A week previous to the time of this writing

Elinor stood by the narrow window in the dingy, one-room hut that she
and Grace Hayes (another nurse) made habitable after an entire day of
scrubbing and cleaning on their hands and knees until their backs were
nearly broken.

A blue cotton curtain, some pictures, a few ornaments, bought in town
and some brightly colored cretonne pillows gave the little place a
feminine touch and a homey atmosphere.

The bright, full tropical moon shone through the glass, casting its
silvery beams upon the girl’s thick, blue-black hair and large, dark
eyes.

As the form of a man appeared just a few feet outside of the window, the
nurse stepped back and drew the curtain so as not to be seen. Grace came
up alongside of her, trying to peer through the glass but the curtain
shut out the view completely.

“Is he still there?” she asked inquisitively.

Elinor nodded her head slowly, continuing to watch the man pacing up and
down before her window, not without experiencing a secret thrill of
triumph as she marveled at his patience. For the past hour and a half,
he had been walking back and forth in front of the house, stopping now
and then to look in the window, hoping for a sight of the lovely nurse
within.

“Oh, that’s mean!” Grace protested. “You’ve kept him waiting out there
for almost an eternity. Why don’t you stop this nonsense and see him!”

“It will do him good to wait,” Elinor announced with a touch of
severeness in her voice. “He needs a lesson in consideration for other
people’s feelings!”

“Oh, dear!” the other girl sighed with envy. “I wish there was a tall,
good-looking Marine waiting for me on a night like this!”

Elinor couldn’t help but smile at her roommate’s outburst of simple
romanticism. “And if this one was waiting for you instead of for me,
what would you do!”

“I don’t know,” Grace confessed in a helpless fashion, “I guess I’d run
right out, drag him off to some lonely spot and work a proposal from him
if I had to literally choke the words out of his mouth!”

“That’s a good idea,” Elinor replied with secret amusement. “Maybe I’ll
try it myself.”

“Really!” the other said as her mouth opened aghast and her eyes
widened. “Would you—honest!”

“Any old port in a storm, you know! If he doesn’t speak with natural
ease, perhaps your idea of gentle persuasion may help.”

She reached for her blue cape and swung it over her shoulders, stopping
to peck Grace’s cheek with a fond kiss as she walked to the other side
of the room.

“Be in early!” the lonely, romantic nurse warned, good-naturedly, as
Elinor placed her hand on the door knob, swinging the door open.

“That depends on how successful I am,” the girl laughed with a ring of
optimism. In a moment, the door had closed behind her and she was gone.

Grace ran to the window excitedly, peeking through the curtain to watch
her roommate and Lefty, who still waited with admirable patience.

Lefty reached for his hat and pulled it off of his head, fumbling
nervously with it in his hands as he turned about, discovering Elinor
standing in the shadow of the doorway, silent and somewhat indifferent.

“Oh—er—hello!” he stammered, attempting to assume a bold, devil-may-care
front, though obviously ill at ease.

“Good evening, Mr. Phelps,” she replied in a distinctly piqued manner.

She came down the little pathway and joined him without speaking
further. Together, they silently turned off to the road that led up the
hill and passed the old Spanish Mission.

Certain that Lefty would remain silent as long as she set the example,
Elinor gave him a hurried, sidelong glance, and with slight irony,
remarked: “I suppose I should feel highly honored over your
condescension in favoring me with your precious society this evening?”

She waited a moment for him to reply but he was too miserable even to
look in the girl’s direction.

“Well,” she began again, this time in a lighter, indifferent fashion,
though still secretly burning with jealousy, “did you have a good time
last night?”

“I don’t blame you for not being tickled pink to see me,” he said, in a
manner that distinctly betrayed his secret disgust with himself, and the
mark of unhappiness his present task had left upon his heart and face.
“I haven’t been at all considerate of your feelings of late, but if you
were acquainted with the circumstances, you might not be so harsh in
your opinion of me.”

Just ahead of them was a native hut with large palm trees silhouetted in
the background against the pale, evening tropical sky. The moon, peeking
over the tree tops, reflected the dark figures of several men and women
seated on the porch of the little house, singing the alluring love
melodies of far-away Spain to the accompaniment of indolent, strumming
guitars.

The boy and girl paused just before an ancient well, built centuries ago
by the Spanish Inquisitors. Elinor gazed up at the unhappy Marine whose
face bore a pathetic expression of inquietude.

“Why the sudden outburst of remorse?” she asked in the same piqued
manner as her original approach.

“I’m not remorseful or—well, I only meant to explain that I wouldn’t
have bothered you to-night if I didn’t have something important to ask
you!”

Elinor’s heart almost stopped beating at the welcome sound of his words
that held so much promise. He could mean but one thing, she was certain,
and at the mere thought of an impending proposal of marriage from this
man, she looked up at him with suppressed eagerness and anticipation,
half whispering: “Yes, Lefty, what is it?”

“I hardly know how to begin,” he faltered, “and I hope that you will
take what I am going to say in the right way.”

“Of course!”

Throwing discretion and self-pride to the winds, he gazed at her with
wild, piercing eyes, a look that quickened the beating of her heart and
thrilled her to the very tips of her fingers.

“I want to tell you,” he continued in a hurried, reckless fashion,
anxious to get his task done, “I want to tell you that somebody loves
you, somebody thinks you are the most adorable girl in all the world.
You’re on his mind every waking hour of the day and when sleep envelops
him at night, his dreams are only of you! You are all that he thinks of,
talks about and lives for. No matter where we go, what dangerous perils
face us, all I hear from him is Elinor this and Elinor that. She’s
beautiful, wonderful, sweet and——”

“Lefty!” Elinor interrupted, rudely awakened with astonishment at the
knowledge that his proposal of marriage was merely the delivery of a
message for someone else.

