The Old Dog
A story of a war-time duel of valor between irreverent Youth and irascible Age, and the triumph won by both
NORMAN REILLY RAINE
WHEN Freddie Triptoe awoke on that cold, wet December morning, he yawned luxuriously, rolled himself in a bit more snugly, and falling into that blissful half-dozing, half-wakeful state, formulated vague plans for the day. First, of course, a tub. Next, breakfast; a chop or two, browned about the edges, but not too well done, with a kidney, or pommes de terre Lyonnaise; a few rashers of bacon, thin and crisp; a brace of eggs, hazy amber globules on an island of gold-edged white; coffee, clear as the morning and laced with the richest of Devonshire cream; toast, delicately golden, with that opulent, wellbuttered look; a jar of strained honey, or a pot of tangy marmalade. Then a cigarette, and a leisurely half hour with the Times; and after that . . .
He stretched, in happy reverie, flexing his fingers and toes beyond the covers. Hastily he drew them in again, and raised his voice.
A bullet-headed individual in trench-stained khaki splashed down the dugout steps and stood woodenly to attention.
“Nobbs, it’s cold.”
“And wet, Nobbs?”
“Rainin’ cats an’ dogs, sir.”
“Then why the devil haven’t you got a fire going?” “No wood, sir.”
“No wood? You mean to say that in this whole blasted village there’s no wood?”
“This bein’ the rest area, sir, and village ’aving been viciously shelled and likewise in’abited by troops for more’n two year”—Nobbs drew a long breath, “result is, no wood. It’s all been used for fires. That is, all but one rickety staircase wot . . .”
“A staircase? Get it, Nobbs!”
Second Lieutenant Freddie Triptoe had crawled out of his fleabag, and now stood shivering and scratching tentatively. He raised an imperative hand.
“Don’t argue, Nobbs. Get that staircase.”
“Very good, sir. But—”
“And look sharp. What about breakfast?”
“There’s your breakfuss, on that box o’ bombs. Tea— it’s a bit cloudy owin’ to a lump o’ mud wot fell in it— and bacon, and bread—if you don’t mind a weevil or two—and . . .”
“All right. Now hop off and get that staircase.”
An hour later Nobbs returned, soaked, mud-smeared and profane, with the debris of the staircase. He had made several trips, dragging the wood in a sandbag. It had been a fine staircase; a bit shell-pocked here and there, perhaps, but once it had been a handsome adjunct to some villager’s household, and through its many vicissitudes it had managed to retain its complexion—a somewhat arresting shade of red. By the time the final load arrived Freddie Triptoe had shaved, breakfasted, and was perusing official and vitriolic correspondence concerning the mysterious disappearance of a jar of rum which had been entrusted to a ration party from his platoon during the battalion’s last tour in the line. He
was deep in an ingenious and highly imaginative explanation, when Nobbs clumped down the stairs. ’He laid down his pen.
“Get the staircase, did you, Nobbs?”
“Well, plop some in the stove; and if that’s your pleasantest face you’d better trot it across to company stores and trade it in for a fresh one.”
“Can’t’elp it, sir. There’ll be trouble. You see!” “Trouble? What for?”
Nobbs’ reply was deferred by the tumultuous arrival of two of Triptoe’s pals. They took off their dripping trench coats and threw them in a corner.
“Hello—the little beast’s actually been working!” said Craig, a grizzled veteran of twenty. He picked up Triptoe’s literary effort. “Ha-ha! Listen to this, Saunders—‘Sir: I have the honor to inform you
“To flares with all that,” said Saunders. “Got anything wet, Freddie?”
Freddie Triptoe, retrieving his report, struggled between prudence and hospitality.
“I haven’t any whisky,” he apologized cautiously, “but I do happen to have a spot of—er—rum . .
“Loud Hocks! Trot it out !”
“Nobbs!” shouted Freddie.
The cheer was dispensed and the trio settled down to a session of regimental shop. A half hour passed, and Craig was rounding out a diverting tale when heavy feet rattled down the steps, scattering muddy drops, and Nobbs launched himself into the dugout. He was panting, his marble eyes glassy with agitation.
“ ’Ere he comes, sir! I told yer!” he cried wildly. “You’d better clear out. . .”
Freddie Triptoe stared.
