right eye was a constant reminder of a very close
shave with Death. It added to the striking appearance of his broad,
square-jawed face. As a matter of fact, Group Captain Spencer had yet
to see forty-five years of age, but war had left its stamp on him so
that he actually looked well over fifty.

He stood straddle-legged on the small platform at one end of the Ready
Room while the Victory's fighter pilots, an even thirty-four of them,
filed into the room and found seats. When finally they were all seated
and silent, Group Captain Spencer cleared his throat and took a step
closer to the edge of the platform.

"No doubt you lads are pretty fed up with patrolling around and not
getting much of a chance to do any shooting," he said, and grinned
faintly. "Well, that's because the fleet has been trying to smoke out
the Italian navy--that is, what's left of it."

The senior officer paused, and a ripple of laughter spread from lip to
lip.

"It's now pretty plain that Mussolini's sea chaps don't fancy a fight,"
Group Captain Spencer continued. "They've bottled themselves up in
port, and won't come out. In time we'll have to go after them like we
did at the Taranto Naval Base last November Twelfth. That kind of fun
will have to wait a bit, though. More important things to do first. In
short, Hitler is sticking his finger in the African pie--the Libyan
pie, to be exact."

A murmur of suppressed excitement spread about the room. The pilots sat
up a bit straighter and waited expectantly. Freddy looked at Dave and
winked. Dave winked back and nodded his head.

"I'll give you a picture of what has happened," Group Captain Spencer
said abruptly. "Last fall General Wavell, commander in chief of His
Majesty's Middle East Armies, had two jobs to tackle, two rather
tough nuts to crack. One was the job of pushing Marshal Graziani's
Italian forces out of western Egypt and back into Libya. The other
was to drive the Italians out of Eritrea and Ethiopia to the south of
Egypt. I say they were two tough nuts to crack because General Wavell
didn't have the troops, mechanized divisions or the planes he really
needed for the jobs. However, as the world knows now, he did what he
could with what he had, and did a very fine job, too."

The senior officer paused and made a little gesture with his hand that
said the pilots could smoke if they wished. As a matter of fact, he
lighted up a cigarette himself.

"On December Ninth, last year," the group captain went on, "General
Wavell started a surprise offensive against Graziani's most advanced
forces at Matruh, in Egypt. He caught the Italians completely off guard
and they started one of the wildest retreats in military history.
By February of this year General Wavell's British, Australian, New
Zealand, and South African troops were in possession of Bengazi, in
Libya, some eight hundred miles from the starting point of the drive.
And what was left of the Italian army was fleeing for its life along
the desert shoreline to Tripoli, the main Italian base in Libya, and
its capital. That offensive by Wavell will go down in war history as
one of the most brilliant ever accomplished.

"Now, as soon as the Italians had been thrown back, General Wavell took
all the troops, tanks, and planes that he could spare and sent them
against the Italians in Eritrea and Ethiopia. In short, he left but a
skeleton force occupying the captured Italian positions in Libya. He
had to do that because he didn't have enough troops for both jobs. As
we know, he did another fine job down to the south. It won't be long
now before the whole of Eritrea and Ethiopia will be in British hands.
However--"

Group Captain Spencer paused, and his face became grim and set.

"However," he began again, "while General Wavell has been busy down
in Eritrea and Ethiopia, Hitler has stepped in to lend a hand to
the Italians in Libya. In short, during the last two weeks or so,
German transport planes have been transporting German troops across
the Mediterranean from Sicily to Tripoli in Libya. Tanks, guns, and
supplies have been sneaked across in Italian ships that race for French
Tunisia and then hug the coast of that French African colony and get
safely to Tripoli. The British Mediterranean Naval Command has known
what was going on, at least to a certain degree. Anyway, steps have now
been taken to put a stop to it. However, the naval job out here is a
big one, and the first job was to knock out the Italian navy."

The senior officer took time out to clear his throat and have a glass
of water.

"Well, the Italian navy isn't very much, now," he continued presently,
"so the next job is to do something about this business of Hitler
helping the Italians in Libya. We know that German planes, tanks, and
troops are in Libya. We know, also, that a German-Italian, or Axis,
drive is soon to be launched against Wavell's forces in Libya. But
when, and at what points, and the real strength of the German-Italian
forces are three things we do _not_ know. Those three things must be
found out, and as soon as possible. To put it bluntly, the Fleet Air
Arm is going to try to find the answers for the British Middle East
High Command. And to put it even more bluntly, you chaps are going to
have first crack at the job."

Group Captain Spencer stopped abruptly and turned to a huge map on the
wall behind him. Picking up a red crayon, he marked an X on a spot in
the Mediterranean. Dave saw that it was a point halfway between the
island of Crete and the Libya-Egyptian frontier line.

"That is the Victory's position now," the group captain said. "Between
now and sundown down we will change course several times. When darkness
settles down, we will change course again and head for this spot,
here--a position about thirty miles off Misurata on the Libyan coast,
and some two hundred miles east of Tripoli. We will arrive there at a
certain time before dawn tomorrow. At that time one plane, with pilot
and observer, will take off and, under the cover of darkness, head
inland. The plane will be fitted with extra gas tanks, allowing for
a good eight hour flight. It will also be fitted with a special fast
action aerial camera.

"Now, the job of that pilot and observer will be to patrol the areas
east and southeast of Tripoli and make notes, and photos, of everything
of interest. And let me say right here, don't pass up a single thing
just because it interests you only a little. Get a good look at
everything, and a picture of it, if possible. When it is time to return
to the Victory, the pilot will head for a certain point that will be
made known to him just before he takes off. The Victory will be there
to take him aboard. Now, before I carry on, any questions?"

Nobody moved for a moment; then Dave Dawson slowly stood up.

"Yes, Dawson?" Group Captain Spencer asked briskly.

"Why one plane, sir?" Dave asked. "If two planes went out, and there
were trouble, perhaps at least one of them would return?"

"A good question," Group Captain Spencer said. "And in a way, you're
absolutely right, Dawson. However, I'm sending out just one plane for a
special reason. First, though, let me explain why the Fleet Air Arm is
tackling this job instead of an R.A.F. fighter or reconnaissance unit
already based in occupied Libya. It's for this reason: distance! We can
get in close under the cover of darkness, and save a good two or three
hundred mile flight a plane would have to make from an R.A.F. drome at
Bengazi. Also, by going straight south from the coast, we can be over
our objectives before they realize we're there. Planes, or even one
plane, from the R.A.F. drome at Bengazi would be heard and spotted long
before it reached the area we want to study.

"We are sending out one plane for this reason. And it's very simple.
The enemy spotters might not pay much attention to a single plane
wandering about high above them. We're hoping they'll think it some
ship that has lost its bearings. There will be no marking at all on
the plane. Two planes, however, would definitely arouse the suspicions
of enemy spotters. They would know at once that two planes were there
for a special reason, and not just lost. Therefore they would open
fire, and send up defending aircraft, and the time would be taken up
with fighting instead of observing. Does that explain it, Dawson?"

"Yes, sir," Dave replied. "You're quite right, sir. It's a one plane
job. But it's to be one plane _at a time_, isn't it, sir?"

The group captain nodded and looked very grave.

"I hope it won't be," he said quietly, "but for the present we are
planning it that way. In short, if the first plane does not return, or
if the information it brings back is not of much value, then a second
plane will be sent out, and a third, and a fourth, and a fifth, and so
on, until we find out what we want to know. Frankly, it is a ticklish
job the British Middle East High Command has asked the Fleet Air Arm to
perform. And the Fleet Air Arm Command has turned the job over to us.
Now, any more questions?"

Dave felt Freddy Farmer stiffen at his side, then saw his flying pal
stand up.

"Yes, Farmer?" Group Captain Spencer asked.

Freddy hesitated a brief instant, and then spoke.

"It is not a question, sir," he said in a low but clear voice.

"Then what is it?" the group captain demanded gruffly.

"A request, sir," Freddy replied promptly. "I should like to volunteer
to go in the first plane."

Freddy's words opened the floodgates of a reservoir of sound. Instantly
every other pilot in the room leaped to his feet and shouted the
request to be selected for that first plane. Group Captain Spencer
grinned happily, then held up both his hands, and shook his head.

"Just a minute, you chaps!" he roared. Then, when he had obtained
silence, "Just waiting for one of you lads to start it off. And I knew
perfectly well that every one of you would fight for the job. That's
the kind of spirit that has made the Fleet Air Arm the two-fisted,
do-or-die unit that it is. However, we're not going to do it that way.
I'm not going to select anybody. It wouldn't be fair. Besides, I don't
fancy to be dumped overboard some dark night by some lad I didn't
select. I like to wear just trunks when I go swimming, you know, not
full dress service uniform."

The pilots roared with laughter, and then Group Captain Spencer
continued.

"No, the way we'll decide that is by drawing lots," he said. "There are
thirty-four of you lads here, and in this cap of mine are thirty-four
folded slips of paper."

The group captain picked up his service cap that had been resting top
side down on a table on his right.

"Thirty-four folded slips of paper," he said, and put the cap down on
the table again. "Thirty-three of them are blank. The thirty-fourth
has an X marked on it. Now, you will line up, and each will draw a
folded slip of paper from the cap. The one who draws the paper with the
X on it will be the pilot of the first plane. Now, to make sure the
flight will go off smoothly, so that there'll be no possible chance
of friction, the man who draws the marked slip can choose the chap he
would like to have along as his observer. Of course you are all pilots,
so if anything happens to the lad at the controls the other chap can
take over at once. Naturally, I hope nothing will happen. You never can
tell, though. As I said, this is a ticklish job, and a mighty important
one. It may well prove to be the most important job you've tackled
since entering the service. Now, line up and--"

Group Captain Spencer cut himself off short and shook his head.

"No, half a minute," he said. "There's one other thing I'd better say,
though it's probably unnecessary. It is a volunteer job. I mean, the
chap who draws the marked slip can decline if he wishes, and that will
be that. Also, the chum he chooses to go along with him can decline,
too."

"Not likely, sir, I fancy!" some pilot at the back of the Ready Room
called out.

"Not likely at all!" the rest shouted in the same breath.

Group Captain Spencer grinned broadly, and the glow of affection and
admiration was in his dark eyes.

"So be it," he said, and picked up the service cap filled with folded
slips of paper. "Right-o, lads, line up. And don't fight for places.
Maybe the last chap in line will draw the lucky slip. Anyway, hop to
it."

The pilots bounded from their seats and hastened to form a line. After
a bit of good-natured pushing and shoving they were all in line. Freddy
and Dave were together about a quarter of the way down the line. Dave
was in front of Freddy, and he turned and grinned at his pal.

"If I get that slip it will sure be a problem," he said.

"Why a problem?" Freddy asked. "I'll jolly well be tickled pink, I can
tell you."

Dave nodded and shrugged.

"Oh sure, me too," he retorted. "But all these fellows on the Victory
are swell. It will be quite a problem to decide whom to take along with
me. See what I mean?"

Freddy's jaw dropped in amazement, and a faint hurt look came into
his eyes. Then suddenly, as he saw the grin on Dave's lips, the blood
rushed into his cheeks, and anger took the place of the hurt look in
his eyes.

"You--you!" he fumed, and stumbled. "You wait, my lad. I'll fix you for
that one later. Look! Parks is drawing the first slip!"

The two boys snapped their gaze to the front end of the line. So did
everybody else, for that matter. A tall, lean-jawed pilot by the name
of Parks was on the point of dipping his hand into the service cap.
He didn't make it, however. His hand suddenly froze in midair as the
inter-ship communication speaker fitted into the Ready Room wall
started barking out words.

"All out, Fighter Unit! Enemy aircraft sighted! All out, Fighter Unit.
Snappy, now! All out, Fighter Unit!"

For one brief instant not a man in the Ready Room moved a muscle. Then
the place was turned into a whirlwind of action. It was a whirlwind of
orderly action, however. Those boys of the Victory's fighter unit were
well trained. This was not the first air alarm they had received, nor
would it be the last. Each pilot knew just what he was supposed to do,
when he was to do it, and where. Group Captain Spencer didn't sing out
one word of command. He didn't have to. He knew his boys well. He just
tossed his cap full of folded slips back on the table and dived out of
the room. The pilots dived out at his heels.

In less time than it takes to tell about it the whole group was up
on the flight deck and hastening to their planes as they strapped on
helmets and Mae West life jackets, and wiggled into parachute harness
held out by mechanics. Other mechanics had sprung for the planes at
the first word of alarm, and the flight deck shook from the thunder of
whirring engines. Group Captain Spencer had received information of the
position, types and number of enemy aircraft. He started talking the
instant he leaped into his leading ship and plugged in the radio jack
of his head-phones.

"Twenty thousand feet over Zone CK!" he shouted into all listening
ears. "About thirty of them, advance scout patrol reports. Junkers Ju.
Eighty-Eights, and some Heinkel One-Elevens. Take off by sections of
three and get up there fast. Right-o, lads!"

Dave's and Freddy's plane was in the fourth section of planes lined up
at the stern end of the flight deck. Faces bright with excitement, they
sat motionless while Group Captain Spencer led the first section off.
As it went ripping along the smooth deck, mechanics guided the second
section into place and sent it off. Then the third. Then Dave's plane
and the two other ships in the section moved forward into position. The
operations officer on the bridge dropped his flag down and away they
went.

Holding the ship steady in its take-off run, and keeping well clear
of his two companion planes, Dave gave the Blackburn Skua's Bristol
Pegasus engine full throttle. The plane seemed fairly to skip along
the deck for a very short distance, then it was off and prop climbing
toward the clear blue of the Mediterranean sky.



CHAPTER THREE

_Action Aloft!_


As the deck of the Victory fell away from him Dave cranked up the
Skua's wheels to add to its perfect streamline design and thus gain
additional climbing speed. Sections One, Two, and Three were well above
him and heading westward and slightly to the north. For a second he
turned his head and glanced down back at the carrier. Every plane was
off and in the air. The escort destroyers were circling the Victory and
laying a thick smoke screen into which the carrier could plunge and
make herself difficult to see in case the approaching enemy aircraft
did break through. As a matter of fact, even as Dave stared downward,
the Victory seemed to merge right in with a thick layer of soot black
smoke.

"Quick work, eh?" he heard Freddy's shout. "Those destroyer chaps are a
little bit of all right, eh?"

"They're tops, what I mean!" Dave shouted back. "How're you doing,
Freddy?"

"Right enough!" the English youth said with a grin. "Get some more
speed out of her, won't you? Wouldn't like to be left behind, you know."

"You old fire horse!" Dave said with a laugh, and turned front.

The altimeter now showed fifteen thousand feet of air under the wings,
and the Skua was still going up like a skyrocket, keeping perfect pace
with the two other planes of its section. Dave's blood danced with
excitement, and he hoped hard that the leading sections would not meet
and drive the enemy aircraft away before he could get there. It had
been some time since he and Freddy had tangled with enemy craft. A
little practice in gunnery and combat flying wouldn't do either of them
any harm.

"Doggone right!" he echoed the thought aloud. "Feel like a bandit
taking this last month's pay for doing practically nothing. And I--"

He cut himself off short as he suddenly heard Group Captain Spencer's
voice in his earphones.

"Well, jolly well hurry up, Dawson, and earn some of that pay today!"

Dave sat up straight, and gasped. Then as he heard the chuckle in the
earphones he blushed to the roots of his hair and grinned sheepishly.
For a second he had clean forgotten that every word he spoke into the
radio mike went into the earphones of every other Victory pilot in
the air, as well as into the earphones of every man at the operations
station aboard the carrier.

"Sorry, sir," he mumbled. "Just talking rot to myself, and not
thinking."

"Quite all right, Dawson!" came the cheery reply in his phone. "Get six
or seven of these beggars and I'll forgive you. I'll--There they are,
Crimson pilots! Dead ahead at twenty-one thousand. Well, well! Quite a
mess of them. Spread out and let them go down. Right-o, Crimson pilots.
Tally-ho!"

Dave gripped the stick tighter and peered hard upward and ahead at the
Mediterranean sky. At first he saw nothing but blue streaked by the
brassy glare of the sun. Then suddenly he saw the swarm of dots--tiny
dots, like a horde of gnats streaking along high up in the heavens. A
moment or so later, however, they ceased to be dots that looked like
gnats. The leading group nosed down and in almost no time they took on
the definite shape and outline of Junker Ju. 88s, the huge long range
Luftwaffe bombers powered by twin Daimler-Benz engines, which since
tryouts during the winter over England had been changed some so that
instead of being confined to level flight bombing they could perform
Stuka or dive bombing work as well. Behind them in the second group
were Heinkel 111 Ks, medium-sized bombers powered by two Junkers Juno
radial engines.

Slipping the safety guard off the trigger button of his guns, Dave
studied the enemy planes intently. That the Junkers 88s were heading
down while the Heinkels stayed at altitude--in face, were even starting
to climb higher--seemed proof enough that a savage Stuka attack was to
be made on the Victory while the main body of raiding aircraft swept
onward to attack the principal unit of the British fleet a hundred
miles or so ahead.

At that moment he felt a tap on his shoulder. He turned around to find
Freddy's grinning face close to his.

"Almost like a test, isn't it?" Freddy said, and held a hand over his
flap-mike.

"Test?" Dave echoed and looked blank. "What do you mean, test?"

"As if the Fleet Air Arm Command had asked Goering to send some of his
lads out from Italy or Sicily to see if we are still in shape," Freddy
said. "Those are enemy planes, aren't they? It's been so long, you
know."

"I think so." Dave grinned. "Tell you what, though, I'll find out for
sure. Just sit tight while I fly across in front of one of them. If
they shoot that funny look off your face, then we can be sure they're
Nazis."

"Thank you, no!" Freddy said with a scowl. "Just you get us close,
that's all. I can perfectly well find out for myself whether they're my
friends or my foes!"

"Just wanted to help out a pal, that's all," Dave said, and turned
front.

In another couple of moments the time for horse play and kidding was
all over. The first of the diving Junkers had reached the level of the
First and Second sections of the Victory's fighter planes. And those
fighter planes tore in like so many steel-clawed eagles gone completely
haywire. The air suddenly shook from the yammer and chatter of British
and German aerial machine guns. And punctuating the rattle of the
machine guns was the deeper and louder note of the air cannon mounted
on the German craft.

Cannon or not, it made no difference to the pilots of the First and
Second sections. As Dave fixed his gaze on them, and jammed his free
hand hard against the throttle as if he could get more speed, he saw
three of the 88s lose their wings and go cartwheeling off to the side,
leaving behind great globs of oily black smoke hanging suspended in the
blue sky. Another couple of minutes and two more 88s trying to wheel
clear of the Victory's defending planes locked wings by mistake and
blew up in a roar of sound that must have been heard all the way back
to their home drome, wherever it was located.

A couple of more Junkers started running into trouble, but Dave didn't
bother to watch how they made out. His section was now within gun
range, and each pilot was picking out his Nazi plane to attack. Dave
cut off and up toward the belly of an 88 that had zoomed and was trying
frantically to get altitude. Dave steadied himself and the ship, got
the Junkers square in his sights and then let drive with his four guns.
He saw his gleaming tracers smoke up into the under side of the 88
like so many metal fireflies. At the same time four jetting tongues of
flame stabbed down at him, and he knew that the Junkers' gunners were
not being caught napping. He knew, too, an instant later, when his Skua
shook and trembled slightly, that those gunners were not exactly blind
men when it came to marksmanship.

His bursts, however, were the ones that counted. The firing from the
Junkers suddenly ceased, and the craft lunged drunkenly off to the
right. Dave held his ship in its zoom until the last moment, and then
flung it over on its side. The maneuver left a perfect target for
Freddy Farmer in the rear pit. And the young English youth was ready
and set. His twin guns spat flame and sound, and even as Dave jerked
his head around for a look, he saw a ribbon of flame dribble out from
the port engine of the 88, and then sweep back over the wing and along
the fuselage to the tail. The Nazi bomber became a roaring ball of
flame in an instant, and as Dave cartwheeled away he caught the flash
of its bombs falling away. The German pilot had released them so that
they would not explode before he and members of his crew could bail out
of the blazing plane.

It so happened, though, that the Nazi pilot forgot about one bomb, or
perhaps the release toggle stuck. At any rate, that section of the
sky was suddenly filled with flashing light and a blast of sound that
seemed virtually to drive Dave's eardrums deep into his head. He could
even feel the concussion of the explosion slap against the Blackburn
Skua like a soggy wet blanket, and try to whip it over on its back. It
was all Dave could do to hold the plane in its speed gaining dive and
prevent it from flopping into a tight power spin.

"Nice going, Freddy!" he shouted back over his shoulder. "But next
time tell the guys to shake their bombs off first. Boy! Is my head
ringing!"

"So's mine!" Freddy shouted back. "Right-o, Dave! Let's get another of
the beggars. Attack our fleet, will they! Up at the rotters, Dave!"

Even as Freddy was shouting the words, Dave had cut the Skua off to the
right, then whipped it over and down in a lightning-like half roll.
There, directly below his diving nose, was another 88. He opened fire
at once, then curved up and away so that Freddy could rake the plane
from nose to tail as they raced past. The Nazi craft didn't burst
into flame. Instead, it rolled over in the air like a tired bird. For
a moment or so it hovered on its back. Then it fell off on one wing,
and down. White puffs began to appear off to the side, well below
the crippled plane slowly slip-sliding downward to its final end in
the clear blue waters of the Mediterranean. The white puffs were the
parachute envelopes of the pilots and crew members who had bailed out
of the helpless craft.

Neither Dave nor Freddy, however, gave them so much as a second glance.
The first group of the dive-bombing Junkers had been broken up. At
least ten of them had been put out of the war for keeps, and the others
were beating a hasty retreat to the west. The Heinkels, however, had
not come down. They had gone up for more altitude instead, and had
tried to race beyond the defending Victory fighters and reach their
objectives far to the east.

They had tried, yes, but they had not succeeded. The sections in back
of Dave's section had climbed swiftly up to meet those Heinkels and by
sheer fighting power had forced them to turn off toward the north--that
is, all but two of them. Two Heinkels had somehow broken through the
barrier of defending Skuas and were now thundering down to level bomb
the Victory far below.

Nazi though they might be, Dave could not help but feel a certain
amount of admiration for the pilots and crews. It was a suicide attack
they were about to make, and they obviously knew it. With all hope
of reaching the British fleet blasted by the furious defense of the
Victory's planes, two of those Heinkel pilots had decided to do what
they could against the Victory below. To have continued on eastward
would simply have meant a short passing of time before the speedy Skuas
caught up with them and shot them out of the air. And so they had
elected to do what damage they could to the Victory, and unquestionably
they would pay for it with their lives.

"You've got to hand it to them," Dave muttered somewhat reluctantly as
he sent his Skua hurtling downward. "At least that's two of Goering's
guys who have what it takes. Too bad they signed up to play on the
wrong team!"

A moment later, however, all feeling of sympathy and admiration was
gone. The Victory was down there, and the enemy was wing howling down
to blow it out of the water, if such a miracle could be performed.
There were pals of Dave's down there on that carrier, pals who would
risk their lives any day to save him. It was up to him to risk his,
now, to save them. The diving Heinkels ceased to be airplanes manned by
human beings like himself. They became in his mind two winged machines
of death and destruction hurtling down to snuff out the lives of his
pals and fellow officers.

And so he braced himself in the seat and dropped the Skua's nose
down to the vertical. The Bristol engine in the nose screamed out
its song of power, and the air rushing past set up a shrill constant
whistle. Hunching forward, Dave pressed hard against his safety belt
harness, tightened the muscles of his stomach, kept his mouth open and
continually swallowed to reduce the air pressure in his ears. But all
the time he kept his eyes riveted on the nearest diving Heinkel.

It all took up but a few brief seconds, and then he was streaking down
on top of the German bomber. Its gunners opened up with everything
they had, and the air in front of Dave's nose was filled with the wavy
streams of tracer smoke. He did not veer to the left or right for an
instant. He held his ship steady until a vital part of the bomber was
square in his sights. Then he let out a yell and jabbed his trigger
button. The four Vickers guns cowled into the leading edge of the
wing, two on each side of the nose, and yammered out their song of
destruction.

For what seemed an hour to Dave's tightly knotted nerves, the Heinkel
continued on down in its dive. In reality it was not longer than it
would take you to snap your fingers before smoke and flame belched out
from the bomber to envelop it completely. It continued on down in its
dive, however. But it slammed straight down into the water a good five
miles astern of the zigzagging Victory.

The instant Dave saw the smoke and flame spew upward, he cut his fire,
started to ease his ship up out of its thundering dive, and cast his
eyes about for a glimpse of the second diving Heinkel. He spotted it
almost at once off to his left, and as soon as he saw it he realized
he didn't have to worry about it at all. Two of the Victory's planes,
one of them piloted by Group Captain Spencer, had caught the bomber in
a deadly crossfire. Three seconds later and that Heinkel was out of the
war and on a one way flight down to a watery grave in the Mediterranean.

Dave relaxed in the seat a bit, pulled his plane up onto an even keel
and glanced around at the heavens above him. The heavens were filled
with flashing wings, but they were all wings made in England. There
wasn't the sign of a single German plane. Those ships that had escaped
the Victory pilots were by now so far away they couldn't be seen by the
naked eye. A moment later Group Captain Spencer's voice came over the
radio.

"Reform sections, Crimson pilots! Going aboard. Reform your sections,
Crimson pilots. I want to count noses!"

The last caused Dave's heart to skip a beat. It wasn't until that
moment he had realized the possibility that perhaps English as well as
German pilots had gone down into the Mediterranean. While he hunted out
the two planes of his section and dropped into formation, he tried to
count noses himself. But before he had time to make sure of his count,
he heard welcome words in his earphones.

"Good lads, all of you!" called Group Captain Spencer. "All present and
accounted for. Fine! Fancy those beggars can't say the same. Right-o!
Aboard you go in sections as you took off. Land by sections in line
astern."

The last meant that as each section of three planes slid down to be
taken aboard the carrier, the left and right planes would drop into
line behind the center plane. In other words, instead of three abreast,
or in V formation, they would be three in line behind each other, or in
line astern.

By the time the first section had dropped down to a low altitude, the
Victory had moved out of its protective smoke screen and was steaming
into the wind. Dave glanced downward to see the escort destroyers
circling back and around to pick up all surviving German airmen who
might be in the water. Reaction hit him for a second and he shivered
impulsively. Lady Luck had flown with him again, else he too might be
down there floating around--or perhaps going down for the third time!

And then as he switched his attention back to his flying, Lady Luck did
desert him, and old man Tough Luck laughed in his face. He yanked the
release level that worked the mechanism that lowered his wheels--only
the little red light on the instrument board did not wink out. The
little red light was the pilot's guide as to whether his wheels were
up or down. And the fact that it was on told him that his wheels were
still up.

He worked the release lever gently a couple of times, but the light did
not go out. He banged it hard with his fist, and whipped the nose of
the plane up and down in an effort to jar the wheels down. The little
red light, however, stayed on. At that moment Freddy leaned forward and
rapped him on the shoulder.

"The right wheel, Dave!" he cried. "I can just see it from back here.
It's stuck a quarter of the way down. I guess a Junkers or Heinkel
gunner gave us a souvenir to take home. Cut a retracting gear cable,
probably. I think I see the end of one whipping about in our prop-wash."

"Okay, thanks," Dave shouted back. "I'll try some more and then radio
Operations."

Feeding high test gas to his engine, he pulled quickly upward and
out of formation. Then, when he was well clear of the other sections
drifting down to be taken aboard the carrier, he started kicking the
Skua around in a desperate effort to get the right wheel to go all the
way down. But it was no use. He could get both wheels back up into the
wing sockets, but he could not get the right wheel more than a quarter
of the way down. He finally gave up, gave Freddy an apologetic grin and
called Operations aboard the carrier. He had been watched all the time,
of course, and the orders were given to him at once.

