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Captains Venomous

Arthur J. Burks

Captains Croft and Zane each had his own way of fighting—but both were poison to the Japanese!

CAPTAIN ROGERS CROFT, and Captain Lumford Zane, of the United States Army Air Corps, were young to be captains. They were twenty-four. The War Department, however, had had to commission them in their rank. They were aces, and aces deserved recognition.

Their careers were curiously parallel. Both were out of West Point, though they had scarcely noticed each other there. Both had succeeded through sheer merit. Nobody had given either of them a lift. Nor would either have accepted help.

Any similarity after that, however, ended. Rogers Croft was a fiery, impulsive sort of fellow who hated his enemies so fervently that he had just one urge—to destroy them utterly. Then to kick the shards and remnants around, to get their blood on his otherwise stainless boots.

Every time he heard of a victory, large or small by the Germans or Japs, he took it as a personal affront, a deadly insult. And that's what made him a terror, working out of certain secret bases in Dutch New Guinea.

He went berserk, but he went berserk with precision. He had knocked down twenty-four Japanese planes in six days of fighting through the islands. He cursed himself daily because he had bagged so few.

He behaved as if he could knock down the whole Japanese air force, all by himself. Given the time and opportunity, he might have done just that.

Lumford Zane, on the other hand, was not a man anyone, even Croft, would call "Lum" without a vague feeling of uneasiness. It was hard to put your finger on the reason.

It would have been thought that Croft would be the man who wouldn't take anything from anybody, yet it was Croft who was called "Rog" by brother officers, even by juniors, and he was the man whom enlisted men, excited by his latest exploits, hammered on the back before they remembered that he was a superior officer.

That just was not done to Lumford Zane, for some reason, but nobody knew why. Zane had bagged seventeen Japanese planes. But his score was somewhat greater than that, for he had knocked off ten more while serving with the "Flying Tigers," who were not supposed to be officers at all.

Zane was one number senior to Croft, and Croft never forgot it, or overlooked the seniority. Though Zane never by word, look or deed indicated that it mattered to him in the least. Men slouched, but efficiently, around Croft. They jumped and did things for Zane, and none could have told why.

There was a kind of race between the two at the moment, though neither would have said so. Each was trying to get in all the flying time he could, each was trying, all-out, to win his share of the war.

AN ORDERLY approached Croft, who walked back and forth under the camouflage which hid the field from any chance Japanese reconnaissance planes. Croft walked as if he were about to explode.

Sitting calmly under a tree, in a chair from somewhere, which he leaned back against the bole, Lumford Zane watched Croft stride back and forth.

"An awful lot of energy to use up," he finally said. "You could down two Japs with it, Croft."

"I'll always have enough and to spare for the murdering Nips, Zane!" said Croft. "See what they did today? Shot down a passenger plane, filled with women and children, out of Australia. They knew it wasn't armed, must have seen who the passengers were!"

Croft's face was a thunder-cloud, and his eyes shot pencils of flame. A slow smile, a gentle smile, briefly touched the lips of Lumford Zane.

"Women and children, Croft," he said, "are in this war, too. We must expect them to get hurt!"

Croft whirled on his superior, his fist coming up, clenched, as if he would strike the other man. His teeth showed in a snarl.

"Are you excusing the Japs for killing women and kids?"

Croft strode up until he was within ten paces, when Zane, his smile fading, stopped him.

"Stand still, Croft," he said. "Here is a perfect example of what I mean! Don't move! You see, you are angry, wasting energy, and your alertness has disappeared. You are at this moment standing within striking distance, less about a foot, of one of the seven most deadly cobras, in Dutch New Guinea. I've been watching the critter try to make up its mind to look me over. Stand still now, and learn a lesson. May you also, hereafter, remember that you should wear leather leggings on the ground, just in case other snakes get curious!"

Lumford Zane rose, with easy grace, seeming to flow from his chair. Croft stood like a statue, afraid even to look down, knowing just how lethally testy the cobras were, and wondering just how Zane, who didn't have his gat on him at the moment, was going to dispose of the cobra.

Zane came close, within striking distance. Then he made a quick movement that attracted the snake's attention, causing it to strike—with a blinding whir of speed. As its head hit the ground, at the end of its fast-as-lightning stab, just two inches from the foot of Lumford Zane, Zane put his heel on the head and brought his weight on it.

It was done casually. At least, Croft thought, having seen it all, Zane had made it look casual. But Croft knew how nearly perfect every move of Zane's had been timed. A high-speed camera would have caught the striking of that reptile only as a blur. Yet Zane had been ready at the exact split second, before the snake could retract its head, to put his foot upon it.

