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Air Service Boys Flying for Victory - or, Bombing the Last German Stronghold
by Charles Amory Beach
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"Then that part of our job is settled, if you've got their Paris address!" Jack exclaimed. "The other connected with the finding of Helene is going to prove a harder task I reckon."

"Oh! I've picked up a bit of information in that direction," the newcomer told them, an announcement which of course caused Jack to look intensely interested.

He had often found himself repeating that sad message and picturing the suffering of the poor woman who, in dying, did not know what would be the fate of her twin children, thus rudely separated, the one to be carried away by a remorseless relative and the other cast adrift in the midst of the fighting zone.

And so when Tom hinted that fortune had allowed him to secure valuable information connected with the abduction of Helene Anstey Jack's interest leaped upward by bounds. The spirit of laughter passed, and he was now only alert for news that would perhaps stand them in good stead.

"Was it about that man, Von Berthold, Tom?" he demanded.

"No other," came the answer. "Nellie gave me the tip, and I made some inquiries of a prisoner she had picked out from among those who claimed to be Lorrainers and fighting for Germany against their wishes, because they were forced into it. She had dressed a wound for him, and had got to talking with him. I was able to treat him to some cigarettes, and also gave him a cake of chocolate on the sly; because that's really against orders, you know. But he promised to nibble it in secret, and not let any one see him."

"I'm really ashamed of you, Tom!" said Harry, shaking his forefinger in a threatening fashion, and pretending to scowl. "A fine example to set to other pilots in our unit, or any of the doughboys in fact. But then you'll claim you had a good object in doing it; and of course circumstances alter army rules, as well as ordinary cases. Go on, and talk some more."

"Well, from this prisoner I learned that General von Berthold's first name is really Anton, which you remember she used in telling of his carrying little Helene off."

"We'll call that point settled, then," affirmed Jack decisively. "This German officer whose brilliant work has often been mentioned in dispatches to the Paris newspapers, is Jeanne's uncle. What else did you pick up?"

"He's quartered right now in an old chateau on a height that overlooks this whole sector of country, though some miles beyond the Argonne forest," explained the one who was telling the story.

"For a short time only," grimly announced Harry, "because the doughboys have got the Boche on the run, and before long we'll see him skipping out for Sedan and the border. I suppose when this famous general does have to give up his fine chateau he'll send it sky-high with explosives, as they always do, so as to leave nothing that is French made to comfort their enemies."

Tom nodded his head in assent.

"Do you know this Lorrainer told me that had already been arranged," he hastened to say. "He himself had been one of a party of engineers to plant terrible mines secretly in certain places under the walls, so the whole building could be blown up in a flash. But that cunning old fox managed it so that no one but himself knows how to start things moving."

"Why should he do a thing like that?" asked the puzzled Harry.

"Oh, it seems that a good many of the Boche soldiers have no particular love for General von Berthold," Tom answered briskly, as though he had anticipated that very question and was prepared to meet it.

"I see. He's afraid that if they chanced to know the combination," chuckled Harry Leroy, "they might be tempted some fine night, when he was asleep in his featherbed, to give him a rise in the world, since no one would be any the wiser. Yes, he's a sharp old duck, believe me!"

"I wonder," remarked Tom, "if he could have taken little Helene to that chateau and is waiting for a chance to send her on to Munich, or some other German capital."

"Do you know, I've got a big hunch that way, Tom!" Jack exclaimed. "And I mean, for one, to take the very first chance that comes along to run over back of the Hun lines so as to find if I can the chateau."

"Sainte Mershon, I learned the place is called," said Tom. "And I'll do the same, boy."

"You said it was located on a height, so that it commanded an extensive view, didn't you?"

"Yes, that's what the prisoner told me. Said it looked very much like a lot of castles he knew about along the Rhine. We've all seen pictures of those, so it's easy to guess what they resemble. But he also said the building had been twice dynamited, though only one section was in ruins."

"If either of us is lucky enough to make a find, remember, Tom, nothing must be done until we've had a chance to talk matters over."

"Oh, sure thing," affirmed Tom. "I wouldn't dream of trying to cut in and steal your thunder Jack. Jeanne is your find, and we're pals in this game, as we've always been since we were kids together in the U. S. A. When the hour strikes for General von Berthold to have uninvited guests drop down on him from the skies, we'll be in cahoots, as usual. And you may lead off."

Jack looked relieved. Apparently he had begun to suspect dimly that his ambitious chum might have thought to cut the ground out from under his, Jack's, feet, by planning a bold raid on the chateau, spurred on to such a rash deed by his ardent desire to impress Nellie Leroy.

Tom began to stretch himself.

"Feeling some tired after such a rushing day's business," he told them, in a vein of apology. "And I think, mates, I'll turn in after I've munched a cake or two and had a drink of lemonade. Join me in a glass, will you, Jack, Harry? I feel like treating to-night, I'm so perfectly satisfied with the way things are going."

The other two exchanged looks and chuckles, which, however, Tom pretended not to notice; for he had made up his mind not to be disturbed any longer because of his comrades' jokes concerning his warm friendship for Harry's sister. What boy among the tens of thousands of Americans in that sector but would be pleased to have such a delightful "sister" with whom to hold occasional interesting chats when opportunity arose?

They accepted the invitation, however, for really it was rather warm in the Red Triangle dugout, mostly underground, just as the fleeing Hun officers had left it when compelled to run. Somehow those enterprising Y. M. C. A. workers managed to keep constantly on hand a supply of certain articles deemed necessary to the comfort of the fighting men; and lemons stood near the first in this preferred list.

When coming in on a hot day from hard work in the trenches, or after creeping through tangled undergrowth where not a breath of breeze stirred, with their nerves strained every second of the time, nothing could revive the flagging energies more quickly than a lemonade mixed by the dextrous fingers of a clever girl in khaki, a sunny smile on her face, and a love for everything connected with America in her warm heart.

Those huts erected by the Red Triangle corps, what oceans of comfort they brought to the boys over there! Sometimes they were large and commodious, possessing almost every conceivable means for gratifying the normal appetite of a healthy-minded but tired and homesick soldier boy. Then again it might be, as in the present instance, that circumstances prevented any display, and the restoration bivouac had to be opened under rather discouraging conditions, while the supplies also ran low, for it was not easy to get them so far up along the line.

But the main thing was that there could be found the cheerful, never-failing services of those who gave every minute of their time to working for the boys wearing the khaki, and braving death itself under Old Glory.

The night had up to then been fairly quiet.

Tired after the day's fighting, both armies lay down to rest, looking forward to a renewal of hostilities when another day dawned. Doubtless the retreating Huns would utilize this time in preparing many more of the machine-gun nests, each of which was calculated to hold up the advancing Americans for a certain period.

As for the Americans trying to advance during the night, that was utterly out of the question, since under those trees a pall lay that might hide any number of deadly traps, into which they, in their ignorance, would surely stumble.

The three Air Service boys were still standing chatting with the girl in khaki, whom they knew very well, and sipping their lemonade when, without warning, there broke out a terrible din. The ground under their feet seemed to shake with the force of an explosion, which they realized must be quite near at hand.

Another explosion immediately followed, and then still more in irregular succession. The boys had learned by now to tell what such explosions signified, so they looked at each other aghast, and Jack cried out:

"The Huns are making an air raid on our lines back here! They must be in great force, too, with all those bombs dropping! Tom, didn't it strike you those explosions came mostly from the quarter where our Red Cross field hospital lies?"

Tom felt a cold chill, the same thought having gripped him.



CHAPTER IX

THE NIGHT RAID

"IT struck me," exclaimed Harry, amidst the Babel of sounds that had broken out all around them, girls and soldiers chattering like magpies in concert, "that most of the explosions came from over where our hangars are strung out! Yes, there they start up gain! Boys, I tell you it's a big raid on our aviation camp! Let's chase over there!"

They all seemed of one mind, for hardly had Harry shrilled this proposition than the three of them bolted from the exit of the hut and commenced a mad dash through the intervening woods, heading for the opening utilized by the air squads for their canvas hangars. The successive bursts of flame accompanying those frequent explosions benefited them in one way, since they were enabled to see fairly well and thus avoid pitfalls, although once or twice there was a grunt as a member of the group struck some obstacle which he had not noticed soon enough.

It did not take them long to cover the intervening ground, for by rare good luck the rest-house of the Y. M. C. A. happened to be within reasonable reach of the aviation field.

A new development in affairs had by then taken place. There was a rattle of machine-gun fire from high up in the air that seemed very significant to the Air Service boys.

"Some of the fellows were on the ground—went up—engaged the Boche! Oh, boy, how I envy them!"

