Phelps agreed

Within a half hour after “To the Colors” had been sounded and the men
and officers at the flying base at Managua had retired to mess, the
motor of a plane was heard over the field.

Major Harding, in command of the Tenth Squadron, had left the officers’
mess earlier than was his custom, to stroll alone before retiring. At
the sound of the familiar purr of a pursuit plane, he raised his eyes in
time to see Sergeant Williams’ plane circle the field and make a
three-point landing just as a group of ground men ran forward to meet
the ship taxiing toward them.

As the plane came to a stop, two ground men ran to the rear cockpit and
carried out Lieutenant Baker, the last of the lost company of Marines
that had been rescued, one by one, by Panama.

Tired from his long ordeal, dirty, greasy and covered with grime,
Williams crawled out of his cockpit, weary of limb but mentally alive,
proud of his daring accomplishment.

He meandered toward the barracks only to be met by the major who smiled
generously upon the successful pilot.

After the two men had exchanged formal salutes, Harding placed his hand
upon the shoulder of the noncom, in no way attempting to conceal his
fondness for the man.

“You’ve earned a good rest, sergeant. I want to thank you for what you
have done, but don’t let me keep you from your sleep.”

Panama smiled gratefully and pointed to the two ground men carrying
Baker off on a make-shift stretcher in the direction of the field
hospital. “That’s the last of them going in now!”

“I don’t think you’re any too sorry, are you, Williams?”

“No, sir!” Panama replied truthfully and then turning, pointed out the
bullet holes in the side of the fuselage and the struts that were lashed
with sapling. “Do you see what I had to do?”

“That was fine work,” the major announced with pride. “I am going to
recommend you for a medal for bringing in those wounded men!”

Panama grinned sheepishly, making a sincere effort to pass off Harding’s
promise and compliment lightly. They shook hands and saluted, the major
continuing his stroll, leaving the sergeant standing alone.

As he unbuttoned his windjammer and pulled off the Gasborne helmet,
Panama’s eyes caught sight of Steve Graham (recently made a corporal),
carrying a bucket of water.

“Bring that over here,” he shouted jovially, and the once ostentatious
would-be flyer complied without making any comment. He merely stood by
and lighted a cigarette as Panama reached for the dipper and drank
several refreshing cups full of water, pouring the remainder left in the
bucket over his head.

“Any letters for me?” he inquired of Graham as he stood, dripping wet,
wiping the water out of his eyes.

Steve shook his head impatiently. “I told you every day for the past
week—‘no!’ Look’s like you got the air.”

Still in a good humor, though inwardly disappointed over Elinor’s
failure to answer his recent letters, he reached down and picking up the
empty bucket, slammed it over the astonished corporal’s head, emitting a
loud roar of laughter and walking off toward the line of tents, leaving
Steve struggling to release the bucket.

As Panama approached the company street where the tent was located that
he and Lefty occupied, he heard the voices of several Marine flyers
lifted in harmony. He smiled contentedly, for this was home to him. The
grim, khaki-colored tents, standing like rows of silent ghosts; the
songs of the Marine Corps brutally sung by dish-pan quartets, then a
sudden foul oath emitted by an occupant of one of the tents, voices
raised in argument over a card game or some other trivial matter; that
was the only world he had known since the day he ran away from home to
become one of Uncle Sam’s soldiers of the sea. It was his life, his love
and his work and he was never so contented as when returning from an
expedition during a campaign, knowing that his day’s labor had been well
done.

He rambled along, through the narrow little street with rows of tents on
each side, humming a popular song, dog-tired and ready to fall into a
welcome and waiting cot.

Inside of the last tent on the street, Lefty was nervously pacing back
and forth, disgruntled and uncertain. He walked to the entrance and
closed the canvas flaps, then turned and went to his cot, pulling out a
dirty work shirt from a bundle and shining his shoes with it. He was an
amazing sight, attired in the blue and scarlet dress uniform of the
Marines at that hour of the night, campaigning in an open field in the
midst of impending hostilities.

Just as Panama arrived a few feet away from the entrance to the tent, he
heard hurried footsteps from behind, and turning, recognized Steve,
breathlessly running toward him.

“Hey, Romeo,” the corporal shouted, wait a minute. “I got some news for
you.”

Panama stopped and waited for Graham, grinning good-naturedly and
certain that the boy had followed him to pull some prank as a means of
getting even for his putting the bucket over his head.

“How’d you get the pail off your dome?” Williams greeted Graham by
asking a little derisively.

“That’s what I’ve come running to tell you,” Steve announced. “Somebody
pulled it off for me and who do you think it was?”

“Sandino?”

“No, Elinor Martin!”

Panama gazed at Graham with questioning and doubtful eyes, believing
this to be some kind of practical joke.

“Honest, it was Elinor,” the boy reiterated. “She came in to-day with
nine other nurses and two doctors. I told her you had just landed and
she’s waiting over at the field hospital for you now!”

The sergeant, noting the ring of truth in the other man’s voice and the
look of sincerity plainly visible upon his face, threw his arms about
Steve and shouted for joy, forgetting all about his much-needed rest and
the fatiguing work of the past two days.

“Cut it out!” Graham demanded, breaking loose with much difficulty from
Panama’s embrace. “Save that for your nursie.”

Williams thanked Steve again and again, telling him to run back to the
field hospital and explain to Elinor that he would be along in a few
moments. As the boy started back, he threw the tent flaps apart and
boisterously entered.

As his eyes fell upon Lefty decked out in full dress uniform, he stopped
cold in surprise, believing the boy to be either drunk or part loco.

“Where do you think you’re goin’, all dolled up like Mrs. Astor’s pet
horse?”

“What do you mean?” Lefty asked without looking up.

“The dress uniform, here in Nicaragua, during a campaign! What’s the
idea?”

“I’m going out!”

“Where?”

“Just out!”

“In that get-up?”

“What’s the difference?”

“Nothing—only, well, it ain’t being done!”

“Then I’ll be different!” the boy announced in the same crisp fashion.

“Got a date?” Panama persisted in questioning, merely because Lefty’s
strange attitude was worrying him.

“I’m going to town!”

“Got permission?”

“Don’t need any! I’m going, that’s enough. If anybody don’t like it,
they can lump it!”

“Oh, yes sez you!”

“Oh, yes sez I!”

Panama made no attempt to continue the debate, primarily because he
believed it was useless to argue with a man in such a set frame of mind,
then, there was Elinor, waiting for him, probably as impatient to see
him as he was to get there.

“What do you think, kid,” he began, hoping to pull the boy out of the
dumps, never for the moment realizing that what he was about to say
would only make Lefty feel all the worse, “Elinor’s here! Can you
imagine it? She’s over at the field hospital waiting for me! Sent Steve
to tell me to shake a leg. Me for a wash! Whereinell’s that basin gone?”

Phelps remained silent though he walked over to a small box near his cot
and picked up the basin, handing it to Panama.

“Maybe I ain’t got much of a face,” the happy sergeant speculated as he
poured some water from a bucket into the basin, “but I stand a better
chance gettin’ by if it’s clean!”

Lefty sat down on the edge of his cot only to have to get up again to
hand Panama (now dripping wet and blind from soap suds) the towel. Once
dry, the sergeant tore out of his greasy flying togs, into a clean
blouse and fatigue trousers, halted now through his usual difficulty in
tying his black tie.