"Get your wheels up, and keep them there, Dawson. Come down for a water
landing. A crash boat will stand by to take you aboard at once. Land
half a mile ahead of us. Good luck!"

"Thank you, sir," Dave replied in a voice that shook with emotion.

Of course it would be too dangerous for all concerned to attempt what
is known as a "belly landing" aboard the carrier--a landing on the
belly of the plane with both wheels up in the wings. The slightest
skid could end up in a bad crash and quite possibly fire. And fire by
accident aboard a carrier at sea is bad enough without asking for it,
or tempting it. With that plan of action being out of the question,
there were two other things that could be ordered done. One was to
land in the water. The other was for Freddy and himself to bail out
and let the ship crash. That he had not been given the last order was
an unspoken compliment to his flying ability. Operations had faith he
could sit down in the water without doing damage to Freddy or himself,
or serious damage to the plane. Operations wanted to salvage the plane
and repair it aboard, and Operations was counting on him to make it
possible to save the ship.

For a moment he sat perfectly motionless at the controls, as though
afraid that movement would end the thrilling spell through which he was
passing. Then Freddy did break it by banging him on the shoulder.

"Get to it, my lad!" Freddy shouted. "The blasted water isn't coming up
here to us, you know. You can do it in pukka style. We both know that."

Dave shook himself out of his trance, got his wheels back up into the
wings, and then headed for a point half a mile ahead of the Victory. As
he winged past the carrier, he saw one of the crash boats being lowered
over the side. Then all that was behind him and there was just the
expanse of the Mediterranean ahead. At the right moment he hauled the
throttle back, and tilted the nose downward. Every muscle and nerve in
him was drawn bow string tight as the blue water rose up toward him.

It was not the first time he had put a land plane down in the water,
but on those other occasions it had not mattered if he cracked up the
plane a bit. This time was different. The Victory needed this Blackburn
Skua. The Fleet Air Arm in the Mediterranean had too few planes as it
was. Every ship it could salvage was as good as two brand-new planes on
the long way out from the factory in Britain. He had to make this the
best landing of his flying career. He owed it to Freddy, he owed it to
the rest of the boys aboard the Victory--and he owed it to himself.

One second ticked past. Two seconds--three. And then the blue water
was right underneath him. He whipped out his free hand and cut the
ignition. With his other hand he eased back the stick and brought the
nose up a few inches. Flying speed fell off instantly. The plane seemed
to hang motionless just off the surface of the water. The round crest
of a gentle blue swell rolled by and whispered up against the belly
of the plane. As though a thousand glue-covered fingers had touched
the bottom of the plane, the Skua stuck to the water. It lurched just
slightly and plowed up a faint spray. Then it settled a bit by the
nose, steadied, and floated as nicely as a duck on a millpond.

Dave let the clamped air out of his lungs in a rush of sound. It was
not until then he realized that his face was dripping with sweat. He
gulped and turned around to look at Freddy. The blood was coming back
into the English youth's face. He was smiling, and his eyes were bright
with something that was far more than just friendly affection. Then he
seemed to catch himself showing his inner emotions. He gave a little
nod of his head and broadened his grin.

"Well done, my lad!" he shouted. "My sincerest congratulations. It was
so beautiful, that for a minute I thought--Oh, let it go."

"You thought what?" Dave demanded, and tried to get his heart to ease
up from thumping so hard against his ribs.

Freddy arched his eyebrows and gestured with one hand.

"Why, it was so perfect," he said, "that for a moment I thought I was
flying the blasted thing."

The crazy remark snapped the tension in Dave. He relaxed completely,
and laughed and made a pass at Freddy. They were still kidding and
horsing around when the crash boat slid up alongside, took them aboard,
and began towing the floating plane back to the hoisting crane aboard
the Victory. When they reached the carrier, the cheer that came down to
Dave's ears sounded like the sweetest music he had ever heard in his
life.



CHAPTER FOUR

_Pilot's Luck_


For the second time that day the fighter pilots of the Carrier Victory
filed into the Ready Room and found seats. Group Captain Spencer
grinned and nodded to each youth as he entered. To Dave Dawson he gave
a broad grin and a wink that made the Yank R.A.F. pilot feel as good
as though the Distinguished Flying Cross Medal had been pinned on his
tunic. Finally all were seated and every eye was fixed on the group
captain standing on the little platform.

"Sorry about that little interruption," he presently said with a
chuckle. "I give you my word, it wasn't something I arranged just to
see if you lads were up on your toes. I knew that all the time. And I
fancy the Jerries know it _now_, too. A good job, and I'm jolly well
proud of you. Well, on with the unfinished business."

The senior officer picked up the service cap filled with folded slips
of paper and stepped forward to the edge of the platform.

"Right-o, line up again," he said. Then, with a grin, "If there's
another blasted raid alarm, we'll just pretend that we didn't hear it.
Mustn't keep you fire eaters in suspense forever, you know. Right-o!
Line forms on the left."

The pilots formed a line again. By mutual consent they gave Pilot
Officer Parks the number one position, but they didn't bother figuring
out who else had had what position in line the first time. They just
all sifted into places in back of Parks, and let it go at that. As a
matter of fact, Dave found that he was four men in front of Freddy. The
pair had become separated during the shuffling into line.

Eventually everything was set. A hushed stillness settled over the
Ready Room as Parks dipped his hand into the cap and pulled out a
folded slip. He took a step to the side and opened it with trembling
fingers. Every other pilot watched his face, and waited expectantly.
They saw hope fade into bitter disappointment. The pilot crumbled the
slip into a little ball and threw it disgustedly on the deck.

"That's Parks luck for you!" he growled. "A blasted blank!"

"Chin up, old fellow," Group Captain Spencer smiled at him. "Maybe your
best pal will draw it. Right you are. Next chap!"

One by one the pilots drew slips from the cap and examined them, full
of hope and eagerness. And one by one they were laughed at by Lady Luck
just as she had laughed at Pilot Officer Parks. Finally it was Dave
Dawson's turn. He reached up his hand, then hesitated and looked down
at his other hand to make sure that his fingers were crossed. Group
Captain Spencer followed his look, and chuckled softly.

"Did doing that help you in that close shave upstairs, Dawson?" he
asked. "If so, I must do it myself from now on. Blessed if I didn't see
one of those Jerries stick his machine gun right square in your face,
and still he missed you. Oh well, go ahead and draw."

Dave dipped his fingers into the cap, fingered a couple of the folded
slips, and then drew one out. His head was singing faintly, and the
blood was surging, through his veins as he stepped to the side and
unfolded the slip. What he saw, gave him the sensation of a bucket of
ice water spilling down over him. The slip was blank on both sides!
He grinned weakly, wadded up the slip of paper and flipped it away in
disappointed disgust just as the others had done. Then he walked over
to a chair and sat down to watch the rest of the drawing.

He stopped watching, and so did everybody else, when Freddy Farmer
unfolded the slip he had drawn. The English youth's eager face suddenly
lighted up like a Christmas tree, and his hands trembled so much with
excitement that the slip fluttered down onto the deck.

"Got it!" he shouted, and bent down to retrieve the slip. "I really
have. See?"

He jumped around on first one foot and then the other and wildly waved
the little slip about over his head.

"I say, land, will you, Farmer?" Group Captain Spencer shouted at him
good-naturedly. "I'm sure you're not pulling our leg, but let's have a
look at the thing, anyway."

Freddy stopped jumping around and held out the slip so that all could
see the X marked on one side.

"That's it, right enough," Group Captain Spencer said, and tossed
the cap with the remaining folded slips back on the table. "Well,
congratulations, Farmer. And I guess we don't have to guess whom you
want to take along with you, eh?"

Dave's disappointment at not having drawn the slip blew away into
nothing when he saw the X on Freddy's slip. He looked at his pal and
grinned, and waited to hear Freddy ask him to go along on the dangerous
venture. A couple of moments later, though, a cold wave seemed to
spread through him, and his heart became a hard lump in his chest.
Freddy had passed his eyes right over him and was studying the faces of
the other pilots. Could it be that Freddy--? Was Freddy going to choose
somebody--?

"I don't know, sir," he heard Freddy say through a dull rumbling in
his ears. "It's a very important job, and a chap must be sure of the
fellow he takes along with him. Yes, sir. Must give it a bit of serious
thought, you know. Now--let me see. Blessed if it isn't a hard job to
choose the right man."

Dave could hardly believe his ears as he heard the words that fell from
Freddy Farmer's lips. And he could hardly believe his eyes as he saw
the English youth almost deliberately turn his back on him and look at
the other pilots. He was conscious, too, of the general air of stunned
amazement that pervaded the Ready Room. It was obvious that everybody
else had expected Freddy to ask Dave at once.

"As difficult as that, Farmer?" Group Captain Spencer presently asked
with a puzzled frown on his face.

"Oh yes, sir, quite difficult," Freddy said, turning to him. Then, with
a wink at the group captain that everybody saw, he turned to look at
Dave, and asked, "Would you like to go along, my little man?"

Dave blinked, gulped, and then realized in a flash that Freddy hadn't
actually given a single thought to anybody else. He had simply been
paying him back for those wise-cracks while on advance scout patrol,
just as he had promised; paying him back by keeping him hanging on
tenterhooks. Dave's first impulse was to leap forward and turn Freddy
over his knee. He beat back the urge, however. Instead he let loose a
loud sigh of relief that snapped the tension in the room and caused
everybody to burst out laughing. He looked at the impish I-told-you-so
expression on Freddy's face and nodded gravely.

"I accept, Pilot Officer Farmer," he said in solemn tones. "However, on
one condition."

"Condition?" Freddy echoed, and his grin faded.

"Yes," Dave said with a very straight face. "On Group Captain Spencer's
guarantee."

"_My_ guarantee?" gasped the group captain. "What in thunder do you
mean, Dawson?"

Dave hesitated and acted as though he were reluctant to speak.

"You're sure it would be safe, sir?" he asked gravely. "I mean, with
this officer along? He wouldn't get in my way, or anything?"

There was pin-dropping silence for a second, and then the Ready Room
rocked with the roar of laughter that went up. Freddy went beet red to
the roots of his hair and glared at Dave.

"Safe?" he shouted. "_I'm_ jolly well the one who has to worry about
being safe. Oh well, I've made my choice. I'll act the gentleman and
stick by it."

"All right, all right, you two!" Group Captain Spencer called out as
Dave opened his mouth to reply to that one. "Do the rest of your leg
pulling in the plane. Man, how I pity the Jerry who takes you two
prisoners. You'd drive the poor devil clean off his topper with your
crazy talk. Well, anyway, that's that. You two, of course, are relieved
of all other duties beginning with now. Meet me in my quarters right
after evening mess. We'll do a little bit of plotting and planning, in
case it should come in handy. Right-o, chaps, that's all. Dismissed!"

Three hours later Dave and Freddy were stretching their legs up on the
flight deck. They had had mess and in a short time they would report
to Group Captain Spencer in his quarters. First, though they felt they
would like a stroll and a few words together. Since the drawing, they
had not had much of a chance to be alone. Though they had been relieved
of all duties, they had not merely sat back and taken things easy.
They were real pilots, right to the core, and as soon as Group Captain
Spencer had dismissed them they had gone below decks to the repair
station to have a look at the Skua that had been hoisted aboard. An
inspection of the plane, as the Victory's mechanics worked on it, had
brought to light the true reason for the retractable landing gear's
failure to function. As Freddy had guessed, bullets had parted one of
the cables, and a free end of the cable had been whipped up by the
propeller wash to catch in the retracting gear and jam it so that the
right wheel couldn't go more than a quarter of the way down.

That, however, was not the most important thing they found out.
Inspection also showed that both of them had come within three inches
or less of becoming dead pilots. Bullet holes in the fuselage and
cockpit cowling (or hood) showed clearly how narrow had been the margin
by which death had passed them by. Two or three inches one way or the
other and they would most certainly have joined their Junkers and
Heinkel victims down in the gentle blue swells of the Mediterranean.

And now they were walking down their dinner along the long narrow
flight deck of the Victory.

"In case you didn't get the idea," Dave said, breaking a moment's
silence, "you sure gave me a sweet case of heart failure in the Ready
Room this afternoon. No fooling, I thought sure you were honestly
giving me the cold shoulder. Gosh! I didn't know what to think."

"Let it be a lesson to you," Freddy replied with a grin. Then, in a
serious tone, "But I should be sore at you for even thinking I'd pick
anybody else but you. After that landing you made? I should say not."

"Thanks," Dave said. "But I was scared stiff bringing that ship down.
And between you, me, and the stern of this deck, there was an awful lot
of luck mixed up in that landing. A couple of times I thought she was
getting away from me. I'd sure hate to have to do it every day."

"Well, it was perfect," Freddy said. "A hundred times better than a
landing I recall you once made in the English Channel."[A]

[Footnote A: _Dave Dawson With the R.A.F._]

"_You_ recall?" Dave scoffed at him. "How could you? You were out cold
that time, and you know it. And, boy, when I turned around and saw
you--!"

Dave left the sentence hanging in midair and shook his head as though
to drive away the heart-chilling memory.

"Gee, it sure is different down here, isn't it?" he said, changing the
subject.

"Meaning what?" Freddy asked.

Dave pointed a finger toward the east.

"The way day becomes night," he said. "Up north you have a couple of
hours of twilight. But down this way you have only a couple of minutes
of it. The sun goes down and then, bang, it's dark in nothing flat. I
never realized that before about this section of the world."

"Well, it's a good thing when a pack of Jerries are on your tail, I
fancy," Freddy grunted. "You can dive and lose them in the dark. And
speaking of the dark, watch your take-off just before dawn tomorrow.
Wouldn't be nice to crack us up before we get started, you know."

Dave turned his head and stared in amazement.

"_Me_ watch the take-off?" he ejaculated. "Where do you get that stuff?
You drew the marked slip. That makes you the pilot of the plane. Me,
I'm the back seat driver."

"Oh, no, you're not!" Freddy argued. "I'm a very bright lad, I'll have
you know. I know a pukka pilot when I see one. And I'm looking at you,
see? Besides, I guess I never told you, but I'm a regular camera fiend.
And the passenger works the camera. No, Dave, you do the flying. I'll
take the pictures and try to bother you with back seat talk as much as
I can."

"You really mean that, Freddy?" Dave asked. "You want me to take the
controls?"

"That's right," the English youth nodded. Then, with a quick frown,
"But don't take it as a compliment, my lad. I'm simply the lazy type,
that's all. I like to have other people work for me."

"Aw, nuts!" Dave breathed in mock disappointment. "Just when I thought
the guy was admitting I was good."



CHAPTER FIVE

_Enemy Maneuvers_


Night had dropped down over the Mediterranean, and the H.M. Aircraft
Carrier Victory was running without lights in a southwesterly
direction. There was plenty of light below decks, however, but whenever
an outside door was opened the bright lights immediately winked out
and the pale blue "battle lights" glowed. Thus it was impossible for
any telltale glow of light to reveal the Victory's presence to any
nearby enemy craft of the sea, or to any enemy aircraft that might be
patrolling the air above. True, the pale glow of the battle lights
escaped into the night, but it was so dim as not to be noticed even at
close range.

In Group Captain Spencer's quarters, Dave and Freddy bent over a huge
map spread out on the desk, and listened closely to their senior
officer's words.

"Here we are, now," the group captain said, touching the map with the
point of his finger. "We have changed course for the last time, and
it's pretty certain that the enemy has no idea what we're up to. It was
lucky we were still steaming along at the rear of the main fleet unit
when those Jerries showed up this afternoon. Had we been in the act
of cutting away then, those lads who did get back to their base would
certainly have reported us up to something. As it is, though, they
probably think we're still tagging along with the fleet."

"And probably hoping we hit a couple of mines," Dave added with a
chuckle.

"Probably," Group Captain Spencer agreed with a grin. "I don't believe
those lads feel very kindly toward the Victory right now. We certainly
gave them something to think about this afternoon. But, as I was
saying, here we are right at this moment. In six hours, that'll be two
o'clock tomorrow morning, we will be about fifty miles off the Libyan
coastal town of Misurata. That is, of course, unless a couple of our
destroyers that are way out in front of us sight something to make us
change our plans."

"I sure hope not," Freddy said with a frown. "I'm all for this scouting
show, and want to get on with it."

"Me, too!" Dave chimed in. "I've got a hunch I'm going to get a big
kick out of it."

"I hope that's all you get out of it, except the much needed
information," Group Captain Spencer said softly. "I don't want to sound
like a phonograph record, but this is a mighty dangerous mission. You
see, we haven't the faintest idea what you may or may not run into.
Before you've hardly flown in from the coast you may run slap bang into
a swarm of Axis planes on patrol. Then, too, much of your flying will
have to be done blind. I mean, Libya isn't like England or France where
there are towns, and rivers, and lakes, and all that sort of thing to
serve as landmarks. It's a blasted expanse of sand, once you get in a
way from the coast. And your only landmarks to fly by will be a tiny
oasis village here and there that you can miss very easily because they
blend in so perfectly with the cursed sand. I've done quite a bit of
flying out that way, and I can tell you that it certainly isn't any
pleasure hop."

"We'll jolly well be praying that the engine keeps ticking over,"
Freddy murmured.

"Right you are, and pray hard," Group Captain Spencer said with an
abrupt nod of his head. "That's another of the several dangers attached
to this show--a forced landing. Behind our own lines, a forced landing
in the blasted desert is bad enough. But a forced landing behind the
Axis outposts will be doubly unpleasant. And that brings up something
I might just as well mention now as later. I said that this show is to
be a secret. I meant it! It's to be just that. There will be no Fleet
Air Arm markings on your plane. And you will not wear anything or even
carry anything that would connect you in any way with the Fleet Air
Arm, or the Victory. You'll not even take along your Mae West life
jackets. And in case you are forced down in the desert, you will set
fire to your ship at once. You understand that perfectly?"

The two boys nodded together.

"And if you are forced down, don't expect planes to be sent out to look
for you," Group Captain Spencer continued grimly. "You will be strictly
on your own. You can't expect any rescue help from us. That sounds
pretty grim, and it is. But we've got to work it out that way. To let
the enemy even suspect that the Victory had slipped in close to shore,
and that the Fleet Air Arm was taking an active hand in the Libya
problem, might result in no end of trouble. For one thing, it would
have every German and Italian plane within range out hunting for the
Victory. And that would put us in a pretty bad spot, if we were caught
so far away from the main body of the fleet. And--By the way, what
I've just said doesn't change your desire to tackle the job, does it?"

Neither of the boys said anything. They just sat there looking at him
quietly. The group captain flushed faintly and smiled.

"Sorry, lads," he said. "Just thought it was up to me to ask, you know.
But, back to the job. The minute you leave the flight deck you will be
on your own. You will have extra tanks that should last you about eight
hours. You will have your guns, and such, in case you do bump into
Axis winged trouble. You will have a camera and plenty of plates. You
won't have a radio, though, because to use it might give your position
away, and the Victory's, too. There must be no radio contact between
you chaps and the Victory. Another part of your equipment consists of
items I hope you will not be called upon to use. Briefly, they are
water flasks, emergency rations, pocket compass, sun helmets, service
automatics, and one or two other things."

"Say, could I make a suggestion, sir?" Dave suddenly spoke up as the
senior officer paused. "It might help in case we did run into trouble
and went down."

"Certainly you may make suggestions," Group Captain Spencer said with a
broad smile. "My word, you chaps are doing the show, you know. What is
it, Dawson?"

"The clothes we wear, sir," Dave said. "Why not go all the way in
fooling them about a connection with the Fleet Air Arm and the Victory?
Why couldn't Freddy and I wear regulation desert infantry or machine
gun company uniforms? Say, British, or Australian, or New Zealand?
Uniforms from one of General Wavell's outfits?"

Group Captain Spencer looked impressed, but Freddy frowned slightly.

"But what about the plane, Dave?" he objected.

"Well, what about it?" Dave wanted to know. "If we can't set it afire
in the air before we bail out--if we have to--we'll certainly destroy
it as soon as we're on the ground. Later, if we are picked up, we're
just a couple of infantrymen who got lost from a desert scouting
patrol. See what I mean? What plane? Sure we saw a plane land and burn
up, but it looked to us as if the poor devils in it burned up, too. See
what I mean, Freddy?"

The English youth's face suddenly lighted up and he became all smiles.

"Sure, of course!" he cried. "Am I stupid! Not a chance in the world
of them connecting us up with the plane and perhaps trying to force a
story out of us."

"Right!" Dave echoed. "And as a couple of captured infantrymen, we
won't be so important to them as a couple of captured airmen. They
might not watch us so closely, and if we should get a break, why--Well,
figure it from there."

"I say, hold it up a bit!" Group Captain Spencer cried. "I've half a
mind not to let you tackle the show. My word, you've practically failed
and got yourselves taken prisoners already. However, that's a good
suggestion of yours, Dawson. I'll see Ship's Stores after we finish
talking and have them fix up a couple of infantry uniforms for you.
Now, get your eyes on this map again."

All three of them bent closer to the map, and the group captain
continued speaking.

"Here's Wavell's most advanced outpost," he said, and pointed his
finger, "here at El Aghelia, in the curve of the Gulf of Sidra. Eight
hours after you take off the Victory will be at this point off the
Libyan coast. See, I've written down the exact latitude and longitude.
Take a good look, both of you, and get that location reading stamped in
your brain."

Dave and Freddy repeated the figures several times to themselves until
they were sure they would not possibly forget them. Then Dave looked
at Group Captain Spencer.

"That point's only some thirty miles off Bengazi," he said, "and some
three hundred miles east of the point where we'll take off. The Victory
will have to do a lot of steaming to get there in eight hours."

"Yes," the group captain nodded. "But she can do it, with a bit to
spare. I know what's in your mind, though. You're wondering why the
Victory doesn't just put out to sea a bit, and then come in again to
take you aboard?"

"I was wondering about that, sir," Dave admitted.

"Well, she's not going to do that for two reasons," the senior officer
said. "First, because it will be daylight and it would be too much
of a risk to cruise around so far to the west. We might be sighted
by Axis planes crossing over from Sicily. The other reason is for
your protection as well as ours. As you can see by looking at this
map, your return flight will take you from El Aghelia up the eastern
coast of the Gulf of Sidra to Bengazi and then on out to sea to our
rendezvous point. That way you'll have less of an overwater flight to
make to reach us. Also, if you are chased by enemy aircraft and get
into trouble, you'll be in a position to make a run for a safe landing
on British-occupied ground. The Victory will have an advance scouting
plane aloft all the time, and if its pilot sees you in trouble the
Victory will be notified at once so that she can make tracks away from
the rendezvous area."

The group captain paused for breath and to light a cigarette.

"And that is another thing I want to warn you about," he said
presently. "If you are chased by enemy aircraft, make _no attempt to
reach the Victory until you have completely shaken off and lost all
such aircraft_. In short, and to sum it all up very bluntly, you have
about two chances of making the scouting patrol a success as against
ninety-eight chances of failing."

"One chance in forty-nine," Freddy murmured, and then shrugged. "Well,
I fancy that's better than one chance in a hundred."

"Tell us this, sir," Dave said. "Supposing we have to land at Bengazi,
or some other British held point, what then? I mean, how do we make
contact with the Victory?"

"You don't," Group Captain Spencer said bluntly. "Not unless you have
information of vital value to the Fleet Air Arm, or the fleet itself.
Any information, and all pictures you obtain of Axis positions and so
forth, you will turn over to the commandant of the Bengazi post for
immediate transfer to General Wavell's headquarters. If your plane
is in a condition to permit you to fly on to H.Q., then do so. The
main thing, though, is to get the information and pictures to General
Wavell's headquarters the fastest way possible."

"And if we have information of value to the Air Arm or the fleet?"
Freddy prompted.

"In that event," the group captain said with a frown, "we'll have to
take a chance on the Bengazi radio informing us so that we can arrange
for some other point of rendezvous, or some way of your getting the
information to us. But I repeat once again: the Victory is playing a
sort of lone wolf game in this thing, and she cannot run any risk of
being caught and sunk by Axis planes, or even seriously damaged. You
don't build an aircraft carrier in a day, you know. And we all know we
have all too few of them as it is. The loss, or a long lay-up, of the
Victory would be a serious blow to the Air Arm as well as to the fleet.
Naturally, I'm counting on you two--and all other pilots we may have to
send out on this job--not to put the safety of the Victory in jeopardy
at any time, no matter what the cost may be to yourselves. In fact--"

The senior officer paused and made a face.

"In fact, she may even play a dirty trick on you," he continued after
a moment. "I mean, she may find it too dangerous to make a rendezvous
contact with you--and won't be there when you show up. However, there
is a very slim chance of that. If it does happen, you will try to make
land if you possibly can."

Dave nodded, then looked at Freddy and chuckled.

"What's funny about that?" the English youth wanted to know.

"Not a thing," Dave replied, but kept a grin on his face. "It was
just a crazy thought I had. The way this thing stacks up, you'd think
the Victory doesn't want to see us any more. But we'll fool her, eh,
Freddy? She can't toss us out into the cold, cruel world like that, can
she?"

"I should say not!" Freddy said with a short laugh. "I like the Victory
very much. The old girl can't give me the cold shoulder. No, not a bit
of it."

"Now I'm sure of it!" Group Captain Spencer exclaimed with an abrupt
nod.

The two pilots stared at him.

"What's that, sir?" Freddy murmured.

"That you'll jolly well come through this with flying colors," Group
Captain Spencer said. "I've met a lot of chaps who right now would
be worrying themselves sick and biting their nails over the danger
possibilities of this venture. But the way you two--well, to use a bit
of your American slang, Dawson--the way you two take it all in stride,
and fun around, makes me feel sure that you'll come out on top. Chaps
like you two worry about the dangers afterward, not before. You take
care of things as they pop up, and I suppose that's the way it should
be."

"Well, don't worry, sir," Dave said. "Freddy and I'll both be in there
pitching."

"Eh, pitching?" Group Captain Spencer murmured with a frown.

"More American slang, sir," Dave explained. "It means, we'll be
swinging all the time, right from the bell. We'll be right on the old
beam--in the groove, and--Well, you know what I mean, sir."

"Er--er, yes, of course," the senior officer said a bit dubiously. "Oh,
quite! Well, I guess that ends this session, unless either of you chaps
have anything to ask?"

"Not me, sir," Dave said with a shake of his head. "I reckon I've got
it all down pat."

"Me, too, sir," Freddy echoed with a nod.

"Right-o," Group Captain Spencer said, and crushed out his cigarette.
"Go rest up a bit, now, and relax. I'll see about those infantry
uniforms from Ship's Stores. Afterward we'll check over everything
you're taking along. Right now, though, relax and try to get your
thoughts on other things. That's all."

After the two boys had left, the group captain stared silently at the
closed door of his quarters for a long moment. Then presently he smiled
and nodded his head.

"Just youngsters," he murmured softly, "but, by George, they've got the
fighting hearts and courage of a dozen men!"



CHAPTER SIX

_Desert Mystery_


A billion or so stars winked down on the long black shadow that was
the Aircraft Carrier Victory sliding through the even blacker waters
of the Mediterranean. A row of tiny pin points of light stretched the
entire length of the starboard side of the flight deck, and at the
stern end was a lone Blackburn Skua fighter-dive bomber with its prop
slowly ticking over. In the forward pit sat Dave Dawson, and behind him
in the gunner's pit was Freddy Farmer. Off to one side stood a silent,
watchful group of flight deck mechanics. And on the stub step of one
wing, with his head and shoulders inside the partly opened cockpit
hood, stood Group Captain Spencer.

