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GORDON MACCREAGH

A SENSE OF BALANCE

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First published in Adventure, August 3, 1918
This e-book edition: Roy Glashan's Library, 2016
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Adventure, August 3, 1918, with "A Sense Of Balance"



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Title graphic from "Adventure," August 3, 1918



JIMMIE BELLEW put his feet up on the bookcase, knocked the ashes out of his pipe into an elaborate silver rowing-trophy, and relaxed in lazy contentment.

"Hand along the humidor, Walt," he requested.

His friend bestirred himself sufficiently to reach with the tips of his fingers a cunningly mounted skull with a brown porcelain lid and give it a shove which sent it plowing its way through an assorted litter of pencils and note-books and little wicked knives on the table to stop right on the edge by the other's elbow.

"Ha! Phenomenal judgment, as usual!" commented Jimmie, and proceeded to fill his pipe from the grisly relic.

The room was small and correspondingly cozy, with the battered furnishings and grotesque adaptations of natural objects to the needs of student life which are so dear to the heart of youth engaged in the pursuit of knowledge. The walls were hung with the usual varied assortment of pennants and boxing-gloves and photographs of athletic teams. The typical den of a young man whose thoughts were concerned more with the strenuous outdoors than with the honorable pursuit of medicine.

Jimmie blew two smoke rings, endeavored to throw the stub of his match through them, and then suddenly sat bolt upright.

"Yep," he said with finality. "I'm going to take a crack at it, and I think I'll get away with it, Walt."

Walter Jamieson smiled with the superior condescension of the man who has been through the thing and knows.

"You'll flunk," he said with conviction. "That physical test is a scorcher."

The younger man's face flushed just a trifle. Alert-eyed, hawk-nosed, hawk-faced generally, with a hard lean body to match, he certainly did not look as though any physical examination in the world should hold terrors for him. But the test they spoke of was the much-deliberated designing of an over-careful Government to weed out all but the most perfect specimens of manhood in the country. Jimmie defended himself eagerly.

"Flunk, me eye! Barring that sinus operation I had I'm as fit as any man alive. I'll pass everything else with a whoop; and you've told me yourself when you've taken me up that I have all the earmarks of a good flyer."

"Ocular and muscular balance entirely, my boy. You know darn well that for a couple of months after your operation you walked like a souse, and you used to get seasick and all that. Your canals are all wrong, man, and that cold, scientific revolving-chair thing will get you in a minute. It got 'Bud' Blakelock; they said he'd never be able to carry out a night bombing raid where he couldn't use his eyes; and Bud has been doing stunt stuff for years."

Jimmie leaned forward and lowered his voice with instinctive caution.

"It got Bud Blakelock, Walt, because he hadn't spent three years in a medical college. But it won't get me. I've been boning up on the flow of the lymph in the auricular canals and I know all the normal reactions by heart. I can fake that stuff as easy as winking."

The older man looked at him through half-closed eyes.

"Why not get a test from one of the faculty? Your trouble was two years ago; maybe you're quite all right now."

Jimmie fell silent. He knew that that was just what he ought to have done long ago; but like many a consumptive or heart patient he was afraid to face the truth. When he spoke it was in a low monotone, looking away from his friend.

"You see--it's this way, Walt. I want to do my bit, and I want to do it flying. And--I guess I'll fake the chair test."

Jamieson read the youngster's thoughts like a book. He smiled grimly.

"And you 'want to do it flying,' hm? Well, it has been known that a man may develop such a very keen sense of muscular balance as to overcome the ear defect; but there's more in this flying game than just the mechanics of it. Nerve, my boy, nerve! Or, rather, nerves, I should say.

"There's the psychological aspect of the thing. You may get away with the physical exam, but you'll know when you're up in the air that you lack that certain requirement, and that knowledge will break down your confidence. Without confidence some day your nerve will go; then you'll make the high dive."

"Rats!" said Jimmie with the omniscience of youth.

Jamieson smiled still, less grimly but with a pinch of determination about the lips.

