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Like a ghost he came onto the
battlefield. But no ghost fought as
this man did! Who-or what-was he?

A PATRIOT NEVER DIES

By FRANK PATTON

"GIVE it to 'em, Joe!" Conny Martin yelled. "You got 'em in range!"

The muffled purr of the silenced hi-ex atomic bullets was sweet music in Martin's ears as he bent his tensed body over the vibrating machine gun and fed a seemingly endless belt of cartriges into its maw. The darkness of the little hollow in which they had set up their weapon was red now with the flash of the bullet-stream coming from the gun muzzle. Twelve shots a second were causing that red light; twelve bullets with enough atomic hi-ex in each of them to blow a two-hundred tonner to bits.

"You bet!" came Joe Jason's voice, vibrating a bit because his body was vibrating in tune with the gun he was firing. "Those blasted Japs will wish... umh—"

Abruptly his voice ceased. The gun stopped firing. Martin half-turned, thought he heard a body flop in the snow, then suddenly the gun was firing again. But Martin remained turned in a frozen attitude as he stared at something fluttering just on the rim of the area lighted by the red glare from the gun.

Off in the distance, four miles across the valley, behind him, a tremendous thundering was coming to his ears. A tremendous thundering that came because the whole valley-side was erupting under the burst of hundreds of bullets that exploded with all the vehemence of 16-inch naval shells. Jap land battleships were flying to bits over there. The light of the explosions revealed their shattered giant hulks, leaping into the air for hundreds of feet as they disintegrated. But Martin wasn't looking that way. He was staring at that waving thing behind them....

"A flag!" said Conny Martin, his voice queerly constricted. "An American flag! What the hell is a flag bearer doing here, and at night!"

Dimly Martin made out the forms of men, dim forms in the backness, charging past him, streaming into the darkness behind the flag.

Even when it was gone, the flag remained in Martin's vision like a retinal memory. Remained there because of something very strange about the starfield.

"Thirteen stars, in a circle!" Martin choked out. "Hey, Joe, a flag just went by. It had..."

The machine gun had stopped purring now, and the red glow had vanished. The terrific hell that was bursting across the valley stopped too, but the red flames over there didn't. Eighteen giant Jap land battleships lay in fiercely burning wreckage all up and down that fatal slope.

But once again Conny Martin wasn't looking in that direction. He was staring at the man behind the gun.

No weird, range-finder-helmeted figure tills! No gas-mask-hidden face! No warm-uniform-clad soldier! This wasn't Joe Jason!

Instead, the man whose intent eyes peered over the weapon his fingers still clutched to his breast by the firing handles was dressed in a fantastic tri-cornered hat and a primitive belted jacket which might have made up a uniform, or it might have been a theatrical costume.

Conny Martin just stared.

"My God," he gasped finally, "who..."

The man smiled oddly, looked across the valley at the destruction he had caused.

"Another life to give," he said in queerly triumphant tones. "And many more to take!"

He rose to his feet, seemingly oblivious of Martin's presence. He peered into the gloom behind him now.

"I must go," he muttered. "There is so little time—and so much to do..."

Then as Conny Martin stared, he was gone, following the strange vision of the flag.

Martin's eyes dropped to the silent machine gun, saw beyond it a prone body.

"Joe!" he gasped.

He leaped forward, bent over the limp form. Then he straightened in horror.

There was a Jap bullet through Joe Jason's head. He was dead.

"NICE shooting, boy!" came a jubilant voice from behind him. "I saw the whole thing! You'll get the Distinguished Service Cross for this action, soldier!"

A figure scrambled down into the snowy hollow beside Conny Martin. Martin saw the captain's bars on his shoulders as he turned and lifted himself to his feet.

"You saw...?" he began, but was interrupted when the captain caught sight of the limp form in the snow behind the gun.

"Holy smoke!" the captain exclaimed. "Is he dead?"

"Yeah," mumbled Martin, still befuddled. "Never knew what hit him. But you said you saw...?"

"Do you mean to tell me you operated that gun like that all by yourself?" the captain demanded in incredulous tones. "Soldier, you sure covered yourself with glory! I saw the whole thing: eighteen Jap land battleships blown up! You know what you did, lad? You saved our whole right flank from encirclement. We'd have had to fall back to Pittsburgh."

"I didn't do it," Martin said hoarsely. "You said you saw..."

"Don't be so damned modest! Certainly I saw. Eighteen Jap..."

"I didn't do it!" insisted Martin. "Didn't you see the guy in the funnylooking hat and the jacket? Took Joe's place when he got hit and kept the gun going—And didn't you see the flag with the stars in a circle on it—?"

The captain looked at him queerly. The darkness of pre-dawn was being dispelled now by a gray morning light, and the officer's lean face was visible. There was a puzzled look on his features.

"You been hit, soldier? You're talking kinda funny."

"No, I..."

"You sure?"

Conny Martin shut his lips tight and looked at the captain. Then he turned and looked at the scuffled snow behind the gun—behind Joe Jason's huddled body. He took several steps forward— up over the rim of the hollow. The captain followed him, stared down too at the footprints that, slogged over the rise, went on down the slope beyond and disappeared among the trees.

"Say, you did have help!" exclaimed the captain. "Who was he, soldier? He'll be up for a medal too."