And Croft had just a hint of why the man with the gentle smile was not a man one could, somehow, call "Lum."

"Captains Zane and Croft," said the orderly, "to scramble at once."

It was a small field. Only Zane and Croft could have taken the Bell Airacobras off it. There were many other fields just like it, too small to be of much use, to be worth wasting men to capture, yet large enough to make possible the savage work of men like Zane and Croft.

THE two captains, pulling on their helmets, strode to their crates, which stood nose to tail. Zane's was ahead, in the narrow runway that had to be narrow—narrow enough for tree limbs to meet over it to be invisible from the air.

Zane stepped into his fighter, not even looking back to check on Croft. Then, all at once, he lowered his foot from the step, called to the orderly.

"Watch for a cobra," he said. "A snake, not a plane. I just killed one under the wishing tree. It'll have a mate on the prowl wondering what happened to it. Watch, and keep the mate from making any mistakes, see?"

Gently Zane smiled at the orderly. There was something in the smile that made the orderly step back.

Now both captains were in their crates, their motors turning over. In a high tree, a high, thick, bushy tree, a lookout scanned the skies for Japanese planes. The Airacobras would not take off if there were any enemy planes visible anywhere. The secret fields must remain secret as long as possible. Zane's own ground crew were doubling as sentries, to guard against Japanese foot-troops—Tatori's, who were good in the jungle.

The orderly signaled, relaying a signal he took from the look-out. Lumford Zane, sure by the feel of his Bell Airacobra that she was perfect, gunned her. The toughest type fighter plane in the Far East began to roll, with another just behind it.

Behind Zane, and behind Croft, an Allison engine—ten hundred and forty horse power? roared savagely, pushing 'Cobra and pilot up into the air like a hand putting a shot. In a split second after the crate got into the air, it could be doing four hundred miles an hour, level flight. What it could do on a dive—well, the fact that Zane knew to a hair was what made a certain difference between him and Croft, between him and almost any other flyer in any of the United Nations' services.

The leading Bell 'Cobra shot up through the trees, banked left, away from the vent from the field. The second came out, banked right. Then both screamed up for altitude, while Zane looked at the signal below. Both knew what the signal was, but it could not be mentioned, even between them. It indicated direction, however, and distance.

Northwest, fifty miles, Jap fighter planes. And off-shore, barges, transports, destroyers, light cruisers, bringing death and destruction to the East Indies.

The two Airacobras headed in that direction, Allisons full out. Zane watched other planes, seemingly rising from the green sea of the jungles, speed to the rendezvous. He signaled Croft to the left, and a bit below. Four planes swung in behind Croft, four behind Zane.

There was a gentle, almost wistful smile on the face of Lumford Zane. On the face of Rogers Croft, however, was an expression of demoniac hatred—for the enemy.

What did they expect to accomplish by attacking islands where only cannibals and headhunters lived? Though of course Croft knew. He knew all about tin, and rubber, and oil. But it seemed to him so horrible that people who had never even heard of the Japanese should be slaughtered by them. Naturally tribal wars had been their right from time immemorial. The Japs had no right to compel them to die in any other way.

BY THE time the Japanese were sighted, Croft had worked himself into his usual berserker rage. Behind him his four wingmates seemed to throb with his own fury.

Away to the right, Zane sensed all this, and smiled. If his men echoed his smile, it was because they envied a man who could smile like that, and wreak such havoc, not because they understood what made him smile.

More fighter planes were converging on the Japanese concentration. The Dutch, as usual, were doing a gorgeous job of coordination. The fighters arrived at just the right time to give the Jap fighters all they were looking for. And when they were all engaged, the B-26s and the Douglas DB- 7s would swing into action, with a few TBD-1s, to give the transports and cruisers something to think about.

At Zane's signal, the fighter formations separated, each into its own flight unit. They hurtled straight into the thick of the Jap fighters who were forming a kind of sky-wall to keep them back.

Lumford Zane was calm. He was a great believer in self-control. You could do so much more if you bossed yourself first.

Zane led his wingmates straight into the thick of the Japs. The Nips, suicidal in their zeal for the Son of Heaven—goggle-eyed, bespectacled Hirohito—were aching for fight. Zane signaled his men to get after their own targets, and then, while calmly speeding a burst into a Jap who poured lead past the nose of his 'Cobra, he estimated the situation.

Croft did nothing of the sort. He simply went raging in, and effectively—for four Nakajimas were already going down before the bullets of Croft and his fighters.