"Quite made up your mind?"

"Yep, quite. Going to pull all the strings I can to bag a commission. Shoot in my application tomorrow."

"Well, then," the smile was faintly renunciative. "I'm coming in with you."

"You?"

"Yes, I--I think sometimes that I need something to give me a jolt to help me cut out this stuff. It don't fit in with flying." He indicated with a lift of his eyebrow the tall tumbler which stood at his elbow.

Jimmie jumped up with a glad exclamation.

"Good for you! I hated to say it, Walt, old scout, but I've been thinking that way for quite a while myself. Gee, I'm awfully glad! Why, with your experience they'll make you a gold-lined lootnant right away."

"Mm-m, maybe. Hope so anyway. Maybe when you get through with your ground stuff I'll have you for flight instruction; how'd that be?"

"Bully!" Jimmie enthused. "Let's go up together tomorrow."


JIMMIE BELLEW was dead right in both of his forecasts. His friend Jamieson, an experienced aviator, was called for examination with the least delay possible, and the next news that was heard of him was that he had been appointed to a second lieutenancy in the Army Signal Corps. Jimmy himself, after a period of waiting during which exhaustive inquiries were made into his mental and moral fitness for that most exacting service, finally received notice one day to present himself at headquarters forthwith for the prescribed physical examination.

As his friend had warned him, it was a scorcher. Five hours of exhaustive search by skilled scientists for the least possible traces of unsuspected defects which might some day result in disaster. As Jimmie had said, however, he passed everything else with a whoop. Five-feet ten of hard, wiry athlete, there was no reason why not.

Came then finally those delicate ear tests, the cold, merciless probing of scientific machinery for a possible clogging of the lymph flow in the semi-circular canals of the inner ear which act as the spirit-levels of the body. Jimmy was the least bit nervous; but confident withal. His unbounded confidence of youth had not been broken down--yet.

Hearing, of course, was perfect. Jimmy had no fear on that score; he could hear a whisper at twenty feet without difficulty, and he knew all the tricks of the examiners about pretending to hold a watch somewhere behind his head. But that deadly revolving chair, that inexorable contrivance which had blasted the hopes of so many aspirants to the great game. . . Jimmie took his seat with a half-smile of alert readiness. A sergeant grasped the lever and spun him rapidly.

"Enough!" called the examining surgeon suddenly, and looked into Jimmie's face with a watch in his hand.

Jimmy knew that his eyes ought to roll wildly for about five seconds. He rolled accordingly, while the surgeon ticked off the time and made a note of the result in his record sheet.

"All right! Again now."

This time the whirl was a longer one.

"Right! Stop! Now, what do you see? Point to it."

What Jimmy saw in front of him happened to be the bald high forehead of an eminent scientist. He knew that a normal person would point a foot or so to one side of it. Without hesitation he did so.

"Hm, remarkably quick reaction," muttered the surgeon, arid made a favorable note to that effect. A short respite followed, and then Jimmie was told to sit forward with his head bent over his knees. The chair was then spun in sharp jerks once to every two seconds for about twenty revolutions.

"Now straighten up!" ordered the surgeon sharply.

Jimmie straightened up, and instantly heaved himself over, tugging at one arm of the chair as though to right a falling aeroplane.

"Hm, you'll do," the examiner smiled. "That's all, you can dress now."

Jimmie grinned covertly to himself and fled.

Yes, dead right was Jimmie Bellew. He had faked that stuff and got away with it--so far.

IN due course presently Jimmie was notified that he had been accepted as a candidate for a commission in the Army Signal Corps and was ordered to present himself again at headquarters, where the signing of various documents and the taking of sundry oaths awaited him. From there he was sent away to the great ground school at Newport News, a full-blown member of the United States Aeronautic Service.

At the ground school he learned all about stream lines and aspect ratios and angles of incidence and lift-drift coefficients, and the mysterious names of cloud formations with their approximate heights; and he washed acres of aeroplane wings with gasoline, and was initiated into the art of twanging brace wires like a banjo to see whether they were tight enough; and thereafter he graduated through the successive stages of third, second, and finally first mechanician, and was eventually promoted to "grass-hopping" in a low-powered machine.