“Be a good guy, Lef,” he asked, “and tie this darn thing for me, will
ya?”

As Lefty silently complied by rising and facing his loquacious friend,
Williams continued to ramble on, “Say, did you know she was down here?”

Lefty nodded in affirmation, proceeding with his task.

“Didja see her yet?”

“Yeah!”

“Did she ask about me?” Panama now inquired with eagerness.

“For gosh sakes alive, will you hold still?” Lefty barked impatiently,
“how am I going to tie this gadget if you keep on yapping?”

Williams remained silent after that, a trifle hurt over Lefty’s apparent
indifference insofar as his romance was concerned. When the boy had
finally tied a knot, Panama sheepishly dug down into the pocket of his
trousers and brought forth a small diamond ring, holding it in the palm
of his outstretched hand in full view.

“I’ve been trying for six months to get up enough courage to give this
to Elinor. Somehow, I always get tongue-tied just at the very moment I
feel set to pop the question.”

Lefty walked away impatiently to the farthest end of the tent and
sprawled out on a box, picking up an old magazine. “Ain’t that too bad?”
he said, mockingly.

“Yeah—but I’m goin’ to put it on her little finger to-night or bust,
sure!”

“Aw, shut up, will you?”

Panama was completely taken back by Lefty’s antagonistic attitude and
for a moment, he gazed at the boy with a puzzled expression, finally
asking, “Whatinell’s the matter with you, anyway?”

“Nothing!”

“Somethin’ is eatin’ you—what is it?”

“I said, nothing was the matter!” Lefty snapped, no longer attempting to
hide his growing resentment. He rose, picked up his white cap and walked
to the forward end of the tent, his passage now blocked by Panama who
stepped before him.

“Say, where do you think you’re going, Sheik?”

“Aw, what do you care?” Lefty growled, with an effort to push past the
sergeant.

This attitude was all that Panama needed to make him forget his interest
in the boy as a matter of friendship and once more bring to life the
hard-boiled, bossy top kick.

“Wait a minute, there, bozo,” he commanded. “I know what’s on your mind.
You think you’re goin’ down to that local gin mill and get all
illuminated, but you ain’t! You know that there is an order forbidding
us to mix with the natives. Now, take off that coat and hat. I’m goin’
to give you somethin’ to keep you busy!”

“Not to-night!” Lefty protested.

“Yeah, to-night, right now,” Panama said, pulling out some papers and
handing them to the boy. “Make out these reports for me and stay here!
Savvy?”

Lefty didn’t venture to reply but sat down, holding the reports, mutely
acknowledging the other’s authority as Panama picked up his hat and
started out, returning in a moment and gazing at the boy, mistaking
Phelps’ attitude for one of heartsickness caused by military failure.
His entire demeanor suddenly changed to one of softness and
understanding.

“Listen, kid, forget that crackup,” he said, in a warm manner of
friendship, putting his arm around the boy’s shoulders. “I know you want
to fly, and you’ll get your chance. Now, listen. You’re a clean guy.
Don’t go down and get mixed up with a lot of rotten dames, it ain’t
worth it and you’re not foolin’ no one but yourself. Keep decent, that’s
the thing to do! Everything is bound to turn out all right!”

Lefty listened to this advice attentively, though he refrained from
looking up.

Panama waited a moment for some sort of response but there was none
forthcoming.

“Come on, kid, don’t be a sap and ruin all your chances because you
happen to be in the dumps just now!”

This entreaty had no more effect upon the boy than the others. He
continued to sit on the edge of the cot without speaking, gazing at the
floor as he toyed with the papers he was holding in his hands.

“Lefty, you ain’t goin’ down there, are you, kid?” Panama questioned
with deep concern. “What do you say, soldier? You ain’t goin’ to that
filthy joint and get in a jam with a lot of dirty, brown-skinned molls
what ain’t worth it, are you?”

The boy brushed Panama’s hand from off his shoulder, rose and without
offering a reply, dropped his hat on the cot behind him and slowly
unbuttoned his coat, making no attempt to conceal his adversity to this
procedure.

Panama, in turn, was overjoyed over the boy’s easy submission to his
will and began an attempt to lift him out of the dumps by pulling off
his tie and mussing his hair. Lefty held out as long as he could, then
unable to continue his indifference toward the man whom he loved as a
brother, he responded to the sergeant’s rough-house foolery by knocking
off Panama’s hat and pulling his tie.

This was exactly the state of mind Williams had been striving to pull
the boy into and he went for Lefty with all of the playful enthusiasm he
possessed. In a moment, the two men were rolling over the floor, in
typical soldier fashion, laughing lustily as they pulled at each other’s
clothes.

After he had forcibly undressed the boy and once more brought him around
to his usual happy frame of mind, Panama rose, breathing hard, his
cheeks flushed from the friendly encounter and his eyes flashing with
enthusiasm.

“You got me in a fine shape to see my girl,” he said as he began to
straighten out his ruffled uniform and brush back his hair.

Lefty picked up a shoe and threw it at him with Williams just ducking in
time as he picked up his hat and ran out. In a moment he was back again,
watching the boy straighten things up around the tent.

“You ain’t goin’ out, are you, kid?”

“Didn’t I tell you I wasn’t?”

“Sure, only I wanted to be positive, that’s all,” Panama explained with
a ring of apology in his voice. “Guys like us, trying to be somebody in
this here flyin’ racket, shouldn’t bother with women anyway.”

“I guess you’re right,” Phelps agreed, though secretly amused.

“Sure I am!” Panama reiterated, and then remembering what he came back
into the tent for, asked somewhat sheepishly, “say, you ain’t got five
bucks till pay day, have you?”

“Sure!” Lefty replied, reaching into his wallet and bringing forth a
bill. “What do you want it for?”

Panama was at first reluctant to reply as Lefty watched him, amusedly,
then at length, after pocketing the money, he managed to say: “Well—er—I
don’t like to meet Elinor when I’m broke. You know how it is with the
dames—they get such a funny idea of a guy when he ain’t got any dough.
Play safe, that’s my motto, kid!”

Panama arrived at the field hospital just a few minutes after Elinor,
tired of waiting, had left.

One of the nurses informed him that if he hurried, he might catch up
with her before she reached the women’s barracks.

Without a word, he ran through the narrow streets of tents, out on to
the main road that led into town. Just ahead of him, he spied the trim,
silhouetted figure of the nurse, strolling along in the moonlight.

It was a beautiful tropical night, and the silver-white clouds in the
sky and the full, warm moon casting its pure, white light over the black
tops of the silent, old Spanish Mission, built hundreds of years before,
filled the heart of the soldier with a romantic fervor. His pulse
quickened and his step became more buoyant. It was a perfect setting for
the scene he had hoped to enact with Elinor that night.

Here was a man and a woman, alone in a great, intoxicating world of
warmth and romance, walking in the shadows of an old, ancestral Mission,
the walls of which had looked down upon similar romantic episodes
enacted by great Spanish grandees and their ladies, long centuries
before.

As he ran breathlessly to catch up with the girl, he thought, “If she
will respond to this night and background as I have, the rest will be
easy.”

“Elinor, wait a moment,” he shouted.

The girl stopped just before the old Mission gate and waited for Panama,
now only a few feet away.

