"The feed pipe! It must be choking up! Latterly I've more than suspected the motors were doing poorer work than before!"
The others understood. Under ordinary conditions they would decide on dropping to the ground for repairs; a task that might be carried out in a brief time, or consume hours, everything depending on the condition in which they found things.
But how utterly impossible to dream of doing anything like that now! Jack looked down to where, in the declining light of the sun, he could see that limitless sea of billowy water. How different indeed all might be were their airship a seaplane, capable of floating on the surface of the water and making a successful launch from it, just as a gull would do.
"I'll take a look, Tom!" Lieutenant Beverly called out. "Not that I doubt what you say, but all of us will have to put our heads together; we shall need all our wits if what you fear proves to be a fact."
Tom was more than willing, in fact he would have himself insisted on the lieutenant or Jack doing this very thing. Pilots differ in plenty of ways; and, as Beverly had said, one might hit on an answer to the problem that had entirely escaped the others.
Jack said not a word, but almost held his breath while Beverly was making his eager examination. The plane was not more than a thousand feet above the sea at most, and going very slowly now.
A short time elapsed. Then Beverly completed his task. The flight lieutenant looked more serious than ever, which told the story even before he uttered a single word.
Apparently the worst had come, and they were up against a question on the answer to which everything, even life itself, depended.
"I'm sorry to say it's a positive fact, boys!" called out Beverly, and as both the others were straining their ears to catch what he said, they had no difficulty in hearing every word.
"It's the supply pipe clogging then?" Tom asked.
"Yes," came the quick answer. "And while under some conditions I've been able to get along for a short time without dropping down, as a rule I've found it wise to look for a landing-place before things got to the point of desperation and avoid a fall, possibly in the midst of a German battalion."
"No chance of our getting at it while afloat, is there?" Jack asked, although he knew what Beverly was bound to say.
"Not the slightest," the other shot back. "It might keep going for something like an hour, and then shut off the gas entirely. Of course there's always a possibility of a miracle happening, such as the obstruction being suddenly overcome; but I'm afraid that's one chance in a million."
"But can't something be done, boys? Must we just fold our hands, and meet our fate?" demanded Jack. "What are you thinking about, Tom, for I can see a look in your face that we ought to know? Have you an idea—is there yet a hope that we can get a grip on this danger, and choke it?"
Tom's face was still colorless, but there was a gleam in his eye, which Jack had discovered. Perhaps after all it might be only the light of desperation, a determination to die game if a cruel fortune decreed that their time had come. Jack could not tell.
"Yes, I have a plan," said Tom quickly. "Perhaps you'll both call it a wild idea, and think I'm crazy; but desperate cases call for equally desperate remedies, and at the worst we'll have a chance."
"Good boy, Tom!" cried Jack. "Just like you to hit on a plan! Haven't I known you to come to the front many times when things looked very black for us?"
"Tom, tell your scheme!" demanded Beverly. "Things may develop faster than we suspect now, and if there's any way to get around this trouble the sooner we start the better."
"Of course," Tom replied, "we'll be taking the risk of smashing the nose of our craft when we strike, unless luck favors us. I've landed on every sort of ground, from smooth velvety turf to bumpy stuff that almost joggled me to pieces; but I never before tried dropping on an ice-floe!"
Beverly and Jack stared hard at each other. Apparently the idea struck them like a sudden blow, showing that neither had as yet contemplated such a thing.
Then they turned and stared down at the wide field of floating ice that was attached to the towering bulk of the mighty berg, as though weighing the possibility of Tom's amazing suggestion in their minds.
Jack gave a shout.
"Tom, you're a genius, that's what you are!" he almost shrieked in the intensity of his emotion. "I honestly believe it can be done successfully."
"We'd have to drop a whole lot lower, so as to take a closer survey, and learn just how smooth the surface of the floe is," Tom continued.
"I've looked through the glasses," replied Jack. "And as far as I could make out it seemed fairly decent. I know we've landed on worse ground many a time, and without being wrecked."
"Look again then, while I'm dropping down," urged Tom.
All of them were tremendously excited, as may readily be believed. And who would not have been under similar conditions? Although army air pilots are accustomed to taking great risks, and seldom go up without the thought flitting through their minds that their hour may be close at hand, still they are human, and when the dreadful crisis springs upon them they can feel the chilly hand that seems to clutch the heart.
Jack soon made his report.
"Yes, it looks good to me!" he cried, with a hopeful ring to his voice. "I can see a crack or two that would be bad for us to run into; but there's a clear field over on the north side of the floe. I'm sure we could make it without getting badly shaken up. Then it's our only chance; if we miss this what else could we do?"
"Nothing," Tom replied quietly. "But I'm going to circle the berg, and see what lies on the other side."
"Whatever we decide to do," remarked Beverly, who seemed to have recovered to a great extent from his first perturbation, "we must lose no time about carrying it out. That feed pipe might become fully clogged at any minute, you know. Then besides, the sun is ready to dip down behind the sea horizon, when we'll soon be plunged into darkness."
"Yes," agreed Tom, "we mustn't fool away our time. It's going to be no easy job to make a safe landing on the ice, something none of us has ever practiced. But it'd be still worse to go at it haphazard."
The others knew what was in Tom's mind. Should they seriously injure the big bombing plane there would be no way of making repairs. On land it could be turned over to the repair-shop, and inside of a week perhaps emerge once more in as good shape as ever. No such convenience could be looked for out there in mid-Atlantic!
In a short time they had circled the great mass of ice. They all fully realized now how cold it was, and why the sea water must be affected for a mile or more all around such a tremendous bit of the Arctic regions.
They found that most of the floe lay on the north side of the berg; and decided that their best chance for landing must be in that quarter.
"The old berg looks top-heavy," Jack at one time called out. "You can see that it leans toward the north; and sometimes I've thought it wobbled considerably, though that may have been the plane waving up and down."
"No, you were right, Jack," said Beverly. "Its leaning that way tells that the warmer sea water has begun to eat at its base. Before a great while the berg will roll over, and smash all that floe into bits."
"I hope not when we're on it, working at our motor!" Jack could not keep from exclaiming, looking with more interest than ever at the monster berg that had come all this distance from some glacier a thousand miles away, perhaps several times that distance, and would sooner or later lose itself in sub-tropical waters.
Lower still Tom took them. All eyes continued to survey the field of ice, particularly in that extreme northern sector where Jack had reported lay the best place for landing.
"Once more in a circle so as to face the wind," said Tom, "and then I mean to put it to the test."
"Good luck to you, Tom!" said Jack. "If ever you dropped as if you were falling on eggs, let it be now. I'm going to hold my breath when we strike the ice, and only hope we don't keep gliding along until we shoot off the edge into the sea!"
"Leave that to me, Jack," came the assurance of the pilot.
After that no one said a word, for both Lieutenant Beverly and Jack Parmly realized that it would be dangerous to distract Tom's attention from his work just at the most critical moment.
The sun had reached the horizon, and inside of a few minutes must vanish from view. At that moment Tom shut off the engine, and made ready to alight!
ON THE ICE FLOE
If ever Tom Raymond had need of skill and care it was then, for what might be an ordinary mishap ashore must be a fatal accident under the conditions by which they were faced.
But almost as lightly as a snowflake touches the ground he brought the wheels under the big bomber in contact with the ice. Indeed, Jack could not tell for a certainty when the actual contact occurred; though immediately afterwards he found himself being shaken more or less as the heavy plane bumped along over the ice.
One peril still menaced them, which was that their momentum, unless halted, might carry them to the terminus of the floe, and plunge them over. But Tom had taken all precautions, and allowed for everything, even an unusual slide on account of the smooth surface under the wheels.
Slower grew their progress, though the bumping continued unabated. And finally they had come to a full stop, with still some little stretch of the ice field ahead.
Then Jack tried to yell, cowboy fashion; but, to his surprise and disgust, he could hardly make a sound above a whisper, his voice having failed him through sheer nervous excitement.