All these things Jimmie, with the benefit of his previous instruction under his friend Jamieson, learned with unusual rapidity; and with the further benefit of those favorable notes on his report-sheet about the quickness of his nerve reactions he began to be looked upon as a very promising subject. He was picked out from among the many who were condemned for some failing or other to ground work for all time and posted for air instruction. Yes, Jimmie Bellew was marked down for a flyer--and only Jimmie knew about the clogged lymph in his left ear which had so much to do with his sense of balance.

In due course again Jimmie found himself commissioned as a second lieutenant and hustled off to Mineola for advanced instruction. There, in keeping with his lucky streak, he found his friend Jamieson, now a first lieutenant, and--unprecedented luck--he managed to come under him for tuition.

Those were good days for Jimmie. Long, filled-up days of hard work and teeming interest and earnest endeavor. Anybody would have considered himself lucky to have the personal interest of an experienced flyer like Walter Jamieson, and Jimmie progressed rapidly from mere passenger observation to being allowed to handle the dual Deperdussin control himself and to make wide, easy banks and long glides with a watchful hand of his teacher on the other wheel to check up the invariable beginner's mistake of over-control.

He began to get the "feel of the air," that sensation of the supporting planes having a tangible grip on something which is so markedly distinguishable from the emptiness of a side slip. He had the natural gifts of quickness of thought and presence of mind which go to make a good flyer, and presently he was promoted to "single hops"; he was allowed to take a machine up alone. He experienced the thrill of controlling immense power at immense heights, the wild exhilaration of speed. It was the call of the born bird-man.

Good days. But there was a tiny spot in the clear sky of Jimmie's contentment, a little gray spot like a mote before the eye which can be winked away but which is presently there again a little blacker than before. And Jimmie in his ebullient youth began to realize that perhaps the man with experience might know something after all.

Nerves, Jamieson had spoken of, the haunting knowledge of defect. Jimmie could whoop along at a hundred miles an hour and could make a sixty-degree bank; but how much of that was pure muscular sense of balance, he found himself wondering; and how much did he have to rely on that swaying air bubble in the red arc of the inclinometer attached to the dashboard in front of his control wheel?

That was a mechanical spirit-level, and it turned his thoughts inward to his own spirit-levels inside his head. Bud Blakelock would never have been able to carry out a night raid when he could see nothing, they had said. To what extent, then, was that defective ear of his affecting him; and how much of his flying did he owe to his eyesight?

A troublesome little speck, that, which kept recurring with disquieting suddenness apropos of nothing.

Jimmie thought he would try one day to find out how long he could fly with his eyes shut. That surely would prove something. He climbed to a good three-thousand level to allow plenty of room for recovery in case of accidents, and then with his lean jaw clenched in determination and his hawk brows drawn down in a fierce frown he pinched his eyes shut hard. He sat tense while the machine hurtled along for nearly two minutes. The tight lips began to spread in a smile; it was easy, he said to himself.

Then a side puff struck him, and the machine heeled over to the left. Instantly he whirled the wheel over in the opposite direction and instinctively he opened his eyes. Immediately the great planes rocked over to the right; he had badly over-controlled in his anxiety. In a second he had righted the machine again; but his heart was in his mouth. When a man is three thousand feet up in the air it takes very little to make him taste his whole internal system.

After a few minutes the hammering of his pulse calmed down and he tried to analyze the thing. He had felt the tilt while his eyes were shut; that was all right. But was his over-control due only to over-anxiousness--or had he gaged the angle of deflection all wrong? And would he have righted the machine with his eyes still shut? He thought yes. But then again--maybe not.

That little speck was growing apace.

Later, reviewing the matter in the less strenuous environments of terra firma, Jimmie tried to persuade himself that the thing was quite all right; not once or twice, but many times he told himself so. The thing lived with him. He spent quite a lot of his spare time telling himself that nothing had been wrong--but he hated to try the experiment again.

