That often different minds run in the same channel is proved every day; and in Jack's case it really turned out that while he was testing his crude invention another much more eminent person in far-away America had just succeeded in accomplishing the idea he had in mind, and was almost ready to offer it to the Washington Signal Corps authorities.
After rejoining the squadron of battleplanes the old formation had been resumed. A cordon of fighters moved on either side, one to each bombing unit in the fleet. Just as transports were convoyed across the dread submarine danger-zone of the Atlantic by destroyers and cruisers, so these working planes were protected by those better equipped for holding off intending offenders, and striking with all the strength of Uncle Sam's good right arm.
It would not be for long, Tom believed. Straight as the honey bee heads toward the hive when laden with sweets extracted from blossom and flower, they were now aiming for their main objective, the last powerful stronghold of the Hun in that sector, perhaps in all the extended battle front.
Doubtless they would meet with a stubborn resistance. The enemy must, in the nature of things have been forewarned, and would do everything in his power to ward off the impending blow.
There was likely to be a determined battle in the air, with the Germans closing in to make desperate resistance. There was also bound to be a heavy fire from below. Airplanes, perhaps even Zeppelins of the latest and most powerful description, would attack the raiders, and seek to smash their formation into a chaos that must mean disgraceful flight and heavy losses.
But every American heart beat strong with confidence as the fliers winged their way through space, heading for the Hun stronghold that was intended to be a supreme menace to the onrushing tide of Uncle Sam's boys in khaki.
FLYING FOR VICTORY
BOTH Tom and Jack could look back to previous experiences in bombing the enemy. They had taken part in excursions that occupied a part of a moonlight night; trips that sometimes had carried them across the border, and to Metz; once they had gone even as far as the Rhine up in the region of Coblenz, where later on Pershing's army was fated to be posted as a guard over the beaten Huns.
But on those occasions their work had been of a different character from that now given to them. They had seen munition plants go up in masses of flames after their bombs struck; watched important bridges being shattered under the same gigantic force; felt a thrill of triumph when a lucky shot exploded some huge munition dump, on which the enemy depended for his reserve store; exhausted their stock of bombs in demolishing an important railway junction, so as to paralyze the transportation of reinforcing bodies of German troops.
All those things they were familiar with, but from the great secrecy that had been maintained in connection with this enterprise they could understand that it far exceeded them all in importance.
Their speed was such that they would be likely to reach their goal shortly, when all the suspense must be over. Jack wished that time had come. He was already trying to figure out just how Tom would plan so as to seem to become lost on the homeward flight, and thus be left to his own resources for a time.
From this reverie he was aroused by seeing the signal flash from the pivot of the spearhead. It gave him an electrical sensation, though that was only to be expected.
Tom, too, knew the crisis was near at hand. He stared ahead, and believed he could even make out spectral objects moving this way and that, like monstrous, though dimly seen, dragonflies, such as all country boys have watched many a time while on a warm summer day, lying at rest on the bank of the "swimming hole."
From this it was evident that news of their probable coming had been sent on ahead, warning the defenders of the German fortress.
Still was the night as yet, but it would not be for long with those opposing air forces ready for a death grapple. While the ten battleplanes, each piloted by a Yankee ace with a splendid record, engaged the flotilla of enemy aircraft, the bombers must be at their more humble but equally important business.
All had been arranged so that there might be the least possible friction, and no confusion. Each pilot and observer knew exactly what he was to do, and every possible situation had been taken into consideration.
Then came the initial firing.
It seemed that one ambitious Boche airman, unable to wait until the oncoming Americans reached the formation arranged to resist the onslaught, had flown ahead and was now exhausting his puny reservoir of missiles against the solid phalanx.
The clatter became a roar as several of the raiders turned their guns on the incautious Hun. Immediately his voice was stilled, and the flittering light dropping earthward, after the manner of a falling rocket-stick, told what had happened to him.
Before he landed his machine had burst into flames, as the escaping petrol caught fire. Jack considered that a good omen for their side.
"Fritz seems to be getting a rough deal on this particular night," he told himself. "Already three of his planes have been destroyed, and several others have gone down out of control, with never a single loss on the side of the Americans. Bully!"
But now the advance had reached the marked line where the rest of the Huns waited to engage the invaders. If they were dismayed by the tragic fate that had overtaken that rash pilot they did not show it, for they attacked with a viciousness that Tom had never seen equalled in all his experience as a flier.
It was undoubtedly desperation that spurred the Boche on. He knew that these wonderful Americans, who his leaders had ridiculed in the beginning, were foes not to be despised; that they had almost taken the entire Argonne; that they had actually threatened to commence the long-talked of march on to Berlin.
So they attacked with fury, and the engagement soon became general. Right and left there was continual firing going on, as the giant planes wheeled and circled, shooting out flaming tongues like so many blast furnaces in action.
The formation was not broken even then, each battleplane continuing to cover its individual bombing plane with the shelter of its wings, so to speak, though at the same time fighting off the aggressors.
Of course the bombers were also fitted to ward off attack, each being armed with two machine-guns, one forward, and the other aft where the man who handled the bombs could manipulate it. Slower and much less agile than the fighting planes, they were expected to defend themselves but not to attack.
The advance had slowed up, but not entirely stopped while the battle was joined. As yet no bomb had been slipped from its leash, for the right moment still held off.
Looking down Jack could see where the searchlights that sent such broadening streamers aloft were stationed. He could also make out a dim pile that must be the German fortress, strengthened particularly to hold up the Americans, even as that at Verdun had held up the Huns.
Let the "Archies" bark below and the shrapnel burst all around them as it pleased, no one in all that vast armada of the air was paying the slightest attention to such things. They all, in their carelessness of danger, seemed to themselves impervious to the storm of flying missiles.
The slower-moving bombing machines bore the brunt of this furious onslaught, and Jack could tell that the wings of their plane were being cut by the bullets.
It was almost a miracle that so far no one aboard any of the ten big planes seemed to have been struck; or if such a thing had happened the injury did not appear to be serious. They continued to move forward as if all the Huns in Northern France, backed by every sort of gun that could hurl shrapnel aloft, would not be sufficient to stay their progress.
Presently, however, the formation was broken at a signal. To try to maintain it any longer would be little short of suicidal, for the gunners below were getting their range better, and the bursting shells came alarmingly close now.
Tom kept his eyes constantly about him. Each bomber tried to keep at a given altitude in making the evolutions, since in that way they were better able to avoid a collision that would be fatal to both machines.
At last Tom caught his signal and as he headed straight for the spot over the fortress he gave Jack the sign. The bomb slipped from its sheath, and was instantly lost to sight in the smoky atmosphere below.
Already they had had their ears shocked by numerous discharges, as others among the Americans shot their missile earthward. It was terrible to look down at that crisis in the attack. The whole world seemed on fire beneath them, what with the exploding bombs and the myriad flashes coming from the German guns at work.
Jack was disappointed because in this vast inferno he found it utterly impossible to tell where his special messenger struck. He knew, though, that he had been in a fair position for a hit when given the word, and on that account never found any reason to doubt but that it had given a good account of itself.
After delivering his fire Tom swept off to one side so as not to interfere with another bomber who might occupy a higher level, and be advancing to the attack.
Presently when the turn of the air service boys came again they would be ready to send down the second "bundle of concentrated destructiveness"; and later on there might be a "clean-up call" that would exhaust the stock carried by each plane.
Meanwhile, given a chance to look hastily around at other factors connected with the extensive engagement, Tom discovered that there had been at least one victim besides the initial one.
A plane was dropping swiftly, swinging this way and that, turning over and over, and showing signs that the pilot's hand no longer controlled the levers. He was unable to make out whether it was an enemy plane or one of their own convoy; but the doom of those who happened to be belted to the seats was undoubtedly sealed.
FAVORED BY FORTUNE
THE Huns soon discovered that they were up against an intrepid enemy. When they so boldly attacked the Yankee fleet of raiders, as Jack expressed it in his boyish way, they had "bitten off more than they could chew."
They had dropped back a bit and were trying to annoy the Americans all they could with as little damage to themselves as possible. If their last stronghold was doomed to destruction under that rain of mighty bombs, any self-sacrifice on their part could not ward it off, and so what was the use?
The end seemed to be approaching, for the Boche plainly showed he had had enough of the fighting. One last combined attack all along the line that would likely put the enemy to flight, and then for the signal that would spell "homeward bound," a magical phrase with voyagers of the air just as it is with sailors of the salty seas.
Finally it came. The great battle was over.
The air service boys rejoiced that the victory was won.