Unmindful of her interruption or the abject pain of remorse and
disappointment that was gripping the heart of this girl whom he truly
worshiped himself, Lefty rambled on: “There are a lot of men in this
world who would be made the happiest creatures alive with the knowledge
that you cared for them—good men, successful, honest and faithful, but
if you searched far and wide, over the four corners of the earth, you
would never find another Panama. He may seem relentless, rough and
crude, insofar as speech and education goes, but underneath that hard
exterior, built up as a protection against a laughing, unmerciful world,
there is a softness, a beautiful, honest soul possessed with a
tenderness and devotion to you!”

“Please, Lefty!” the unhappy, disillusioned woman begged, “you
mustn’t——”

“There is only one fault he possesses,” the boy continued, deaf to her
protestations, “his heart is filled with such a great love for you that
he is limited for the want of proper expression. I know that he has
tried to tell you time and time again but each——”

“Please, don’t!” she interrupted beseechingly, suddenly gripped with a
pressing desire to run away from it all as she took a few steps
backward.

“Don’t you understand, Elinor? He’s crazy about you! He worships you.
Never, since the day his eyes first rested upon you, has he even as much
as looked at another woman. Last night, when you kissed him—kissed him
for saving me from prison or God knows what else—he went wild with joy!
All night long while he flew over the jungles, imperiling his life, his
task was made lighter because he believed you cared!”

Elinor stood numb with obfuscation, her face a lifeless, enigmatic blank
as her eyes filled with large tears that trickled down her pallid
cheeks. Lefty lifted her chin so that their eyes met, then he grasped
her by the shoulders, shaking her gently to make her understand, but all
that he did was to bring to the girl the horrible realization of the
tremendous sacrifice he was making for his friend’s happiness.

As he gazed into her tear-filled, pleading eyes, he was afraid to trust
himself, and struggled to bring Panama back as the chief topic of
conversation, increasing his fervent ardor with the escape of each word
from his lips.

“Don’t you understand, dear? He loves you! That’s why I am here to speak
for him because he can’t! He worships the very ground you walk upon,
lives only for the realization of his dream to marry you. Will you——”

“Please, Lefty—don’t say it!” she cried in a voice gripped with terror.

“I’ve got to, dear,” the boy persisted in a blind, resolute manner.
“He’s over there now, waiting for your answer. He’s waiting for me to
come and tell him that you will be his wife!”

Unable to control her emotions any longer, Elinor gave full vent to her
feelings and broke down, sobbing as if every one of Lefty’s words had
been an arrow, piercing straight through to her heart.

Instinctively, he drew close to her, dropping his cruel mask of
pretension for one brief moment.

“What are you crying for, baby!” he asked, gently, allowing his hand to
stroke her hair. “You’ve got nothing to feel bad about, dear! You should
shout for joy because Panama loves you. He’ll make you the happiest girl
in the world. Come on, girlie, what do you say!”

She looked up into his clear blue eyes that bespoke the great sacrifice
he was making. Despite her own sorrow, her heart filled with admiration
over the splendidness of his character and his unflinching devotion to
the cause of a man who had often befriended him.

Unable to remain silent any longer in the face of losing the man her
heart had belonged to ever since the very first moment she saw him, she
cried, “Lefty!” in a tone that expressed her own, powerful, overwhelming
love.

He stepped a little away from her, conscious of his own weakness as she
followed after him, throwing her arms about his neck and burying her
head upon his chest. He attempted vainly to release himself but she
pressed closer to him.

When she lifted her head again, gazing up at him appealingly, he
momentarily forgot every obligation he had assumed, completely weakening
as he clasped her tightly in his arms, showering her upraised lips with
kisses his heart had gone hungry for.

They became lost to the world in the ecstasy of their own love,
whispering to each other passionate words of endearment.

All at once, Lefty’s face sobered as Elinor drew away from him. “How
will I ever explain it all to Panama?” he murmured.

Though the thought of the sergeant and the speculation as to how he
would receive the unhappy announcement of his failure, troubled Elinor,
she braced herself for the ordeal, shielded by her great love, and
replied: “I’ll go with you, dear! I’ll tell him!”

Panama was keyed up to a high, exciting pitch of impatience. He had been
pacing back and forth within the small inclosure of the tent since Lefty
went forth upon his unhappy mission, now more than two hours ago.

Hearing a noise outside of the tent, he paused suddenly just as the
flaps were pushed back and Lefty entered, bearing a troubled look upon
his weary and tired face. Panama grinned apprehensively and ran to greet
the boy, eagerly awaiting to learn the results of the expedition.

“What did she say?” he whispered, forcing down a nervous lump that rose
in his throat.

“She’s outside,” the boy replied with hesitance. “She wants to talk to
you!”

Too wrapped up in the belief that, at last, his fondest wishes had
culminated in actual realization, Panama remained blind insofar as
sensing the truth that lay behind Lefty’s apparent misery and
troublesome expression. He bolted pass the boy and was out of the tent
in a moment.

Once more alone, Phelps dropped down upon the edge of the cot in a
forlorn manner, running his fingers through his hair for the want of
something to relieve the tenseness that had gripped him.

Restless and worried, he rose again and paced back and forth with a
nervous, uncertain step, waiting for the inevitable moment when he would
again have to face the sergeant after the truth had been disclosed.

Following what seemed to be an hour, but was really no more than ten
minutes, the flaps parted again and Williams entered, bearing a cold,
unrelentless expression of cruelty, feeling very much like a man who had
been betrayed by his dearest friend.

He faced the boy sternly. His thin, colorless lips were pressed tightly
together and his eyes narrowed with growing rage.

Nervous and pleading, bearing a miserable look of unquestionable guilt,
the boy began to explain the circumstances only to be cut short before a
single word had passed his lips.

“So that’s the kind of a rat you turned out to be?” Williams began in a
cold, upbraiding manner of disdain.

“But, listen—” Lefty begged.

“I sent you over to my girl to ask something that I was unable to say,”
Panama interrupted him again, “and the moment my back was turned, you
forgot about me in your own selfish way and made love to her yourself!”

