"Stick to your programme, Jack, and don't give up the ship. Until you know that Randolph has reached the other side, and entered into possession of the property, there's still some hope left."
"Yes, a fighting chance. And I must hang to it like a leech," admitted the other, trying to smile, but making a sorry mess of it.
"How do we know what the good fairy may do for you, so as to outwit the villain of the piece?" continued Tom. "While it isn't a pleasant thing to speak of, still some marauding undersea boat may lie in wait for his ship, and in the sinking who can tell what fate may overtake your cousin?"
"It would only serve him right if he did go down like others, a thousand times nobler than Randolph, have done before now," grumbled Jack; and somehow the vague possibility excited him, for his eyes began to sparkle and take on a look that told Tom he was seeing the whole thing before his mental vision.
For a purpose Tom chose to encourage this supposition; it would have the effect of building up Jack's sinking hopes, and just then that was the main thing. So Tom proceeded to picture the scene, having plenty of material from which to draw, for he had read the details of more than one submarine sinking.
"It must be a terrible sensation to any passenger, no matter how brave he may think himself," he went on to say, "when he feels the shock as a torpedo explodes against the hull of the steamer and knows that in a short time she is doomed to be swallowed by the sea. And you told me once yourself, Jack, that this scheming cousin of yours couldn't swim a stroke."
"Worse even than that!" declared Jack, with a sneer on his face to express his contempt, "he's a regular coward about the water. And if they do have the hard luck to run up against a Hun torpedo, Randolph will be frightened half to death."
"Queer," commented Tom, "how most of these schemers prove to have a yellow streak in their make-up, when the test really comes. Just picture him running screaming up and down the deck, and being kicked out of the way by every officer of the vessel when he implores them to save him."
"I can see it all as plain as day!" cried Jack excitedly. "And if I know human nature the chances are those sailors would think of the coward last of all."
"Yes, they'd leave him to the sinking ship if there was no room in the boats, you can depend on that, Jack. And now set your teeth as you usually do, and tell me again that you're not going to own up beaten until the umpire says the game is over."
"I do promise you, Tom," came the immediate response, showing that Jack was getting a fresh grip on his sinking courage and hopes. "But all the same, I keep on groping, and I'd like to see the light."
"For a change of subject," Tom observed, "shall we tell Lieutenant Beverly about your troubles? I've just glimpsed him coming this way."
"No reason why we shouldn't," agreed Jack. "He's a good friend of mine and three heads might be better than two in cracking this hard nut I'm up against. But he looks as if he might be bringing us news. Ten to one he's going to say the way is cleared for us to take that long trip with him to Berlin and back in his big Martin bomber."
"Too bad to disappoint him," remarked Tom. "But of course that's out of the question now."
"I'd have been glad of the chance to go, only for this sudden complication in my own affairs," Jack sighed. "But why couldn't you take the spin in his company, Tom? It's a pity to break up his plans."
"And desert my chum when he's in trouble? I'd never forgive myself for doing such a thing. The lieutenant will have to find some other pals for his record making Berlin and back flight."
Jack thought he detected a vein of regret in his comrade's voice, and he quickly flashed:
"You're disappointed, of course, Tom; you've been counting on that trip all the while, because its daring and dash appealed to you, just as they did to me."
"Forget it, please," urged Tom sturdily. "It was only a dream, and, after all, perhaps it couldn't be carried out. For all we know it may be the best thing in the world for us that we're prevented from starting; for such a long flight is a great risk, and might end our careers."
"Well, here's the lieutenant," said Jack, turning to greet the newcomer, and striving to look natural, though it cost him a great effort.
"I've hurried here as fast as I could!" exclaimed Beverly, his eyes sparkling with pleasure. "I wanted to bring the good news before you received it officially."
"What's that?" demanded Jack, turning a puzzled look toward his chum.
"Why, when they notified me I could have three weeks' leave of absence from duty, with no question concerning my movements during the interim, I chanced to learn that your request had also been granted. Both of you will be free, don't you understand? and the big game is now open to us."
"Well, that's certainly good news you've brought us, Lieutenant Beverly," said Tom, accepting the other's extended hand which was offered in congratulation. "I suppose you're counting now on getting that long flight off your mind? I regret to tell you I fear it's hull down in the distance for the two of us!"
"What! You haven't flunked, Tom? I'd never believe either of you could go back on me like that," cried the other, looking sorely distressed and bitterly disappointed.
"Circumstances over which we have no control," continued Tom, while Jack hung his head and looked gloomy, "have arisen to knock our plans galley-west. Much as we'd be pleased to make the game, we simply can't do it."
"But the bomber is all ready and waiting!" gasped Lieutenant Beverly. "And we're having a vacation extended to us, with no red tape or strings tied to the conditions! Why, the track is cleared for the biggest flight on record, and now you tell me you'll have to drop out. See here, what's this mean? There's something queer about it all, I know."
"Just what there is, Lieutenant," remarked Jack, looking him squarely in the eye, "and it's only right you should know the reason. Tom might go along with you, but he absolutely refuses to leave me alone to fight against the slickest scoundrel living. Now listen, and I'll sketch the whole story for you."
This he proceeded to do rapidly, omitting nothing that seemed of moment. When the meddler's secret work in tampering with their plane before they went up on the night raid was mentioned, the flight lieutenant's eyes flashed with indignation. Being a pilot himself he could appreciate such rank treachery better than any layman could.
"That's how the land lies," said Jack in conclusion. "And you understand now just why we must disappoint you, and make you look elsewhere for two companions on your trip to Berlin to frighten the Huns. It breaks my heart to decline, but this other matter must take my whole attention."
"You don't blame Jack, do you?" asked Tom.
"I should say not!" came the ready answer, accompanied by a keen look, first at Jack and then at the other, as a dazzling idea suddenly flashed into Beverly's mind. "Business before pleasure, every time with me; and it's only right you should devote every atom of your mind and body to beating that skunk to the post."
"We've settled on that policy all right," said Jack. "The only trouble is we haven't so far found a remedy to overcome his long lead; for he's got almost two days' run head of me, you understand."
Tom saw the lieutenant smile broadly and draw a long breath. Then something seemed to grip his heart as he heard Beverly say:
"Hold on! I've got an inspiration, boys. Perhaps there may be a way open to beat him to it yet!"
THE AMAZING PLAN
"Tell us what you mean, please?" begged the excited Jack.
"Take things coolly, to begin with," warned the other; "because what I'm going to say will almost stun you at first, I suppose. But it's no new idea with me. Fact is, I'd planned it all out in my mind long ago; had it more than half arranged at the time I ordered that monster Martin bomber built at my own expense and shipped over to France."
"Yes," muttered Jack, while he kept his eyes glued hungrily on the flushed face of the other.
Tom said nothing, but looked as though he already half guessed what was coming, if the eager and expectant gleam in his eyes signified anything.
"I explained to you," the lieutenant continued steadily, "that the big bomber was equipped for a trip to Berlin and back; and went so far as to say the flight could be repeated without making a landing, if there was any need of such a thing. All right, then; in a pinch, properly loaded with plenty of gasoline and stores, that machine would be able to take three fellows like you two and myself all the way across the Atlantic, and land us on American soil! Get that, do you, Jack?"
No one said a word for half a minute. The proposition was so astounding that it might well have appalled the stoutest heart. At that time no one had attempted to cross the Atlantic in a heavier-than-air plane, a feat later on successfully accomplished. Nobody had piloted the way in a Yankee-made seaplane; nor had any one navigated the air passage in a monster dirigible. The three thousand miles of atmosphere lying between Europe and America still stood an uncharted sea of vapor, where every imaginable evil might lie in wait for the modern Columbus of aerial navigation.
Then Jack drew a long breath. The lieutenant was watching the play of emotion across his face, and he knew the seed had been sown in good ground, where it was bound to take root. Jack's extremity would be his, Lieutenant Beverly's, opportunity. So he returned to the attack, meaning to "strike while the iron was hot."
"It staggers you at first, of course, Jack," he said, in his confident, convincing way. "But why should it? The danger is great, but nothing more than we're up against every day we set out for the clouds to give battle to a tricky Hun ace, who may send us down to our death. And I assure you we'd have at least a fighting chance to get across. What do you say, Jack?"