Jack gasped out these words as he ran on. He was short of breath, or he might have said more. The others did not reply, partly for the same reason, and then again because of similar views. Knowing the intrepid nature of the boys so well, any one of their friends would have felt confident that both Tom and Harry were feeling jealous of those whom fortune had picked out to shower favors on by allowing them to be the first aloft and after the Boche. But now they had reached the field.

Everything seemed in the greatest confusion there—men dashing this way and that, yelling, asking questions, giving orders to hostlers, getting machines ready for flight, preparing to go aloft to share in the pursuit of the enemy planes.

There had been some damage done, Tom could see; just how much it was impossible for him even to guess. But several bombs had struck close enough to smash a number of planes, as the debris scattered around disclosed. Great was the relief of the three pilots on learning that their machines had not been in the list of those scrapped. It might have taken many days before they could be supplied with fresh "mounts," such was the demand upon the cargo space of the French railway leading to this sector of the front. That would surely have been considered little short of a calamity by such ambitious fighters as Jack Parmly, Tom Raymond, and Harry Leroy.

"No observer on hand, Jack. Would you mind going up with me?" Tom called out almost immediately.

Nothing would please Jack better than being once more the flying companion of his dearest comrade. To get a chance at the German airmen he stood ready to accept any position offered him. And, besides, he would have the handling of one gun, at any rate.

"You'd better believe I will, Tom!" he cried excitedly. "Harry, there's your assistant, with your plane ready. Get going, fellows!"

The racket still continued above, though with a fresh American air pilot leaving the ground every quarter minute the chances were the Huns would soon conclude that their usefulness was past in this neighborhood, and run for home like a herd of wild horses in full flight.

Both boys earnestly hoped the fight would carry on until they had been given a chance to get in a few shots, even if prevented from bagging any game.

"Those Huns must be taught that it isn't going to be a safe thing for them to come knocking at our door under the belief that no one is at home, and pickings will be easy," muttered Jack.

Away they sped, mounting from the ground as soon as free. Yet Tom knew better than to take too many chances. Night flying was always bound to carry more risk than when the daylight held good; so it would be the utmost folly to increase the peril in any unnecessary way.

It was a time when a pilot had full need of every faculty. To the right of them came flashes of flame accompanied by the spiteful crackle of gunfire. Rival marksmen were trying to riddle one another, sometimes flying perilously close in their eagerness.

Great shapes were coursing this way and that like giant bats. Now came a dazzling flash from far down below. The Huns had not as yet entirely exhausted their supply of bombs, and were endeavoring to make every shot count before turning homeward.

Tom fancied he could locate the Hun machine from which that bomb had been shot downward like a projectile from a catapult, passing through a tube with a forward slant in the bottom of the big bombing plane.

"Over to your right, Tom!" shrieked Jack just then, showing that he, too, had guessed the same thing, for already was the pilot in the act of swinging around in that direction.

The Boche must have sensed their coming, for he started to flee; but they were on his trail almost immediately, going like the wind. Tom opened on him, as he had charge of the bow gun. He worked the mechanism with all his old-time skill, not showing signs of any undue haste or excitement. When in the course of the chase he found that he was getting a bit too close, for the bullets were cutting the air all around them, he changed his direction.

Nor was Jack at all slow to seize upon the splendid opening which this fresh maneuver afforded him. He took up the refrain just where Tom left off; and, if anything, showed more vim in his bombardment, for he did not have the manipulation of the plane to interfere with his work with the gun.

The Hun dived and squirmed, in the hopes of throwing off such a persistent pursuer, but Tom kept after him as if grimly determined to bring one of the night-bombers down, even if he had to follow the other to his own line.

That sort of excitement was meat and drink to those daring fellows, who lived in anticipation of engaging in just such combats. Tame indeed did that day seem to them upon which they could not exchange shots with at least one enemy pilot.

Some one had met with disaster over to the left, for Tom saw a flash of descending flame and had a vague view of a figure jumping hopelessly from the doomed plane, having found means to cut loose from his safety belt. It was only "jumping from the frying pan into the fire," however, for death in another form awaited him, the ground being a quarter of a mile below.

At one moment it happened that both boys were firing together, the position of the Yankee plane allowing this unusual demonstration. And as to which of them was responsible for the bullet that sent the Boche downward in erratic circles, like a wounded duck, he trying desperately to gain an even keel before it was too late, was always fated to be a little bone of contention between Tom and Jack.



CHAPTER X

A SURPRISE FOR JACK

THE two Air Service boys followed the enemy down with a risky nose-dive, determined to make sure that he did not get away; and so were able to see him strike amidst the upper branches of the trees with a horrible crash. They themselves had a close call, and only for Tom's clever handling of his machine might have shared the fate of their victim.

Marking the spot as best they could in the darkness of the night, the boys again started upward, in the hope that there might still be other work for them to do.

"Too late!" called out Jack. "The Boche has had a stomachful and is beating it for home like all get-out. He's lost two planes and pilots, which is a heap more'n he counted on giving up for the fun of bombing our hangars. Shall we call it off and go in, Tom?"

Indeed, there was nothing else for them to do. The enemy had been forced to run before he could have dropped more than half of his stock of destructive bombs.

Back to the hut went the three boys. Harry was limping, a fact Tom noticed for the first time.

"Look here, did you run up against a Boche bullet while you were chasing around up there, Harry?" he asked solicitously.

"Not quite so bad as that, I'm glad to tell you," came the reply, as Harry stooped to rub the calf of his left leg gently. "But something struck me a nasty blow. Don't know exactly what it was, but I warrant I'll have a nice black-and-blue mark to show for it. Felt mighty queer, too, just as if you'd gone and slapped me with a lathe, flat-side out."

"I reckon," spoke up Jack, "it was a bullet striking the part of your machine that you've got sheathed in steel. You must have been resting your leg against it just where the Boche bullet struck."

"Now, strange to say, I hadn't thought of that explanation before, Jack. But I wouldn't be surprised if you'd guessed the answer. But it stung like everything for a while, and feels sore still."

"But for all that you've cause for being satisfied, Harry," Tom told him.

"Considering what would have happened to me if I didn't have that sheathing outside the frame of my plane, I guess I ought to be grateful. Do you know only to-day I was figuring whether it paid for the extra weight, and had nearly made up my mind to have it ripped off. Nothing doing about that from this time on. Saved me a bad leg I tell you, boys."

Arriving at the Y. M. C. A. shelter the boys halted at the door. It was so cozy in there the boys could always find some good excuse for bending their footsteps in that direction; and also loitering after they had finished the business that took them to the hut. So no one was surprised, or disappointed, to hear Jack call out:

"I think I upset my glass of lemonade in my hurry to clear out; and as the thirst seems worse now than ever I reckon I'll have to indulge in another of the same kind, if Miss Sallie has the fixings. Will you join me, fellows?"

"Not me, for one, Jack," said Harry. "I got all of mine down without spilling a drop. I'm not so keen as you about lemonade. But I'll go along, because these rest places are the only homelike signs we run across on the front these days."

Jack thereupon gave Tom a sly nudge in the ribs.

"I was right, it seems," he managed to whisper aside. "Keep your eye on that blue-eyed Miss Sallie, and watch for any tell-tale signs in Harry's face when he's chatting with her. But she's a mighty nice girl, all the same, and I don't blame him. Comes of a fine family, too, I'm told."

Sallie, however, was only "conspicuous by her absence," as Jack put it. In fact she had retired to seek rest, for another day's arduous work came with the morning.

Tom, as did Jack, ordered another glass of lemonade, but drank only a small portion.

"Somehow or other I seem to have lost my taste for the stuff," he explained, when this fact was drawn to his attention by Jack; "or else this girl hasn't learned the wrinkle of mixing a drink as well as Miss Sallie has. But there's something bothering me, and I was just going to ask Harry if he didn't want to take a run over to the field hospital with me."

"What's that?" exclaimed the one mentioned. "You don't think any of those Boche bombs could have fallen there, do you, Tom?"

Jack looked worried at these words.

"Well, it's to be hoped not," replied Tom. "But somehow lately the fiends have taken a savage delight in bombing British hospitals and also sinking their hospital ships when crossing the Channel, in spite of their being marked and running with all lights on. As I said before, I'm worried some. Will you go with me, Harry?"

"But we couldn't undertake the trip without special permission, don't you know?" objected the other; though his manner told how gladly he would accompany Tom if given half a chance.

"Oh, I've got my permit, which is good until one A. M. to-night," explained Tom. "And as you're still limping some I can manage that you're allowed to keep me company; only you must make sure to let the hospital surgeon take a look at that leg of yours while we're there, and have it bound up. I must save my face, understand?"

Harry gave Tom an eloquent look.

"You are certainly the limit, Tom," he avowed. "But I've always heard that a poor excuse was better than none at all. So, as you've got me anxious about my sister, why, yes, I'll be glad to go along with you."