“I thought you had forgotten about me,” she said, holding out her hand
which the sergeant grasped eagerly as he reached her side.

“Forget about you? Oh, Elinor, I—I couldn’t ever do that! You see, I
only landed a few minutes before Steve told me you were here and——”

“I understand,” she interrupted. “It was selfish of me to ask you to
meet me when you must be dead to the world.”

Panama smiled sheepishly as he looked down, conscious of the fact that
he was still holding her hand in his. They both felt a trifle
uncomfortable when Elinor, emitting a nervous, apologetic laugh,
released her hand.

“I’m never too tired to see you,” he said softly. “Besides, I wasn’t a
bit anxious to hit the hay anyway.”

He hesitated for a moment and then, summing up enough courage, took her
arm as they started down the road past the Mission gate.

“Look at that moon, Panama!” Elinor exclaimed exultantly. “Isn’t it
romantic?”

His heart beat faster by leaps and bounds. He thought that now surely
was the moment to take her in his arms and whisper all of the things he
had been planning to tell her during the six months, but as usual, words
failed him and he merely nodded his head, saying, “Yeah, it is sorta
nice, ain’t it?”

She sighed deeply and Panama believed she was impatient, waiting for him
to speak, though inwardly, she was longing for someone else, a tall,
indifferent, handsome boy whose image filled her heart with a million
yearnings since the day she had first met him.

They had been walking for more than fifteen minutes with the Marine
sergeant remaining inarticulate as ever. Finally Elinor broke the
silence by asking where he was taking her.

“Oh, I don’t know,” he replied in a characteristic, blunt fashion. “Any
place, it doesn’t matter!”

“Let’s walk down by the tents,” she suggested, hoping that if they went
in that direction, Lefty might make a sudden appearance.

“Aw, no,” Williams objected, hoping to keep her on the lonely road so
that when he regained his lost courage, there would be no intruders to
interrupt their romance. “Let’s keep on goin’ this way, the—er—the
scenery is much nicer!”

He stole a sidelong glance at her, fearing that she might further
protest to their continuing along the Mission road, but she didn’t
speak. Her arm found its way into his and he felt a peculiar sensation
up and down his spine.

“Gee, this is swell, ain’t it, Elinor?”

“What is?”

His face flushed a vivid crimson and he was thankful to a dark night for
hiding his excited emotions. “Why—er—everything,” he stammered, “the
moon and—er—well, everything!”

Just over beyond the Mission, some natives were chanting dreamy Spanish
songs of love to the accompaniment of strumming guitars.

“Listen to that lovely music!” Elinor exclaimed, completely enthralled.
“It’s all so—so perfectly beautiful!”

“Just like a storybook, ain’t it?” was Panama’s description.

“You’ve spent a lot of time in the tropics, haven’t you, Panama?”

“Three years at the Canal, a year and a half in Haiti and now back here
for the second time,” he replied in a dreamy manner. “I think it’s
great! This part of the world is just like apple pie to me!”

“Do you like apple pie?” Elinor asked for want of something better to
say.

“Sure, when it’s homemade! Don’t you?”

Elinor struggled to suppress a giggle, and with a sombre look, replied,
“Why, yes—surely—I guess everybody does.”

“My mother made swell pie,” he explained. “You don’t get much of that
sort of thing knockin’ around in this racket. Sometimes I sorta want to
quit it all and get a regular job where I can have a home and——”

“Yes, I understand,” she interrupted. “Men want that kind of a life
after a certain age, don’t they, Panama?”

“I don’t know about that,” he said, a trifle piqued at her mention of
his advancing years, “I ain’t so old!”

She gasped slightly, realizing that she had hurt him by her thoughtless
remark and hurried to explain, “Why, of course you’re not! What I meant
was——”

“Oh, it’s all right, I don’t mind,” he said. “I don’t mind anything you
say!”

They had reached the end of the road by this time, and Panama took the
girl’s arm, turning off to the right, making sure that they would take
the longest way back to camp.

Just ahead of them was the thatched roof hut of a native family, no
different from hundreds of others that dotted the landscape throughout
that section of the country.

A proud young mother sat on the doorstep, nursing a dark-skinned infant.
As the Marine and the girl approached, she looked up at them and smiled,
showing two rows of white, pearly teeth. Panama left the road and walked
over to the hut, picking the baby up in his arms as Elinor followed
after him.

“Gee, I get a great kick out of all kinds of babies!” he announced with
enthusiasm, looking over his shoulder at Elinor, who was standing just
behind him. “Do you like kids?”

She nodded her head in affirmation and gently patted the little fellow.
“My, but he’s a cute little rascal!”

The hard-boiled sergeant kissed the infant and, with much concern,
handed it back to the anxious mother, also taking a coin from his pocket
and placing it in the baby’s small hand.

As they started back toward the road, Williams pulled a tropical flower
from a bush, and gave it to the girl.

“These flowers remind me of a barber shop,” he explained, at loss to
think of a more appropriate comparison, “only they’ve got cologne beat
all hollow, ain’t they?”

Elinor’s intuition warned her that it was time to sidetrack Panama’s
flow of romantic thoughts and crude manner of expression, so she
conveniently changed the trend of conversation by asking about Lefty in
an assumed manner of indifference.

“He’s fine and tickled pink with his first taste of campaign duty!”
Williams replied.

“Are you living together?”

“Sure thing! We’re pals! Say—listen to that music now. Ain’t it grand?”

She walked a little ahead of him, completely enveloped with the magic of
the dreamy, tropical music, listening ecstatically, unmindful of the
nervous state Panama was in as he fumbled for the diamond ring through
his pockets.

He finally discovered it and brought it out, half hiding it as he
struggled to gain enough courage to broach the subject he had promised
himself to bring up that night.

As he stopped to rehearse the words over again in his mind, Elinor
turned about suddenly and faced him.

“Tell me, Panama, how is Lefty coming along?”

Her sudden manner of direct approach startled him so, that he dropped
the ring from his hand and without looking to see where it fell,
stammered, “Oh—er—Lefty? Oh, yeah, he’s fine! Sure, he’s over in camp
now, workin’!”

He hated to search for the lost ring while Elinor was watching, though
he couldn’t very well afford to lose it. Intensely embarrassed, he began
to look about the ground as the girl watched him, keenly amused.

“Did you drop something?” she asked.

“No, well, yes—but it’s nothing,” he fabricated, lighting a match and
dropping to his knees to search the path more thoroughly, “I’ll find it
in a minute.”

Her expression changed to one of interest as she dropped down beside
him, helping in the search for whatever the lost object might be.

“Please don’t bother, Elinor,” he begged as he looked up and found her
beside him. “Really, it ain’t much and I know just where it dropped.”

Just then, her eyes fell upon a small, sparkling object a few inches
from where she was resting on her knees. She reached forward and picked
up the ring in her hand, unnoticed by Panama who was still delving into
the grass by the roadway.

She rose to her feet and looked at the small diamond, suddenly struck by
the realization that he had brought her all the way out here, hoping to
gain enough courage to propose. Her eyes softened and she gazed down at
Panama tenderly, shaking her head as she sympathized with the man over
the futility of his hopes just as she pitied herself over her own
failure to win Lefty.

“Panama,” she said sweetly, with a ring of tolerance in her voice.

The man turned about, fumbling nervously with his hands as he noticed
the telltale object she was holding in the palm of her outstretched
hand.