For answer the other whirled on his chum. His face was lighted up with that sudden and unexpected renewal of hope, just when it had seemed as though he had fallen into the pit of despair.
"Tom, would it be madness, do you think?" he cried, clutching the other by the arm, his fingers trembling, his eyes beseeching.
"We'd have a fair chance of making it, just as Colin says," Tom slowly answered. "Much would of course depend on contrary winds; and there'd be fighting in the fog banks we'd surely strike. But Jack,—"
"Yes, Tom?" gasped the other, hanging on his chum's words eagerly, as one might to the timbers of a slender bridge that offered a slim chance to reach a longed-for harbor.
"If you decide to accept the venture I'm with you!" finished Tom.
At that the eager flight lieutenant showed the utmost enthusiasm.
"Call it settled then, Jack, so we can get busy working out the programme!" he begged, again insisting upon gripping a hand of each.
Jack found himself carried along with the current. He could not well have resisted had he so desired, which was far from being the case. It seemed to him as though he were on a vessel which had drifted for hours in the baffling fog, and then all of a sudden the veil of mist parted, to show him the friendly shore beyond, just the haven for which he was bound.
"It is, perhaps, a desperate attempt to make such a flight on short notice," Jack said. "But think! If we succeed! And think, too, of that schemer winning the prize! Yes, Tom, since you've already agreed to stand in with me, I say—go!"
After that a fever seemed to burn in Jack's veins, due to the sudden revulsion of feeling from despair to hope. He asked many questions, and for an hour the three talked the matter over, looking at the possibilities from every conceivable angle.
Tom was not so sanguine of success as either of his mates; but he kept his doubts to himself. As an ambitious airman he was thrilled by the vastness of the scheme. As Lieutenant Beverly had truly remarked, while it held chances of disaster, they were accepting just as many challenges to meet their death every day of their service as battleplane pilots.
Then again it seemed to be the only hope offered to poor Jack; and Tom was bound to stick by his chum through thick and thin. So he fell in with the great scheme, and listened while the flight lieutenant touched upon every feature of the contemplated flight.
Luckily it was no new idea with him, for he had spent much time and labor in figuring it all out to a fraction, barring hazards of which they could of course know nothing until they were met.
"I've got all the charts necessary," he assured them, after they had about exhausted the subject, with Jack more enthusiastic than ever. "And while you boys are waiting to receive your official notifications, which ought surely to come to-morrow, since there was a hurry mark on them, I noticed, I'll rush over to the coast and see that additional supplies of fuel and food are put aboard."
"Don't stint the gas, above everything," urged Jack. "We'd be in a pretty pickle to run out while still five hundred miles from shore. If it was only a big seaplane now, such as we hear they're building over in America, we might drop down on a smooth sea and wait to be picked up by some ship; but with a bomber, it would mean going under in a hurry."
"Make your mind easy on that score, Jack," came the lieutenant's reply. "I'll figure to the limit, and then if the plane can carry another fifty gallons it'll go aboard in the reserve reservoir. I'm taking no chances that can be avoided. There'll be enough to bother us, most likely. And, for one, I'm not calculating on committing suicide. I hope to live to come back here aboard some ship, and see the finish of this big, exciting scrap."
Tom liked to hear him talk in that serene way. It showed that Lieutenant Colin Beverly, while a daring aviator was not to be reckoned a reckless one; and there is a vast difference between the two. Tom was of very much the same temperament himself, as was proved in past stirring incidents in his career, known to all those who have followed the fortunes of the Air Service Boys in previous books of this series.
"Is there anything else to confer about?" asked Tom. "Because I can see you're itching to get away, Colin."
"Not a thing, as far as I know," came the reply. "If any fresh idea happens to strike me I'll have it on tap when you arrive. Are you sure you've got the directions how to get to Dunkirk, and then how to find my secret hangar on the coast beyond the town, Tom?"
"We'll be ready to skip out just as soon as our official notice comes to hand," the other assured him.
"That's the only thing bothering me just now," observed Jack. "Any delay there might ruin our plans at the last minute. As it is, we're not apt to have any too much time to beat the steamer to New York."
"I expect you to show up to-morrow night, and then we can slip away unnoticed in the dark," said the lieutenant. "I've kept tabs on the weather conditions, as it's always been a fad with me; and I'm happy to say there seems to be no storm in prospect, while the winds are apt to be favorable, coming from the east, a rare thing these fall days. So-long, boys, and here's success to our jolly little flight!"
After he had left them Jack turned on his comrade to say:
"It seems to be our only chance, and not a long one at that; but I'm bent on trying it out. Anything to beat Randolph to the tape, Tom!"
GRIPPED IN SUSPENSE
From that hour on Jack continued in a fever of suspense. His one thought was of the coming of the official notification connected with their hoped-for leave.
Tom fancied that his chum did not get much sleep on the following night, the last both of them hoped they would have to spend in the dugout used as a billet back of the American front.
So another day found them. Jack took special delight in casting up figures connected with the case. These he would show to his chum, and make various comments. Tom, realizing how the other was endeavoring to suck consolation from this proceeding, encouraged him in it.
"By to-night," Jack said, more than once, "it will be three whole days since the steamer sailed from Havre. I've tried to find out how fast she is, and then figured that they'd have to slow down when passing through the barred zone. I reckon it will take her eight or nine days to get across."
"Oh, all of that," Tom assured him; "and it might be as many as twelve. You see, the few passenger steamers still in use haven't been in dry dock for the longest time, and their hulls must be covered with barnacles, which cuts off considerable from their speed."
Jack gave him a thankful look.
"You're the best sort of jollier, Tom," he observed. "You know how to talk to a fellow who's quivering all over with eagerness and dread. What if something happens to hold up those notices until it's too late for even Colin's big bomber to catch up with the steamer?"
"You're only borrowing trouble when you allow yourself to fear that," was the reply. "But all the same, I mean to do everything I can to get things hurried along. I'll see the general, and with your permission explain to him that there's great need of our getting word to-day."
"But, surely, you wouldn't dare hint anything about the big trip we want to take, Tom?" asked Jack, looking alarmed.
"I should say not!" came the immediate response. "If we did that, the general would consider it his duty to put his foot down on the mad scheme right away. Trust me to let him know we stand to lose out in something that concerns your whole future if the notifications are delayed beyond early this afternoon, and I'm sure he'll start the wires going to get them here."
"What can I be doing in the meanwhile?"
"You might see to making arrangements for crossing to the coast on the first train that goes out," answered Tom.
"But that's going to be slow traveling, even if we're lucky enough to get aboard," protested the other. "Tom, do you think the general would permit us to take our machine, and fly to Dunkirk?"
"Good! That's a clever idea you've hit on, Jack!" exclaimed the other. "I'll take it up with the general when I see him. He might find it convenient, you know, to have some message sent across the country to the coast; and it would save us hours of time, perhaps win the race for us. A splendid thought, Jack!"
"Then let's hope it can be carried through," returned the other.
Tom did not lose any more time but hurried away to try to get an opportunity to talk with the kindly old general. He had always shown an interest in the fortunes of the two Air Service Boys, and they had already received favors from him on several occasions.
The minutes dragged while he was gone. Jack could not keep still, so nervous did he feel, but continued walking up and down, "like a tiger in its cage," he told himself. He ran through the entire gamut of possible troubles and triumphs in his mind, as he tried to picture the whole thing.
"What great luck to have Colin Beverly break in on us just at the time when my fortunes had reached their lowest ebb," Jack kept saying to himself.
At last Tom came back. Jack could read success in his looks, even before the other had had a chance to open his mouth and say a single word.
"It's all right then, I take it, Tom?" he exclaimed impulsively.
"Didn't have any trouble at all in interesting the general," replied the messenger joyfully. "He said he'd see to having an urgent call go out to hurry the notifications along, and almost promised they'd get here by two this afternoon."
"And how about the plane business?"
"That's all settled in the bargain. I have written permission to make use of our plane, turning it over to a certain agent in Dunkirk after we've arrived there. The general will send a message over to us which we're to deliver at the same time we give up the machine."
"Great work, Tom! I've always said you'd make a mighty fine diplomatic agent, if ever you tried, and now I know it."
"No soft-soap business, please. If it had been anybody but the general I'd have surely fallen down on my job. But you know he's always had an interest in us, Jack."