"How about you, Jack?" Tom queried, turning on the remaining member of the trio.

"Thanking you all the same I believe I'll stay here for a while longer, as two ought to be enough to see the job through. The raid was not in that direction, so the hospital is safe. Jeanne will be asleep so we can't see her, or else I would go. No, I'll stay here, and when I get good and tired I'll drop over to quarters, and hit the hay for a sound sleep."

"I reckon we can trust you. Especially," added Tom, with an eye on Harry's face, "since Miss Sallie has disappeared for the night."

When he saw Harry turn red Tom felt satisfied that he and Jack had indeed guessed the other's secret, though he said nothing to indicate the fact.

Jack saw the two depart, and wandered here and there, chatting with some of the boys, who evidently meant to hang around until the last minute before closing time came.

He found himself yawning several times, and admitted that he would be foolish to spend any more time in trying to keep awake, when even a half-way decent bunk awaited his occupancy.

He had reached the door in the act of departing when he became aware of the fact that there was an unusual bustle without. On looking to see what it meant Jack found that a Red Cross ambulance had drawn up alongside the dugout entrance. Some persons were issuing forth from the interior of the motor vehicle.

Jack knew that these long distance ambulances, after taking a load of badly injured fighting men all the way it might be to Paris, on the return journey would often be loaded down with fresh surgical supplies. Yes, and on several occasions he had even known them to bring new nurses to the fighting front, to take the place of those who had been injured or fallen sick.

As everything of that sort had a special interest for Jack, he watched several trim figures emerge from the motor transport vehicle. All of a sudden he gave a start, straightened himself up, looked eagerly again, rubbing his eyes at the same time, and then with an exclamation hurried forward.

A girl in khaki garments that told of the Y. M. C. A. worker had just alighted. She was followed by an older woman, who seemed to be the last of the quartette and who was evidently in charge of the detachment, for Jack saw that the others deferred to her judgment.

In half a dozen strides he was over at the spot.

"Bessie!"

The girl with the rosy cheeks and bright eyes turned quickly on hearing him call this name softly. A smile flashed over her face, and instinctively her hand was extended cordially:

"Oh, Jack, how glad I am to see you!" she exclaimed.

Jack then greeted the older woman. After a few words Mrs. Gleason said:

"I hardly know what to do, as we ought to be at the field hospital, and here the driver has dropped us, naturally from our costumes, before the Y. M. C. A. hut. But of course you can advise me."

"Certainly I can," Jack hastened to say. "I'll see that he takes you on as soon as he unloads some things I notice he has for the people here. Yes, and for fear that you get lost I'll try to go along with you, for there's the officer who can give me permission to leave quarters."

"Where are Tom and Harry?" asked Bessie, for she noticed that the nurses who had also come in the ambulance were listening with smiles to this conversation, and it embarrassed her.

"Over at the hospital. We'll possibly meet them there," replied Jack. "But I'll tell you all about it while on the way, Bessie."



CHAPTER XI

THE PROWLERS

THE officer must have thought there was a great attraction over at the field hospital for certain members of his air squadron, considering the frequency of the calls upon him for permission to visit there.

However, he granted the request without hesitation, though Jack thought there was a quizzical gleam in his eyes as he turned and took a good look at the younger of the "friends" whom the lad said he wished to pilot to her temporary quarters.

Besides, the two Air Service boys happened to be prime favorites of his, and consequently he was in a humor to go far out of his way to grant any reasonable request either of them might make.

So presently they were seated once more in the ambulance along with the nurses and heading for the spot where the humble sheds and tents stood which constituted the American field hospital in that sector of the Argonne.

"Now tell me all that's happened since I saw you last, Jack," demanded Bessie, with a little show of authority that amused, yes, and also pleased the other; for boys like to be domineered over at times by a pretty tyrant.

"Couldn't begin to do it in this little ride, Bessie," he assured her. "But I'll take the first chance I can find to spin the whole yarn."

"I'm certain you boys have been carrying on up here with your usual rashness," she told him. "I've had my heart in my throat, so to speak, every day, when the news would filter in from our front, together with a partial list of the lost, for fear I'd see one of your names there. And when some particularly daring feat of a Yankee air pilot was mentioned I could just picture you or Tom as the hero."

At that Jack laughed, although feeling highly complimented.

"Thank you, Bessie, for being such a fine little champion!" he exclaimed. "But we don't claim to be the equal of a lot of the clever aces now strafing the Boche along our American sector. Of course we meet with our little adventures in the course of our daily work; but they've been mere trifles beside some of the fine things others of the boys have done."

"Well," Bessie told him, "knowing you as I do, Jack, I wouldn't accept your judgment in the matter. Your friends are better able to decide that."

"Here we are already at the hospital," put in Mrs. Gleason. "I couldn't write to Nellie just when we were coming, for that depended on when we could get transportation. But she had told me she could put us up temporarily until we found quarters with the Y. M. C. A. outfit. She will be surprised to see us, and I hope pleased, too."

"I warrant you she will be delighted," asserted Jack confidently.

Great was the surprise of Nellie and Tom when Jack and the Gleasons burst upon them. Harry was at another part of the temporary makeshift building talking to an orderly at the time.

Such subdued chattering as followed. Jack, seeing that Bessie and Mrs. Gleason were very tired, did not mean to linger long. Bessie would probably speedily take up her duties at the hut, and consequently he could see her every evening if he chose.

So the three boys a little later on once more turned their faces in the direction of the camp. As they walked along they found much to talk about, although it might have been noticed that Tom and Harry did most of the exchanging of opinions, Jack seemingly being too much engrossed with his thoughts, a fact that caused the others to pass many a significant glance back and forth.

It chanced that some question arose, bringing out quite a warm discussion concerning a certain appliance which Harry was trying out on his battleplane, and of which a friend was the inventor.

"I've tested it twice now, Tom, and no matter what you say I believe it will do the business," Harry stoutly affirmed.

"That may be," Tom answered him. "Mind I'm not stubborn enough to condemn a thing I don't quite understand; but I'd want to be shown before I owned up beaten in the argument. Somehow, it doesn't seem possible to me that it can work."

"That's what they all told Columbus before he started on his trip into that unknown western sea," jeered Harry. "Poor old Fulton, too, was laughed at when he said he could make a boat go through the water without sails or oars. And what of Morse sending telegrams hundreds of miles by using a wire and a battery?"

"Oh, I know that's so," retorted Tom, unwilling to back down. "But I refuse to believe this will work automatically without ever a hitch. An air pilot's life hangs in the balance, and if it fails to make connections it's good-night for him."

"I warrant I can convince you inside of five minutes after you've examined the contrivance!"

"All right then, I'll take you up on that."

"When will you go to my hangar with me?" demanded the other, at which Tom laughingly answered:

"Any time you say—right away, if you feel like it. I'm a firm believer in the old saying, 'Never put off till to-morrow what you can do to-day.' Besides, Harry, I admit that you've got my curiosity aroused."

"Call it a bargain, then!" snapped the other, not to be outdone. "Won't take twenty minutes in all, and perhaps I can give you something to sleep over."

"Seems to me," Jack remarked, with a yawn, "you fellows are bound to keep on the go all night long. What with that raid, and our chase after the Hun, then the trip to the field hospital for various purposes, and now back once more to the hangars, just to settle a disputed question, you're keeping things moving pretty well."

"Oh, well," remarked Tom, "you can climb into your little bed, such as it is in these strenuous days, Jack—and dream."

Jack did not reply. Perhaps he considered that it would be wise not to appear to notice these sly thrusts on the part of his chum. Perhaps he did not care who noticed that he and Bessie were such good friends.

So when they arrived in camp he turned aside to seek his sleeping place under a khaki-colored tent, while the other boys continued along the trail leading to the field of the hangars, which had so recently been the objective of the Boche bombing raid.

It took the boys considerably longer to pass from one to the other place than on the occasion of their last trip; but then the night now was comparatively quiet, and no hostile squadron hovered overhead to drop terrible engines of destruction from the sky and arouse a furious bombardment in return, from the batteries of anti-aircraft guns below.

Harry was still feeling ugly toward the enemy who could show such disregard for all the accepted rules of civilized warfare. He continued to vent these feelings as he walked along, unable to get it out of his mind. But this could be understood since he had a sister in an exposed hospital, whose life was in danger from the barbaric acts of the Hun fliers.

"They seem nowadays to take a savage delight in bombing hospitals, and then finding all sorts of excuses for doing such a thing," he told Tom. "I declare, they put me in mind of a cruel wolf more than anything else."

"On my part," his companion immediately asserted, "I'd liken them to a mad dog, snapping and snarling as he runs along the street, but it shows how desperate they feel their cause to be."