That kind of thing is bad for the nerves of men who are supposed not to have any nerves. But it is surprisingly good for cankerous specks. Under the stimulus of suppression the dark growth throve amazingly and began to assume a horrifying shape. Jimmie was something of a mental analyst. He knew what was happening to him; those three desultory years of college had not been entirely wasted.

"That spook has got to be laid," said Jimmie firmly.

He hit upon a solution. On his next instruction flight, he said to himself, he would try the experiment again; under the controlling hand of his teacher it would be safe. The next time accordingly he did try. He shut his eyes tight and waited for the feel of whatever he might feel. For a while there was nothing to do, and then came one of the usual little dips which needed correction. Jimmie's analysis of self had not gone quite deep enough; he was still over-anxious and he made the same old mistake.

He felt the instructor in the rear seat with his greater leverage take the control firmly out of his hands and right the machine. For a star pupil this was a disgrace; Jimmie felt very much ashamed. But that vital question simply had to be settled. Presently he experimented again. This time the corrective force was applied with a jerk of impatience. Jimmie burned all over; but he set his teeth and determined to see the tiling through.

Whatever might have been his conclusions about himself, there was no mistaking the instructor's attitude after that. With angry brusquness he took the control entirely away from his pupil, made a wide bank, and came down without further ado on to the flying-field. That lesson was over--and Jimmie had learned nothing!

As soon as they had climbed out:

"What the deuce was the matter with you?" snapped Jamieson crossly. "You were flying like a fool beginner. I have enough to do teaching the elementary stuff to that kind."

He seemed to be unreasonably irritable. It reminded Jimmie uneasily of the old days when his friend had looked a little too freely on the tall yellow tumbler. And Jamieson's face was unnecessarily flushed too. Jimmie wondered.

He would have liked to tell his friend all about his experiment, to have made a full confession of his trouble and asked for advice; but the opportunity was not ripe just then, he reflected; he would wait for a more favorable one. But somehow that opportunity kept postponing itself with heart-breaking indefiniteness.

Lieutenant Jamieson, in common with all the other instructors, was frantically busy, for one thing, with the pressing need of training as many men in one day as used formerly to be handled in a month; and for another, his irritation seemed to have settled on him permanently now. When Jimmie in desperation sought his friend at his quarters in the hotel one evening and made bold to mention the matter Jamieson laughed self-consciously and flushed and explained:

"It's an awful strain on one's vitality, old man, to take up fifteen or twenty boobs every day. But let's not talk shop now."

Which explained nothing. Or rather, not enough. Jimmie wondered some more.

In the meanwhile the days sped on, and Jimmie's unlaid ghost walked at his heels. But his confidence was still unshaken; he felt sure that his mistakes had been due to nothing more than over-anxiety; all he needed was to prove it to himself. Till suddenly there came the first big jolt which shook him into a realization that the man with experience not only might know something, but that he is usually right.

Two of the huge new Sperry search-lights were installed in the flying-field, and it was rumored that the more advanced pupils were to be given practise in night flying. Then only did Jimmie know that Jamieson had spoken deadly truth on that first day in his den. His little subterfuge had become a curse and had come home to roost. With the knowledge hanging over him that the little physical defect which had looked so inconsequential at that time remained still untested, his confidence, in the pinch, had broken down!

Jimmie had run away and hidden himself in his room to think over this new menace when the full force of it struck him with all its pitiless clearness. The speck had suddenly grown to maturity and taken a definite and horrible form. It had a shape and a name. It was Fear!

Second-Lieutenant James Bellew of the Army Signal Corps was afraid!

The thing was unspeakable, infamous; Jimmie fought it desperately; for long terrible hours he tried to convince himself that it was only a passing hysteria born of cumulative brooding. But the thing stood out before him, solid in its merciless accusation. There was no dodging it. Jimmie was afraid to take up a machine in the dark! He flung his arms out over the table and hid his face with shame.