He jumped from his seat, and immediately sat down with a rude jar on the ice; but, nothing daunted, he quickly scrambled to his feet and began to dance like a wild Indian might when the war tocsin sounds through the village, and all his primeval instincts are aroused by the thought of fighting and plunder.
Tom and Lieutenant Beverly also hastened to leave their seats. They too found that their legs were cramped and almost useless, through having maintained a sitting position during so many weary hours.
Jack's exuberant spirits caused him to fairly hug his chum.
"Didn't I know you could do it, Tom?" he cried. "See how the old luck keeps hanging over us, will you? It's always been this way, Colin; and to have Tom along means success every time."
"That may be," the lieutenant replied, giving Tom a fond look; "but if I were you I'd call it something more than just luck. It takes brains to think up such schemes as this one, brains and a lively imagination in the bargain; and Tom's rich in both of those requirements."
"Let's get busy, and see about fixing that feedpipe," broke out the modest object of all this praise. "We have only a short time of daylight to work in, and after that must depend on our little searchlight torch."
All were willing to start work. Jack found himself shivering slightly, although they had not been on the ice-floe many minutes.
"Gee, but it's certainly cold, for a fact!" he exclaimed. "I'd hate to be marooned here any length of time, let me tell you, even if we did have grub enough to last over a week. Why, we'd freeze to death; not to mention what would become of us when the old berg crashed over and scattered all this floe ice!"
"Let's hope that our stay will be of short duration then," said Beverly, with a quick and apprehensive glance in the direction of the towering iceberg, upon the peak of which the last rays of the sinking sun glinted until it seemed to be frosted with a million diamonds.
Tom was already busily engaged, after the bomber had been wheeled partly around, in order that he might have the benefit of what light remained with the departure of day.
Beverly and Jack hovered over him, ready to give advice, or lend a helping hand. Of course none of them had ever had to do with this particular type of a plane; but then all engines have many similarities in their construction, and Tom, as well as the other two, had proved themselves to be capable mechanics, as well as able pilots.
Finally, as it was impossible for the three of them to work at the repairs, Jack walked around and examined the singular formation constituting the berg and attendant ice-floe.
"Why," he told himself in glee, "it floated across our path when we needed a landing-place the worst kind, as if we'd ordered it to be held in waiting. It might be the next time there'll be a convenient island handy, though I hope there'll come no next time."
He even found a way to climb on to the berg itself, though in most places the field ice was chopped into small bits by some action on the part of the vast bulk, perhaps during a high wind and a heavy sea.
"All I want to be able to say is that I've been on a regular iceberg," Jack announced, after he had once more returned to his mates; "but it's frigid, let me tell you. Why, there's enough ice in that mountain to freeze all the cream made around New York in a whole season, and then some."
He found that Tom was still busily engaged, with Beverly bending down in frequent consultation.
"Say, is it going to be anything serious, fellows? Worse than we at first thought?"
Beverly looked up and gave him a reassuring smile. He was now holding the little hand-torch and directing its ray so that Tom could get the full benefit.
"No reason to believe so, Jack," he remarked quietly. "Tom's still of the opinion that we ought to have it all fixed up for keeps before an hour goes by, if things keep on working as we expect."
"Fine! You make me happy when you say that, Colin!" Jack returned. "If only the berg doesn't roll over before we get out of this, I'll consider that we have much to be thankful for," he added slowly.
"Could you feel any motion when you stood on that lower shelf of the berg?" asked Beverly, showing that he had watched what Jack was doing.
"I should say I could," the other assured him. "It nearly made me sea-sick. I'd hate to have to stay here very much longer. If you watch a cloud passing you can see just how the peak dips, and swings back and forth. It's getting ready to tumble, and before long!"
Tom worked on.
He too realized that the longer they were compelled to stay on the ice field the greater their danger must become. If that towering berg ever did turn over bottom-up it would smash the floe into fragments and churn up the adjacent waters in a way that would leave no avenue of escape for the trio of adventurous air pilots who had alighted there by reason of circumstances beyond their control.
His hands felt cold, and he was compelled at times to get up and thrash both arms about to induce circulation in his extremities. Beverly and Jack both offered to take his place, but Tom, having started the job, thought he had better finish it if possible.
"Everything seems to be working along as good as pie," Beverly reported, in order to add to Jack's peace of mind, for he knew the other must be growing a bit anxious again. Delay meant so much to Jack in this endeavor to beat the steamship across the Atlantic.
"If you've no objections, I'll rustle after that grub bag, and indulge in something to help get rid of this empty feeling I've got. We'll all feel better for something to eat," said Jack. "I think Tom could work faster if he would take time now for a sandwich."
"You're right, perhaps, Jack," returned Colin. "Although we had better wait for a full meal till we get in the air."
"Here's luck, boys!" cried Jack a minute afterwards.
"What have you found now?" asked Tom, without looking up.
"Why, the coffee's still hot. And let me tell you, it feels good to my hands. There never was a finer thing for poor air pilots than these bottles that allow them to have a warm drink when two miles up, and in freezing temperature. This will put fresh life in our bodies."
"That isn't half bad," answered Tom; "so hand it over, and I'll take a drink or two."
Tom swallowed his coffee and hastily ate a sandwich, but the others, without Tom's reason for haste, ate hungrily.
Never, they confessed, had they felt such voracious appetites as on this flight. Perhaps the invigorating sea air had something to do with it; but Jack, at least, was not the one to bother himself about the cause, so long as the provisions held out.
Some time passed in this way. Tom at work, Beverly holding the flashlight in one hand and taking in the other such food as Jack handed to him.
Tom had just remarked he believed he had effected a radical cure, and that the feed-pipe was not likely to become obstructed again; at the same time Jack could see he was starting to put things together once more.
It began to look as though they might be ready to make a fresh start in a very short time, not more than ten minutes, Jack figured. It thrilled him to realize this fact. He even glanced toward the towering berg as if to say:
"Now be good, and just hold off your gymnastics till we get started, old chap! Afterwards you can cut up as much as you please, and little we'll care. But I've got too much at stake right now in getting to land to have any silly ice mountain turn over on me. So forget your troubles for another half hour, if you please!"
Just then Jack saw something move close by. A scuffling sound, followed by a strange sniffling, could be plainly heard. Jack bent down and clutched Beverly by the arm, saying shrilly:
"Listen, both of you! That Polar bear is coming for us, and I think he means business, too!"
ATTACKED BY A POLAR BEAR
"Here's trouble, all right!" grumbled Beverly, as he turned, looking to where Jack was pointing, and also discovered something moving.
Tom dropped his monkey-wrench. Something else besides a tool of that kind would be needed to defend them against the claws and teeth of such a bulky monster as a huge Polar bear.
All of them could now make the animal out as Beverly concentrated the little ray of light upon him. The beast was advancing slowly, but pugnaciously, sniffling the air, and evidently furiously hungry on account of his prolonged cruise upon the icefield, deprived of his customary fish meals.
"What ought we do, Tom?" Jack called out hurriedly. "If we retreat, like as not he'll muss things up around here, and maybe ruin our plane for us."
"We must keep him away!" announced Lieutenant Beverly. "It would mean death to us all if he got to tumbling around and smashed some of the parts of the machine."
As he said this he fumbled about his person, producing the automatic pistol with which he usually went on his flights; and without which few air pilots venture to enter into combat with enemy fliers.
Tom duplicated his act immediately, while Jack, at the same time, secured his weapon from the place where he kept it when in his seat. So, after all, things did not seem to be altogether favorable to Bruin; and had the bear only known what he was up against possibly he would have found it discreet to back off and let the three strange creatures alone.
"Be sure to hold your fire, boys!" Lieutenant Beverly ordered, taking command. "We must be like old Put at the battle of Bunker Hill, and wait till we can see his eyes clearly. It's going to be hard to drive off that big rascal with only pistols! Aim for the spot back of his foreleg if you can; that may reach his heart!"