Everything possible that could be done, had been done. The plane,
fitted with extra tanks to add to its cruising range and time in the
air, had been checked and rechecked from propeller boss to rudder
post. Every square inch of wing surface, every wire, every nut, and
every cotter pin, had been carefully examined by expert eyes. The
plan of flight had been gone over two or three times, and last minute
instructions had been delivered. All was ready for the take-off. There
was nothing more to be said or done. The success or failure of the
highly important mission about to be made was strictly in the hands,
the capable hands, of two stout-hearted, fighting Royal Air Force
pilots, attached for special duty to His Majesty's Fleet Air Arm.

"Happy landings, you two," Group Captain Spencer said quietly, though
his voice trembled with deep emotion. "We're all counting on you, and
pulling for you. And--well, good luck."

The group captain quickly squeezed the hand of each and then stepped
down and away from the plane. Dave grinned at him, nodded, and then
turned his gaze to the instrument board. Every instrument received his
intent scrutiny. Then finally he twisted around in the seat and looked
at Freddy.

"Ready, little man?" he grunted.

The English youth snorted and shrugged.

"For what?" he demanded. "For tea to be served? You're certainly
hanging around long enough for us to have some. Stop making the old
girl wait! She wants to be rid of us--well, you, anyway."

Dave grinned, and winked.

"So we both feel the same way, eh?" he grunted.

"What way?" Freddy demanded.

Dave put a hand to the side of his mouth.

"My heart's bumping up against my back teeth, too!" he whispered.

"Aren't you right!" Freddy whispered back. "So hurry up and get us off
this blasted carrier before we change our minds. It's the waiting that
gets me down."

"But it's your old pal who gets you _up_!" Dave cracked, and turned
front.

With a final look and a nod toward Group Captain Spencer standing with
the flight deck mechanics, he kicked off the wheel brakes and slowly
opened the throttle, or the "gate," as the R.A.F. boys call it. The
Bristol Pegasus engine increased the tone of its song and the plane
moved forward, picking up speed with every revolution of the engine.
Dave pushed the stick forward, got the tail up and sent the plane
streaking along the smooth deck on its wheels. A split second later the
"Island" (the bridge and superstructure of an aircraft carrier) flashed
by on his left. Another few seconds and he pulled the plane clear and
the tiny row of pin point take-off guide lights on his right fell away.

He held the ship in a steady climb for a couple of thousand feet or
so. Then he leveled off, banked around to the south, and set his plane
on the first leg of his compass course. That done with, he pulled back
the throttle to cruising speed, shifted to a slightly more comfortable
position in the seat and put his lips to the flap-mike.

"Calling Crimson!" he said. "Plane off. Calling--"

He cut himself off short as Freddy's hand banged down on his shoulder.
Right afterward he heard the English youth's words in his ears.

"A beautiful start of things, I must say!" Freddy shouted. "The lad is
balmy, and talking to himself so soon. I say, Dave, save that until
they put you in a padded cell, eh?"

"What the--?" Dave shouted, and then stopped short. "My gosh!" he then
blurted out. "I'll never live this down with you around. Boy! Am I
bright!"

Dave shook his head in a sheepish gesture and kept his face front so
that Freddy couldn't see its bright color even in the faint pale glow
of the instrument board light. He had started to radio check with
Operations aboard the Victory only to have Freddy's descending hand
and wise-crack wake him up to the fact that the Skua's radio had been
taken out, and that he had actually just been talking into thin air.
The flap-mike was fastened to the lower part of his helmet, but it
wasn't hooked up to anything.

He mentally kicked himself all over the plane for being so stupid, and
finally turned around to grin at Freddy.

"You want to change seats after that one?" he asked.

The English youth grinned, but shook his head.

"No, I think not," he said. "If that's the worst you do before we're
back, everything will come out all right."

"It will come out all right!" Dave echoed in a rush of words. "This job
means a lot, Freddy. We can't let the Fleet Air Arm down."

"We won't," Freddy said, and the look in his eyes said that he meant
just that.

"Atta boy!" Dave chuckled. "That's the old fight. And don't worry, pal,
I won't let you down, either. Gosh! I'd cut my throat if I did."

"Oh no, you wouldn't!" Freddy said firmly.

"No?"

"No, Dave, my lad," Freddy said, "because I'd jolly well cut it for
you, see? Well, there's the first thread of dawn."

As Freddy spoke, he pointed toward the east off the left wing. Dave
looked in that direction and saw the thin grey line low down on the
horizon. It was the very first signal that the sun was on its way up
for a new day. Like night, day comes fast in the Middle East. The first
telltale grey line mounts and brightens, and then while you watch a
blaze of color streams up over the horizon and starts racing after the
shadows of night you can actually see if you turn to the west and look.
It is something like the way thunder clouds look sliding down over the
horizon before the slanting rays of the sun that has finally broken
through--bright and golden to one horizon, and dark and murky to the
other.

Letting the plane more or less fly itself, Dave sat staring toward the
east and watched the dawning of a new day. In an abstract sort of way
he wondered where Freddy and he would be when that sun coming up had
made its journey across the sky and had slid down over the western lip
of the world. Would they be safely back on the Victory? Would they be
at El Aghelia, or Bengazi, or some other British Libyan outpost? Would
they be down on the Libyan sands with nothing but a charred heap of
wreckage for an airplane? Or would they--

He shook his head angrily as though to drive away the thoughts. They
came creeping back to him, however. They sneaked up on his brain when
he wasn't suspecting them. And little by little the dangerous side of
this mission crept in to occupy his mind. Back on the Victory he had
simply accepted as a matter of course that the flight would be fraught
with danger. All flights made in war skies were that way. That's why
wars were wars. So even after Group Captain Spencer's repeated words
about the dangers involved, he had refused to give much thought to that
angle of the venture.

He was giving considerable thought to it now, though, and much against
his will. That there was an eerie trembling at the back of his neck,
and that his heart pounded much too hard, made him furious at himself.
His fury, however, didn't drive away the tantalizing thoughts. There,
just a few miles ahead of him now, was the Libyan coast. Beyond were
miles and miles of hot, blazing desert sands, dotted here and there by
a native village so small you could drop it down into Times Square, New
York, and hardly be able to find it again. And all of those countless
miles of desert were held by the enemy, patrolled by them on the
ground, and in the air.

The truth of the matter was that he and Freddy were heading straight
into a world where neither man nor nature was their friend. The blazing
sun, and the burning sands, were just as much their foes as a Nazi
tank, or a Nazi plane, or a squad of desert troops. Their only friend,
their only ally, was the Blackburn Skua and its 830 hp. Bristol Pegasus
engine. The plane, the engine, and their own will and ability to
survive.

"Hey, what are you shaking your head about? Something wrong?"

He turned at the sound of Freddy's voice and grinned reassuringly.

"Just thinking things over, and adding up the points on our side,"
he said. "You know me! Old Man Cold Feet, once I get started off on
something."

"Stop fishing for compliments!" Freddy laughed at him. "Your feet
aren't half as cold as mine. And--Uh-uh! Get us some altitude, Dave.
Looks like some kind of a coastal patrol plane down there and to the
right. What do you make of it?"

Dave leaned forward and to the side and stared downward in the
direction of Freddy's pointed finger. A few thousand feet below a murky
shadow was moving toward the northwest. Though the light was bad, the
shadow was moving too swiftly for it to be any kind of a surface ship.
It was a plane, no doubt about that. However, Dave didn't waste time
to make sure whether it was British or Axis. He pulled the Skua's nose
upward, and fed a bit more fuel to the smooth singing Pegasus engine.

"Maybe it's just two other guys!" he called back over his shoulder.
"We'll ignore them just the same. Company's something we don't crave.
All set with that camera, Freddy? The sun's coming up fast, and you
never can tell how soon we might spot something."

"All set, and ready to start clicking!" the English youth replied. "You
show me something, and I'll do the rest. I'm a whiz at this sort of
thing, you'll understand."

"Let you know about that after I see some of the results!" Dave
chuckled, and held the Skua in its long climb up over the coastline of
Libya.

An hour later they were deep over the desert and the sun was a brassy
ball that touched the sweeping sands below with fingers of fire. Dave's
eyes ached and smarted from the constant glare, despite the sun lenses
he had slipped on over the glass of his goggles. They had long since
shoved open the cockpit hood, because, though it was uncomfortable in
the steady beat of the sun's rays, it was like flying along inside a
baker's oven when the hood was shut.

An hour's flight over the desert, and nothing but sand, sand, and more
sand. Here and there dark streaks had marked rocky strips that pushed
up through the burning sands. And a few tiny dots from their altitude
were clumps of desert bush, and a dried up oasis or two. But they
didn't sight a single village, though they strained their eyes until
they ached almost unbearably. And as far as troops, tanks, and other
motorized equipment went, they might just as well have been coasting
around over the middle of the Atlantic Ocean.

There just wasn't anything below them but sand during the first hour of
patrol. And the scene was not one bit changed at the end of the second
hour. As a matter of fact, the scene was so much the same Dave had the
crazy feeling they had been hovering motionless in the same spot of air
for time on end. For the last twenty minutes neither of them had spoken
a word. To talk was an effort and, besides, there was so little to talk
about save the one thought that each kept to himself, the one gnawing
fear within each. It was the mounting realization that failure of the
mission was beginning to hover in the offing.

For two solid hours, during which time they had covered countless
square miles of enemy territory, they hadn't sighted a single thing
worth remembering. No troop depots, no desert outposts, no roving tank
patrols, and not even any enemy aircraft. That last, the fact they had
not sighted a single Italian or Nazi plane in the air, plagued Dave
and caused the fingers of worry to play upon his tightly drawn nerves.
True, they had not flown close to Tripoli, or anywhere near it. Perhaps
Tripoli was overflowing with Axis planes and mechanized desert units.
That wasn't the point. That wasn't the reason Freddy and he had been
sent out on this scouting patrol.

The British High Command knew that troops and equipment had been
assembled at Tripoli. What the High Command didn't know was _if_ any
of those units had moved out into the desert, and where, and in what
numbers. It stood to reason that the Axis High Command in Libya hadn't
kept them bottled up in the Tripoli area for fear of surprise attack by
Wavell's forces. That was foolish, if for no other reason than the fact
that over four hundred miles of desert lay between the most advanced
British outpost and the Tripoli garrison.

It was a dead sure thing that parts of the Axis forces had moved out
into the desert, and had established communication lines with the main
base. Yet--

"Yet there's not a single sign of them!" Dave spoke the thought aloud.
"Not a gosh darn sign--unless we're stone blind, and can't see beyond
our noses!"

"What did you say, Dave?" he heard Freddy ask.

He turned in the seat and shrugged.

"Just talking aloud," he said. "This business is getting me down. Why
haven't we seen anything? Even a village would help. But it's all as
blank as a sheet of paper--yeah, a sheet of sand paper. Look, Freddy,
I'm just about making up my mind to something."

"To go back?" Freddy asked, and a worried look stole into his eyes.

"Back, nothing!" Dave snorted. "We've still got gas. We're not licked
by a darn sight. No, that isn't the idea. Look, we've covered a lot
of ground. If we've passed over Axis forces in any of the areas we've
checked, then they must have tunneled out from Tripoli, by gosh, and
are still underground. That's crazy, of course, so it leaves us one
more thing to try."

"Well?" Freddy grunted as Dave paused. "I'm waiting. Let's have it."

"The Tripoli area," Dave said promptly. "Let's get us some more
altitude and sneak up on Tripoli as closely as we can without being
spotted. If we don't spot anything there, then we can be pretty sure
that the Tripoli rumors are so much hog-wash."

"I doubt that last," Freddy said gravely. "The High Command must be
pretty sure, rather, dead sure, that something's up, else Fleet Air Arm
Command wouldn't have agreed for the Victory to pull out of line and go
steaming off on its own."

"Yes, I guess that's true," Dave nodded, and scowled. "But I'm still in
favor of sneaking up on the Tripoli area if we can. And for a couple of
reasons, too."

"Such as?" the English youth prompted as Dave hesitated.

"Well, first for a look-see at the area," Dave explained presently.
"Second because it will take us back toward the coast. It was still
pretty dark when we flew in over the coast, and--well, it's just a
guess that the Nazis _may_ be sneaking along the coastline. Maybe
they're not circling down toward the south and up to flank Wavell's
advance forces. Get what I mean?"

"Instantly!" Freddy exclaimed, and his tired eyes lighted up. "I'm
tipping my topper to you, my lad. Yes, I believe you're right. They
may be sneaking along the coast, just far enough inland to prevent
observation from the sea. Yes, let's head back that way, by all means.
Good grief, anything would be better than this tooting around over
the blasted desert down there. It's like standing in front of a blast
furnace with the door open!"

"Ten times worse!" Dave muttered, and started banking the Skua around
and up in a climb for altitude. "Boy! I'd sure like to pick the next
spot for Hitler and his big bums to invade. I'd get me a transfer to
duty there so fast it would make your head swim."

"And where would that be?" Freddy asked.

"The North Pole," Dave said. "Gee! Nice cool air spilling into the
cockpit. And a--Hey! _Freddy!_"

Dave bellowed the last and sat up straight in the seat. The English
youth jumped in alarm and banged his head on one of the cowling braces.

"Good grief, what?" he choked out. "What's the matter?"

"Plenty!" Dave snapped back over his shoulder, and at the same time
wheeled the Skua around in a quick turn. "Trouble in six different
packages. To your right and up! Take a look! Busting down out of the
sun. And they aren't sea gulls, either. Buckle your safety strap and
get set, Freddy!"

The English youth did just that as he jerked his head around and
squinted up toward the sun. He was blinded for a second or so by the
brassy glare, but he performed the well known war pilot's trick that
makes it possible to spot planes sliding down out of the sun. You close
one eye and then hold the thumb of your free hand four or five inches
in front of the eye you keep open. The ball of your thumb covers the
sun and permits you to see planes diving down in its glare. You can't
do it for very long because there is still enough glare to get into
your eyes. However, you can stare in the direction of the sun long
enough to spot what you want to see.

Anyway, Freddy pulled that sun "eclipsing" stunt and saw the six planes
streaking down toward the Skua. They were just moving blurs at first,
but in a second or so they took on definite shapes and outlines. He
lowered his thumb and eyes and swung to man his rear guns.

"Three Nazi Henschel reconnaissance jobs!" he shouted at Dave. "And
three Italian Breda Sixty-Fives. How in thunder did they get up there
in the sun?"

"Don't ask me!" Dave called out, and slid the safety catch off his gun
trigger button. "Maybe they've been up there all the time, and just
now spotted us. I don't know. But, brother, I'm not going to bother
about asking them. Hang on, Freddy! I'm first going to try and give
them the slip. Gee! Running away from Muzzy pilots and Jerry pilots.
But there'll come another day."

"That's what you think!" Freddy shouted. "It's already here, my lad!"



CHAPTER SEVEN

_Fate Laughs Last_


Freddy Farmer had not shouted a lie, nor had it been an attempt at a
kidding wise-crack. Even as his words became lost in the roar of the
Pegasus engine, the yammer of _Rheinmettal-Borsigs_, the German aerial
machine gun, and _Breda-Safats_, the Italian aerial machine gun, filled
the desert air. Out of the corner of his eye Dave saw tracer bullet
smoke weave downward well clear of the Skua, and a tight grin of relief
came to his lips.

The attacking planes had had the advantage of surprise, and they had
been able to get in the first shots, but even with those two things in
their favor the enemy pilots has missed badly. That made it instantly
obvious that they were not seasoned air fighters.

"That's a small break for us, anyway," Dave grunted, and hauled the
Skua up and around in a prop clawing climbing turn. "But there's still
six of them, so this isn't going to be any waltz. Okay, Jerry, let this
give you an idea you weren't invited!"

As the last left Dave's lips, he ruddered slightly to the left and
pressed his trigger release button. His four Vickers guns cowled into
the wing spat flame and sound, and a German Henschel, in the act of
banking off to twist back and charge downward, was caught square in the
burst of bullets. The Nazi craft seemed to jerk sideways for a split
second. Then almost instantly it continued around and down--and kept
right on going down, leaving behind a long trail of oily black smoke.

"And then there were five!" Freddy sang out. "Well done, Dave. Uh-uh!
No you don't, my little Italian bambino! I've been waiting for you. Oh,
very much so!"

Freddy Farmer's rear guns barked out their message of war, and one of
the Italian Bredas was smacked on the wing like a clay pigeon. It acted
as though it had been hit by a couple of battleship salvos instead of
machine gun bullets. Or perhaps it was because the Italian pilot at the
controls went a little bit crazy in his frantic efforts to yank his
plane out of Freddy's deadly fire. At any rate the 870 hp. Gnome-Rhone
fitted Italian Breda went spinning nose over rudder post across the
sky. The violent maneuver was too much for the ship. The monoplane
wings sheared off as though some invisible giant had slashed them off
with a knife. Instantly the wingless fuselage pointed its nose downward
and dropped like a bomb.

Freddy didn't wait to see if the pilot and gunner were able to bail
out. The two other Henschels had swerved in close by then and were
spraying the Skua with a shower of hissing bullets as Dave slammed the
plane through a full roll and then took advantage of the British ship's
superior speed and power and zoomed straight up at the vertical. The
zoom maneuver completely threw the Henschel pilots off guard, and as
the Skua rocketed upward Freddy swung his guns around and raked one of
the Henschels from prop to tail. The German craft seemed to stop dead
in midair. Then the starboard strut between the right bottom and top
wings buckled in the middle as though hit with a sharp axe. A second
later the two wings folded together. The plane lurched drunkenly off
to that side and then slowly rolled over and down into a spin. That's
the last either of the boys saw of it. There was still one Nazi and two
Italian planes in the air, and the loss of the three other ships seemed
to add to the savage fury of the attack of their pilots and gunners.

They slashed up toward the zooming Skua with all guns blazing. Dave and
Freddy heard the nickel-jacketed bullets rip and chew their way into
their plane. Twice the Skua seemed to falter, but each time it kept on
going upward. Finally Dave shook his head and kicked the plane over and
down out of its zoom and sent it corkscrewing off to the left.

"Can't shake those guys!" he shouted back at Freddy. "They must have
hopped up their engines, or something. Anyway, they've got more speed
and power than I figured. We've got to fight it out with them, Freddy.
There's no chance to shake them off."

"Okay by me!" the English youth shouted back. "Just beginning to enjoy
myself, anyway. Tell you what, Dave! Go after that German beggar. If we
put him out of business I fancy those Italian lads won't hang around
very long."

"Just the idea I had in mind!" Dave said with a nod. "Mussolini's
pilots are tough on pigeons and maybe crows, but that's about all.
Okay, there's the little Nazi. I'll smack him and force him to turn
off. Then you give him the works as we go by. You know, the old team
work!"

"Right you are!" Freddy cried, and crouched over his guns. "The old
team work it'll be!"

Stepping hard on rudder, Dave sticked the Skua up on wing and hauled it
around in a vertical bank to the right. The terrific speed of the turn
caused his eyeballs to start to roll up backwards in their sockets, and
for a split second or so he almost went blind, or had a "black-out,"
as the R.A.F. expression terms it. He eased off the speed of the turn,
however, and the pinkish haze that was starting to film his eyes faded
away until he could see clearly again.

"Hey, no more of that!" came Freddy's warning shout. "You'll have us
blind as bats, maneuvering at such speed. Then we'll be easy pickings
for those lads."

"Sorry, Freddy!" Dave sang out, and started to drop the nose. "Forgot
for a second I had you along. Won't do it again."

"Be sure you don't!" Freddy cried. "Okay, Dave, let him have it! I'm
all set for the finishing touches."

Dave didn't even hear the last. He had hunched forward and was
giving every bit of his attention to the last Nazi Henschel biplane
reconnaissance ship that was banking over and off the top of a power
zoom. The instant it was square in his sights, he jabbed the trigger
release button. He saw his tracers slice into the plane just in back of
the B.M.W. 132 radial engine. Before he could rudder enough to bring
the pilot's cockpit and the observer-gunner's cockpit into his sights,
the German had wheeled to the left and down.

At perhaps a thousand other times that would have been the perfect
maneuver for the German pilot to make. This time, however, was the
exception. In fact, because of the Skua's terrific diving speed, the
German pilot actually made the worst maneuver possible. Dave simply
held the Skua in its thundering power dive and let Freddy Farmer do the
rest. And the English youth was not asleep. He brought his guns to bear
on the Henschel as they flashed by and practically cut the Nazi ship in
two with his steady, relentless, furious fire. Flame shot out of the
Henschel and leaped up toward the sky. A huge ball of smoke completely
enveloped the plane. When the wind caught the smoke and blew it away,
the Henschel just wasn't there any more. It was simply a shower of
smouldering embers slithering down toward the blazing sands.

"I thought so, I thought so!" Freddy's wild cry came to Dave's ears.
"There they go! And will you just look at those blasted beggars hop it!
Three cheers for Mussolini and the Italian Air Force!"

Dave pulled the Skua out of its dive and twisted around to look in
the direction of Freddy's pointed finger. What had been two Italian
Breda Sixty-Fives a few moments before were now just two dots against
the brassy Libyan sky, and becoming smaller and smaller as they moved
swiftly toward the west. Even as Dave watched them, with a scornful
grin of his lips, the two dots faded out of view completely.

"So now what?" he presently asked Freddy. "Do we head for the Tripoli
area, or do we start drifting northward toward the nearest British
outpost?"

The English youth didn't answer at once. He leaned forward and looked
over Dave's shoulder at the instrument board. He frowned slightly and
absently fingered the high speed aerial camera fitted to the right side
of his cockpit and pointing downward through a port opening in the
floor of the pit.

"I see that we've still another hour's flight in the petrol tanks,"
he said, looking at Dave. "Another hour before we have to head north
for the Victory rendezvous. If you're asking me, I say let's head for
Tripoli. Let's have a look along the coast, anyway. Hey! What the
dickens are you chuckling at, you funny-looking ape?"

Dave wiped the grin off his face and looked surprised.

"Who, me?" he asked innocently.

"Yes, you!" Freddy said with a nod. "Out with it! What's so funny?"

Dave chuckled again and pointed at Freddy's hand still fingering the
camera.

"You," he said. "What a guy! With maybe the fate of the entire Middle
East hanging in the balance, all the lad can think of is taking
pictures!"

"Rot!" the English youth exploded, but a faint flush seeped into his
cheeks. "But, blast it, that's part of the job we're supposed to do,
isn't it? And we both agreed that was our last chance, didn't we?"

"Okay, okay, little man!" Dave said, and raised a hand in token of
surrender. "Keep your shirt on, and stop biting my head off. So help
me, I'll find something for you to snap with your precious camera.
I'll--"

Dave never finished the last. At that moment the Bristol Pegasus engine
in the nose coughed and made a rasping sound that sent cold chills
slicing up and down Dave's spine despite the burning glare of the
desert sun. He locked eyes with Freddy for a brief instant and then
twisted his head front and looked at the instrument board. The answer
showed on the dial of the oil pressure gauge. The needle was swinging
around the dial toward the zero mark like the floor indicator of an
express elevator on the way down to street level.

"Well, I guess the blighters were darn good shots, at that," he heard
Freddy comment as the engine coughed a couple of times more and then
began to die out in a long metallic sigh.

An instant later it was as though an invisible little imp hiding under
the engine cowling had stuck the end of a parted oil line through the
instrument board into Dave's cockpit. A spurt of hot black liquid
went streaming out and down past his legs. He jerked his legs aside
in a flash, whipped off the ignition and yanked back the throttle in
practically a continuation of the same movement. Then, as the oil
ceased spurting back into the pit, he sticked the plane down into a
long flat glide and turned to Freddy again.

"Can I let you off any place, sir?" he asked with a tight, forced grin
on his lips.

Freddy blinked as though forcing back the tears of bitter defeat and
failure that sprang to his eyes. Then he grinned weakly, and nodded.

"Why, yes, if you'll be so kind," he said. "On the deck of an aircraft
carrier named Victory. You wouldn't mind?"

"_I_ wouldn't mind a bit," Dave replied. "But these horses we have
up front don't want to work any more. Seriously, Freddy, what do you
think?"

"About what?" the English youth asked in an innocent tone.

Dave scowled at him.

"Cut it out!" he growled. "You know what I mean. Okay, if you won't
talk, then I will. We've got to destroy this ship, haven't we? Okay.
I say the heck with bailing out and dropping down with all the stuff
we'll need down there in the desert. Also, it may be hard to fire the
ship before we go over the side. Let's land the bus and take our time
selecting the stuff we want to take on the tramp back to--"

Dave stopped short, swallowed hard, and cast a quick glance down at the
vast expanse of desert sand waiting below to receive them.

"Stuff we need on the walk back to the nearest British outpost," he
finally finished the sentence. "Well? What do you say?"

"The same thing," Freddy said, and made his lips smile. "Didn't you
hear me? Besides, I never did like jumping by parachute. Scares the
life out of me, you know."

Dave looked at the cool, calm expression in the English youth's eyes,
and at the grim set of his jaws.

"Yeah," he murmured with a chuckle. "I just bet bailing out scares the
pants off you. And probably eating an ice cream soda does the same
thing, you old soldier. Okay, then, we'll take the bus downstairs and
sit down on the sand."

The two boys smiled at each other, but each could see that there was
no joy in the other's eyes. Instead there was a look of bitterness and
helpless rage that neither could keep from showing through. The one
thing they had feared most had come to pass. Their Skua wasn't of any
more use to them now. They were on their way down into the middle of
a desert wilderness. And after what. Nothing. They had accomplished
nothing during the three hours and some odd minutes that had passed
since taking off from the flight deck of the Victory. For all the good
they had accomplished, for all the enemy information they had obtained,
they might just as well have stayed aboard the carrier.

It was no use trying to dodge the truth. They had failed in their
mission completely, and now they were on their way down to battle for
their lives against the enemy desert and the enemy sun.

"Thumbs up, Freddy!" Dave suddenly said in a steady voice. "We're not
admitting defeat yet--no, not by a darn sight."

"Certainly not!" the English youth echoed. "I've always wanted to see
what it was like in the middle of a desert, anyway. So take me down, my
good man. I want to stretch my legs."

Dave grinned and winked and then turned front and gave his attention to
flying. He circled the ship around and headed it due north at a gliding
angle that was just a degree or two above the stalling point. Safety
lay to the north, and the farther he could stretch the plane's glide in
that direction the less the number of miles Freddy and he would have to
plod over the desert sands.

Holding the ship steady, he hunched forward in the seat and stared
hard and long at the uninviting expanse of desert that stretched out
on all sides toward the four horizons. Half a dozen times he thought
he saw dark splotches down on the sand--dots and darkish shapes that
might possibly mark the location of a village, or perhaps even an Axis
(German-Italian) desert outpost. But when he tried to get a better
look, the rays of the sun reflecting upward from the shimmering sand
made his eyes smart and water, and everything to swim around in his
gaze.

Inch by inch he eased the plane downward as slowly as he dared,
and used every bit of his flying skill to stretch the glide as far
northward as possible. No airplane, however, can remain aloft without
the use of its engine, and the Skua's engine was dead for keeps. And
so after a certain length of time the desert was only a few hundred
feet beneath the wheels he had cranked down out of the wing. At that
low altitude the desert ceased to be flat and smooth as a sheet of ice.
Dave saw that it was very much ridged by sand dunes built up by desert
storms. And he saw also that there actually was considerable shrubbery
about. But of course it was desert growth, and so bleached and whitened
by the hot rays of the sun and the drifting sand that the stuff blended
in perfectly with the sand. Unless you were practically down in it, you
could very easily miss it altogether.

"Okay, Freddy, hang onto your hat!" Dave shouted as he eased the plane
up out of its gliding angle and prepared to sit down on the sand. "This
is it. Here we go!"

"Fire away!" came the English youth's reply. "I'm hanging on!"

For a couple of split seconds the plane hung motionless in the air as
though it were suddenly reluctant to settle. Then it sank down the few
remaining feet, bounced lightly twice, and rolled forward to a gentle
stop. Dave didn't have to bother about applying the wheel brakes. The
wheels sank two or three inches into the sand, and that action served
enough for brakes.