A WEEK passed and Jimmie fought with his fear, and with the greater fear of having somebody discover his fear. A dozen times he made up his mind to test himself out once and for all; and a dozen times he went up and did not dare to try the fearsome experiment. The thing had got a hold of him. He would confess everything to Jamieson, he determined, and then with his co-operation he would decide the matter definitely on his next instruction flight.

But no instruction flights were forthcoming for Jimmie. Jamieson was too busy with the less advanced pupils and with experimental work on the night tests. And he was so confoundedly morose these days. No time could be wasted on a flier who shaped so well as Jimmie did--by day.

Then lists were posted with the names of officers who had been selected on account of their good showing for promotion to night practise. Jimmie's was well up near the top. He began to go about with a hunted look and to evolve desperate plans to postpone his turn until he should have found out about himself. He felt half inclined to go to Captain Wilson in charge of the flying-school, complain of ear trouble, and get himself reexamined.

That would be easy and plausible, and he would then be automatically relieved from flying-duty without anybody having found out his shameful secret. But here came in a curious anomaly. Jimmie wanted to be a flyer; the great game called to him irresistibly; and he had, besides, the pride that went with his lean-jawed type of face. Surely was Jimmie caught between two fires of his own making.

He haunted the night practises, praying desperately for some unexpected opportunity to go up as a passenger. Many passengers went up; but Jimmie's luck was running strong on the ebb now. Somehow it never so fell out that he was called; and junior officers are not encouraged to be importunate when there are a host of seniors who are anxious to experience a new sensation.

Then one night when the immense searchlights were stabbing through low-scudding layers of cumulus clouds and flooding rainbow billows on to the next layer a thousand feet above, Jimmie found himself standing near Captain Wilson. The flying-school chief turned to him.

"How about making a short jump for us, Mister Bellew? We want to see if we can pick a machine out from behind those cloud patches. Imagine we're being raided; the conditions are ideal for a practise."

Jimmie's heart almost stopped beating. The thing was upon him with appalling suddenness.

"Why, er--yes, sir," he managed to say. "Certainly. Er--can I take up Twenty-four?"

Twenty-four was his favorite machine--and Twenty-four's engine was out of commission! Jimmy calculated that he would be able to get away on the excuse and that presently, tired of waiting, they would send up somebody else.

"Sure," said Captain Wilson.

Jimmie hurried off, elate; and then the captain's voice calling after him chilled him to the marrow.

"Oh, wait a minute. I believe Twenty-four is on the sick-list. You'll have to take one of the others."

"Yes, sir," Jimmie mumbled. "Just got to get my helmet." And he fled.

As it happened, they did get tired of waiting. They would have had to wait beyond the patience of any man, for Jimmie was hiding in his room. Other fliers were a-plenty. Somebody else went up. Jimmie had got away with it--this time.

But that sort of dodging could not go on indefinitely. Jimmie was one of the young officers posted for night practise, and as such it was his duty to be present on the field during these experiments. Other occasions arose, and Jimmie's frantic excuses began to draw wondering attention. In that hazardous game there were always keen observers ready to pick up the slightest signs of wavering on the part of the less experienced students. People began to look sideways after Jimmie and whisper.

Jimmie's hawk eyes snapped up these covert glances in a second, and he burned all 'round to the back of his neck as he passed. Again the temptation came strong over him to report in to the chief medico for ear test. But Jimmie had come into this game with the intention of fighting for his country in the aviation service, and unless he should prove to be physically unfitted he was going so to fight. He was deadly afraid and deadly ashamed; but he gritted his teeth and hung on.

Jimmie roomed in the same hotel with Jamieson. He passed the latter's room every day on his way to his own; but it was not often now that he looked in on his friend. For one thing, his own primary impulse was to hide from everybody; and for another, Walt was not at all companionable of an evening nowadays.