“Is this what you’ve been looking for?” she asked, pretending to be
ignorant of the ring’s true purpose.

“Why, yeah—sure!” he replied, clumsily bringing himself to his feet
again and unable to look at her. “I—er—I can’t imagine how it could have
fallen out of my pocket!”

“The way we came, past the Mission,” she asked, “that’s the shortest
road back, isn’t it?”

“Oh, sure, if you want to go that way,” he announced, putting the ring
away in the pocket of his blouse, glad to once more have it out of
sight.

“I—I think we’d better,” she said, “I’ve had a long trip and——”

“I understand, and I’m pretty tired now, anyway,” he interrupted,
turning about and leading her back the way they had come, still
conscious of the faux pas he made regarding the engagement ring, “You
know somethin’?”

“What?”

“That ring I lost—” he stammered. “Well, I bought that for—er—my aunt!”

“You don’t say?” Elinor replied, assuming an attitude of complete
ignorance. “When did you buy it?”

“Oh—er—before I left Pensacola, I think.”

“As long ago as that?” she asked. “Why, I should think you would have
sent it to her by this time.”

“Yeah, I should have, only—well—I just don’t seem to find the time!”

“Then supposing you give me her address and I’ll send it for you,” she
suggested mischievously. “If you carry it around with you, you may lose
it.”

Panama’s cheeks flushed and he bit his lips, looking at Elinor
appealingly and wondering to himself what kind of a jam he was in for
now.

“No—I—er—I’ve kept it so long and—well—I guess we’ll he goin’ back soon
and——”

“Sergeant Williams!” he heard a familiar voice call, and looking just
ahead, saw Steve Graham running toward them.

Though he had never liked this product of the San Francisco pool
parlors, at that particular moment, he welcomed the boy’s arrival with
open arms, knowing that the intrusion would relieve him of having to
make further explanations regarding the ring.

“What do you want, Graham?”

The boy came up alongside of them and seeing Elinor, touched the peak of
his cap with his hand as she smiled in acknowledgment.

“Can I see you for a minute, sergeant?”

Panama excused himself and left the girl standing alone as he and Steve
walked a little to the side of the row, entering into earnest
conversation.

“That mechanic of yours left camp all dolled up in his dress uniform,”
the corporal explained. “He was headed for the Cantina and I tried to
stop him, but he wouldn’t listen.”

Elinor couldn’t help but overhear what Steve had said and, as she
thought of Lefty, mixed up with a lot of native women in a local
barroom, helpless under the intoxicating influence of bad liquor, her
blood ran cold and her face became chalk white.

“If the military police find out where he’s gone,” Steve went on to
explain, “you know where he’ll land!”

Panama’s eyes narrowed and he bit his lips, inwardly furious over
Lefty’s blunt disobedience in the face of all that had happened back in
the tent.

“Run along, Graham,” he told the boy, in a manner of dismissal, “and
forget about what you saw. I’ll have him back in half an hour if I got
to drag him!”

Steve grinned with understanding and bowing slightly to Elinor, ran
back, up the road to camp, satisfied that he had done his duty by God,
country and the Marine Corps.

Elinor stood twitching her fingers from nervousness, waiting for Panama
to do something, but as the sergeant continued to remain motionless,
merely looking after the disappearing Graham, she came over to his side
and tugged at the sleeve of his blouse.

“I couldn’t help but hearing,” she said. “Is Lefty in trouble?”

Panama turned and looked down at her, still livid with rage over the
mechanic’s insubordination.

“I told that fool to stay in camp,” he roared. “He’s goin’ to learn
who’s boss around here and do as he’s told!”

Fearful for the boy’s safety and worried that his escapade might send
him to a military prison, thus ruining any possible chance of winning
his wings in the future, she held the angered sergeant’s arm tightly and
pleaded: “Don’t be too hard on him, Panama; he doesn’t understand!”

“I’ve got to bring him back or he’ll land in the brig,” Williams
explained, his voice softening as he once more became the man and not
the hard-boiled sergeant. “You won’t mind, will you?”

Barely able to conceal her personal concern over Lefty’s welfare, she
fairly pushed Panama forward, urging him on his way, feeling that there
wasn’t a minute to be lost.

“Never mind me,” she said, “I can find my way back alone, only please
hurry and get him!”

Of all the numerous places in Managua that offered various kinds of
diversion to Marines on temporary leaves of absence, the most
interesting was the Cantina la Flora. This center of life, music and
wine probably intrigued the American soldiers of the sea and air because
it was a strict breach of Marine rules for a uniformed man to be seen
beyond the cafe’s entrance.

The Cantina la Flora was just ten or fifteen feet off the main road,
directly on the outskirts of the city.

A low wall encircled the entire cafe, beyond this, the visitors parked
their cars and hitched their horses in the shade of invitingly cooling
palm trees. In the rear, stood a two-story, yellow stucco building,
housing the bar, gaming tables, dance floor and private rooms of the
Cantina. A large veranda, going the full length of the building and
shaded with leaves and flowers, had been built in front of the house,
where native men and women lounged lazily during the day and night,
sipping coffee or liquor and playing dominoes.

The cafe, which occupied the entire ground floor, had a large bar to the
left that was never idle. The floor was of strikingly colored tiles.
Marble top tables where visitors, who came to drink and be entertained,
sat around, was over to the right, looking out upon the open patio. The
rear was separated in two by a partition, the front of which was
occupied by the string orchestra, while the other side shielded the
gaming tables that were always buzzing with activity. The center of the
great room, when an entertainer wasn’t performing, served as a dance
floor for the patrons.

Above this inclosure of laughter and care-free activity, a narrow
balcony encircled the room, reached by a small stairway to the left of
the orchestra stand.

As Lefty cautiously made his way up the steps of the veranda, making
certain that there were no interfering military police near by who might
spoil his evening, he saw many white civilians mixing with the native
visitors; waiters bustling in and out between rows of tables, bringing
and taking orders, and the five-piece string orchestra in the rear,
playing a vigorous accompaniment for a lovely and shapely dark-skinned
girl, wearing a large sombrero, a silk blouse and a wide, colorful
skirt. She was dancing a Spanish fandango in the center of the tiled
floor.

Suddenly the music stopped and the girl fell to the floor on her knees,
smiling ingratiatingly as she raised her head to receive the vociferous
applause of her appreciative audience. She stood up, threw a profusion
of kisses in all directions and ran up the steps to the balcony, opening
a door and disappearing into one of the little rooms occupied by the
performers.

As Lefty crossed the dance floor to the bar, the eyes of both natives
and whites followed his progress with astonishment, leaning over their
tables to whisper in speculation as to what would be the Marine’s fate
should he be discovered by his officers or the military police.

Just about this time, a faded, coarse-looking blond woman attired in a
thin, black silk dress with a wide skirt, meandered over to the
orchestra stand, now deserted by the musicians. She slouched down on the
piano stool and lazily lifted her thin, white hands, letting them fall
upon the keys. Slowly and softly, she began to play one of those ancient
torch ballads, popular in the States years before prohibition.

Lefty leaned up against the bar and listened with flattering
attentiveness to the outburst of the faded blonde at the piano. Each
line of the touching lyrics she emitted made him feel more and more
sorry for himself.