There was not much time for preparation, since the bear kept advancing at the same shuffling gait. Tom tried shouting at him, hoping the sound of a human voice might cause the beast to alter his intention, and turn back.
The bear did stop, and thrust his muzzle further out as though to get a better whiff of the queer animals against which he found himself pitted.
"Didn't go, Tom, for he's coming on again!" cried Jack.
"Get ready to give him a volley," the lieutenant ordered. "Tom, move off a bit to the right, and I'll go to the left. That may upset his calculations some; and besides, we'll have a better chance to bore in back of his forelegs. Jack, stand where you are, and shoot when we do!"
"I'm game!" came the steady reply.
Both the others made a quick move, and the bear found himself facing three separate points of peril. He growled fiercely, and came on again, straight toward the plane, which seemed to have aroused his curiosity. Perhaps he fancied it was some monster bird that would afford him more than one good meal.
"Give it to him, everybody!" suddenly shouted Lieutenant Beverly.
Hardly had he uttered the last word than there was a rattle of firearms as the three of them discharged their weapons. There arose a mighty roar of anger as the bear felt the sudden pain of bullets entering his flesh.
"Again! He's staggering, but full of fight yet!"
Once more the pistol shots rang out. The bear was moving, but seemed to be growing quite weak and confused, for once he fell half over, though managing to recover and push on.
It took several more rounds before the huge bulk rolled over, gave a few spasmodic kicks, and then expired.
"Bully work, boys!" shouted Jack, as he hurried forward to take a close-up view of their victim. "Gee whiz! but isn't he a buster though? Never did I dream I'd help bring down a real Arctic white bear! And just to think of the queer conditions of this hunt, too, will you? I wager, now, there never was one like it—by airplane at that!"
After one look at the bear Tom returned to his task. Shooting game was all very fine, but he had business of a different character to call for his attention just then.
"Wonder if the old chap has got a mate around?" suggested Jack, a sudden thought causing him to survey the ice-floe as seen under the faint light of the stars that were beginning to show in the heavens above.
"Not one chance in a thousand he had company," Beverly insisted; "but no harm in your keeping a wary eye about, Jack, while Tom gets things in shape again. I have to stay here with the light. If you've a sharp knife what's to hinder you from taking one of his claws for a trophy?"
"I'll do that same. Thank you for reminding me, Colin! Some fellows I know are such Doubting Thomases you have to be in a position to prove everything you tell them. Tom, loan me that knife of yours, please. It's got an edge like a razor to it, and those paws look simply immense."
"Make haste about it, for we'll soon be ready to skip out of this place," Tom warned him as he handed over the knife.
Jack began to work industriously. He found he had undertaken no mean job when he contracted to sever one of the front paws of the dead Polar bear. Not only did he have to cut through ligaments and tough skin, but the bones themselves gave him no end of trouble.
He solved this by finding the heavy monkey-wrench, and using it as a hammer, with the knife in place, thus actually severing the paw complete after considerable trouble.
"There, isn't that a regular beauty to show?" he demanded, holding up the result of his labor. "I feel something like a young Indian warrior who's just killed his first grizzly, and means to hang the claws about his neck to prove his bravery."
He stood looking down at the monster bear for a minute, debating something in his mind.
"I wonder now," Jack finally observed, "if we could eat that bear meat, supposing something happened to keep us marooned on this ice for weeks at a stretch? What do you think about it, Tom?"
"It might be possible, if we got in a bad pinch and were almost starving," came the reply. "But you must remember we'd have to swallow it raw, because we haven't any means for making a fire; and trying to kindle a blaze on the ice would be a tough job."
"Then I'm glad to know we don't have to depend on bear meat to keep us from starving," Jack announced. "Pretty nearly through, Tom?"
"Five minutes more ought to see us ready to start. I'm pretty hungry though and would like something more to eat. You boys ate a good deal, but you called it 'a snack,' and not 'supper.'"
"On the whole," Colin suggested, "perhaps we'd better leave the supper until we get to moving smoothly again. Things ought to taste better if we feel we've got the bulge on this engine trouble for fair."
Jack did not try to urge any undue haste. Nevertheless he looked several times in the quarter close by where the big berg raised its cone, as if his uneasiness now might be wholly concerned with its possibilities for making fresh trouble.
Was it imagination, or some sort of optical delusion that made the tip of the huge berg seem to come lower and lower, then draw back again as if making a ceremonious bow like a dancing-master?
Jack gasped, and opened his lips to cry out, but thinking better of it restrained the temptation. They could not get away until the repairs were complete. At the same time, while trying to make himself believe he had magnified the thing, he was conscious of a louder grinding noise than any heard up to that moment.
Tom was putting the finishing bolt in place. A few more efforts and he would be able to announce that his task had been completed. Jack became conscious of a peculiar undulating movement to the ice under his feet. It was just the same as he could remember experiencing when on skates, and going at full steam over a thin section of ice that must have easily broken under his weight only for the speed with which he crossed over.
Was the ice floe about to break up? Would it result in several smaller sections separating from the main stem, none of which might be of a size to allow them sufficient room for making a start?
The thought alarmed Jack. He also knew that undoubtedly any movement to the pack ice must be caused by some action of the giant berg. Was that mountain of ice about to take the plunge at last, and turn over, its base being eaten away to such an extent that the whole had become top-heavy?
Once again did Jack turn his startled eyes to the left. He could not get it out of his mind how terribly suggestive that "bow" on the part of the berg had been.
There it was, coming again! Perhaps the wind had grown stronger since they dropped down upon the ice, and was adding its force to the action of the waters.
Jack found himself unable to hold in any longer. If such a dreadful peril hung over them it was time his companions knew the need of haste in getting free from that doomed field of ice. So he put all doubts behind him and gave tongue.
"Hurry, hurry, Tom! The iceberg is acting queerly. It's tottering as if ready to roll over on us! Don't you see how it acts, Tom?"
WHEN THE ICEBERG ROLLED OVER
Fortunately Tom had everything ready for an immediate start, acting under orders, Jack and Beverly having previously changed the position of the big plane, so that it now faced the run taken when landing.
This brought the wind back of them; but that would be an asset rather than a detriment. They had also gone hastily over the course to make absolutely certain there was no break, or other trap, which might give them serious trouble.
"Jump aboard, both of you!" cried Tom, still keeping his head—a lucky thing, since to get "rattled" in such a crisis might prove fatal.
The beating of the engine and the whirr of the propellers announced that they were off. On the comparatively smooth ice it was easy to make a start unassisted by mechanics or hostlers.
Jack's heart seemed to be in his throat, and he waited in feverish suspense to learn whether success or failure was to be their fortune. Faster now grew their progress, but would the stretch of ice prove a long enough area to give them the necessary momentum?
Every second they expected to hear horrible grinding noises from behind, such as must accompany the toppling over of the berg. Even the splash of waves against the further side of the big ice-floe seemed like the pounding of a monster hammer, at least to Jack's excited imagination.
They were now drawing perilously near the brink. Was Tom ever going to elevate the plane and attempt the rise from the flat surface of the ice?
Just when it seemed to Jack that hope must yield to despair he realized that the jumpy motion of the plane ceased suddenly. He knew what this meant, and that Tom had finally shown his hand, for they no longer bumped along but began to move through space!
Then Jack fell back, breathing freely again. Success had rewarded their efforts, and once more the big bomber was speeding through its own element on the wings of the wind.
But it had indeed been a narrow escape for the adventurous trio; for hardly had they started to swing upward into space when from behind them arose a series of horrible crashings, gurglings, and the mad splashing of water, telling that in truth the giant berg had carried out its threat and rolled completely over, playing havoc with the entire floe.
No one spoke immediately. In fact, none of them could have uttered a word, no matter how hard he had tried. In each young heart a feeling of intense gratitude reigned, as well as a sensation of horror, for only too well did they know what their immediate fate must have been had they remained prisoners on the ice but another two minutes.