"Do you think he suspected anything?" asked the other.
"Sure he did, but not the thing, for nobody in the wide world would ever dream we were planning such an unheard of thing as a non-stop flight across the Atlantic."
Tom dropped his voice to a whisper when he said this; not that there seemed to be any particular need of caution, but simply on general principles. They could not afford to take any chance of having their great plan discovered in these early stages of the game.
"Well, I don't know how I'm going to hold out much longer," complained Jack. "I can't keep still five minutes, but have to jump up and walk it off. Let's see—two o'clock you said, didn't you? That'll be nearly three long hours more. It's simply terrible, Tom! Sixty minutes in each hour!"
"But then we'll have to eat our regular midday meal, remember," Tom tried to cheer his companion up by saying. "If you prefer it, we might walk over to the field-hospital, which, by the way, I hear is to be moved ahead to-night, to keep in closer touch with the wounded straggling back from the front. The Y hut's close by, too, and we'd enjoy an hour or so with the girls. Nellie told me she expected her brother, Harry, to be back on our sector any day now, and if he should come before we clear out we'd be mighty glad to see him."
"Gee! you do tempt a fellow, Tom," he finally remarked, as though coming to a conclusion. "Nothing I'd like better than to chat with Bessie and have a few of those Salvation Army girls' doughnuts to munch. But I guess it would be foolish in our laying off just now."
"You mean the notifications might arrive while we were gone?" remarked Tom, nodding his head, pleased because the other took such a sensible view of the matter.
"Yes. We might lose a whole hour, perhaps two, by being away," explained Jack. "That would be too bad; it might even turn out a catastrophe, if in the end that hour would save us from being beaten in the race against time."
"All right, then, we'll hang around and watch for something to come from Headquarters. The general promised me he'd have the notifications sent over without any delay just as soon as they came."
"Let's go over to the flying field and watch some of the boys come in," suggested Jack, and to this the other readily assented.
Even when an airman is off-duty his special delight lies in "hanging out" at the aviation field, seeing his fellow workers go forth, watching their return, and listening to the many thrilling accounts of battles fought, as well as perils endured.
The fascination of the sport, once it has fairly gripped a man, makes him its slave; he can think of little else; and doubtless even in dreams he fancies himself performing unusual hazards and earning the applause of the multitude.
However this proved to be a very good panacea for Jack's nervousness and they managed to put in a full hour there. Business was unusually brisk in the way of engagements; and Tom more than once secretly regretted that circumstances beyond their control caused them to miss a "whole lot of fun."
The enemy was up in the air in more ways than one on that day. Desperation on account of the blowing up of the bridge caused the German plane scouts to meet the challenges offered by the exultant Yankees, and news of many an encounter kept coming in about the time the two boys thought of leaving the field and going for their dinner.
Word had also been received of several accidents to American pilots, and it looked as though the history of that eventful day would set a new high-water mark in the way of losses.
Jack even began to fear they might be ordered to go up, which would bring about a fresh delay while communication was being established with Headquarters to verify their story. So he was really glad when Tom drew him away by suggesting that it was time they dined.
At one o'clock they were at their headquarters, killing time and waiting. Jack's nerves once more began showing signs of being frayed, or "ragged," as he called it. He jumped at the least unusual sound, and alternately looked expectant and despairing.
It was now close to two o'clock, and as yet there was no sign of relief. Jack jumped up for the twentieth time and started to walk back and forth, while others among the airmen were gathering their belongings together, preparatory to a change of base.
Then a messenger was seen hurrying toward them. Jack became almost wild with excitement, until he knew for a fact the notifications had arrived.
"And now," said Tom, "let's put for the field and get away without any further loss of time. It's a long way to Dunkirk, remember, even by way of the air line, as a bee would take it. And we must get there before dark!"
They ran part of the way, and thus presented themselves before the hangar. Ample preparations had already been made. The petrol tank had been filled, and, everything being in readiness, they would have nothing to do but jump aboard and make a quick start.
But Tom was too old a pilot to take things for granted. After that recent experience with treachery he meant to be doubly careful before risking their lives in the air. Dunkirk on the Channel was a considerable distance off; and a drop when several thousand feet above French soil would go just as hard with them as if it were German territory.
Accordingly he took a survey of the plane from tip to tip of the wings; looked over the motor, tested every strut and stay, leaving nothing to Jack, who was fairly quivering with the intensity of his feelings.
Even the longest day must come to an end, and Tom's examination was finally completed.
"Get aboard!" he told Jack. "We're in great trim to make a record flight of it. And even the breeze favors us, you notice."
"Let's hope it keeps on as it is," said Jack, quickly; "because an easterly wind will help carry us on our way to-night!"
"We'll be in luck to have such help," Tom replied. "As a rule, the passage from Europe to America meets with head winds most of the way. How are you fixed, Jack?"
"All ready here, Tom."
"Half a minute more, and I'll be the same. Take your last look for some time, Jack, at the American fighting front. We'll never forget what we've met with here, and that's a fact."
"But, Tom, we expect to come back again, if all goes well," expostulated Jack. "In fact, we've just got to, or be accused of running away. We arranged all that, you remember, and how we'd manage to get across in such a way that no one will be any the wiser for our having been out of France."
"Don't let's worry about that yet," said Tom. "The first big job is to get across the Atlantic. Ready, back there? Here goes!"
Another minute, and with a rush and a roar the plane sped along the field, took an upward slant, and set out for the coast. The first leg of the great flight had actually been started!
OFF FOR THE CHANNEL
"Tom, do you think that spy left behind by my cousin could have learned in any way about our plan?"
They were passing over a section of Northern France, keeping a mile and more above the surface of the earth, when Jack called out in this fashion. Talking is never easy aboard a working plane. The splutter of the motor, added to the noise caused by the spinning propellers, as well as the fact that as a rule pilot and observer keep well muffled up because of the chill in the rarified air, all combine to make it difficult.
But Jack was hard to repress. Especially just then did he feel as if he must find some answer to certain doubts which were beginning to oppress him.
"There's no way of telling," Tom answered promptly. "We've already seen that the fellow is a clever, as well as desperate, rascal. He may be an American, though I'm rather inclined to believe your cousin has found a native better suited to his needs. And such a treacherous Frenchman would prove a tricky and slippery sort. Yes, he may have overheard us say something that would put him wise to our big game."
"I hope not, I surely do," Jack continued, looking serious again. "Fact is, Tom, I'll never feel easy until we see the ocean under us."
At that Tom laughed heartily. He even put a little extra vim into his merriment in the hope of raising his chum's drooping spirits.
"That sounds mighty close to a joke, Jack, for a fact," he said.
"I'd like to know how you make that out?" demanded the other.
"Why, most people would be apt to say our troubles were likely to begin when we have cut loose from the land and see nothing below us as far as the eye can reach but the blue water of the Atlantic."
"All right," cried Jack, showing no sign of changing his mind. "I'll willingly take chances with nature rather than the perfidy and treachery of mankind. Somehow, I can't believe that we're really launched on the journey."
"Wake up then, old fellow, and shake yourself. You'll find we've made a pretty fair start. Already we've put thirty miles behind us. Unless we run up against some snag, and have engine trouble, we ought to get to the Channel long before dark sets in."
So Jack relapsed into silence for a time. As he was not needed in order to run the motor or guide the plane in its progress westward, Jack could amuse himself in using the powerful binoculars.
They were at the time far removed from the earth, but through the wonderful lenses of the glasses objects became fairly distinct. So Jack could see much to interest him as they sped onward. Finally he again broke out with an exclamation.
"Nothing but the ruins of towns and villages down below, Tom," he called. "The fighting has been fierce along this sector, I should say. Why, even the woods have been smashed, and it looks like a regular desert. Poor France, what you must have suffered at the hands of those savage Huns."
"Yes," replied the pilot, over his shoulder, "here is where much of the most desperate fighting of the British took place. Some of those ruined places were beautiful French towns only a few years ago, where laces and such things were made for most of the fashionable world. Now they look about like the ruins of Ninevah or Babylon."
Fortune favored them during the next hour, and even Jack's spirits had begun to improve. Then came a check to the sanguine nature of the outlook.