“That isn’t so!” the other man insisted vehemently. “You know I wouldn’t
double-cross you for a million dollars!”

“You wouldn’t double-cross me?” the Marine noncom repeated, emitting a
cold, merciless laugh that caused a chill to run right through the other
man. “Why, you yellow pup—you ran back on your college, and ran back on
the Flying Corps and now you try to knife me!”

The boy’s face became livid white and he parted his lips as a sign of
protest but the enraged sergeant burst right in upon him again without
allowing him an explanation.

“Put up your hands and fight, if you ain’t the yellow pup I think you
are!”

“I don’t want to fight you, Panama,” Lefty appealed in vain. “I don’t
want to fight you!”

“You mean, you ain’t got guts enough to,” Williams shrieked derisively,
“but I’m gonna beat the daylights out of your yellow hulk or know why!”

He raised his hand and made a lunge at the boy just as Lefty attempted
to shield himself by covering his face with his hands. Panama’s blow was
too quick. His clenched fists reached their mark, just on the side of
the boy’s head, stunning him for a moment and then arousing him to the
act of self-defense.

“All right, if you want it that way,” Phelps cried out. “Come on; I’ll
fight!”

Panama’s fists connected with the boy’s jaw and he followed this
stunning blow right up with a short left to the stomach, then a right to
the ribs and another left to the face, completely closing one of the
boy’s eyes with the forceful blow.

They were fighting now in close quarters. The boy swung his fists
wildly, only making his mark once or twice and then with no noticeable
effect upon the grizzled features of the other man, who kept tearing and
slashing away with the confidence and marked certainty of the
experienced battler.

Panama brought every bit of his terrific, gorilla strength to bear upon
his punches, battering the helpless boy into a corner and with a
smashing right to the mouth, brought blood to his weaker adversary’s
lips, following this up with a resounding blow, directly to a spot just
under the heart that sent Phelps reeling across the tent and falling
over the cot.

The victor stopped a moment to catch his breath and brush the hair out
of his eyes. He looked down and saw that his entire shirt front was
covered with blood from the boy’s cut mouth and nose. Smiling grimly, he
again pounced upon Lefty, who was just regaining consciousness, taking
him by the throat with a determination to finish matters now for once
and for all.

Suddenly, from the flying field came the bugler’s call to assemble and
to arms. A look of keen disappointment overshadowed the crazed and
lustful features of the man who believed he had been wronged.
Reluctantly, he released his grip upon Lefty’s throat, rising to his
feet slowly and mechanically reaching for his flying togs.

Down through the long line of company streets, noncommissioned officers
breathlessly ran, shouting at the top of the lungs to the inmates of the
many tents to turn out for duty.

Panama buttoned his windjammer and reached for his helmet, casting one
last, contemptuous look in the direction of the punch-drunk boy. “Come
on, yeller, snap into it! I’ll settle with you later!”

With that, he disappeared through the tent flaps, leaving the battered
and bruised mechanic to slowly lift himself to his feet and follow after
him.

Out on the field, the ground men had already lined up the planes for a
take-off in battle formation. Just ahead of the ships, Major Harding and
his two aides stood in conversation as pilots and mechanics came running
past them from all directions.

Panama made his appearance and went directly to the flight commander,
coming to attention and saluting his superior with a military snap.

The major acknowledged the formality and instructed the sergeant to line
his men up before their ships.

Williams saluted again, did an about face and roared to the men on the
field to fall in.

When the men were in line and absolute quiet once more reigned, the
commander of the flying squadron stepped forward and addressed the
pilots and their mechanics.

“Word has reached us from an official source,” he announced, “that a
body of our men are being attacked by the enemy near Ocotal.” He turned
to the adjutant standing at his right and asked: “Are all the pilots and
observers present?”

“All present and accounted for,” the aide announced, “except Sergeant
Greyson and Corporal Fleck, two observers who are down with malaria!”

“In that case,” the major announced, “I will lead this formation myself.
Sergeant Williams, you will accompany me as my observer. Private
Phelps——”

Lefty stepped forward, managing to stand beneath the shadow of one of
the planes so that his bruised face would not show. “Yes, sir!” he
replied and saluted.

“You have had machine gun experience?”

“Yes, sir!”

“Then you are assigned to Corporal Steve Graham’s plane as his observer!
Crews will service all ships for immediate flight. The armament section
will place eight fragmentation bombs on each plane and check front and
rear guns and ammunition!”

He took two paces back. The adjutant stepped forward and saluted, then
cupping his hands to his mouth, yelled: “Turn on the field lights!”

Captain Burleson, second in command to Major Harding, moved up in front
of the young adjutant and announced: “Make all possible speed. We must
take off in less than ten minutes!”

As the great Sunlight arc lamps from the roof of the hangars on the
north and south ends of the field illuminated the vicinity for miles
around, literally turning the dark night into daylight, the various
crews began to service each ship, beginning with tearing off the engine
covers.

Noncommissioned officers moved about with raised voices, ordering their
units to fulfill various tasks in hurried and excited tones of
authority, as each man responded by springing into action.

Over to the right, at the bombproof cellars, men perspired as they
silently labored, passing up bombs along a line that reached to the
first ship with the last man standing by to load plane after plane.

The motors of some of the planes were already running and the deafening
whirrs drowned out the shouts of officers and noncoms. With the ships
serviced and loaded with ammunition now, the pilots and their observers
climbed up into the cockpits, ready for the command to take off.

Steve and Lefty’s plane was the second in line, just alongside of the
major’s in which Panama was traveling as observer. Though Steve was
keyed up and fervent with excitement over his first night flight as a
pilot and the happy prospect of at last being baptized under the fire of
Sandino’s guns, he found time to annoy Lefty, who sat in the rear
cockpit, miserably unhappy and at fault with the world.

The corporal glanced back at his observer, bearing a mischievous grin,
and as he indicated the machine gun beside Phelps, remarked derisively:
“Now be careful, Yale, and don’t fire that gun backward!”