Today, however, Jamieson called him in. The tone was both domineering and derisive. Jimmie entered and shut the door; perhaps this would be his long-waited opportunity. Jamieson sat slumped down in his chair with his feet stretched far under the table; his khaki tunic was carelessly open at the neck, and his cap lay on the floor. He regarded Jimmie for a long time with a dull eye while he kept nodding his head with sententious wisdom. Then his lip curled in a foolish caricature of his old slow smile.

"So it's come, huh?" he gibed. "What'd I tell you? 'S got you, hasn't it? Scared! That's what they're all saying. Afraid to go up."

Jimmie flung his head down on his arm and groaned. He had hoped for understanding and sympathy from his friend.

Jamieson rambled on.

"Yeah, dead scared--my star pupil too. After all I taught you--'fraid to go up."

There was an emotional self-pity in the tone that was almost maudlin. This wasn't like Walt Jamieson. Or rather, not like what he ought to be. Jimmie looked up quickly. His own misery was heavy enough; but his concern for his friend drowned out for the present all other considerations. Jamieson sat looking at him with foolish mournfulness. Jimmie had seen that look before.

"Walt!" he burst out with genuine solicitude. "You're not--you haven't been touching the stuff again?"

Jamieson flushed. Jimmie's suspicion was enough to straighten him up in his chair. He laughed shamefacedly.

"Well, hang it all, you know; it's an awful strain on the nervous system, taking up so many beginners every day; I'm all worn out, and I need some stimulant."

Jimmie stood up and stared at him with horrified eyes.

"But Walt, you--you can't," he whispered tensely.

Jamieson was suddenly perfectly sober. He passed his hand wearily over his eyes. He couldn't face his friend.

"Yes, I know," he said, quietly looking at the floor. "I'm going to cut it right out. Let's get together tomorrow and talk over things about both of us. I'm dead tired."

But tomorrow Jimmie was detailed to some routine work which took him off the flying-field; and the next day Jamieson was furiously busy with a flood of instruction, and was held late into the evening in a long consultation about something concerning the big search-lights. And on the third day the list had come down to Jimmie's name for night practise. So Jimmie incontinently reported himself sick; he did not dare to think of that flight before he should have settled things with his teacher.

Later, however, toward evening it was rumored that night practise was all off on account of some other more important thing on hand; so Jimmie put a bold face on it and presented himself at the flying-field pretending that he had heard nothing of the change of plan.


HE found the night lit up like the San Francisco Exposition. Long, milky rays from half a dozen search-lights stabbed far up into the sky and cut the moonless blackness into a kaleidoscope of geometrical figures. It was just such another night as that recent one when he had so ignominiously fled; wide, shifting banks of cloud hurried overhead at various levels.

"What's the program?" he asked a sergeant who stood near with a sheaf of flight-report forms in his hand.

"Spotting experiment, sir. Imaginary raid from here on Philadelphia. Lieutenant Jamieson will go up and the lights will try to pick him up at both ends; they're just trying out their current now."

Jimmie watched the display, full of gloomy thoughts. He would have given his soul to go up with his friend on the long trip, for there surely they would be able to put his accursed problem to a test. But it was too late to attempt to make arrangements; everything would have been scheduled long ago--and in any case, it would probably be a one-man flight.

His surmise was correct. In a little while he saw a fast Curtiss baby scout wheeled out into the open and the mechanicians busy themselves about it. Soon the captain of the flying-school arrived with a group of senior officers. Captain Wilson looked up into the sky with satisfaction.

"Splendid night for the experiment," he remarked. "Bit gusty, though. I fancy we'll be able to follow him for at least six thousand, but I'll bet they won't pick him up on the other side before he is right on top of them. Hope he won't keep us waiting. Been rather a habit of his lately."

One of the officers stepped aside and spoke to an orderly. Jimmie could follow the man as he passed from one lit-up hangar to another, looking in all the likely places where a prospective pilot might be. He was away a long time. Captain Wilson began to show signs of impatience.