“What are you talking about, man?” he snapped. From above came a sound like the trumpeted ire of a maddened bull elephant. There was the crash of feet on broken wood. Words: floods of them.
“I say—he’s gifted, whoever he is,” admired Saunders. “Seems to be something about a staircase.”
The roar came closer; hurricaned dov/n the dugout shaft.
“Hullo you, in the dugout!”
Freddie Triptoe moved to the exit.
“Sh-h-hl Not so much noise up there!” he said severely. “You’ll wake the baby !”
There was a strangled, incredulous gasp. The voice descended, punctuated by thudding heels, and a vast, irate shape blocked the daylight. It was a major of the Royal Engineers.
“My hat!” breathed Craig and Saunders, who retired modestly to the background. Freddie Triptoe stood rigidly to attention.
“Whose dugout is this?”
“And whose wood is that up on top?” Triptoe sought a diplomatic way out. There wasn’t any.
“Mine, sir,” he said again.
The major bloated to an awesome extent, then exploded.
“Yours! Because you had your rascally thieving servant pinch it, you’ve got the billy-be-damned impudence to call it yours! Let me correct you. It’s mine! My unmentionable staircase?”
“Perhaps, if you’ll kindly explain, sir—” suggested Freddie.
“Explain? It’s the staircase to my billet—the only decent bit of ruin left in the village—and a mere sprout of a New Army man snatches it out from under my very nose, and I’m marooned like a blasted man Friday. I’ll prefer charges to your colonel ! A devil of a war, this, when old Regular Army officers are flouted by every half-baked squab that sticks on a Sam Browne! Have that staircase returned at once, d’ye hear? At once!”
“Very good, sir. It’s a bit dilapidated now, and it’s really not much good as a staircase . . .”
“Oh, very well, sir, if you insist. Nobbs, you scoundrel, what the deuce did you mean by pinching the major’s staircase, eh? Return it instantly !”
“But I told you, sir,” began Nobbs indignantly, “only you wouldn’t listen . . .”
“And hurry up!” said Freddie hastily. “Don’t stop to jaw!” v
With a final powerful snort and a glare all around, the sulphurous major heaved his bulk away.
“Whe-e-ew!” said Freddie Triptoe, and wiped his brow.
The trio of friends made the most of the irrecoverable loot that crackled briskly in the stove, while the disgruntled Nobbs dragged the remnants back to their owner. Presently a runner from B.H.Q. appeared, and handed Triptoe a message.
“What’s the matter?” asked Craig, observing the recipient’s expression as he read it. “Old Brimstone been to the Colonel already?”
“No,” said Freddie. “Worse. I’m booked by the adjutant to take a working party tonight up to Smell Farm.”
O MELL FARM was an euphemism. Actually, it was a ^ shell-smashed heap of rubble that once had been an immense stone barn on the right flank of the Ypres salient. In front was the Ypres-Zillebeke road, and, farther forward, Sanctuary Wood. To the immediate right was Zillebeke Lake, a slime-covered expanse, foul with the refuse of three years of war; and beyond that again, death-haunted Hill 60. A most unpleasant spot.
Under the ten-foot heap of broken masonry and brick dust of Smell Farm was a vaulted cellar, into which had seeped, through years of usage, a noisesome pool that filled the place almost to the low, rounded ceiling. It was not a place that would recommend itself under any circumstances, except to the devious-working minds of Brigade who had decided that it would make an admirable location for a gunpit. Bullets whipped it from Hill 60 way; it was subjected to sporadic but venomous bursts of enemy gunfire; and to Smell Farm, at eleven o’clock that night, Freddie Triptoe splashed and stumbled and cursed at the head of his twenty men.
Flares plopped feebly and hissed to blackness in the driving rain, as he distributed the party under their N.C.O.’s, some to fill sandbags and lay them in tiers on the enemy side of the ruins, less fortunate ones to don rubber hip waders and descend into the viscid cellar pool with buckets, which they filled and handed up, with army compliments, to their mates.
The cellar-clearing job was deadly. No man could remain in the atmosphere of the dangerous fumes for more than a few minutes at a stretch; and racking his brains to ease his men of their task, Freddie Triptoe hit upon a brilliant idea. A few yards away was a pond— offshoot of Zillebeke Lake. He’d conscript the forces of Nature—utilize gravity—and by digging a trench from cellar to pond, drain the stuff away. He was proud of his acumen. It was, he felt, a touch of the SuperFreddie. Delightedly his men crawled from the noisesome den and fell to work at their new task. Freddie Triptoe grasped a shovel and dug with the rest.