"Sorry to tell you, Jack," reported Tom, after some uneasy movements, which the other had noticed with growing alarm, "that we'll have to make a landing. After all, it's not going to be a non-stop flight to the coast. Only a little matter, but it should be looked after before it develops into serious trouble. I'm going to drop down to a lower level, where we can keep an eye out for a proper landing place."
"But that means time lost!"
"We can spare an hour if necessary, and still get to Dunkirk by evening," Tom replied cheerfully. "I was a bit suspicious of that very thing, and only for our desperate need of haste would have waited to start until it had been gone over again. But then I took chances, knowing it would, at the worst, mean only a stop for repairs. Sorry, but it can't be helped."
When the plane had reached a distance of a thousand feet above the earth, with Jack eagerly looking for a favorable landing place, the latter had managed to recover from his depression.
"I see what looks like a fine stretch, Tom," he now announced. "Notice that road looking as if it might be pitted with shell-holes? Just on its right, where that single tree trunk stands, there's a field as level as a barn floor. Circle around, and let's get closer to it."
Further examination convinced them that they had really run upon a suitable landing place. What pleased Tom still more was the fact that so far there had been no evidence of human presence near by.
This meant that they would not be bothered during the time required for overhauling the engine by curious spectators, who might even question their right to be flying away from the front.
The landing was made in good style, and with only a few bumps, thanks to the smooth character of the field's surface. Even Jack was compelled to admit that though they had met with trouble, matters might be much worse.
"We'll get busy now, and soon have things as fit as a fiddle," said Tom, throwing off some of his superfluous garments so as to be free to work.
By this time both boys had grown to be real experts in all sorts of mechanical repairing, as every airman must of necessity become before he can pass the acid test. Unlike the driver of a car on country roads, when a break-down occurs he cannot step to a neighboring house, use the long distance or local telephone, and summon help. The airman is usually compelled to depend exclusively on his own ability to overcome the difficulty.
To get at the seat of trouble necessitated considerable disarrangement of the motor's parts. This consumed more or less time, and the minutes passing were jealously given up by the impatient Jack.
But the boys worked fast, and finally all had been accomplished. Tom tested the engine, and pronounced himself satisfied, while Jack looked over the field ahead of them.
"It's going to take us to Dunkirk without any further trouble, I give you my word for it, Jack," he said. "How long have we been here?"
"Just one hour, lacking three minutes," came the prompt reply.
"Then I'm safe," laughed Tom; "for I said within the hour. Come, pile aboard and we'll be off. Sure you examined the ground ahead, and saw to it we'd hit no bumps that might give us trouble?"
"It's all right there, Tom; could hardly be better. But be sure you don't change from a straight course, because there's a nasty shell-hole, about ten feet deep, to the left. If we struck that—good-night!"
"I notice you marked it with that pole, Jack, and I'll swing clear, you can depend on that."
They had no difficulty in making a successful ascent. Once free from the ground, the plane's nose was again turned toward the southwest. Tom had long before marked out his course, and kept an eye on the compass as well as on his little chart.
He knew they were heading for the Channel port as straight as the crow flies. The sun was getting far down in the western sky, and it was now necessary to shield their eyes when looking ahead, on account of the dazzling glare that at times threatened to blind them.
The character of the country below had changed materially, Jack told the pilot, who seldom had a chance to look through the glasses, since his entire attention was taken up with manipulating the engine, watching its rhythmical working, and keeping the plane pushing directly on its course.
"Heine didn't get a chance to ruin things here when he passed through, going to Paris and to his smash on the Marne," Jack explained. "Towns and villages look natural, as I see them, and they must have harvested crops in those brown fields. This is a bit of the real France, and entirely different from the horrible desert we've been at work in so long."
The afternoon was wearing away. Jack frequently stared eagerly off to the west, when the sun's glowing face was veiled for a brief time by some friendly cloud. Several times he believed he could see something that looked like a stretch of water, but dared not voice his hopes.
Then came a time when a heavier cloud than usual masked the brightness of the declining sun. Another long earnest look and Jack burst out with a triumphant shout.
"Tom, I can see the Channel, as sure as you're born!" was the burden of his announcement; and of course this caused the pilot to demand that he too be given a chance to glimpse the doubly welcome sight.
There could not be any mistake about it. Tom corroborated what Jack had declared. It was undoubtedly the English Channel they saw, showing that their journey from the American front had been successfully accomplished.
"Now for Dunkirk!" jubilantly cried Jack, looking as though he had thrown off the weight of dull care, and was once more light-hearted. "And by the same token, Tom, unless I miss my guess, that may be the city we're heading for over yonder a little further to the south."
"Then I kept my course fairly well, you'll admit," the pilot shouted at him, naturally feeling conscious of a little pride over his achievement.
Rapidly they pushed on with a slight change of course. Jack kept using the glasses and reported his observations to the busily engaged pilot.
"It'll be dusk, likely, when we land," he observed at one time. "But that doesn't cut much figure, for we can easily find our way down to Beverly's hangar on the coast. He said it was only a few miles from town, and they'll know at the aviation field, of course."
"He gave us the name of a British officer who would post us," added Tom.
After a bit they were passing over the outskirts of Dunkirk, and making for what appeared to be an aviation field, since they could see various hangars, and another plane was just settling ahead of them.
Ten minutes passed, and Jack was delighted to find that they had made a successful landing. A number of French and British aviation men hastened to surround them, more than curious to know what strange chance had brought two Yankee fliers to Dunkirk.
Of course neither Tom nor Jack meant to afford them the least satisfaction. They had certain business to transact, and after that was off their hands the great adventure loomed beyond.
Accordingly, their first act was to find the man to whom they had been referred by Lieutenant Beverly.
"We want to see Major Denning; can anybody direct us to him?" Tom asked.
"That happens to be my name," remarked a red-faced officer on the outskirts of the crowd and who had just arrived. "What can I do for you?"
"Lieutenant Colin Beverly of the American aviation corps referred us to you, Major," said Tom. "We have a message for you, after which we must deliver an official packet sent by our general to the command here and make arrangements to have our plane sent back to where we started from some hours ago, on the American fighting front."
"I shall be pleased to give you any assistance in my power, gentlemen," said the British major, being apparently a very agreeable and accommodating man indeed, as Beverly had informed them they would find him.
Stepping away from the crowd the Air Service Boys delivered their message, which was really a sort of prearranged password.
"Lieutenant Beverly is a cousin of mine, you know; which makes me more than anxious concerning him just now," went on Major Denning, after these formalities had been gone through with.
"Why so, Major?" demanded Tom, while Jack looked worried.
Whereupon the red-faced major drew them still further to one side, and, lowering his heavy voice so as not to be overheard by others, went on to say:
"I, as you know, know something about that wonderful big bomber he's had sent over, and how he means to give Berlin a scare shortly. I've even had the privilege of looking the monster over, and feeling a thrill at picturing how it would give the Huns a fright when it appeared over Berlin. But you see its presence here is a secret, and known to but few of us."
"Glad to hear it, Major," Tom remarked. "But please explain why you are worried about Beverly."
"That is," continued the officer, "because an explosion was heard, coming from the south, just a short time ago. Everybody believes it must be the airdrome sheltering the dirigible Britain sent over here for use, and which lies further down the coast. But, much as I hate to say it, I fear something serious has happened to Beverly's hangar; in fact that a bomb has destroyed it, or else some rank Hun treachery has been at work there!"
READY FOR THE START
"Just our beastly luck!" gasped Jack, turning white with apprehension.
"Wait, we haven't any proof as yet," advised Tom. "The Major himself admits that he's only afraid it may have been Beverly's hangar. Hasn't anything been done to learn the truth, sir?"
"Oh, yes," came the quick reply. "A number of cars have gone down that way, but the road's in a shocking condition, and up to now none of them has returned to advise us. I'd be very sorry if it turned out as I fear, doubly so if Beverly himself were injured or killed, because I'm fond of the chap, don't you know."
"Let's hope everything is all right," said Tom, as composedly as possible. "And first of all I'd like to get through the business part of our errand here. I have the packet to deliver for our general. Then the machine must be turned over to a representative of our Government here. After all that's attended to we'll strike out for the Beverly hangar."
"I'll be pleased to take you there personally, if you like," remarked Major Denning.