Suddenly a wild suspicion flashed into Jimmie's mind. Was it possible, he thought. Surely not. But Jimmie wasted no time in empty speculations; he stole behind the hangars and commandeered the first car which came to hand and raced out to the hotel. It was only a short five minutes. He rushed up-stairs and burst into his friend's room.

It was possible! It was a hopeless fact! Lieutenant Jamieson sat there a picture of dire retribution. His eyes burned bloodshot with fever; a wet cloth encircled his brows; and his face was propped haggard between hands that trembled like an ague patient's.

"Walt!" whispered Jimmie hoarsely. "They're waiting! Don't you know?"

The wretched man nodded wearily.

"Yes," he croaked. "I know. But--I can't fly tonight! I--I had a fierce day today, and--they rung this in on me unexpectedly--take advantage of the clouds; but--"

"But Walt, they'll--they'll be here looking for you in a minute, and--it'll break you, forever! Take a hold on yourself."

Jamieson shook his head in weary resignation.

"Yes, I know," he murmured again. "But--impossible!"

Jimmie looked at him with horror. Any second a man might arrive from the field. And there would be no excuse for an offense of that sort. The realization hit Jimmie like a tangible thing; there was force enough behind it to take his breath. It was preposterous to contemplate. That his friend should be irrevocably broken under the inexorable law of the service--his instructor, to whom he owed everything he knew! It was almost a blasphemy.

Jimmie's mind worked furiously. Suddenly he gasped, and his breath left him entirely. For seconds he stood just as he had been struck, a cold stone statue; and then his deep eyes began to burn and slowly his lips began to set. Then suddenly again he was electrified into swift, purposeful action.

"Lock your door," he hissed at Jamieson. "And keep it locked." And he rushed from the room.

Captain Wilson was striding a short impatient beat and fuming with aggravation when an automobile dashed into the field and drove close up to the waiting scout machine before it stopped. A lithe figure all muffled up in leather coat and helmet and goggles jumped from it. It saluted from the distance, called huskily: "Sorry to have kept you waiting, sir," and climbed agilely into the pilot's seat.

"All right, boys, I'm all set. Let her go."

Everything had been ready to the last little item for many minutes. A nimble mechanician spun the propeller over. It caught up the ignition with a roar, and the light little machine sprang forward like an impatient race-horse.

Captain Wilson whistled his amazement.

"Well, he certainly was in a deuce of a hurry to make up for lost time. Bet he's grinning all over to think he's avoided a censure."

But nobody could see the desperately serious eyes behind those goggles and the white knuckles which gripped round the control wheel and the grim-clenched jaw as the machine lifted from the ground and circled to the left in a steep climb. Jimmie knew nothing of any instructions which might have been given for the procedure of the flight. He knew only that he was expected to rise to at least six thousand feet and then to make for Philadelphia. But he didn't much care whether he carried out the program correctly or not; his only impulse was to get away from there, to gain time while his friend might recover; and his whole will was grimly centered on accomplishment, somehow.

Long shafts of light stabbed at him as he circled. They lit up the surrounding air like day, coming as a special blessing of heaven to enable him to settle down and pull himself together during the first few minutes. When the first cloud came between he felt an instantaneous qualm and sat tensely expectant while the machine hurtled on. But even here was a certain diffused radiance from the giant lights below. It was providentially helpful. He found himself making the old mistake of over-control and he set his will to getting a grip of himself and correcting that.

Presently a long pencil of light caught him again and seemed to hang itself on to the rushing machine; then another licked across, and back again, and caught hold; then more clouds. Then for an instant a pale flash passed him and Jimmie could follow the thin ray crisscrossing about, feeling into the night like a ghostly white finger; and then he was lost for good in pale, formless starlight.

And still he flew at a very fair horizontal! Jimmie's teeth relaxed a little from his bruised lower lip and he began to think with less rigid effort.

Far to the southward he could see through the flying clouds the beacon light on the summit of the town-hall tower. That was a fair mark for Philadelphia, and he knew then where the flying-field was. He headed the machine for it straight as an arrow. A hundred and twenty-five miles, his speed. If only he could hold her level for about forty minutes more!