It worked splendidly. The drainage trench was narrow but deep, and soon only a mere slab of earth stood between it and the pond. Triptoe sent some men to cut through the cellar end, and with a burble of glee the flood rushed out and filled the trench to the brim. Gasping and choking, the party labored to complete its job; and just as the last remaining barrier of earth was about to be demolished, a figure appeared out of the sodden gloom.
By the light of a flare he saw what had been done. With a quick jump he halted the work, and to the working party’s scandalized delight broke out in a rash of lurid expletive. When he had done, Freddie Triptoe poked him politely in the stomach with his stick and asked him who the devil he was.
“Sergeant Wilkin, Royal Engineers; that’s ’oo I am! And ’oo are you? A prize numskull, I’d say. I never seen such a foolish trick in all me—oh! I do beg parding, sir—I didn’t know you was an officer! But there’ll be ’ell to pay over this!”
“What for?” said Freddie. “A subtle bit of thinking, I call it.”
“Aye, p’raps—if the pond wasn’t higher than the cellar.”
“What do you mean?”
“Just that, sir. We thought o’ draining it long ago. The R.E.’s are in charge o’ this job, you know. But the pond’s on higher ground. If you cut away that earth you’ll drain the pond into the cellar instead o’ the cellar into the pond. What old—I mean . . .”
What the sergeant meant was drowned in the scream of a dropping shell, which sent up a fountain of steel and water-logged earth. Another landed, and showered
the prone working party with mud. A strafe was on.
“Into the cellar, all of you!” barked Freddie Triptoe.
They ran for cover. The effluvia within was thick as cheese; but the ooze had been drained clear into the trench, where it stood five feet deep at the farther end. “Smoke if you like; you can’t be seen in here,” their commander permitted, and cigarettes did something to make the air more palatable. The sergeant of engineers continued his observations.
“I’m expecting Major Tomkins up tonight to look this job over,” he confided. “I ’ope he breaks his—I mean, I ’ope he doesn’t come. If he sees that mess outside he’ll go off his ’ead with rage.”
“Don’t worry,” said Freddie Triptoe, confidently. “I’ll explain that all right.”
A shell-burst outside shook the cellar, and fragments whined in through the door. But the fire was slacking. A man touched Freddie’s arm.
“Somebody’s hollering outside, sir.”
They listened. The man was right. A stentorian voice bellowed. “Wilkin!” Then followed a shower of words, indistinguishable, but definite in meaning.
“Oh, lord!” gasped the sergeant. “It’s ’im!”
There was something so acutely familiar about that bull-like roar outside, that involuntarily Freddie Triptoe’s skin shrank. He followed the sergeant out. They could hear massive feet splashing through the mud. “Wilkin! . . . Wilkin!”
In the instant Freddie and the sergeant had the same horrifying thought. They yelled in unison—-“Watch out . . . !”
Too late. There was a tremendous splash.
“By cripes, ’e’s in the soup!” groaned Sergeant Wilkin, and fled into the night.
A gargantuan wallowing guided Freddie Triptoe’s stumbling passage as he dashed to the rescue.
“Here we are, sir,” he cried, brightly but unnecessarily.
Five minutes later he led his pungently flavored amphibian to the shelter of the cellar. A candle end was lighted, and some of the victim’s features cleared away. One end of a mustache, once bristling, now bedraggled, appeared, then its counterpart. A blazing blue eye and a choleric nose emerged; a second eye peeped forth, blinked, lit with fury; then the remainder of a vast, inflamed countenance.
The horrified orbs of Freddie Triptoe took in the dread apparition. Recognition was mutual.
“You!” thundered Old Brimstone.
“Y-you . . .” quavered Freddie T.
“YOU!” shouted the other again.
“Yes, sir,” said Freddie Triptoe firmly, determined not to be outdone. “It’s me.”
LIFE was not sweet to Major Horatio Tomkins, R.E.