The roar of guns from below had ceased, and as the Yankees above could not find any enemy plane against which to pit their strength, they, too, no longer scurried this way and that, each one like an avenging Nemesis.
Looking down Jack was appalled at what he saw. It seemed almost as though the end of the world had come. Huge volumes of acrid smoke slowly swept along on the night air, with here and there a lurid tongue of angry flame, looking like a serpent's tongue, stabbing the gloomy curtain.
He had seen vivid pictures in colors of an eruption of Vesuvius, and to his mind this presented just such an appalling spectacle. There could never be any doubt regarding the awful power of those latest of Yankee bombs. The German stronghold that an hour before had stood in arrogant pride, meant to be a stumbling block in the path of Pershing's victorious army, had been so shattered that it would hardly be noticed in the general advance of the oncoming host of boys in khaki.
But there was the signal to gather once more in formation of twos for the homeward journey. There would always be a chance that the furious Huns might gather a fresh force of aerial fighters to make one last assault on the columns before admitting defeat; and it was to be ready for this that every possible precaution must be taken.
Then the fact became apparent that the return was not to be made with an undiminished force. There were no longer exactly twenty planes to fill out the double column. Some were missing, having fallen in the last desperate attack of the foe, when a perfect whirlwind of fighting had taken place.
Tom noticed this almost immediately. At least one battleplane was absent, if not more, and the companion bomber that had occupied with them the place of honor at the tail of the procession also failed to come to its place. Perhaps the very plane he had watched drop and wondered about was one of these missing ones.
Jack, too, looked down upon that vast smudge of smoke and shooting flames with a new feeling gripping his heart. It no longer represented merely the disappointed hopes of a Hindenburg and a Ludendorff; it was not to be considered only a fortress annihilated by American pluck and ingenuity; there was a sadness in Jack's parting look now, and for a reason. Down there brave American boys had gone to their fate, after battling to their last breath for the right. In that blanket of smoke and amidst scattered stone and timbers they had found their tomb, nor would those loved ones far across the sea ever know where to look for their last resting place.
On the roll they would be marked simply as "lost when on perilous duty", and that brief inscription must ever be their epitaph. None more glorious was ever inscribed on monument of granite in a city's beautiful cemetery; and the Nation would always do honor to their memories.
But the air armada was off once more.
Jack put these thoughts from his mind. They had not expected to carry out their ambitious plans without incurring losses. The price had been paid, and those who came through in safety might congratulate themselves on their good fortune.
Headed for the home camp they left that shambles behind them, for it seemed certain that many Huns must have perished when the fortress was destroyed so completely.
Then all at once Jack remembered something. Tom had almost as much as promised that if half a chance arose while on the way home he meant somehow or other to get "lost" from the main column.
It might not be very hard, seeing that they came at the tail of the procession, and those just ahead would hardly notice the fact if at some time or other they should lag, and vanish from sight. It might be taken for granted that they had simply fallen a little behind, and by putting on a spurt of speed could at any time easily catch up.
At any rate the expedition would not delay, waiting for those who tarried. In an affair of this kind the rule was "every tub on its own bottom," and if accidents occurred the unfortunate plane must drop out, and take its individual chance of getting through in safety.
Jack was wondering just how his chum would act in order to bring about this separation. Hence he was not greatly surprised when Tom called out aloud, so that he could make his voice heard above the incessant whirr of motors added to the buzz of many propellers that filled the air with noise:
"Jack, something seems to be wrong with our engine."
"You don't say!" ejaculated Jack, accompanying the remark with a wide grin; for he suspected that this was only the ruse he had been anticipating.
"I don't seem to be able to get along as smoothly as I did before," continued the pilot.
"Why, it's a fact that we are letting the others outrun us some, Tom. Wouldn't it be just too bad if they went off and left us in the lurch?"
"No joke about it, Jack. Something is really going wrong, and I imagine I'm getting a poor supply of gas. Take a look at the tank, will you, and see if it's all right!"
At that Jack ceased to chuckle. He realized from what the other said that he meant it seriously. Accordingly Jack bestirred himself to carry out the instructions of the pilot, which he was best able to do from his position aft.
A brief interval of silence followed, save for the constant hum of the machinery and the whirling propellers. Then Jack uttered a loud cry that expressed both astonishment and alarm.
"Tom, you guessed it!" he called. "The blooming tank is empty, and we're feeding on the scant reserve in the smaller tank!"
"Try to find out if a bullet cut a hole in the tank, and let our juice run out!" Tom now ordered.
Jack had already started an examination on his own account, and he almost immediately announced a finding.
"Just what happened, Tom!" came his cry, in a tone of dismay mingled with disgust. "Why, there are two holes, one far above the other! I reckon it came from below, after all. But the tank is empty, and only for that automatic feed change, meant for such an emergency, we'd have been running on hot air before now."
"There's not enough petrol in the small tank to take us home, Jack, I'm afraid," Tom called next.
"Then what?" demanded the other eagerly.
"Only one thing left to us, I'm thinking."
"What's that? You're the skipper of this craft, and I take my orders from you. Whatever you say goes."
"We'll have to pick out a nice even spot and land," said the pilot, in the most natural tone imaginable; for he had by now shut off some of his power, and the noise accordingly diminished.
"And try to get enough gas, some way or other, to see us safely on our way—is that the programme, Tom?" queried the observer.
"There's really no other way. If we keep straight on we're likely to be forced to drop right back of the Hun lines, where we'd be gobbled up as quick as a flash."
"Too bad, isn't it?" cried Jack, in mock tones of chagrin. "And, Tom, wouldn't it be queer now, if after we did drop down we should find that we'd actually landed close to a half ruined chateau that's perched on a hilltop, and occupied by a Hun general as headquarters?"
"That would be a strange coincidence, I should call it, Jack."
"But you say we've just got to land somewhere," urged the other.
"No other way out of the mess. It's either that or else take big risks of being captured just back of the Boche lines. Of the two, our chances are better here than there."
"Well, I bow to your judgment, Tom. You know best. But we'd better drop to a much lower level right away, hadn't we?"
"That goes without saying," replied the pilot, setting about taking a dip, at which he was very expert. "As it is now we can't see much of where we are; and the rest of the gang seem to have cleared out entirely. You can hear the stir of their passage getting fainter and fainter all the while."
"We'll have to go pretty far down if we hope to glimpse anything of the character of the country in this poor light," Jack continued, "and, of course, it'll be necessary for you to pick out a clear place for a landing."
"Unless we can we stand to have a smash that'll just ruin everything," Tom cheerfully assured him.
They had begun to fall rapidly. Tom managed it so that this maneuver was carried out in the best possible way calculated to conserve their very limited stock of petrol.
Gradually they began to get a clearer view of the ground, which until then had only appeared in vague outlines to their eyes. Jack soon announced a discovery.
"I can begin to make out the trees in patches, Tom. And see there! That must be the river winding along like a snake over yonder. Didn't we decide that the chateau stood within sight of this very stream, Tom?"
"According to what that Lorrainer told me, it did; and on the left bank in the bargain," admitted Tom.
"Good! And unless I've lost my reckoning entirely I should say we're on the left bank of the river right now."
"Just what we are," came the reassuring answer. "I'm going to drop down another peg or two, so we can pick up some landmark and get our bearings settled. No use in groping about as if we were in a fog. I'll shut off most of our speed and just loaf along. We've got to make that gas see us through, you know, Jack."
"I hope it will, I certainly do!"
Presently the air service boys found themselves passing slowly along over the small ridge that seemed to run parallel with the winding Meuse, though at some little distance from it.
TOM LEADS THE WAY
"SEE anything yet, Jack?" asked Tom, after the air service boys had been moving along for a brief time, often so close to the top of the ridge that they could make out the character of the trees growing there.
"Not a thing, Tom. I hope now we haven't made a wrong play, and all this while kept running away from the place."
"No danger of that," and Tom's confident way of saying this gave Jack considerable peace of mind. "There's the river, and we can easily see which way it runs, and this is the left bank all right. We ought to strike that break any minute now. The Lorrainer told me it lay just on the other side of the gap."
"And it seems that some small stream comes through the ridge by way of that valley and joins the Meuse there, you said. But if we don't make a rise pretty soon I'm afraid our goose will be cooked. That little amount of petrol left isn't going to last much longer."
"Hold your horses, and don't cross a bridge before you come to it. Right now I believe I can see something ahead that looks like a dip in the ridge. The chances are it's going to be that gap the man told about."
