"Well, sir, I—we—I," stammered Robard, evidently at a loss for a convincing reply.
There came the sound of a blow, as though a hand had struck a table and the ambassador's voice rose angrily.
"Robard," he said sternly, "I can see through your plot. You would have me stand sponsor for this crime, that you might disqualify me upon my return to Vienna."
"I assure you, sir—" began Robard.
"Enough," replied the ambassador. "I have not forgotten that you were ever my enemy—at least until this war brought us closer together and put an end to all our disputes—at least, so I believed. Now I know better."
"Sir—" Robard began again.
"I have told you I would have no hand in it," declared the ambassador. "What is more, I forbid it! Do you understand, I forbid it!"
Now Robard's voice rose angrily.
"You forbid it!" he exclaimed. "You forbid it! Well, little good will that do. I will see that the work is carried out if I have to do it myself. And what is more, I will see that the blame falls on you. You are right. I have plotted to discredit you, and I shall do it, or my name is not Robard."
"I shall see that your actions are brought to the attention of the emperor," declared the ambassador. "And more than that, I shall immediately notify the Italian authorities of your plans, that they may be on their guard."
"You will never do that," replied Robard, and his voice was so low that the listeners could scarcely catch the words.
"Robard," said the ambassador sternly, "you may consider yourself under arrest."
There was the sound of a scraping chair and heavy footsteps moving in the room beyond.
"Another move and I shall fire," came Robard's voice.
"Man, you don't know what you are doing," came the surprised voice of the ambassador.
"Don't?" said Robard, with a sneer in his voice. "I'll show you."
Again there came to the listeners' ears the sounds of heavy footsteps, followed by the noise of a struggle.
"Great Scott! They are fighting!" exclaimed Hal. "What can we do? He might kill the Ambassador."
"There is nothing we can do, old man," replied Chester quietly. "We'll have to let them fight it out."
They listened intently.
The struggle continued, and occasionally the listeners could catch the sound of fierce ejaculations. Then, suddenly, there came the sound of a shot. Then silence, followed a moment later by a voice:
"There! I guess now you will know better than to interfere with me."
"Robard," said the voice of the ambassador, very weak now, "you shall pay for this."
"I don't know whether I have done for you or not," came Robard's voice after a pause, "and I don't care. In fact, I hope I have. Now, just to blacken your reputation a bit, if I have killed you, I shall go through with my plan."
The boys could hear him stalk heavily across the room. A moment later a door slammed.
Hal rose to his feet and passed a hand across a moist brow.
"And to think that we were unable to lend a hand," he muttered.
"He's a black villain," declared Uncle John.
"And now," said Chester, "he is on his errand of mischief. Can we do nothing to thwart him?"
"I can't see how," declared Uncle John.
"Nor I," said Hal.
"Wait a moment, though," said Chester.
"Well?" queried Hal anxiously.
"I think it can be done," replied Chester quietly. "At least there is a chance."
"Let's have it," demanded Hal eagerly.
"Well, here is the idea. We'll stir up a racket in here. Naturally some of our captors will come to see what it is all about. We won't quiet down until he opens the door. Now you will notice that the door swings inward. That will help. Also that from outside it is impossible to see this side of the room. I'll stand behind the door. You and Uncle John remain on this side and stay here until the man comes into the room. Then I'll jump him, or them, as the case may be."
"But they'll get you, Chester," said Uncle John.
"Perhaps," was the reply. "That's the chance I must take. But we can't let a little thing like that stand in the way. As soon as I tackle them, or him, you two can rush out and lend a hand. There'll be a hard fight, of course, and the first fellow that gets a chance to make a break through the door will do so. Do I make myself clear?"
"Perfectly," said Hal. "And the plan is not so bad. There is a certain chance of success."
"Well, it doesn't look good to me," replied Uncle John. "One of you boys is almost sure to get killed."
"You are taking the same chance, sir," replied Chester.
"Oh, I'm not worrying about myself," returned Uncle John. "But you must remember that I am to some extent responsible for you and I shall have to answer to your mothers for your safety."
"If you wish," said Chester dryly, "we'll each write you a little note exonerating you of all blame should either of us be hurt."