* He was, no denying it, definitely on the shelf. True, he was still at the front, but that was due to the influence of the Brigadier, a younger man, but an old comrade. The knowledge that he was on the active list only on sufferance, shamed him. It rankled. The graceful thing to do, he knew, was to bow his belligerent gray head in acquiescence and allow himself to be sent to the base; but then Major Tomkins, in all his long army career, had never been prone to the graceful gesture—particularly if it involved turning his back on a disagreeable and dangerous job. He was at the front, and here he would stick until a definite order or enemy fire removed him.
Being not overly blessed with cleverness, he was born to be a cog. All he had was a faculty of faithful, patient slogging along well-known, ordered lines, and a trick, in nasty situations, of hanging grimly on; yet among the long rows of colorful campaign ribbons that decorated his thick chest, no decoration for valor could be found. Honors and promotions, somehow, had passed him by; had gone to younger, more brilliant men. He had become, not embittered, perhaps, but imbued with a dull, aching resentment, which flared into choking anger whenever he came into contact with the junior officers of the new order of things.
In this greatest of all conflicts he had been seriously upset, his traditions and conventions, born of the old Regular Army training, blasted and riven by the influx into the commissioned hierarchy of a swarm of cheeky, swanking, self-confident infants with an appalling lack of respect for ceremonial and rank. They were not even gentlemen, most of ’em; yet somehow they got there; attained promotion and success, and left him still plodding far back in their noisy wake. Even that unspeakable young nincompoop, for example, whom he Continued on page 35
Continued from page 7
had sat upon up in the Ypres salient, had the purple-and-white ribbon of the Military Cross upon his immature chest, while he, Major Horatio Tomkins, with nearly forty-five years of service was still —just Major Tomkins.
He was thinking of this and kindred things, as he tramped through the mud and darkness of the Somme toward an elusive place called Pozieres; thinking, not clearly or consecutively, perhaps, for he was occupied with material things—■ the blackness of the night, unexpected shell holes, snarls of devilish wire in front of old, long-fought-over trench systems, the total absence of landmarks, even if he could have seen them, and a growing uncertainty as to the exact location of his destination. A runner was with him when he left Tara Hill, but the runner was killed by shrapnel half a mile back, and the Major plodded on alone.
He tripped over a wire and went headlong. Painfully he got to his feet, his temper ablaze. Where was that blanketyblank heap of rubbish known as Pozieres? He had to find it. The attack pushed off at dawn and it was his job to locate a dump for ammunition and supplies in time to follow it up. Painfully he struggled on, limping more than usual, rheumatism and old wounds making merry with the knocks he had received in his many tumbles. He was far past the line of the guns, he knew. They hammered and beat in a semicircle of lurid fire far behind. Ahead was the unceasing inferno of the battle line, marked out by a barrier of soaring flares. Behind, and to the right, should be Contalmaison. Bear a little left, then, toward the Albert-Bapaume Road.
The going was easier for a while, and he allowed his thoughts to dwell on the impending attack. The Canadians were going over; and supporting them was a factor new to warfare; something mysterious, as yet unknown to the generality of the troops, which was to change this blood bath of the Somme into the longlooked-for grand push. What it was no one seemed to know, except a few ridiculously secretive fellows who parried all questions with enigmatic and queerly confident smiles.
All this silly mystification aroused in Major Tomkins a vast and sceptical derision. Men and bayonets—the good old standbys that had always won them battles—no longer were enough. The cocky striplings of the new order must fool with mechanical gadgets that would end as similar tinkerings had done. Why the devil didn’t the higher command put down its foot on such fallals, and get on with the war? Anyway, it was nothing to concern him. You can’t teach an old dog new tricks.
His stick, touching nothing, saved him a forty-foot drop into an immense mine crater. Cautiously he felt around it in the dark. A crater? What the deuce was a crater doing here? According to his map the nearest hole of this magnitude was at La Boiselle. Surely . . . but no! That was impossible! Still . . . He carried on, skirting the rim, moving a cautious foot at a time. It seemed endless. Major Tomkins, R.E., was lost.
An hour later, exhausted with his many falls and his nightmare struggle through shell hole, trench, mud and wire, he stood on the edge of a wood, ready to cry with mortification and baffled rage. He forced his shaking legs again into action. He must find Pozieres! Good gad, the attack was only half an hour away and his job was to establish that dump. Who knew what might not hinge upon it in a moment of need ! As a matter of fact nothing did, but that he could not know. He was wet to the skin, half dead from fatigue; but his spirit was unimpaired. He had to go on; go till he dropped.