On hearing this news Jack strained his eyesight more than ever, and soon gave tongue again. No need of using his novel little wireless outfit when the engine was purring so softly and the propellers were revolving just fast enough to keep the plane moving slowly.
"As usual, you're right about that dip. It's there sure enough; and already I more than half believe I can make out something perched on the ridge beyond that's likely to be our chateau."
"Then we've got to be on the lookout for a landing-place," announced the pilot. "It would hardly do to run smack up close to the place. Some of them might happen to be awake, and the sound of our machine would bring them out to investigate. We're taking enough chances as it is, without that."
So he went still lower, just creeping along as it were, and both of them eagerly watched for an open spot.
Tom even circled so as to come down near the low ground at the foot of the ridge. No doubt they would have a far better chance to run across a landing-place there than where the ground was rocky and more precipitous. They had also to bear in mind that it would be necessary to make an ascent later on, if all went well; which must require a certain amount of ground level enough to make the preliminary run.
After all it was Jack who made the discovery, Tom's attention being in part taken up with the requirements necessary to his function as pilot.
"There, I saw what looked like a decent spot, Tom—we just passed it by on the right. Try to turn around, and we'll look it over again as we go. Seemed plenty big enough, I thought, though I'd like to have a second peep before we decide to try to land."
This time Tom, too, used his eyes to good advantage, and hardly had they swung past before Jack was asking, in rather subdued tones now:
"How about it, Tom? Think we can make the riffle all right, in this poor light?"
Tom did not hesitate to answer this important question.
"I'm willing to try, Jack. If we're carrying our usual luck we'll land so easy we could hardly break an egg between us. Be ready for your part of the game now."
Jack waited, with his nerves all a-tremble. He knew that everything must depend on Tom's success in effecting a safe landing. Any breakage might upset all their plans, and possibly result in their ultimate capture by the Huns; for when morning came they would have to expose themselves in seeking food, and once they were identified as Americans they would soon be run down.
If ever Tom had reason to exert himself to the utmost in order to make a safe landing, it was then. He came up in the face of what little breeze was stirring, just as a bird invariably alights against the wind, and not with it.
Jack held his breath. Nearer and still nearer they dropped. Now he felt the rubber-tired wheels under the plane strike the ground lightly. They were actually rolling along, jolting more or less, it was true, but nothing so very unusual after all.
With a slight jar the plane came to a sudden stop. Jack, who had freed himself from his safety belt in preparation for this moment, was over like a flash; but although there was a slight slant to the ground the plane displayed no inclination to run backwards.
"Beautifully done," Jack hastened to say.
"Not so loud!" cautioned the other. "We don't know where we are yet, you see. Here's green grass around us, and trees close by. It may be some back dooryard to a house, for all we can tell."
"You just grazed the top of that last tree, Tom—the weeping willowy kind of one over there—but it had to be done to make the landing. Where do we go from here?"
Perhaps that phrase fell naturally from Jack's lips, for he had been singing a song with those identical words earlier on that very evening, with some of his rollicking companions at the Y. M. C. A. hut.
"As soon as we can get our bearings we want to find a road," his chum explained.
"Sure thing. And there ought to be one around, else how would folks get up to that chateau?" Jack demanded. "I suppose we'll have to see after the supply of gas the first thing."
"That was settled beforehand," came the reply. "Now we ought to get our bearings down pat before leaving the old bus here."
"It would be a bad joke on us for a fact, Tom, if we wandered off, and then after picking up a few gallons of petrol—even one, if it came down to that quantity, would serve—and then couldn't for the life of us find where we left the plane. Yes, let's skirmish around, and locate things in our minds."
Accordingly they started to move to the right, gradually widening the circle they made around the plane resting on the open grassy stretch of ground.
"Now we've got to the trees, you notice," said Tom. "Once we pass them by, I think we'll come out on a road which will lead away from here."
Jack clutched his companion by the arm just then, and in an agitated whisper hurriedly said:
"What can those queer white things be over there, Tom? I can see many of them. They're squatting close down to the ground mostly; but there's one or two that stand up higher. Ugh! they look like ghosts to me in this half darkness. Can you make out whether or not they move?"
The other chuckled almost immediately.
"This is certainly a queer stunt for us, Jack," he said. "I've managed to make a landing in a good many outlandish places in times gone by, but this is the first time I ever dropped plump down in a graveyard!"
"What's that? And, say! are those white things gravestones? Well, I believe you're right. I can see now they're perfectly motionless. The joke's on me, I reckon. But I'm glad they are harmless old stones, and not anything to make the creeps go over a fellow."
Tom could hear Jack draw a long breath as he said this, from which he judged that his chum had had something of a shock. Closer inspection proved the truth of Tom's assertion. They were gravestones, mostly of a very modest type, and resting close to the ground. Here and there, however, one more pretentious raised its head some five or six feet high.
Better still, they came upon what seemed to be a road running through the country cemetery that, if followed, would undoubtedly take them to the one leading up to the chateau perched on the ridge above.
"Must be some sort of old French village around this neighborhood," observed Jack. "Many of these stones are partly covered with moss, as if they were terribly old. But then this may be a private burial place for the family that once lived for years and years in that big castle."
"That's nothing to us just now," Tom reminded him. "What we're interested in is whether this road will lead us up there, and if we can make sure of finding our plane again when we come back. Remember that everything will be just the opposite; what's right to us now will be on the left then."
"Oh, I learned that dodge long ago when I took up the study of woodcraft," Jack announced confidently. "Can't fool me on a little wrinkle like that, if I know it."
"Come along, and we'll make a start," Tom urged.
"Feels to me just as if we were two of those old-time crusaders, starting out to rescue a Christian maiden from the Saracens. Only in our case the girl is a mite of six, with a twin sister just breaking her baby heart over her loss."
"Stop firing," said Tom, with a vein of authority in his voice; causing the talkative Jack to remember that there were times when silence could be called "golden."
"I'm dumb as a clam, Tom," he announced; and probably really meant it, so far as a limited time went. But if anything at all out of the ordinary happened Jack could no more help whispering than he could give up eating and expect to live.
But even Tom felt that there was considerable truth in that assertion made by his chum. They were engaged in a most peculiar errand, though actuated by motives that did them both credit. And as they stole carefully along the country road heading toward the foot of the ridge upon which the old partly wrecked French chateau stood, both boys realized more than ever what chances they were accepting in making this bold move.
AGAIN did Jack pluck at the sleeve of his companion. Remembering his recently given promise, however, he waited to have Tom say the first word before breaking the silence.
"What is it?" asked Tom softly.
"Just made a discovery."
"Let's hear it."
"The old chateau is inhabited, all right," came Jack's assertion. "Tell you how I know. If you take a peep from here, between these trees, you'll notice that one wing is all lighted up."
"It certainly looks that way for a fact, Jack. The general must be having company, I should say."
"Maybe other officers have come back here to consult with Von Berthold about how to hold the Americans tight," chuckled Jack, as if according to his way of thinking they would have all their trouble for their pains, as there was nothing that the Hun army could attempt capable of effecting that end.
"Just as like as not," his chum assented. "And as it's a serious subject, they're staying late to-night."
"Good reason," chortled the other; "because in three more days old Von will have to be vacating his comfy quarters here, and moving back in the direction of Sedan. Pershing wants this ridge, and means to take it in double-quick time, once we're out of the Argonne Forest. But do you think the fact that there's company around will upset our plans, Tom?"
"I'd rather believe it will help us in one way," replied his chum.
"In the first place, it's apt to keep the general busy, and we'll know just where he is. That'll be worth something to us. Then again, we've got to consider how these generals got over here from the fighting front."
"Oh, they happen to have motor cars they can use," said Jack quickly. Any shortage of gasoline doesn't stop German officers from speeding across country, especially when on war business.
"Exactly," Tom said drily. "And it's some of their precious petrol that we're wanting so badly right now, and to get which you're carrying that little bucket."
At that the other chuckled as if highly amused.
"Well, what a gump I was not to think of that myself," he observed. "Why of course we may find a chance to borrow a gallon or two from the reservoir of their car, if only the soldier chauffeur happens to stray away to get a cold snack in the kitchen of the general's headquarters, or something like that. Tom, it's a peach of a scheme, and so simple!"
"All right, well go ahead then. And close up again, please, unless you hit on another important discovery, when I give you leave to whisper it in my ear."
The advance was resumed. The air service boys now started to climb quite an incline, proving that the road which they had been following latterly must pass close to the chateau.