As soon as the plane came to a full stop, Dave and Freddy started
gathering up what few things they had brought in the event of just such
an emergency as this. They tossed their helmets onto the cockpit floor
and put on the small but very useful army pith helmets. They wiggled
out of their parachute harness, and fastened their precious water
bottles to their belts. They made sure that they had taken out every
bit of the compact emergency rations brought along, and checked to make
sure that they had knives, compass, and their automatics.

Finally they had everything they needed. Dave started to leg down onto
the sand, but suddenly dropped back in his seat and stared at Freddy
out of miserable eyes.

"I once saw a man shoot a horse that had broken its leg," he said in
a strained voice. "He was really and truly crying as he pulled the
trigger. I was pretty young at the time, and I couldn't figure out why
he'd shoot the horse if it made him feel so badly. I thought at the
time he must be crazy, and I got scared pink and ran all the way home
without stopping. I know now why he shot that horse, and--and I guess I
sort of know, too, just how he felt."

Freddy swallowed and nodded silently. Dave impulsively reached out and
touched the cockpit rim with his hand.

"Sort of like that horse, old girl," he mumbled in a low voice. "We
can't leave you here to fall into enemy hands. So we've got to put you
out of the way--yeah, sort of out of your misery, I guess you could
call it. The desert, and the Nazis, would only do you harm, if they
found you. So--so long."

"Let's get on with it, Dave," Freddy said after a moment's silence, and
legged out onto the sand.

Five minutes later the Bristol-powered Blackburn Skua was an inferno of
flame and black smoke that towered high up into the brassy desert sky.
Dave and Freddy were many yards away, heading northward. Not once did
either of them turn their heads to look back at the blazing plane that
the fortunes of war had forced them to destroy and abandon.



CHAPTER EIGHT

_Blazing Sands_


"Well, I've had my fill!" Freddy gasped. "I can jolly well tell you,
I've had my fill."

The two pilots had been tramping across the sand for a little over
two hours, and Freddy Farmer had suddenly come to a halt and wiped a
bucketful of sand-washed sweat from his face. Dave stopped and looked
at him questioningly.

"Fill of what?" he asked. "What do you mean, or is the sun getting you?"

"I said I'd always wanted to see what it was like in the middle of the
desert," the English youth replied with a grimace. "Well, I've had a
look, and I can tell you I'm fed up with it, no end. How far do you
think we'll have to go with this sand walking business, anyway?"

"Oh, not so far!" Dave said in a cheery voice. "Eight or nine hundred
miles, I guess. Maybe an even thousand."

Freddy shot him a look of withering scorn.

"Only that far?" he snapped. "I thought it would be at least a couple
of thousand miles. If what you say is true, we should be there by
sundown, easy. But, no fooling, Dave, I'm done in something awful. I
could sit down and rest for a week."

"Me, too, Freddy," Dave agreed. "But if we sit down here on the sand
under this sun, we'll be fried to a crisp. Come on, fellow, up and at
'em, huh?"

"Who said anything about sitting down here?" Freddy said indignantly,
and pointed. "Look over there. Lots of desert bush, and plenty of shade
for both of us. What do you say?"

Dave scowled and looked in the direction of Freddy's pointed hand. He
himself was also desperately tired, and he knew that to continue on
under the blazing sun would take more out of the two of them than they
could spare. Yet some inner force urged him to go on; to keep Freddy
moving forward. Why, he had not the slightest idea. There was just some
little voice within him that begged, pleaded, and commanded him to keep
on moving northward.

"They sure look inviting, Freddy," he said in a weary voice as he eyed
the huge clump of thick desert bush about a hundred yards away. "But
I've got a hunch that we should keep going."

"You and your hunches!" Freddy groaned. "What difference does half an
hour make, I'd like to know? Don't get the idea I'm being a quitter,
Dave. Nothing like that, really. Fact is, I'm trying to be sensible.
We're not trained for this sort of thing. If we bite off too much at
one time, we may pay dearly for our foolishness. Let's rest a bit in
the shade of those bushes, such as it is, and then have another go at
this blasted tramping."

"Okay," Dave finally relented. "I guess you're right at that. No
sense burning ourselves out this early in the game. Okay, we'll--Hold
everything, Freddy!"

As Dave shouted the last he put up both hands as a shield for his
aching eyes and peered hard toward the northwest.

"What is it, Dave?" Freddy cried eagerly. "What do you see?"

"I don't know," Freddy said slowly. "I'm not sure at all. Take a look
in the direction I'm pointing, Freddy. Call it a mile, or so, over
there. What do you make of that darkish streak over there? Say! That's
a ledge of rock, and covered with desert bushes, or I'm a Chinaman."

Freddy cupped his own hands to his eyes and strained them in that
direction.

"You're no Chinaman, Dave!" he cried presently. "That's rock sure
enough. Looks like a plateau split right down through the middle, but
you can't tell in this blasted sun."

"What do you say we make for it?" Dave said. "If it's what it looks
like, it'll give us more shade than those desert bushes over there. And
the sun is getting close to high noon in that darn sky up there. In an
hour or so your bushes won't be worth a darn. What do you say? Shall we
pull up the old socks and try to reach that place, huh?"

Freddy sighed and shrugged resignedly.

"Right you are," he murmured. "But I certainly wish I could learn to
say no now and then to your wild propositions. I'd certainly save a lot
of wear and tear on myself. Right-o, my little hero. Lead the way. I'm
right at your heels. Phew, if these poor blistered feet of mine were
only walking the flight deck of the Victory right now. How wonderful,
how delicious that would be!"

"Shut up!" Dave growled at him, and started plodding across the
seemingly endless expanse of sand. "You'll have me blubbering like a
kid in a minute."

A little under an hour later, the two boys had very definitely learned
something else about the Libyan desert, or any other desert, for that
matter. It was that, when you think some spot is a certain number of
miles away from you, you can just multiply your guess by at least six,
and the answer will _still be less_ than the actual distance. The glare
of the sun, the shimmering heat waves rising up from the sand, plus the
flatness of the desert, fool you completely when it comes to judging
distances between two points.

"This is sure a long mile!" Freddy broke a five minute silence. "Or
have we been walking in circles? My compass says not, but maybe the
heat's got it, too."

"You and me both!" Dave groaned, and nodded his head. "It's been
looking only a mile away for the last twenty minutes. I'm sorry,
Freddy. I guess the desert is a tricky spot. How're you doing? We've
got to keep going now, you know. If we stop, we're done for."

Freddy wiped hot hands across his equally hot face. There was not even
the comfort of sweating, now. No sooner did a bead of sweat ooze out on
their bodies than the heat dried it up. From head to foot every square
inch of their skin felt like a piece of bacon in a frying pan that a
good housewife forgot all about before she left for the movies. Even
though they wore desert sun glasses, their eyes felt as though they
were exposed to the direct rays of the brassy ball of fire in the sky.
Each step was an effort, for their leg joints seemed sapped of all body
lubricants. And every now and then, to add to their torture, a little
flurry of wind would spring up as though by magic and hurl a swirling
cloud of hot stinging sand directly into their faces. However, each new
little discomfort that rose up to torture them only served to feed fuel
to the flame of resoluteness and grim determination that burned within
them.

"Am I right or wrong, pal?" Dave asked when Freddy did not speak.

"Your turn to shut up!" the English youth grunted. "I'm not quitting
until you do, my American friend. Matter of fact, though, I think the
blasted spot does seem a bit closer."

"Me, too," Dave cried, and increased the pace. "Come on, Freddy. The
old whirlwind finish. Yes, it _is_ closer. I'd say only about--"

"Don't say it!" Freddy begged. "Let's stop guessing and not break our
hearts. Let's just walk. What's the matter? Can't you go faster than
that?"

Dave grinned happily as the English youth increased his stride and went
sailing into the lead. Just like old Freddy Farmer. Groans and gripes
a bit, and then before you know it he's making you look like the one
who's groaning and griping.

"Tough guy, huh?" Dave chuckled, and drew up on a level with Freddy's
shoulder. "Maybe you want to sprint the rest of the way? Well, skip it,
pal. This pace is fast enough for me. Boy! Only a couple of minutes
more. And look, Freddy! It's like a regular cliff. Two cliffs, with a
valley in between. Gosh! What do you know! A canyon cut into this darn
flat desert."

"Think again, Dave," Freddy said with a smile. "Better still, turn
around and take a look. I did. We've really been walking uphill, to the
top of a plateau formation of ground. Those cliffs are the two sides of
a crack that time has made in the plateau formation of ground. Just as
unexplainable as why you suddenly come across an oasis with water and
palm trees in the middle of a barren desert."

At Freddy's suggestion Dave turned around and looked back in the
direction whence they had come. It was then he realized the truth
of the English youth's words. Instead of standing on a flat, almost
shapeless desert, they were actually standing near the crest of a long
sloping hill. True, the slope was marked by countless sand dunes kicked
up by the desert winds, but it was still easy to see that they were
a good couple of hundred feet higher than they had been when they'd
started out. To make sure it all wasn't just a trick his eyes and the
desert sun were playing on him, he turned front again and looked at
the brownish slash that marked the split in the plateau and formed the
escarpment. The brownish slash in the desert was the highest piece of
ground before his eyes. Beyond, he could see only Libyan sky and the
brassy glare of the sun. That was so because he was actually looking
uphill.

"Well, what do you know!" he exclaimed, and grinned at Freddy. "No
wonder my legs feel ready to drop off. We've been plowing uphill and
didn't know it."

"The desert is full of tricks," the English youth said with a shrug.
"And all of them mean ones, too. Well, let's get on with it. Won't be
long now."

It turned out to be longer than that, however. Another twenty minutes
passed by into time history before they reached the top of the
escarpment and stood looking down its side. The canyon was about
seventy-five yards long, perhaps thirty-five feet deep, and a hundred
feet wide at the top. The two sides were formed of jagged rock with
treacherous spots of crumpling sand-stone here and there. There was
plenty of brush and shrubbery about, however, and it was thick enough
to cast patches of shade regardless of the burning rays of the sun. One
point struck them at once as being an ideal spot where they could relax
and rest until the sun was deep in the west, and the cooling winds of
night were beginning to steal across the desert. It was to their left
and about halfway down. A shelf of rock jutted outward a bit. As a
matter of fact, it was really two shelves of rock that jutted out. The
bottom one served as a platform upon which to rest. And the top shelf,
rimmed with thick desert bush, served as a roof, a sort of canopy for
the shelf lower down. Fortunately the side of the escarpment was not
too steep to make it impossible for them to reach the lower shelf.

"That's us, Freddy!" Dave exclaimed, and pointed to it. "We'll get down
there and be cliff dwellers until it's cool enough to start getting
underway again. I vote that we get down there pronto, and have a bit to
eat and a little water. That's our biggest danger--water. We must save
every drop we can. Who knows when--"

Dave stopped short, and a horrified look leaped into his eyes. He
pointed his finger at Freddy and worked his mouth, but no words came
from his lips. The English youth stared at him and impulsively
recoiled a step in surprise and amazement.

"Dave, what's the matter?" he gasped out. "Dave! Come out of it! What
in the world?"

Dave gulped and shook his head as though to snap himself out of his
stunned trance.

"Your water bottle, Freddy!" he blurted out. "Look! It's leaking! The
canvas cover is dripping wet at the bottom. When did you do that?"

The English youth didn't bother to reply. He reached down and took hold
of the canvas-covered water canteen slung at his belt. The bottom half
was dripping wet, though the burning rays of the sun were doing their
best to drink up every drop of moisture. As Freddy tilted it bottom
side up, both boys saw the tiny slash in the canvas covering and the
even smaller crack in the metal underneath.

"I can tell by the weight," Freddy said in a tight, strained voice.
"There's no more than a cupful left. Talk about luck! Blast it!"

Dave nodded and said nothing. There was no mystery as to how the canvas
had been slashed and the metal canteen split so that the precious water
had seeped out a drop at a time as Freddy plodded across the sands. It
was obvious that a made-in-Germany bullet, or a made-in-Italy bullet
had done the work. A stray bullet, a bullet in a thousand during that
air scrap had cut through into the Skua's cockpit and nicked the bottom
of Freddy's water canteen. It had creased the metal, but not enough to
leave an opening through which the water could escape. No, it hadn't
cut all the way through, but later the bumping of the canteen against
Freddy's leg as he trudged across the sand had caused the paper thin
layer of metal left to part and crack and allow the water to seep
through.

"Blast the Jerry or Muzzy gunner who did that!" Freddy grated through
clenched teeth.

"I'm hoping it was one of them we got!" Dave grunted. "Well, my water
canteen's still okay. We'll just have to go extra easy with the
drinking. It's not your fault, anyway. Let's forget it and get down
there. I'm beginning to feel more like a grease spot every second.
We'll split what's in your canteen for our first drink, and then take
turns at mine, later. Come on. And hold that canteen bottom side up as
you climb down."

"Have no fear of that!" the English youth said grimly. "It would have
to be my _water canteen_, wouldn't it! It couldn't be my leg, or an
arm, or maybe my neck."

Dave laughed and slapped him on the back.

"Chin and thumbs up, pal!" he cried. "Forget it! We'll just make
believe we're a couple of camels. They go for days without water, you
know."

"Oh, quite!" Freddy grunted. "But who wants to be a blinking camel?
However, right you are. Let's get out of this sun, anyway."

Ten minutes later the two boys had safely reached the shelter of the
lower ledge of rock. It wasn't cool and comfortable, by any manner of
means. As a matter of fact, it was something like squatting down on
the top of a stove that hasn't been out for very long. Regardless of
that, however, it was like an icebox compared to the direct rays of the
blistering sun above, and the blistering heat of the shifting sands
beneath their feet.

"Boy, oh boy!" Dave sighed wearily. "The first thing I'm going to do is
get off these shoes. What I wouldn't give for the Kind Fairy to wave
her magic wand and create a nice, cool babbling brook to dip these dogs
in. Gosh! I--"

"Hold still, Dave!" Freddy suddenly cried. "Hold still! Don't move a
muscle!"

Dave, in the act of putting his hands in back of him to serve as a
brace while he arched his body backwards, froze motionless and look
wild-eyed at Freddy.

"What's the matter?" he asked in a hoarse whisper.

Freddy didn't reply. He simply shook his head, and picked up one of
his shoes he had taken off. He gripped it by the toe and leaned slowly
around in back of Dave. Then in a sudden movement he cracked the heel
of the shoe down on the rock with a resounding smack.

"There!" he breathed, straightening up. "That takes care of that little
beggar."

"Hey, what gives, anyway?" Dave gulped and frowned. "You playing games
or something?"

"Hardly!" Freddy said dryly. "I was simply saving you a lot of pain,
and perhaps something worse than that. Take a look."

Dave twisted around, half expecting to see a squad of Nazi soldiers
crouching behind him. What he really saw was the mashed body of a
three-inch long lizzard-like creature. It looked like a cross between
a lizzard and a grasshopper, and there was a suggestion of a lobster
about it, too. The body was long and tapering, like that of a lizzard.
At the head two tiny horns with lobster-like claws at the end stuck out
in front. And there were four long legs on either side of the body.

"Gosh, what's that?" he asked. "Some kind of a desert bug?"

"The worst you can meet in the desert," Freddy replied. "It's a
scorpion. See that barbed point that forms the end of his tail? That's
his stinger. You can see it's sort of hook shaped. Well, he strikes
with it by whipping it up over his back. Five minutes after a scorpion
stings you, you're in horrible pain, and your whole body begins to
swell up. It can easily be fatal unless you get medical attention at
once. You were about to put your hand right down on top of it, my
friend."

Dave's face paled, and he shuddered violently.

"Gee!" he breathed in an awed tone. "Gee whiz! Remind me to remember
you in my will, Freddy. Gosh! The enemy is just a small part of what
you have to fight in desert warfare, I'll say. Boy, oh boy, Freddy,
you're my pal for life, and no fooling. Wow."

"I was just lucky enough to spot it in time," Freddy said. Then,
getting to his feet, "I think, though, we'd better search this place to
see if it has any brothers or sister hanging around. In case I do fall
asleep, I'd hate to wake up with one of the beggars sitting on my nose."

"Sleep?" echoed Dave, as they started searching the shelf of rock, and
gripped a shoe ready for action. "I won't do any sleeping. After that
close call I'll have the jitters for a week."

Freddy just grinned and said nothing. The search took about fifteen
minutes, but no brother or sister scorpions were found lurking about
ready to avenge a death in the family. So presently they relaxed again,
ate some of their emergency rations, and each drank half of the water
left in Freddy's bullet-creased canteen.

"Well, that sure helped," Dave said, leaning back against the shelf
wall. "I'm beginning to feel like a new man already. Now, if that sun
will only slide into high gear and get across that sky, everything will
be jake."

"Don't hurry the sun," Freddy murmured, and stretched out. "I'm
perfectly comfortable right here. It can take as long as it likes. But
it's a bit of a mess, isn't it, Dave? We sure let the Victory down."

"Yeah," Dave grunted, and felt his eyelids growing strangely heavy. "We
sure turned out to be just a couple of foul balls. But we're not licked
yet. We've got our strength, something to eat, and some water. Maybe
when it gets a bit--gets a bit--a bit cooler--"



CHAPTER NINE

_Wings From Tripoli_


A faint buzzing sound penetrating Dave's ears pried his eyelids open.
For a second or two he stared bewildered at Freddy Farmer's motionless
body a couple of feet from him, at the shelf of rock upon which he
found himself, and out across a short rocky valley to a wall of jagged
rock studded with sun-scorched brush on the other side. Then, like a
door in his brain being opened, memory rushed back. Sure, of course!
He had dropped off to sleep in spite of his jitters from the deadly
scorpion episode. And a funny buzzing sound had awakened him.

He remained perfectly still for another moment, his ears strained and
listening intently to the buzzing sound. At the end of that moment he
realized what it was. Not a bee, or a hornet, or anything like that.
The sound came from the engine of an airplane high overhead. He got to
his feet and walked over to the edge of the rock shelf where he could
stare up into the sky. It was then he realized that he hadn't had any
cat-nap. The sun was well down toward the western lip of the desert and
the sky was slowly being painted with streaks of gold, and red, and
purple blue. An impulsive glance at his watch showed that his little
refresher nap had lasted a good six hours and some odd minutes.

Because of the altitude of the plane, and the countless ever changing
streaks of color in the sky, it was some time before he could pick it
out. When he did, there was no way of telling whether it was friend or
foe up there. The plane was just a dot moving swiftly toward the west.
One thing was certain. It wasn't a Nazi plane. He could tell that from
the steady unthrobbing note of the engine. It was either Italian or
British. The direction of the plane's flight, the fact that he could
tell it was a small single-engined job, and the fact that night was not
very far away, gave him the belief that it must be Italian. A moment
later the engine's note died off a little, and he saw the dot start
sliding downward.

"What's that, Dave? Company?"

Dave looked around at the sound of Freddy's voice. The English youth
was digging groggy sleep out of his eyes and getting slowly to his
feet. He came over to the edge of the rock shelf, shielded his eyes
with his hands and squinted up into the sky.

"An Italian, or one of ours," he said after a moment's study. "I doubt
it's one of ours, though. I say, look! The beggar is banking around and
coming back this way. Good grief, do you suppose he's spotted us?"

"From that altitude?" Dave grunted, and watched the dot swing down
lower and curve around in their direction. "Not a chance. But he's
heading back here, sure enough. There! He's flattened out of his glide.
And there's his engine hitting on all six again."

It was true. Even as the two boys watched, the still very indistinct
plane seemed to level off, and the sound of its engine increased.
Impulsively they both backed up a couple of steps and stood there
silently watching the plane come closer and closer. Presently it was
close enough to take on definite shape and outline. It was an Italian
Fiat C.R. 42 fighter plane powered by a Fiat radial engine; a biplane
type that had been used extensively by Mussolini's air force since the
very start of the African campaign. They had proved no match, however,
for even the slowest planes General Wavell used, and little by little
it had become harder and harder to find one in the air. Their pilots
had no stomach to stray close to R.A.F. controlled air.

The two boys had been acquainted with the facts about the Fiat C.R. 42,
and so their interest and wonder increased as soon as they noted its
type.

"Now what would that lad be doing way out here?" Freddy murmured aloud.
"Of course he isn't near where our flying chaps might possibly be, but
the fact the blighter's actually alone certainly looks queer."

"Yeah, if what they told us about those jobs is true," Dave grunted,
and scowled at the oncoming plane. "Hey, I wonder! Could that bird be
on reconnaissance patrol, or even contact patrol? Look at the way he's
zigzagging. He's even losing some altitude. Freddy, that guy's looking
for something as sure as you're a foot high!"

"Maybe the crashes of the four planes we shot down," Freddy suggested.
"Perhaps that ship was sent out to confirm the results of the scrap, to
drop food and water to any of those Nazi or Italian lads who may have
survived the crashes."

"Could be," Dave nodded, and continued to scowl at the plane. "But they
sure gave him the wrong location bearings. He's 'way too far north.
No, I think that idea is out, Freddy. That bird's on the look-see for
something else. He's--Hey! See there? He's found what he was hunting
for. Look! He's veered to the north a bit and he's going down in a long
power dive."

Dave gave a final look at the plane, then looked across the desert
canyon toward the other side. The opposite wall was too high for him to
see over it and the stretch of desert beyond. From the glide angle and
direction of the Italian plane, he knew that it was going to pass low
over some point well beyond the northern slope of the desert plateau.
He half turned and touched Freddy on the arm.

"He's got business some place over there where we can't see," he said.
"Get on your shoes, and collect your stuff. We're going to the other
side of this plateau crack and see what the heck is what."

"You took the words right out of my mouth," Freddy said, and started
putting on his shoes.

Going down that side of the escarpment, crossing the valley floor and
scrambling up the other side was no easy task. Bush thorns caught at
their uniforms, and jagged points of rock inflicted more than a couple
of bruises on their bodies. They sacrificed body safety for speed,
however, and presently they were flat on their stomachs on the top of
the other escarpment and peering ahead at the dune-humped stretches of
sun-painted sand.

The Italian plane was now down very low. It wasn't more than three or
four hundred feet above the surface of the sand. It was a good five
miles away from them, however--much, much too far for them to make out
the pilot seated in the pit. Breathlessly they watched the plane nose
down even lower. Then suddenly Dave let out a startled cry and nudged
Freddy with his elbow.

"Look!" he cried. "He's dumped something over the side. Looked like
some kind of a box to me. Did you see it?"

"I saw it," Freddy replied in a voice reverberating with excitement.
"And I see something else, too, to the left of where that box-shaped
thing appeared to hit the ground. Look hard, Dave. See those--those
little humps? They look like little sand dunes, but I'll bet anything
they're not."

"No bet!" Dave breathed after a long moment of silence. "Freddy,
there's something very screwy going on. Those humps are little shacks,
or huts. So help me, that's a village over there. Yet darned if I can
spot a single palm tree."

"And there's somebody there!" Freddy whispered tensely. "There must
be, or that plane's pilot wouldn't be dumping anything over the side.
Look! He's climbing now, and heading back where he came from. Dave,
we're the luckiest two chaps in all Libya right now."

"Maybe," Dave admitted grudgingly. Then, giving him a keen look, "What
makes you say it?"

Freddy didn't answer at once. He chewed on his lower lip and kept his
eyes fixed on the distant scene.

"Do you think you could spot those humps from say five or ten thousand
feet in the air?" he suddenly asked.

"Five or ten thousand?" Dave echoed with a laugh. "Unless I knew they
were there, like that Italian bird must have known, I would probably
sail right over them at five hundred feet, and not know the difference."

"Right!" Freddy replied instantly. "Now, answer me this one. Why would
an Italian pilot be dumping something overboard on a spot you could
miss at even five hundred feet, eh?"

"I give up," Dave said after a moment's thought. "What is this, anyway?
Some kind of a game you've just thought up?"

"Use that stuff in your noggin you call brains!" Freddy said sharply.
"Use it, Dave! Think hard. I may be completely off my base, but I think
I now know why we didn't spot anything of interest during our patrol.
Certain parties took care so that neither we nor anybody else should
spot anything. Now, does that give you a little idea?"

"For cat's sake, you're talking in riddles!" Dave growled. "How do you
know why we didn't--"

Dave suddenly cut himself short and clapped a hand to his forehead.

"Well, fry me for an oyster!" he breathed fiercely. "Yeah, I think I
begin to see the light. That, Freddy, is an enemy desert outpost, and
so perfectly camouflaged that you'd never spot it from the air, unless
you knew exactly where it was located."

"Absolutely correct," Freddy said. "You may go to the head of the
class, my little man. But wait a minute. One more question."

"Boy, how you wear a guy down!" Dave said, and sighed. "Okay, dear
teacher, shoot."

Freddy nodded his head toward the odd-looking cluster of humps in the
desert.

"Why do you suppose that plane didn't land?" he asked.

Dave gave him a startled glance and shook his head at the same time.

"I give up," he said. "I haven't the faintest idea. But you always were
the military expert on this team, so tell me. Why?"

"It's just a guess, of course," the English youth said, after a long
pause. "Maybe a crazy one, too. Somehow, though, I have the feeling
that the Nazis or the Italians over there are taking no chances on
being spotted by any possible British plane out on long distance
reconnaissance. Now, if one of our ships were way up there in the sky
somewhere, he wouldn't give a thought to seeing an Italian plane swoop
down low like that chap we just saw. However, he would prick up his
ears if he saw the plane land. He'd at least get curious enough to
slide down himself to see if it was only a forced landing. Therefore I
think that Italian pilot had orders not to land; to drop whatever he
had to deliver, and not deliver it by hand. Are you getting a little
bit of what I mean, now?"

Dave nodded and stared intently at his English pal. Count on good old
Freddy Farmer to dig down and ferret around for the true meaning of
everything that appeared strange and mysterious. He had a mind like a
steel trap, and more than once his mental ferreting around ahead of
time had helped them out of a tight corner later.

"Yes, I'm beginning to catch on," Dave said presently. "In fact, I'm
getting a couple of ideas of my own. I don't know what that Italian
pilot dropped, but it certainly wasn't food, and it wasn't ammunition.
The box, or whatever it was, wasn't big enough."

"And so?" Freddy echoed as Dave hesitated and scowled off into space.

"And so maybe that's no ordinary desert outpost," Dave finally said.
"Maybe there are important people there--I mean, important military
people. Do you know something, Freddy?"

"'Way ahead of you, Dave, as you would say," Freddy interrupted with a
grin. "Important military people means staff headquarters. Yes, we're
probably crazy, Dave. Both of us may be completely out of our heads,
but I'll bet you the Bank of England against your oldest pair of flying
boots that that spot over there is some kind of field headquarters for
enemy troops in this area of the desert."

"Enemy troops in this area?" Dave echoed, and gave a wave of his hand
that included the surrounding desert. "Troops where? You mean the force
that's right over there where we're looking, don't you?"

Freddy shook his head and gave a stubborn tilt to his chin.

"No, I don't," he said. "I mean that that's the headquarters base for
a _lot_ of spots in this section just like it, only we haven't seen
them. And, by good luck, we didn't stumble into them since leaving our
burned up Skua."

Dave started to nod, then checked himself and gave Freddy a perplexed
look.

"Don't look right now," he said, "but you're getting me all balled up,
my friend. Just what are you driving at, anyway? Come clean with the
works; then maybe I'll argue with you."

"It's quite simple," the English youth said with a faint smile. "You
just mix a little imagination with what facts you know, and there you
are."

"Maybe you are, but I'm not!" Dave grunted. "Skip the imagination part
and just give me the facts."