A fetching little olive-skinned girl with a profusion of black hair,
large, dark eyes and lovely white teeth, glided over to him, placing her
arm about his shoulder. Her scanty attire showed her trim, shapely
figure to excellent advantage. Of all the girls at the Cantina la Flora,
this one was the most sought after.

“Nice soldado Americano quiere leetle drink?” she cooed, temptingly.

Lefty merely responded by brushing her arm from about his shoulders. He
had time for no one now. The blond entertainer’s song had completely
enveloped him.

“Mebe Americano want to drink alone weeth Rosa, upa-stairs, yes?” the
undaunted little native coquette asked, again brushing herself close to
Lefty’s side.

The boy pushed her away forcibly, once more allowing his mind to drift
away with the music.

Rosa turned to the bartender and winked broadly as she announced,
“Leetle soft drink for brave soldado—ver’ soft, Peitro!” The bartender
grinned and reached for a glass just as the blonde at the piano finished
her song.

Lefty smiled sympathetically and applauded with enthusiasm, calling for
an encore. The entertainer bowed gratefully in his direction for he had
been the only one of all the people present who acknowledged his
appreciation of her art.

“Don’t encourage her,” someone shouted.

“If you applaud like that, she’ll inflict another one of those songs on
us!”

“That’s just what I want her to do!” Lefty announced; and that was
exactly what the lady did to the discomfort of all.

“Where’s my drink?” the soldier demanded as the music once more reached
his ears.

The bartender complied by drawing a glass of beer, and when Lefty again
turned to watch the girl at the piano, the man serving the drink dropped
the ashes of his cigar in the beer, also pouring in a good deal of
whiskey as well.

Lefty reached back to the bar, mechanically taking the stein by the
handle and lifting the beer to his lips, much to the amusement of Rosa
and the practical joking bartender.

Just as he had finished his drink with no dire effect other than a
feeling of dizziness, the music again stopped and he sauntered over to
where the girl at the piano sat.

“That was fine, sister,” he announced as he reached her side, falling
into a chair in a daze. “Give us another, will you?”

The blonde rose, and eyed him with a piercing look of disdain. “Say,
insipid, you don’t think I’m doin’ this for me health, do you?”

“You mean, you expect me to pay you?” asked the astonished Marine,
gradually falling under the spell of intoxication.

“Naw—just leave me the price of a pair of stocking, that’s all!”

“How can you be so mercenary?” the boy asked with the sincerity of an
inebriated man.

“If you call me that again, you big bum, I’ll punch you in the nose,”
the blonde warned as her eyes protruded, blazing with fire. “I’ll have
you know I’m a lady, I am!”

“Well, who said you wasn’t?”

“You did!” she persisted. “You called me a—a—well, don’t say that
again!”

“Say what?” Lefty demanded to know.

“What you just called me!”

“What did I call you?”

“I don’t know what it meant,” the girl admitted, “but if it was as bad
as it sounded, my brother would make you eat those words, if he was
here!”

Lefty yawned and stretched his arms, already tired from the effects of
the bartender’s loaded drink. “Aw, be a reg’lar feller, kiddo, an’
give’sh a tune!”

“You like my voice?” the blonde asked, changing her tone to the
ingratiating pitch so familiar with her type.

“Do I like it? I love it!” Lefty bellowed, much to the amusement of the
white patrons seated at tables near by. “I think you have a better voice
than—than—let me think. Oh, yeah! Better than Galli Curci!”

“Galli Curci?” the entertainer repeated as a puzzled expression lighted
upon her face. “Who’s that guy, Galli Curci?”

“You don’t know old Galli?” Lefty asked in a high pitch of astonishment,
and the blonde shook her head negatively. “Well, if you must know, let
me enlighten you; Galli—old Galli Curci was the bes’ Russian bicycle
rider in Brooklyn!”

A roar of laughter came from the tables occupied by the Americans. Lefty
rose with much difficulty, bearing a silly grin and bowing to his
encouraging audience. The girl at the piano moved about uncomfortably,
the lines in her face hardening and her eyebrows knitting in a frown.
“Say, bozo, I gotta feelin’ you’re trying to razz me!” she announced.
“And I don’t mind tellin’ you, brother, I don’t like it!”

“Who, me?” Lefty protested innocently enough.

“Yes, you! Now cut the comedy. If you want another number, either put up
or shut up!”

“Okay, baby!” Lefty announced, digging down into his pocket and bringing
forth a roll of bills, peeling one off and dropping it into the lap of
the performer. “Shoot!”

The boy’s roll of money was of such considerable size that Rosa, who had
picked up an acquaintance with a new arrival, who seemed to gloat over
her amorous antics, left the man without further ado and returned to the
boy just as he placed the bills back in his pocket.

“You got sometink for Rosa?” she begged, her face again illuminated by a
beaming smile.

[Illustration: “You got sometink for Rosa?” she begged of Lefty.]

“Naw, go on away!” he replied with impatience, pushing the girl from
him, “I wanna hear my baby here sing!”

The blonde folded the bill and placed it in her dress, then touched the
white ivory keys and once more burst aloud in sentimental song.

“Rosa, she dance for her brave Americano soldado, you watch!”

“I don’ wanna watch,” he protested. “Go ’way, woman; you draw flies!”

“But Rosa, she dance for you!” the girl insisted, using every bit of
will power she possessed to hold back her rising temper.

“I don’t care if Rosa stand on her head! Leave me alone, will ya? I
wanna listen to ole blondie do her stuff!”

“Sacri!” fumed the native heartbreaker. “You do not know art!”

Lefty sighed impatiently and pushed the girl away once again. “Aw, go
sit on a tack!”

Rosa frowned menacingly but still managing to check her temper, walked
to a near-by table, picked up a straight drink of whiskey and handed it
to the boy.

Without even looking at her, he brought the glass to his lips and
swallowed the contents with one gulp, making a wry face as he did so.

The blonde finished her song and the orchestra returned to the stand,
picking up their instruments, and at the sign from the leader, burst
into a wild fandango. Rosa took Lefty by the hand and pulled him off of
the stand. He looked back to call the blonde entertainer but she had
already disappeared.

“Come, we dance, no?” Rosa announced, leading him to the center of the
floor.

“Yes!” the boy agreed, and taking the shapely native girl in his arms,
whirled off, around the tiled dance floor, stepping over any couple who
might unfortunately come within his path.

He felt something brush against his trouser pocket and looking down,
caught sight of the girl’s hand in the act of removing his money. With a
swift jerk, he grabbed the roll of bills from her and placed it in the
inside pocket of his blouse, much to the native’s discomfort.

At that very moment, Panama reached the veranda outside of the cafe,
stopping to read the sign that forbade Marines to enter. As he burst
through the grilled door, rudely brushing by a party of Americans who
were ready to leave, his ears caught the sound of music and hilarity.

Once inside, his eyes searched over the rows of tables and the people
jammed together on the dance floor, resting them upon Lefty and the
little native girl. Without waiting another moment, he pushed through
the crowd until he reached the center of the floor.

“What are you trying to pull off here?” he demanded to know, placing his
hand on the boy’s shoulder and swinging him around. “Pull yourself
together. We’re gettin’ out of this joint pronto!”