Now and then they caught fresh glimpses of the building that stood out in bold relief against the heavens. They also noted that the lights still continued to shine in the right wing of the building. This must be the uninjured part, Jack imagined, if indeed the chateau had been partly wrecked by the Germans before the general took it as his headquarters.
In this fashion they gradually cut down the space separating them from the object of their concern. Tom it was this time who made a discovery. He came to a stop, and putting his head close to that of his chum whispered in his ear:
"We're in great luck, Jack. I can make out two cars standing in the road before the chateau. The general must be holding a regular council of war up here, to settle some big matters."
"He'll settle them, all right, believe me," muttered Jack. "But it'll have to be a scuttle policy. Those Huns are licked, yes, licked good and hard. They're just beginning to know it, too. We're proving too much for their backbone to stand. Well, two cars means we're going to have a double chance to get our little bucket filled with the juice, Tom."
"Seems like it," was all the other allowed to pass his lips, as he once more commenced to advance.
They kept to the side of the road. Here trees were growing, and while the leaves were coming down fast after a frost, at the same time plenty still remained capable of affording shade in the daytime and making shadows at night.
Under the trees they could glide along without much danger of detection in case a sentry had been posted in front of the chateau. Both boys looked sharply again, striving to find out whether either of the military cars had an occupant.
So far as they could see, this did not happen to be the case, although cautious Tom would not wholly believe it until he had looked further. Wearied by the long wait, the drivers might have gone to sleep inside the closed cars.
Like a couple of creeping ghosts the air service boys now advanced. The cars stood close together, facing the same way, which Jack considered a lucky thing for their designs.
Tom pressed him back as if to bid him wait, pail in hand, while he took upon himself the task of learning what they might expect. Making his way to the nearest car he peeped in. To his satisfaction there was no occupant. Repeating his action he ascertained that the second car also was empty.
So he gave a low chirp. Jack recognized an old signal, often used between them in days past. It meant he could come on without fear of trouble. And Jack, eager, as he was, to secure some of the petrol, did not linger a second longer than was absolutely necessary.
"Let's get busy, Jack," his chum told him, as he came up behind the nearest car. "I'll keep watch, and you try your hand at cribbing some of their gas juice."
While Jack did not claim to be an expert at the business of transferring petrol from one tank to another, or into a gaping vessel, he believed he would be able to manage. They must get what they needed, if not one way, then through other means. Necessity knows no law, and their very lives, certainly their liberty, was placed in peril by this impotence on the part of their plane.
Jack kept mumbling softly to himself as he worked. He seemed at first to meet with considerable difficulty, judging from the tone of his muttering. In fact, Tom had even turned to offer his assistance when he plainly caught the gurgle of running fluid and immediately sniffed the air strongly impregnated with the odor of petrol.
That told the story. While Jack continued to grumble he was actually acquitting himself with credit. So Tom chose not to interfere, but allowed his comrade to finish the work.
Once he thought he heard a gruff voice from somewhere over the wall of the chateau. He even feared they would be interrupted by the coming of the chauffeurs, who may have received word from their masters that a start was about to be made.
This, however, greatly to Tom's relief, proved to be a false alarm, for no one appeared. But there was Jack muttering again.
"Got every drop of juice this tank holds, Tom, and still not as much as I'd like to carry back. Shall I tackle the other car? I'd like to clean both of 'em out while about it, even if I have to waste some. Might save us heaps of trouble later on, if they were stalled here."
"Please yourself, but hurry above all things," Tom begged him.
"Just getting the hang of things now, and the second one will go a lot better than the first," Jack assured him.
Finally the work was accomplished. Jack seemed proud of his ability to purloin the badly needed stock of petrol. He chuckled as he turned to Tom to announce that he was through.
"Oh, me! Oh, my! But won't there be a hopping mad crowd around here when they find out that their gas tanks are both empty? By then I hope we'll be merrily on our way to camp, able to snap our fingers at the raging Boche, and with a little passenger aboard our plane. Back to the graves for us it is, Tom. Time for all spooks to climb into their holes again and disappear."
"Keep quiet, can't you, Jack!" whispered Tom. "You'll queer the whole business yet if you don't watch out. Come on, and don't leave a trail of gasoline to help them follow us."
The air service boys turned their backs on the chateau, but Jack hoped it would be only a temporary absence for them. He was already beginning to worry about something else, and of course could not keep his troubles to himself very long. Consequently when they were about half way back he again broke out.
"Just happened to think of a thing that's going to bother us some, I'm afraid, Tom," he suggested.
"What now?" demanded the other.
"If we chuck this stuff into our gas tank, why, out she's bound to pour through those two holes the bullet made, and that's a fact, Tom."
"Is that all?" asked the other indifferently. "I've got everything handy to repair those holes in almost two shakes of a lamb's tail. You leave it to me, Jack."
"You better believe I will, and mighty glad of the chance. Why, do you know, just the idea scared me stiff. But I do remember now that you always make it a point to carry along several wooden plugs and some wax calculated to make an air-tight joint. With that outfit you can soon have the tank plugged so it won't leak a drop. Bully for you, Tom!"
"I should have looked after that before we left the plane," admitted Tom. "But the fact was I wanted to take a turn around first; and then when we struck the road it sort of led us on and on. But it's all right, Jack."
AT THE OLD CHATEAU
THE air service boys had no difficulty in retracing their steps, especially since Tom, with his usual caution, had been careful to remember the spot where the main road was joined by that coming from the country cemetery.
Once again they made their way past the ghostly looking stones.
"I can see our boomer now, Tom!" Jack cried, as if he had been a little afraid that something had happened while they were absent, and that they would find the airplane missing.
"You want to be mighty careful of that stuff," his chum warned him, as Jack stumbled over some unnoticed object, and only retained his balance by a supreme effort.
"That's a fact," mumbled the other. "Especially as there's no more where this lot came from. I attended to that, all right. But here we are, and now to get the holes plugged up."
"At last my time to make use of that little outfit has arrived!" Tom exclaimed. "I've carried it for months, thinking I'd need it badly some day or other. Well, that time is on us, and this repays me for all my trouble. Set that pail down, and be ready to lend a hand, Jack."
He fumbled in a pocket of the body of the plane, producing a small roll, which, upon being opened, disclosed several plugs of soft wood, such as might easily swell if moistened. There was also some wax, the kind fruit growers use in grafting new scions on old trees.
Tom carefully examined one of the holes in order to learn its exact dimensions.
"Just as I expected, it's perfectly round in shape, which makes it easier to plug up," he announced, pleased with his discovery.
A minute later he had fitted one of the wooden pegs in tightly. Then he used the wax, which was just hard enough for his purpose.
"That one is finished, and I think it will hold fairly well," he remarked, somewhat to the surprise, as well as delight, of his companion, who had anticipated that it would take much longer.
"You're a sure-enough wizard, all right, Tom," was his gratified comment. "Why, you're getting things put through in a jiffy. But I hope there isn't any danger of the petrol acting on the wax, and causing a quick leak."
"I've tested it, and feel certain it will hold for an hour or so, anyhow, Jack. And by then we ought to be back in camp."
"Will, if we have any luck at all," asserted Jack.
"Now I'll get busy on the other hole," continued Tom. "Though that isn't so important, as it's at the top of the reservoir. Still, it might be just as well to close it up in order to avoid waste. Besides, there's always danger of an explosion if your tank sprinkles this deadly stuff around."
Jack took occasion to step aside to where he could look up between the trees and glimpse the dimly seen chateau, knowing now just where to look for it. When he came back he had information to impart that he thought would please Tom.
"Still a blaze up there, Tom, showing that the conference isn't over yet."
Presently Tom straightened up.
"That is all done," he announced, in a satisfied tone. "And done well in the bargain. Now bring along your gas, and be careful how you pour it in. By good luck I've got a funnel that can be used. I'll hold it while you start things going, Jack. Easy now, no hurry; every drop is precious remember!"
The contents of the little pail was presently successfully transferred into the reservoir which Tom had so adroitly mended after its rough treatment at the hands of the Huns who worked the "Archies," or anti-aircraft guns.
Tom gave a sigh of relief when that part of the proceeding was finished. He had entertained a little fear that Jack, in his haste to get things over with, might spill the precious fluid on which so much depended.
Afterwards Tom examined for himself, and was satisfied.
"Not a sign of a leak yet, and there isn't going to be either," he told his companion, not exultantly, but nevertheless with confidence that a belief in the staying qualities of his own work justified.
"Now we can get going on the second part of our programme," Jack returned, as he once more cast a steady look toward the height on which the chateau stood.
"No need of staying here another minute, Jack. Nobody knows just what's going on over there, or how long those visitors mean to stay."