Zane smiled. He himself had got one plane. Now one of his wingmates exploded a Kawanishi. A burst into the middle of the fighter-bomber did the business.

On the face of things, Zane seemed to be behind in kills. He was undisturbed. First he must estimate, know, as surely as he had when he had put his foot on the head of the cobra. Though he never said it, every Jap was just such a cobra to him. You didn't let them bite you.

"Like that for instance," he told himself, as one of the pilots behind Croft, trying to get three Japs at once, got himself into a pocket and shot to pieces before he could pull out.

The American bailed out, his parachute flowering. A Jap started to follow him down, but thought better of it. The sharks in the blue waters below would take care of the American flyer, so the Jap saved his bullets.

Zane looked after that particular Jap with something like understanding. Then he dived on him and shot him down!

The skies above the Japanese naval armada were filled with planes—Japanese, British, Dutch, American—all mixed up together. The bombers and torpedo-carriers had not yet arrived. Zane looked around for them, somewhat concerned for a moment. The bombers and torpedo-carriers were necessary.

But he didn't see them. He signaled his four flyers, spread them out, dived through the Japanese interceptors. But they leveled off above the blue water, and streaked away for the nearest Japanese barges which were bearing soldiers ashore.

Zane smiled gently. He would leave the transports and the cruisers and destroyers for the time being. No use getting in the way of their guns. The Jap soldiers were the important objectives!

A barge, right in line!

ZANE did not even stop to think whether to use his thirty or his fifty-caliber machine- guns, or his 36 mm. shell gun. Long ago he had figured out just what to use against an invasion barge. As a result, he nosed up before reaching the barge, brought his thirty-caliber machine-guns to bear on the crouched soldiers.

Then he nosed down. He was still smiling, though it was more of a mask-like grimace than a smile. The invasion barge changed direction crazily, continued to move erratically, as well it might. For after Zane had fired his brief burst, no Japanese soldier remained alive in that barge.

He zoomed, picking out another barge, glancing aloft to see whether he should get back into the sky-battle or whether Nakajimas were diving on him. Then he studied the work of his wingmates.

Two more invasion barges were erratic in movement and direction. A fourth barge had turned back. Fearful men, who had been sure they were willing to die for their emperor, frightened by these deadly Americans had dived into the sea. Too late they had forgotten that there were sharks in the sea that matched in ferocity the sharks in the sky.

On the crazily zigzagging destroyers anti- aircraft guns were soaring steadily. Larger guns on the cruisers were laying down a barrage on the shore, covering the landing of the soldiers.

Zane signaled to his men. They swung in widely to follow his lead. Zane zoomed, far above the cruiser guns that were laying down the barrage on the beach.

Then, he nosed over. To his right two planes nosed down, to his left two more.

Now Zane set his 50-caliber machine-guns to chattering. He let his 36 mm. shell gun have her head. He had no hopes of sinking or damaging a cruiser of the Kako class with such weapons, but there were men on the cruiser's decks, and in the rigging.

Harass the Japs! Irritate the Nips! And keep your self-control. That was the ticket.

The five 'Cobras gathered speed. Four hundred and fifty-miles an hour, diving straight for the smoke that made a pall about the ships. And Zane smiled again as he saw short men moving to take up positions behind machine-guns on the cruiser's decks.

The five planes, with their guns raging full out, hurtled straight into the guns of the Japs. Men began to fall on the decks of the cruiser, dropping behind machine-guns and antiaircraft weapons.

And Lumford Zane smiled as his five 'Cobras flashed over the cruiser, knowing that a hundred dead, perhaps more, were the result of this battle. Moreover, rattled Jap gunners must have given Dutch defenders on shore a brief breathing space.

Zane had not lost a ship. His four flyers were still with him and he saw no bullet-holes in his own crate.

Zane led his men back into battle as the bombers and torpedo-carriers came out of the green jungle to help defend and protect the barges, transports, cruisers and destroyers of Dai Nippon dotting the blue sea. The bigger planes took over, the Nakajimas, roared out to clash in the sky with American, Dutch and British fighters.

THIRTY American fighters, Zane estimated? and did not smile now. There had been fifty. But there was always the chance that the missing flyers were engaged elsewhere. It galled him to think that Japs could take any such toll of planes of the United Nations.

The pilots of the defenders' torpedo-carriers swung into action. The Nakajimas converged on the bombers that were attacking transports and barges, and the torpedo-carriers that were after the cruisers and destroyers.

Half a dozen Nakajimas hurtled at one torpedo-carrier, a TBD-1, and Zane swept down on them. The nose of his crate covered the nearest Nakajima. His guns spoke?all of them, even the shell gun.