"Right you are," Freddy said, and started counting off the fingers of
one hand. "First, British Middle East High Command knows that troops,
planes, and supplies, and so forth, have been transported across the
Mediterranean to Tripoli by air and water. Two, High Command knows
that it is mostly Nazi stuff. Three, it is obvious that preparations
are being made for a drive to beat back Wavell's forces. Four, it is
equally obvious that the enemy knows that Wavell's forces are not very
strong. As Group Captain Spencer said, everything that could be spared
was yanked away and sent down south to hand the Italians a quick mop-up
knockout blow in Ethiopia. Five, the one important thing in desert
warfare is surprise--surprise attack. Six, if the Axis forces simply
started along the main coast road from Tripoli and around the southern
end of the Gulf of Sidra, Wavell's outposts, to say nothing of his
planes, would spot them long before they were within attacking range,
and there would be no surprise at all. You want me to continue?"

"Sure, stay in there and pitch," Dave nodded with a grin. "I know
you've got something, kid, and I want to hear it all. I really mean
that."

"Very well, then," Freddy said, and started counting his fingers over
again. "Seven, to move a huge attacking army down toward the south and
back up toward the north would be much too exhausting for the troops,
and such an army would be spotted by Wavell's pilots days ahead of
time. R.A.F. bombers would then sail out and bomb the stuffing out of
the advancing armies."

"Just a minute," Dave cut in. "They wouldn't be dumb enough not to have
air protection of their own."

"Correct," Freddy said, and made a little gesture with one hand.
"But where would that air protection base itself in this part of the
desert? Certainly not with the armies as they moved forward a few
miles each day. At Tripoli? And keep flying way out here to guard
troops and tanks and other motorized equipment on the move? Not a bit
of it, Dave. They might just as well send General Wavell a letter
telling him they were creeping up for a surprise attack! They'd--"

"Hold it, hold it!" Dave suddenly broke in excitedly. "You gave me the
tip just now. Creeping up. That's it! Creeping up in _small units_
until they get close enough to strike at some point in Wavell's
defenses in a main body. Sure, sure, my imagination's beginning to work
too! Small units that can camouflage themselves perfectly so as not
to be seen by any of our planes that might pass over. And then when
they're all close enough, and all set, the bombers and stuff can wing
along the coast from Tripoli and take their part in the attack. Gosh,
Freddy, I'll bet that you've hit the old nail right smack on the head.
We've stumbled onto the hottest thing in Libya. And I don't mean the
sun or the sand, either!"

"I'm sure of it!" Freddy said, and beamed happily. "And here's
something else. The small units move only _during the night_. And
before dawn they dig in and camouflage themselves so they won't be
seen during the day."

"Yeah, like a tribe of Indians sneaking up on a frontier village in the
old days back in the States," Dave breathed. "And--"

"Dave, that's exactly the idea!" Freddy suddenly cried, and gripped him
by the arm. "Take a good look, now! I see things moving over there. Am
I right, or are my eyes just going haywire?"

The setting sun was now quite low, and the long shafts of orange gold
light that stretched across the desert made it extremely difficult to
distinguish individual objects, or even movement, at any distance over
a mile. The rays of the setting sun cutting through the shimmering
waves of heat rising up off the hot sand made everything seem to blend
into one huge picture of shadows and various shades of color. After
a few moments of intense scrutiny, however, Dave was ready to agree
with Freddy's belief. Unquestionably things were moving over there.
Many things, in fact, and of all shapes and sizes. He continued to
stare hard, and then suddenly the faint echo of engines coming to life
drifted down the desert wind. He felt, rather than saw, Freddy stiffen
at his side. And a moment later the English youth's excited voice came
to his ears.

"Dave! Dave, do you hear that? Those are tank engines, and armored car
engines! See? They're starting to take off the camouflage coverings.
They're getting ready to move, Dave, just as soon as it gets dark."

"Right!" Dave echoed. "And that means us. We're going to get on the
move, too."

"What do you mean?" Freddy asked without turning his head.

"We're going to get close for a good look," Dave replied, and rose up
onto his hands and knees. "I don't think they'll pull out until it's
actually dark. By then we can sneak up close to them and see what's
what. You know, Freddy, I've a hunch there are the answers to a lot of
questions over there. And if we get up close enough, maybe we can find
out a few of those answers. Anyway, we can't stick here forever."

"No, of course we can't," the English youth agreed, and got up onto his
feet. "Our bad luck seems to have turned into good luck, so we'd better
make the most of it. Come on. Wait, let's see."

Freddy pulled out his compass and held it steady in one hand. He peered
at it intently for a moment.

"Right-o," he said presently. "If we hold a course fourteen points east
of north we'll be traveling a straight line toward that spot. As soon
as we get down off this escarpment we won't be able to see the spot all
the time. But this compass will take care of that. Right-o. Let's get
started."

"Hey, hold everything!" Dave cried, and held Freddy back. "A fine
Indian scout, you are! And have you forgotten everything you learned
about aerial combat, huh?"

Freddy stared at him in wide-eyed amazement.

"What in the world is eating you, Dave?" he gasped. "Aerial combat?"

"Sure," Dave said with a nod. "What's the best way to sneak up on an
enemy ship for a surprise attack?"

"Come down on him with the sun at your back, so it's extra hard for him
to see you," Freddy replied promptly. "So what of it?"

"Plenty," Dave said, and pointed to the west. "The same idea holds good
right here. We'll circle around to the west for a spell, and then creep
up on them with the setting sun at our backs. That way we can get much
closer. Less chance of anybody spotting us. Right?"

Freddy grinned a bit sheepishly and nodded.

"The young man is right," he said. "He's absolutely correct. My
apologies and congratulations, sir."

"Oh, think nothing of it, my dear fellow," Dave said with a magnanimous
gesture. "Think nothing of it at all."

"As Dave Dawson would say," Freddy grunted as they started down the
escarpment, "nuts to you!"



CHAPTER TEN

_Courage Against Fate_


By the time the sun was a ball of flaming color that rested lightly
on the western lip of the world, the two youths had detoured around
to a point less than half a mile from the spot where they had seen
mysterious activity. Now, though, it was no longer a mystery. Lying
side by side on the western side of a rolling sand dune, they peered
over its crest at a scene that caused their hearts to pound in wild
excitement and the blood to surge through their veins.

There, less than half a mile away, were two enemy motorized units
preparing to break camp and continue their obvious march northward
under the cover of the Libyan night. There were at least twenty tanks
of the small, light armored German type. There were also as many troop
truck transports, and four or five armored cars. One good look at those
armored cars confirmed their earlier beliefs. High ranking officers of
the Axis forces were in charge of those attack units, and it was quite
evident that the mobile force served as headquarters for other units
scattered about the desert area.

If either of them held any doubts as to the truth of that, such doubts
were dispelled some ten minutes later. As though by magic, a plane
seemed to rise up out of the camp. It was a German Messerschmitt 109
single seater, and no sooner had it cleared the sand than it wheeled
toward the northwest and streaked away with the speed of a bullet. It
was not the plane itself that confirmed their belief, however. It was
the German Staff markings they saw painted on the fuselage of the fleet
plane as it raced by.

"Boy!" Dave breathed, and grinned at Freddy. "Talk about finding the
old needle in a haystack! Lady Luck sure is giving us the glad smile."

"Sure, whatever that means," Freddy commented with a frown. "You and
your American slang!"

Dave laughed.

"Slang, my eye," he chuckled. "I simply mean that out of all the enemy
units that are probably hiding out here on the desert, we spot the
headquarters unit right off the bat. See? Like finding a needle in a
haystack first time."

"That's headquarters over there, right enough," Freddy murmured. "Ten
to one that Messerschmitt is winging back to Tripoli to inform them of
the new positions they will take up before dawn."

"And ten to one that ship will be back and nicely camouflaged with the
rest of the stuff by dawn, too," Dave grunted. "Much as the Germans and
the Mussies give me a pain in the neck, I have to hand it to them for
being tops when it comes to camouflaging technique. You could fly over
this desert until you were blue in the face and not even spot a thing
that didn't look like just ordinary desert."

"They certainly know how," Freddy admitted grudgingly. "But let's grant
them that and get our heads to working on more important things right
now. In an hour at the most they'll be under way. What shall we do? Tag
along behind them--or what?"

Dave scooped up a handful of sand and let it slowly trickle between his
fingers as he silently considered the question.

"I think that idea's out, Freddy," he said after a while. "For one
thing, tanks and armored cars don't travel at a snail's pace, not on a
flat desert and in the middle of the night. Another thing, even if we
did manage to keep up with them somehow, we'd be dead on our feet by
dawn. And we'd be faced with the possibility of spending all tomorrow
in the sun. There might not be any spot where there was shade."

"I know," Freddy murmured in a worried voice. "And tough as we think we
are, that would be too much for us."

"Check," Dave said. "But supposing we could take it somehow. So what?
So we wouldn't be any better off than we are right now. What we've got
to do is get into that camp and find out things, then get out and get
word to the British High Command what the Germans and Italians are up
to. That's the problem--two problems, they really are."

"And mighty ticklish ones, too," Freddy said with a sudden show of
gloomy depression. "What do you think of the idea of trying to sneak in
there and have a quick look around? We might find out something."

"And we _might_ find a couple of Mauser rifle bullets heading our way,
too!" Dave said with a shake of his head. "If they were camped there
for keeps that might be a worthwhile bet. But they're getting ready to
move, and they'd only need one look at our uniforms to know darned well
we didn't belong. Even the dumbest Italian over there would figure that
out."

"But after it gets dark, couldn't we--" Freddy began, and then stopped
himself with a negative shake of his head. "No, I guess not."

"Nix is right," Dave said. "After it gets dark they'll all be in their
tanks and trucks and armored cars, and on their way. Nope, even pulling
the old hitch-hiking stunt wouldn't get us a thing."

Freddy Farmer started to speak, then seemed to change his mind. He
closed his mouth and scowled unhappily at the fingers of his two hands
digging in the sand. Dave watched him for a moment, then reached over
and touched him on the shoulder.

"There is a way, if you're game, Freddy," he said softly.

"I'm jolly well game for anything!" the English youth came right back.
"You know that, Dave. What's your plan?"

"We could make them take us prisoners," Dave said.

Freddy's jaw dropped in utter amazement, and his eyes bulged out like
marbles on long sticks.

"Make them take us prisoners?" he choked out. "Give up? Are you mad,
Dave?"

"No, just maybe a little screwy," Dave replied. "Pin back your ears for
a couple of seconds, and listen. If we try to sneak up on them, we run
the risk of being shot first, and questioned afterwards. That wouldn't
do either of us any good. If we try to tag along behind them as they
move northward, who knows what kind of trouble we might run into. So
what's left? To go along with them--as their guests. See what I mean?"

"I don't even begin to see," Freddy replied with a befuddled groan.
"Frankly, I don't fancy those chaps over there are in the mood to have
guests. In fact, I doubt very much they would consider us as guests."

"Oh, I just said 'guests' for the heck of it!" Dave snorted. "Look!
Here's exactly what I mean. You and I will be a couple of British
infantry officers hopelessly lost in the desert. And, boy, that's
doggone close to the truth, and how! Anyway, we have been wandering
around for we don't know how long. We've lost track of time, see? Maybe
the sun has got us a bit. We have just a few drops of water left in
one canteen, see? Our uniforms are torn, and all our food has gone. We
simply stumble right into that camp over there while it is still light,
and they can see us and _not take pot shots_. Beginning to catch on?"

The light of hope had come back into Freddy Farmer's eyes, but he was
still a bit befuddled.

"I think so," he said. "You mean, bury our stuff here, and tear our
uniforms, and all that sort of thing?"

"Right on the button!" Dave nodded eagerly. "We happened to see their
camp. When we get close enough we'll start yelling to attract their
attention. We'll--Hold it! I've got an even brighter idea!"

"What is it?" Freddy demanded. "I'm sure it can't be any crazier than
the one you've already told me."

Dave reached over and gave him a playful punch on the shoulder.

"It's a pip!" he cried. "We think we've finally found a small
detachment of our own forces, see? We don't realize they're the enemy
until they've captured us. That will start them spinning."

"Spinning?" Freddy echoed.

"Sure!" Dave nodded. "It'll start them playing guessing games with
themselves. They'll start wondering if they really are alone out here,
as they thought they were. They'll wonder just where we came from.
They'll wonder plenty about us stumbling onto their camp, Freddy. And
you and I can fill them with a lot of hooey that will make them wonder
all the more. No fooling, Freddy, it's a perfect set-up."

"_If_ all goes well," Freddy said as the cautious side of him came to
the fore for a moment. "But, after all, this wouldn't be the first time
we'd taken a long chance."

"That's the boy, Freddy!" Dave cried, and patted his shoulder. "That's
the old fighting spirit. Okay, it's a deal, huh?"

"You and your wild ideas!" The English youth sighed, then smiled
faintly. "They'll probably end up putting me in front of a firing squad
one of these days. It might just be crazy enough to work, though, I
guess. Right you are, you mad hatter. It's a go."

"My pal!" Dave breathed, and beamed at him. "Contact, then! Let's peel
off the stuff we don't need, and muss ourselves up to look as though
we've been through the mill."

"If we haven't been through the mill today," Freddy groaned, and
started burying things in the sand, "then I sure don't know what you'd
call it. But just remember, my little friend, if I get shot for this,
I'll come back to haunt you every single night, I promise you that!"

"You won't have to come back," Dave brushed the threat aside, "because
I'll be right there with you."

"I don't doubt it for a minute," Freddy said with a hopeless shrug.
"The lad's just like my shadow. Can't get rid of it. Ah me! If I'd only
had sense and remained in England, I'd probably be an air vice-marshal
about now. Oh well, such is life!"

"Boy, am I glad!" Dave murmured with feeling.

"Glad about what?" the English youth asked unsuspectingly.

"Why, that you didn't stay in England and get promoted to be an air
vice-marshal, of course," Dave said solemnly. "After all the good old
R.A.F. has done, to have it fold up and fall apart because a young
squirt has--I just can't finish. I shudder even at the thought of such
a fate for the R.A.F."

"So?" Freddy grunted, and gave him a stern look. "Very well, then, I
refuse to go through with this as planned. I'm going to tell them the
truth. They may be Germans and rotters, but just the same I can't play
that kind of a dirty trick even on them."

"Refuse to go--" Dave gasped as sudden alarm shot across his face.
"Won't play a dirty trick on them? Hey! What goes on here? What do you
mean, tell the truth?"

The English youth didn't answer at once. With deliberate movements he
carefully smoothed the surface of the sand that covered the equipment
he had buried. Then he nonchalantly brushed sand dust from his hands
and glanced at Dave.

"I'm going to tell them who you are," he said firmly. "I just haven't
the heart to let them think they've really captured somebody, when
it's actually only you. No, I'm going to tell them who you are so they
can kick you back out into the desert, the same way a fisherman throws
back a fish that's too small. And I'm going to teach them that bit of
American slang to say as they do it."

"What's that?" Dave asked as the corners of his mouth twitched.

"It's--" Freddy began, and hesitated. Then his face lighted up. "Oh
yes, I remember now. Ten pennies for twelve. Yes, that's it."

Dave started to bellow with laughter, but clapped his hand over his
mouth just in time. Sound carries like magic across the desert, and
they were not yet ready to make their presence known to the enemy tank
and armored car units. However, it was a couple of minutes before Dave
could choke off his laughter enough to speak.

"Ten pennies for twelve!" he gasped out as tears streamed down his
cheeks. "Boy, oh boy, is that one for the book. You mean, Freddy, a
dime a dozen. But let it go. Anyway, you're one in a million, and
that's no kidding. Well, all set?"

As Dave asked the question, it served as an automatic brake, a full
stop, for kidding and joshing around. In a moment the serious business
would begin--deadly serious business, upon the outcome of which might
hang not only their own lives but the success or failure of Britain's
war efforts in the Middle East. Freddy searched Dave's eyes for a
couple of seconds, and then nodded.

"Right-o," he said quietly. "Let's get on with it. We've buried all our
stuff, and we both certainly look as if we've been wandering around in
this blasted desert for days. Yes, let's get on with it."

"Wait, just one more thing," Dave said as Freddy started to get up and
move over the brow of the sand dune. "It just hit me, and it might
help. You can't tell. Speak nothing but English. Make out that you
don't understand German. That is, of course, if any of those birds
speak English. But let's not let on we speak and understand German
until we have to. They--Well, they might let something slip, you know."

"A darn good idea, Dave!" Freddy said in honest approval. "You're
right. One never can tell."

"Then off we go," Dave said, and got up onto his feet. "Stagger
and reel a little. Pretend you don't hear them the first time they
challenge. Let's even lean a little on each other for support. Boy, if
there's any of the actor in us, this sure is the time for it to come
out. And to think--Gosh!"

"And to think what?" Freddy shot out the corner of his mouth as they
started lurching forward and up over the crest of the sand dune and
into full view of the enemy camp. "What were you going to say?"

"To think the day would come when you and I would walk up to a bunch of
Nazi slobs and say, 'Here we are,'" Dave grunted. "Of course it's all
for a reason, but--well, it sure gives me a funny feeling inside."

"I know just how you feel," Freddy said. "And I could feel a lot
better, myself. But if things work out our way, we should fret."

"Things _will_ work out for us!" Dave said grimly, and gave the English
youth's arm a squeeze. "They've _got_ to!"

Neither of them spoke for the next few minutes. They trudged forward
across the sand, purposely faltering in their steps now and then and
stumbling to their knees. Every second of the time, however, they kept
a watchful eye on the desert camp that was just about ready to move
forward. The sun was down below the rim of the world now, and night was
rushing forward from the east on black wings.

Stumbling step by stumbling step, they drew closer and closer to the
enemy camp. With each step they expected to hear a wild shout go up, a
shout that would mean they had been sighted. With each step, also, a
certain inner and unspoken fear walked with them, the tiny fear that
their little plan might fail horribly almost before it had been put
into action--the kind of failure, very definite and permanent, that the
bark of a rifle and a singing bullet would cause.

No rifles barked, however, and no challenging voices thundered across
the rolling sands. The tank, armored car, and truck motors had been
silenced after a short test run period, and the stillness of the vast
desert had closed down over everything. The boys impulsively held their
breath every now and then as though they and the entire world were
waiting for some sudden all destroying explosion to shatter what seemed
an eternity of silence.

"Are we going to have to bump right into those birds before they see
us?" Dave murmured desperately. "Gosh! We could have come this far on
a couple of motorcycles and saved our feet. The dopes are--"

"Shut up!" Freddy whispered out the corner of his mouth. "Here they
come! For goodness' sake don't keep your hand near your automatic. The
blighters have their rifles trained right on us."

It was true. A squad of Nazi desert troops, led by a corporal, came
dashing across the sand toward them with rifles held up and ready to
shoot.

"Lady Luck, stay with us, please!" Dave whispered softly as he and
Freddy lurched forward a few more steps.



CHAPTER ELEVEN

_Prisoners by Request_


"_Halt!_"

The order barked in German was akin to the crash of a rifle shot. The
two boys reeled forward one more step and then lifted their heads and
stared in surprise at the German non-commissioned officer who stood
straddle-legged in the sand directly in front of them. There was a
service Luger in his belt holster, but he wasn't using it. Instead he
held a short-barreled, rapid fire Mauser in his hands.

"Put up your hands!" he snarled in German.

Neither of the boys moved. They continued to stare at him in bewildered
dismay. Then Dave gave a little confused shake of his head.

"Germans!" he choked out. "These aren't our chaps, Freddy. We've run
into Germans. We've been captured! Oh, blast our luck!"

As Dave spoke he shot a keen glance at the expression on the corporal's
face. What he saw caused his heart to leap with hope. The man
obviously understood English, for a triumphant light leaped into his
eyes, and he smiled broadly.

"Yes, you have been captured," he said in English that was heavy with
Teutonic accent. "Put your hands up. I will take your automatics.
Careful, now! One move and I will shoot."

"Take them, and get it over with!" Freddy said in a hoarse voice. "All
we want is water and food. Where are we, anyway?"

The corporal took a cautious step or two forward, then snatched their
automatics from them. He looked at Freddy and grinned.

"Where are you?" he sneered. "What does it matter? You are my
prisoners. Now get moving. _Herr_ Colonel is anxious to meet you."

As though he considered that quite a joke, the German laughed loudly
and showed a set of very bad teeth. Then, motioning his squad of
soldiers to form about the two boys, he started back toward the camp.
Still continuing to act exhausted and all in, Freddy and Dave staggered
forward, faltering with every step, and reaching out to one another
for support to stop from pitching down onto the sand. All the time,
though, they shot glances at the desert camp through slitted eyelids.
Dave counted some sixty vehicles in all, and as he looked at them his
admiration for Nazi camouflage technique went up another point. Every
truck, every tank, and every armored car was daubed with paint in such
a way as to make it exactly the shades of the desert. Even two or three
tents that were still standing looked more like the desert than the
desert itself.

To all that, however, Dave gave but a passing look. What caught and
held his attention was the actual equipment. It all was right up to
the minute stuff. None of it was the shabby, slipshod equipment used
by Mussolini's forces in Northern Africa. It was all made-in-Germany
stuff, light, fast, highly mobile, and of high fire power. In short,
it was instantly obvious to Dave that this was a strong and completely
equipped attacking force of the Nazi army in Africa. It was no mere
scouting patrol. And there was one other item that impressed him at
once, too. It was all Nazi. He did not see a single Italian uniform as
the corporal marched them past groups of curious-eyed German soldiers
toward one of the tents on the far side of the camp. It was as plain as
the nose on his face that these Germans were out for business, serious
business. For that reason probably, they had no Italian troops along
with them who might break and flee for their lives at the sound of the
first shot, or the first smell of gunpowder in their noses.

Presently the corporal brought them to a halt in front of a desert
tent. It was the square type with slightly slanting roof and sides. The
front flap was lifted up and fastened to poles stuck in the sand to
serve as a sort of porch. But in the event of a sand storm, it could
be lowered at once and made fast so that those inside were completely
protected. Three portable tables had been placed side by side, and in
back of them sat two German officers. One was a colonel. His head was
the shape and size of a watermelon that was terribly sunburned. His
eyes were little more than slits cut in the flesh on either side of his
lumpy nose. His mouth was thin-lipped and much too wide. And on the
upper lip was a little patch of black that was supposed to be like the
little pen wiper mustache worn by his lord and master, Adolf Hitler.

The other officer was a major, and his appearance was the direct
opposite of his colonel's. He was thin as a rail, and tanned the color
of old leather. From the jaw to the forehead was three times as long as
from ear to ear was wide. His nose made Dave think of a letter opener.
His eyes were like green marbles, and his pointed chin could very well
have served as one end of a pick-axe.

The corporal smacked his heels together and almost threw his arm out of
joint saluting.

"Two English prisoners, _Herr_ Colonel," he said. "We found them
stumbling across the sand. They seem surprised that we were not of
their own forces. I have taken their guns away from them. Here they
are."

The corporal went forward two steps and placed the boys' automatics on
the tables. The German colonel didn't give them so much as a glance.
He kept his slitted eyes on his prisoners and stared at them as though
they had just popped out of some museum. Dave stared back weary-eyed
at him, and tried to read the look in his eyes. Did he see surprise,
chagrin, or angry wonder there? He couldn't tell, because the lids were
drawn so close.

"Where is your unit?"

The colonel suddenly spat out the question in German. The boys were
perfect actors. They looked blank, shook their heads, and shrugged.

"Do you speak English, sir?" Dave presently said. "And could we have
water, and--"

He cut himself off short as Freddy Farmer quickly played up to him.
The English youth groaned, swayed on his feet, and would have fallen
if Dave had not grabbed him. The little exhaustion act fooled the
German colonel completely. He spat out a few words in angry annoyance,
and then ordered the corporal to help Dave and Freddy to chairs just
inside the tent, and to give them water. The boys gestured thanks with
movements of their hands, and accepted the water canteen from the
corporal. The two officers watched them in keen-eyed silence and waited
until they appeared to revive a bit.

"Yes, I speak English," the colonel presently said, and surprisingly
enough, without the slightest trace of an accent. "Where is your unit?
I see from your uniform badges you are from the Sixth London Regiment."

"We don't know, sir," Dave mumbled as he lowered the water canteen from
his lips. "We are lost. Two hours ago we saw this camp. We thought this
was our regiment's post."

"How did you get lost?" the colonel demanded. "How long ago?"

"Four days, sir," Freddy spoke up. "We were on advance patrol and--"

"It was more than four days, Freddy," Dave interrupted. "It was six. I
have kept count of them."

"Four or six, let him finish!" the colonel snarled, and then looked at
Freddy. "Yes? You were on patrol? Where?"

Freddy hesitated and scowled.

"Is that necessary?" he asked. "Would you reveal valuable information
if you were captured and taken prisoner, sir?"

The blunt question startled the two Germans. They exchanged swift
glances; then the colonel bent his slitted eyes on Freddy again.

"I would not be captured and taken prisoner!" he said harshly. "If you
do not wish to speak, that is your privilege. But--"

The German paused and waved a hand toward the surrounding desert.

"But you look as though you know what the desert can do to a man," he
finished suddenly.

The two boys flinched visibly. Then Dave spoke quickly.

"My comrade got a touch of the sun, sir," he said. "We possess no
valuable information we could reveal. We were simply on advance patrol.
A sand storm came up and we became separated from the main body. We
have been trying to locate it ever since. That is all of our story,
sir."

Dave held his breath as he finished, and prayed inwardly. The prayer
was answered. The very fact he had said they possessed no valuable
information had instantly convinced the German colonel that they were
lying. That was as it should be. When the enemy _thinks_ you know
something, he will hold your life as valuable as his own until he has
found out. The longer you keep him guessing, the longer you have to
find out things yourself, and perhaps eventually beat him at his own
game.

"I do not believe you!" the colonel suddenly snapped, thus confirming
Dave's belief. "Listen to me! I have no time to waste. We have taken
you prisoner. We have given you water. Later you will receive food.
But we do not _have_ to do those things. Understand that! You are
completely helpless. I have only to give the order and you will be
kicked out onto the desert to shift for yourselves. Or I can even give
the order and have you shot. It is up to you whether you wish to be
wise, or foolish."

The two boys didn't say anything. They simply sat motionless and stared
unhappily off into space. Suddenly the German major spoke, and it was
all Dave could do to stop from starting violently.

"I suggest you question them about that plane we sighted early this
morning, _Herr_ Colonel," he said in his native tongue. "The one we
sighted and informed Tripoli about by radio."

There was a moment's silence after the major had spoken, and during
that moment a hundred and one thoughts leaped and danced across Dave
Dawson's brain. So this unit had sighted the Skua? This unit had
radioed Tripoli, and attack planes had been sent out? Then it was not
just by chance that those six planes had come slicing down out of the
sun. On the contrary, their pilots had known exactly what to look
for, and the location. They had climbed up into the sun on purpose.
True, that maneuver had availed them nothing but the loss of four of
their number. Nevertheless, the realization that hostile eyes had been
watching them all the time sent little shivers rippling up and down
Dave's spine. And at the same time it made his heart sink. When he and
Freddy did not make their rendezvous contact with the Victory, another
flying team would be drawn and sent out. They, too, would be sighted as
they cruised about over what looked like nothing but limitless desert.
And when Axis planes swooped down on them--perhaps they would not be so
lucky as he and Freddy had been.

Lucky? The word was like a taunting laugh in Dave's brain. Were he and
Freddy as lucky as they hoped? Had they perhaps walked knowingly into a
trap from which there was no possible escape? Was this the end of the
war for them? Was this perhaps the end of--everything?

At that moment the colonel's voice roused him from the depths of his
bitter reverie.

"What have you seen since dawn?" the colonel asked.

"Since dawn?" Dave echoed vaguely, and then looked questioningly at
Freddy.

The English youth rose to the occasion at once.

"Don't you remember, Dave?" he asked. "Or has the sun dulled your
memory, too? We saw an air battle. We saw the planes fall. Don't you
remember?"