"And we'll accept your offer with thanks, sir. It is very kind of you," said Tom, at the same time wondering what the other would say when he made the astounding discovery that the object of the expedition was even more ambitious than a mere flight to Berlin and back; that indeed the daring adventurers meant to attempt a record voyage across the Atlantic by air such as would vie with that of Columbus.
Jack fell into a fever of suspense again, and counted the minutes that must be consumed in carrying out the business in hand. Tom was exceedingly scrupulous concerning this.
"The general was kind enough to give us a good push on our way here," he told Jack, when the latter continued to fret and hint about "cutting off corners" in order to hasten their getting away. "We're bound to do our part of the job right up to the handle. Besides, what do ten or twenty minutes amount to?"
When Tom announced himself satisfied night had settled on the land. Dunkirk had for long been annoyed by the fire of a long-range monster gun, shells dropping into the city at stated intervals for weeks at a time.
So, too, hostile airplanes had hovered over the Channel port, trying to make it unpleasant for the British Tommies in camp near by. But since Marshal Foch opened operations on a large scale, together with the furious drive of General Pershing's army, this had altogether ceased.
Major Denning had a car at their disposal.
"It will take us to a place where we can leave the road and follow a path to the beach," he told them. "Beverly has quite a force of men there looking after things, which fact makes me hope nothing could have happened to injure or destroy that wonderful bomber. But we've been pestered to death with Hun bounders playing spy, and I'd put nothing past them."
They set out, and were soon on the way. Major Denning had a man at the wheel, evidently his chauffeur, for he was a British private. He knew the road, and managed to steer clear of the obstructions that continually cropped up.
"Seems to me those Hun pilots must have dropped most of their bombs out this way, instead of hitting the town or the camps," Tom suggested, as they dodged to and fro, and often suffered severe bouncings.
"No man-power to make any road repairs, in the bargain," explained the officer. "Since the drive has been on we are sending every British battalion we can muster forward. These things can wait until the German is licked, which we all believe is coming shortly, with Marshall Haig and General Pershing and General Petain on the job."
"Wow! what's that mean?" cried Jack, half jumping up as the sound of several shots not far away came distinctly to their ears.
"Did those shots seem to be over yonder to the right?" asked the major.
"So far as I was able to judge that's where they came from," Tom replied. "Does the hangar lie in that quarter, sir?"
"Just what it does! There's certainly something strange going on around there to-night. But we'll quickly learn for ourselves, because the spot where we leave the road is just ahead of us."
Jack was the first out; indeed the car had not wholly come to a stand before he made a flying jump. Leaving the chauffeur to watch the car, the major soon found the trail. He carried a small hand electric torch with him, a vest-pocket size, but at least with a ray sufficiently strong to dissipate the gloom under the brush and to show them what seemed to be a well defined trail.
"We may find ourselves made a target by some of his wideawake guards. That they are on the alert those shots we heard a bit ago seem to testify," suggested Major Denning.
"Oh, we'll use the signal whistle; and I feel sure Lieutenant Beverly himself will be listening to catch it, for he expects us any minute now."
"We're getting close enough just now to exercise due caution, at any rate," the guide answered in a whisper.
Taking the hint, Tom commenced giving the signal. It was a short sharp whistle, four times repeated. Hardly had Tom sounded this than they heard an answer.
"Fine!" exclaimed Jack. "He's here on deck, and perhaps everything may be all right yet."
They continued along the path, and Tom repeated his whistling. Finally the figure of a man loomed up beyond.
"That you, Tom, Jack?" came a voice.
"Hello, Beverly!" Jack burst out impulsively. "We've come all the way by air. What's going on around here; nothing serious happened, I hope?"
"Rest easy on that score, boys," the other replied, still advancing.
"Then the machine is still ready for business, is it?" cried Jack.
"In apple-pie order, down to the last drop of juice, and ready to do the builders proud. But I'm mighty glad to see you, boys, I surely am. Afraid there'd be some hitch at the last minute from your end."
"And," said Tom, wringing the other's hand, "Jack has been picturing all sorts of terrible things happening to you and the plane here, near Dunkirk. He's as happy as a clam at high tide right now, I assure you."
"You bet I am!" Jack cried explosively, gripping the fingers of the lieutenant with great enthusiasm.
"Why, hello! who's this but my English cousin, Major Denning?" cried Beverly, discovering that his two chums were not alone.
"Thought it best to steer them to you, and take no chances of a miss," explained the officer. "Besides, to tell you the truth, I fancied seeing you start off on your long contemplated trip to wake up Berlin. Once I was in hopes I might even have the opportunity of accompanying you. I've a score to settle with the beast for knocking a hole in my London house and frightening my aunt almost into fits. At least you'll let me wish you bon voyage, Beverly."
Tom said nothing. He realized that the major had no inkling of the real purpose of the flight about to be undertaken; and if he was to be told the facts the information must come from Lieutenant Beverly himself.
"Oh! By the way, that Berlin trip will have to wait," chuckled the lieutenant, making up his mind that a clean breast of the whole matter must follow. "Fact is, Major, we're after larger game than that would prove to be; something calculated to stagger you a bit, I think."
"You're certainly puzzling me by what you say, Colin," declared the major, betraying a growing curiosity in voice and manner. "I'd like to know for a fact what you could call larger game than a non-stop flight to Berlin and back, starting from the Channel here. Are you planning a trip to the moon, after Jules Verne's yarn?"
"No. But something that has as yet never been attempted," came the steady reply. "It is a flight across the Atlantic to America in the big bomber plane, and starting this very night!"
THE LONG FLIGHT BEGUN
Major Denning was greatly astonished when Lieutenant Beverly made so astounding an assertion.
"Well, I wouldn't put anything past you Yankees," he presently remarked, with a dry chuckle. "But this is something of a Herculean task you're planning, Colin. A flight of over three thousand miles is a greater undertaking than any plane has so far been able to carry through. And if you should meet with trouble, the jig is up with you all!"
"We understand what we're up against, I assure you," Tom replied. "The plan is entirely Lieutenant Beverly's, sir. Sergeant Parmly has reason to get home before the La Bretagne reaches New York harbor, and she's already three days out. Learning this, our good friend here made a thrilling proposition, which we eagerly accepted. That's the story in a nutshell, Major Denning."
"I must say I admire your nerve, that's all," exploded the other, shaking hands with all of them. "Just the type of chap I'd like to tie up with. My word! if I could get leave, and there was room for one more aboard the big bomber, I'd beg of you to take me in. But I wish you every luck in the wide world. My word, fancy the nerve of it!"
"We must remember not to speak a word so that any of the men can guess what our real destination is," Beverly cautioned, as they continued along the path. "Only my right-hand agent here knows the truth, and he means to keep it dark."
"But they must suspect something unusual," suggested Tom.
"It's hinted that we are aiming at Berlin, don't you know?" pursued the lieutenant, chuckling. "But believe me, the game is a bigger one than just that little jaunt, far bigger in fact."
Presently they came to the shore where the stout hangar was found, partly hidden under the branches of low trees and shrubbery. Before them lay the sandy stretch of beach hard as a dancing floor, and well fitted to be their "jumping off" place.
Tom bent down to feel it, after the manner of an experienced air pilot.
"Couldn't be bettered much, could it, Tom?" demanded Lieutenant Beverly confidently.
"I should say not!" was the quick response.
Jack was feeling quite joyous since the outlook for starting on the anticipated flight had become so bright. At the same time he told himself he would not entirely lose that tense sensation around the region of his heart until they were actually off.
Around the hangar they found a cordon of several armed men; a fact which caused Tom to remember that they shortly before had heard the report of firearms, and as yet had failed to learn the cause. Then again there was that explosion down the coast. He turned to Lieutenant Beverly for an explanation.
"We too heard the sound of an explosion," Beverly told him in reply. "It came from further down the shore. There's some sort of British airdrome in that quarter, I'm informed; and possibly they had an accident there. As for the shooting, that's easily explained. My men were the cause."
"Spies hanging around, probably?" hazarded the major, in disgust. "We've been bothered with the slick beasts right along—shot several, but even that didn't keep the coast clear."
"There have been skulkers around for some time," continued the lieutenant. "Baxter tells me he'd warned them off until he grew tired, and threatened that the next one who was caught trying to peep would be fired upon. So to-night when a sentry reported suspicious movements in the brush we sent in a few shots, more to give them a scare than to do any damage."