Martin didn't answer at first. He was staring at the clean white snow beyond the hollow—the snow across which he had seen a group of men, one of whom was carrying a strange American flag. It was snow that was as smooth and untouched as the moment it had fallen. No sign of a foootprint marred its surface. Martin felt the hackles on the back of his neck stand up. A queer chill chased up and down his spine.

"Who was he, soldier?" repeated the captain. "One of your buddies?"

Martin turned to face the captain. His eyes held a dazed look.

"No, Captain," he croaked. "I never saw him before. He... he wasn't even a soldier! He..."

"A civilian!" the captain was incredulous. "How in the devil did a civilian get here? All civilians were evacuated weeks ago."

"Civilian?" Martin repeated the question stupidly. "Yeah, I guess he was a civilian. But he was dressed kinda funny. Like in a book I saw once..."

The captain nodded.

"We'll find him," he decided. "He'll be stopped before he goes far. And I guess the general won't be against pinning a medal on him, no matter how funny he's dressed. In fact, if I don't miss my guess, he'll be in uniform before you can say Jack Robinson.

"Come on, soldier. Let's pick up that gun and get back to the lines. It's still risky as hell out here—even if it'll be a while before the Japs try anything else!" He chuckled, slogged back through the deep snow to the gun. Conny Martin followed silently, his face a frown of puzzlement and wonder.

"TELL me the whole story, Private Martin," said the general.

"Yes, sir." Conny Martin hesitated a bit, wet his lips. "I guess I'd better go back to midnight, when we went out to our post—Private Joe Jason and I. We were supposed to set our gun up on the hill, hidden in the trees, to cover the slope. But Joe figured if we went down a ways into a little hollow that led to a ledge overlooking the whole valley, we'd be in an advance position, and if the enemy did start an attack, we could blast him before he got below the valley rim..."

The general interrupted. "You mean you set up an advance post in no-man's land, beyond the cover of your flanks?"

"Yes, sir," said Martin humbly. "We figured to withdraw to the hill just before dawn. The enemy couldn't see us in the dark and we couldn't see them. Not from the hilltop. We figured by getting closer, we would be able to spot any enemy tanks if they ventured out of the trees onto the white snow on the opposite slope. It was darker than our commanding officer told us it would be, and we were almost useless where we were told to set up station."

"Very good," commented the general. "Thinking soldiers. That's why those yellow bastards haven't driven us into the Atlantic!"

Martin went on:

"Well, at about 4:20 ack emma we spotted a Jap land battleship sneaking out of the black of the trees across the valley. We held our fire to let it come into more certain range, and discovered that it was a full-scale attack, and not just a sortie. We counted twelve big ones before we realized what was happening.

"The Japs had the range figured, and they knew our gunners, even if they spotted them sooner or later, would be out of effective range and by the time the alarm was sounded, they could cover the ridge with high explosive and then follow on over with no opposition. The only thing they didn't know was that one of our crews would come right down into the valley and wait for 'em.

"We held fire until we were sure the whole Jap force was in range, and that no more of the big babies would follow. We knew the infantry would be ready behind, but we weren't worried about them. They'd never make it up our side of the slope with our boys in action at the top.

"We opened fire, and then..." Conny Martin hesitated, and an embarrassed look spread over his face. "We got 'em, sir," he finished hurriedly. "Joe took a bullet in the head, and first thing I knew, a civilian was at the gun, helping me. He finished the job, sir, then beat it."

Martin was silent.

THE general glared at him.

"Martin, you're covering something. Do you mean to stand there and tell me a civilian just popped out of nowhere and manned that gun, then beat it and you didn't even try to stop him, or find out who he was?"

The captain spoke up.

"You mentioned something about a flag, Martin. A flag with stars in a circle..."

Martin swallowed hard.

"I musta been seeing things, sir. There couldn't have been no flag. Besides, we both looked, and there wasn't any footprints in the snow. I saw a bunch of men following the flag too. It was like a dream. I musta got a shot of radiations from the gun, or something...."

The general regarded Martin with a frown, then his face smoothed out.

"Martin," he said, rising to his feet, "you're a fine soldier. First, you and your companion showed brilliant common sense in advancing your post when observation was impossible. You saved us from a crushing attack. Next, you showed extreme tactful sense in ascertaining the full strength of the enemy and holding fire until he was trapped. Finally, you showed plenty of guts finishing the job, no matter who helped you, even when you were suffering hallucinations. We've had gunners get a shot of radiations before, and it's bad business. Befuddles some of them so much they are likely as not to fire on their own men.

"I'm putting you up for a citation, Martin. The President will hear of this action. And I wouldn't be surprised if it meant a promotion..."

"Sir!" Martin shot the word from his lips with an embarrassing emphasis.

"Eh?"

"Sir," Martin repeated, in lowered tones, face flushing. "If you don't mind, sir, I'd rather not have a promotion. I'd like a transfer."

The general's face darkened.

"A transfer? You mean to another command? I don't get it, Martin..."

"No, sir! I want a berth in the Commando Division, your own pet command. It's the best spot in this man's whole army!"

The general's eyes lighted. He looked pleased.

"Son," he said warmly, stepping forward and clasping Martin's hand in his own. "If that Division wasn't strictly a volunteer g...

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