"Oh, that?" Dave echoed with a shrug. "What was important about that?"

"So you saw the air battle, eh?" the German colonel asked quickly. "You
saw the planes fall, perhaps?"

Both Freddy and Dave hesitated. Both had the same sudden feeling that
the German was trying to lead them into some kind of a word trap. Just
what they replied to his questions might make all the difference in the
world as to their own safety. Finally Dave spoke.

"Yes, we saw the planes fall," he said.

The two Germans leaned forward slightly, and suppressed excitement
showed on their faces.

"How many?" the colonel asked.

"Five," Dave answered promptly. "Three Nazi, one Italian, and one of
ours."

"That British plane," the German major spoke up suddenly. "You say you
saw it fall to the ground? What happened to the pilot and observer?
They jumped with their parachutes, eh?"

Dave shook his head.

"No," Freddy said for them both. "They did not jump. They glided the
plane down and crashed when they tried to land. The plane caught fire.
It was about a mile away from where we were standing. When we reached
it, it was too late to do anything."

"It is as I told you, _Herr_ Colonel," the major said to his senior
officer in German. "If those British aviators saw anything, they
died before they could take the information back to their base. Yes,
undoubtedly they were simply sent out to hunt for these two standing
before us."

Dave kept a dumb, blank look on his face, as though he didn't
understand a single word the German was saying. Inwardly, though,
he was smiling happily to himself. Thank goodness he had made the
suggestion to Freddy that they act as though they didn't speak German.
And thank goodness, too, they had decided to wear infantry uniforms,
and to admit readily they had seen a British plane crash and burn up,
in the event they were captured. It was all working out perfectly.

A moment later, though, when the colonel replied in the same tongue,
the smile died in Dave, and little fingers of worry and fear began to
clutch at his heart.

"Perhaps," the senior officer grunted. "Then again, perhaps not. These
two young swine puzzle me. I feel sure their story is made up of lies.
Four, six days in this cursed desert? I doubt that very much. Yes, very
much, indeed."

"But just look at them, _Herr_ Colonel!" the major protested. "Both are
ready to collapse at any moment. They are completely exhausted. I agree
that perhaps they lie a little. But I think they speak the truth about
wandering about the desert."

"For six days?" the colonel echoed harshly, and gave him a scornful
look. "It is evident you have had no experience with the desert. I have
spent a lot of my life in this part of the world, _Herr_ Major. Look at
their boots! Six days of sand and sun would do more than that to a pair
of boots."

It was all Dave and Freddy could do to refrain from looking down at
their boots. Boots! The one item that hadn't even occurred to them. Of
course the German colonel was right. Six days, or even four days of
tramping across the desert would unquestionably wear their boots paper
thin unless they had taken special care of them such as rubbing them
with grease or oil to stop the leather from drying up and cracking, and
mending each little crack or cut before it was too late. Their boots
showed none of that kind of care, however. And the fact they had no
packs was proof they hadn't had any shoe oil or grease in the first
place.

"You're right, _Herr_ Colonel," the major said as he scowled down at
the boys' boots. "They do not look very much the worse for wear, at
that."

"That doesn't prove anything, however," the German colonel grunted, and
Dave's heart started sliding back down out of his throat. "We shall
see, however. I have thoughts about these two, and I will find out soon
enough if my thoughts are true ones. Meantime we will get as much out
of them as we can."

"You mean, in case they do speak the truth?" the major murmured.

"Exactly that!" the colonel replied with a curt nod. "I doubt if there
are any British forces within two hundred and fifty miles. Still, we
must make sure. The success of this surprise smash against the British
means much to me. It means everything. I wish to be removed from this
cursed part of the world. I am sick of the sun, and the sand, and the
flies and other insects. Soon, in case you have not been told, things
will happen in the Balkans. That fat, stupid fool, Mussolini, has made
a mess of things in Greece and Albania. It will soon be necessary for
the _Fuehrer_ to go to his aid, and pull him out of the fire. I hope to
have a division command when the Leader marches down into Greece. If I
smash the British out of Libya, and annihilate them so they cannot even
escape to their Egyptian strongholds, I shall be given the command of a
division of tanks for the asking. And I shall have it, never fear!"

The German colonel emphasized what he had just said by giving a savage
nod of his head, and banging one huge clenched fist down on the table.
Then he turned his glittering, half closed eyes upon the two boys.

"So you have been lost for four or even six days, eh?" he shot out.
"Very well, then. Look closely at this map. Put your finger where you
were when you started out of this advance patrol."

As the German spoke, he unfolded a military map and spread it out on
the tables. Hope zoomed up in Dave. Perhaps the map would tell them
about the plans of the expected attack against the British forces
from Bengazi eastward to the Egyptian frontier. It might even show the
location of the other Nazi units he was sure must be operating under
the command of this headquarters colonel.

If he expected all that, however, or even a small part of it, he was
doomed to disappointment. The instant he glanced at the map he saw that
it was completely unmarked. He studied it for a moment as a stall for
time. He didn't dare point out a spot too close to where he judged to
be their present position. A short scouting trip by the Germans could
prove them liars in no time at all. Yet at the same time he didn't
want to indicate a point miles and miles away. It was obvious that the
colonel suspected them, and to state they had wandered some two or
three hundred miles across the desert would simply add to the German's
suspicions. You don't walk that far in the desert in that short space
of time. You don't even walk a small fraction of it--and live. Ten or
fifteen miles in the cool of the night is about the limit.

Suddenly Freddy spoke up--Freddy, of the keen, sharp brain that had
helped them avoid more than one enemy trap in the past.

"This map is printed in German, sir," he said. "I can guess at the
spelling of some of the places, but I am not sure. The place where
our patrol started from was called Amarir. Yes, I think that was the
name. It was fifty miles southwest of El Siwa. One of the tanks broke
down, and it was necessary to repair it at once. This officer and I
went ahead on foot to reconnoiter the area beyond an escarpment. It was
there the sand storm caught us."

Freddy paused, gave a little puzzled shake of his head, and scowled
down at the map.

"I'm sure my brother officer is mistaken," he said presently. "It was
not six days ago. No. Perhaps it was not even four. I have lost track
of the days completely. But where are we now, sir? Are we very far from
El Siwa? Or perhaps Amarir?"

The German colonel didn't reply. He gave Freddy a shrewd glance and
then looked down at the map. Presently he raised his eyes.

"It is of no importance to you where you are," he said pointedly. "You
are prisoners. Be content with that fact. You were lucky you were not
shot on sight. I--"

The colonel cut himself off short as a tank captain appeared at the
entrance of the tent and saluted.

"All is ready, _Herr_ Colonel," he said. "Shall I give orders for the
column to proceed? As _Herr_ Colonel can see, it is practically dark
now."

"Give the order, then," the senior officer said with a curt nod. "But,
as usual, have the armored cars and one truck remain for a time. Also
their crews, of course. They can strike these tents in a few minutes.
That is all."

The colonel waited until the tank captain had saluted and made a hasty
exit. Then he turned to the major at his side and spoke again in their
native tongue.

"Perhaps a little rest will help the memory of these two," he said with
a faint smirking twist of his lips. "Anyway, I haven't any more time to
waste on them right now. You will take charge of them, and take them
in your car. Try to get something out of them if you want to. However,
they will probably fall asleep on you. Tomorrow I will spring my little
surprise. Then we shall see what we shall see. Curse that British plane
we sighted this morning! It is the first we have seen so far, and it
worries me a little. If we were not so far away, I'd--"

The German let his voice trail off and sat staring moodily down at his
fingertips drumming on the table top. After a moment or so he jerked
his head up and shrugged.

"Perhaps I will, even now," he said as though talking to himself.
"Anyway, take these two away. Give them food and water and take them
along in your car. That's all. Now get out. I'll see you later."

The colonel dismissed them with a nod and immediately started stuffing
papers and maps into a black dispatch case. The major got to his feet
and looked at the two boys.

"You will come with me," he said in halting English. "Please remember I
have this Luger here at my belt. It may help you to remember that if I
tell you I am one of the best shots in the German army. You understand?"

"A man would be a fool to go out there," Freddy said quietly, and
pointed toward the desert.

"A first class screw-ball," Dave, grunted, and watched the German
colonel cram things into the brief case.

The senior officer heard him and looked up sharply.

"So you are not English, eh?" he asked with a frown. "You are an
American."

Dave didn't say anything. He simply returned the man's stare.

"An American?" the colonel repeated as though he were rolling the word
around in his brain and observing it from all angles. "So you left
your country and came over here to fight for the British? That is
interesting. That is _very_ interesting, indeed!"

A sly smile that curled the German's lips, and a sudden odd gleam that
showed in his half closed eyes, made Dave's heart grow chilly and cold,
and caused the back of his neck to tingle with that all too familiar
warning sensation. He shrugged it off after a moment and obeyed the
major's order to fall into step with Freddy and be marched away.



CHAPTER TWELVE

_The Colonel's Trap_


Dull pain shot through Dave Dawson's left shoulder and crawled up the
side of his neck and into his head. It came at regular intervals like
the ticking of a clock, and no matter which way he moved he could not
seem to get away from it. From a long, long way off he heard the murmur
of sound, but it held no meaning for him. His brain was too befuddled
to grasp the meaning of anything. All about was darkness. Darkness, the
shocks of dull pain, and the distant murmur of voices.

"I say, can't you just shake him? Do you have to punch his blessed head
off? Let him alone, I say!"

The sound of Freddy Farmer's voice suddenly cleared Dave's head and
revived his senses. He awoke from a groggy sleep to find himself in the
back seat of one of the armored cars. The German major was bending over
him and punching him on the shoulder and snarling in his ear.

"Wake up, you American swine! Wake up, do you hear me? Wake up!"

At the other end of the seat Freddy Farmer was protesting angrily,
helpless to do anything else but that. A German soldier standing by
the side of the car was holding a Mauser muzzle against the English
youth's chest. For a split instant Dave was tempted to pretend he was
still asleep and lash out at the German major's chin, and apologize
afterward. On second thought, though, he decided that might not be so
good. So, instead, he groaned and sat up so that the German missed his
next blow and struck the back of the seat.

"Hey, what's the matter?" Dave cried sleepily.

The German stopped punching and swore softly in German through clenched
teeth. Dave could just see him vaguely, as it was dark all around,
although there was the first grey streak of a new dawn in the east. It
was then he realized that the murmur of sound he had heard in his sleep
was caused by intense activity about him. The German mechanized column
had completed its night march and was now "bedding down" for a new day.
Trucks, tanks, and armored cars alike were being covered with strips
of camouflage canvas that would render them invisible to aircraft
above. Headquarters tents were being set up, and off to his right a
couple of rolling kitchens were being made ready for the preparing of
the early dawn mess for the officers and troops. The commands that flew
back and forth were spoken in low tones, and every soldier seemed to
know exactly what to do. It was a display of military efficiency plus,
and once again Dave had to admit admiration for Nazi war technique.

At that moment he received a final blow from the German major.

"This is no sightseeing trip!" the officer barked at him. "Get out of
this car, and come along with me. No wonder the British are losing the
war. You seem to do nothing but sleep. Get out of this car, at once."

A blazing retort rose to Dave's lips, but he choked it back and climbed
stiff-legged out of the car and down onto the sand. Freddy was pushed
out beside him. He looked at his pal and grinned in the bad light.

"That shut-eye sure helped," he said to Freddy. "Anything happen? I
think I must have popped off the instant we got under way."

"You did," Freddy replied. "Phew, you could sleep through a
bombardment, I fancy. His Nibs didn't like it at all. He was full of
conversation, and--"

Freddy suddenly received a blow in the middle of his back that sent him
pitching headlong down onto the sand. Dave instantly leaped forward and
helped him to his feet. The German major glared at the English youth
and fingered his holstered Luger.

"Another insult and you'll get a bullet, British swine!" he hissed.
"You forget I speak your filthy language."

"Do you?" Freddy echoed with icy calmness. "I hadn't noticed it, you
know."

Dave set himself to leap in front of his pal in case the officer struck
again. However, the German seemed to think better of it. Perhaps it was
because the colonel came striding up at that moment. The commandant of
the mechanized desert column ignored the major and peered at Dave and
Freddy. Presently his flat moon-shaped face relaxed into a brief smile,
and he nodded.

"So you got some sleep, eh?" he grunted. "That is good. Perhaps you
will remember things a little bit better today. First, though, we must
eat. Ninety-five miles is a long way, even in the cool of the night.
Yes, we will all eat first."

The German nodded and turned to his major.

"Put them in one of the tents, and post a guard," he ordered. "Then
report to me."

Without waiting for the junior officer to acknowledge the order, the
colonel swung around on his heel and walked off. Dave still kept his
muscles coiled and ready for action, but it proved unnecessary. The
major's anger had cooled off. At any rate, the sudden appearance of the
commanding officer had caused him to change his mind. He simply glared
at Freddy for an instant and then gave a jerk of his head.

"Follow me!" he grated. Then to the guard who hovered close, "Walk
behind them and use the muzzle of that gun if you have to."

A few moments later the two R.A.F. pilots were seated on the sand floor
of a tent that had been set up on the eastern fringe of the camp. The
front flap was left open, and they could look out at the guard pacing
up and down in front of the tent and at most of the camp beyond. Dawn
was coming fast, but the camouflage work had been completed, and the
entire column was ready for another day of hiding from any patrolling
British aircraft.

"They sure know their stuff!" Dave breathed softly. "Here we are right
in the doggone camp, and we can hardly tell those covered over tanks
from the sand. They must have been preparing for this a long time, what
I mean!"

"I don't doubt it a bit," Freddy grunted moodily. "Thoroughness is a
by-word with the Germans. Listen, Dave, what do you think--?"

Dave suddenly reached over and touched his arm.

"Take a look at that guard," Dave said in a loud voice. "Did you ever
see such a funny-looking face in your life? And look at the way the
slob carries his rifle. I bet he hasn't been in service over a couple
of weeks. Bet he couldn't hit the back side of a barn door. What an
awful-looking dope! Holy smoke! He's got a face even funnier looking
than that dizzy boss of his, Hitler. Hey, Guard! You're all out of
step, you fathead!"

"Dave, for cat's sake!" Freddy gasped.

The guard turned toward them, looked blank, then shrugged and continued
his slow pacing up and down.

"Are you mad, Dave?" Freddy choked out. "You want a gun butt or a boot
heel in your face?"

"Who, me?" Dave echoed, and grinned at him. "Of course not. I just
wanted to see if the guy understands English. He doesn't. Now, what
were you going to say?"

Freddy whistled softly and gave a little shake of his head.

"You certainly find out things a strange way!" he breathed. "Lucky for
you he _didn't_ understand English. He would have bashed you a good one
for those insults, have no fear. What was I going to say? Blast it,
I've forgotten. No! Wait a minute. What do you think of that colonel,
Dave?"

"Dumb like a fox," Dave said slowly. "He had the wheels in his head
working all the time. He's not even close to being satisfied about us.
Yeah! I sure wish I were a mind reader. I'd like to know what this
surprise he was hinting about is."

"I have an idea it is some kind of a trap," Freddy murmured with a
frown. "He's jolly well up to something."

"Speaking of traps," Dave said, "thanks for not letting me step into
that one he set when he pulled out that map. I was just about to point
out some town. That would have let him know we understood German. You
sure gave him a good line. By the way, where the heck are the Libyan
towns of Amarir and El Siwa, anyway? Never heard of them."

"Me either," Freddy said, and grinned. "Just made them up. I think it
worried him a bit, too. Out this way there're lots of little spots you
don't hear mentioned once in a hundred years. Like all those islands in
the South Pacific, the names seldom appear on maps because the places
are too small. Yes, I think that German colonel spent a lot of time
last night studying his maps and looking for Amarir and El Siwa."

"It sure was fast thinking, pal," Dave said. "My hat's off to you.
We're in a jam, though, Freddy, and you and I've got to work fast. I
can only guess where we are, but my guess is that we're not far from
British-occupied ground. That means the surprise attack is going to be
pulled pretty soon."

"I agree with you," Freddy said with a nod. "By the way, did you see
that dispatch case of his? Those maps and papers? I have a feeling they
could tell us all we want to know."

"I'll bet my shirt on it!" Dave said excitedly. "If we could only get
hold of that dispatch case, and get us a plane, we'd--"

Dave cut himself off short and made a wry face at the vast stretches
of desert he could see by simply raising his eyes and glancing out the
front side of the tent.

"Sure!" he said presently with a bitter chuckle. "And if we had some
ham we could have some ham and eggs, if we had some eggs! Nuts!"

The two boys lapsed into moody silence and stared unhappily at the
guard marching slowly up and down in front of their prison tent. Then,
suddenly, it happened! Perhaps it was just another of those mysterious
coincidences so common in war, or perhaps Fate had been waiting for
that exact moment. At any rate, the sound of a distant airplane engine
suddenly came to the boys. They sat up straight, cocked their heads and
stared hard at the shadowy dawn sky to the west.

"That's a Nazi ship!" Dave breathed excitedly. "I can tell the throb of
a German Daimler-Benz engine with both ears stuffed with cotton."

"And it's a Messerschmitt," Freddy said, and pointed. "Look! Take a
bead on that sand dune over there and then look up above it. See it? A
Messerschmitt One-Ten. There! He's cut his engine and he's gliding down
toward this camp."

"Not the ship we saw take off last night," Dave grunted as he found the
plane in the sky and watched it glide downward and toward them. "That
was a Messerschmitt One-Nine single seater. This is the Messerschmitt
One-Ten three place job. Yeah, pilot, radio man, and gunner. Maybe
they take turns contacting this desert headquarters. Boy! Seeing that
ship certainly gives a guy thoughts, doesn't it, huh?"

Freddy simply nodded grimly and said nothing. The plane was very low,
now, and sliding in to land in full view of their prison tent. As it
slowly settled down onto the sand, they suddenly saw the German colonel
and the major run out to the spot where the Messerschmitt was braked
to a stop. There were only two figures in the plane. They climbed down
at once and engaged in what appeared to the boys to be an excited
conversation with the colonel. Dave wasn't sure, but twice he thought
he noticed the column commandant half turn and shoot a look over their
way.

The group talked for a few minutes, then moved away in the direction of
the headquarters tent. When they had passed from view, Dave turned his
head and smiled sadly at Freddy.

"Look at that plane just over there!" he said with a happy sigh.
"They've even left the prop ticking over. Gosh, what I wouldn't give
for a chance to--"

He left the rest hanging in midair and stared unhappily at the
flat-faced guard walking up and down. The man carried a Mauser rifle
in the crook of one arm, and there was a long-barreled Luger in the
holster at his belt. He looked as though his thoughts were a million
miles away, but Dave was quite positive the man was on the alert and
ready for any sudden action of their part.

A moment later a second guard appeared with a couple of mess tins of
food. Hardly looking at the two boys, he set the mess tins down inside
the tent and then stepped up to the guard.

"We are all to report at _Herr_ Colonel's tent at once," he said in
German. "Come along."

To the utter amazement of the boys, the two Germans walked away and
disappeared around a group of camouflage-covered tanks in the direction
of the headquarters tank. Two moments of tingling silence ticked by,
and then Freddy grabbed Dave by the arm.

"A perfect chance, Dave!" he whispered excitedly. "Not one of the
beggars in sight. Let's make a run for that Messerschmitt and be off.
What utter fools they are to give us this chance!"

Dave was already scrambling up onto his feet, but upon hearing Freddy's
last words something seemed to grab hold of him; seemed to freeze him
motionless for a brief instant and then push him down onto the sand.
Freddy half turned and stared at him as though he had suddenly gone
crazy.

"What's the matter?" the English youth gasped. "Are you paralyzed? Come
on, Dave! No telling when they'll come back."

Dave shook his head, took hold of Freddy's arm and pulled him down onto
the sand.

"Nix, Freddy!" he admonished. "Sit down and start eating. The hunch
just hit me right between the eyes. This is _it_, Freddy!"

"This is what?" the English youth demanded angrily. "Listen, Dave, if--"

"Shut up, and eat!" Dave cut him off. "_This is the surprise._ I'm sure
of it. The colonel's little surprise. Don't you get it? They don't
believe our story about the British plane crashing, and the two fellows
in it burning up. They think _we're_ those two chaps. Get it? So that
Messerschmitt is the colonel's little trap. I'll bet you every dollar
I ever hope to have that they're waiting and watching for us to make a
break for that plane, and have got a couple of machine guns trained on
it in the bargain. It's up to us to fool them, and stay put."

The annoyance and anger slowly and reluctantly faded from the English
youth's eyes. He looked at Dave, then looked sadly out at the plane.

"Of course you're right, Dave," he murmured after a moment or two. "I'm
a blasted fool, and almost ran us into something. Yes, you're dead
right, Dave. Oh, well, let's eat. At least that's something to do!"

They had been eating for about ten minutes when their guard suddenly
appeared in front of the tent. He glared at them for an instant and
then motioned with one of his hands.

"_Herr Kommandant_ wants to see you," he said in German. "Come!"

The two boys didn't move a muscle. They simply looked blank and
puzzled until the guard made motions that even a blind man would have
understood. Then they slowly got to their feet and walked out of the
tent.



CHAPTER THIRTEEN

_Desert Doom_


The German colonel was flanked by his major and two Nazi Air Force
pilots. All of them stared flint-eyed as the guard ushered the two boys
into the headquarters tent. They returned stare for stare and waited
for somebody to speak. The colonel seemed to be trying the silence and
hard eye cure on them, for it was a good three minutes before he opened
his mouth. Dave had the crazy urge to laugh in the man's face, and if
the situation hadn't been so deadly serious he probably would have.
German officers have never taken any prizes for good looks, and the
colonel was certainly at the bottom of the list.

"Tell me your story again!" he suddenly snapped out, and nodded at
Dave. "Yes, you, my little American."

Dave hesitated a moment as though to get the facts straight in his
mind. Then he slowly told a story identical with everything that he
and Freddy had said before. The Germans listened in silence, but a
sneer twisted the colonel's lips by the time Dave had finished.

"So?" the German commandant echoed in a purring tone. "You did not
arrive at the crash in time to save the two Englishmen in it, eh? They
were unfortunately burned up alive?"

A warning bell sounded in Dave, and the familiar tingling sensation
was at the back of his neck. He was sure that he and Freddy were being
trapped, but he was helpless to do anything about it. The only possible
thing he could do was to stick to their story.

"They certainly looked burned up to me, sir," he said.

The colonel smiled, and his slitted eyes held a triumphant glitter.

"You were very clever not to take advantage of the chance just now to
try and escape in that Messerschmitt plane," he said with a leer. "Very
clever, because you would most certainly be dead now if you had made
such an attempt. However, you do not fool me a bit. Infantry officers,
eh? Bah! Do you think we are fools, you swine?"

Both Dave and Freddy had the sickening sensation of the ground falling
away from under them. They forced themselves to keep dismay from their
faces, however, and stared puzzled-eyed back at the colonel.

"What is that, sir?" Freddy presently asked in a surprised tone.
"You--you think _we_ were in that plane? But that's ridiculous! Those
two poor chaps burned up. They died! We saw them with our own eyes.
Look at these cuts and scratches on my hands. I got them trying to save
those R.A.F. lads. I don't understand what you mean, sir!"

"You understand perfectly!" the colonel said harshly, and stabbed a
thick finger at him. "Yes, you would like me to believe your story, but
I don't. You see, I have other proof. You probably injured your hands
on rocks and desert brush, but _not_ from trying to save two British
airmen. They didn't burn up and die in their plane!"

"Say, what is this?" Dave choked out with forced dumbfounded amazement,
though his heart was actually sliding down into his boots. "Who says
they didn't burn up?"

"I do!" the colonel thundered in a voice that was probably heard 'way
back in Tripoli. "These two German pilots have just returned from an
inspection of that crash. I radioed Tripoli last night for that to be
done. They have just arrived and made their report to me!"

The German paused and bent the eyes of death on the two boys.

"They found no charred bodies in that crash!" he suddenly spat out in
their faces. "They found goggle glasses and rims in the burned cockpit.
They found radio earphones of burned helmets. They found the remains
of a camera--something that is only carried in that type of plane on
_special_ occasions! They found parachute harness buckles and clasps.
They found lots of things that the occupants of that plane left behind
when _they set fire to their craft_!"

"Set afire, my hat!" Freddy blurted out. "I tell you we saw it crash
and burn up!"

At that moment one of the German airmen shook his head and said
something to the colonel so fast that neither of the boys could catch
what it was. The colonel nodded and broadened his leer.

"Stop lying!" he snarled. "You are caught. The plane did not crash and
burn up. _Herr_ Captain, here, has just told me that the marks in the
sand show that the plane made a good landing. There were also other
marks in the sand. _Two sets of footprints leading northward from the
crash!_"

The German commander thumped his fist down on the table in front of
him and glared at the two boys out of eyes fitted with dancing shafts
of lightning. Dave could almost feel every drop of blood drain down
out of his body. His mouth went bone dry and his leg joints seemed
to turn to jelly. It was all he could do to hold himself erect. He
glanced at the German pilot who had spoken, and in that moment he would
gladly have given anything to get his hands about the man's scrawny,
leathery-skinned neck.

"So what?" he suddenly shot out, returning his gaze to the colonel's
face. "If you think we're R.A.F. pilots, then that's your mistake. So
what?"

The colonel's eyes flew open a bit in stunned surprise. Anger flooded
his face with a fiery red. Then just as quickly the anger faded and he
laughed harshly.

"American bluff!" he snorted. "I have heard of that, but it will do you
no good. No good at all, do you hear? I know all about you now, and--"

The colonel leaned forward and thrust out his jaw.

"And I shall deal with you as I would any other spies!" He fairly
crammed the words down their throats.

The boys blinked, but that was the only outward sign they gave of the
conflict of emotions that raged within them.

"Yes, deal with you as spies!" the German repeated. "And I know a very
nice way to deal with spies."

"We are not spies," Freddy spoke up quietly. "We are no more than
prisoners of war. We demand we be regarded as such. Or do the
recognized rules of warfare mean nothing to you?"

Dave expected to see the German fly into a rage at Freddy's final
outburst, but such was not the case. The colonel's face became hard as
a disc of frozen ice. His eyes were pin points of flame that licked out
from between the lids. He gave a curt shake of his melon-shaped head.

"No, they mean nothing to me!" he said, tight-lipped, and flung one
arm out in a circular gesture. "Here in this desert I hold the supreme
command. Here _I_ am the _Fuehrer_, the Leader. My word is law. To
disobey means instant death. My officers and my troops know that, too.
No, I make my own rules. And when I order, you to be shot--_you will be
shot!_"

Dave knew, as Freddy knew, that it was foolish and a waste of time
to pose as infantry officers any longer. The game was up. Well laid
plans and precautions had availed them nothing. They had failed. An
inspection of the burned up plane had knocked the props right from
under them. Their future was in the laps of the gods. No plans and
preparation now. They could only fall back on fast thinking, fast
action and prayer.

"Okay, go ahead and shoot!" he told the German defiantly. "Our job is
done. Our reports are now in the hands of the British High Command.
Sure! We've done our job, and we're not afraid to die. Go ahead and
shoot, and nuts to you and your whole gang!"

The German colonel gave him the kind of a look a wearied parent might
give a spoiled brat, and slowly shook his head.

"It is no use, my little fool American," he said. "You only waste your
breath seeking to fool me. Whatever your mission was, I know that it
failed. It failed because you did not return to your base. You landed
in the desert, and very stupidly allowed us to take you prisoners. And
you made no code report to your superiors because there was no radio in
your plane. These German pilots made sure of that, too."

The colonel turned to them, repeated the statement in German and
watched the two pilots shake their heads vigorously. Then suddenly the
colonel whirled around as Freddy burst out laughing.

"And what is so funny, my swine Englander?" he snarled.