He fought a tangle of fallen trees, inter-
laced branches, shell craters, mud holes and rusty wire; went down, struggled upright again. Faintly he could see the blackened stumps of the wood beginning to take form against the sky. Daylight? The thought shook him. His bulging eyes hardened with renewed purpose. He would not be beat. He pulled his feet from the sucking mire, lunged forward, and dropped waist-deep into a mudfilled shell hole, trapped and impotent.
The thunder of the guns had faded to a dull, angry mumble; heavy stuff, far in the rear. A few shells fanned through the leaden sky; just the routine battery expenditure of ammunition. Somewhere, close ahead, a machine-gun clacked, and a few rifles popped. The calm, before the attack? Suppose he was held here— caught in the counterbarrage—snuffed out, with his job undone? The thought spurred him to frenzied effort. But try as he would, he had not the strength to draw his legs free of the mud. He shouted . . . listened . . . shouted again.
"K/TAJOR TOMKINS raised his chin from where it had rested, almost in defeat on his chest, and stiffened. Behind him was a peculiar sound; a faint, mechanical clanking, growing louder; alien to any sound he ever had heard. As it drew closer it developed a cough, a rattling, a shaking. What the devil . . .? He pulled himself around.
Out of the gloom heaved a frightful shape; a great, dull-snouted creature with blind eyes, snuffling through the mud toward him like some antediluvian monster now risen from the ooze of the world’s beginning. It came to a hefty tree stump, paused, then came implacably on. The stout wood cracked, snapped like a match, and the thing rolled forward, dipping, swaying from side to side.
The Major drew his pistol and fired. The heavy slug whanged harmlessly off the brute’s thick hide. He shouted again, defiantly. The object slithered to a halt. A small door opened in its side and a grease-streaked face, impudent, grinning, peered out. There was a moment’s pause, then—
“G-good morning, sir ! Can I give you a lift?” said Freddie Triptoe.
With two other greasy troglodytes he emerged, and managed to haul the major out of his morass. And before he quite realized what had happened he found himself in the belly of the monster, a cramped, steel-confined space, crammed with machinery, pipes, tubes, valves, a small, quick-firing gun, machine-guns, and ammunition. The air was hot, and thick with the fumes of oil and gas. Freddie Triptoe perched himself up on a control seat, and peered out through a heavily armored slit.
“Here we go, sir!” he yelled cheerfully. The contraption gave a lurch. Its innards sprang into shattering life. Steel gripped steel and they moved forward, slowly at first, then faster, rolling, pitching, diving. The clatter was deafening, the motion appalling. They climbed across old trenches; they flattened trees and bushes; they came to a shell-smashed stone wall, stood against it and pushed it over, then trampled calmly forward, into shellholes, out over the opposite rim.
Major Tomkins, eyeing the crew engrossed in their jobs, sitting watchful at the machine-guns and the one-pounder, an artisan at the engine, Freddie Triptoe at the controls, felt out of it. He became angry again, and edged up toward the Nincompoop.
“What the devil’s the meaning of this mechanical music box, hey?” he demanded.
Freddie Triptoe grinned largely.
“It’s not. It’s a land ship—a tank. Absolutely the newest wrinkle. Demonstrations furnished free. There’s heaps of
us. We’re backing up the Canadians in today’s attack!”
“But it won’t work. I mean, it’s silly . . .”
“Is it? You watch!” Freddie remembered his manners and added “sir,” but he was really much too busy and happy to care.
“But you—what are you doing here, eh? You’re infantry, you know.”
“Was infantry. I transferred. They asked for volunteers months ago. I’m the skipper.”
Major Tomkins thought, slowly, involvedly. Youth again ! But he had some rights still. He wasn’t going to be kidnapped in this high-handed way. Time he asserted himself. He shouted, over the din of their progress.
“What about me, young fellow? I can’t go gadding about like this! Got to get to Pozieres.”
Freddie Triptoe turned abruptly in his seat.
“Poz—But you can’t. You’re miles off; and you’d be caught in the counterfire if I let you out now. Besides, we can’t stop. Not time enough. Our barrage . . .”