"All the same," the other air service boy mentioned, as if casually, "General von Berthold is giving his guests a regular jolly time of it. In these days of war I reckon the Huns are missing pretty much all their favorite drinks, and when they do strike a cellar full—and I guess they have it here—it's like drawing teeth to pry them loose. Listen, don't you hear them at it now?"
Indeed, it would have been impossible for any one with ordinary hearing, when within half a mile of the chateau, not to have heard what Jack referred to. Some one was singing at the top of his voice, and a heavy voice he had in the bargain. He kept time with the rhythm of his song by repeated poundings on a table with what might have been a stein.
"Well, what nerve!" ejaculated Jack. "It's the Watch on the Rhine he's trolling, as sure as you live!"
"And with the whole bunch joining in the chorus in the bargain," added Tom, as the burst of singing suddenly grew stronger in volume. "They utterly refuse to believe they're whipped flat, even with the Americans ready to step over into Germany and mop 'em up all the way to Berlin."
"Huh!" snorted Jack disdainfully, "we'll soon be the ones keeping watch on the Rhine, see if we'll not. Only sillies with their wits flabbergasted by pride would shut their eyes to the handwriting on the wall. But I'm not sorry, for if they keep on enjoying themselves in that way we'll find it an easy job to roam all over the old shack, looking for Helene."
They were walking briskly along while exchanging these remarks in guarded tones. Greatly to their satisfaction they met no one while on the road. They had both wondered whether General von Berthold did not have a bodyguard camped somewhere near his headquarters, some of whom were likely to be moving about; though, to be sure, the hour was late for that sort of thing.
When they arrived at the scene of their previous escapade it was to find that one of the military chauffeurs had returned, and was even then taking a look at the engine of his car, for he struck several matches, and was thrusting his head down close to the machinery.
They halted to watch. A minute afterwards he tidied things up again, and Jack, hearing his loud yawn, decided he could not have discovered that some one had been meddling with his petrol supply.
Then the soldier vanished inside his big car, as though to find a comfortable seat, if his masters chose to linger an hour longer in celebrating with General von Berthold.
Tom led the way around, now approaching the building from an angle where they would be screened from the observation of the driver, did he chance to have his eyes open. They also took care to be ready to duck and lie low, in case the other chauffeur came from the back of the chateau.
But nothing happened to endanger them, and presently they were seeking a means of entering the castle. This proved the easiest thing possible, for there were no locks or bars attached to the door they tried. Once this barrier had been passed, they found themselves in a great hall, just such as Jack had always believed, from his reading, must be connected with every such old-time castle.
A light burned low. It was in itself a quaint lamp, and at another time the boys might have found themselves very much interested in it as a relic of times long since past.
Of course there could be no system of modern lighting in use at such an isolated habitation. Besides, electricity would have seemed sadly out of place in connection with so much that belonged to bygone days.
The tall lamp on the newel post at the foot of the broad stairway gave enough light to show one where to walk; and just then the two prowlers asked for nothing more.
Over to the right lay the wing that had not suffered from the work of the Hun despoiler. It was there the German general entertained his associates, discussing business until a late hour; and then giving themselves up to a little social enjoyment, which evidently became so pleasant that it was hard to break away.
The boys decided that since this wing was the only decent part of the building remaining, they were apt to find the object of their search in one of the many rooms it contained.
Having no guide to assist them, they must make a thorough search, neglecting no possible room where the little girl might be sleeping.
Of course their dodging about the corridors would be accompanied by more or less danger of discovery. There must be attendants moving about, for the Hun general would not inhabit this chateau unless he could have subordinates at his beck and call.
Once let any of these see strangers moving about with the air of spies—well, Jack imagined it would be nip and tuck with them as to whether they would be shot down like rats, get away by a close shave, or fall into the hands of the Huns, which last, he felt, would be the very worst fate that could befall them.
"It's upstairs for us, Jack." And with these words Tom led the way, headed for the upper floors of the chateau, even as a door opened and they heard a wild gust of uproarious chorus echo along the corridor leading to the dining hall in the right wing.
INVADING THE TIGER'S DEN
TOM, just as soon as they had entered the great hall, had fixed his eyes on several old-time figures that stood in niches, each representing some period of the history of early France and showing the type of armor worn by the fighting knights of those days.
"Hide behind that knight there! Quick, Jack!" he now hissed into the ear of his comrade.
As quick as a flash both of the air service boys shot toward their separate goals. Shuffling footsteps sounded that told of some one coming; but thanks to the swiftness of their movements the boys managed to conceal themselves in time.
Peeping out from behind the coats of chained mail that screened them Jack and Tom fastened their eyes on the advancing figure. Just as they expected, it proved to be a soldier who had the task of serving while the general was celebrating with his friends and fellow officers.
He was carrying a tray on which were several empty bottles, and it could be easily guessed that the soldier had been sent for a further supply of wine from the cellar below.
They could hear him mumbling to himself, as though not very happy, despite his opportunities to tilt the bottles up and drain the last drop left in each. This he was doing now as the boys watched, but continuing to mutter.
Then they saw him draw his sleeve across his face, and when he took it down to the astonishment of the watchers there were streaks of blood marking both cheeks and nose. Evidently General von Berthold was considerable of a bully and tyrant when in his cups, even as he may have been a severe martinet when on duty.
Jack ground his teeth at seeing this exhibition of pettiness on the part of the general. He had heard more than once that German officers, from sub-lieutenants upward, were terribly severe with their men, treating them brutally, and acting as though they were themselves of a superior class; but this was the first time he had actually come in contact with anything of the kind.
"What fools!" Jack muttered to himself. "Why can't they take a lesson from Russia, where the people have risen and put ever so many of their former officers to death. And Russian commanders were gentle beside these domineering brutes. But they'll get their dose some day before long, that's as sure as fate. And poor little Helene!" Jack's heart was heavy as he thought of his little protege's sister.
The man picked up his tray again and went stumbling along the hall, still muttering, then chuckling half hysterically, as though some pleasant thought had flashed across his mind. Jack imagined he must be anticipating a day of reckoning that was coming—a day when old scores would be wiped out and the slate be made clean for a new deal.
More than ever Jack was determined that little Helene should not be left in the charge of such an ill-tempered man. If General von Berthold could show such spleen because his man servant displeased him slightly he was apt to treat a child cruelly.
But the coast being clear, Tom issued forth and beckoned to his companion to come along. They hastened up the broad stairs of the chateau, reaching the second floor without mishap.
Here they found a maze of passages that would have puzzled any one lacking the ability Tom possessed for solving riddles.
"Which way next?" Jack whispered in dismay, as he turned from one to another of the various passageways branching off from the main hall.
"Always keep to the right," answered his companion. "Remember that wing is the only one saved from the wreck."
He himself was looking at the floor, for there was sufficient light to enable him to see. Jack's eyes followed those of his chum, and he could not keep from uttering a low exclamation of admiration as he comprehended the system Tom was following.
When the vandals had attempted several times to wreck the chateau in a general spirit of destructiveness, the dust had settled heavily over everything. They had noticed it down below, and on the stairs as well, as they came along. It was up here, too, on the floor of the main hall, as well as those in various passages leading into unknown depths of the great building.
Tom was selecting that passage which he could see from the multitude of footprints had been most generally used. It was indeed a clever idea of the air service boy's, and one that promised to be crowned with success.
"We'll go this way, and try it out," he told Jack, commencing to move along as he spoke.
Jack, for a wonder, was silent. Truth to tell, he found himself lost in admiration of the cleverness shown by his chum, and of the plan which he felt certain would never have occurred to him.
When the light became dim Tom was provided with a supply of matches, which fact further surprised and humiliated Jack, because on investigating his own pockets he could produce only two matches.
They went down several steps, only to mount again to the same level a few minutes later. Jack could easily believe they must have reached the extremity of that extensive right wing. He caught the sound of heavy voices in discussion, coming from exactly below; which told him the dining-hall must be in that quarter.
So far they had fortunately met no one. Jack wondered what would happen if they should come upon a sentry standing guard, perhaps over the apartment where the general slept when he could tear himself away from his pleasures and his work. But his confidence in Tom had mounted to such heights by now that he expected his pilot would be equal to even that occasion.
Then Tom stopped short.
He seemed to be examining something at his feet, for he had struck one more of his matches. Jack, seeing him look at a closed door, fancied that their search was in a fair way of coming to a successful end.