JIMMIE hummed along for several minutes more at his high altitude on an astonishingly level keel. But the clouds bothered him. He put her nose down to it and slanted through long banks of them like a shooting star. It was darker down below, but less confusing. Several more minutes sped behind, and with them several miles. Jimmie began to wonder why he found the controlling so easy--just as though there was not a single disturbing puff of wind. His mouth relaxed almost into a smile. He began to feel the old elation of power and speed. And then, right in the middle of his triumph, something happened.

Jimmie heard a thin shriek above the roar of his engine, and instantly he felt the machine keel over terrifyingly and begin to slip. Frantically he tugged at the wheel, all his resolutions about over-control thrown to the winds. The machine answered beautifully. Nothing had suddenly broken, as had been Jimmie's first blood-chilling thought. But that sudden diabolical stroke was only the beginning. After that everything was either wildly over-controlled or hopelessly under-controlled.

All that beautiful security of balance which Jimmie had been congratulating himself on had vanished as though bewitched away from him. Something had gone terribly wrong with the controls, but there could be no stop for investigation. For twenty frenzied minutes the machine rolled and dipped and rocked like a leaf through the terrifying blackness. Jimmie's every muscle was tense with the readiness for instant action and the sweat rolled from him with the exertion of it. How the machine lived through it, he never knew. It was a mercy of Providence that he was kept too frantically busy to think.

When he finally managed to get the crazy controls in hand again he found himself sailing in a creamy glare of long convergent rays coming from far ahead and somewhat to the right. Mechanically he pushed the depressing control, and when he came to earth a few minutes later his mind was still in a whirl. He was just worn out, mentally and physically.

Officers crowded 'round him and shook his hand, proffering congratulations which were beyond his comprehension. How should they know that he had accomplished something which to him had been a fearful ordeal? He found himself feeling irresistibly tired and sleepy. He murmured evasions and excuses by the thousand and finally broke away and stumbled to a car and eventually to a hotel.

He had slept for about three minutes when he thought he woke up still dreaming. His dream was that his friend Jamieson was shaking him fervently by the hand and mumbling a vague jumble of gratitude and happiness and congratulations. One sentence impinged clearly on his consciousness.

"By golly, they all thought you were done for when that squall hit the world."

"Huh?" Jimmie sat up with sudden wide-awake interest. "How'd you get here so soon? 'D you fly through it too? Was that thing that happened a squall?"

Jamieson took him hilariously by the two shoulders.

"Fly? No siree. First train out. This is tomorrow morning already, son. And, 'squall'? Well, I should say! It was darn nearly a typhoon."

"Gosh!" marveled Jimmie. "God knows how I ever steered her. I was too scared to think. I just pulled everything in sight by instinct."

Jamieson threw back his head and crowed.

"Why, that's just it, Jimmie my boy. All this time you've been so darn scared you've been cured! Your canals are perfect! Phenomenal! You could never have done it on muscular balance alone. You've flown a stunt, son! You'll get all kinds of credit out of it."

"Me?" Jimmie started from his bed. "Nobody knows me here personally--I was all goggled up anyway; and if by any god's chance they don't know you either, then--say! Did they get you? In the hotel?"

"No, nobody knows a thing. Thanks to you, old friend. You saved me from that. And--Jimmie boy, I--I guess you saved me from the other too. I saw a whole lot last night. When you went off like that, and I knew what it meant to you--and when that storm came up and you were in it while I lay there like a helpless swine, I--well, I'm done with that stuff, Jimmie--for keeps!"

"Then," said Jimmie stoutly, "Lieutenant Jamieson flew that machine here, and Lieutenant Jamieson is going to fly it back. I've already got more out of this thing than all the credit in the world. I've got confidence, Walt, old scout, confidence!"

His friend gripped his hand again, hard.

"And with confidence," he said slowly, "some day you'll fight for your Uncle Sam."


THE END


Roy Glashan's Library
Non sibi sed omnibus
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