"Guess you're right, Tom. I humbly apologize to the wolf," chuckled the other quickly. "He's had a bad name out West, but on the whole those cow-punchers must call him a clean fighter alongside some of these Huns."

"Well, here we are at the field," observed Tom. "Now I'm waiting to be shown, if I'm not from Missouri. And, Harry, understand that I'm open to conviction. If I find that you've got something wonderful here, I'll frankly acknowledge the fact, and eat humble pie."

"I know you will. That's why I'm so eager to show you what a fine thing my friend Jason has got up in this little trick. My hangar lies over this way. Come along and——"

Harry stopped in the middle of the sentence, stopped walking too, and laid a hand on his companion's arm.

"What did you see?" asked Tom in a whisper; for somehow he sensed the fact that Harry had made some sort of discovery calculated to thrill them both.

"Stand still, Tom!" hissed the other. "I didn't like the way that chap dodged down over there. Couldn't have been one of the guards, for they stick to their posts. I wonder now if one of those Boche planes dropped a spy close to our field here!"

The idea was in line with Tom's reasoning. According to his mind the Germans were getting desperate, and ready to attempt the rashest of enterprises in the hope of checking this daily advance of the Yankees under Pershing.

As much of the success of the latter depended on the work of their flying squads in discovering the hidden machine-gun nests, and betraying their position to the gunners, it stood to reason that the Germans felt an ever growing hatred toward the airmen. Hence that night raid which had been so neatly parried. Yes, Tom could easily believe what his comrade suggested.

"Show me where you saw the sneak, Harry," he pleaded, as they continued to crouch in the semi-gloom; for after that recent attack from the skies almost every light about the aviation field had been extinguished, and they felt obliged to depend on the stars to show them where the various hangars lay.

"Notice that extra high hangar over there," came the soft reply. "That's Beresford's, you know, where he keeps his monster four-man plane. The Huns may have got wind of something unusual, and are plotting to destroy his jumbo aircraft before he smothers them in a fight. There, did you see that again?"

"It was a man slipping across from one shadow to another, as sure as anything," breathlessly admitted the second watcher.

"No fellow would act that way unless he wanted to keep from being seen, would he?" asked Harry.

"You're right there. Oh! I saw a second one follow him then, Harry!"

"Yes, there's a pair of the creepers. That makes me believe more than ever they were aboard one of those bombing planes, Tom."

"It might be they fell when one of the Hun raiding planes was knocked out," suggested the other, as an idea struck him. "Only one went down in flames, I remember now. Those in the other may have managed to make a safe landing, and bent on hitting us a crack before trying to get back to their lines, they've crept into the camp here."

"Carrying some grenades, I'd like to wager, which they can use in kicking up a big row, under cover of which they'll scoot off," Harry went on.

"We must put a peg in their plans then," whispered Tom. "It'd be a shame to let them do what their pilots failed in, and blow up a part of our hangar field here."

"If they do they'll go up with the planes then!" Harry gritted between his set teeth. "Come, let's move on and corner the Huns!"

This suited Tom. Discretion might have caused them to alarm the camp and in this way cause the prowlers to disappear. But ambition, on the other hand, had fired the hearts of the two boys. They saw an opportunity to get in a telling blow by capturing those two spies. It was a chance to gain a little fresh glory, as well as to protect the monster plane of Beresford.

Accordingly they commenced to move forward, bending low and taking advantage of every dense shadow that came in their way. Their objective was the hangar that afforded shelter during the night to the novel and as yet untried monster plane, of which so much was expected, and rumors concerning which might have even sifted into the enemy lines.

Of course both Tom and Harry were keenly on the alert for the first fresh sign of the prowling enemy, whose designs they had set out to balk. Very probably the Huns would resist desperately, and there might be a fight. Tom felt his heart beat tumultuously, but such a thing as fear did not enter into his calculations.



CHAPTER XII

A LIVELY CHASE

"THEY'VE gone," presently whispered Tom, in a disappointed tone.

"Only hiding somewhere near by," Harry assured him, equally careful to lower his voice. "We'll begin to circle around, and presently rout them out. Be ready to jump the first chance you get, and let out a whoop at the same time. It'll give 'em a shock, and start 'em to running. Then we'll soon have a pack on their heels."

"What if they use their trench grenades on us?" asked Tom.

"Not likely to except as a last resort. But we've got to take the chances. Dodge, that's all. Now to swing around the big hangar."

Harry squeezed his companion's arm while saying this. Both of them were fairly quivering with the excitement, just as highly strung race horses can be seen quivering while prancing up and down awaiting the tap of the bell that summons them to the wire for the start.

It was not pitch-dark, but even the possessor of keen eyesight would have had to look closely in order to make certain that a moving object was a human being and not a dog.

Harry's surmise proved to be well founded, for they quickly discovered a suspicious movement close to the large hangar. Yes, the two Hun spies were undoubtedly there, and already busily engaged in doing something that could only mean trouble for the American escadrille.

Closer the pair of watchers crept. They could now hear the men whispering as they worked, and Tom even believed he caught a guttural German word used. This convinced him their theory was founded on fact, and that these were secret enemies in the camp.

Another half minute and he felt Harry nudge him. That meant the other believed the time had arrived for them to make their leap; and when he felt his companion start Tom stirred himself.

Both let out a yell as they sprang forward. Tom more than half expected to hear an explosion, thinking the Huns, on finding themselves caught in the act, would fire their grenades promptly.

Nothing of the kind came about. Instead both men instantly dropped flat and started to roll away with incredible swiftness, as though escape was the first thought in their minds.

Tom hurled himself through space. His intention was to pin one of the spies to the ground and try to hold him there until help came. Their outcries would of course arouse every man within hundreds of yards of the spot, and lights must soon be brought to bear on the scene.

Although Tom's calculations may have been all right, he did not meet with as much success as he had probably anticipated. Perhaps the wary Boche guessed what was coming; at any rate he succeeded in squirming from under, and when Tom landed it was only to feel the other rolling out of his reach.

But he went after him like lightning, bent on attaining his goal.

The Hun was scrambling desperately in the endeavor to get on his feet. Tom hurled him over, and closed with him. Finding his escape thus cut off, the other commenced to fight like a tiger, clawing and struggling furiously.

They had it "hammer-and-tongs" for a brief space of time. Then Tom slipped and lost his grip, upon which the other rolled over several times, got to his knees, then his feet, and started to run.

But he counted without reckoning on the staying qualities of the American. Tom had always been called a "sticking-plaster" by his fellow players on the football field. He was not to be counted out of the game until the last whistle sounded and the referee's falling hand closed the fun.

So he was after his man with grim determination not to let him get away. Having gone to so much trouble, and received in addition several scratches in the contest, he meant to keep everlastingly at it.

The Boche dodged to one side, as there were men running toward them, and already several lights had sprung up. Tom was close at his heels, and gaining rapidly, being spurred on by an ambition to complete the good work he and Harry had started.

He saw the spy glance back over his shoulder. The situation must have appeared very grave to the other, who could expect to meet with short shrift if caught in the act of trying to destroy the hangars and planes of the American aviators in this bold fashion.

Just then Tom saw the man raise his arm. Guessing what he intended to do, the Yankee air pilot dodged just in time. Some object went hissing past, close to his head. An instant later there was a loud explosion in his rear that seemed to make the very air quiver.

Of course the Boche had hurled a grenade with the intention of making further pursuit on the part of his persistent adversary impossible.

Tom hoped that was the extent of his supply of such ammunition, for he might not be quite so successful in avoiding the bomb another time.

Again was the fleeing spy compelled to whirl aside because of threatening peril ahead. Dodging in and out between the khaki-colored canvas field hangars he sought desperately to throw Tom off his track; but no hound ever followed its quarry with more pertinacity than the Yankee air pilot followed now.

Then something happened. Tom came in collision with a runner, so that the two of them fell headlong to the ground. By instinct Tom hugged the other in his arms. He suspected on the spur of the moment that this might be the other spy, trying to elude Harry, and cutting across his track by the merest chance.

The fellow struggled furiously, but Tom managed to get a good hold on him, and kept it tenaciously. As the other was also clutching him his further pursuit of the fleeing spy seemed doomed to failure; and so Tom felt that the only thing left was to make sure of this party.

"Hey, Tom, let go! You're choking me!" came a voice that electrified him, and caused him to release his clutch.

After all it was Harry upon whom he had fallen, Harry who having lost all track of his man was rushing wildly this way and that in hope of once again getting in touch with the fellow.

"Quick, before it's too late, join me!" shrilled Tom, scrambling to his feet again as best he could, and feeling angry because of this ridiculous accident. "There he goes, Harry! After him again!"

So they both started once more to run at top speed. The agile spy had been able to put considerable distance between them while his pursuers struggled on the ground, and seemed likely to escape. But there was one thing that stood in his way.

