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Chapter I




THE three hobos who squatted around the little fire, staring silently into its dancing flames as though visioning better and happier days, appeared quite in ignorance of the strange events which had enmeshed the tiny town lying in the inky darkness scarcely a quarter mile to their west.

Were one to judge from their casual actions and more casual demeanor, they manifestly possessed not the slightest inkling of the fact that the cluster of houses and stores comprising that town, with its few squares of intersecting black streets, lay tonight the virtual geometrical center of eight groups of the sharpest-shooting aerial gunners that the United States boasted; that each group lay encamped an even half mile from the one to either side of it, in a perfect one-mile square, in fact, containing the town within its four sides; that each carried one of the most modern defenses to aerial attacks ever developed—the Wessleton-Dowling rapid-firing gun, capable—that is, in the daytime only!—of aiming itself automat-ically upon any target moving against the sky; that ten feet from the circular base of each gun was mounted a powerful field searchlight able to pierce instantly the heavens of the blackest night with a dazzling beam; that each group of gunners, with their two searchlight operators, was designated by a number; that each was connected with every other group by carefully laid telephone wires, and all in turn connected back to a switchboard rigged up in a cunning steel-reenforced dugout in a huge meadow on the southern edge of this tiny town, where 6 fighting pursuit planes of the Hornet-Boeing type stood, their pilots and gunners in readiness day and night to spring into the air amid the illumination from the sixteen great portable flood lights that, at the touch of a single button, could light that vast meadow instantaneously till every parched blade of grass upon it shone as under a noonday sun.

And ignorant these three illy clad nomads could logically be of all this, for the United States of America was at war with no foreign power, and wanderers of the twin rails more often as not have no opportunity to read current newspapers!

As hobos, they presented the widest human variation possible, and anyone who might have covertly studied them from up the single-track railroad that ran at practically ground level past their camp, and some 20 feet away from their fire, would have been struck instanter by this one fact.

The oldest of the three, who sat on a half-burned railroad tie, his right side toward that railroad, and his back to the high wooden water tank looming up on its long stilts in the darkness some 50 feet distant, was evidently a seasoned veteran of the road, for his venerable face, with its kindly grey eyes, was bronzed as only the face of a tramp or a golf enthusiast can become! He was clad in a pair of tattered faded overalls and a bright blue jumper which decidedly did not match each other in tint, and hence in source; and the jumper, open at the neck, showed a red flannel undershirt. He wore a greasy, badly crumpled brown felt hat, minus any band, and as he removed that piece of headgear for an instant to scratch the head beneath it, a thatch of silvery hair, thinning appreciably with the relentless hand of Time, was revealed in the firelight. His shoes, like his other habiliments, matched each other only in the bright yellow binding twine with which they were laced, for one was a scuffed tan oxford and the other a high black shoe with a hopelessly rundown heel. But in spite of his ill-assorted garments an air of respectability—even, one might say, an air of downright aristocracy—hung about him, for the red flannel undershirt was obviously clean as though it might have been washed in some river only a day or two before; and a battered bone-handled razor, together with the stub end of a cake of yellow laundry soap, and a small pocket-size handmirror, all laid out close by him on a sun-bleached rock, proved the source of his cleanly shaven chin, cheeks and upper lip. Though whether he had offered these shaving implementa to the other two, according to some law of the road, or whether he had but laid them there for the time being, to shift the contents of his pockets, could not be ascertained—though one might surmise it to be most likely the latter, since the other two members of the trio were themselves clean-shaven—one, as he himself was to disclose shortly, in a free barber school tonsorium in El Paso that morning, while the other appeared so much to be the typical beardless youth, that it was entirely probable that he was unacquainted as yet with the problems of beard and bristle.