Then the nose of his 'Cobra shifted, and two Nakajimas jumped as if they had been winged deer. And the next instant, as Zane's wingmates got into action the other four Nakajimas were cutting out of the fight, burning. Zane had taken two, his men one each—and the TBD-1 flew on, while the Kako class cruiser that Zane and his men had plastered, seemed to take a terrific blow in the port quarter. It began to list. It started down.

Zane saw Rogers Croft in action then. His 'Cobra was riddled, Zane gathered from its behavior. And only two other 'Cobras rode with Croft. But in his own way, Croft was performing Herculean labors in the battle, giving his fury free rein. Croft was everywhere. Even as Zane looked, Croft dived like a bullet on the back of a Kawanishi, smashed it out of the fight, nosed up and let go with all guns on a Nakajima, which also went down, trailing fans of smoke.

That was Croft, Zane thought. All out, everything—all guns working, going full force to his motor. Croft. The hammer-and-tongs fighter of the skies. His wing-mates were like him, for such men naturally gravitated to Croft as the steadier type of men gravitated to Zane.

There was an unspoken rivalry between the two top aces of the East Indies. Zane himself did not count the aircraft he had shot down. He mentioned them in his combat reports, officials added them up, he forgot the totals. His only interest was in whittling away at the Japanese who were whittling away at the Philippines, Singapore, Malaya, the Dutch East Indies, and at Australia. He didn't care where he found them—on the beaches, anywhere, everywhere?

Croft was different, for he had to keep his own score. And always, as now, he was a viking of the sky, smashing, diving, his guns all going. While Zane used his guns sparingly, he made every shot count. Croft raged, Zane smiled.

The fight now was not a conclusive one, however terrific. But a lull finally came when planes needed gasoline and men had to rest. Bombers and torpedo-carriers pulled out first, while the 'Cobras fought back the surviving Jap flyers to keep them from tracing the bombers and torpedo-carriers to their secret bases. Zane and his men downed four more Nakajimas.

So far, the United Nations had made a grand bag. Twenty Jap planes, a Kako class cruiser, two transports, a destroyer, fourteen barges. And in the sea sharks held high, bloody revelry.

SOME Americans, British and Dutch were down there too, among the sharks, Zane thought sadly, as he led his wingmates back into the jungles, and watched them scatter to their secret fields. Those fields were connected by telephones, so that the commander could keep in touch with his command, one that covered a vast area, many flights and squadrons.

Zane landed, slicing down into the narrow field. Down after him came Rogers Croft. The two 'Cobras rolled to the end of the carefully camouflaged field. There, at the end of the field, the planes were faced about, ready for the next take-off, which Zane knew would be right away.

The two captains found the squadron commander waiting for them.

"How many losses from your flight, Captain?" Major Jackson asked Zane.

"None, sir," said Zane. "And you, Croft?"

"Two, sir." "What were you doing, Zane?" snapped the major. "Having a picnic? How could five planes mix into the thick of the fight like the one you've just been through, and come back unharmed?"

"They may have taken a few bullet-holes, sir," said Zane, "but I saw no reason for risking their lives in wild?"

"Soldiers in wartime are supposed to risk their lives!" snapped the major. "I won't have commanders who think more of their men than they do of destroying the enemy!"

Zane said nothing. He stood quietly while Jackson complimented Croft on his zeal, his courage.

Then he waved both men aside, to write their combat reports.

When Zane handed in his, Major Jackson looked up at him, his mouth hanging slightly open. For the first time since his return from battle Zane smiled. "I don't believe you did as much damage as this report indicates?" snapped the major.

"I don't believe, sir," Zane said softly, "that regulations require that I permit my veracity to be questioned. Are you sure you doubt the truth of my report, which I have said is an estimate, only, of the damage?"

"I spoke hastily!" said Jackson, flustered. The orderly came bustling into the tent

"A flight of enemy planes, flying low, sir," he said to Jackson, "heading this way. Look-out thinks they're practically on the air route taken home by Captain Croft and Captain Zane."

Croft started to whirl, to dart out of the tent. Zane made no move. Jackson looked from one to the other.

"What do you make of it, Zane?" he asked.

"We may have been trailed, sir. Anyway, the Nips would like to rid themselves of certain pests—Croft and me, I imagine!"

"Well, why not get out and meet them?" snapped Jackson.

"Might I suggest, sir, that we wait for them to go past the field, or turn back? I like to hit Jap formations when they least expect it, when their backs are turned!"

THE formation, six strong, of Nipponese, fled across the secret field without slowing down, or circling, or noting anything unusual about the jungle where the field was hidden.