Freddy didn't even look at him. He looked at Dave instead and grinned
broadly.

"Well, I guess we lose that bet, Dave," he said. "But I have to laugh
when I think of Jones and Barker in that other patrol plane trying to
collect from us. I don't fancy they'll come out this way again looking
for us."

"Not a chance," Dave replied quickly, playing up to Freddy's lead.
"They're safe and sound at Wavell's base now. They'd be crazy if they
didn't stay there until Zero Hour."

"What's that?" the German colonel shouted, and came part way up out of
his chair. "Another patrol plane? Zero Hour? What do you mean?"

Dave fairly leaped at the opening the German's questions presented.

"Oh, nothing," he said with a shrug. "We were just kidding to see what
you would do. We were really alone. There wasn't any other plane along
with us. Oh--Anyway, _you didn't see one, did you_?"

The German colonel didn't reply. He dropped back on his chair and eyed
first one of them and then the other. Because his eyes were so well
hidden behind the slits, it was impossible for Dave to tell what effect
his lies had had upon the German. However, he was fairly sure that
the man was puzzled; wasn't so sure of himself now, and was giving the
matter very serious consideration. For a second Dave was tempted to
carry on his crazy chit-chat with Freddy in the hope of befuddling the
German even more. On second thought, though, he killed the urge and was
content to let well enough alone.

"Another plane, eh?" the German muttered in his own tongue. "I wonder.
It is of course possible, yet--"

He jerked his head around to the taller of the two German Air Force
pilots.

"You took part in that air battle yesterday shortly after dawn," he
snapped. "How many enemy planes did you engage?"

"Only one, a British Blackburn Skua," the pilot replied instantly.
Then, as his face darkened from memory, he added, "I would have shot it
down, myself, but I was flying as observer-gunner in one of the Italian
planes. The weakling at the controls became scared and ran away."

"Those Italians!" the colonel said, and spat onto the sand. "Not one
of them, including their fat dictator, has the courage of a newborn
chicken. Bah! I spit on their flag! So there was no other enemy craft?"

"None," the German pilot assured him. "Only the one."

The colonel nodded and turned to the boys again.

"And if you had been lucky enough to return to--to General Wavell's
base, as you think that _other_ plane did," he asked softly, "just what
would you have reported, eh?"

Dave opened his mouth to let fly with a wise-crack, but Freddy beat him
to the punch.

"Your plan of surprise attack, of course," the English youth said
quietly. "How you have fifteen motorized units hidden out here on the
desert. And how you plan to make the surprise attack on the British
garrison at Tobruk just before dawn tomorrow. And how you expect to
take Tobruk from the English and thus trap all of the British forces
that extend westward to Bengazi and the most advanced outpost at El
Aghelia at the southern end of the Gulf of Sidra. Yes, those and a few
other details. But it doesn't matter now about us giving the British
High Command the information. The other two chaps have informed them,
of course."

Had a thousand pound aerial bomb suddenly blown up inside the desert
headquarters tent at that moment, no one there could have been more
surprised. The German colonel's eyes bulged out, and his jaw dropped
down so low it almost struck the top of the table covered with maps.
Even Dave caught his breath and stared hard at his pal. The English
youth simply smiled and shrugged, and appeared to be enjoying himself
immensely. Eventually the German colonel pulled himself together and
snorted aloud.

"Very clever, my little swine," he sneered. "For a moment I thought you
did know something. But of course you don't. Nor does anybody else, for
you two were alone."

Freddy Farmer shrugged again.

"Then it must be so if you say so," he said gravely.

The colonel reddened again. He clenched and unclenched his big fists
and looked as though he were going to lose his temper completely and
lash out at the young Englishman. He held his temper in check, however,
and twisted his lips into a sneer.

"Perhaps you know some of the other details?" he asked, and watched
Freddy's face closely.

"No, I don't, to tell the truth," Freddy replied calmly. "Perhaps
you'll be good enough to tell me. It's about the Italian fleet. I'm not
sure what part it is to play in your attack plans."

The words scored another bull's-eye, that once again amazed everybody
including Dave Dawson. Then, before anybody could speak, Freddy spoke
again.

"Not that it matters," he said, "but are units of the Italian fleet
to bombard Bengazi and Derna? Or just Tobruk? Of course, the British
Mediterranean fleet will be there to greet them, but I'm curious to
know, just the same."

The German colonel opened his mouth to bellow with anger, then suddenly
snapped it shut. He smiled and looked at Freddy with almost a touch of
admiration.

"My congratulations, my little Englisher," he said. "You are far more
clever than I suspected. But your eyes gave you away just now. Too bad.
You might have enjoyed yourself a bit watching me worry. But such is
fate, eh? My surprise attack? I am quite willing to explain it to you.
Dead men cannot talk, you know."

The German paused, and the cold glitter that came into his eyes seemed
to touch Dave's heart like fingers of ice.

"You are quite correct," the German continued speaking. "There are
fifteen desert units hidden out here on the desert. We have been in
the desert for a full week now. And not one Englishman has known that
we were here. Fifteen units. A mechanized infantry division, and a
tank division. Over thirty thousand troops ready and eager to teach
you Englishmen a lesson you will never forget. No, the Italians are
not fighting your great General Wavell this time. This time it will be
Germans--_real_ soldiers. And we will crush and annihilate Wavell's
troops to the last man."

The German nodded savagely and thumped his fist on the table for
emphasis.

"At Tobruk, at dawn tomorrow!" he shouted a moment later. "Tonight
will be our last night on the desert. At dawn tomorrow the battle and
victory. Nothing can stop us. Nothing shall! And within a week we shall
be in Alexandria and Cairo. The British Northern African army will
be shattered, and your great General Wavell's troops in Ethiopia and
Eritrea will arrive too late. They will simply march into our waiting
arms!"

"And the Italian fleet?" Freddy murmured as the other stopped shouting.

"They will do their little part to help with the bombardment of
Tobruk," the Colonel said with an impatient gesture. "But we are
prepared to carry them on our backs if we have to. And now, my little
Englander, we speak of you. Does your American friend understand
German, too?"

"We both speak and understand it," Freddy replied calmly.

Dave stifled a gasp of utter amazement just in time. As it was, he
could not stop himself from jerking his head around and staring at
Freddy out of accusing eyes. Freddy admitting they both spoke German?
What in thunder had gotten into him? Yet the German colonel seemed to
have known they spoke his language, or at least that Freddy did. What
in the world--

"It is amusing to speak English," the German colonel's voice cut into
his whirling thoughts. "So we will not change. Now I have given you a
little information. It is your turn to give me some. I wish to be sure
about the strength of the British garrisons at Tobruk, and Derna, and
Bengazi. Also the British strength at Bardia, and at Sollum on the
Egyptian frontier. You will give me that information?"

"Even if I knew, which I don't," Freddy said, speaking right up to him,
"I most certainly wouldn't tell you a thing."

"Bravo!" the German cried in a mocking voice, and clapped his hands.
"The little English pig is full of courage. Of course you wouldn't tell
me _now_! Later, it will be different. You both will beg and scream for
permission to tell me everything you know."

"That's what you think!" Dave spoke up for the first time in several
minutes. "You've got another guess coming, if you ask me."

"I am not asking you, my American fool!" the German snapped at him.
"You, and this little Englisher, will be asking me--yes, begging me to
listen to all you have to say. And that will be a lot. Ah, sneer, and
look very brave, if you wish, but tonight it will be different. Yes,
much different. You two will come along with us tonight on our last
march to our attack positions. But tonight you will not ride in one of
the cars. You will walk and run behind my car. Your hands will be tied
behind your backs, and there will be a rope leading from each of you to
the rear of my car. It will not be pleasant, my little ones. Sand and
exhaust fumes will get in your eyes, in your noses, and in your mouths.
You will stumble and fall and be dragged through the sand before we can
stop the car. The sand and the desert brush will peel the skin from
your bodies. We will set you on your feet again, and continue onward.
Presently, again you will stumble and fall, and again the sand will do
its work. Again, and again, and again--until your brains crack and you
beg me to listen to what you have to say."

The German stopped short, and his smile was as cruel as the smile on
the face of Satan himself.

"Yes, you will talk tonight, never fear!" he spat at them. Then he
jerked his head around to the major.

"Have the guard take them back to their prison tent!" he barked.
"Perhaps when they have thought it over a bit, they will decide not to
make me force them to speak. I am no murderer, but victory comes first!
Take them away!"



CHAPTER FOURTEEN

_R.A.F. Lightning_


When the two boys were back in their prison tent, and the guard had
taken up his post, Freddy turned to Dave and looked at him out of sad
and apologetic eyes.

"I'm sorry, Dave," he said. "I was a complete idiot, and I wouldn't
blame you for shooting me. I guess I just couldn't resist throwing it
into the blighter's face."

"Maybe you know what you're talking about," Dave said with a hopeless
sigh, "but it's all just so much succotash to me. What gives, anyway?
How did you find out about their attack plans? And for cat's sake, when
did he find out we spoke German? Boy! Am I in a flat spin!"

"Then you didn't notice it?" Freddy asked in surprise. "You didn't see
what I saw?"

"No, guess I'm blind as a bat," Dave said. "But let's cut out the
guessing games. Tell me the works before I pass out with curiosity."

"Why, it was one of those maps on the table in front of him," Freddy
said. "The one by his right hand. It was completely marked and showed
the whole plan of attack. It was hard reading the notes he'd made
because they were upside down to me. But I got most of them after a
while, and filled in the rest with guesses. At the end there he saw me
looking at the map and realized how I had found out so much. If only I
hadn't let him catch me. I had the beggar mighty worried. I'm sure I
had him actually believing that there was another plane with us, and
that it got back to Wavell's headquarters. Blast the luck, anyway!"

"Well, I sure take the booby prize!" Dave groaned. "Sure, I saw the
maps, but I was just dope enough not to give them a thought. Old Freddy
Farmer with the hawk eye--and brains. But how come he figured you spoke
German?"

"The maps, Dave, the maps!" Freddy said patiently. "All the notes
and stuff were in German. He realized at once that I had read and
understood them. Don't you see?"

Dave groaned again and threw up his hands in a gesture of despair.

"Look, Freddy," he said, "if I turn around will you give me a good
swift kick? Boy, am I slipping! Yeah, I guess you were crazy to select
me to come along with you on this trip. I'm a lot of help, I don't
think!"

"Now, just cut that out!" Freddy snapped at him. "No one runs down
my best pal to my face, not even you. It was just by luck I happened
to notice the map, anyway. And look what small good it's done! That
cold-blooded beggar wasn't fooling us, Dave. He's just the type to do
what he says he'll do. And it's all my fault. If I'd only kept my mouth
shut."

"It's your turn to lay off running down my best pal," Dave told with a
grin. "What's done is done, as they say. We've just got to figure some
way to beat him. One thing, anyway. We know the whole set-up now. Gosh!
If we could only get hold of that map and get out of here--"

Dave let the rest trail off into silence and stared moodily out the
opened front of the tent. The Germans were making an inspection of
their equipment after the night's march across the desert. Fuel supply
trucks were being unloaded, and squads of soldiers were refueling the
tanks and armored cars and troop transports, while others were checking
engines and guns, and making sure that everything was in order.

The two boys watched them for several moments, then suddenly Dave
leaned close to Freddy and spoke in a whisper.

"We've got about one chance in a thousand, Freddy," he said, "maybe not
even that much of a chance. But we've got to do something, and do it
darn soon. Got any ideas, or suggestions?"

"Not a one," the English youth replied instantly. "But I can tell you
have. What is it?"

"While one of us keeps this guard busy," Dave said, "the other has got
to sneak over there to that fuel supply truck and touch off the gas and
Diesel oil it's carrying, and get back here. Then in the excitement
that follows, we've got to reach the headquarters tent, grab that map
and get away in the Messerschmitt. What do you think?"

"I think it's like trying to fly to the moon," Freddy grunted. "But
that doesn't mean I'm not game to try it. Just how do you expect to
keep the guard busy while one of us sneaks over to that fuel truck?"

Dave didn't answer at once. He sat watching the squads of German
soldiers move farther and farther along the line of trucks. Presently
they were hidden from view at the far end of the line. He touched
Freddy's arm, put a cautioning finger to his lips, and rose slowly
to his feet. Before the English youth could stop him, Dave had moved
forward with the speed of striking lightning. The guard had his back
to them and was staring out across the camouflaged desert camp for
a moment before resuming his pacing. In that split second of time
allowed, Dave Dawson acted. He flashed out his right hand and plucked
the guard's Luger from its belt holster before the German realized what
had happened.

"Turn, and you're a dead man!" Dave warned him in German, and backed
into the tent.

The guard checked his half turn and froze, the hands gripping his
Mauser rifle turning white at the knuckles.

"Just keep walking up and down," Dave spoke to him in a steady, deadly
voice. "Go ahead and raise an alarm if you want to, but it won't do
_you_ any good, see? Your pals may shoot us, but _you'll_ be dead
before they can start shooting. Go ahead, now. Walk up and down some
more--and hold that rifle just like you're doing. _Barrel pointed up!_"

As Dave held his breath, the guard hesitated a moment. Then his desire
to go on living won out. He started pacing up and down in front of the
prison tent, holding his rifle so that the barrel pointed to the sky.

"Good grief!" Freddy breathed softly. "I never would have believed it
possible. That was wonderful, Dave. Phew! It was--it's left me weak as
a kitten. It--"

"Then get strong, and pronto!" Dave ordered, and thrust the Luger into
his hands. "I'm on my way to the fuel truck. Shut up, and don't argue.
You keep that guard occupied. Don't let up on him for an instant. If
worse comes to worse--shoot and duck out the back of this tent and
head for the rear of the headquarters tent. Your shots will bring them
running, I hope, and we'll still have a chance. But watch the guard and
keep telling him how a bullet hurts. He's yellow, or he wouldn't have
folded up just now. Okay, I'm on my way. Luck to us both, pal!"

Freddy started to open his mouth to protest, but Dave silenced him with
a quick shake of his head.

"About time I did something for our team," he grunted, and moved toward
the front of the tent. "You just hold everything. Be right back."

He took another step and flashed a searching look outside. The Germans
checking their equipment were well out of sight by now. As a matter
of fact, he didn't see a sign of a single German save the guard who
marched slowly up and down with eyes that were saucers of fear.

"You're doing fine," Dave grunted at him in his own tongue. "Just keep
it up. My pal is the best shot in the British army. He could split your
backbone in two from that distance without half trying."

The guard shivered slightly but did not turn his head. Dave threw a
final wink and a grin back at Freddy, and then went out of the tent and
off toward the left with the speed of a shell leaving the muzzle of
a gun. Legs working like piston rods, and body bent well forward, he
streaked across a fifty foot open stretch of sand to the safety of the
first of the parked tanks. There he halted for a brief instant, tore
off a large piece of his shirt and pulled an army clip of waterproof
matches from his pocket. Then he streaked forward again toward the
nearest fuel truck. Tins of gas and oil had been taken out and placed
on the ground. He grabbed hold of one and, working with the speed of
lightning, untwisted the cap and soaked his torn piece of shirt with
gas. Then he placed the piece of cloth close to the pile of tins.
Crouching down, he struck one of his matches, tossed the flame down
onto the gas-soaked strip of shirt cloth, spun around in a continuation
of the same movement and raced for dear life back toward the prison
tent.

He was still several strides from the tent when the flames reached the
first of the gas tins. It exploded in a roar of sound, and brilliant
orange red fire leaped up into the sky. Even as Dave dashed into the
tent and snatched the Luger from Freddy's hand, a second and a third
tin of fuel exploded. Dave didn't take time out to watch the fireworks
display. As Freddy gaped at him open-mouthed, Dave twisted back toward
the guard, who stood staring dumb-eyed at the flames, and cracked him
back of the ear with the barrel of the Luger. The German slowly folded
up and dropped to the ground without a sound.

"So he won't shoot when our backs are turned!" Dave barked at Freddy,
and dived for the rear of the tent. "Come on, and put plenty of speed
into your legs. It's make or break for us now!"

The English youth needed no urging. He dived after Dave, and they both
squirmed out from under the rear side of the tent like a couple of
snakes fleeing a flaming jungle. By then the whole desert camp was in a
terrific uproar. Troops and officers were racing madly toward the fuel
truck, which was now a towering column of flame and pitch black smoke
that reached high up into the sky. Hoarse shouted orders flew thick and
fast, and the soldiers fell upon nearby equipment like mad demons and
tried to haul it farther away from the blazing inferno.

All that Dave and Freddy saw out of the corners of their eyes as
they raced zigzagging toward the rear of the headquarters tent. They
actually passed German troops rushing toward the fire, but not one of
the enemy soldiers so much as gave them a glance. All eyes were riveted
on the towering column of flame and smoke.

In less time than it takes to tell about it, Dave and Freddy had darted
and twisted around tanks and armored cars and reached the rear of the
headquarters tent. There they halted and strained their ears for any
sounds inside. It was impossible to tell if there was anybody inside,
however, because of the terrific din that rolled across the desert camp
in ever increasing waves of sound.

Dave nodded to Freddy, gripped the Luger tightly, dropped to his knees
in the sand and whipped up the bottom edge of the tent canvas. One
look and wild joy flooded his face. Freddy saw that look and didn't
bother to ask questions. Seconds later both were inside the empty tent
and stuffing maps and papers inside their shirts. Another few seconds
and they started to turn around and skin out the way they had entered.
At that exact instant, however, a blurred figure came racing into the
tent. Dave saw the flash of a gun coming up and let his body drop. At
the same time he shoved Freddy with his free hand, and swung his Luger
and pulled the trigger with the other.

Two shots blended together as one. Death hissed past an inch from
Dave's nose and bored a hole in the rear wall of the tent. The blurred
figure screamed with pain, dropped his gun and clutched wildly for his
right shoulder. It was not until then Dave recognized the pain-twisted
face of the German major.

"For the two punching bags you made out of us!" Dave barked at him in
German, and then practically slid out under the rear tent flap on his
stomach.

Leaping to his feet, he paused long enough to give Freddy a hand up,
and then led the way at top speed toward the extreme rear of the camp.
Once he reached it, he swerved sharply to the right and ran along
behind a line of parked troop trucks. Presently he pulled up to a
panting halt beside the last truck. The burning fuel truck was now far
to his right and to his front. Directly in front of him, though, and
not fifty yards away, was the Messerschmitt One-Ten. There wasn't a
soul near it. Every jack man in the camp was busy fighting tooth and
nail to stop the blaze of the fuel truck from spreading. Dave reached
back and gripped Freddy's arm.

"I'll dive for the controls," he said, talking fast, "You dive for the
rear pit and the guns. They've stopped the engines, but I'll kick them
into life, and taxi away from here. You hold them back with your guns
in case they start after us. Can't taxi too fast because of the sand.
And I don't dare take off at once. Want to give the engines a little
time to get turning over sweet. Okay?"

"Okay!" Freddy breathed. "And you'll get the Victoria Cross for this,
if I've got anything to say about it."

"Just the flight deck of the Victory will be okay by me," Dave said
grimly. "Right! Here we go!"



CHAPTER FIFTEEN

_Vulture Wings_


The fifty yards to the unguarded Messerschmitt One-Ten seemed more like
fifty miles to Dave as he and Freddy sprinted across the sand. His
heart hammered against his ribs, and not just because of his running
efforts. With every step he expected to hear the roaring challenge and
the sharp bark of rifles and Lugers speeding bullets toward him. With
every step, also, a hundred wild, crazy thoughts flashed through his
brain. Was the Messerschmitt in condition to fly? Was there enough gas
in the tanks to take them to British held ground? Would the engines
start? Would he be able to make a good desert take-off? Hundreds and
hundreds of wild thoughts, each one stabbing his brain like a pin point
of fire.

And then, suddenly, they had reached the German plane and had vaulted
into the cockpit. Dave's fingers fairly flew to the starter buttons,
the throttles, and other gadgets all marked in German. A soul torturing
eternity dragged by, and then the twin 1150 hp. Daimler-Benz engines
roared into life. The instant he heard the first peep out of the
engines, Dave kicked off the right wheel brake, gunned the engines
slightly and started the One-Ten moving around to the left. Every ounce
of his flying skill was in his fingertips as he nursed the throttles
and got the plane to moving faster and faster. Whether they had been
seen, whether they were already being pursued and fired upon, he did
not know. He didn't even bother to find out. He simply concentrated
every bit of his effort on taxiing the Messerschmitt away from the
desert camp and "nursing" the throttles so they would get maximum power
out of the engines.

One moment--two--three--Finally the One-Ten was fairly skipping across
the surface of the sand. A high dune rose up straight in front of Dave.
He gulped, swallowed and pulled back hard on the control stick. The
wheels seemed to stick to the sand for one last moment, then the plane
practically leaped into the air, and the dangerous sand dune rushed
by underneath. Dave whistled, wiped sweat from his face, and twisted
around in the seat to look back. The desert camp was rapidly falling
away and down. The column of flame and smoke from the burning fuel
truck still mounted into the sky. He saw several other tongues of flame
spitting his way, and realized at once that they were Germans trying to
knock them out of the sky with rifle and machine gun fire. The bullets,
however, weren't even coming close. And Freddy, hunched over the rear
guns, wasn't even bothering to pull the triggers.

A moment later the English youth let go of his guns and turned front to
grin happily at Dave.

"Clean as a whistle, Dave!" he cried. "The beggars are only just now
realizing what happened. Good grief, don't ever remind me that this
actually happened, because I won't believe you. Talk about your fairy
stories! This is certainly one nobody would ever swallow."

"Oh, that was child's play!" Dave chuckled, and made a mocking bravado
gesture. "You should see me when I'm really hot, pal. Heck! That was
just fun. Let's go back and do it all over again just to make them
madder, huh?"

Freddy made a face and stabbed a finger to the north.

"Just get going _that_ way, and quickly, my friend," he said, "or I'll
boot you out of that seat and take the controls myself. No, thanks!
I've jolly well had all I want of the nasty Nazis for a while!"

Dave laughed and sticked the Messerschmitt out of its roaring power
zoom, then banked around toward the north. He took one last look back
at the desert camp that was now little more than a darkish patch on the
distant desert, and then turned front and gave all of his attention to
the instrument panel. The things he noticed brought a happy smile to
his lips. The tanks were full, the engines were performing perfectly,
and there was not the slightest indication that the plane would not
carry them safely to British-occupied Bengazi.

Fate, however, had decided that such was not to be their good fortune.
Fate, assisted by the radio back at the desert camp, and three
Messerschmitt 109 single seater fighters sent streaking away from the
nearest Nazi air base. Fate, plus the marvel of radio, plus the speed
of Messerschmitt 109s. What Dave's instruments told him really didn't
have anything to do with it at all.

The first indication that all was not to be nice, pleasant sailing came
at the end of some thirty-five minutes, when Freddy suddenly banged him
on the shoulder and pointed up and off to the left. He looked in that
direction and saw the three dots high-tailing down out of the dawn sky
with the speed of comets gone absolutely crazy.

"Company, Dave!" Freddy shouted. "The blighters got on the radio, of
course, and contacted Tripoli air base. Looks like we're in for a bit
of trouble."

"Not Tripoli," Dave said with a shake of his head. "Those birds
couldn't have come this far so soon. Sure, they probably got on the
radio, but to some spot much closer. If you ask me, it looks as if
they've started moving the planes up closer. Set up a few emergency
fields out in the desert so they wouldn't have to fly so far to give
air support to the ground forces."

"That's probably it," Freddy agreed. "But right or wrong, it doesn't
make any difference now. Think you can skip past before they catch up
with us?"

Dave stared at the three dots coming down from the left and then
glanced ahead at the seemingly endless expanse of desert. It stretched
to the north as far as he could see, and there wasn't a single sign of
any British outpost or desert village garrison. He couldn't tell for
sure, though, because a strange copperish color was crawling up over
the northern horizon.

"No, we can't fly away from them," he told Freddy with a shake of his
head. "We'll have to make a running fight of it, and hope for the
best. Okay, Freddy, they're asking for it, so let's give it to the
bums."

Freddy made no answer. He went back to his guns and checked them to
make sure everything was in order. Dave fed the two Daimler-Benz
engines every ounce of gas they would take and eased the nose up to get
as much altitude as possible before the three Messerschmitt 109s could
close in from the left and give battle. The lull before the battle
lasted less than a minute. Flying by hand, Dave kept his eyes glued
on the diving attackers, and was set and ready the instant he saw the
little stabbing tongues of flame dart out from the nose of each German
plane.

In that instant he acted, and at lightning speed. He tossed the
Messerschmitt One-Ten up over on wingtip and pulled it around in
a steep bank and headed straight for the three One-Nines. It was
obviously not what the German pilots had expected. They had undoubtedly
counted on Dave to wheel around the other way and attempt to race away
from them. So when, instead, they saw the "victim" plane flash around
toward them and open up with a withering fire from the nose guns and
two 20-mm. cannon, they broke diving formation at once, and each pilot
tried frantically to skid out into the clear.

Two of the planes succeeded in doing just that. The center plane of
the formation, however, was doomed. Dave had it square in his sights,
and a blind man could not have missed from that distance. His savage
fire covered the German plane like a tent. The craft staggered forward
a short distance, then suddenly fell off on one wing and went down,
leaving behind a long trail of oily black smoke.

"Let that teach you to stay home where you belong!" Dave shouted
impulsively, and pulled up for more altitude.

"And you, too, my little Jerry!"

Freddy's words were drowned out by the yammer of his guns. Dave jerked
his head around in time to see a second Messerschmitt appear to fly
right into an invisible meat chopper. The left wing came off and broke
up in a hundred pieces. The fuselage buckled just in back of the
cockpit, and the right wing crumpled like so much tin foil. Never had
Dave seen a plane come apart so completely in the air, and he gazed
pop-eyed at the shower of debris slithering downward.

"Man, oh, man!" he gasped aloud. "What are you throwing at him, Freddy?
Naval shells?"

"Wondering, myself!" the English youth called back in an awed voice.
"Good grief, that ship must have been made of cardboard!"

"Or maybe china!" Dave added. "Gee, I never--"

The savage chatter of German Rheinmettal-Borsig aerial machine guns
didn't give him a chance to finish. The third Messerschmitt One-Nine
had cut around in a flash turn and was boring in with all guns blazing.
A handful of death slammed into Dave's plane, and he felt the One-Ten
shake and shiver under the savage impact of the shower or bullets. He
jumped on the left rudder with every ounce of his strength and slammed
the plane around in a turn that made a pinkish haze rise up before his
eyes. Just the same he held the plane in the turn as long as he dared.
Then, just before the terrific turning force would have rolled his
eyes back and made him temporarily blind, he eased out and zoomed for
altitude. Five hundred feet higher he flattened off at the top of the
zoom, banked to the left and looked down and back for a sign of the
Messerschmitt One-Nine.

It wasn't there, gun spewing up after him, however, and he swallowed
in relief. That surprise attack had come much too close for comfort,
and he was positive that had the German followed up his advantage one
Dave Dawson, and one Freddy Farmer, would have been in a mighty bad fix
right then. Then Freddy's hand rapped him on the shoulder.

"Don't look down, look west, Dave!" the English youth called out.
"There he goes, and bad luck to him, I say. The blighter took twenty
years off my life. I could have reached out and caught his bullets as
they went by."

"Reach out?" Dave echoed, and watched the attacking plane race farther
and farther westward. "Boy! If I hadn't ducked I _would_ have caught
them with my _head_! Well, it's nice the guy decided he'd had enough,
anyway. Now, we can--"

But it suddenly wasn't so nice after all. The German pilot had gone
racing away, but he had left his calling card. And the gods of war,
wherever they were sitting huddled together, laughed with glee at the
unfortunate turn of events. The right engine (right outboard engine)
started sputtering out its story that it was all through for the day.
Dave instantly cut the ignition and throttle to prevent the possibility
of fire. With the right engine gone, the force of the left outboard
engine tried to veer the ship around in that direction, and Dave was
forced to put on a lot of opposite rudder to keep the plane flying
straight.