Tom pointed the nose of the plane directly into the southwest. He even seemed to be getting additional speed out of his motors, as though bent on making up for the lost time.
All of them began to settle down for another long monotonous period with the whole night before them. Far from comfortable might be their situation, but not a single complaint would be heard. All they asked was that things might go on as they were, with the plane reeling off knot after knot of the cruise into the west.
After a while Jack remembered that Tom had had but a bite of supper. Accordingly he got out the supplies and proceeded to serve them. Then he took Tom's place for a while and held the airship true to her course.
They kept about five hundred feet or so above the sea. Somehow it gave them a little encouragement just to catch the glint of the stars on the tumbling waves below. There was a friendliness in the billows, a something that seemed to keep them in contact with their fellow men; a thing which they missed when passing along two thousand feet or more above the surface of the terrestrial globe, even beyond the floating clouds.
So the long vigil was taken up. Hour after hour the giant bomber must wing its swift flight, ever speeding onward into the realm of space through which it was now making a voyage unequalled since Columbus sailed his three high-decked boats into that unknown ocean at the end of which he expected to come to the East Indies.
By turns they managed to get some sleep, each serving his trick as pilot.
The hours grew into early morning. How eagerly did the pilot often turn his tired head to gaze backward toward the east, to see if but the first faint gleam of coming dawn had appeared there. And how joyfully did he welcome it when that desire became reality.
So the unfolding day found them, still heading onward, and with everything promising well. Jack, of course, had his binoculars out as soon as it was possible to see any distance. Shortly afterwards he made an important announcement.
"Smoke head of us, fellows. Much too much to come from any one steamer. You can see it with the naked eye, dead on there!"
After taking a good look, Tom, who was at the wheel, gave his opinion.
"It might be a vessel afire," he said slowly. "One of those tank-oil steamers would make a fierce smoke, you know. But on the whole I rather believe it's a convoy of troop ships going across to France."
"I never thought of that, Tom!" cried Jack, again clapping the glasses to his eyes; "but I reckon you're right, for I can see funnels of black smoke rising from different quarters. Yes, there must be dozens of boats in that flotilla. What had we better do?"
"Go aloft, and try to keep out of sight among the little clouds," was the immediate reply Tom made. "We could continue to watch, and see all that passed below, at the same time keeping ourselves fairly invisible. They'll hardly be looking up so as to discover a speck floating past. And then again all that smoke is bound to make it difficult for them to see."
He lost no time in commencing a spiral climb for altitude, boring upward with the powerful bomber in a way that was wonderful.
By degrees they attained the height desired, and once again did Tom head into the southwest. Jack reported what he saw from time to time, calling above the noise made by engines and propellers.
"It's a big convoy, all right," he told them. "I can see ever so many steamships following one another in double column. Each is loaded with our boys in khaki, I presume. Then off on either side and ahead are little specks that I can just make out by reason of their smoke streamers. Those must be the score or more of destroyers, guarding the flotilla against U-boat attack. It's a great sight, let me tell you! Here, Colin's getting out his glasses to take a look. Tom, you must have a chance too."
Each in turn managed to survey the stirring spectacle as spread out upon the sea far beneath them. And the pulses of those gallant lads throbbed with pardonable pride when they realized what magnificent efforts America was making to win the war in favor of the Allies, after entering it so late herself.
Gradually the great smoke cloud began to grow more distant, the fleet with its convoy having passed by, continuing to head into the east, where the lurking U-boat would possibly be waiting to attack.
"That was a great sight!" exclaimed Tom, as their attention again turned to possibilities lying before them, rather than what had passed by.
"Never forget it as long as I live!" Jack declared vehemently.
"It's been a good thing for us in more than one way," Tom went on to say. "You see, personally, I've been just a bit in doubt about our actual bearings; and this has set me straight. I can put my finger on the actual spot on the chart where we'd be likely to meet the fleet. So now we've got to change our course sharply."
"Running more into the south-southwest, you mean, I suppose, Tom?" asked Beverly.
"Just that," continued the acting pilot. "We want to strike the Virginia shore, you understand, and right now we're off Long Island. After several hours on our new course we'll again make a sharp swing into the west, and then look for land!"
"And that land, oh, joy! will be our own America!" cried Jack, his face fairly beaming with expectation.
They kept booming along on the new course for several hours, and as it did not seem necessary to continue at such a great altitude they again descended to the old familiar line of flight, with the sea about five hundred feet below.
"Given another hour," Tom said, along about the middle of the morning, "and it will be time to strike for the west. We must be off Delaware or the tip of Maryland right now. Jack just reported a faint glimpse of land, but wasn't sure it might not be a low-hanging cloud bank."
"And now we're in for another experience, I'm afraid," called out Jack, "for there's a nasty sea fog sweeping along from the south. We're bound to drive into it before five minutes more—the first real mist blanket to strike us all the way across."
Jack's prediction proved no idle one, for in less than the time specified they found themselves suddenly enveloped by a dense mantle of mist through which it would have been utterly impossible to have seen anything a hundred feet away.
Tom for one did not like the coming of that fog just when they were about to drew near the land of their hopes. Unlike a vessel, they could not come to anchor and ride it out, waiting for the fog to lift; but must drive on, and desperately strive to find some sort of landing.
"The thickest fog I ever saw!" Jack observed, after they had been passing through the moist gray blanket of mist for some little time.
"Just the usual kind you'll meet with on the sea at times," answered the lieutenant. "I was caught in one when out on the fishing banks, and it wasn't any too pleasant a feeling it gave me either. But for our compass we'd never have reached shore again."
"And but for the compass right now," said Tom, "it would be next to impossible to steer a straight course."
"One good thing," Jack told them; "very little danger of a collision, such as vessels are likely to encounter in so dense a fog."
"No, the air passage across the Atlantic hasn't become so popular yet that we have to keep blowing a fog horn while sailing," laughed Colin.
All of them were feeling considerably brighter, now that their wonderful venture seemed to be drawing close to a successful termination. If only their luck held good and allowed them to make a safe landing, they felt they would have good reason for gratitude.
"What makes it feel so queer at times?" Jack asked later on. "Why, I seem to have the blood going to my head, just as happened when looping the loop, and hanging too long in stays."
"I've noticed the same thing myself," added Colin briskly, "and tried to figure out the cause. Tom, what do you say about it?"
"A queer situation has arisen, according to my calculation," the pilot told them. "Fact is, without being able to see a solitary thing anywhere about us, above or below, it's often impossible to know when we're sailing on a level keel, or flying upside down!"
"That's a fact," admitted Lieutenant Beverly. "When you haven't the slightest thing to guide you, stars, sun, or earth, how can you tell which is up or which is down? We go forward because of the compass; but part of the time I do believe, just as you say, Tom, we've been flying upside-down!"
"I don't fancy this way of flying," Tom announced. "I think it would be better for us to climb in order to see if we can get out of this pea-soup."
"Ditto here!" echoed Jack. "I'm getting dizzy, with it all, and my head feels twice as heavy as ordinary. You can't mount any too soon to please me, Tom."
Lieutenant Beverly was not averse, it seemed, so the call became unanimous.
"All we want is to sight land," the Lieutenant remarked. "Then we can start for the interior, and try to pick a nice soft spot for landing without getting all smashed up."
Later on he was reminded of that wish by Jack, for they certainly found such a spot, as future events proved.
By climbing to a considerable height it was found that they could avoid the uncomfortable experiences that had befallen them closer to the surface of the ocean. Here the sun was shining, and while clouds floated around them there was no longer a chance of the plane being inverted.
Jack could make out land at times, though still faintly seen, and lying low on the uncertain horizon.
"I wonder if that can be Virginia I see?" he sometimes said; but talking more to himself than trying to make the others hear.
"It isn't far away at most, Jack," Beverly assured him; for he sympathized with Jack and the reason the other had for longing to get to the home town ahead of his scheming cousin.