Then Zane led the way out. His face was unconcerned. Croft was again the raging fury. The two crates took off, as soon as the look-out signaled. They had been serviced, were again ready for all-out action.

They shot up to ten thousand feet. The Japs were heading away.

Croft waited, with such patience as he could manage, for Zane to take the offensive. Then, when Zane started his slash down the sky, Croft was right on his port side. And the Japs did not even see them until one of their number had been savagely blasted, and was falling into the jungles below. Nothing down there, Zane knew, but head- hunters—and any Jap who bailed out over that jungle would have reason to be sorry.

Croft got another crate, diving down and coming up from below. Zane, so composed, he was hardly blinking, got his second crate on the way-down. He zoomed, banked, corkscrewing into place as the Japanese formation, attacked from below and above, broke apart.

Croft was again the slashing, swashbuckling savage of the skies. Zane was the cool, calm, sure—executioner!

Three Japs gone. Half the Jap force done for, two of whom had parachuted into the jungle to horrible death. But there was no mercy for them in the hearts of Zane and Croft.

Three planes left. They must not get back, to report about where they had encountered the two Airacobras. None must survive, to make trouble for the secret fields.

Savagely Croft slashed at the remaining planes, now swiftly and desperately scattering, as a convoy breaks up when attacked by sub-packs. Methodically, scientifically, Zane knocked down two more planes. Croft, the raging demon, accounted for the other. So fiercely swift had been the battle that parachutes were still visible above the green jungle when the two captains realized that the only ships aloft were their own.

They flew back to their secret field. Major Jackson told them that the Jap invasion force had been driven off temporarily. They could rest.

But again Jackson glared at Zane.

"What you could do," he declared, "if you had some real fighting spirit! You're a machine. If you had the heart to go with it you would be one of the greatest?"

The orderly came in to make a breathless report.

"Look-out reports capture of two Japanese pilots, sir. They're being brought in now. Should be here in maybe an hour."

"You got your first ones that close?" asked Jackson.

Zane shrugged. Croft's face looked grim, black.

"How come the cannibals didn't get them?" Croft said. "Major, there are other Japs close? jungle troops! These flyers know their way around these jungles. How do we know these men who have been captured are even flyers? They couldn't be spotted this soon after we get back from miles away. It's a trick!"

Zane smiled. "Japs who know the jungles would naturally be chosen for the job those Nips were sent to do," he said softly. "What's remarkable about it?"

"I suppose you've the answer to everything!" said Jackson.

Two hours later Jackson sent for Croft and Zane. The Nip pilots had been brought in.

"Which one of you," asked one of the Japs, before either captain could say a word, "flies the Airacobra with the slightly heavy left wing?"

Zane started. Nobody, he was sure, had ever noticed that his plane was slightly inclined to favor the left wing. This Jap hadn't missed that. Why?

Jackson read the amazement in Zane's face, the first real emotion he had ever seen there.

"I guess it can do no harm to tell, Nip," Zane said. "I fly that crate!"

The Japs were covered carefully by men with bayoneted rifles. Their side-arms had been taken from them. They had been thoroughly searched. Yet when Zane answered, the Jap who had asked the question in perfect English, spoke one word in Japanese. Instantly both Japs hurled themselves at Zane—while in their hands were short-bladed knives that must have come out of their sleeves.

Zane sidestepped. Croft jumped and swung a savage right to the chin of one Jap. The man went over on his back, his neck broken by the blow. An automatic barked, and the English-speaking Jap dropped to his face, rolled onto his back. Sweat beaded his yellow face, but he forced himself to speak—to Lumford Zane.

"If you have the chance," he said to Zane, "will you get word to any Jap commander that Matadori—that's me—died trying to slay one of our greatest enemy airmen? You, sir! Your people call my people murderers, but you, you, with your precision, picking off soldiers?"

He writhed and died then, his eyes fixed on Zane to the last. And in those eyes was fear. Not fear of death, but of Lumford Zane and of what this American whom he had failed to kill could still do to his people.

"And I guess, Zane," Jackson said soberly, "that leaves me nothing to complain about. The enemy risks—and loses—his life to get his most important antagonist. That is recognition."

"Well," Zane said calmly, "we don't have to be bothered about prisoners. I really ought to have credit for that, since they died trying to get me."

And Zane smiled with great gentleness. But nobody else smiled.

"And I thought I had venom in me!" Croft said wonderingly. "Thank heaven, Zane, that you're not a Jap, heading this way, and me the only man to head you off!"

Zane smiled again, and went out to have a look at his Bell Airacobra.