Rosa made no attempt to hide her resentment over Panama’s sudden
intrusion and clung desperately to Lefty’s sleeve. As for the boy, he
was so far gone by this time, that it took him a few moments to
recognize the sergeant. When he finally did, his jovial mood returned
and he slapped Panama on the back in a playful fashion, shouting: “Well,
well, well—if it ain’t the old kid hisself!”

“Come on, son,” Panama said, good-humoredly. “You’ve had your little
fling, let’s go places!”

“No, sir! No, sir! We’re goin’ stay right here!” the boy stubbornly
insisted, throwing his arms about the sergeant’s neck in a typical
inebriated fashion. “You an’ me, ole pal, we’re goin’ raise the ole
roof!”

The native girl grew more and more angered as the intruder insisted upon
separating her from her easy prey.

“What you want, huh?” she demanded to know of Panama. “Why you no leave
heem weez me, yes?”

“Yeah, why you no leave me weez she, huh?” Lefty mimicked the girl in a
silly fashion.

“Because he doesn’t belong here,” the sergeant explained patiently. “He
must go back camp. Police see him here—boom—no more soldado!”

“You bad, bad hombre,” she shrieked, jumping at Panama and clawing his
face and neck with her finger nails.

The sergeant had all he could do to hold Lefty from falling, and at the
same time, he was forced to fight off this little native minx much to
the amusement of those surrounding the trio.

“Cut it out, will ya, lady?” Panama pleaded, still a victim of the
girl’s painful clawing. “I gotta take him back or we’ll all land in the
brig, sure!”

“You no tak my soldado, you bad hombre!” she shrieked with renewed rage,
leaping for Williams’ throat this time.

“Aw, why don’t you stop hittin’ the poor gal,” Lefty stammered, now
nearly blind from the reaction of the bad liquor. “Rosie, ol’ baby, I’m
your pal; if he smacks you again, jes’ tell me, tha’s all!”

Panama pushed Lefty against a post in the middle of the floor, holding
him upright with one foot while he tore the girl loose from his throat,
throwing her off of him with all the force he could bring to his
command.

“Panny, ol’ kid,” the boy muttered, “ain’t you my pal, now—ain’t you?”

“Yeah—yeah—sure I am!” he replied, breathlessly, “but we gotta get out
of this joint!”

“Wai—it a minute!” Lefty protested. “You gotta shtick around. Now
lisshum—did ya ever hear me sing a song?”

“No and I ain’t goin’ to now!” Williams insisted. “You’re goin’ back to
camp!”

By this time, Rosa had collected her senses and made a flying leap for
the sergeant’s back, clawing his neck and pulling his hair until he
screamed with pain. They struggled for a while, with the girl getting
the better of things until Panama finally gripped her hands and flung
her across a table.

“Don’ push her aroun’ like that!” Lefty interfered by saying. “She’sh my
li’l old pal!”

Panama was at the end of his rope by this time and glared at the boy
with fire in his eyes. “You shut up, savvy? I’m gonna get you outa here
if I have to drag you bodily!”

The boy supported himself against the post and raised his head in
drunken defiance. “Don’ get tough with me, ol’ kid!”

“You shut your trap or I’ll close it for you!” the sergeant shouted,
completely devoid of patience now.

A good-sized crowd had formed a circle about Lefty, Panama and the girl
and they seemed to be thoroughly enjoying the little impromptu show.
Rosa regained her bearings and rushed in between the two Marines, ready
for another wild session.

“I keel you!” she threatened Williams. “You no tak away my hombre!”

“If you don’t clear out of here, lady,” Panama warned the girl, “I’m
gonna paste you one in the mouth!”

“Oh, no, you won’t,” Phelps interrupted in an antagonistic manner of
defiance. “She’s my gal an’ nobody’s gonna hurt her when I’m ’round!”

Panama was boiling over with rage. The more he strove to suppress his
anger, the hotter he became. Never before in all his career as a noncom
had he ever stood for so much abuse from a buck private. He couldn’t
understand now why he was taking it all from Lefty.

“I’m warnin’ you, Lef, cut the comedy or you’re liable to get hurt!”

Phelps, looking for sympathy, turned to a man standing near by.
“Sh—sh—shee that? He’s ma’ pal an’ now he wants to fight! Okay, baby, if
you wan’ it, I’m ready!”

Lefty lifted his hands and clenched his fists, but before he could use
them, Panama shot out a clean right straight to the jaw and sent the boy
spinning across the room, dead to the world. He fell to the floor in a
heap and just missed crashing his head against the iron legs of a table.

Panama grinned menacingly and started toward his victim as the crowd of
onlookers stepped back to make way for him. Rosa, though, was not to be
so easily done with. She ran after the sergeant, still determined to
prevent her prize from slipping through her fingers. Just as she was
about to leap for him from behind, he swung around, picked her up in his
arms and sat her on top of the bar, kicking, screaming and protesting.

As he reached the spot where Lefty fell, he bent down, picked the boy
up, throwing him over his shoulder and turned about to leave. He hadn’t
gone far when one of the waiters ran after him, waving a check and
gesticulating in Spanish. Panama glanced at the bill, reached into
Lefty’s pocket and took out the roll of currency, peeling off some money
and throwing it to the waiter, returning the rest to the pocket from
whence it came.

As the sergeant reached the grilled door with Lefty still across his
shoulder, a heavy-set native, nearly a head taller than the Marine,
stepped before them. Panama’s quick-wittedness came into play, and
picking up Lefty’s limp, right leg, shoved it forward into the face of
the unsuspecting antagonist, bowling the man over into insensibility.

Someone near by swung open the door and Panama exited, breathing freely
as he once more found himself out in the cool, night air. No sooner had
he started down the steps of the veranda than he heard someone
approaching from behind. Turning, he found Rosa in the doorway. She
leaped forward, clinging to Williams’ shoulders as she emitted a flood
of vile oaths in her native tongue.

He strove to throw her off but her grip was too strong; besides, she had
the advantage over him due to the fact that he was loaded down on one
side by Lefty’s dead weight.

Just ahead, at the side of the building, was a rain barrel. Panama
smiled grimly as he continued on his way, now burdened with the
screeching girl as well as the intoxicated Marine. As they came to the
side of the rain barrel, the sergeant dropped Lefty gently to the ground
and then suddenly grasped the unsuspecting Rosa in both arms, lifted her
high in the air and then threw her bodily into the cask of overflowing
rain water.

“Mebbe that’ll keep you quiet, miss,” he speculated grimly as he reached
down and threw Lefty over his shoulder again.

A half hour later, Panama entered the camp boundaries with the rows of
white tents just ahead of him. He didn’t fear any of the boys on guard
duty. After all, he was top kick and none of them would dare turn him
in, not if they knew what was well for them! Of course, the military
police, that was something else again! That crowd of roughnecks would
just as lief place an offending major general under arrest as quickly as
they would turn in a raw recruit.

He turned down the company street where he and Lefty lived. Just ahead
of him, his keen eyes caught the silhouetted figures of Major Harding
and one of his aides coming in their direction.

“Cripes, don’t that guy ever turn in?” he thought aloud. “If he catches
me with my mechanic passed out, it’ll be a month in the brig instead of
a medal that I’ll be gettin’!”

Panama ducked inside of one of the tents just in time to avoid a meeting
with the squadron commander and his adjutant. When they had gone a
sufficient distance ahead in the opposite direction, he came out, still
bearing Lefty on his shoulder and hurried down the company street to
their own tent.