The boy was too occupied with the many confusing and disappointing
problems of the past few hours to heed the idle chiding of Graham. He
merely glanced up at the heckler with a frown and then turned away once
more to his own troubles without offering any retort.

The great siren blew and the pilots, alert for action, responded by
taxiing their ships to a starting position with the major’s plane first
in line.

Panama stood up and looked back to make certain that everything was
ready, reporting to the commander, who raised his arm high above his
head, the procedure followed by every other pilot all the way down the
line.

The ground men hurried through the network of ships, bending low to make
certain that the lights strapped to the struts of each ship were
securely fastened and lighted. One these men jumped out of the way, the
commander of the squadron dropped his hand and the planes made their
take-off down the field, flying into formation as they gradually gained
altitude.

A week previous to the time of this writing, a company of Marines, under
the command of Lieutenant Walter Ranson, were ordered up into the
mountains on a reconnoitering expedition.

For four days and nights, they had searched through every pathway and
crevice in the great mountain region for a sign of Sandino and his rebel
horde, but their efforts were without success.

The post commandant at Managua, acting upon the advice of the Federal
Government military authorities of Nicaragua, sent a message to Ranson
to return to the Marine base.

It was the belief of the American commander and the Nicaraguans that
Sandino had fled over the mountain paths, escaping north to Mexico.

Relieved of his unpleasant task and a chance to escape the hardships and
terrific heat, both for himself and his command, Ranson issued orders to
break camp and start back, down the mountain to Managua, a good three
days’ hike from where they were encamped.

The following morning they arrived at a corral just a few miles from
Ocotal, a small mountain town known to be inhabited by people whose
sympathy fell with the lot of the usurping bandits.

Due to a terrific rising heat wave and a desire to escape the
possibility of having to spend a night in the rebel stronghold, the
lieutenant halted the company and prepared to temporarily billet his men
in the deserted corral.

The place was surrounded by a low, thirty-inch wall of adobe, topped
with palings. An old, iron gate, hanging off its hinges, was just in the
center, behind which stood a nipa shack with a slanting roof of palm
leaves. An overturned oxcart rested just to the right of the shack, half
buried in mud caused by recent, heavy mountain rains.

After the lieutenant and his men had commandeered the corral, making
fires, setting up their pup tents and fixing a place behind the house
for the horses and pack mules, he sent for his top sergeant, and
together they walked to the gateway, surveying the lay of the land.

“Sergeant, we’d be pinned in this place like rats in a trap,” Ranson
speculated, “if Sandino or any of his men should suddenly turn up with a
surprise attack.”

The bulky top kick, the same hard breathing, puffy Marine who, with a
small company some weeks before, were the first to see the arrival of
the flying squadron, looked over the situation with the trained eye of a
seasoned campaigner.

He nodded his head in a grave manner and turned to his superior: “Yes,
sir. We are right at the foot of them mountains, an easy target for an
attack from that angle. Just ahead is the jungle that no white man could
ever pass through alive. To the right is the road into town. If we
retreated in that direction, we’d be bait for snipers on house tops and
the charging greasers at our heels from the mountains.”

“Yes, and if we stay here long enough to be inspected by any of the post
commandant’s aides, we’ll be court-martialed for billeting the men in
such a hole,” the lieutenant added good-naturedly. “No fresh water
within five miles of here and the surroundings are reeking with typhoid
and malaria!”

“Well, if you ask me, sir,” the top kick drawled, “I prefer this hole to
travelin’ with them damn horses, machine guns and mules in this heat!”

The lieutenant lighted a cigarette and nodded his head in affirmation.
“I think you’re right, Cosgrove, in fact, I’m inclined to feel that way
myself. Our water ought to last us another two days and, by that time,
we should pass through some village where we can refill the canteens.
The food is still plentiful and there is enough ammunition to cause
plenty of damage if we have to use it.”

“With your permission, sir, I’m gonna put a machine gun right in front
of this gate, loaded with a fresh magazine just in case,” the sergeant
announced, “and I think we should double the guard, bein’ that we’re so
near Ocotal!”

“Put the machine gun wherever you want to but doubling the guard isn’t
necessary. If you ask me, I think we have been ordered back to Managua
because the show is over!”

“You mean, they—they’ve got Sandino?” Cosgrove asked eagerly.

“No—well, that is, I don’t know about capturing him,” Ranson explained,
“I think he got cold feet and beat it out of the country!”

“Well,” the sergeant admitted, “that won’t make me sore. We’ve been down
here goin’ on three months and we ain’t had sight nor smell of them
blasted greaser bandits, but this hide-and-seek game through mountain
paths, searchin’ for somethin’ what just ain’t—I’m about licked from it
all!”

Ranson smiled and turned toward the shack. “Pick your guard and see that
the men are comfortable. The sun is getting pretty bad. If the horses
and pack mules have been watered, let the boys turn in for a couple of
hours.”

The two men saluted and parted, each going in the opposite direction.

Over in front of the last pup tent in the first line, two Marines were
toying with a pair of dice. One of them, a tall, lanky, sun-tanned
soldier of the sea, turned to the other, a short, stocky,
freckled-faced, sandy-haired man, who, at that particular moment, was
occupied in exterminating a score of crawling, red ants.

“This usta be a man’s army but it ain’t nothin’ now but a lot of hikin’
boy scouts!”

“What ya beefin’ about now?” the little fellow demanded, looking up at
his companion.

“I suppose you still believe there ain’t no Sandino?”

“Believe it, hell, man, I know it!”

“Aw, you make me tired! Don’t you know it cost the government a lotta
dough to keep us down here? What d’ya suppose Congress would vote to
continue this here war if there ain’t no guy like Sandino?”

“Continue what war?” the tall Marine asked in a derisive tone.

“This war we’re fightin’ now!”

“Who’s fightin’ who and when?”

“Well,” the freckled-faced man replied defensively, “we’re ready for a
scrap, ain’t we?”