Uncle John was forced to smile.
"Oh, never mind," he said. "Well, boys, if you have decided upon your plan, I guess I shall have to agree to it."
"I believe it will succeed," said Chester. "But at all events, we can't remain here inactive while that villain Robard is about his work."
"You're right there, Chester," said Hal. "Something must be done, and as there is no one else aware of this plot, I guess it is up to us."
"As I said before, you can count on me to the limit," said Uncle John.
"I'm counting on you, Uncle John," replied Chester. "I know you will do your part."
"Thanks," was the quiet response.
"Any more suggestions?" asked Chester.
There were none.
"What time is it?" asked Hal.
Chester glanced quickly at his watch.
"Great Scott!" he ejaculated. "Ten o'clock! I had no idea it was so late."
"Nor I," declared Uncle John.
"Time to get busy, then," said Hal.
"Right," Chester agreed. "We haven't a whole lot of time."
He gazed quickly about the room and then took his position at one side of the door, where he would not be seen by one entering the room. Hal and Uncle John also took their places.
"Everything ship-shape?" asked Chester.
"Guess so," replied Uncle John, somewhat nervously—he was not used to this kind of work, although each lad knew there was no question of his nerve and courage.
"All set," replied Hal quietly.
"Good!" said Chester. "Now for the disturbance. You fellows will have to help me out a little."
He raised his voice in a loud shout.
Hal and Uncle John followed suit.
"A terrible racket," said Chester, drawing a long breath a moment later. "It should raise the dead."
"It should," agreed Hal.
"But it didn't," said Chester. "Again. All together now, and keep it up."
Again the room rang with a horrible noise. Came footsteps running without.
"All ready now," called Chester in a hoarse whisper. "Here comes some one."
The others made no reply, but stood silently waiting.
The footsteps paused just outside the door.
"What's the matter in there?" asked a voice.
Chester made no reply; instead, he raised his voice in another blood-curdling shout.
The man outside wasted no more time in parley. Evidently he believed there was something serious the matter within. A key grated in the lock and the door swung inward.
Chester held himself tense—ready to spring upon the man the moment he should come within reach. Just inside the door the man paused and again sought to determine the cause of the commotion.
"What on earth is the matter in here?" he demanded loudly.
Seeking to help matters along, Hal gave vent to a sepulchral groan.
"Somebody must be sick," muttered the man to himself, and advanced into the room, casting discretion to the winds. One, two, three forward steps he took, and then whirled suddenly as Chester's hands closed about his throat from behind.
Now the Austrian was a big man, and in spite of Chester's strength, the lad realized in a moment that he was no match for his opponent.
"Quick, Hal, while I am able to hold him," he panted.
Hal wasted no time in words, for he realized it was time for action. He sprang from his place of concealment and darted toward the door, calling over his shoulder to Uncle John:
"Lend Chester a hand!"
But even as Hal would have darted through the door, the Austrian succeeded in freeing himself of Chester's hold, and hurling the lad from him with a swift backward kick, he turned just in time to encounter Hal.
Hal's right fist shot out sharply, and the Austrian staggered back as the blow caught him upon the point of the chin. But the blow had been delivered too quickly to have the desired effect, and the Austrian recovered himself in a moment, and, crouching low, advanced upon Hal. At the same time he raised his voice in a call for help.
"We'll have to dispose of this fellow pretty quick or it's all off," said Hal to the others. "Jump him from behind, Chester, while I keep him occupied here."
Chester needed no urging. He stepped aside quickly, and then jumped behind the Austrian, before the latter had time to back into a corner, had such been his intention. Uncle John circled about a bit and moved on him from the other side.
The Austrian took a quick look at his foes, threatening him from three sides. He realized he was no match for all, and his thoughts turned to escape. There was just one way by which he could get away—through the door by which he had entered the room—and this would give the prisoners a chance to make a break for liberty.
Hal struck out savagely with his right fist, and the Austrian hesitated no longer. With a quick backward leap, he passed from the room, making no effort to close the door behind him.
"After him!" cried Hal, also jumping forward.
The Austrian turned and took to his heels, and Hal, Chester and Uncle John gave chase. Down the hall ran the man, with Hal but a few paces behind him.