Once inside, he lighted the small oil lamp with one hand and threw the
prostrated form of his mechanic over on the cot, with the boy lying
motionless in the same position that he had fallen.

“There you are, soldier!” Panama announced, good-humoredly, as he
lighted a muchly deserved cigarette. “As you were—or nearly!”

He placed his cigarette down to wipe off the bloodstains from the
scratches the little native minx had inflicted upon his arms, face and
neck when he heard a woman’s voice, just outside the tent, call his
name.

He opened the flaps and found Elinor waiting for him with grave anxiety
plainly written over her pale face.

“Is he hurt, Panama?” she asked, making no attempt now to conceal her
deep concern over Lefty’s welfare.

“No, Elinor, he’s top hole,” the sergeant replied in a comforting tone
of assurance, “nothin’s wrong only he’s just a little tired, I reckon!”

Once reassured as to the boy’s safety, Elinor breathed freely again and
gazed up at Panama with keen admiration.

“You’re a darling,” she said impulsively, reaching up on her toes and
kissing him on the cheek. When she realized what she had done, she
turned on her heels and ran up the company street for dear life. In
another moment, she had completely disappeared from view.

Elinor’s sudden move left the sergeant utterly at loss for words. He
stood in amazement, gazing after her fleeting form, his heart filled
with supreme ecstasy as he slowly stroked the part of his cheek her lips
had touched.

He called her name vainly, but she was gone too far to hear him. Happy
as a boy away from school, he brushed back the tent flaps and burst
inside, craving for someone to talk to.

Lefty was still lying on the cot in the same dull, prostrated manner as
Panama came over to him and vigorously shook him by the shoulder,
finally propping him up in a sitting position in an effort to bring him
back to consciousness.

“Lefty! Listen! Wake up, you son of a sea cook! It’s Panama, I’m talkin’
to you, you old pickle barrel! She kissed me, do you hear that? Elinor
kissed me! Will you wake up, you mug? This is your pal, can’t you
understand? She just kissed me!”

Panama continued to try and bring Lefty around to consciousness but the
only thing his efforts resulted in was to awake the boy once more in a
drunken fit of song. At the top of his lungs, Lefty began singing off
key, the music of the Spanish fandango he and Rosa had danced to.
Disgusted with his efforts, Williams let the boy drop back on the cot.
He lighted another cigarette and sat down on the edge of the bunk beside
Phelps who had now fallen back to his silent state of unconsciousness.

“It’s all right with me, soldier,” he addressed the boy. “Don’t listen!
It ain’t none of your business anyhow!”

Just then, an orderly entered and handed Williams a paper.

“What do you want, stupid?” the sergeant snapped at the dog robber.

“Major Harding requests that you take off at once on a night flight to
locate some enemy camp fires,” the orderly explained.

Panama jumped up and slapped the astonished messenger on the back. “You
tell the Old Man that it’s Okay with me, kid! I’ll make ten flights if
he wants me to!”

As the sergeant started to get into his flying togs, the orderly exited.
Once more alone, Panama turned to Lefty again, “You wouldn’t listen, eh?
Well, you old stew, you don’t have to! I’ll tell the propeller. I can
always talk to that old prop; in fact, I might tell the whole, darn,
cockeyed world!”

By this time, he was in his togs, searching about to make certain that
he hadn’t forgotten anything.

After picking up his cigarettes, he ran to the front of the tent,
stopping to look back at Lefty’s motionless form still sprawled in the
same position on the cot. A happy smile crossed the sergeant’s face and
he crossed to where the boy lay asleep. Bending over him, he jabbed his
elbow into Lefty’s ribs and whispered again, “Elinor kissed me, you
mug!”

A short time after Reveille the following morning, Panama’s plane taxied
along the ground and was met by a group of curious ground men.

When the ship came to a stop, the flying sergeant crawled out of the
cockpit with much difficulty, stiff and sore from his all-night flight,
the purpose of which had since proved to be a futile escapade.

“Didn’t see a camp fire all night,” he announced to the group of men
gathered about the plane.

“Gee, that must have been tough,” one of the Marines sympathized,
“hopin’ around this trick country all night and then not seein’ what you
went after.”

“You said it,” another chirped. “The least that Sandino guy might have
done was to be a little obligin’ and light up a couple of fires so you’d
discover where he was!”

Panama shook his head and laughed heartily. “Maybe if we’d ’a’ sent him
a telegram sayin’ I was comin’, he might have been considerate enough to
help me out. Then we could send a squadron of planes over his camp
to-day and blow ’em all to hell.”

Just then, Lefty came sauntering along, still carrying a pretty bad
hang-over from the night before. When he saw the ground men grouped
around Panama’s plane, he joined them.

“Say, Pete!” the sergeant called to the chief mechanic at the base,
“just after sunrise this morning, one of them plugs started missin’.
Will you get after it?”

“Right after breakfast,” the man announced, “I’ll put a couple of boys
on to overhaul the whole motor anyway.”

Panama looked up and saw Lefty for the first time and beckoned to him.
“Come on over to the tent, kid. I think I’ve got it!”

Williams waved to the others and started across the field, followed by
Lefty.

Once inside of their tent, Panama threw his helmet on his cot and pulled
off his windjammer as the boy sat on a box, silent and indifferent,
rolling himself a cigarette. Free of his flying togs at last, the
sergeant turned and confronted his friend with a familiar eagerness and
suppressed excitement lighting his face that was still dirty from smoke,
wind and oil.

“I’ve got the whole thing solved,” he announced with enthusiasm. “All
night long, while I flew over those mountains and across valleys,
searching for a sign of them greaser bandits, the idea preyed upon my
mind!”

Lefty moved about on the narrow box impatiently as he reached for a
match and lighted his cigarette.

“What’s been on your mind besides your helmet?”

Williams completely ignored the question and walked to the front of the
tent, closing the flaps and tying them together as a means of insuring
privacy.

“You’ve got to help me, kid!” he began again, turning and sitting down
on the edge of the cot opposite Lefty. “Take off that jumper!”

“What for?”

“Oh, boy, why didn’t I think of this back in Pensacola,” he mused aloud,
still ignoring Phelps’ questions. “Everything would have been hunky dory
now, all right!”

“What would have been?” Lefty asked as he began to show signs of
annoyance over the other man’s continued secrecy.

The sergeant smiled sheepishly, kicking the toe of his hobnailed boot
into the ground. “Aw, go on, you know what I mean!”

Lefty rose to his feet and threw the half-smoked cigarette to the floor
of the tent, crunching its remains beneath the heel of his shoe. “No, I
don’t know what you mean, and if you don’t hurry up and tell me, I going
to walk out on you!”

“Why, you’re goin’ to ask her for me! I’ve been thinkin’ about it all
night. Don’t you see the idea?”

“No, I don’t see,” the boy protested, “I’m going to ask who, what?”

“Her!”

Lefty dropped on top of the box and gazed at Panama with a look of
miscomprehension. “What are you talking about? You don’t mean that—not
Elinor?”

Panama nodded his head with enthusiasm, smiling with self-satisfaction
over the idea he had perfected.

“Sure—Elinor! Last night, when I went over to ask her, I lost my nerve
again. There we were, by the old Mission gate, alone in the moonlight
with no one within a mile of us and I couldn’t work up enough guts to
say the word!”