No sooner had the match expired than Tom gently tried the door. He did not seem very much surprised to find it locked. Bending down he next proceeded to examine the lock, for it seemed to be provided with one, though many of the other doors were not, such things not being in general use in the centuries back, when this ancient pile of stone was built.
He turned to his companion and whispered encouragingly.
"She must be in that room, for many feet have passed in and out. Among the footprints close by here are several small, childish ones. We are surely on the right track, Jack."
"H'm! but the door seems to be fast. And I suppose the key is in von Berthold's pocket right now. How in the wide world are we going to get in there to save Helene?"
"We'll settle that," snapped Tom. "There's always a way to do a thing. On either side there's a door. Let's see if one of those happens to be unfastened."
The very first trial brought success, and Jack began to feel a glow of coming good fortune. If they were not interrupted in their work he believed that nothing could long withstand such a determined spirit as Tom always injected into anything he undertook. It accounted for his successes in school sports, and he carried the same characteristic with him into army service.
They passed into the dark recesses of the room that seemed to adjoin the one of the locked door. Jack could see a window ahead, for a certain amount of light filtered through the small dusty diamond-shaped panes of glass. He even noted a tree without, its branches moving in the breeze that crossed this ridge elevation, though they had not felt it down in the valley.
Tom closed the door after them. Then again he struck a match, eager to survey their surroundings before attacking the problem that now presented itself.
Some old-time furniture could be seen, but in a dilapidated condition, as though vandal hands had used an ax on the rare wood, regardless of its value. Dust lay everywhere, dust that may have come from the frequent explosion of grenades used in the process of demolition.
The match went out, leaving Jack still staring about him. It seemed like a strange dream to him, anything but a reality. But there was Tom shuffling across to the window. Jack began to get a grip on the probable scheme that had appealed to his chum, and also a grip on himself, for he suddenly realized that he had not been doing his part.
Why, of course, the only possible way of reaching that other room would be through means of a connecting link; and this could be furnished through the windows.
Tom was already leaning out, and investigating affairs. It was a precarious moment and the decision to be arrived at was important. But having come this far, and taken such desperate chances, they must keep going until success had crowned their efforts, or it was proved that absolutely nothing could be accomplished.
Tom turned and beckoned to his comrade.
"It can be done, don't you think, Jack? But we must be very careful," came in softest tones. "There's a narrow projecting ledge that will serve us for a footing; but we must make sure of every step, because a tumble would break our necks."
Jack peered out and looked carefully about.
"Yes," he finally announced, "this is our only chance. But as Jeanne and Helene are my especial care I'm going first, Tom. I've already imposed on you and not done my full share since entering the chateau."
With these words Jack crawled out of the window.
THE ONLY WAY
AS Tom leaned out of the window he could just manage to see the figure of his chum flattened against the stone wall of the chateau. Jack was clinging close, like a human fly might have done, clutching some object which allowed him to move his feet along the slender ledge.
"Come on; it's all right!" floated back in a whisper.
Tom was not waiting to be assured on that point. Already he had pushed his body halfway over the window-sill, and his groping feet sought the friendly ledge. Then he, too, started to shuffle along, finding some means for holding himself there.
Of course it was not pleasant to contemplate a fall. The air service boys knew there was a considerable depth lying below, and it might be that hard stones lay there.
They refused, however, to allow themselves to think of such a possibility. Besides, it was only a matter of a dozen feet or so, when the adjoining window would be within their reach.
Why, there was Jack crawling over the sill even as Tom was fairly on the way, proving that the feat was an easy one after all.
Tom, following in Jack's footsteps, had one thrill when his foot slipped and for a brief space of time he actually feared he was about to take the downward plunge. Fortunately he had a desperate hold with the hand just thrust forward, and this kept him in place until he could search out another hand-grip.
It caused him to pant with the extra exertion, and he was breathing like a spent runner when he too crept into the room. Here Jack's voice was at his ear whispering:
"Some one asleep here, for I can hear soft breathing over yonder, where I think there's a cot." He proceeded to draw Tom after him, though both were down on their knees at the time, with groping hands extended in front of them.
Now Jack knew he was alongside the cot, for the sleeper had stirred restlessly. Then the regular breathing was resumed, though Jack believed he had heard something akin to a sigh well forth.
He put out his hands and gently felt to make sure that it was a child, for any mistake at this stage would prove most serious.
Jack uttered the name softly, but the breathing still continued. Again did he speak, this time raising his voice slightly. He knew that he must have succeeded in awakening the little sleeper; doubtless she was lying there wondering whether it might be all a dream. Perhaps she even thought it was her mother calling her from her slumber.
Tom now ventured to approach a little nearer, ready to act on the spur of the moment should the child be frightened and start to scream.
"Helene, we are friends of your sister Jeanne," Jack said. "She is in good hands, and on her way to Paris. We have come to try to take you to her. Do not be frightened, Helene. We are two American boys, and if you will only trust us we promise to carry you away from here. Have courage and tell me that you are not afraid to go with us to Jeanne."
The sympathetic Jack found a little hand, for the child suddenly sat upright. This he continued to pat gently even as he and Tom continued to reassure her. Perhaps his manner of doing this influenced Helene even more than their words, which of course she could hardly understand as yet, after being so suddenly awakened.
"Oh, I am so glad you have come from Jeanne," she finally managed to say, though her childish voice vibrated from the effect of her recent alarm.
"And will you gladly go away with us, Helene?" asked Jack. "You are not happy here with your uncle, are you?"
"Oh, no, no! He is so unkind," she said with a shudder that Jack could easily detect. "He even whipped me because I cried for my mother and Jeanne. So I will go with you, and do anything you say."
How understandingly she talked for one so young! Jack had marveled that Jeanne should show such remarkable qualities and appear so self-reliant; and apparently Helene was like her. But, alas, war had aged even the babies caught in its snare.
"Listen, Helene," Jack went on to say, "do you think you could dress yourself without having a light?"
"Oh, yes, m'sieu, I am sure I can!"
That caused Tom to chuckle with relief, for he felt pretty certain that neither he nor Jack could have managed that, even if given all the illumination heart might wish. And, moreover, Tom felt that he, at least, did not want to try.
"Then get your clothes on just as fast as you can, Helene," said Tom. "We will be waiting, and trying to figure out what the next move shall be."
His last words reminded Jack of the fact that they were now faced by another knotty problem. If the door was locked and the key safe in the possession of the gruff old general below, how then could they take the child away?
He knew it would be utterly impossible to get her to the other window by means of that ledge; for the task had been difficult enough when both hands were free.
But evidently resourceful Tom had already conceived a plan for he was busying himself with the cot from which Helene had so recently arisen and now called to Jack.
Close by the child could be heard moving about, as her nimble little fingers secured first one article of apparel and then another, spurred on by the wild hope of once more seeing her dearly beloved sister.
Jack, pushing forward, found his chum had turned the cot over, and seemed to be working swiftly at something.
"What have you found, Tom?" he asked.
"As luck would have it, Jack, this cot has a rope under the mattress in place of the usual spring. And it seems to be a good stout rope in the bargain, I'm glad to tell you."
"Now I get you, Tom! Good! We can slip down that way."
"If the rope turns out to be long enough. I can put Helene in your arms and drop you down. Then I can follow. I'd rather go about it some other way, but with this locked door we haven't any choice."
"Why, I think it a cracking good scheme," said Jack.
"Listen!" exclaimed Tom. "Doesn't it strike you that there's talking going on outside now?"
"You're right," agreed the other, almost immediately. "I do believe those Hun officers are making a move at last. Now there's going to be some fun let loose when they find that both cars are shy on gas."
"That may be," muttered Tom. "But I wish they'd chosen to hang on for just another half hour. I'd ask nothing better. Helene, how are you getting on, child?"
"I am almost ready, m'sieu," came back in a childish voice that quite thrilled Jack's heart. "I have only to slip my shoes on now and then I shall be ready."
Jack followed his chum over to the window, for by this time the entire rope had been secured from the cot. Tom tested its strength as well as he was able, and found reason to believe it was stanch enough to bear a double burden if necessary.
Loud talking now came from in front of the chateau. Evidently the general had gone out to see his guests off. The chauffeurs could be heard cranking their cars desperately, sounds which gave Jack considerable delight. Apparently their ill success had already begun to arouse suspicions in the minds of the two drivers that something was amiss, for the cranking suddenly ceased, and the watchers from the upper window of the chateau could see feeble lights moving about.
These they knew were matches held by the soldiers while they looked over the motors of their cars. After darkness had come again loud cries arose to tell that the alarming discovery had been made that tanks which the chauffeurs swore had contained a fair amount of petrol at the time they drew up before the chateau, were now most mysteriously empty!