"Show me the chart and just about where we ought to be right now, Tom," said Jack. "That is, if it's no trouble."
"No trouble to do it," came the quick reply, and with a pencil Tom made a cross on the chart while Jack's eyes danced with joy.
"Then that must be Virginia off there to the west!" he cried, again snatching up the glasses for another earnest look.
Tom watched him out of the corner of his eye. Well did he know that as Jack feasted his gaze upon the far distant land in imagination he was seeing that dearly loved home, with the friends who were so precious to him, and in fancy receiving their warm greetings.
They continued on for some little time. Tom felt pretty confident that he was correct, though he would be glad to have some confirmation of his figuring.
"The fog is thinning some!" he finally stated, "and I think we'd better seek a lower level."
"Might as well," added Beverly, approving of the idea instantly.
"Yes," added Jack, "when the time comes to fly landward we'll want to be down far enough to see where we're going. We needn't be afraid any longer of making a sensation, because seaplanes must be cruising over these waters nearly every day, coming from the station near Fortress Monroe at Hampton Roads."
Accordingly it was not long before they were skirting the upper reaches of the diminishing fog bank, being about a thousand feet or so above the sea itself. Now and then slight rifts appeared in the disappearing mist, and at such intervals it was possible for them to catch fleeting glimpses of the Atlantic, whose wide expanse they had successfully spanned, an event that would make history, if only it could ever be publicly known.
Jack could no longer see the low shore, much to his distress; but then he knew positively it was there, and when the time came to change their course directly into the west a brief flight would carry them over the land.
It really mattered little to him where they made their landing, since he would be able to find a way of reaching Bridgeton within a few hours. He consulted his little wrist watch again and again.
Tom was more than a little amused to see Jack even clap it close to his ear. He knew the reason of his doing this, for time was crawling on so slowly in the estimation of the impatient one that he even suspected the faithful little watch had ceased to go, though its steady ticking must have speedily assured him such could not possibly be the case.
"Listen!" Lieutenant Beverly suddenly called out.
A strange weird sound came faintly to their ears. Even above all the noise of their working engine they could make it out. To any one who came from the interior of the country it might have seemed a bewildering sound, and have called up strange fancies connected with marine monsters that were said to have once inhabited these waters near the Gulf Stream.
But the trio of voyagers had lived too long near the coast not to recognize a fog-siren when they heard its strident call.
Jack in particular was exultant.
"Tell me, is that the anchored light-ship's siren, Tom, do you think?" he demanded, with considerable excitement.
The pilot nodded his head, and with a finger pointed to a dot on the chart to indicate that it could be nothing else.
"I presume, Tom," Jack went on to say, "you came down when you did partly to catch that sound as we came near the shoals where the lightship stands guard day and night the whole year through."
"Well, I had that in mind," came the answer, "for, as I said before, while feeling pretty sure of my bearings I thought I'd like to have them verified. And now you can see I wasn't much out of the way."
"You've done splendidly, Tom," said Beverly, clapping the other heartily on the back. "We've all carried ourselves like true Americans through this whole affair; and it'll afford us considerable satisfaction when we look back on the wonderful trip."
"And now, Tom, hadn't we better turn toward the shore?" asked Jack.
"Just as soon as we get over the lightship I will know how to steer, Jack. Keep cool, and before long you'll be looking down on our beloved Virginia once again."
"You make me mighty happy when you say that, Tom. Many times I've wondered if I'd ever see it again, we've been overseas so long and in so many perils while doing our duty. How fine it'll be to stand once more on the soil where both of us were born, and know we've done a pretty big thing in crossing the Atlantic by the new air route!"
They fell silent again after that, but not for long. Louder and clearer came the frequent long-drawn wails of the steam fog-horn, until finally it seemed evident they were almost exactly above the lightship that, as Tom knew, was anchored on the shoals to warn mariners of their danger by means of a far-reaching lamp and the powerful siren's hoarse voice.
"Now we'll strike in for the land!" called out Tom, his announcement causing Jack to thrill with delight, while Beverly too showed his pleasure in broad smiles.
Soon afterwards they were speeding due west, with Jack gluing his eyes to his glasses and reporting every few minutes fresh signs of vast importance. Virginia soon lay beneath them, to announce that they had completed their wonderful flight across the Atlantic.
THE END OF THE FLIGHT
No longer did the fog enfold them in its damp grasp. After leaving the immediate coast behind them the last trace of it disappeared.
Jack refused to take his entranced eyes from the binoculars for a single minute. He felt a hundred-fold repaid for all the perils encountered during the memorable flight from the shore of France, during which they had spanned the vast area of the Atlantic, and were now sailing peacefully along above the home soil.
Lieutenant Beverly made an announcement just then that startled them.
"We must look for a place to drop down without any further loss of time!" he called out to Tom, who was still serving as pilot.
"But it would be mighty fine," Jack observed wistfully, "if only we might keep going on until we got a few miles out of Bridgeton. I know every rod of territory for miles around and could point out a dandy level field to make our landing in. We'd be able to descend without observation, too, I really believe."
"That'd surely be nice, Jack," Beverly told him, "and I wish we could accommodate you. But the fact is we're about out of gas! I noted this a short time ago, but said nothing, because it would do no good to throw a scare into you both. Besides, Tom had already headed direct for the land at the time."
"How lucky that didn't happen when we were a hundred miles out at sea!" Tom exclaimed, his first thought being one of satisfaction, rather than useless complaint. This was characteristic of Tom, always seeing the bright side of things, no matter how gloomy they appeared to others.
"Then I'd better be looking for a landing-place," Jack quickly remarked, getting over his little disappointment.
"And the sooner we duck the better," Beverly admitted. "If the motors go back on us we'll be in a bad fix; and volplaning to the ground isn't always as easy as it's pictured, especially when you've no choice of a landing."
"After all, it does not matter so very much," Jack concluded. "Surely once we succeed in gaining a footing we can discover a means for getting to our goal without much loss of time."
He bent his energies toward looking for what would seem to be a promising open spot, where there would not be apt to be any pitfalls or traps waiting to wreck their plane, and possibly endanger their lives.
"Scrub woods all below us, Tom!" he announced.
"But there must be openings here and there," the pilot told him. "If only the field seems long enough to admit of our coming to a stop, we'd better take chances."
"Nothing yet, sorry to say," called out Jack.
"Suppose you drop lower, Tom," suggested Beverly. "If we skirt the tops of the taller trees we'll be better able to see without depending on the glasses. All three of us can be on the lookout at the same time."
Tom considered that a good idea and he lost no time in carrying it out. It was easier now to take particular note of the ground; but they passed over mile after mile of the scrub without discovering what they most earnestly sought.
"Things are getting down to a fine point, Tom," warned Beverly. "Our gas is on its last legs, and any minute now we'll find ourselves without motive power."
"It must change soon," the pilot told them. "This scrub forest has got to give way to rising ground and open spaces."
"But if it doesn't, what then?" asked Jack.
"I hate to think of crashing down into those trees," Tom admitted. "We've just got to get over being too particular. Several places we let pass us might have answered our purpose. Look ahead, Jack, and tell me if there doesn't seem to be some sort of open spot lying there."
Jack gave a whoop.
"Here we are!" he cried exultantly. "It's an opening in the scrub timber, a big gash too, for a fact! Why, already I can see that it looks like a level green field. How queer it should be lying right there, as if it might be meant for us."
"You don't glimpse any other chance further on, do you, Jack?" continued the pilot.
"Never a thing, Tom. Just a continuation of those same old dwarf oak trees. But why do you ask that? What's the matter with this fine big gap?"
"I'm afraid it's a marsh, and not a dry field!" Tom answered. "But all the same I presume we'll have to chance it. Better to strike a bog than to fall into those trees, where the lot of us might be killed."
"Suppose we circle around, and try to find the best place for a descent," proposed Beverly.