"Have they tried to injure your plane, Colin?" asked the major.
"I understand that once my men discovered a fire had been started in a mysterious way, which they succeeded in putting out. Only for prompt work it would have at least disabled the bomber so that its usefulness for the present would be nil."
"The ways of those German spies are past finding out," complained Major Denning. "They seem to take a page from Indian tactics, and resort to all species of savage warfare. It wouldn't surprise me if you found they had shot an arrow with a blazing wad of saturated cotton fastened to its head, and used your hangar as a target. History tells us your redskins used to do something like that in the days of the early colonies."
Shortly afterwards the monster bombing plane was wheeled out of its hangar, and became an object of vast interest to the two Air Service Boys.
Tom and Jack were of course familiar with its working, but needed a few hints from Lieutenant Beverly with respect to certain new features that it possessed.
"What do you think of it, boys?" was the natural question asked by the intrepid flight commander, who of course meant to do his share of the handling of the giant plane during its long flight.
"A jim-dandy! That's what!" exclaimed the delighted Jack, almost awed by the tremendous size of the up-to-date machine, with its wonderful expanse of planes and its monster body in which the vast amount of stores, as well as surplus gasoline, could be stowed.
"I'm confident we'll have more than a fighting chance to reach the objective we have in view," Tom in his turn remarked; and even though the men standing near must have heard what he said they could not possibly suspect the truth that lay back of his words.
"Everything has been looked after, and right now there's not a single item lacking," Lieutenant Beverly assured them. "Mention what you please, and I defy you to find I've overlooked it. I notice that you have brought your glasses along, Jack. I have a fine pair with me, but we can doubtless use both."
"And on my part," added Tom, "I thought it wise to carry a few small knickknacks that I've become attached to. They ought to share my fortunes. If I cash in, my reliable old compass here, for instance, wouldn't be valued highly by any one else; but it's saved my life more than a few times."
"And may again," said Jack softly; "for those fogs are simply dreadful, if half that's said about them turns out to be true."
Tom was stooping down and feeling the firm sandy beach.
"A splendid place to make our start, Lieutenant," he remarked.
"I selected it with that idea in view," explained the other. "Besides, in a long trip, like the run to Berlin, this would be as desirable a station as any. What do you think of the plane, Tom?"
"As well as I can see it, I am satisfied it will be all you told us," Tom answered him, while Jack added:
Certainly, as seen spread out on the almost level stretch of hard sand the monster bombing plane did have a powerful appearance that must favorably impress any experienced pilot. Tom and Jack had noted several things about it calculated to inspire confidence. They were taking tremendous risks, of course, but then that was nothing novel in their lives as aviators.
"Is there anything to delay us further?" asked Jack naively, feeling that even minutes might count when the issue was so plainly outlined.
"I do not know of the slightest reason," admitted Lieutenant Beverly, moving toward the bombing plane and followed by his two comrades. "And that being the case, let's get aboard. Anything like a written message you would like to leave behind, to be sent in case we are never heard from again, boys? You can give it to my cousin, the major here, who will attend to it."
Both Tom and Jack had thought of this long before, and each had prepared a simple statement which would explain their fate in case they met with disaster on the flight. These sealed and directed envelopes they now handed to Major Denning.
"Depend on me to hold them until all doubt is past," he told them, as he warmly pressed a hand of each.
Then Lieutenant Beverly gave the word to his men, and immediately the hum of the giant motors announced that they were off on their amazing trip to span the Atlantic, as it had never been done before, by way of the air!
THE FIRST NIGHT OUT
It was with a strange feeling of exhilaration that Tom and Jack realized the fact that at last they were embarked on a flight that would either bring about their death or, if successful, make a record in long distance non-stop travel in a heavier-than-air machine.
The cheers of the men on the beach had been drowned in the roar of the powerful motors and twin propellers when they left the land and commenced to sweep upward in a graceful curve.
Both boys looked down to catch the last glimpse of France, the land so closely associated with liberty in the minds of all true Americans. It was in her cause two million young Yankees were at that very hour facing the Boche in a determined effort to chase him back over the Rhine and force a stern settlement for all the devastation his armies had wrought.
Quickly did the darkness blot out all trace of land. Back some little distance, it was true, they could still glimpse feeble lights, marking the location of Dunkirk. The French no longer feared to illuminate to a limited extent since bombing planes no longer came raiding at night, nor did that unseen monster Krupp cannon deliver its regular messages of bursting shells.
Below them lay the English Channel, and Lieutenant Beverly had so shaped the course that as they rose higher and higher they were heading directly across, with the eastern shore of England close enough to have afforded them a view of the land had it not been night-time.
They had discussed all this many times, and settled on what seemed the most feasible route. Of course, it might have been a much shorter distance had they decided to head almost south-west-by-south, making for the Azores, and stopping there to prepare for another flight across to Newfoundland. Going that way, they would have had the benefit of the general easterly winds. But this did not appeal to Tom and Jack for several good reasons. In the first place, it meant that a landing at the Azores would be reckoned of such importance that it must be heralded far and near. This was apt to get them into trouble with the military authorities, since they had received no bona fide permission to leave the soil of France; at least, to return to America.
Then again Jack was opposed to the plan for the reason that if they should land at the extreme point of Newfoundland considerable delay must be caused by the difficulty of getting transportation to the States. All the while Randolph Carringford would be steadily moving on, and, landing at New York, have an advantage over Jack.
There was also a third reason that influenced the young navigators in deciding to take the longer course across the Atlantic. This concerned the fogs such as can always be met with off the Newfoundland Banks, and which are often so dense that vessels flounder through them for several days at a stretch.
By taking the southern course, and steering direct for the Virginia shore they would be likely to miss much of this trouble, even though it was a time of year when heavy mists hang along the entire Atlantic seaboard.
All of them were silent for some little time, only the roar of the motor and the propellers beating in their ears. Beverly had established a method of communication when in flight without unduly straining the voice. It was very similar to a wireless telephone outfit which Tom and Jack had employed not long back, and by the use of which they could actually talk with an operator similarly equipped, even if standing on the earth a mile below their plane.
It was arranged for all three of them, and could be removed from the head when no communication was desired. In the beginning they were not in the mood to make use of this contrivance, which, however, would undoubtedly be welcome later on, when they would be passing over the apparently limitless sea and the monotony had begun to wear upon their nerves. Then conversation might relieve the tension.
It was Jack who presently called out:
"I can see lights below us. Do you think we've crossed the Channel, Lieutenant?"
"Yes, that's the English shore, and doubtless Dover lies directly below us, although we're at such a height that it's impossible to make sure."
"What's the idea of keeping so high, Lieutenant?" continued Jack.
"Simply to avoid collision with any of the coast guard fliers, who might take us for Huns meaning to attack London again after a long break. But Jack, I'm going to ask a favor of you."
"Go to it then!" called out the other, who was plainly "on edge" with excitement over the wonderful fact that they were at last on their way.
"Drop that formality from this time on," said Beverly earnestly. "Forget that I happen to rank you, for I'm sure your commissions are only delayed in the coming. From now on let it be either plain Colin, or if you prefer, Beverly. We're three chums in a boat—a ship of the air, to be exact—and all ranking on a level. You'll agree to that, won't you, Jack?"
"You bet I will, Colin, and it's just like you to propose it!" cried the pleased Jack.
After that they fell silent again, though now and then Jack, who was making good use of the night-glasses, announced that they seemed to be passing over some city.
Tom had studied their intended course so thoroughly that he was able to tell with more or less accuracy what some of those places were. In so doing he always kept in mind the probable speed at which the big plane was traveling.
They had veered a little, and would not come anywhere near Liverpool or Dublin, as Jack had suspected might be the case until he looked over the chart Tom had marked. On the contrary, their new course would carry them over the south of England, and just cut across the lower part of Ireland; indeed, the latter might have been skipped entirely with profit to themselves in miles gained, only it seemed natural they should want to keep in touch with land just as long as possible.
How steadily the giant plane moved majestically through the realms of space several miles above the earth! Tom found himself fascinated by the working of the motors from the very minute he first heard them take up their steady labor. Surely, if the feat were at all within the bounds of possibilities, they had, as Lieutenant Beverly said, "a fighting chance."