“Sure we are, but there ain’t nobody to fight with. Don’t you see, we’ve
been climbin’ up and down mountains for three months and we ain’t seen
no sign of any guy that even looks like Sandino!”

The little fellow was becoming impatient over his tent mate’s dogged
belief in the non-existence of the much heralded Nicaraguan bandit
chief.

“Lissen here, lame brain, Congress voted to send us here, didn’t they?”

“Sure, but that was a plot!”

“What d’ya mean, a plot?”

“I can’t explain it,” the lanky Marine began. “You got to know politics
and that’s somethin’ what a guy like you ain’t had no learnin’ about,
see?”

“Who ain’t had no learnin’ in politics?” the other man demanded to know
as his cheeks flushed with unsuppressed anger. “My old man’s uncle
married a dame what was the first cousin of a guy whose mother did the
washin’ for an alderman back in New York!”

“Well, that’s different,” the big fellow admitted. “Now then, do you
know what strategy is?”

“Sure!” replied the sandy-haired man. “He was first baseman with the
Chicago Cubs two years ago!”

“Oh, Lord, how can you make ’em so dumb!” the lanky Marine cried in
disgust. “Now lissen, when you don’t know somethin’, say so and I’ll
tell you! Strategy is, well—er—if you wanted to punch me in the nose an’
you let go right now, that would be suicide, ’cause I’d he prepared and
break your back——”

“Who would?” yelled the little fellow in a hurt fashion.

“Aw, dry up, we’re only makin’ believe. Now, then, that would be silly
for you to hit me when I wuz lookin’. A smart guy would say, ‘Alex, let
me see if I can tie your hands so’s you can’t get loose.’ If I let him,
he’d sock me when I was tied up and couldn’t protect meself. That,
stupid, is strategy!”

The other fellow looked up at the tall man with a grave expression of
doubt overshadowing his speckled face.

“Aw, you’re full of boloney!”

“Who is?”

“You are. You mean to say that when you tie a guy’s hands and sock him
in the nose, that’s strategy?”

“Yeah! Anything you do sneaky like and plan out so’s it’s heads you win,
tails the other bloke loses, that’s what you call strategy!”

“Well, what’s that got to do with sendin’ us down here if there ain’t no
Sandino?”

The big fellow breathed deeply with impatience as he mopped off large
beads of perspiration from his forehead. “Don’t you see? The Democrats
is tryin’ to take over the government so they had their bunch, what is
in Congress, vote to send us way down here so’s the Republicans won’t
have no one to protect them in case of a revolution or somethin’!”

The freckled-faced soldier jumped to his feet and grabbed for his hat.
“Oh, boy! I ain’t hangin’ around you no more!”

“What’s the matter now?”

“Nothin’, only you’re so clean loco, you’ll be wakin’ up some night and
cuttin’ people’s throats, an’ I ain’t stickin’ around till that
happens!”

The little fellow took his belongings and hurried down, past the line of
tents, leaving his friend looking after him in a surprised manner and
yelling for him to come back.

At that moment, countless dark, moving figures appeared just over the
ridge of the mountain that looked down upon the corral.

A sharp, familiar crack, like the report of a rifle was heard and the
little Marine, who had just moved out of his pup tent, fell in a heap,
lying motionless in the center of the path between the rows of tents.

In a flash, every man was out of his tent and on his feet as a second,
then a third report from above was heard and two more Marines fell to
the ground in a heap.

It was Sandino and two hundred of his followers on top of that mountain,
burning with vicious desires to exterminate Uncle Sam’s sea soldiers
below.

They had been informed by some inhabitants of Ocotal of the Marines’
location and the fact that the corral was a perfect target for an attack
from the mountains.

Losing no time, they made their way through the town and over the hill
country, arriving at the mountain top unbeknown to the soldiers lying
peacefully below.

As the Marine bugle blew “To Arms” and the men fell in line in front of
the shank, burning with excitement, the tall, lanky soldier crawled
along the ground to where his friend lay, picking the limp form of the
man up in his arms and carrying him at the risk of his own life to a
place of safety behind the house.

He placed his buddy on a pile of hay, certain that he would be
comfortable until proper aid could be sent, and as he started to leave,
the little fellow opened his eyes and looked up at him. “Don’t let ’em
kid you, big boy,” he said hoarsely. “There is a Sandino an’ that ain’t
no foolin’!”

A look of extreme pain crossed his face as he struggled to breath
freely, then he half rose, only to fall back, lifeless, with eyes open
and glassy, staring up at the heavens above.

For three days Sandino and his men, who outnumbered the Marines more
than two to one, continued their siege upon the corral, causing numerous
casualties within the ranks of the devil dogs but unable to advance
farther than the foot of the mountains.

The leathernecks, under the wily Ranson, fought desperately to ward off
the approach of the bandits with an unfailing courage that was admired
by even their enemies.

On the third day, Lieutenant Ranson crawled along the barricade,
stopping to inform each man to save on ammunition as supplies were
running low.

The sputtering of machine guns ceased and the Marines, with rifles, drew
back their guns to wait until the enemy closed in before again opening
fire.

Near the gate, Ranson met the top sergeant and the two saluted in a
hasty, grim fashion.

“If our man got through Okay,” the officer announced, “we should be
seeing a sign of planes before long.”

“If he got through,” Cosgrove speculated, “he’s done somethin’ more than
a miracle!”

Just then, the sergeant’s face grew tense and white with the muscles of
his jaw contorting in pain as he toppled over, across the feet of the
lieutenant.

[Illustration: The muscles of his jaw contorted in pain as he toppled
over.]

The officer picked the man’s head up and rested it on his knee, noting a
trickling stream of red matter just below the temple. Quick to think, he
broke open the first aid package that the stricken man carried on his
belt and removed the tape, hastily bandaging the wound and helping the
sergeant back to his feet.

“They’ve only grazed your head,” he announced. “Now snap into it and pay
’em back, Cosgrove!”