A terrific sledgehammer of sound beat on the steel shell of the tank; the sudden, ear-splitting thunderclap of hundreds of belching guns. The scrap was on! Swiftly, Freddie Triptoe consulted his map, his eyes eager and intent. He shouted a word or two; twirled a gadget. The tank’s nose swung half left, picked up speed. To Major Tomkins it was all very complicated, yet somehow, sinisterly efficient. He began to wonder.
“Clapham Junction, next stop!” shouted Freddie gleefully. Gigantic waves of noise rolled and receded, then lifted suddenly for a spell. “Infantry going over. Our turn next,” he vouchsafed. The terrifying thunder of massed drumfire closed down again. The tank rocked and wallowed on its way.
In spite of his furious anxiety about his forsaken job, the sluggish blood of Major Tomkins, R.E., beat in a faster tempo through his veins. Against all his training and his convictions he began to experience a stirring of interest. Once the enemy field guns got their range, they’d be as useful as a mousetrap; but in the meantime it was—well, it was rather exciting. A pneumatic hammer pounded deafeningly against the tank. Machinegun bullets. A second pandemonium splash of sound rattled against the steel. Freddie Triptoe stared unwaveringly ahead. His lips were compressed, his face pale under its grime, but Major Tomkins had seen that rare type of paleness too often to mistake it for anything but what it was. His resentment waned.
Another spatter of machine-gun fire beat at. them. The youthful skipper turned and grinned. Then he beckoned. The major crowded up to the peep-slot. He could see a line of khaki figures walking slowly, purposefully ahead, spread out, advancing, fixed bayonets at the high port. Black and white puffs of shrapnel bit the line, boiled the earth into dust. Men dropped, singly, and in groups. Occasionally the line lay flat; then arose and advanced again.
Ahead was a dense curtain of smoke and upflung earth, where the long line of the barrage churned and blasted its way in front of the attack. Far to the right and left were other tanks, keeping formation, moving forward behind the first wave of the infantry. The advancing men looked back, suddenly. Above the noise of battle they had caught the clanking of the tanks. They stopped dead for a moment, stared in amazed uncertainty, then burst into shouting and cheers.
Freddie Triptoe saluted facetiously. “It’s a pleasure,” he grinned.
A pillar of earth and flame rose up against the tank. A stunning explosion rocked it horribly. It paused, then swung on again. The commander’s slight figure turned in its seat. “Good shooting, what?” he said. “Just a yard closer, and . . .”
They progressed, the major at intervals sharing the peep-slot. In fact, Freddie Triptoe had difficulty in getting enough of it for his needs. The infantry line moved relentlessly on, then was swept away like a breath vanishing from a mirror. A leaden hail swept the dull snout of the tank. A few survivors struggled upward and were shot down. An officer raised himself on his elbow, and with moving lips waved his arm feebly and pointed.
“Machine-gun nest in that red house—see it? That’s our meat !” snapped Freddie Triptoe. He swung the tank threequarters right and bore down to where a series of tiny vicious white puffs came from an untidy heap of red rubble. It waddled grotesquely over the tortured ground, across trenches, smashing down strongpoints. Men in field gray, in deep helmets jumped up, stood as though fascinated, clambered out of their trench, and ran. There was an added clatter to the racket inside the tank as its machine guns came into action for the first time. Major Tomkins found himself gripping an upright with whitened knuckles. He jumped with excitement.
“Whoops!” he roared. “Give it to ’em! Can’t you let me take a hand, somebody?”
Tat-tat-tat-tat ! The gray figures tumbled over and over like shot rabbits.
“Watch!” yelled Freddie Triptoe. He pointed to the red house.
The quick-firer coughed high explosive at short range. The red house rose from the ground in a majestic cloud of scarlet dust, shot through with flame, then settled.
“Heat, gas and excavating on short notice! Service guaranteed at all hours!” cried Freddie, and pulled his ship back on its forward course. Behind them the khaki waves advanced again.
Ahead lay a small wood, with the gray and white of ruined houses showing through the snags of trees. Fire rimmed its outer edge—massed machines going full belt—eating into the heart of the attack; holding it up once more. The trenches, outer defenses of the wood, were heavily manned. Some of the defenders broke, and fled in panic from the inexorable advance of this invincible, death-spitting monster. Others, grimly tenacious, stuck to their guns, firing until the grinding bulk overwhelmed them and pressed them into the earth.