All of them strained their eyes to try to see better. Unfortunately a cloud passed over the sun just then, rendering it difficult to make sure of anything.
"What's the verdict?" sang out Tom presently, keeping a wary eye on the straining motors.
"Looks to me as if that further part might be the highest ground," was Jack's decision.
"I agree with you there!" instantly echoed Beverly.
"That settles it! Here goes to make the try," Tom announced, again swinging in and shutting off all power.
He continued to glide downward, approaching the ground at a certain point which he had picked but with his highly trained eye as apparently the best location for the landing.
Suspecting what might happen, Tom held back until the very last, so that the big bombing plane was not going at much speed when its wheels came in contact with the ground for the first time.
Something happened speedily, for it proved to be a bog, and as the rubber-tired wheels sank in and could not be propelled, the natural result followed that the nose of the giant plane was buried in the soft ground, and they came to an abrupt stop.
Tom was the first to crawl forth, and Beverly followed close upon his heels. The third member of the party did not seem as ready to report, which fact alarmed his chum.
"Jack, what's wrong with you?" he called out, starting to climb aboard the smashed plane again.
"Nothing so very much, I think; but I seem to be all twisted up in this broken gear, and can hardly move," came the answer.
Tom secretly hoped it was not a broken arm or leg instead. He started to feel around, and soon managed to get the other free from the broken ends of the wire stays that had somehow hindered his escape. Together they crawled out, to find Lieutenant Beverly feeling himself all over as if trying to discover what the extent of his damages were.
"Try to see if you've been injured any way seriously, Jack," begged his anxious chum, still unconvinced.
An investigation disclosed the marvelous fact that all of them had managed to come through the smashing landing with but a small amount of damage. When this was ascertained without any doubt Jack started to prance around, unable to contain himself within bounds.
"Excuse me if I act a little looney, fellows!" he begged. "Fact is, I'm just keyed up to topnotch and something will give way unless I let off steam a bit."
With that he yelled and laughed and cheered until his breath gave out. Neither of the others felt any inclination to try to stop his antics. Truth to tell, they were tempted to egg Jack on, because he was really expressing in his own fashion something of the same exultation that all of them felt.
The great flight had been carried through, and here they were landed on the soil of America, three young aviators who but a few days before had been serving their country on the fighting-front in Northern France. Yes, the Atlantic had been successfully bridged by a heavier-than-air plane, and from the time of leaving France until this minute their feet had not once pressed any soil; for that ice-pack in mid-Atlantic could not be counted against them, since it too was nothing but congealed water.
"But the poor old bomber! It's ruined, Colin, I'm afraid," Jack finally managed to say, when he sank down from his exertions.
"That's a small matter," Beverly assured him. "The main thing is that we did what we set out to do, and proved that the dream of all real airmen could be made to come true. We may live to see a procession of monster boats of the air setting out for over-seas daily, carrying passengers, as well as mail and express matter."
"Yes," said Tom gravely, and yet with a pardonable trace of pride in voice and manner, "the Atlantic has been conquered, and saddled, and bridled, like any wild broncho of the plains. But hadn't we better be thinking of getting out of this soft marshy tract?"
"As quickly as we possibly can," Jack told him. "We'll try to run across some Virginia farmer, black or white, who will have a horse and agree to take us to the nearest railroad station. Once we hit civilization, the rest will be easy."
"What about the plane, Colin?" asked Tom.
"It can stay here for the time being," the other answered him. "Later on I'll hire some one to have it hauled out and stored against my coming back—after we've been a while in Berlin and got Heine to behaving himself."
They secured such things as it was desirable they should keep. Acting on Tom's advice everything that might testify to their identity was also removed, lest the bogged plane be accidentally discovered and betray them. Afterwards they set out to find a way beyond the borders of the marsh and scrub oaks, to some place where possibly they might get assistance.
"Here's the end of the marshy tract," Tom said, after they had been floundering around for some little time.
"How fine it feels to be on solid ground again," Jack observed, stamping his feet as though he really enjoyed the sensation.
Indeed, after being for such a long time, weary hours after hours, confined in the big bombing plane, the relief was greatly appreciated by both Tom Raymond and Lieutenant Beverly, as well as by Jack Parmly.
"Now for the home town!" the last mentioned told his companions. "And as near as I can figure it out there's not a ghost of a chance that Cousin Randolph could have arrived before me."
"For that matter I'm sure the French steamer must be still far out at sea, with a day or two's journey ahead of her," Colin assured him.
"Then it's my game, provided we don't run across some U. S. army authorities who'd want to know our names and hold us for investigation, which would knock everything flat."
"We're going to try to avoid all that bother," Beverly assured him. "It isn't going to make us feel very proud of our achievement, since we have to hide our light under a bushel; but for one I don't regret it. No matter if we have to be punished for desertion, our motive was honorable; and they never will be able to deny us the credit of having made the longest flight on record in a heavier-than-air machine."
"All the same," urged Tom, "I'd rather keep quiet about that stunt, for the present at least. I want to go back and finish the work over there. If the Huns are going to be driven to the Rhine we ought to be doing our duty by Uncle Sam; which we couldn't if shut up in the Government penitentiary at Fort Leavenworth, awaiting trial as deserters."
"Here's a plain trail that may lead us out of this region of scrub oaks, and to some farmer's place!" the lieutenant exclaimed just then; and in their eagerness to get in touch with some one who would take them to the railroad they talked no further concerning the great flight and its possible serious consequences to them.
Half an hour afterwards they came to the home of a farmer, who was trying to make a living out of his isolated holdings, eking it out, as he informed them while his wife was getting up the best meal possible, by doing some terrapin hunting, and even trapping muskrats and such fur-bearing animals during the otherwise unprofitable winter months.
It was very comfortable to sit down once more to a table after being so long taking "snacks" at odd hours, and being cramped in the bombing plane. And as the farmer's wife had plenty of fresh eggs, which they told her not to stint, the generous omelet she produced was fully appreciated, flanked as it was by rashers of pretty fair bacon.
There were also some freshly made soda biscuits which had a true old-fashioned Southern taste, appreciated by Tom and Jack. Lieutenant Beverly did not show any great liking for them; but he was a Northerner, brought up on baking-powder biscuits, so the others could understand his want of appreciation.
Taken all in all, they certainly enjoyed that first bite ashore after the completion of their memorable flight across the Atlantic.
Jack, so Tom said, seemed to think it was a sort of celebration because of the event, for his face was wreathed in a perpetual smile.
"The sort of smile," Jack retorted, "that won't come off."
"Oh, how good I do feel!" was a remark that if he made it once he did a dozen times, always finding it greeted by answering nods on the part of his two companions.
Of course they told the farmer they were aviators who had had the misfortune to drop into the marsh, where he would find their plane.
Beverly hired him to dismantle this in part, and store it away in his shed until later on it could be called for in person. He was not to deliver it to any person without the presence of one of the trio.
When he started out to drive them in his old rickety vehicle to the nearest railroad station, miles distant, he was almost stricken dumb because Beverly, in the fulness of his gratitude over their marvelous escape, thrust a full hundred dollars upon him, with a promise of a like amount later on for looking after the abandoned bombing plane.
"To-day is marked with a white stone in the life of Farmer Jenkins, believe me," Jack whispered aside to Tom, as they saw the amazed look spreading over the man's weather-beaten face.
"It's that with all of us," said Tom soberly.
Jack fell silent after that. He was engrossed with thoughts connected with his unexpected return to the home of his childhood; and in imagination could see the excitement their unheralded appearance was certain to arouse.
It had been arranged between them that their presence must be kept as much a secret as possible. On this account they would delay their arrival at the home of Jack's mother until after darkness had set in.
"To-morrow," Jack had said, when these things were being discussed, "we'll telegraph to Mr. Smedley in Richmond to come on without delay in connection with my dead uncle's estate, ready to settle it according to the provisions of his queer will. Then we'll be ready for Randolph when he bobs up."