Men were running this way and that in every direction, calling to one another, and trying to understand what all the row was about. A squad of oncoming hostlers blocked his passage. They evidently were beginning to get light on the situation, for discovering the panting runner they now set up a concerted shout.

This compelled the hunted Boche to turn again on his heel, and so he lost a portion of his previous gain. Tom took fresh heart on seeing this. Given one or two such lifts as this, and he believed he would again come to hand grips with the fellow. And with Harry close at his heels he fancied the next encounter would surely terminate badly for the Hun spy.

"Spread out some, Harry!" he managed to shout.

His object in saying this was to make it more difficult for the Boche to hold his own when necessity compelled him to veer to one side. They dodged the hangars that barred the way, running in and out of the lines with the swiftness of a hare followed by the eager hounds.

Once a waiting figure tried to bar the path of the spy, only to be promptly bowled over. Desperation nerved the arm that struck that blow. The German knew that his chances were almost at the zero mark, and for the time being he was like a wolf at bay, ready to snap right and left and do what damage he could before yielding himself a prisoner.

Once more Tom had made a gain. The Fates were favoring him, it seemed, and with set teeth he kept up the hot chase.

Suddenly the Hun collapsed.

Tom almost fell over him as he ran on; and when Harry came up was bending above the spy, muttering to himself after the manner of a sadly disappointed person.

"What rotten luck for us, after all our work, Harry!" he complained, to the utter bewilderment of his comrade.

"I don't get your meaning, Tom!" exclaimed Harry. "This is one of the Huns, all right, and we've got him at last. What is there to kick about, I'd like to know?"

"Why, don't you understand? He's wounded!" said Tom scornfully.

"Wounded! How?" echoed the other, still groping for the truth.

"Somebody shot him in the leg!" explained Tom, in disgust. "Just as I was bound to jump him in another ten seconds! Did you ever hear of such tough luck? Took the wind right out of our sails, he did, by using his gun. If he'd put a bullet in my leg I could hardly feel madder, for a fact."

Harry, however, quickly chuckled, as though he did not look at the matter in the same way as his chum seemed to.

"Oh, well, the main thing isn't that we'd get a little glory from the capture of the Hun," he said, "but that their desperate game has been blocked. But this chap seems to be groaning as if suffering, Tom. He ought to be taken care of, Boche or not."

"Yes, that's right, Harry," added the other, for the time being crushing down his disappointment.

As some of the attendants of the aviation field came up just at that moment there was need for explanations. Among them Tom noticed one who, as he well knew, had charge of the hangars during the night.

"Lieutenant Simmons, here's a Boche spy who, with a companion, was trying to bomb the big Beresford plane. Sorry we couldn't round up both of them. This fellow has been shot, and ought to have attention. Now, Harry, if you don't mind, we'll step around to your hangar and look into the little job that brought us over here from the camp."

Tom really wished to get away from the crowd that was gathering. He had no liking for being made an object of special interest. Although always eager to attempt unusual exploits, it was only to please himself, and not because of any reward or a morbid desire to be looked on as a hero.

Harry was not quite as diffident, and might have liked to linger a bit to explain further how they had managed to discover the creeping figures, and, having their suspicions aroused, closed in on them.

"I can see you later, Lieutenant, and answer any questions you may want to ask about this stuff," he remarked, as he followed Tom away from the group.

Tom was still "huffy" as Harry called it. He seemed to feel that the ambitious marksman who had taken a pot-shot at the runner ahead had really cheated him out of half the pleasure accompanying the capture of the spy.

"I heard one big splash," Harry said, "which I take it was made by a trench grenade. Did that Boche try to knock you out, Tom?"

"Oh, he let loose with one of his sort, but it was the easiest thing going to duck under. He's got a lot to learn about flinging those little knockers underhand. It takes a baseball pitcher to do the trick right. How about your man, Harry?"

The other gave a grunt of disgust.

"Nothing doing with that slick dodger, I tell you, Tom. He must have been a premium sprinter when at home, for the way he dodged in and out made my brain reel. I kept after him as best I could, but, shucks! he was in another class from me. And so I lost him in the shuffle. He disappeared just like a wisp of smoke in the breeze."

"But you were still running like a hare when we banged into each other, unless I'm greatly mistaken," continued Tom humorously.

"Sure I was! Trying to get a fresh glimpse of my duck. When I hit you I thought it was that Boche, and then a light fell on your face, coming from that head-lamp on a motor truck some one suddenly turned on. I reckon I'll have a beautiful lump on my forehead where I struck against a pole while running. It knocked me flat, and that was when I lost my man."

Tom now began to laugh.

"A pretty lively skirmish, all told, when you come to think of it," he observed. "I'll have to forget about that chap who was too quick on the trigger, and only add up results. One Boche spy captured, wounded; and the other gets away. But he's had his scare good and hard, and there's little danger of his giving us any more trouble."

Whatever became of the captured Boche neither of them ever knew. Perhaps he was simply taken to the hospital and treated for his wound, as so many of his fellow Huns had been; and then again did time permit and opportunity arise he might be tried by drumhead courtmartial on the serious charge of being a spy.

Having satisfied themselves with regard to the matter in dispute, the two boys later on returned once more to the camp and sought to secure some much needed sleep, fully conscious that the duties of the coming day would again sap their energies and bring them renewed chances for thrilling action.



CHAPTER XIII

THE WINNING OF THE ARGONNE

DAYS passed and each setting sun saw the Yankee boys in khaki further along the terrible trail they had set out to follow to the end. Another mile, perhaps two, of the dense Argonne Forest had been redeemed, and the stubborn foe sent reeling backward.

The end was in sight, many believed. Once they passed out of the vast stretch of woods, the pace of the retreating enemy must be accelerated, though of course he would take advantage of every ravine, abandoned farm building, destroyed hamlet and village that offered sites for machine-guns, on which Hindenburg was coming to rely more than on his Big Berthas.

They made the Yankee pay the price for it all, even though the famous Kriemhild-Stellung line was broken in the end. In addition to the heavy blanketing of woods, hills and ravines intersected the forest at intervals. These very often were knee deep in mud, through which the fighters from overseas had to wade as they pushed steadily on.

Then there were barbed wire defenses, sometimes twenty feet in height, with the hills and surrounding country villages fortified with acres of rapid-fire guns, often in vast nests, and requiring the work of batteries to blast them out of the path.

During all these days they had charged through villages, fought through morasses, forded swollen streams, bayoneted machine gunners at their posts, and used their rifles as clubs when they came to grips with the foe in the wire entanglements.

Hunger and thirst joined hands with the enemy. Gas attack followed charge, and charge succeeded gas attack. From overhead Boche planes rained bombs down upon them. Comrades fell on every hand, and the cries of the wounded rose above the shrieking of shrapnel and shell.

And day after day the young air-service boys rendered their full duty to the cause they stood for. Filled with the ardor that spurs patriots on to do astonishing feats they never shirked when the order came that sent them again and again into the air to measure wits with the Boche fliers.

Hardly a day but what there was a vacancy in the ranks of those gallant airmen who were so willingly giving their service in answer to their country's call. More than a few had been sent to the hospital from which they would only emerge, it might be, cripples for life, but doubtless thankful to have escaped even a sadder fate.

Tom and Jack, as well as Harry Leroy, had had their close calls, but somehow it seemed as though they were watched over by a kind Providence, for so far none of them had met with a serious mishap.

There were compensations, too; for after a hard day's work in the air how pleasant it was for Jack to lounge in the temporary field hut of the Red Triangle and watch Bessie's nimble fingers handing out hot coffee, sandwiches, or any of the hundred-and-one things which those industrious workers managed to have in store for the wearers of Uncle Sam's khaki, so as to make them feel that here was indeed a touch of home life, though far removed from the actual thing.

And then perhaps from time to time, when Bessie was relieved by some other worker, how delightful it was to find a chance to sit with her, sipping tea, and chatting.

Of course Jack had long ago confided to her all that had happened to him and to Tom and Harry since last they had met in Paris. If he was over modest in his descriptions, especially when speaking of his personal doings, why, Bessie had imagination, and could easily color the narrative to suit her own ideas of what was fit and proper.

This sort of thing could not keep up indefinitely, of course.

The losses which the American army was sustaining were very severe, for they never allowed themselves to be balked of their object. If they found after trying that it was impossible to secure what they were after one way, they turned around and went at it from a second, perhaps even a third angle, but what in the end they gained their objective.

But it was known that they had now arrived close to the northern edge of that vast wooded tract. For twenty-three days they had battled continuously and pushed their lines forward in a way that must have been peculiarly discouraging to Hindenburg.