And then, suddenly, the Austrian turned in his tracks. Hal was quite unprepared for this maneuver, and before he could check himself, he had bumped squarely into his opponent, who seized him in close embrace. The man's hands closed about the boy's throat, and Hal gasped for breath.
Chester and Uncle John, seeing Hal's predicament, charged forward with a shout; and then the reason that the Austrian had turned to give battle became apparent.
A second and a third figure stepped around the two who were struggling in the center of the hall, and faced Uncle John and Chester. One held a drawn revolver and the other was in the act of drawing a weapon.
It was no time to hesitate, and Chester realized it.
"Come on!" he cried, and leaped forward.
There came a flash and a loud report; but Chester was unwounded. He had stooped at the moment the man's hand pressed the trigger, and now came up beneath the other's guard. Before the latter could fire again, Chester drove him back with a hard right-handed blow to the jaw. The man uttered a low imprecation and at that instant Chester's left fist reached his opponent's stomach. The latter doubled up like a knife, and his revolver fell to the floor with a clatter.
Chester stooped quickly and his hand found the weapon. As he straightened up again, his eyes unconsciously took in the scene about him. He saw Hal make a last futile effort to free himself from the grasp of the first Austrian, and then fall to the floor with the man on top of him; and he saw Uncle John crumple up as a flash of flame came from the revolver of the third Austrian.
Chester gave a cry, and turning his newly acquired weapon in the direction of the man who had just fired at Uncle John, he pulled the trigger almost without taking aim. There came a cry, and the latter threw up his arms and fell to the floor. At the same moment the first Austrian rose from above Hal's prostrate form, and his revolver and Chester's spoke simultaneously. Chester felt a sharp tinge in his left arm and realized that he was not seriously hurt. He dropped quickly to the floor, even as the Austrian's revolver spoke again.
A bullet whizzed over his head. Chester now took deliberate aim and fired. The Austrian's weapon fell to the floor with a clatter, the man himself staggered and tried to retain his feet. He reeled forward toward Chester and then, just as the boy would have pressed the trigger again, collapsed almost at the lad's feet.
"I guess that settles the whole lot of you," Chester muttered to himself.
He ran quickly to where Hal lay and raised his chum's head to his knee. Hal made no move. Chester laid his hand over Hal's heart, and drew a breath of relief as he felt a faint beating. He stroked his friend's head, and rubbed his hands, and presently was rewarded by a sigh of returning consciousness.
Then Hal opened his eyes.
"Wow! A terrible dream I just had, Chester," he said.
Chester smiled in spite of himself.
"It came almost being your last dream," he replied quietly.
Without waiting for a reply, he laid Hal gently down again and hurried to Uncle John. The latter raised himself on one elbow even as Chester bent down beside him.
"Careless of me to get in the way of a bullet like that," he said with a faint smile. "I'll know better next time."
"Where are you hit, sir?" asked Chester anxiously.
"Caught me in the left side, some place," replied Uncle John, and with Chester's aid, got to his feet.
Chester made a quick examination.
"Lucky, sir. Just a flesh wound," he said. "I'll have it fixed up in a jiffy."
Making a bandage of his handkerchief, he soon had the wound tied up as well as could be done under the circumstances. Then the lad lent Hal a hand as the latter staggered to his feet.
"How do you feel?" asked Chester.
"Well, I don't feel very chipper, and that's a fact," replied Hal with a grimace. "That fellow had powerfully strong fingers."
"I guess we are lucky at that," remarked Chester.
"Lucky?" exclaimed Uncle John. "I'd like to know how you make that out, and me with a bullet hole in my side."
"Why," Chester explained, "the best we figured on was for one of us to get away, and now we are all at liberty."
"Perhaps we are," said Uncle John dryly. "I'll feel a whole lot safer when I once get outside of this house."
"Then we had better be moving," said Hal. "Come on."
He led the way to the end of the hall and into the room beyond.
"I guess we can get out this way," he said.
He examined a window at the far end of the room.
"Quite a drop down there," he said, "but I guess it can be done."
Chester and Uncle John also surveyed the distance to the ground.