That, however, didn't help much. With one engine completely dead, the
plane began to lose altitude slowly. Even with the left outboard
engine running full blast, the Messerschmitt One-Ten became logy in
the air, and it was all Dave could do to keep it on an even keel, and
stop it from whipping over and down into a spin. Presently, after he
had almost lost control a couple of times, he was forced to nose down
slightly and keep the nose down. He turned around and shook his head
sadly at Freddy's bitter expression.

"This doesn't seem to be our lucky day, either," he said. "We have a
little altitude, but not much. In ten minutes or so we'll be down so
low we'll have to land. These jobs just won't fly on one engine. Would
you like to take a stroll on the nice desert, my little man?"

Freddy groaned aloud and flung a look of hate down at the stretches of
desert sand below.

"If I come out of this alive," he declared in harsh tones, "I'll shoot
the blighter who even mentions the word, sand, to me. Well, tough luck
for us, Dave. Thank goodness, though, that beggar got scared and went
barging on home. I fancy he'd be enjoying himself a lot right now, if
he had hung around."

"Being a Nazi, he sure would," Dave nodded. "Crippled ships are
their favorite dish. It was the same in the First World War, too, I
understand. What a race of people! But, darn it, this desert landing
burns me up. And I don't mean that as a wise-crack. It's getting to be
a habit with me. I probably won't know what to do if I ever see a real
airdrome or carrier flight deck again. I wonder how far we are from the
British lines."

"A long, long walk over this blasted desert, I'm afraid," Freddy said
gloomily. "And we've got to get there long before dawn tomorrow, too,
or the information we have won't be worth much. It will take a few
hours at least for the British garrisons west of Tobruk, at Derna and
Bengazi, to fall back to the main body, or they'll be cut off by the
Germans blocking the way at Tobruk."

"That's right," Dave said, and guided the plane downward. "And that's
exactly what the Nazis plan to do to make their attack a complete
success: smash right through the middle of the British defenses; cut
British strength in half, and then mop up a half at a time. But, darn
it, we can't let them get away with that even if we have to run all the
way to Tobruk, or some British outpost that has a radio. No, darn it,
we'll beat those Nazis yet. We're not through, and all washed up."

"Well, we are with this airplane, anyway," Freddy grunted. "Here comes
that blasted desert. Oh, how I hate the very sight of sand! But don't
think I'm giving up hope and quitting, Dave. Don't crack us up. I'm
just talking aloud, you know."

"It'll be a rainy day when you up and quit, Freddy," Dave said with a
chuckle. "Don't worry. I feel just the same way. I could chew nails
plenty right now. Oh well, hold your hats, children."

Dave cut the ignition of the left outboard engine, leveled off just
over the sand, and then let the plane sink down to one of the finest
landings he had ever made in his flying career. When he had braked the
plane to a stop, he sank back in in the seat and sighed heavily.

"And I'd go and waste a nice landing like that way out here!" he
grunted. "Well, I guess--Hey! _Hey, Freddy!_ Look over there! That
cloud of sand. What in thunder is it?"

To the right and far ahead, a cloud of swirling sand was moving swiftly
toward them. Both boys stared wide-eyed as the approaching cloud seemed
to grow bigger and bigger and spread up to the sides. Then suddenly
they saw dull colored objects under the cloud and moving over the sand.
Freddy found his tongue first.

"Tanks or armored cars heading for us!" he cried. "Blast them, I'm
jolly well going to make them pay for taking us prisoners. I won't just
walk into their waiting arms this time!"

As the English youth shouted the words, he stood up in the pit and
swung his mounted guns around to bear on the rapidly approaching cloud
of sand. Dave reached back and grabbed him by the arm.

"Hold it, Freddy!" he cried. "That would be just plain dumb. We've got
more than just ourselves to think about. It would be just plain foolish
to fight it out. They can blow us right out of the desert without half
trying. Then where'd we be? Keep your shirt on, and just keep thinking
of the maps and papers you've got stuffed under it."

The English youth's eyes blazed with anger, and he hesitated a moment
before he slowly dropped his hands away from the guns.

"Yes, of course you're right," he mumbled. "Getting ourselves killed
would simply spoil everything. But, good grief, what I wouldn't give
to--"

"Freddy, shut up, and look!" Dave interrupted in a wild voice. "They're
armored cars, but they're not German! Take a look! See? See the type?
Those are from a British unit. They're English! For cat's sake start
waving your arm before they start pegging bullets at us. This is a
Nazi plane, you know. And maybe those guys don't feel like taking
prisoners today!"

Freddy Farmer didn't bother wasting breath agreeing. He had seen for
himself. He popped up onto his feet, as did Dave also. And together
they started waving their arms at the most comforting sight they had
seen for many long hours--British made and British manned armored cars
of the desert!



CHAPTER SIXTEEN

_Desert Wrath_


The British desert patrol consisted of four cars led by a small scout
car that flew a Staff pennant from one of the front fenders. The scout
car came straight at the landed Messerschmitt, while the patrol cars
circled around to the right and the left and came to a halt in a ring
about the plane. Two officers were riding in the scout car--a major,
and a lieutenant who sat at the wheel. When the car stopped, the major
jumped out and ran toward the plane, one hand on his holstered service
automatic. He was tall and broad-shouldered and was tanned a deep
mahogany from many weeks and months under the blazing desert sun. The
decoration and campaign ribbons on his tunic showed that he had served
his King in the last war as well as in this one.

"Don't shoot, sir, we're English!" Freddy shouted, and scrambled down
from the plane.

The major stopped dead and stared at them, wide-eyed. Then he took a
cautious step forward, his right hand still resting on the butt of his
gun.

"What the devil?" he gasped. "Infantry officers flying a plane? What's
this all about?"

"Pilot Officers Dawson and Farmer from the Aircraft Carrier Victory,
sir," Freddy said. "We've just escaped from the Nazis far to the south,
and were on our way to G.H.Q. when we were attacked by a trio of Nazi
pilots. We got two of them, but the third beggar got our engine and we
were forced to come down. Thank God you saw us, sir."

"Thank God we didn't open fire on you," the major grunted. "We don't
care much for Nazi planes. But what's this about escaping? Nazis far to
the south? That's rot! The desert's bare as can be."

"That's what you think!" Dave cried before he could check his tongue.
Then, blushing, "Sorry, sir. I mean, it looks that way, but the desert
is practically alive with them. Freddy, let's show the major our stuff,
and tell him the whole story. You tell him."

Just about six minutes later the major, who said he was Major Alden,
of the 41st Armored Division, was probably the most amazed and
dumbfounded person in all Libya, and Egypt as well. He could hardly
take his eyes off the maps and papers the boys pulled out from under
their shirts and spread out on one wing of the Messerschmitt One-Ten.
The other officer in the scout car, a Lieutenant Baxby, joined them,
and he too was struck speechless.

"Bless my hat, bless my hat!" Major Alden kept mumbling. "The
whole blasted plan of attack. Units, numbers, gun strength, air,
navy--everything. Great guns! I'll never be able to believe it!"

"But it's true, sir," Dave spoke up. "That Nazi colonel actually told
us what he planned. He was shooting off his--I mean, he was boasting.
Like Nazis do, because he thought he had us for keeps. Can you give us
a lift to the nearest radio post, sir? The sooner we notify G.H.Q. the
better it will be, I think."

"Eh, give you a lift?" the major echoed looking up from the maps and
military papers. "I'll jolly well drive you there myself, straight to
General Maitland at Tobruk H.Q. We can make it by just before sundown
if we hop along now. Great guns! The blighters would have wiped out the
lot of us in no time at all. God bless the R.A.F., I say!"

The major gathered up the stuff on the wing and spun around to his
junior officer.

"Take over the patrol, Baxby," he ordered. "Ride in Sergeant Tucker's
car. Head back to the post at once, and have all other patrols called
in immediately. Then move back to Tobruk to await orders. Got it?"

"Right you are, sir," the lieutenant said.

"Then off with you," the major ordered. "Come along, you two R.A.F.
lads. Blast it, if this isn't like a cinema thriller!"

Motioning the two boys to climb in back, the major slid in behind the
wheel, shifted gears and sent the light, fast scout car careening
around and toward the north. The violent movement pitched Freddy and
Dave down onto the floor, and by the time they had scrambled up onto
the little stools again and were clutching the two mounted machine
guns for support, the car was like a brown streak of lightning ripping
across the surface of the sand and leaving a swirling trail behind.

"Gosh!" Dave shouted above the roar of the engine. "If we had wings
this darned thing would take off!"

"Dashed if I don't think we already have!" Freddy called back. "Look
over there to the right, Dave! Look at the color of the sky."

To the east the sky was filled with a dull copperish haze. It spread
out to the side for miles and towered high into the heavens. It was as
though a huge expanse of copper screen mesh had been spread across the
blue of the Libyan sky. At its highest point the sun was perched like a
brass ball on the top of a flag pole.

"Maybe it's going to rain," Dave suggested. "Maybe rain clouds are that
color in this neck of the woods."

"Rain in March?" Freddy snorted. "The rainy season's long over before
then. That's some kind of a desert storm, I think."

Freddy let go of the machine gun mounting long enough to lean forward
toward the front seat.

"What's that sky mean off to the right, sir?" He shouted the question.

The major took his eyes off the desert ahead just long enough to flash
a snap glance toward the copperish-colored sky to the east. As he saw
it, he started slightly, and his sandy-colored brows came together in a
frown.

"Sand storm!" he called back over his shoulder. "And if it catches up
with us it'll be very nasty indeed. That's a good one, too. Getting
close to the time of year when they kick up quite a bit. If we can't
outrace it, duck low and stay there. The stuff's like powdered glass.
Dash it all! Even the weather's fighting for the Nazi. I--"

The dreaded snarl of aerial machine gun fire cut off the rest of the
major's statement. Dave whirled around and stared upward and to the
rear. He saw the diving plane at once. It was a Messerschmitt One-Nine.
As a matter of fact, he was positive it was the same One-Nine that
had quit that last air battle and gone racing off home. Obviously,
though, the pilot had come back, sighted the One-Ten on the ground, and
the scout car speeding across the desert to the north. He had added
things up to get the right answer, and was now making a final effort to
prevent valuable information from reaching British headquarters.

"The bum has come back, Freddy!" Dave shouted, and swung one of the
machine guns around on its swivel mounting. "He wants some more, so
let's give it to him!"

Freddy Farmer didn't bother wasting breath replying. He simply nodded,
swung the other gun around and lined up the diving plane in his sights.
A split second later both boys were sending savage bursts of bullets
up at the diving plane. The Messerschmitt did not swerve off, however,
even though Dave could see their tracers slapping right into the plane.
The German pilot was determined to do his worst while he lived. He
came right on downward, engine howling a song of mighty power, and all
of his guns spewing out streaks of nickel-jacketed lead bullets.

"That guy sure can take it!" Dave shouted as he continued to pump
bullets up at the plane. "Maybe he's gone nuts and plans to dive right
down into us."

"Let him!" Freddy shouted back without taking his eyes off the plane.
"It will be the last dive that beggar makes, anyway!"

"And a lot of good that will do _us_!" Dave cried. "We'll--_Hey!_"

The speeding scout car had suddenly careened around crazily to the
left. The violent movement tore Dave's hands from his machine gun and
flung him heavily up against Freddy. He regained his balance as soon as
possible, shot a questioning look toward the major at the wheel, let
out a bellow of alarm and dived forward.

"Keep at that plane, Freddy!" he shouted, "The major's been hit--and
bad!"

It was even worse than that. The major had received a burst of bullets
straight through the back of his head. He was stone dead and slumped
over the wheel of the car. Bracing himself as best he could, Dave
hauled the limp body to the side with one hand and clutched wildly for
the wheel with the other, and somehow managed to straighten out the car
before the terrific turning motion sent it off balance and spinning
over and over across the surface of the sand.

The instant he had the car straightened out, he pushed and shoved the
dead major out of the seat and scrambled in behind the wheel himself.
In his ears was the continuous yammer of the Messerschmitt's guns,
and the retaliating chatter of Freddy Farmer's single gun in back. He
didn't dare turn his head for a look, however. He kept his eyes front
and made the car zigzag as much as he could to throw off the diving
pilot's aim.

Suddenly there came a wild shout of triumph from Freddy Farmer's lips.

"That will teach you, you blasted blighter!" Freddy roared. "Now you
can't go back home!"

Hardly had the last reached Dave's ears before he heard the sickening
sound that a plane makes when it dives engine full out into the
ground--a sickening sound no words can describe. An instant later there
was the roar of the gas tanks exploding, and as Dave jerked his head
around to risk a quick look, he saw a fountain of flame and smoke that
shot upward. Impulsively he eased off the scout car's speed a bit, and
took a deep breath.

"Thanks, Freddy!" he called back over his shoulder. "I knew you could
do it. Poor Major Alden! What a tough break for him. Gosh! I almost
wish he hadn't spotted us. Then this wouldn't have happened to him.
Can you lift him in back, Freddy, and then come up front here with me?
We'll have to use your pocket compass for a course. I've lost mine, and
the burst that got the major raised heck with his dash compass. Can you
lift him back, or do you want me to stop and give you a hand?"

"Stop nothing!" Freddy cried in wild alarm. "Drive like blazes, Dave!
Look at that sand storm! It's almost on top of us. You keep driving.
I'll get him back here all right!"

As Dave turned his head and looked to the east, his heart zoomed up
into his throat. The coppery sky had changed to dull black, streaked
with shafts of swirling yellowish white. In that instant the whole
world seemed to stand still. All sound ceased, save the roar of the
scout car's engine. And its sound was twice as loud because of the
sudden silencing of everything else.

"Gosh!" Dave whispered in awe as his eyes stayed glued to the hovering
menace aloft that seemed ready to spring upon them in the next split
second. "Holy smoke! Like the end of the world, or something. It's--
Hey, Freddy, what's the humming sound? No, more like a whine, I guess."

Freddy didn't have time to offer his guess. A low hum that seemed to be
sweeping across the desert suddenly rose up to a blood-curdling scream
that blasted the surrounding silence to the four corners of the earth.
The lull and the silence were no more. In the bat of an eyelid the fury
of a Libyan desert storm swept down upon the boys in full force. The
car shuddered, and rocked, and threatened to roll over on its side from
the terrific impact of the wind driven sand clouds slashing against it.
Dave bent low and clung to the bucking wheel with every inch of his
strength.

Daylight was no more. All about him was a swirling, twisting, screaming
inferno of shadowy darkness. Billions and billions of tiny pin points
of pain slashed at his face and hands. They even seemed to dart through
his uniform and practically scrape the skin from his body. It was
impossible to keep his eyes open to see where he was driving. If he
did, he would be blinded in the flash of a split second. All he could
do was keep his head bent low, his face shielded from the furious
onslaught of the desert storm, and hold the wheel as steady as he could
and pray that he was steering a northerly course.

As the fury of the storm increased, and the high, shrill scream of the
wind seemed like daggers of fire in his ears, he was tempted to swing
the car around and race with the storm in the hope of outdistancing it.
He checked the urge, however, because of the possible consequences. If
they once lost direction in this storm, it would be all over for them.
True, they had Freddy's compass and they could always find north. But
from where? That was the point. If he tried to run with the storm,
he might get so twisted up that he'd be racing back to the south.
Then when the storm passed they would be farther than ever from their
destination.

No, it was best to hold a general northerly course now, and pray they
could live out the storm. At least the swirling sand would not choke up
the engine and put it out of commission. That was their greatest fear,
and as Dave strained his ears to catch the roar of the engine, and to
feel it by the vibration of the wheel, his heart stood still, and the
blood was so much sluggish ice water in his veins.

The car's engine, however, had been adequately protected for just such
a situation as it now faced. And it kept roaring out its song of power
that spun the wheels and sent the car rocketing forward slam bang into
the teeth of the storm. Seconds totaled up to minutes, and the minutes
mounted up one on top of the other until Dave felt as though he had
been plowing through the raging desert inferno since the very day he
was born. Wave after wave of stinging pain swept over his body. Every
muscle and bone ached. His head felt three times its size and throbbed
unmercifully. It was like racing down a long black tunnel filled with
roaring thunder, for he dared not open his eyes. He wondered how
Freddy was making out. He didn't dare take his hands from the wheel.
Nor did he dare open his mouth to call out. His words would not only
go unheard, but he would also instantly get a mouthful of stinging
wind-swirled sand.

There was just one thing, and one thing alone to do: hang on hard to
the wheel to keep the car traveling a straight course to the north.

Swirling sand, screaming wind, and a hundred new aches and pains
attacking his body every minute. Dave's mind became a spinning blurr, a
blank. Fighting instinct kept him clutching the wheel and guiding the
scout car ever northward. Fighting instinct and a will-power of iron
refused to permit him to brake the car to a halt and sink exhausted
down onto the floor of the car out of the swirling sand and the
cutting wind. He lost all track of time. Time even ceased to exist. It
was as though the howling, screaming sand storm had always been about
him, and always would be. There was no end. Everything would be like
this forever and ever.

"Dave! Dave, come out of it! Dave, wake up. The storm's over. It's
gone. Dave, look at me. Look at me!"

From a thousand miles away he heard Freddy Farmer's voice droning in
his ears. His pal was punching his shoulder, grabbing hold of him and
shaking him violently. Through sand-burned eyelids he stared fixedly at
a limitless expanse of desert stretching out ahead of him. Suddenly,
something seemed to let go of his brain and he realized what it all
meant.

The car wasn't moving. The engine had stopped. The desert storm had
passed on and was now blotting out the sun in the western sky. The
desert was the desert again. He turned his head slowly and stared at
Freddy. It was like looking at a ghost. The English youth was covered
with fine white sand dust from head to toe. It was caked in his hair,
caked on his face, and was sticking like a layer of white glue to his
tattered uniform.

"Dave, are you all right?" Freddy gasped, and shook him again. "You've
been driving for fifteen minutes as though you were hypnotized, just
clinging to that wheel for dead life and staring straight ahead. I had
to switch off the ignition to stop the car. You were absolutely deaf to
every word I said. Are you all right?"

"Sure, I'm okay," Dave heard his own voice say. "Gosh! Driving with
my eyes open? Holy smoke! The last thing I remember was driving blind
with my eyes shut and my head ducked down. And, hey, it must be late
afternoon. That storm lasted for hours. Wonder where we are?"

"I don't know," Freddy said. "But we're headed north, anyway. The sun's
over there on our left, so we must be headed north. Phew! How you were
able to keep on driving through that inferno I don't know. I ducked
down on the floor, and just didn't have the strength to get up and give
you a hand. You must be made of steel, Dave!"

"I sure don't feel as if I were right now," Dave said, and grinned,
stiff-lipped. "But let's get going again. The ground seems to rise up
quite a bit just ahead there. Maybe we'll see something on the other
side. Boy, oh boy, do I hope it's something besides desert."

"If it isn't, I swear I'll go stark raving mad," Freddy muttered. "If
I never see a desert again that'll be much too soon."

"You and me both," Dave grunted and started the engine again. "So cross
your fingers, Freddy, and pray hard. Here we go for the top of that
rise!"

It took ten minutes to reach the top of the high point of desert, but
every second of those ten minutes was a lifetime of torturing suspense
to Dave and Freddy. Neither of them spoke a word, but the same question
stood out in letters of fire in their brains. What was beyond the rise
of ground? For the last fifty yards Dave fed every ounce of gas to the
pounding engine that it would take, and the car fairly streaked over
the sand. Then finally they roared up and onto the crest. Dave slammed
on the brakes, and sat motionless, unable to utter a word. Emotion ran
riot within him, and the hot tears of inexpressible joy stung the backs
of his eyes. Freddy threw both arms about him and hugged him like a
long lost brother.

"There it is, Dave!" the English youth cried wildly. "The good old
Union Jack flying from the pole. The British flag. That's Tobruk, Dave.
I recognize it from pictures. Tobruk. You hit it on the nose, Dave.
Right on the nose!"

"Tobruk!" Dave whispered softly. "Tobruk, and--and I'll never forget
how good you look as long as I live. Never!"

"The end of the trail, and in time!" Freddy breathed, and unashamed
tears of joy streaked the caked sand on his cheeks.



CHAPTER SEVENTEEN

_Claws of the British Lion_


A continuous roaring thunder that seemed to shake the entire world
greeted the new Libyan dawn. The roaring thunder of war on the land,
in the air, and on the sea. Thanks to Dave Dawson and Freddy Farmer,
the British Middle East High Command had been warned in time to call
in its outpost forces and concentrate them into a swift mobile force
that streaked out to smash hard at the enemy forces stealing in for a
surprise attack that never took place.

On land the British forces struck the middle and both flanks of
the enemy desert forces and sent them reeling back into the desert
scattered and completely disorganized, and suffering terrific
casualties. To the west at El Aghelia, and Bengazi, other Nazi-Italian
units found nothing but small British rear guard units that made them
pay far more for every foot of ground they captured than that foot of
ground was worth. It was the same at many other points, too. Instead
of being surprised, it was General Wavell's armies that surprised the
Axis units. They weren't where the Nazi and Italians had fully expected
them to be. They were like ghost armies that faded but of sight, and
then suddenly materialized on a Nazi flank to crush a tank company
as though they were so many toys, and to spread terror and complete
befuddlement in the enemy ranks.

In the air every available R.A.F. plane had been hurled into the
battle. Carefully guarded Nazi fuel supply truck units and ammunition
trains and armored car columns were blasted into eternity by the rain
of bombs and bullets showered down from R.A.F. wings. Nazi and Italian
planes were shot down like flies. Numbers made no more difference to
the R.A.F. boys on the wing than numbers meant to the brave-hearted,
two-fisted fighting British, and Australian, and New Zealand and South
African soldiers on the ground. They gave ground, yes, but they left
nothing worth the holding. And the Axis forces paid one of the highest
prices in history for stretches of useless hot desert land.

On the sea, units of the Mediterranean fleet were doing their share,
too. Italian navy ships sent to take part in the surprise Axis attack
were caught cold by John Bull's sailors, and were scattered about the
blue waters of the Mediterranean like helpless chunks of steel. Not
a single Italian naval shell was fired ashore into the ranks of the
British troops. The Italians didn't have the chance to fire a single
shell. The British sailors caught them in a perfect trap and plastered
them from bow to stern with screaming shells. In a couple of hours
there wasn't a single Italian ship in sight off the Libyan coast. Those
that had not gone down under the waves were scurrying like terrified
ducks for the safety of their bases in Naples and in Taranto, leaving
behind the British navy in supreme command of Libyan waters.

In one of the R.A.F. planes that roared above the raging war inferno
that stretched from El Aghelia in the west to Bardia and Sollum in the
east, were Dave Dawson and Freddy Farmer. They were still caked with
sand, and they still wore their tattered uniforms. And they were dead
tired and practically all in. But not for all the gold in the world,
or all the discipline in the world, would they have remained on the
ground inactive during this great conflict in the middle East. The
high ranking officers of British G.H.Q. had suggested, begged, and
practically demanded that they go to a hospital in Tobruk, and place
themselves under a doctor's care at once. But arguments, threats, and
demands had simply fallen on deaf ears. In the end, and with frank
admiration glowing in his eyes, General Maitland had granted permission
for them to take a plane from one of the nearby R.A.F. bases and go
aloft for an hour or so to watch the gigantic battle. At the end of
an hour, however, they were to fly out to sea to the Victory, whose
position had been given to them.

"Five minutes more, Dave!" Freddy shouted above the roar of their
engine. "Think we can get just one more Heinkel bomber before we head
for the Victory?"

Dave turned in the cockpit, grinned at him, and shook his head.

"Boy, what a hog for air scrapping you are!" he cried. "But nix, no
more. We more or less promised the general we wouldn't get too close to
the scrapping--just take a look-see around. Instead we tore in and got
us a Nazi apiece. But two's enough. I haven't got half a dozen bullets
left. Besides, this isn't our show, really. The other fellows deserve
their innings. Also, I've suddenly got a yen for the flight deck of the
Victory. What say? Shall we let these guys have their fun without us
butting in, and buzz home to the Victory?"

Freddy cast a sad glance about the sky swarming with British and Axis
planes, then sighed heavily and nodded.

"Right you are," he said. "Guess we've been selfish long enough. Yes,
the flight deck of the Victory would be fine. Hurry it up, though. I've
got something very important to do. Matter of life or death, you know."

"What?" Dave cried in alarm. "You--?"

"Never mind the questions!" Freddy cut him off. "Just get me to the
flight deck of the Victory as fast as you can."

Forty minutes later Dave sighted the aircraft carrier, and ten minutes
after that he received word from the operations officer to come aboard.
The huge ship looked strangely bare and alone as it steamed into the
wind. There wasn't a single plane on deck. All available ships were
in the air, either scouting for fragments of the Italian fleet or
lending their aid in the battle ashore. Just the same, the long smooth
deck looked like home sweet home to Dave as he guided his borrowed
two-seater fighting plane downward.

He came in clean as a whistle, and no sooner had the secret arresting
gear brought the plane to a halt than Group Captain Spencer seemed to
pop right out of thin air and come racing across the deck to greet
them.

"The happiest day of my life!" he cried, and reached up a helping hand.
"Climb down out of there, you two. Blessed if I don't want to hug and
kiss you. Fancy that!"

"First tell us about the others, sir," Dave said as he climbed down
onto the deck. "I mean, the other patrols that went out when we didn't
return. Did they get back okay?"

"Fit as fiddles, and without a speck of information!" the group captain
cried, "But we all know why, now. By George! Is it good to see you two!
I suppose you know you helped a little, eh?"

"Well," Dave said with a grin, "I hope we helped at least a little."

"Oh, it was a bit more than that," Group Captain Spencer said with a
mocking shrug. "All you did was save half the British army in Libya
from walking into a death trap. That, plus making it possible for us
to give the Nazis a licking that will slow them up long before they
reach Egypt. And when they do reach Egypt, we'll be able to hold them
until General Wavell's ready to run them all the way back where they
came from. Yes, you two helped some, I guess. And as soon as you're
rested up I want the whole story in detail. Don't leave out a thing. I
insist.... By George! Farmer, what's the matter?"

Freddy had squatted down on the deck and was tearing off his boots as
though his feet were on fire.

"Must get rid of them at once!" he panted, and struggled with his
boots. "Die if it touches me any longer. Most terrible stuff in the
world. Deadly poison. Absolutely fatal."

Dave's heart looped over as he remembered a squashed scorpion on a
Libyan desert rock.

"Freddy, what is it?" he cried, bending over. "What's in your shoes?
That stuff you talked about life and death in the plane? Freddy, speak
to me! _What's in your shoes?_"

The English youth got to his feet, picked up his two shoes and hurled
them far out over the side of the carrier. When they had hit the water
and sunk from sight, he shuddered and heaved a long grateful sigh.

"Sand," he said hoarsely. "Blasted desert sand!"


THE END

       *       *       *       *       *

_A Page from_

DAVE DAWSON ON CONVOY PATROL


Golden sunshine was streaming down on the broad wings of the American
built Consolidated "Catalina" flying boat, but ominous coal black
clouds were beginning to pile up high in the western sky. Even as Dave
Dawson stared at them, they seemed to fling a dark shadow far out over
the rolling grey swells of the North Atlantic. He gave a little angry
shake of his head and impulsively took a tighter grip on the controls
of the flying boat.

"That storm looks plenty bad, Freddy," he said out of the corner of his
mouth. "What do you think?"

Freddy Farmer, seated in the co-pilot's seat, nodded grimly and glanced
at the altimeter. It showed exactly nine thousand feet.

"We'll just have to hit it on the nose, and pray," he said after a
moment. "If we climb above it we might just as well go back to port.





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