The officers chimed in with expletives that came splutteringly from their lips, so that altogether it was a scene of confusion and excitement which was taking place in front of the old building. One particularly rasping voice Jack fancied must belong to the general himself. He pitied those two wretched chauffeurs, who would be apt to feel the displeasure of their superiors in some way altogether unpleasant.
What the outcome of the affair might be Jack had no idea, nor did he care a particle. All he asked was to be given a chance to make off with Helene while the row was in progress. Once they reached the waiting plane, he felt they could snap their fingers at not only General von Berthold but the entire Hun army as well.
Jack wondered whether this sudden outbreak, and the change in conditions in front of the chateau, would make any difference with Tom. Fortunately that tree afforded partial shelter, and besides, those on the road had but meagre means for striking a light, so it seemed reasonably safe for them to proceed.
"Be brave, Helene," Jack said in her ear, as Tom passed the rope out of the window, having meanwhile fastened one end to an anchorage inside the room. "It is for Jeanne's sake, remember. Do not be afraid that I will let you fall. And above all things keep from crying out, or he will hear you and hold you with him always. Will you let me take you in my arms, Helene?"
"Oh, yes, yes! I am not afraid. See, m'sieu, I can put my arms about your neck this way, and clasp you tight. For Jeanne I would do anything! You will not hear me say one word, no matter what happens, m'sieu!"
TOM KEEPS HIS WORD
THE air service boys did not hesitate.
Tom had mapped out the course, to which Jack had agreed, and they were ready to undertake the task set before them.
Tom hastened to help lift the little girl, so that his chum might get a firm clasp with one arm around her. He also knew that Helene's instinctive action in clinging to Jack's neck would greatly assist matters.
Now Jack was sliding down. Tom's heart seemed to be in his throat with suspense. Would the rope hold? He hoped age had not weakened the strands, so that a sudden extra strain might cause it to part. Still he had tested as best he could. It would hold—it must hold.
The seconds slipped by, though if Tom's feelings had been consulted they might be said to drag; for it seemed an age before he knew that Jack had safely landed by the sudden slackening of the rope.
How eagerly did Tom clamber over the window-sill and start downward! It was a mere nothing to him, accustomed to all sorts of athletic action. He quickly found himself alongside the crouching figure of Jack, who still held the child in his arm as if to reassure her.
Louder than ever came the babel of voices from the road. The officers had, it seemed, finally come to believe what the chauffeurs were saying. Some unknown prowler had stolen their petrol while they waited for the coming of their officers. The thought was demoralizing. The loud, sharp whistle that now came to the ears of the air service boys must mean a general alarm. There must be a body of troops in camp somewhere back of the chateau. These would be quickly on the scene, ready to scour the whole neighborhood, in the hope of ferreting out the spy who had been trying to discover the subject of the consultation, or council of war.
Tom now took the lead. The sooner they made off the better for their chances of ultimate escape. Delay now might lose them the game, for it was to be expected that with the alarm once given all avenues of escape would be closed, and a cordon of troops thrown around the chateau, in hope of enmeshing the prowler.
This getting away required some clever work, because if they were discovered it would be next to impossible to slip through, with Helene to be carried, for of course the child could not run fast enough. Jack clasped the child in his arms and followed close on Tom's heels. Dodging, and taking advantage of such cover as presented itself they succeeded in passing beyond what seemed to be the danger point. If equally successful in eluding any soldiers who might be running toward the chateau in response to the imperative summons of the general, they could call themselves lucky indeed.
"Somebody coming ahead there, Tom!" gasped Jack suddenly, as he caught the hasty patter of footsteps.
"Into these bushes, and get down on all fours!" Tom ordered, setting the action himself.
Hardly had they succeeded in leaving the road and concealing themselves in this way than several bounding figures came into sight. They were German soldiers without doubt, their spiked helmets could be seen and also the glitter of guns in their hands could be caught.
Once they had rushed past, Tom again took to the road. The danger from such sudden encounters was great, but there was no other way for them to proceed. And in order to escape it was necessary that they reach the cemetery where the big bombing plane awaited their coming.
Once again did they have a thrill. This was when a figure crashed out of a thicket without warning, and came face to face with them. He, too, was a soldier, who had possibly taken a short cut through the thickets in order to reach the road the sooner.
He uttered a startled exclamation. With the shrill sound of the alarm whistle still echoing through the valley below, of course his suspicions would be aroused by seeing two figures clad in the garments of aviators, and bearing away with them the child he, in common with his fellows, may have noticed playing near the chateau on sunshiny days.
His actions were so hostile that Tom, acting instantaneously, gave him a blow with the weighty club he had picked up a moment before.
It must have been a well-aimed blow, for the soldier fell in a heap, and his helmet rolled on the ground.
Jack, unable to resist the temptation to gather in the spoils as a souvenir of the event, snatched this metal headgear up. Then he rushed headlong after Tom, who was making off down the slope at full speed.
Just as Jack, still carrying Helene, but making good time, overtook his chum, he heard a fearful shouting back of him. Jack ground his teeth with rage, for he could easily guess what it all meant. The soldier who had been attacked must have recovered quickly. He was now running in the direction of the chateau and shouting in German.
While, of course, Jack was not able to tell exactly what it was he yelled, he could give a guess that it meant:
"Here they are! This way everybody. The French dogs are here!"
Of course that would mean immediate pursuit. It complicated the situation, too, because even though they were fortunate enough to gain the country cemetery before the searching party came up, they might be prevented from getting away.
It was down-grade, and that helped a little, if Jack could only hold out. The little girl was no light weight, and carrying such a burden was apt to delay even a good runner like Jack, who was already getting short of breath. But Tom could get the airplane ready to make a quick start as soon as Jack and his burden should reach the cemetery.
The sounds continued to break out in their rear.
They had now reached the bottom of the ridge, Tom well in advance. The level valley lay before them. But it seemed to Tom, on glancing back, that his chum was staggering under the strain, so he called out:
"Here, what's the matter with my spelling you, Jack. It isn't fair to make you the burden-bearer, when I'm so willing to help. Give me the child, and let me carry her awhile. We'll make better time if you do."
There was more or less force in the suggestion advanced; so Jack thrust little Helene into Tom's waiting arms. She did not hesitate to clasp his neck, even as she had done Jack's, an action which endeared her to Tom, less prompt than Jack to answer to the appeal of childhood.
After this they seemed to make better time, and Jack also had a chance to recover his wind. There could be no doubt about their being pursued, for they could hear loud shouts bursting forth every half minute.
Presumably General von Berthold had by this time realized that his plan with regard to realizing a fortune some day through little Helene and the rich iron deposits on the property that would come to her, were in danger of going astray. Doubtless, also, he had offered an incentive to the soldiers in the shape of a money bonus, in case they recovered the child. Jack imagined he could hear the harsh voice of the commander raised above the tumult from time to time, which would indicate that he himself led the pursuit.
But here at last they were at the place where the smaller road left the main one, and entered the country burial grounds.
How fortunate that they had made all their arrangements beforehand! What if the mending of the leaking reservoir had been left until their return with Helene! Small chance they would have in that case of effecting their escape with the aroused Hun soldiers scouring the country in search of them.
Just then another thing came to pass that caused Jack's heart to feel as though a cold hand had been pressed down on it. From above came a familiar sound, especially to the ear of an aviator. It was the unmistakable buzz of an airplane motor. The sound was growing constantly louder, as though the machine were heading directly toward the chateau.
Of course it was next to impossible for it to be an allied plane; and so Jack must conclude that it bore some courier sent from Hindenburg's headquarters, wherever they might be, with a message of vast importance meant for the general commanding the sector opposing the American advance. Tom and Jack exchanged looks. It seemed as though they were now between the upper and the nether millstones. If they lingered where they were the soldiers were almost certain to come upon them; and should they choose to start their motor and make a successful start into the upper air currents the hostile plane would be ready to challenge them to deadly combat.
But Tom was already beginning to fasten little Helene in a seat alongside his own position. From this Jack understood that his chum's mind was made up, and that half a dozen waiting planes might not daunt him. They would have to take chances one way or another; and by going aloft they might at least be in a position to hold their own.
Jack hoped with all his heart they could get away without an upset. The ground was far from being all that might be wished; but then he had known even worse in his experience, and had never yet come a cropper. Besides, Tom would be at the helm, and that stood for a great deal. Jack hastened to get aboard.