The top kick removed his automatic from the holster, took careful aim
and fired, hitting a rebel who had been crawling toward the barricade on
all fours with a vicious-looking knife locked between his teeth.

The lieutenant slapped the sergeant upon the back approvingly as the
other man smiled.

“That’s the way to pay your debts! Now knock off another one for good
measure!”

A corporal with a solemn face, covered with grime, crawled up between
the two men and addressing the lieutenant, announced: “The brush is full
of greasers, sir, and we’re nearly out of ammunition!”

Hanson turned to Cosgrove with an unconcealed look of deep concern upon
his face. “Pass the word to cease firing until I give the order!”

The sergeant turned about and crawled along the inside of the barricade,
stopping to announce the commander’s edict as he passed on his way.

Over in the rebel lines, Sandino passed the word to his officers to
split the men up, ordering them to crawl under the protection of the
brushes to the rear and sides of the corral, thus completely encircling
the Marines within.

Ranson and the corporal watched this guerrilla movement with intense
interest and as an overanxious Marine next to them lifted his rifle into
position, the officer knocked it from his hand, warning: “Wait until I
give the order!”

Suddenly the bandits opened fire as they moved toward the corral in a
stealthy, circular fashion, causing a fair amount of casualties within
the ranks of the Americans.

The Marines waited without fear for word from their commander, though
some of them were high strung and nervous as they watched their buddies
topple over from the bandit onslaught, helpless to seek revenge upon the
approaching rebels.

As the dark-skinned natives swooped down toward the corral, unmolested,
inflicting great sufferings upon the heads of the Marines, the
lieutenant waited doggedly until they were near enough, then he lifted
his voice and shouted: “Ready! Aim! Fire!”

The soldiers responded with enthusiasm, some throwing hand grenades
while others returned to their rifles and machine guns, spitting deadly
fire in the direction of the enemy.

This was a last, desperate stand for the Marines. Though they suffered a
heavy toll, they went on fighting doggedly, determined that if complete
extermination was to be their lot, they would first cause an equal
amount of suffering within the ranks of the enemy.

Cosgrove crawled over beside the lieutenant and pointed down the line of
men fighting for life and love of country. “Some of the machine guns are
jammed, sir,” he announced, “and more than half of the boys are out of
ammunition already!”

The handwriting of an unfortunate Fate was plainly visible to every man
behind the barricade as the voice of their commander was heard,
shouting: “Fixed bayonets!”

One of the bandits had crawled over the ground to the barricade
unmolested. Beaching the gate, he began to beat upon the barricade with
his machete until he succeeded in making a hole through the old wood.

On the other side of the wall, a Marine, with fixed bayonet, waited
patiently as his lips curled in a grim, death-like smile of revenge.

As soon as the hole in the wall became large enough, the soldier half
rose upon his haunches and with deadly precision, plunged his bayonet
through the abdomen of the bandit.

At that point in the fearful encounter, the Marines and rebels came in
close contact, with the soldiers of the sea desperately warding off
their stronger adversaries with bayonets, fighting bullets and machetes,
exposing their persons to certain death from the fire of Sandino’s
machine gun snipers on the mountain top.

Suddenly the harsh drone of huge motors deafened the ears of the
opposing men of war. A Marine, wounded and parched from thirst, gazed up
and saw the planes of the “Fighting Tenth” swoop over the top of the
mountain. He raised himself on his elbow with extreme difficulty and
called to the soldier nearest him: “Look, look—they’ve come at last!”

The other Marine lifted his eyes, following the direction of his wounded
buddy’s upraised hand. In a moment, every khaki-clad man within the
protection of the corral wall gazed heavenward, each secretly offering a
crude prayer to a Divine and protecting Providence.

Major Harding, in the first ship, studied the lay of the land and, with
an upraised arm, signaled to the other planes to turn the noses of their
ships toward the earth, flying low and prepared to open fire at his
command to do so.

The observers leveled their machine guns, loaded the magazines and took
careful aim as the squadron of ships swooped down over the corral like a
great drove of locusts.

The commander of the flying fleet again raised his arm as a signal to
begin firing, and the muzzles of every water-cooled Browning opened up
and spit deadly fire into the broken ranks of the terror-stricken bandit
troops, causing untold casualties.

From the peak of his mountain lookout, Sandino watched the attack from
the air upon his disorganized army and his men retreating in a
disorderly fashion, scattering in all directions. A grave, panicky
expression darkened his face. He turned about and ran to his horse,
mounting the animal, prepared to ride off to some protective covering as
a wounded officer from his own ranks ran toward him.

The rebel usurper looked back at the man whose face was distorted with
terror and pain. He drew up his horse and, in his native tongue, ordered
the officer to return to the scene of battle.

Unheeding, the fleeing soldier continued to run away from the certain
death below, truly obsessed with an idea that was not unlike the one
borne by his own commander.

Sandino lifted his hand and whipped out a blue-steel automatic pistol,
leveled it and fired, uttering a blasphemous oath at the officer as he
fell forward. In a moment, the ambitious, would-be dictator of Nicaragua
was riding swiftly away to peace and protection from war in the air.

As a final gesture, Major Harding signaled to his followers in the other
planes to drop the bombs, making certain that the extermination of the
retreating bandits would be complete.

The huge messengers of hate were released by the pilots and they went
crashing earthward, distributing immediate death and misery.

Steve pushed the stick forward and dove his plane nearer to earth,
breaking formation from the other ships that were now gaining altitude.

Just ahead, crossing a swamp, was a small band of Sandinisto survivors.
Lefty caught the pilot’s objective in leaving the formation of planes
and with a peculiar cold, subdued calm, opened fire upon the helpless,
retreating rebels, wreaking death and havoc.

One of the retreating bandit officers turned about, picked up a gun left
behind on the ground and leveled the butt of it to his shoulder, taking
careful aim and firing.

Just then, Steve swooped down to a position that was only a few feet
from the ground, leaving himself a perfect target for the final gesture
from the retreating bandit leader.