"It's got to be done," said Uncle John. "I'll go first, if you don't mind."
"Go ahead, sir," said Hal.
Uncle John climbed to the sill, and then lowered himself until he hung by his hands.
"Here I go," he said.
"He's safe enough," said Chester, peering down, as Uncle John got to his feet and brushed himself off. "You next, Hal."
Hal climbed into the sill, lowered himself and dropped.
"All right," he called up to Chester.
Chester climbed to the sill.
"Here I come," he called; and just as he was about to lower himself a figure dashed suddenly into the room and seized him by the leg.
Chester gave vent to a cry of vexation.
"Hey," he called to Hal and Uncle John, "one of the big Austrians has grabbed me by the leg."
"Kick him in the face," cried Hal, dancing excitedly about, and making vain attempts to jump up so he could reach the sill.
Chester attempted to follow Hal's advice, but it was no use. Slowly he was dragged back through the window, and landed on the floor with a thud. When he was able to get to his feet, he faced a revolver held in a steady hand. He was caught and he knew it.
"He's got me, Hal," he shouted. "Hurry! Never mind me! Give the warning!"
For a single moment Hal hesitated after hearing Chester's voice. Then he took Uncle John by the arm.
"Chester is right," he muttered hoarsely. "Come on, sir, or we shall be captured, too."
Uncle John seemed about to protest, but Hal led him down the street at a rapid gait.
"What is one to many?" he asked.
CHESTER MISSES A CHANCE.
Chester surveyed his captor with a slight smile on his face, although the bitterness of disappointment had touched his heart.
"Well, you've got me," he said quietly. "Now what are you going to do with me?"
The Austrian returned his look with a sour scowl.
"That is not for me to decide," he said. "Come with me."
He waved his revolver in the general direction of the door, and Chester walked out of the room. The Austrian followed closely, keeping his revolver close to the back of the lad's head. Evidently he had decided to take no further chances with him.
Chester smiled faintly to himself.
"Guess he'll hang on to me pretty tight this time," he muttered.
A moment later he found himself back in the same room the three had been locked in when first brought to the house. The lad threw himself down dejectedly when the captor left the room and locked the door behind him.
"Well, I'm in for it now," he told himself. "Hal and Uncle John will warn the Italian general in time, and when Robard fails in his plot he'll come back to deal with me. I hope I am able to give a good account of myself. However, a fellow can never tell what is going to happen, so in order to be prepared, I'll try and get a little sleep."
He lay down and closed his eyes; and in spite of the seriousness of his situation, and the hard floor upon which he lay, he was soon asleep.
Meanwhile, Hal and Uncle John made all haste toward the headquarters of the Italian general staff, which at the moment were in Venice. It took Hal some moments to convince several subordinate officers that it was essential he see the commander himself, but after some explanations the lad, accompanied by Uncle John, was ushered into the presence of the general.
Hal laid bare the details of the plot in a few words, and the Italian commander eyed him incredulously.
"How am I to know you are telling the truth?" he demanded.
"For one reason, because I don't lie," replied Hal. "Besides, if you doubt me, sir, it would be well to be on the safe side, anyhow. It can do no harm to take the necessary precautions."
"What you say is true," replied the general.
"A wire to General Ferrari might tell you we are to be relied upon," continued Hal. "We were so fortunate as to be of some slight service to him recently."
The Italian commander glanced at his watch.
"It is best to be on the safe side," he said. "I shall take the necessary precautions, meanwhile wiring to General Ferrari, as you suggest. In the meantime, I fear I shall have to detain you, at least, until I receive a reply to my wire."
"But, sir," Hal protested, "I would like to go back and find my friend."
"I cannot permit that," was the reply. "How do I know that you are not spies yourselves and have concocted this story for some reason of your own—a reason that precautions I might take against the plot you have outlined might throw my troops into more serious difficulties? No, I shall keep you under guard. That is final."
Hal realized the futility of further protest and subsided. Not so Uncle John.
"This is an outrage, sir," he exploded. "I repeat, this is an outrage. Here we are, three of us, who have gone out of our way, to do the Italian army a service, and the best we get is trouble, fights and insults. I—"
The Italian commander raised a hand.