His generals, who knew the ground best, had assured the Hun commander that no army on earth could ever force the Argonne Forest, defended as it was by every possible contrivance ever invented by a cunning Boche brain. Yet here in October those persistent Yankees were on the point of emerging from the bloody shambles, and ready to continue the drive to the banks of the Rhine, if need be.

It was on one of those never-to-be-forgotten October nights that Jack entered the tent that was being used as the temporary rest house for the Y. M. C. A. workers, with a hastily dug hole adjoining where the girls could seek shelter in case the Boche became troublesome with his shells or bombs. He motioned to Tom whom he found chatting with Bessie.

The place was crowded as usual. Some of the doughboys had taken possession of the battered old piano, moved up each day as though it were their choicest possession, as indeed it really was. They sang their favorite songs over and over again, and seemed to enjoy every minute of the time.

It was no easy thing to make oneself heard with so much noise going on; but Tom obeyed the signal of his chum, under the conviction that Jack must have something of more or less importance which he wished to communicate.

"What's in the wind this time, Jack?" he asked lightly, when he found himself alongside the other. "Any more spies trying to blow up our hangars?"

"Forget all that now. I want to speak to you about Helene, Tom."

"Oh, yes! We've almost forgotten all about Helene these days, what with our many duties in the field and the air. What's new concerning little Jeanne's sister, Jack?"

"Well, I haven't been neglecting the job I undertook, all the same," came the steady answer. "Never a batch of Boche prisoners is put behind the barbed-wire enclosure but what I find a chance to look 'em over and air my limited German vocabulary."

"Trying to find out if there are any Lorrainers in the bunch—is that what you mean?"

"It is," the other told him, smiling at the accurate guess made by Tom.

"I suppose," continued Tom, "you've run across quite a few of them, and some Alsatians in the bargain; for the Prussian war-lords saw to it that few, if any, escaped the draft."

"Oh, I picked out dozens of men who claimed they had homes in Lorraine, and every mother's son of them was fighting in the Hun army because of compulsion. A lot of them lied, of course, because their names told that they came of German stock, their people having settled there after the war of Seventy-one had given the country to Germany."

"And at last ran across the one you most wanted to meet, did you?"

"I did come on a chap who admitted his home was just on the other side of the border, and who knew all about General von Berthold. Yes, and the Anstey family as well. From him I learned that Gerald Anstey was the name of Jeanne's and Helena's father. He was English, of course, and married into that Lorraine family."

"Dead, I suppose?" asked Tom.

"It has been believed so for four years now," replied Jack. "Anstey tried to leave the country in order to join the British regiment to which he belonged, but was followed by the Guards, and they say shot down like a dog. Anyway he's never been heard from in all these years."

"And is the general really the man who took Helene away?" Tom demanded.

"No question about it. This man told me he was connected with the family Mrs. Anstey sprang from. Better still, Tom, this same Lorrainer was at the old chateau just a few days ago, sent there on duty because of his being from the same section of country as von Berthold, he says. And, Tom, he saw Helene!"

"You're getting closer and closer all the time, Jack, let me tell you. If you didn't give him a clue to make him say that, it's very important."

"Oh, I was careful not to let him know why I was interested in von Berthold. When he happened to say he had seen a child there that he could remember having noticed at the Anstey home of course I pumped him, and led him along until he declared that he felt certain it was either Jeanne or Helene."

"I'm glad that point is settled," Tom admitted. "After this we can know what ground we stand on, if ever we find a chance to make a call as uninvited guests on General von Berthold."

"Speed the day!" said Jack. "The sooner it comes the better I'll be pleased. Nellie told me that she hears from Jeanne every few days, for the ambulances pass the door of the little half-demolished house where she has found a temporary home before going to Paris; and the drivers carry notes for Nellie, stopping for answers on the return trip."

"I can easily understand that!" Tom exclaimed eagerly, unconsciously giving himself away. "For who could resist Nellie's sweet smile? Certainly no warm-hearted Yankee ambulance driver with a girl back home who is often in his thoughts. Some fellows would wade through fire and water for a smile from Nellie."

"That's right, too, Tom," admitted Jack promptly. "And they'd feel well repaid for doing it too. I know one who doesn't hesitate to say so. But see here, I'm going to propose something to you, old fellow."

"I can give a pretty shrewd guess what it is. You carry your secrets in your face, Jack. Nothing of the cunning conspirator about you, for a fact. You're going to suggest that we plan some sort of a campaign, by means of which we can pay a flying visit to this old chateau and surprise the famous general, perhaps relieve him of the voluntary charge he's taken on his shoulders by carrying Helene away with us."

"You hit the bull's-eye the first shot, Tom. That is just what I had in mind. Please don't try to throw cold water on my hopes by saying it can't be done."

"Make your mind easy on that score, Jack. I'm just as eager as you can be to drop in on the general and bring Helene back to her twin sister."

"I'm right glad to hear you say that. Fact is, I ought to be ashamed to suspect for a single second that you'd decline to back me up. Now the only question that's left is to set the time."

"That may have to be settled by circumstances just now beyond our control," Tom told him, very seriously.

Jack seeing him look around so carefully sensed something of importance.

"See here, what ails you, Tom? You've got something held back, I just know. Is that fair to me, your old chum? I've been told there was an extra big event in the air, but no one seemed able to get a line on it. Those who did know kept it a dead secret. Are you one of them? And won't you put me wise, Tom?"

"I've kept it a secret for two days, until I'm ready to burst," admitted Tom, with a sigh of relief. "Just a bit ago I received permission to mention it to you, as the observer who was to accompany me is out of the running, and they gave me my choice of another. Of course I took you, Jack."

"It's well you did, because I'd never have forgiven you if you'd gone back on your old pal," Jack replied, nodding his head. "Now tell me what it's all about. Are we going to blast the Kaiser out of his throne?"

"It amounts to about that, I'd say, Jack. Listen. The High Command have laid out a scheme to knock the last prop out from under Fritz. There's a certain stronghold they're banking on as a bulwark of safety in case we do succeed in breaking through here. Get that, Jack?"

"Yes, spin away, Tom."

"All right. Well, they've been getting all kinds of secret information about this particular spot, and it's on the map to knock it sky-high!"

"Bomb it, you mean, of course?"

"We've got a new kind of bomb, it seems, said to be three times as powerful in its effects as the best the Huns handle. Our leaders are anxious that it should be tried out against this stronghold that the Boche seems to think is going to hold Pershing's boys up for ever so long."

"Great stunt! And say, I'm mighty glad you got a chance to pull me into the game, Tom. Never forget it, I tell you."

"Don't mention it, Jack. I'll be three times as happy with you beside me, than if I had to have another alongside. But that isn't quite all, boy."

"What, even more coming?" gasped the delighted Jack.

"It seems that rumors have reached us that Ludendorff has his present headquarters in a chateau among the hills that can be easily reached by the bombing plane squadron on their way to the main objective. Yes, and would you believe it, they even suspect that the Old Fox of the Hills, Von Hindenburg himself, is there right now, in consultation with his chief general. Think of a double killing, Jack, will you?"

Jack went through a pantomime that indicated his abounding joy over the prospect of cutting off the responsible heads of the enemy at a single blow.

"This sounds good to me," he said. "And now, Tom, what has it all to do with the prospect of our paying that visit to Jeanne's uncle, and forcing him to give up little Helene? Tell me that!"



CHAPTER XIV

SELECTED FOR SPECIAL DUTY

"REMEMBER," Tom said again very solemnly, "this is a dead secret, Jack."

"Not a whisper will get away from me, I give you my word on that," hastily replied the other. "And my word is as good as my bond, any day."

"So it is. I only cautioned you as I did because the same secrecy was impressed on me at the time I was taken into the matter. That was why I couldn't give even you a hint. But it's all right now. As to your question, Jack, it might happen that we would get separated from the rest of the bunch on the return journey, and, if so, why, you see, we could take a little spin around the district where that other chateau lies."

"Yes," added Jack thoughtfully, but with a gleam in his eye, "accidents are apt to happen in even the best regulated families; and it isn't very strange for aviators to get a little mixed in their bearings."

"Especially," Tom went on to say without the ghost of a smile, "when on a night-bombing expedition; for a thousand things are apt to come up, all calculated to bother the best of pilots, and throw him out of his reckoning."

"Why, we've been through that mill more than a few times, you remember, Tom. I could mention at least three occasions when we couldn't tell where we were and had to go it blind for a time. Fortunately, we got home all right where some fellows might have been less lucky."

"Well, that's all I'm going to tell you now, for the reason that it's the extent of my own information," Tom wound up with. "And since the hour is growing pretty late I reckon two tired fellows I know had better be getting over to their bunks."

"One thing more, Tom," urged the other.

"All right, but hurry along, for I saw Bessie looking this way as if she had something to say; and you interrupted our conversation in a very interesting part."