“Why not?” the boy asked in a cool manner of indifference.

“I was helpless, licked! Don’t you see, kid? I can’t talk! But you and
your college learnin’! Say, that’s how I got the idea! It’ll be a
cinch——”

Panama’s proposition completely stunned the other man and he sat gazing
blankly at his friend with wide, uncomprehending eyes, certain that his
very ears were deceiving him.

“You—you want me to ask her for you?”

“Sure! Why not? You’re the only guy in the world that I’d let do that
for me!”

Lefty walked to the front of the tent, unloosened one of the flaps and
threw it back to allow the air to come in. “You’re crazy, man!” he said,
completely dismissing the entire wild idea from his mind.

“Crazy?” Panama repeated, laughing cruelly. “Listen, picture yourself
out in that moonlight in the shadow of the old Mission with a lot of
greasers singin’ lovesick ballads and the big, silver moon shinin’ down
on you with Elinor by your side and you——”

“For God’s sake, will you shut up?” the nerve-wracked boy screamed, no
longer able to control his burning emotions.

“What’s the matter with you, anyway?” Panama asked, not aware of his
friend’s reason for refusing his request.

“Nothing’s wrong with me,” Lefty announced. “It’s you and your
half-baked ideas! You’re out of your mind!”

The sergeant’s face darkened as a cloud of disappointment overshadowed
his confident smile. “You mean, you won’t?”

“I can’t!” Phelps interrupted, striving to hide his true feelings. “I
can’t do it and I won’t! If you want the girl, go ask her yourself!”

Panama rose and pulled at the boy’s jumper in a determined fashion,
completely deaf to his protestations. “Aw, come on. Get them clothes
off. You’ll know what to say. I ain’t ever had no education or dealin’s
with decent women!”

Lefty swung about and faced his friend. His eyes were filled with a
mingled look of fear and anxiety. “I can’t ask her that! Don’t you see,
I can’t?”

“But you gotta, kid! You’ll know what to say! Your book learnin’ will
help. Don’t flop me, will ya?”

“I tell you, you’re crazy!” the boy bellowed, angrily. “What do you
think I am, anyway—your dog?”

A look of pain crept over Panama’s face. He saw all of his plans and
dream castles crumble to earth with Lefty’s refusal to act as his proxy.

“Aw, no, I don’t think nothin’ like that. I ain’t tellin’ you to ask
her, I’m beggin’ you as a pal!”

Lefty turned and walked to the rear of the tent, oblivious to the man’s
entreaties. “Just because you saved me from being transferred to a ship,
you expect me to jump every time you snap your fingers!”

The sergeant’s attitude changed now from one of meek pleading to
definite aggressiveness, a role so perfectly suited to him.

“O-o-oh—so I’m askin’ you too much, huh? You won’t do it, eh? You won’t
go over to that girl and say a couple of simple words for me when you
know I can’t talk? Well, that’s Okay with me, brother! I certainly am
glad to find out what kind of a pal you’ve turned out to be!”

Lefty completely weakened at the other man’s implication of his
unfaithful devotion, and dropped to the cot behind him, suffering untold
tortures caused by his being torn between the love of this man and his
adoration for Elinor.

“I can’t do it, Panama! Honest, I can’t! It would be harder for me than
it is for you!” The sergeant, not understanding the truth behind the
boy’s ambiguous confession, walked over to where he rested and sitting
down beside him, placed his arm about Lefty’s shoulders, once more
resorting to his soft, pleading tone. “What are you talking about? Why,
it’ll be a cinch for you, the way you sling words around! Say, if I had
your gift for gab, you don’t think I’d be askin’ you to propose for me,
do you?”

[Illustration: “If I had your gift for gab, you don’t think I’d be
askin’ you to propose for me, do you?”]

Panama remained silent for a moment, waiting for some comment from
Phelps but there was none forthcoming. He merely lolled on the edge of
the cot, resting his weary head in his hands.

“Come on, now; you will do it, won’t you?” Williams urged.

The boy sat up straight, trying to set his befuddled brain in order
again. He looked up at his friend as a shadow of helplessness crossed
his face.

“I’d do anything in the world for you, anything,” he strove to make
Panama believe, “but when you ask me to speak to Elinor about a thing
like—like—well, if you wanted me to cut my heart right out of my body
and hand it to you, that would be easier!”

Panama smiled generously and patted the boy upon the back. “I know it
must be hard to do another feller’s work for him, but if I told you that
what I’m askin’ means my life’s happiness; if I said that I’ve lived
every moment since the time I first saw her for the day when she’d say,
‘yes’; that every hour I’m awake, I think of us together in a cottage
some place with flowers and kids, and when I’m asleep, I just dream of
her an’ me married, what would you say?”

Without answering, Lefty rose, proceeding to remove his work jumper as
Panama, watching him eagerly, caught the significance of this gesture
and jumped to his feet, bearing a triumphant and enthusiastic smile as
his prospects once more grew brighter.

“Atta boy!” he shouted jubilantly. “I knew you wouldn’t fail me!”

“When you put it the way you did, about it meaning everything in the
world to you, I couldn’t turn you down,” the boy explained, moving about
the tent in a daze.

He walked to the little stand that held the washbasin and cleaned the
oil and grease off of his hands and then brushed his hair.

As he gazed into the small mirror just above the washbasin, his eyes
rested upon a snapshot of Elinor that Panama had stuck there. Confronted
by the magnetic features of the girl, everything within him revolted
against the unfairness of it all. He swung about, ready to announce his
definite refusal to participate in the scheme, only to come face to face
with the sergeant who was standing behind him, watching eagerly.

“Go on, now,” Panama urged. “I’ll be waitin’ right here for her answer.”

His words again changed the boy’s demeanor, breaking down the last
barriers of objection.

“Don’t keep me waitin’ too long, will ya?” Williams begged. “Hurry on
your way now!”

Lefty stopped when he reached the front of the tent, lighting upon a
perfect alibi to defer the painful ordeal he was about to face. “Wait a
minute,” he said. “This is no time to propose to a girl. You can’t ask
her a serious thing like that just when you please. You’ve got to have
things right. You know, moonlight, atmosphere, music and all that bunk.
I’ll ask her to-night. What do you say?”

“There you are! That’s the difference between us,” Panama boasted with
profound admiration for his friend’s mental capacity. “If it was me, I’d
run right over now and she’d probably hand me the bum’s rush! Don’t you
see how much I need your help? That’s what that education stuff does for
a guy!”

“All right, all right, now let’s forget about it until to-night then,”
Lefty said impatiently. “I said I’d do it, so it’s as good as done!”

Panama shrugged his shoulders and walked over to his cot, disappointed
with the boy’s unsympathetic attitude. Suddenly something struck him and
he looked at the other man with a grave expression of doubt. “Say, Lef!”

“Now what’s the matter?”

“Nothin’, only—well, suppose she does say the word,” the sergeant
speculated as he scratched his head, “then what am I supposed to do?”

“Run over, take her in your arms and ask her when the day is to be!”

The simple man’s face became livid white as he moved from one foot to
the other nervously.

“Gee, I can’t do that!” he protested, “I ain’t got nerve enough!
Couldn’t you ask her that too?”

“Whatinell you expect me to do,” Lefty roared, completely losing his
patience. “Marry her for you?”

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