Of course there was always impending danger. Any one of a score of accidents was liable to happen, especially after the engines had been constantly working hour after hour.
Such things may bother an aviator when over the enemy's country, because if a landing seems necessary in order to avoid a fatal drop, there must always arise the risk of capture. How much more serious would even the smallest engine trouble become, once they were far out over the ocean with nothing in sight as far as the eye could reach save an endless vastness of rolling waters beneath, and passing clouds overhead?
Tom, however, would not allow himself to brood upon these possibilities, and when they flashed across his mind he persistently banished them. Sufficient to the day was the evil thereof; and if difficulties arose they must meet them bravely, doing the best they could, and accepting the results in the spirit of Columbus, who was the pioneer in spanning the Atlantic.
Jack now made a discovery that caused him to call out again.
"I believe we've left the land again, and it's water down under us right now, fellows!" he called shrilly, his voice sounding above the clamor by which they were continually surrounded.
"Well, according to my calculations," said Tom, "we should be about quit of England and striking the Irish Sea at its junction with the Atlantic. It's that you believe you see right now."
"Then before long we'll glimpse Ireland's lights!" cried the exultant Jack. "Though we're likely to pass over only the city of Cork as we dash on for the big sea beyond. So far everything is moving like grease, Lieu—Colin."
"I promised you it would," the pilot told him. "And let's hope it keeps up this way all the way through."
Again they ceased trying to talk since it proved such an effort without resorting to the little wireless telephone arrangement. Jack did notify them, however, when he believed he sighted tiny specks far below that he took for the lights of some place of consequence; but Tom, who knew better, assured him he must be mistaken.
"You're straining your eyes so much you mistake other things for lights, Jack," he told the observer. "It might even be the reflection of the stars on the glasses of your binoculars. We're not near Cork yet, and there's no other place worth mentioning that we'll come near. Rest up, Jack."
"Plenty of time for that after we've struck out over the ocean," came Jack's defiant answer.
Later on he again declared he saw lights. They had been speeding for some hours at a rate of more than sixty miles, which was good time for one of those monster heavily laden bombers to make.
"Yes, I imagine it's Cork this time," said Tom, when appealed to. "We veer to the left here, and pass out to sea over Queenstown, don't we, Colin?"
"According to our mapped-out plan that's the course," came the reply, as the pilot shifted his levers, and headed a little more toward the south.
Their sensations at that particular time were very acute. It was as if they had reached the dividing line, and were about to enter upon a course that would admit of no turning back.
"There, the last glimmer of light has disappeared!" finally cried Jack in an awed tone, "and we're heading out over the Atlantic, bound for America!"
WHEN THE SUBMARINE STRUCK
It was long past midnight.
In fact, the aviators could expect to see dawn break before a great while. When that event came about they knew what an appalling spectacle must greet their wondering eyes. Above, the boundless expanse of blue sky, with fleecy little white clouds passing here and there, looking like islands in a sea of azure; below, an unending sea of tossing waves, with perhaps not even a fishing vessel in sight.
Jack fell asleep, being utterly tired out. Tom too caught what he called little "cat-naps" from time to time. Beverly stuck faithfully to his post, for not a wink of sleep could come to one in whose hands the destinies of the whole expedition lay.
So the minutes passed, bringing them ever nearer the breaking of another day. The immensity of their undertaking no longer appalled them. It was too late for consideration anyway, since they were now fully launched upon the flight, and turning back was not to be thought of.
Jack, waking out of a nap, looked down, and immediately uttered a loud cry.
"Why, it's getting daylight, and you can glimpse the ocean! How queer it looks, fellows, to be sure! Is everything going well, Colin?"
"Couldn't be improved on," he was assured by the faithful pilot.
"First I must use the glasses to see how it looks at closer range," Jack continued. "Then I think we ought to have breakfast. This cold air makes a fellow as hungry as a wolf. I think I must have lost myself for a bit."
Tom did not say anything, only smiled, but he knew that the other had enjoyed at least a full hour of sleep.
"How far are we from land, Tom, would you say?" next asked the observer, while he was adjusting the glasses to his eyes.
"Possibly a hundred and fifty miles, perhaps nearer two hundred," Tom assured him, in a matter-of-fact tone, as though that was only what might be expected.
"Hello! I can see a vessel already, and heading into the west!" declared Jack. "Of course I can't make out what she's like, though I bet you her hull and funnels are camouflaged to beat the band, so as to fool those Hun submarine pirates with the stripes of black and white. You don't think it's possible that could be the La Bretagne, Tom?"
"Well, hardly," came the quick reply, "unless something happened to detain the French steamer after she left Havre days ago. She ought to be a whole lot further along than this boat is. She must be some small liner from Liverpool or Southampton, making for Halifax or New York."
Jack presently tired of staring at the little speck far down below.
"I wonder if they can see us with a glass," he next observed, as Tom began to hand out bread and butter, with hard-boiled eggs or ham between, and some warm coffee kept in Thermos bottles so as to take the chill of the high altitudes out of their bodies.
"Not a chance in a hundred," Beverly assured him. "Besides, those aboard the steamer are devoting all their efforts to watching for enemies in the water, and not among the clouds."
They munched their breakfast and enjoyed it immensely. Indeed it seemed as though they devoured twice as much as upon ordinary occasions.
"Lucky we laid in plenty of grub!" Jack declared, when finally all of them announced that they were satisfied. "This Atlantic air makes one keep hungry all the time. Now I can see that steamer plainly, for we've dropped a little lower. Oh! What can that mean?"
His voice had a ring of sudden alarm about it that instantly aroused Tom's curiosity. Even Lieutenant Beverly looked over his shoulder as though he, too, felt a desire to learn more.
"They seem to be firing guns!" continued Jack presently. "Of course we're far too high to hear the sound, but I can see the smoke as sure as I'm sitting here. Can it be they're being attacked by a Hun undersea boat, do you think, boys?"
"Such things keep on happening right along in these shark-infested waters," replied Tom. "Go on and tell us all you see, Jack!"
They were all of them thrilled by the consciousness that possibly a grim tragedy of the sea was being enacted directly beneath, without any likelihood of their being able to render succor to those who might soon be in distress.
"They keep on firing," Jack continued. "I can see each puff of smoke belch out. There, something has happened! I believe it was a torpedo that exploded against the hull of the steamer, for I saw a great blotch rise up, and men are running about the decks like mad!"
Beverly had almost automatically decreased their speed, as though inclined to hover above the ill-fated vessel as long as possible, at least to learn what followed.
"They seem to be making signals!" Jack presently cried out.
"Look around and see if you can glimpse anything coming on!" demanded Tom, as though suspecting the cause of this fresh announcement.
Hardly had the one who gripped the binoculars started to do as he was requested than he gave a cry of mingled relief and satisfaction.
"Two boats racing straight for the spot, boys! Destroyers, too! Like as not Americans, for they keep lying out here, you know, to protect our transports going over with the boys. How they do cut through the water with their sharp bows and make the waves fly! But that steamer looks as if she might be sinking right now!"
The excitement grew intense. Beverly even started to circle around, content to lose a few miles and some minutes if only he could satisfy their minds that all was well with the unfortunate steamer that had been so ruthlessly torpedoed without warning by the undersea pirates.
"They're coming up like fun!" cried Jack presently. "I can't see as well as I'd like, though, on account of the sea fog that keeps drifting along in patches like clouds. I really believe they'll get up before she founders. Now the crew have started putting off boats to make sure of saving the passengers if the worst comes!"
"Which shows they have a capable captain aboard," commented Tom.
"But the sea must be pretty rough," continued Jack, "because the small boats toss and pitch sharply as they start away from the steamer. Hang that fog, it's going to shut the whole picture out soon. But there, one of the destroyers has arrived, and the boats are heading straight on to it."
A minute later Jack gave them another little batch of news.
"The other destroyer is circling around, and must be looking for signs of the sub. Wow! that was a terrible waterspout, though. And there goes a second one!"
"They're dropping depth bombs, intending to get the slinker!" announced Beverly jubilantly.
"Here's hoping they do then!" cried Jack, and immediately afterwards added: "But it's all over for us, boys, because the fog's shut it off completely. Might as well get along on our way; but I'm happy to know those Yankee boats came up in time to save everybody aboard the steamer. What a bully view we had of the performance!"
