JUNGLE TRAIL

Stan and Niva moved slowly through the mass of bamboo, vines and tall
grass which rose high above their heads. Stan kept to the course he
had set and hoped grimly for the best. Niva did not complain, though
the sharp-bladed grass slashed her clothing and thorns scratched her
face and arms. They stumbled into bogs and had to make detours around
thickets so tangled and dense Stan had all he could do to push through
them.

Toward midnight Stan began to worry about his course. His faith in his
own reckoning began to falter. But he said nothing to Niva about it.
She had perfect confidence in him and showed no signs of panic.

At one o’clock they came out of the jungle into an avenue from which
they could see the stars above. Stan bent and examined the ground. They
had come to the road.

“We’ll need plenty of fever medicine when we get in,” he said grimly.
“But from now on we’ll make better time.”

Niva nodded, attempting to wipe the muck and blood stains from her
face. Her success was not very great and Stan laughed at her.

“I’d loan you my powder puff only I left it in the plane,” he said.

“You have a plane hidden in the jungle?” Niva asked eagerly.

“I do,” Stan replied. “Unless the Japs have found it.”

They moved along the road at a fast pace. With no vines or thorns to
slow their progress they made good time. After an hour of tramping Stan
halted to listen. They had missed the clearing with its native huts.
Now they were not likely to meet anyone, except Jap patrols sent out
along the road.

They went on as fast as Niva could walk. Stan halted several times to
ask her if she wanted to rest, but she stoutly refused to stop.

“The quicker I get away from here, the better I’ll like it,” she
insisted.

They tramped on steadily for hours. Now and then Stan stopped to let
the girl rest. In spite of her courage, she was tiring. He was sure she
was nearing the end of her strength.

Gray dawn was beginning to lift an arc of light into the sky as they
broke out of the jungle at the place where Stan had entered the day
before.

“We’ve made it. I’ll bet Von Ketch will be furious,” Stan said with a
laugh.

“I feel sorry for the guards,” Niva said. “The common soldiers are not
treated very well even when things go smoothly. Tonight has been a bad
night for them.”

“Jap soldiers are the least of my worries,” Stan answered. “The plane
is right around this grove of trees. If she’s there, I’ll clear the
vines away and wheel her out.”

They located the little avenue where Stan had hidden the P–40. He
almost bumped into its shining propeller before he saw it. Clearing
away the vines required some work, but Niva helped and they soon had
the ship free. They shoved it out into the open and Stan got busy.

“Stand guard out in the open and watch for any Jap patrols that
may come out of the woods,” Stan ordered. “If you see anything come
a-running.”

Niva went out into the open and Stan checked the ship. He waited a few
minutes before winding her up. Ten minutes would be needed to get the
engine hot. He wanted light for his take-off. When he thought he had
the time right, he kicked the motor over and the P–40 started to rumble.

Niva looked toward the ship anxiously. Stan got down and motioned for
her to come to him. When she came in from the field, he put her into
the plane. She let him strap a parachute on her without saying a word.

“You grab this and pull if you have to jump out,” he instructed. “If
you are high up you wait until you have fallen a long way. If your
chute opens too soon a Jap will shoot you before you float down.” He
was sure she would not be afraid to jump and that she would pull the
rip cord.

“I pull this?” She placed her hand over the ring.

Stan nodded. “You do,” he said.

Light was beginning to reveal the meadow as Stan settled himself on
his chute and leaned back against the shock pad. He slid the hatch
cover forward and opened the throttle. The P–40 surged with power and
strained at her brakes. He looked back at Niva, cupped his hands and
shouted.

“We’re about to take off!” He pointed to the sky. “I have a hunch
there’ll be a committee from the Mikado to see us off.”

Niva bobbed her head and smiled.

Stan kicked off the brakes and blasted the tail up with a surge of
exhaust. The ship slid out into the meadow and roared away, bouncing
and bumping along until Stan sent her knifing upward.

They lifted above the jungle in a surging roar of power to meet the
rising sun. At ten thousand feet Stan gave his attention to a cloud
bank lazily floating above him. He eased over and headed away from the
cloud. If there were Japs lurking up above, they would be in that cloud.

They were zooming along with their backs to the rising sun when Stan
spotted four ships high above him. They had slipped out of the clouds
and were nosing down. Three of the planes were Kariganes, the other
was a P–40. Stan banked and looked up. His eyes were hard and cold.
Munson was heading a pack to intercept him. He knew he could easily run
for it and get away.