Jack grinned, and said:

"It will stay interrupted, too, for I am going to have the last word with Bessie. But I was wondering whether the officers would want us to work to-morrow, and keep up this flying for victory business, as the boys have taken to calling the work we're doing here over the Argonne these days?"

"Oh! How careless of me to forget to tell you about that! No, all of those who have been selected for this enterprise are to get a holiday to-morrow, so they can be fresh for the night work. We're to lie around, take things easy, eat doughnuts as fast as the Salvation Army girls can fry them, and get in trim for strenuous work."

Jack sighed.

"Suits me all right," he admitted. "Haven't had much vacation for three weeks or so now, and it gets a bit monotonous buzzing over those treetops, asking Fritz to pop away at you so as to coax him to betray his warm nest down below, and then making signs to our boys so as to locate it for them."

"All of us who haven't been piloting bombing planes will feel about the same way, Jack. I know a day off is going to make me feel fresh and dandy.

"Besides," went on Tom, as if incidentally, "there's a fellow over at the hospital that I'm interested in. His name is Fred Lincoln, and he was hurt yesterday in one of the skirmishes in the woods. I couldn't find out how bad his wounds were, but he was having me take some letters of his only three days ago, telling me then he had a queer feeling he was going to get his before long, and asking me to send them home for him if it happened."

"I remember Fred," said Jack, looking sorry to hear the news. "He's a fine boy at that. He was married only a week before the draft took him. Said the war had nothing to do with his getting spliced, as they had been engaged for two years. I hope he comes through. Remember me to him; and also to his nurse—if she happens to be named Nellie."

"Sure. Are you off to bed now?" as the other turned away.

"In five minutes or so, after I've spoken to Bessie," came the answer.

Jack was as good as his word, and the two chums were soon preparing for another night's sound sleep, hoping they would not be aroused by any disturbance, such as had occurred on that other night.

In this at least they were lucky. The Germans had evidently suffered so severely on account of that other raid they did not care to repeat it.

So the night passed altogether in peaceful fashion; that is, for such times of warfare, where hundreds of thousands of fighting men, backed by unlimited batteries and monster guns, were daily grappling in what was destined to go down in history as the most extraordinary, as well as the most protracted, engagement of the entire war.

The boys were up early, and Harry Leroy seemed surprised when told that the two air service boys did not expect to fly that day.

"Something's up, I warrant," he told them bluntly, "and you're bound to keep a tight upperlip about it. All right, I wouldn't ask you to whisper just one word to me; only I feel sore because they have left me out of the game. But I never was lucky in drawing prizes. I'll go out and vent my spleen on some Fritz who happens to get in my way."

When the airmen trailed in toward noon on that October day, first, rumors reached Tom and Jack, and then came the plain story connected with Harry's extraordinary conduct on that wonderful morning.

Other pilots said the boy seemed to be possessed of a spirit such as they had never known him to show before. He hunted out the Boche wherever he could find him, forced him to give battle, and then simply played with him, no matter if he chanced to be one of the best-known German aces.

Two he had sent down in flames, for which he would receive due credit; and there were reports that he had also made as many more drop to the earth in a condition of impotence.

"Why," said a pilot who recounted some of these happenings to the air service boys, "Harry seemed possessed of a reckless spirit that will be the death of him yet unless he curbs it. He'll soon have the entire Boche escadrille on his tail, crazy to fetch him down. And if he keeps up this sort of work and lives, he'll soon make our leading ace look to his laurels."

When Harry came in finally he looked flushed, but triumphant.

"What's all this we hear about your carrying-on this morning?" demanded Jack, almost immediately.

"Oh, I just made up my mind that I'd got to have a special day of it, that's all," replied the other carelessly. "They wouldn't let me go along with you chaps, and I had to do something to let the ugliness get out; so I put it up to Fritz. And, say, I've had a glorious time, too."

He refused pointblank to tell them anything more at the time, so they had to pick up all their information through other channels; but then it was not so hard to do that, since nearly every working aviator had taken note of Harry's remarkable work that morning.

Then came the afternoon.

Both Tom and Jack might have considered that time dragged, only for the fact that they could pass the hours in a pleasant fashion. Tom managed to get over to the field hospital to see his wounded friend, Fred Lincoln. And, really, he did spend as much as ten minutes trying to cheer that individual up, for Fred had lost an arm, and was feeling blue over his future home-going to his young wife.

As for Jack, he haunted the Y. M. C. A. dugout and wrote letters home until he could not think of another person who would want to be remembered. It was a great day of rest to those hard-working air pilots, though from the look on their faces when they were greeting the incoming aviators one might have thought they rather envied them their latest achievements.

Such is the force of habit.

At last came night, and the two air service boys thrilled with the realization of what great things were apt to come to pass in their experience before another dawn brought the grey into the eastern sky.



CHAPTER XV

OVER THE ENEMY'S LINES

IN all there were twenty planes starting out on that momentous expedition to "strafe the Kaiser," as Jack called it. Half of these were monster bombing machines of a late model, capable of carrying more of the deadly explosives than had ever before been attempted.

The others were battle planes, guided by the most expert pilots, some of whom were already famous aces. These were men whose names had become household words over in America, heroes of the masses, whose pictures always evoked storms of applause whenever shown on the screen in the motion picture houses.

Tom owed the fact of his having been selected to guide one of the bombers, instead of a fighting machine, to the fact that one man had fallen sick, and was thus placed out of the running. In casting around for an efficient substitute they had picked Tom.

The start was made an hour before midnight. This was done in order to lead the Boche to believe that the night would pass without unusual occurrences.

Quietly, every man who had been called to duty presented himself at his special station equipped for work. The hostlers, under the supervision of the officer in command at the aviation field, had seen to it that every detail had been looked after. Tanks were filled, and each plane carefully examined for defects that might imperil the lives of those who were to trust themselves to its reliability.

As customary, the pilots and observers themselves took one last survey of certain particular features where experience told them there was the most reason to anticipate trouble.

Not a single plane but stood up under the test, which spoke well for the infinite care taken in their manufacture, as well as the handling they had received since being placed in action.

The signal being given, the monster machines began to take the air one after another, units in a vast whole. There was no demonstration, though scores of other aviators and assistants were on the field watching the send-off, speculating as to the momentous business being thus undertaken and often eating their hearts out with envy.

Tom and Jack were well satisfied with the big plane that had been given into their charge. Of course Tom had handled just such a machine before, and was well acquainted with its possibilities.

Jack on his part was pleased with the fact that the work of releasing the old-shaped bombs would fall to his share of the duties. It was something to feel pride in, this taking part in the most ambitious expedition of the kind in which the Americans had ever embarked, without a single French or British airman along.

Once aloft, they waited for the remainder of the huge squadron to join them. The hum of the many motors made merry music in the ears of the two young Yankee aviators. That droning sound seemed to be spelling the downfall of autocracy, and the rule of real democracy throughout all the world.

It was just the kind of night for such a raid. Clouds partly covered the sky, but there was an absence of wind. Up there, far removed from the earth, it was not dark, and when looking down objects were dimly seen.

The great forest stretched backward toward the south; and in the other direction, had it been daylight, the aviators could have looked off to the open country, where fields lay. These were no longer covered with the fruits of the harvest, as in prewar times, but lay desolate, with ruined farm buildings, and everywhere the indelible mark of the ruthless hand of the Hun showing what had befallen the border Departments of poor bleeding France.

Finally came the welcome signal that announced the arrival of the last of the air fleet. All was now ready for the start. Every pilot knew what place he was expected to occupy in the formation; and when another flash was seen they took up their positions.

The leader occupied the place of honor. After him came two more planes a little apart. The next pair were even further away from each other, and so it went on to the end. In as far as Jack could make out, the expedition at its start very much resembled the formation seen when a flock of wild geese passes overhead, winging its flight toward the South in the fall or toward Canada in the spring, making a triangle, or spear head, with an old gander at the apex in supreme command.

Later on, as occasion arose, this formation would be changed, the battleplanes surrounding the heavier bombers in order to protect them from any hostile attack.

Far below could be seen occasional lights. These they knew came from some camp of the Huns, where the tired soldiers were sleeping in anticipation of another hard day's work ahead. Off to the right a fire was burning, perhaps some building in the process of destruction to prevent its falling into the hands of the Americans, who were in line to overwhelm it on their next day's drive.

These things, however, received very little attention from the raiders. They were more interested in the possibility of their progress being halted by some block of Hun machines, bent on breaking up the raid before it was well started.

No doubt, information had leaked concerning the assembling of all these latest model planes. There were always ways whereby clever and daring spies could communicate with their mates on the other side of the fighting line, which was the main reason for so much secrecy in planning this particular expedition.

So most of the time both Tom and Jack kept their eyes fixed on the line ahead, waiting eagerly for the signal to close in.