The old soldier’s tribute rose involuntarily to his lips; then he glanced sharply at Freddie Triptoe. Did he just imagine that young whippersnapper had said it, too?
The tank rocked madly under the terrific impact of a close burst. There was an inarticulate cry, and a machinegunner dropped limply from his seat. Freddie Triptoe shouted; but before the words were out Major Tomkins was in the man’s place. His gnarled fingers, long alien to a trigger’s feel, closed lovingly around the cocking-piece. Now he had a peep-slot of his own. Exultantly he looked through it. The gun turned as he sought out a nest of hostile fire; the belt jerked around as he obliterated it. Amazingly he caught himself looking for, and answering, Freddie Triptoe’s commendatory grin.
Close bursts ringed the tank; a full salvo that knocked them, stunned, from their seats. The tank halted, and a gray horde swept down upon them, firing rifles, throwing bombs. They scrambled back to their places.
“Whoops!” roared the major again, and cleared his flank. Bomb fragments pinged harmlessly. The tank heaved, poised, started forward again. But again heavy shell bursts staggered them. There was something more than machine-guns in the wood.
Clouds of smoke ahead obscured the view. The tank was advancing blind, the sweating crew straining their vision, firing on chance. A steel-jacketed bullet
splashed against the peep-slot of the right gun. The gunner clapped both hands to his face and dropped. Freddie Triptoe glanced around at the clatter of his fall, then at Major Tomkins, fighting his gun, intent on that alone. Shattering detonations buffeted the tank. It floundered, madly, recoiled, picked up way. Another terrific explosion lashed them with fragments of steel. Directly in the path a great hole appeared, smoking lazily. The tank swung around it. Freddie Triptoe twisted in his seat.
“Field battery in the wood! It’s spotted us!” he shouted. “Got to knock it out!”
The tank nosed on, guns blazing, the artificer sergeant manning the starboard Vickers. The German infantry, recovered from the first inevitable panic, were beginning to hold their ground. A curtain of smoke and fumes swirled around. A storm of shrapnel beat upon the roof. The tank stopped.
Freddie Triptoe left his seat. His eyes were quick and hard. He pulled out his pistol; spun the cylinder. Major Tomkins turned and saw him. He roared.
“What the devil’s up? We're not done yet !”
“Not by a long sight!” Freddie Triptoe agreed cheerfully. “But we’re in a trap. I can’t see more than a few yards ahead. I mean, I’ve got to get out and guide. The sergeant will take the controls, if you’ll fight the gun. We’ve got to get away before the smoke clears and the battery ranges us over open sights. If they do, they’ve got us. I’ll walk ahead and pick out a path.”
MAJOR TOMKINS knew that what Freddie Triptoe so calmly proposed was only a snail’s jump ahead of suicide; also he realized that there was no other solution. By gad, if this was the stuff the New Army was made of . . .
“No, you don’t!” he roared. “That’s my job. You’re of more use inside, manoeuvring this—this rhinoceros. How do you open this confounded door?” There was no time for argument or heroics. The major was right.
“You understand, sir, that I might not be able to stop and pick you up again?” “Pick me up? Who the devil asked you to pick me up?” said Major Tomkins irascibly. “Well, what are we waiting for?”
He bent, and stepped down. The heavy door clanged behind him, and he heard the scrape of the heavy fastenings as Freddie Triptoe shot them home. Then Major Tomkins, R. E., marched, erect and unfalteringly as if on parade, around to the exposed front of the tank. Death hummed and whined. His right fingers were closed about the butt of his service pistol. In his left hand he held his stick; raised it and pointed, as he skirted a crater and saw before him a way wide enough for the tank. It clattered forward.
Gray, helmeted shapes leaped out of the gloom. He shot at them, and they disappeared. Bullets ricocheted from tree stumps, clipped twigs, kicked up the dust at his feet. A bee stung his left arm, and his fingertips dripped red. He signalled with his right. This was a game! Any pup of a New Army man could establish dumps. They were not all kids, however. Young Nincompoop, for example.
They were well into the wood, now, and little groups of the enemy broke cover and scurried to the road. The tank spat and they vanished. The earth spouted. He went down, under a shower of debris. Bruised but unharmed he got to his feet; began to take this rough going as a personal affront. By gad, they’d show ’em! He, and young Whippersnapper back there in his music box. The tank rumbled forward.