"I trust that you are telling the truth," he said turning to Hal, and ignoring Uncle John. "But I must make sure. You say you are a soldier. You can appreciate my position."
Hal nodded affirmatively. But Uncle John refused to be appeased.
"I think you are a lot of savages," he declared. "I wish the Austrians would blow up your whole army and drop bombs on every spot in the country. I'd help 'em do it if I had a good chance. I wouldn't turn my hand over to help you again."
The commander began to grow angry, and Hal realized it.
"That's enough, Uncle John," he remonstrated. "You'll get us in worse trouble than ever if you are not careful."
"Worse?" exclaimed Uncle John. "What can be worse than being in the same room with a bunch like this? I—"
Again the Italian commander raised a hand.
"Enough!" he said sharply. "I am convinced you have come here for no good. I shall send the wire I promised, but I am confident of the reply I shall receive. Orderly!"
An orderly approached.
"Keep these fellows safe," said the general.
"At least, sir, you will still take the precautions," said Hal.
The general hesitated a moment.
"Yes," he said finally, "you may at least have the satisfaction of knowing you have caused me to change my plans. All precautions shall be taken."
Hal and Uncle John were led away.
"I wonder what they have done with Chester?" said Uncle John.
"Whatever they have done will not be a circumstance to what they will do when Robard's plot fails," replied Hal. "That's why I was anxious not to antagonize the general. If the wire goes through we will possibly be in time to save him, if not—"
He broke off with a shrug.
"You mean—" began Uncle John.
"I don't know just what I mean," replied Hal. "I'm afraid. That's all."
Both lapsed into silence.
When Chester opened his eyes in his improvised prison the evil face of Robard bent over him. Chester sat up, stretched and then rose to his feet.
"Hello," he said. "Back again, I see."
Robard scowled fiercely, but made no reply.
"Well, did you blow up the whole Italian army?" asked Chester with a pleasant smile.
Robard stretched out a hand suddenly and seized Chester by the wrist and with his other hand struck the lad heavily in the face. Chester reeled back, but, recovering, promptly sent his right first into Robard's face.
The lad thought for a moment of following up his advantage and attempting to escape, but before he could act, Robard whipped out a revolver and covered him.
"Stand back!" he ordered.
Chester stood still.
"I've a notion to kill you right here," cried the Austrian furiously. "What do you mean by hitting me?"
"What do you mean by hitting me?" demanded Chester.
"You young American upstart!" shouted the enraged Austrian. "I'll—"
"I wouldn't if I were you," said Chester calmly, as Robard raised a heavy fist. "You may be able to fight with a gun or a knife, but don't come at me with your fists or I'll spank you."
If Chester's object had been to enrage the Austrian he had succeeded. Robard cast discretion to the winds, and, lowering his revolver, struck at the lad.
It was the chance for which Chester had been waiting and hoping.
He ducked under the heavy blow, and instead of returning it, he kicked out with his left foot. His aim was true and Robard's revolver fell to the floor with a clatter. Chester pounced on it, beating the Austrian by the fraction of a second. A moment later the Austrian struck him a heavy blow on the side of the face.
Chester became suddenly very angry—not furiously and excitedly so, but his temper blazed up and his anger was quiet and deadly. Calmly he blocked a second blow from his opponent and took the time to put the revolver hastily in his pocket.
"Now," he said, "I am going to give you a first class licking. I didn't take boxing lessons for nothing, and if you have anything to say when I get through I'll be willing to listen."
At that moment the Austrian rushed. Chester side-stepped neatly, and his left fist crashed to the side of the Austrian's jaw as the latter brushed past. Before Robard could turn, Chester planted his right fist upon the back of the other's neck, sending him staggering.
Then he waited for Robard to come at him again.
Turning, Robard advanced more cautiously this time. Chester feinted with his right, and sent his left to Robard's nose. Blood flowed. Chester danced about the big Austrian, raining blows upon him almost at will.
"Take that, and that, and that," he said gleefully, skipping first this way and then that, skillfully evading the heavy blows launched wildly by Robard.
This continued for perhaps five minutes, and then Chester grew tired.