[Illustration: They left themselves perfect targets for the final
gesture from the retreating bandits.]

The muscles of his face contracted with pain. He let his hand fall from
the stick and his whole body slumped forward in the cockpit.

Lefty whirled the machine gun around and riddled the last of the rebels
with a barrage of bullets, then grabbing the joy stick in the rear
cockpit, fought desperately to level the plane but it was too late.
Suddenly everything went black before him. He heard a terrific crash and
felt himself being lifted from his seat and flying through space. In
another moment, he was oblivious to everything else as his motionless
body lay in the center of a swamp, covered with mud and dirt.

With the corral clear once more of the trespasser, two of the planes
flew low and dropped out food supplies and quantities of ammunition to
the surviving Marines below who waved back in gratitude.

The major signaled to the pilots to regain formation and as the ships
fell into their original position, the anxious eyes of the commander
caught a vacant space in the line-up.

He looked to the pilot of the plane on the other side of him and held up
two fingers questioningly, signifying in the hand signaling parlance of
the air, “Where is the missing plane?”

The skipper of the other ship shrugged his shoulders, indicating his
lack of knowledge of the absent airplane’s whereabouts.

Panama watched the gas gauge that indicated their fuel was running low.
He touched the shoulder of the commander in front of him and pointed to
the gauge. Harding gazed at his watch and, after slight deliberation,
gave the signal to swing the planes toward Managua.

In less than an hour, they were flying over the field of the Marine
base, then circling in formation before landing.

When the ships had taxied into position and the motors again became
silent, Harding jumped from the cockpit as Panama and the other pilots
and observers gathered about him.

“Did anyone see what happened to Graham and Phelps?” he asked with an
uncertain ring of anxiety in his voice.

The men of his command shook their heads in grim ignorance of the
missing Marines’ whereabouts.

“Last I saw of them,” one of the pilots explained, “they were chasing a
gang of greasers down a gulley!”

“Our gas was too low to make a search,” Harding announced, “but
somebody’s got to go back now. Who’ll volunteer?”

No sooner had the major asked for a searching party than every man in
the squadron, except Panama, stepped forward.

As Williams walked off silently toward the line of tents, the commander
selected two pilots and two observers to fly back and search for the
missing airmen and their plane. The others moved away in different
directions, wrapped in an overshadowing gloom that grips the hearts of
all fighting aviators when any of their number are absent without
reason.

Elinor had been watching the return of the squadron and searching the
group for a sight of Lefty. When she saw the commander call the other
men into a hurried conference that ended by two planes again taking off
and flying back in the direction from which they had just come, her
heart beat faster as a cold, foreboding feeling of uneasiness took
possession of her mind and body.

She ran toward one of the pilots and stopped him as a pathetic look of
anxiety darkened her face.

“Where’s Lefty Phelps?” she asked.

“That’s what we’d all like to know,” the man replied grimly without
looking at the girl, “He and Graham disappeared during the fracas. The
skipper just sent a couple of ships back to search for them.”

She looked up with terror-stricken eyes and caught sight of Panama not
far from where she was standing. Without further adieu, she ran off in
the sergeant’s direction, reaching his side a moment later, completely
out of breath.

“Where’s Lefty, Panama?” she panted, “What’s happened to him?”

The sergeant made no attempt to even look at the frightened girl but
continued on his way, quickening his steps. She ran along at his side,
struggling to keep up with him and trying to regain her breath at the
same time.

“Panama!” she pleaded once more, “what has happened to Lefty?”

“Out in the swamps with the rest of the snakes, I hope,” he speculated
grimly, still avoiding the girl’s anxious eyes.

“Aren’t you going to do something?”

He turned his head and looked at her with a piercing sign of resentment
upon his face, becoming secretly the more indifferent over his former
friend’s fate because of Elinor’s apparent concern for the boy’s
welfare.

“Why should I do anything?” he snapped.

His words gave her new spirit and she stepped before him, blocking his
path as her words bristled with anger. “So that’s the extent of your
friendship, after all he tried to do for you?” she cried. “Panama,
you’re the blindest of the blind! Lefty is the sweetest boy in all the
world—and I love him!”

“Elinor!” the man protested in an effort to save himself from further
wounds directed at his heart.

“Yes, I love him, more than all the world and with all my heart,” she
confessed, unmindful of the interruption. “I know that he was meant for
me and I for him the very first moment my eyes fell upon his. I’ve been
living in despair, torturing myself for months now, believing that he
didn’t care for me. Do you know why he shielded himself behind that
indifferent attitude?”

“No, and I ain’t much interested!” Panama barked.

“Well, you should be! He pretended that he didn’t love me because he
thought that I belonged to you, because he was too fair, too decent to
rob another man of something that he valued himself more than life. I’ve
never loved you, I’ve never belonged to you! Lefty had as much right to
try and win my love as you did!”

“Elinor, please—I don’t want to listen!” the love-torn soldier beseeched
vainly.

“You must listen and you will!” she cried with determination. “Oh,
Panama, can’t you see it all now? The whole thing was my fault! I
shouldn’t have let you care when I knew that I could never love you, but
you seemed so fine—so good that I dreaded to hurt you. Upon my honor, I
swear that Lefty, never in his life, has made love to me—I made love to
him!”

Panama’s eyes grew wide and questioning and his face turned a chalk
white at this revelation.

“Elinor—you’re—you’re telling me the truth?”

“I’ve never been more honest in my life,” she insisted. “That boy thinks
the sun rises and sets upon you. He would have rather sacrificed his
very life than cause you one single moment of pain. Now he’s
gone—perhaps dying in the impenetrable swamps of the jungle. Can’t you
do something? Don’t you see what it all means to me?”

Unable to turn back the rising emotions within her, the girl gave vent
to her feelings, suddenly overcome with tears of abject helplessness and
despair.

Panama gazed at her silently for one brief moment, then putting on his
helmet, turned about and walked with brisk determination toward his
plane.