"There she goes!" called out Jack suddenly; but of course his companion had already seen the signal light from the leading plane, and was commencing to carry out his part of the programme.

Enemy planes had been discovered barring their further progress, quite a squadron of them being in the air, with others rising as they caught the sound of the bustling motors coming from the south.

This was the first crisis in the raid. The Huns were "out for blood," as Jack termed it, and would do their utmost to break up the formation. Their object would be to confuse the Yankee pilots, and thus weaken the force to the extent of making them abandon their plan.

But like a speeding avalanche the score of American planes sailed on, bent on forcing their way directly through the feeble defensive line by sheer mass play. It was football tactics over again on a huge scale, as learned by most of those young pilots in their schooldays at home.

The machine-guns commenced to spray around them. Such a furious fire was opened that almost immediately one of the Hun machines took a downward dive, rushed earthward, bursting into flames before it had gone one-quarter of the way to the ground.

This quick result evidently took some of the spirit out of the remainder of the enemy pilots, for they sheered off to right and left, still keeping their guns going, but apparently apprehensive as to their own safety.

A second Boche crumpled up under this mass attack. His plane was seen turning over and over, though it did not take fire, and there was not one chance in ten of its pilot's being able to save himself from the doom that apparently confronted him.

Of course, no one ever knew whose lucky shots had accomplished this double result. These victories must go down in the history of the Yankee flying squadron simply as "general damage inflicted upon the enemy." But they counted just as much in demoralizing the Germans, for after that the attempt to hold up the raiders was abandoned. Fritz had done his best, but it had proved to be far from good enough.

Twenty Yankee machines had gone into the battle, and the same number sailed majestically onward after the last spiteful chatter of machine-gun fire had ceased.

For the first encounter of the night this was encouraging. It seemed to give promise of further successes yet to come; and every member of the expedition felt a glow in his heart on realizing how great their victory had been.

They were now headed for the castle where report placed Ludendorff's headquarters. Perhaps report lied. That was a matter with which they had nothing whatever to do; all they knew was that their orders entailed on them the duty of demolishing that castle in the most expeditious manner known to bombing pilots, and leave the rest to history to record.

The raiders were now of course well back of the German front, though still flying over French soil. Presently they would come upon that part of the country where the enemy had chosen to place his supreme headquarters while trying with might and main to hold the aggressive Americans in check.

Only the leader would know when this was reached, though, through signals, his orders could be passed back along the line.

It was now no longer dark down below, thanks to the heavenly bodies that had appeared once more from behind the cloud curtain, as though in league with the raiders.

The squadron descended to lower levels, in order to be better prepared for dropping their bombs when the time arrived.

Jack, having nothing to do with the piloting of the machine, kept a vigilant watch ahead. He wondered how the leader would know when they had arrived close to the castle, since the inmates would of course see to it that every light was extinguished that could be of use to an enemy airman.

Then came the signal telling that they had arrived, and downward further swooped the bombing machines, the raiders intent on sighting their intended quarry so as to blot it out of existence.



CHAPTER XVI

BLOTTING OUT HUN HEADQUARTERS

BELOW them, as they thus swooped downward, the air service boys could see the earth lying in semi-darkness. It was even possible to make out the darker shadows which indicated patches of trees, and a white road stood out like a straight line drawn across a shaded map.

Looking closer, Jack quickly discovered the castle.

It stood among some trees, and was unquestionably well fitted to serve the German High Commander as headquarters until such time as the Americans drawing near forced him to move back to Sedan, and then cross over into Belgium near its junction with Luxembourg.

The bombers now altered their formation. Instead of moving forward in a compact mass they formed two parallel lines but a short distance apart, five machines to each column.

Jack looked across to the companion plane and distinguished both pilot and observer crouching at their posts, eager to get into action. It seemed as though he could easily toss a coin over and make it land in the other machine, so close did they range along, with buzzing motors cut down to slower speed so as not to interfere too much with the dropping of the bombs.

Each plane was to let just one missile go, and no more. If the castle had one stone left on another after the rain of aerial torpedoes had come to an end, it would be vastly surprising.

True, it was a French chateau, and it seemed too bad to have to expend any of their precious bombs in bringing about its downfall. But of course they knew full well it was the policy of the Huns never to leave anything intact that could be of the slightest assistance or comfort to the enemy. Hence the annihilation of the chateau was already ordained when Ludendorff should be through using it.

Jack primed himself for his work, though it must be Tom who would give the word when the exact second arrived for the bomb to be released. One pressure on the trigger, and down through the slanting tube would speed the messenger of destruction, bent on its fateful errand.

They were one of the last pair in line, consequently they might expect to hear some sign of the dreadful work before their time came to join in.

Guns were beginning to sound, and the raiders could see spiteful flashes here and there. Evidently, if Ludendorff did have his headquarters here, he had been judicious enough to mount a number of anti-aircraft guns to combat the raiding planes should they appear at any time.

But the firing was only haphazard work, because the searchlight that began now to play upon the airplanes could reveal only one bomber at a time. Thus the shrapnel burst much above their level, so deceptive was the glare.

Then came a sudden, terrific crash, sounding almost as if the battery of Heaven's heaviest artillery had broken loose in one frightful thunderclap. At the same time a blinding flash from below showed Jack flying timbers and scattering stones.

The first shot from the bombers had been well sent and accomplished all that was expected of it. Hardly had the dancing echoes bounded from a neighboring elevation than there came a second explosion, if anything louder than the preceding one.

So the bombs exploded in pairs, just as they were let go by the units in the double column of advancing raiders. Two, four, six had gone, and if all struck as true to the mark as that initial one, there must be little left of the doomed castle by now.

Jack was in a fever of suspense. He feared that the signal to cease firing might be given before he could drop his bomb, the commander of the bombing fleet having decided enough damage had already been inflicted, and that it would be only a waste of good material to rain down any more bombs.

But seven and then eight were falling, as though it had been settled to make a clean sweep while about it.

Their turn next!

Jack gritted his teeth and awaited Tom's cry, when he would be the last to burst into the rousing chorus of thunderous reports. The signal came, and Jack pressed the trigger, releasing the hanging bomb, and starting it on its downward journey.

If Tom's judgment was good it would at least strike somewhere in the midst of the debris and add more or less to the wreckage. As to whether the Boche commander-in-chief had been caught napping and buried in the ruins, was a matter about which they could only speculate.

Tom himself doubted whether such a happy solution of the affair could be attained, because he had known of various attempts being made in times gone by to "get" the Kaiser himself when visiting the western front, but always without success.

They heard a frightful crash, much louder than any of those preceding it. The big plane rocked and swayed as though in a gale, and Tom needed all his skill to keep from being thrown off his balance.

It was no mystery to Jack. He realized that by a strange coincidence his falling bomb and that of the other rear plane had exploded simultaneously, making the ground vibrate, and completely destroying anything that had been left of the French chateau.

Their work in this quarter having been thoroughly accomplished the raiders now climbed higher, to rejoin the battleplane squadron hovering above, waiting to act once more as their armed escort.

Looking down in farewell, Jack could see fires burning. The shattered timbers of the wrecked chateau had been set ablaze. He would always remember that strange event whenever again watching fires from a lofty height in the night-time.

The squadron was off again, the second thrilling event connected with the bombing raid having come off as scheduled without any mishap to the Yankee air fleet.

Jack had kept quiet up to now, but it had cost him a severe effort. Talking when a plane is bombing on its way can never be anything of a pleasure unless it is equipped with an up-to-date wireless telephone for the use of pilot and observer.

Jack himself had contrived some amateur device of this sort which he rigged up as soon as he seated himself back of Tom, although up to then he had failed to make use of it.

The roar of many propellers and the steady hum of a score of engines combined to make a deafening noise. Nevertheless, when Tom felt a tug at his sleeve, such as had been agreed upon with his chum, he took hold of his little receiver and was delighted to hear Jack's voice as plainly as though there had been no interference.

Plainly then Jack's idea was bearing fruit, and properly cultivated there might be something worth while in the scheme.

"Tom, do you get me?" demanded the agitated inventor, the first thing.

"Yes, and plainly, too," came the reply that greatly pleased Jack; for up to then they had found no occasion to test the wireless telephone under severe conditions.

If it "made good" with all that noise about them, Jack felt that he ought to call it a success.

"That's right!" he told Tom, exultantly. "I never missed a syllable that time. Oh, boy! it seems as if it's O K, doesn't it?"

"Splendid thing for talking when you're rushing along; and without cracking your voice, either," Tom told him.

"Did my bomb explode exactly at the same second as the other one?" next asked Jack, more to continue the conversation and thrill with his triumph than for information, because he had already made up his mind on that score.

"Just what it did, Jack. But let up on this now. I've got to keep my whole attention pinned to my work."

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