None too soon did the pilot get his machine to going. The Huns were already howling close by, and must have turned in at the cemetery entrance as though suspecting the truth.
With a whirr and a clatter the plane was off. Guns had commenced to bark and red splashes of fire to stab the opaque mist that had now fallen on the lower ground with the deepening night. Jack felt like laughing at all these vain efforts to stop their departure.
Bumping along, Tom increased the speed, with Jack waiting in more or less suspense to ascertain what the outcome would be. Ahead of them rose the barrier of trees. If they struck that all was lost. But Tom was on the alert, and just in good time he changed his lifting lever that caused the nose of the plane to incline upward.
With a rush and a roar they cleared the treetops, though there did not seem to be a yard to spare. That danger past, Jack felt that they were better able to cope with the next peril. Down below the disappointed general continued to shout and the soldiers to shoot, but one was just as harmless as the other.
"He's coming for us, Tom! That Boche pilot!" shouted Jack. "Swing around so as to give me a chance to pepper him good and hard!"
Tom did so, and Jack speedily found an opportunity to handle his machine-gun, which he did with all his old-time vigor.
There was a feeble response from the Hun, who, however, seemed hardly to understand what it was all about, or just why he should be chasing after an unknown plane that had come from the region of Von Berthold's headquarters.
Two minutes passed, and they were no longer followed by the Hun machine. Jack never knew whether he had done any damage or not, though convinced that he had seldom made better use of his gun. It was enough for the air service boys to realize that the field was clear ahead, and with reasonable luck they ought to be able to make their goal without further mishap.
Some little time later there was a bit of a sensation created among the American aviators when a big bombing plane that had been listed as "missing and supposed to be lost" came settling down like a huge bat.
Harry Leroy was the first to rush alongside to learn if his two chums were safe and sound. When he saw Tom unstrapping a little girl, Harry believed, on the spur of the moment, it must be Jeanne Anstey.
And it can be easily believed that both Tom and Jack felt they had had the most energetic night in all their experience, one that would not soon be forgotten; while Helene, clasped in Jack's sheltering arms, contented herself with a repetition of just one word—"Jeanne."
PEACE IN SIGHT—CONCLUSION
IT seemed as though there was to be little sleep for either of the air service boys on that remarkable night. Helene must be given into the charge of some one who could look after her temporarily; and Tom understood just whom Jack had in mind when he followed the other to the quarter where the Y. M. C. A. shelter stood.
They managed to communicate with Bessie after a bit, and then she came out to them. Great was her astonishment upon learning where they had been, and that this exact counterpart of little Jeanne, whom she had seen once when directed by Nellie to the house further back of the lines, was her twin sister, Helene.
Of course she and her mother could manage to take the child in. Their quarters were extremely crowded, and there was an absence of many of the comforts of life, but those warm-hearted women and girls who worked for the happiness of the boys in khaki would find some way to crowd a little closer for once. Even if Bessie herself had to sit up the rest of the night Helene should have a cot to lie upon.
"We'll see you in the morning, and tell you all about it," Jack said, anxious not to detain the tired worker longer than necessary.
"And as I'm going over to the hospital," Tom remarked, with somewhat studied carelessness, "I'll be only too glad to see Helene safely there. I suppose you'll want Nellie to start her along the same road for Paris that Jeanne took."
"We'll both go," said Jack, with the air of a general, at least. "And if Bessie can get off for a couple of hours, she might accompany us."
When morning came the boys found it easy to get permission to take a half-day off. They had been doing great work recently, and deserved this small favor. Besides, the commander to whom the request was made found himself greatly interested in the brief account Tom gave of the strange happenings that had been the portion of the air service boys after they discovered their petrol was exhausted, and realized the necessity for landing in order to procure a new supply in order to get home.
There was no reprimand coming to the boys for having attempted the rescue of Jeanne's twin sister. On the contrary the officer complimented Sergeants Raymond and Parmly on their exceedingly clever method of making the Boche supply them with the lacking fuel necessary to their safe home-coming.
Great was the astonishment of Nellie when they walked in on her. She stared at Helene for half a minute before something of the truth dawned upon her mind; and then it was the smiling faces of the other three that betrayed the fact.
"And so you've been at it again, have you, Jack?" she asked.
"Tom and I found a chance to drop in on Jeanne's wicked old uncle when in desperate need of petrol," he hastened to explain. "We happened to alight far back of the Hun lines, and discovered that we were close to the chateau where he has his headquarters. And so, to kill two birds with one stone, we concluded to take Helene along with us. Here she is."
"Not a very comprehensive story, it must be confessed," laughed Nellie. But then she knew she could coax all the details from Tom at various times in the future. So she just bent down and opened her arms.
"Come here, Helene, and love me," she told the little girl. "I've held your sister Jeanne in my arms, and I want to hug you too, my dear."
"Go to it, Helene," urged Tom, looking as though he thought the child a very fortunate youngster.
As Nellie had a very charming way about her, and Helene was gifted, as many children are, with a faculty for discerning a heart filled with true affection, they immediately became fast friends. It did Jack good to see the child so happy, with only one cloud to cause an occasional sigh, and that the memory of her mother's recent death.
But Jack and Tom both meant to see that the orphans were taken care of, and their interests safeguarded. In case the war soon came to an end he was determined that the scheming uncle, General von Berthold, should not profit as much as a single franc in connection with those hills in Lorraine, where the undeveloped iron deposits lay awaiting the magical touch of modern mining methods to bring a fortune to the Anstey children.
The air service boys and the two girls were having a very happy visit when who should come down upon them but Harry, also off on leave for the half-day, and naturally desirous of seeing his sister. So they had a really delightful time of it, and the three young air pilots found it most difficult to break away when the last minute of their leave had expired.
It was two days later when the thrilling news sped along the whole line that at several places the Americans were through the Argonne, with the beaten enemy retiring sullenly to newly arranged defenses. The rejoicing was general, for no matter how furiously the enemy might try to hold them in check from that time on, the fighting Yankees knew they had the Germans on the run.
More days of fighting followed, with the advance being continually and visibly quickened. Sedan was in sight one afternoon, and beyond that lay Belgium, with Germany almost unprotected further on quite up to the fortresses along the Rhine.
Enthusiasm in the army was rife. The worst was over, and never again would those gallant sons of Uncle Sam have to attempt such a frightful task as the clearing up of the vast Argonne Forest had proved to be.
The complete destruction of that last German stronghold during the big bombing raid, seemed to have utterly discouraged the Huns. Their morale went lower as the days crept past; so that they no longer fought with anything of their former ferocity.
"In fact," Jack declared, "they are badly whipped, and have just found it out."
Never would the air service boys forget the day when the news came to hold their present position at Sedan, because an armistice that would undoubtedly mean the ending of the war had just been signed. It was hard to believe that the last shot had been fired, and that now must begin the mighty task piled on Germany's back of paying for all the mischief caused by her invading armies during those four years and more of fighting.
In the Yankee camps the soldiers went fairly wild over the glorious news, and already those so far removed from home began to picture their triumphant return, with the warm welcome that must await them.
They could not foresee at that hour what duties still awaited them when ordered forward to occupy the bridgehead at Coblenz on the Rhine, there to stay for weary months while the Allied Council at Versailles debated over the peace terms that Germany would have to accept.
There on the Rhine we must take our leave of Tom Raymond and Jack Parmly, as well as of Harry Leroy, satisfied that as they had on many an occasion proved their valor and skill as Uncle Sam's air pilots, they would continue to serve their country faithfully to the end, even through another war if necessary.
* * * * *
Obvious punctuation errors have been corrected.
Page 2, word obscurred in original: "off" presumed from final "f" and context (off with my new)
Page 2, "overheard" changed to "overhead" (overhead, hastened to)
Page 55, "oberver" changed to "observer" (expected the observer)
Page 65, "fleet" changed to "feet" (a hundred feet)
Page 85, "solicitiously" changed to "solicitously" (he asked solicitously)
Page 86, "riped" changed to "ripped" (have it ripped off)
Page 137, "know" changed to "known" (manner known to bombing)
Page 139, "Luxumburg" changed to "Luxembourg" (junction with Luxembourg)
Page 156, "dimished" changed to "diminished" (an undiminished force)
Page 182, "treatmont" changed to "treatment" (treatment at the hands)
Page 185, word obscurred with ink. "such" presumed and inserted into text (just such as Jack)
Page 188, "grounded" changed to "ground" (Jack ground his teeth)
Page 209, "imposible" changed to "impossible" (next to impossible for)
This text uses tonight and to-night, halfway and half-way, chateau and chateau.