Beverly had also made a suggestion when they were thus talking it all over, and arranging plans after their usual way.
"Now I've got a good friend who lives on Staten Island, right in New York harbor," he informed them. "Often while at his house visiting I've amused myself with a glass watching steamers pass through the Narrows lying between the shore of the island and that part of Brooklyn opposite Fort Wadsworth. I'll wire him to let me know by the same means when La Bretagne reaches Quarantine in the harbor."
"A clever idea, Colin!" Tom cried. "In that way we can figure out just when Jack's cousin might expect to arrive in Bridgeton to claim the estate as being the first one on the ground, thanks to that silly provision of the old man's will."
"Given two hours to get off the vessel, after the time she reaches Quarantine," Jack figured, "and six more to get to Richmond makes eight in all. Then he might be two hours getting out to Bridgeton, for trains are not very plentiful. He could make it in that time if he took a roadster with a chauffeur and came that way. Ten hours in all."
"We'll be lying in wait for Randolph, all right!" laughed Beverly. "And what a surprise it'll be! The man must think he's dreaming, having left you over in France, Jack, on the fighting front when he sailed, with not one chance in a thousand that you could catch even the next boat, days later, and then finding you here ahead of him!"
The prospect pleased them all so much that they made light of the merciless jostling received in that springless wagon over wretched Virginia shore roads. In fact, they were so elated over the great success that had rewarded their daring venture that it seemed just then as if nothing could ever again make them feel blue, or depressed in spirits.
In due time the lonely little station was reached. It was then two in the afternoon of that eventful day. Just as Tom anticipated, it turned out that there would not be a train in the direction they wished to go for two hours and more. This train would drop them at another station where a connection was made with the road that ran through Bridgeton.
It was lucky they found themselves in no hurry, thanks, as Jack naively remarked, to their having come across "on the air-line limited."
The time dragged to Jack, naturally, but he felt he had no reason for complaint after such wonderful good fortune. At last their train came along. What if it was ten minutes late? That would only shorten their wait at the junction.
"So long as we reach the old town by nine tonight I'll be satisfied," Jack had bravely committed himself by saying; and indeed it was just about then they did jump from the steps of the car at Bridgeton, for the second train had been two hours late.
Nevertheless all of them were united in thinking they had made a swift trip from the American sector of the fighting front in France to the town of Bridgeton in the Old Dominion in just four complete days.
Jack led the way, though, of course, Tom would have been just as competent a guide, since this was also his home town.
How those blinking lights in the well-remembered windows of the Parmly home held Jack's eyes, once he sighted them! Never before in all his life had he felt such a delicious thrill creep over him from head to toe.
Knocking on the door he and his chums carried out their pre-arranged plan. Jack and Tom were to keep back out of sight, leaving Lieutenant Beverly to break the glorious news first and prepare the family, so there might not be so loud an outcry as to arouse the neighbors and breed the excitement in the community that neither of the returned fighters wished.
Jack's aunt, who, a widow herself, made her home with her widowed sister-in-law, came to the door, for some reason or other. Perhaps the negro servants still went home at night, as had been the case before Jack went to the war. She looked surprised and anxious as soon as she saw that the caller was a stranger, and evidently an aviator from his dress.
"This is Mrs. Parmly, I believe?" the visitor hastened to say.
"Mrs. Job Parmly. Mrs. Parmly's sister-in-law."
"I see. Mrs. Parmly, my name is Beverly, Lieutenant Beverly of the United States Aerial Corps, just over from France. I am a good friend of your nephew, Jack, who has entrusted a message to me to deliver to his mother. May I come in for a short time, Mrs. Parmly?"
He was immediately warmly greeted and drawn into the sitting-room where he met Jack's mother. The two outside could peep under the drawn shade and watch all that went on, Jack quivering with emotion as he looked on the beloved faces of his own people once again.
Beverly knew how eager the boy must be, and hence he lost little time in getting down to the main fact, which was that he wished them not to do anything to arouse curiosity in the neighborhood; but that Jack was near by, and all would be soon explained; also that they must not be troubled thinking he, Jack, had done anything really wrong.
When he had drawn down the shades fully, that being the signal to those outside, Jack could restrain himself no longer. Opening the front door he rushed into the house and quickly had his mother and then his aunt in his arms.
The story was told at length, with the family clustered around Jack and Tom, hanging on every word as though it were the most thrilling thing they had ever heard, which in truth it must be.
Then Tom had to be considered. Lieutenant Beverly volunteered to go over to the Raymond house, which could easily be pointed out to him, and bring back the startled family, so they could greet their boy, whom they, of course, supposed to be at that very moment still overseas, risking his life in his perilous calling.
It seemed to Tom that the delight of once more greeting these loved ones well repaid him for all he had passed through in making that wonderful flight. The story had to be all gone over again, and scores of questions answered.
By degrees the scope of Jack's plan was grasped by his family, who of course knew about the strange conditions of Joshua Kinkaid's will, whereby the bulk of his large estate, long before promised to the Parmlys, would go without restrictions to either Randolph Carringford or Jack Parmly, according to which of them, after the death of the testator, appeared before a notary public specified in Bridgeton, and qualified to assume the trust.
So, too, the plan of campaign designed to confound the arch-schemer who had even plotted to keep Jack from ever applying in person, was agreed to.
The presence of the three was to be kept a dead secret. They would not go out of the house by daylight, even for a breath of air. In the morning the old family lawyer, who had also served Mr. Kinkaid in a similar capacity, would be sent for to come hurriedly.
Once he arrived, the stage would be set for carrying out the provisions of the queer will, which Tom considered might hardly have stood the test of a contest in court, though later on the lawyer, Mr. Smedley, who had himself carefully drawn it up, assured him it was really an iron-bound document.
"But," Jack said, as they waited for the lawyer's coming on the noon train from Richmond, "we can spare a couple of days here, and still make the steamer we hope to sail on for the other side. And it would be too bad if we missed seeing how dear Cousin Randolph takes his Waterloo."
Mr. Smedley arrived, and was astounded to see Jack. He showed that his sympathies were on the side of the Parmly family by his delight when shaking hands again and again.
Then the thrilling story was once more told, after he had been bound to secrecy. It would be hard to describe the emotions of the old lawyer as he sat and listened to what a great feat Jack and his two comrades had carried through.
After that all arrangements were made, and the lawyer decided to stay to see the thing through. It was the most astonishing event in all his life, he assured the company, and not for a fortune would he miss the scene that must accompany the coming of Randolph Carringford.
Mr. Smedley also sent a long telegram to that friend of Colin Beverly's who lived on Staten Island. Later that same day a reply was received promising to carry out faithfully the instructions given, if he had to sit up all night keeping watch on all vessels arriving, though if port rules were rigorously carried out no steamer would be allowed to enter or leave except by daylight.
"But we know that isn't the case," Tom said, "because those troop ships have left New York under cover of darkness many a time. Still, the ships may have waited down the bay until morning, and then sailed."
That day passed, and the following night. Early on the morning of the third day after Jack's arrival home came a telegram to Mr. Smedley.
"Now for news!" cried Jack, as it was opened.
The message was brief and to the point, affording them all the intelligence they required.
"La Bretagne at Quarantine eleven to-night; expected to dock in two hours!"
TO SEE THE WAR THROUGH—CONCLUSION
It was just at two that afternoon, and the train from Richmond had arrived ten minutes previously. Those within had seen a station hack deposit some one at the Parmly gate.
Mrs. Parmly herself answered the summons, the colored servants having been given an unexpected but welcome holiday when they appeared for work that same morning, in order to keep them from making discoveries.
"Good afternoon, Aunt," said the smooth-tongued visitor, starting to enter without waiting for an invitation. "I learned after getting to Richmond this morning that Mr. Smedley had come out to visit you; an occurrence which makes it convenient for me."