A week had passed without a single sign of Lefty, Steve or the missing
plane.

Every pilot had taken a hand in the search for the lost Marines but each
in turn finally gave up the hunt in despair as a hopeless task.

The only man who remained on the blind trail without a single lead was
Panama, who, with silent doggedness, flew over the jungle, through swamp
lands and across mountain tops night and day, grimly determined to bring
back his men dead or alive.

In a malaria-filled swamp, just behind the tall mountain range that
looked down upon the corral on the opposite side where the brave company
of Marines had met Sandino’s men seven days before, what was once an
airplane rested in an upright position with more than two feet of its
nose imbedded in the mud.

Shaded by large tropical trees, it was difficult for anyone flying
overhead to penetrate through the thick foliage and see below to the
swamp, but because of Steve’s weakened condition and Lefty’s refusal to
leave his comrade, the men stuck it out, hoping against hope that
somehow, some way they would be rescued.

For days, Graham lay upon the remains of the plane’s lower wing with the
upper part shading him from the sun, a helpless, dying shadow of what
was once a man, tortured inwardly from a severe, untreated wound and
outwardly by thousands of mosquitoes and biting ants.

Lefty sat beside him, filthy and red with insect bites, his clothing tom
to shreds due to journeys through the bushes in search of food.

“Do you feel any better, Steve?” he asked, as the same time shooing a
swarm of mosquitoes away from the stricken boy’s face. “Do you think
maybe I could carry you?”

The wounded pilot gazed up at his companion with a grateful look and
attempted to smile weakly.

“It ain’t no use, kid! You know, the old back is pretty bad. Why don’t
you beat it, though? There is a chance you might make it if you went
alone. We’ve been here a whole week. They’ll never find us now.”

Lefty rose with an air of impatience and walked away, extremely hurt
over the other man’s suggestion that he quit.

“Aw, don’t be a chump!”

Steve raised himself with much difficulty and rested his entire weight
upon his elbow. He lifted the index finger of his other hand and
motioned to the boy. “Come here, Lef,” he called, “I didn’t mean to hurt
you!”

Phelps turned back and sat down once more beside the other man, fanning
him with his hat and brushing away some flies.

“You know that runnin’ backward stuff?” Steve began. “I’m sorry that I
razzed you, kid. Don’t let anybody ever ride you again. Say, it’s hot,
ain’t it? I wish I had some water!”

Lefty reached for the canteen and held it up to the boy’s mouth but it
was empty.

“There’s a pool over behind them trees,” Steve said, “I can hear it
tricklin’ sometimes. Maybe the water ain’t bad there.”

Lefty picked up his helmet and raised himself to his feet. In a moment,
he had disappeared behind the bushes, leaving the wounded man a helpless
victim once more to the biting ants that again began to crawl over his
hands and face.

The mechanic found the pool, but like the other small outlets of water
about them, this one too was stagnant with filth and slime.

Without hesitation, he waded into the mud, bending over and looking at
the bad water, then brushing away the scum from the top and filling his
helmet to the brim.

Once more beside his friend, Phelps proceeded to bathe the boy’s head in
the lukewarm water as Graham opened his eyes and pleaded for a drink.

“You can’t have that stuff, Steve; it’s filthy.”

“I don’t care,” the boy begged. “Please gimme some!”

Feebly, the wounded man forced Lefty to relent and allow him to sip the
stagnant liquid from the helmet.

Completely resigned to the hopeless Fate that had enveloped them, Phelps
lifted the helmet to his lips, deciding to quench his own parched
thirst, irrespective of whatever the consequences might be.

Steve caught this action on the other man’s part just in time to knock
the helmet from Lefty’s hand, spilling the remains on the ground before
them.

“No, you don’t!” he warned. “That stuff can’t hurt me any more, but
you——”

He fell off into a coma without finishing his sentence. Lefty gazed down
upon him and picked up his helmet, slowly fanning the boy as he once
more went into a deep sleep.

At approximately the same time, Panama’s plane came to a landing at the
flying base.

He lifted his goggles and brushed the oil and dirt from his face with a
soiled handkerchief, then turning to the ground man standing beside the
fuselage, ordered: “Fill her up full this time!”

Major Harding, followed by Elinor and two members of his staff,
approached the ship, looking up at Williams and noting the tired, drawn
and wan expression plainly visible upon the man’s face.

“Better turn in,” the Major advised. “You need some sleep.”

“I’m afraid this search is becoming hopeless,” the adjutant added, much
to the consternation of the determined pilot still seated in the
cockpit.

“I’ve got to find them, sir!” Panama pleaded as he addressed the major,
“for more reasons than one!”

Harding shook his head slowly as a shadow of despair darkened his face.
“I’m afraid there isn’t a chance!”

“If you don’t mind, sir,” Williams asked, “I’d like to take one more
crack at it!”

The major accepted his top sergeant’s act of insubordination with an
admiring salute and turned away, leaving Elinor alone and trembling,
gazing up at the determined man in the plane.

“Oh, Panama, you don’t think it’s too late, do you?”

“Now don’t worry,” he struggled to reassure her. “I haven’t half looked
yet!”

“And you won’t give up, will you?”

“Me?” he asked, trying to hide his own anxiety from the girl’s searching
eyes. “Say, forget about it, will you?”

Elinor raised her hand and after a moment of hesitance, allowed her
fingers to touch the sleeve of the sergeant’s greasy windjammer.

“Panama,” she whispered in profound admiration, “you’re—you’re the
finest man in the whole world!”

He smiled grimly as his eyes closed, dreaming in despair of a happiness
that he knew could never be his.

“She’s filled to the brim!” the ground man announced, awakening Williams
from his brief moment of tranquillity, then yelling as he wound up the
motor: “Contact!”

Not daring to look at the girl, Panama gave the ship the gun and in
another moment, was taxiing down the broad field, once more embarked
upon his futile search for a man who, if he did find him, would be
delivered right into the arms of the woman they both loved more than
life.

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