A machine-gun clacked, and a flight of bullets whined past. Major Tomkins did not duck. Shoulders squared, head up, stomach out, he picked the way, swearing Continued on page 38
Continued from page 36 softly and happily to himself, leading the tank into position, praying that the smoke would not clear before he got it into a good enfilade position; hoping it would lift when he did
Freddie Triptoe marvelled at, and admired, the fine skill of old Brimstone; how he picked the best line of approach, indicated targets, chose dead ground for their advance; felt an increasing respect for the traditions which had bred his unfaltering courage. An old Contemptible! He might have known! He stared through the peep-slot; saw the other halt, and indicate a spot nearby, then beckon to come on, with pumping fist— the infantry signal to double.
The tank lumbered into place and swung around. To the right a series of dull red flashes showed the field battery still in action, ferociously shelling the spot where they last had sighted the tank. The muzzle of Freddie Triptoe’s one-pounder lifted; came to rest. Now then!
“Slam! . . . load—slam! . . . load— slam! . . . load—slam! . . .
Spouting fire leaped beneath the straddled wheels of Number One gun. The remnant of its crew staggered blindly, fell, or crawled away. A second gun lifted slowly, blind snout in the air, and fell backward, its shield a mass of twisted metal. The remaining guns traversed madly around, nuzzling for the terrible machine that was pelting them with bursting steel. A quick shot roared into the ground in front of the tank. Freddie Triptoe answered it, pitting his one-pounder against two field guns,
slugging it out with them, shot for shot. Shell after shell he pumped into the crimson murk. Then his gun jammed.
There was silence, a tiny interval in the diapason of sound that rolled over the valley of the Somme. He became aware that the firing from the field battery had ceased.
The smoke cleared a bit; and suddenly he saw a number of figures running through the trees, dragging a trench mortar. With swift effi ciency they planted it behind a fallen tree, at point-blank range. Frantically he worked to clear his gun. Useless. He darted to the machine-guns. Only one would bear and it was out of commission. He jumped back to his gun again. No good. There wasn’t time to clear the jam. He looked again through the peep-slot, his heart in his throat, waiting. Then he yelled!
. . . yelled!
Major Tomkin, R. E., helmetless, his uniform a gory ruin, smoking pistol in his hand, was galloping full at the trench mortar crew. Roaring like a maddened bull he charged them, his weapon spitting needles of white flame. They shouted— “Pass auf! Schnell! . . . Schiep ihn nieder!”
His bullets caught them. Smashed and demoralized they gave way. One man alone stood firm, and he stopped only long enough to slam a shell into the mortar. It fired, and Major Tomkins, R.E., disappeared in a fountain of bursting flame.
Regardless of everything, Freddie Triptoe threw off the fastenings of the door and rushed forward. There was no resistance. The wood was cleared.
Stooping, he worked the limp body of the older man across his slender shoulders and staggered back to the tank, passing, half-way, a grim-faced, purposeful wave of advancing Canadian fighting-men, moving forward to their final objective. Freddie Triptoe set his burden down, and sitting in the doorway of his tank, and looking down into the harsh, bloodstained features of old Brimstone, he wept.
Major Tomkins unexpectedly lifted his head. His was a tough old breed.
“Who said an old dog couldn’t learn new tricks, eh?” he demanded, faintly but belligerently. “Who said that, I’d like to know?”
“By gad, sir, not I!” vowed Freddie Triptoe.
ONE month later Lieutenant-Colonel Tomkins, R.E., D.S.O., sat up in his hospital bed, and with that part of him which could move under its layers of bandages and lint, made shift to open for the tenth time a letter which had arrived in that morning’s post. It was a paean of praise from Youth; tumultuous, heart-reaching tribute that brought a foolish mist to the old soldier’s eyes. “Dam’ fool,” he muttered, blew his no3e, and read happily on:
“. . . The Tanks join me in heartiest congratulations on your D.S.O., sir. It’s no good trying to tell you how proud I am—and how sorry we are to lose you! I’ve got another tank, now. I have taken a great liberty, and called it ‘The Old Dog’—but I think, somehow, that you’ll understand ...”