For he was but a boy, obviously, this youngest one of the trio, slim and slight in build. In age perhaps 20. A rather decent-appearing voluminous tweed cap was pulled down over his well-shaped head, as though to keep out the cool crisp October night air. He evidently was still wearing the clothing that he had worn when he had originally taken to the road, for his blue serge coat matched his blue serge trousers with their large collegiate cuffs, and both were torn here and there where they had patently encountered nails in boxcars, barbwire fences, and sharp nuts on the rods and iron ladders of railroad trains. A green sweater swathed his chest, and his shoes were mates. Elbow on knee, chin in hand, he half squatted, half sat at times, on a round rock, his back to the railroad track, his blue eyes staring abstractedly into the fire, his unnaturally pale but delicate features betraying some curious troubled inwardness of spirit, and he rubbed his eyelids automatically every now and again as the wind occasionally rose, drifting smoke from the fire into them.

The third wanderer, who squatted entirely on his heels, was around 30 years of age—perhaps even 32—his age a bit elusive. His face, bronzed to as high a degree of cherry ruddiness as that of the old man in the overalls, was indisputably handsome, and his teeth were white and even. He roosted at a point about equidistant from the other two, where his brown eyes—if squinted intensely—could stare across the fire, across the farther railroad track—and even still further beyond to what appeared to be a long crumbling brick wall, paralleling the track, fifty feet or so in length, with jagged top and height ranging variably from 5 to 8 feet, but which, because of the scattered remains of other masonry in its vicinity, proclaimed itself to be the ruins of the trackside wall of a one-time small factory building now many decades abandoned, and appropriated, brick by brick, by the distant town’s inhabitants, for other structures. More contradictory, perhaps, than heterogeneous, was the combination of clothing worn by this third bird of passage, for his well-shaped form was encased in what was undoubtedly the cast-off dress suit of some one-time clubman, now spotted, now greasy, now shiny, but mended so neatly and cunningly here and there with black thread that it proclaimed conclusively that it had descended from the clubman to a waiter, and from the waiter to a vagrant. In striking contrast to the well-tailored suit was the shirt which accompanied it, for it was a coarse checkered garment with soft collar—entirely minus tie—and the sort of thing which a carpenter’s helper wears: a hickory shirt, in fact, as it is called. But incongruous as was the dress suit with the hickory shirt, more incongruous yet with both, considering the lateness of the year and the coldness of the breezes, was the neat straw hat with brilliant plaid band which hugged the third man’s head, and which had evidently been donated to him by someone who had more regard for the season in hats than did its present owner! And combination picture as he was, thus, of society-man, waiter, workman and summer resorter, he was likewise the picture of the perfect and regulation hobo as well—for close by him—unlike in the case of the other two, who appeared to be carrying no portables around with them—there lay the usual hobo’s carryall: a gnarled stick to which was knotted a red bandana that must have been the grandfather of all bandanas, since, circumscribing as it plainly did its owner’s worldly possessions, it made a tight knobby bundle a full 8 inches in diameter. Did one regard this peripatetic’s dress, and his stick, and his round bundle, here was indeed a lazy good-for-nothing tramp; yet did one study the bronzed visage gazing into the fire, one saw a shrewd, sensible, businesslike face which proclaimed that, given a chance, its owner might have successfully sold any kind of goods on earth, or managed an office, instead of roosting like a bedrag-gled crow in a circle of yellow light thrown by a “jungle smudge” —his only companions an old “sundowner” and a youthful “gaycat”!

And thus they sat, the three of them, while the tiny fire alternately died low, calling in its mute way for a piece of railroad tie from the hand of the old man with the silvery hair who seemed to superintend, for them all, the tiny available supply of wood—then blazing up momentarily to reveal for a bare instant in vivid brightness the red water tank, the two gleaming rails that disappeared into darkness 40 feet off from either side of the railway track’s closest point, and the faintest suggestion of a road, narrow and dusty, far across that track—an apparently disused road which disappeared in back of the crumbling old brick factory wall and never came to life again on the other side.

But now it was that the darkness outside the fire was broken by an interruption—the appearance of a fourth man who plainly did not belong to this trio—and now it was that the three wanderers were destined to hear sundry and salient details of how and why the War Department of the United States had issued perhaps the rarest military order in the entire history of its operation.


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