Glancing back at Niva, he pointed up toward the planes. She leaned
forward and shouted:

“Don’t run away because of me!”

Stan grinned broadly. He pulled the P–40’s nose up and spiraled into
the sky. He knew the Japs had sighted him. They were all coming down
the chute with Munson in the lead. Stan banked sharply and kept
climbing. He did not intend to give them a target. His thumb caressed
the gun button and his eyes held on the P–40 leading the Kariganes.

The attackers spread out to keep Stan from climbing above them. Munson
was far in the lead because of his greater speed. Stan suddenly looped
over. Munson knifed past at a terrific pace, missing Stan by a hundred
feet.

Stan caught a glimpse of the scowling face of his enemy as Munson
flashed past. He knifed over and went down after Munson. The Nazi
spy started to circle with Stan after him. They went into a furious
Lufberry circle, each tightening and narrowing that circle in an effort
to bring his guns into play. The pace was dizzy and everything was
blotted out in a whirl of speed. The Jap planes darted about but could
not close in.

Stan soon realized that the extra weight he was carrying was giving
Munson the advantage. He was edging Stan into position for a blast from
his Brownings. Suddenly he flipped the controls and the P–40 shuddered
under the slap of air that hit her. She bounced straight up a thousand
feet but held together.

Munson swung wide out of his circle and came up, but Stan had the ace
spot. He dropped off his perch and came down, straight at Munson. This
was a test of courage, gun to gun. Stan’s burst beat Munson to the
barrage. Lead ripped into the P–40 coming up, ragged holes opened in
her fuselage. Munson slid off on one wing without getting in a burst.

Stan dived after Munson but now he had three Kariganes on his own
tail. They were peppering away with their light armament. Stan scowled
as he laid over and zoomed out of their fire. The Japs went on down and
flattened out. Stan saw that Munson was hiking it for home. Evidently
he was not hurt badly.

The Japs made one attempt to come up at him but Stan was king of the
air, now that the fast P–40 was out of the way. He knifed across and
opened up on one hapless Karigane. The Jap fighter seemed to explode in
the air. It went hurtling down out of control and in flames. The other
two dived and headed off after Nick Munson.

Stan leveled off and headed for the Rangoon base. He looked back at
Niva. For a few minutes he had forgotten all about the girl. She was
white-faced but her eyes were sparkling. She forced a smile and made a
thumbs-up sign to him.

They crossed the Salween River and were boring toward home when Stan
sighted two fighter planes coming down out of the sky at a roaring
pace. They were on him before he could lay over and duck out of their
path. They plummeted past and then came back up. Stan laughed softly
as O’Malley’s rich brogue came in over his radio.

“Sure, an’ yer gettin’ back late, Commander. Breakfast is over.”

“What are you birds doing off your patrol beat?” Stan growled.

“We are inspecting the sunrise,” Allison’s voice droned back.

“Orders from Commander Allison, sor,” O’Malley chimed in.

“I appreciate the escort,” Stan called. “But if you have work to do get
on about it.”

“We have to be on hand as part of the welcoming committee,” Allison
drawled. “You know, old man, that your post would not fail to be set to
celebrate your return.”

“Faith, an’ we have it all planned,” O’Malley crowed.

Stan scowled. He smelled a plot. Allison and O’Malley had something
waiting for him. He was glad there were no brass bands available at the
Chinese post.

“Did you shoot down any Japs?” O’Malley asked.

“I had a whack at Munson and put a bit of lead through his ship, but
he got away,” Stan answered.

“In that case he’s my meat,” O’Malley answered.

They swept in over the field and landed side by side. All the ground
men were out as well as most of Stan’s fliers. A shout went up as Stan
helped Niva out of the plane.

Stan presented Niva to Allison and O’Malley who were the only officers
to close in on them. O’Malley bobbed his head and shuffled his big
feet. He flushed and mumbled something under his breath. Allison
smiled. He was perfectly at ease, very much the British gentleman.

“Welcome,” he said with a bow, “to our manor.”

The others closed in and Stan introduced Niva to his fliers. She smiled
embarrassingly and blushed, probably because she looked disheveled with
her torn clothes and scratched face.

Stan turned on Allison as they entered the briefing room. “I thought I
told you this was a secret mission,” he growled.

“You can trust the Flying Tigers. Not a word got to a single general,”
Allison answered.

Stan grinned widely. “I’ll tend to you birds just as soon as I get this
girl over to headquarters and into the hands of a woman.”

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