When he entered the sitting-room he found only Jack's aunt and the lawyer there, Jack and Tom and Lieutenant Beverly being in an adjoining room, but with the connecting door ajar, so they could catch every word spoken and enjoy the dramatic situation to the utmost, being ready to step in when the crisis arrived.
Carringford proceeded to shake hands with the lawyer, after greeting Mrs. Parmly effusively. There was a smile as of triumph on his sallow face.
"Glad to find you here in Bridgeton, Mr. Smedley," Randolph again said, his voice like oil and his manner confident and condescending. "I received the notification from you when over in France working in a secret capacity for the Government."
"Yes," remarked the lawyer, "I sent both out as required."
"Must say," continued Carringford, "I wasn't much surprised, because I always knew Uncle Joshua to be a queer old duck. Realizing that unless I got a move on me and beat Cousin Jack home I'd stand to lose out in the game I managed to get passage on the La Bretagne, of the French Line. Docked at one last night, couldn't get a train till morning; but here I am, sir, ready to convince you that, being the first on the ground, my claim is perfectly valid."
He evidently expected that his coming would have produced something akin to consternation in the Parmly family, and must have wondered how they could meet bitter disappointment with such smiling faces.
"You have made very good time in crossing, Randolph," remarked the lawyer calmly, "considering the tempestuous times, and need of caution on account of the U-boats. I should say that the French steamer surpassed her record."
"And that being the case," resumed the other, smiling still as a winner at the races might do when handed his stake ten times multiplied, "since I'm here on the ground first, and you are the lawyer in the matter, what's to hinder our completing the formalities necessary to put me in possession of my great uncle's estate, according to his last will and testament?"
"The only stumbling-block that I'm aware of, Randolph," said Mr. Smedley suavely, "is a little matter of priority."
"But I am the first to appear before you, Mr. Smedley, and there were but two contestants for the property. Isn't that true?" demanded the newcomer, frowning at the thought that some unexpected legal tangle was about to appear.
"You are perfectly right in one thing, Randolph," continued the lawyer. "The race was to be between you and Jack. I must say you have made very good time getting over here. But in spite of your speed, Randolph, you are showing up somewhat late. In fact, the affair is all over, and I have started proceedings looking to conveying the property to the one undoubtedly presenting the prior claim."
The other was thunderstruck.
"Impossible, I tell you, Smedley!" he burst out. "With my own eyes I saw Jack Parmly over there at the front in France when I hurried to the port to embark on La Bretagne. He was not aboard that ship, I can take my oath, and another couldn't arrive in New York for days. So you have no other resource but to admit my claim to be just, and hand over what belongs to me. I demand it, sir."
"Not so fast, Randolph," begged the lawyer. "A little more moderation. You have made some sort of miscalculation I fear."
With these words he stamped his foot. Recognizing the signal, Jack stepped blithely into the sitting-room, followed by Tom and Beverly. His appearance almost caused Carringford to "have a fit," as Jack afterwards described the effect of his coming on the scene.
"What does this mystery mean?" he managed to gasp.
"Only that I took a notion to come home and claim that legacy left by our eccentric Uncle Joshua," Jack told him, with a shrug of his shoulders, as though miracles were an every-day occurrence with him.
"But I certainly saw you again and again, and heard you talk at the same time just before I left for Havre to sail!" cried Randolph, nevertheless convinced that at least this was the real flesh-and-blood Jack Parmly standing before him.
"Oh! did you?" remarked Jack, mockingly. "Perhaps it was a dream. Perhaps I had an understudy over there. Perhaps a whole lot of things. But the one positive fact about which there isn't any doubt is that I'm here ahead of you, and you've lost out in your game, that's all."
"But—it's impossible, incredible!" continued the other, hardly able yet to believe his own eyes.
"Still, you must admit that I'm Jack Parmly, and quite in the flesh, which after all is enough to settle the matter," he was calmly told. "My family here have received me as their own; and Mr. Smedley had no trouble in recognizing me. So perhaps you'd better be packing your grip again, Cousin Randolph, and returning to your secret Government duties over in France!"
"But—how could you have reached here so far ahead of me?" gritted the disgusted Randolph weakly.
"Please don't forget that I'm an aviator, and we fliers are able to put over all sorts of stunts these days," laughed Jack; though his manner implied that he might be joking when saying this. At any rate, it could not enter the mind of any one to believe such a thing as flying across the Atlantic within the bounds of reason.
Carringford of course saw that his room was more desired than his company. Besides, he had not heart or desire to linger any longer, since he had received such a staggering blow.
Accordingly he took his departure, and acted quite like a "bear with a sore head," as Jack described his ugly way of slamming the door and hurrying out to the station hack that had been all this while waiting for him at the gate.
Now that the one great object which Jack had in view was accomplished, he and the other two began to consider the best way in which they could return to France without attracting too much attention.
"I have a scheme that may work admirably," said Beverly. "And it happens that the boat my good old friend is master of is due to sail from New York the day after to-morrow. We'll go on that as stowaways."
Then, seeing the look of astonishment and also bewilderment that came into the faces of his hearers, he went on to explain further.
"Of course I don't use that word in the usual sense of getting aboard unknown to any of the officers, perhaps through the complicity of a member of the crew, and hiding ourselves among the cargo. Such stowaways are a scarcity nowadays, the peril of torpedoes having given them cold feet. But I believe I can fix it with my friend the captain so that he'll allow us to remain aboard without our names appearing on the passenger list."
"Sounds good to me," asserted Jack, while Tom said thoughtfully:
"I suppose we could stick to our staterooms during the day, and only go on deck late at night, when nearly everybody was asleep. Like as not, there'd be quite a number of army officers aboard, so we mightn't be noticed if any one ran against us while taking the air at night."
Accordingly this plan was settled upon; and as they were not absolutely certain about the time of sailing, with much still to be done before that event took place, once again did Tom and Jack have to bid their relatives good-bye.
"It'll not be for so very long now, let's hope," said Tom's father, as he squeezed his son's hand at parting; "for Germany is on her last legs, and unless all signs fail the war must soon come to an end."
"Besides," added Lieutenant Beverly, "none of us is likely to try to repeat the little flight we just carried through. We feel as if we can rest on our well earned laurels."
"And it'll be some time, I firmly believe," said Mr. Raymond, "before your wonderful feat is duplicated, or even approached." But then, of course, he could not foresee how even before the peace treaty had been signed a number of ambitious aviators would actually cross the Atlantic, one crew in a huge heavier-than-air machine, another in an American seaplane, and still a third aboard a mighty dirigible, making the passages with but a day or so intervening between flights.
When a certain steamship left New York harbor one morning soon afterwards three pairs of eyes took a parting look through a porthole in their united stateroom at the Statue of Liberty on Bedloe's Island.
Of course the occupants of the stateroom were Tom and Jack and Colin. They had managed to interest the big-hearted captain in their scheme. He knew that he must not appear to be connected with such an escapade; but such was his admiration for their wonderful achievement, as well as his friendship for Lieutenant Beverly, that he readily consented to help them.
"And so here we are," Jack observed, after they had passed out from Sandy Hook and were heading across toward troubled Europe, "going back to duty, before our leave of absence will have expired, and the three weeks already nearly half over. Let's only hope we can slip into the traces as if nothing unusual had happened and that mad flight was only an aviator's day dream."
"It's a pleasure, too," added Tom reflectively, with a glance at his chum, "to know that there are loyal hearts waiting to greet us again over there where the shells are bursting. For of course Nellie and Bessie, not to mention Harry Leroy, will be counting the days anxiously until we show up. Little do they suspect all we've been through; and we'll have to bind them to secrecy when taking them into the game."
"H'm!" chuckled Lieutenant Beverly, "perhaps there's a little Salvation Army lassie I, myself, will be glad to see again. Don't fancy you two have cornered the whole market of fine girls. There are others over there!"
So we will leave them, only hoping that at some other day we may once more meet Tom and Jack and Colin, and accompany them through other activities.