"It's such things that are apt to break the monotony and routine of a long flight like the one we've undertaken," remarked Tom. "In time, of course, the dash across the Atlantic will become quite common; and those who make it are apt to see wonderful sights."
"Two hundred miles out," Jack was saying to himself as he sat there still holding the glasses in his hand, though not attempting to make use of them, and his eyes ranged longingly toward the western horizon where the blue of the sky touched the dark green of the boundless sea, all his thoughts centered on the goal that lay far distant across that vast waste of tumbling waters.
So as the sun started to climb in the eastern heavens the flight of the big bombing plane carrying the trio of adventurous ones was continued, every mile left behind bringing them that much nearer their destination, with the future still an unsolved problem.
THE COLD HAND OF FEAR
Noon came and went, with the same steady progress being maintained hour after hour. Tom relieved Beverly at the pilot's berth, and the latter succeeded in getting some much needed rest. Still, none of them could sleep comfortably, which was hardly to be wondered at considering their strange surroundings.
"My first nap when flying, for a fact!" admitted Colin, after he had awakened, and managed to stretch his stiffened limbs.
"Tough work trying to get a few winks of sleep when one is quivering all over with excitement," Jack remarked.
They were no longer maintaining such a high course, having descended until the heaving sea lay not more than a thousand feet below. Nothing was in sight in any direction, which was one reason for Tom's dropping down as he did.
"A lot of water," Jack commented, for they had started to try out the wonderful little wireless telephone, to find that it really worked splendidly. "Guess after the flood Noah must have thought that way too. But shucks! we haven't got even a dove to send out."
"We happen to have something better," Tom told him, "which is the power to shoot our boat through space at the rate of a mile a minute. No ark business about this craft."
"Well, is there any objection to breaking our fast again?" the other inquired, changing the subject.
Beverly seemed to think not, for he proceeded to get out the hamper in which much of their prepared food was contained.
"I laid in double the quantity I expected we'd devour," he told them, "and then added something to that for good measure. No telling what may crop up; and if we happen to be cast on a desert island a healthy lot of grub might come in handy."
"It does right now, when we are far from any island, unless that's one up there in that dark cloud floating above us," and Jack stretched out to receive his portion of the lunch as parceled out by Colin.
"One thing that made me drop to a lower level," explained Tom, "was the fact of its being so cold up there among the clouds. Already I feel better for the change."
"How about it if we should sight a steamer?" asked Jack. "They'd report meeting a plane flying west here in midocean, which would stir up no end of comment in the papers, and might lead to our being found out."
"We depend on you to keep the glasses in use, and report anything in sight ahead," laughed Tom; for the clatter of the motors did not seem to bother them in the least when using the wireless telephone. "And when you sing out 'smoke down low on the horizon to the west!' it's going to be an easy job for us to climb up above the clouds in a hurry."
So it was settled, and they ate their lunch in comfort.
Up to that time not the slightest thing had arisen to give them concern with regard to the working of the engines. These aroused the admiration of the three voyagers by their remarkable performance. Tom declared their equal had never been installed in any plane that was ever built, and Lieutenant Beverly's eyes glowed with satisfaction to hear his pet praised so cordially by one whose good opinion he valued as highly as he did Tom Raymond's.
After Jack had taken his turn at piloting the machine, he amused himself "between naps" by watching the surface of the sea through the binoculars.
"No telling but what I may glimpse a submarine creeping along under the surface," he told the others jokingly. "Then wouldn't we wish we'd brought along a few bombs—the kind they dropped on that Hun bridge the night we went with the raiders. Right now I could almost imagine that shark's dorsal-fin was a periscope belonging to an undersea boat."
Other things came along to cause momentary interest, among them rolling porpoises that rose in sight, and then vanished under the waves, though from their height the boys could easily follow their movements.
Jack was getting a good deal of enjoyment out of the situation, and Tom was glad to notice this fact. He had feared his chum's nerves might give way under the long-continued strain; but apparently Jack had returned to his ordinary condition.
All of them rather dreaded the coming of night. Flying in midocean while daylight lasted was serious enough, but with darkness around for many hours, the situation must awaken new anxieties.
But their hearts were still apparently undaunted. The success that had rewarded their bold starting out gave abundant promise of still better things ahead. Tom resolutely refused to allow himself to have any fear. What if two thousand miles still lay between them and the goal of their hopes? Was not the miracle-worker of a monster plane doing remarkably fine work, and should they not continue to believe the end justified the means?
So they watched the sun dropping lower and lower in the western sky without any one voicing the thought that must have been in each mind. The same inscrutable Providence that had watched over them by day would still guard them when the light was gone. Under the stars, seeming now so much nearer and brighter than when ashore, they went on and on, until back in the east another day dawned, the great day of hope for them!
Jack had taken to looking eagerly ahead once more.
"What do you think you see?" Beverly asked him, for Tom again served as pilot at the steering gear.
"Why, I'm all mixed up about it," came the slow reply. "It certainly isn't a steamer, and again it just can't be land!"
"Well, hardly," Beverly answered. "To tell the honest truth I don't believe there's a foot of land closer to us than the Bermudas, which must lie off in that direction," pointing further toward the southwest.
"When the sun glints on it I'm fairly dazzled," Jack continued, "just as if some one had used a piece of broken looking-glass to shoot the rays into my eyes. And then there's a sort of queer mist hanging about that thing in the bargain, so that sometimes it's almost blotted out. What under the sun can it be?"
"I think I can give a guess," Tom called back. "How would an iceberg fill the bill, Colin?"
"Just the thing, I'd say," the lieutenant answered, "only who ever heard of an iceberg floating down in mid-Atlantic at this season of the year? Such a thing would be uncommon, to say the least."
"But not impossible?" ventured Tom, to which the other agreed.
"Take a look, and tell us, Colin," urged Jack, offering the glasses.
A minute afterwards they were handed bade again.
"Just what it is, Tom, after all," reported Beverly. "A pretty tall berg it seems to be, with an extensive ice-floe around it as level in spots as a floor. I thought I saw something move on it that might be a Polar bear, caught when the berg broke away from its Arctic glacier. We will pass directly over, and may be able to feel the chill."
"It was the Titanic, wasn't it, that bumped into an iceberg, and went down with such a frightful loss of life?" remarked Jack.
"No other," replied Tom. "But we'll try to make sure nothing like that happens to our frail craft. Try to guess what would happen to that monster berg if we hit head on?"
"Hardly a crack!" Jack retorted. "But I'm more interested in wondering what would become of us. Guess we'd better keep a good thousand feet up, and not bother trying to pry into the ice-floe's secrets."
"I'm not dreaming of dropping a foot lower just at present," Tom said decisively; and not one of them dreamed how soon that decision would have to be reversed, since all still looked fair about them, with no storm in sight and the wonderful motors kept up their regular pulsations as if capable of going on forever.
Yet strange vicissitudes and changes are the portion of those who follow the sea; which may also be applied to other voyagers of space, the sailors of the air. One minute all seems fair, with the sun shining; another, and a white squall is dashing down upon the ship, to catch the crew unawares and perhaps smother them with its mighty foam-crested billows.
It was not half an hour later when something happened that was calculated to chill the hearts of those bold navigators, such as even close contact to the ice-floe and berg could never bring about.
At the time they had reached a point almost above the field of ice from the Arctic regions, and Jack was scrutinizing its full extent, commenting the while on many peculiar features that attracted his attention.
"It's a Polar bear, all right, fellows," he announced, "and believe me he's some size in the bargain. If I had a rifle along I wouldn't mind dropping down there and rustling him. But what ails you, Tom? You seem bothered about something. Gee! you're as white as a ghost!"
Lieutenant Beverly leaned forward and clutched the pilot's arm.
"Anything gone wrong with the motors, Tom?" he demanded hoarsely.
"I've just made a terrible discovery," replied Tom, trying to control himself. "The worst has happened, and I'm afraid we're in for a bad time!"
A DESPERATE CHANCE
"Tell us the worst, Tom!" cried Beverly hoarsely.
Jack tried to echo the words, but his tongue seemed to stick to the roof of his mouth. He knew his chum well enough to feel assured that no ordinary hovering peril could cause the other to look so ashen pale. It must be a frightful catastrophe by which they were threatened, Jack realized.