"Well, we'll end it now," he told the Austrian with a smile. "Watch, here comes the finish."
He stiffened a bit, took a backward step, then danced suddenly forward. He feinted with dazzling rapidity once, twice, three times, and then, his opponent completely bewildered, planted his right fist squarely upon the point of Robard's chin. Robard staggered back, but a second terrific blow, delivered to the stomach, brought him forward again, and Chester straightened him up with another terrific drive to the point of the chin.
The lad stepped back and dropped his hands, watching the big Austrian with a smile on his face.
Clear across the room the man staggered and then crumpled up in a heap.
"That settles him," said Chester. "Now to get out of here."
He turned toward the door, and stopped, a cry of dismay on his lips.
In the doorway stood three figures. As Chester turned, one of them advanced toward him.
"You did a pretty job," he said, eyeing the lad appreciatively, "and we are glad to have seen it. But, we cannot let you escape."
Chester groaned and sat down.
"There're too many of them," he said to himself. "So near and yet so far. If I hadn't let my temper get the best of me I would have been safely out of here. I'll never waste another second on an Austrian. This is what I get for not shooting him like a dog, and using my fists on him, like I would on a gentleman. Never again."
THE AMBASSADOR AGAIN.
While Hal, Chester and Uncle John were having their troubles with members of the Austrian diplomatic corps on Italian soil, the Italian army itself already had taken the field against the enemy. War having been declared, the Italian general staff had wasted no time.
Along the Austrian frontier, at the head of the Adriatic, clear north to the Swiss border, the troops of King Emmanuel had intrenched themselves against a possible attack of the foe; big guns even now were roaring and raining the messengers of death upon the fortified positions of the Austrians in their front.
Skirmishes between isolated forces of the two armies, some of which reached the proportions of real battles, had taken place, and upon the southern border some slight success already had crowned the efforts of the Italian troops.
The Italian fleet had been set in motion; giant battleships and other vessels of war had joined other craft of the quadruple entente in an effective blockade of Austrian ports in the Adriatic; and the Austrians were keeping well behind the shelter of their own mines.
In one or two cases they had ventured forth to give battle, but each expedition of this nature had resulted disastrously—at the bottom of the sea. Apparently, now, they had given up attempts to run the blockade and were content to lie snug in their well-fortified harbors, even as their German allies were doing in their ports.
Several Austrian aircraft had left their bases and flown over Genoa, dropping bombs, killing and wounding a score of non-combatants, but doing little damage to fortified positions or to munition plants and provision camps, which were presumed to be their goal. Also several had been brought to earth by the accurate fire from the anti-air craft guns of the Italians.
Unlike England, France, Russia and Belgium, Italy entered the war prepared. She was not taken by surprise, as had been her allies. She went into the war with her eyes open and a full realization of her responsibilities. Also mobilization had been completed before she had finally decided to take the plunge into the maelstrom. Again, she was better prepared than her allies for the reason that she had recently emerged from a successful struggle against the Turks in Tripoli and her army was an army of veterans.
There was no doubt that Italy would be the first to take the offensive. The question was, where would she strike? It was an established fact that she would not await the attacks of the Austrians, but where would she deliver her first blow? Would it be by sea, hurling her fleet upon the enemy's base across the Adriatic? Would it be across the southern boundary of Austria, or would it be farther north—through the Alps?
There was little to choose between the latter methods; but the first was given little thought. It was well known that the Austrians had mined the Adriatic thoroughly near their ports, and to attempt an expedition there threatened destruction for the attackers.
An advance through the Alps also presented its difficulties. In spite of the fact that the weather was still warm, it was anything but warm in the mountain fastnesses. True, a passage of the Alps had been forced before now—one by the Carthaginian General Hannibal in the middle ages, and again by Napoleon. But it was still a desperate undertaking.
The world waited to see.
Chester Crawford, still in the hands of his captors, took no thought of these things now. His one absorbing thought at the moment was of hitting upon some plan whereby he could elude his guards and make his escape. At the same time, he realized that he had a hard problem before him; for now that he had almost made his get-away twice, he knew he would be guarded with more vigilance than before. Still, he determined to bide his time and take advantage of the first opportunity that presented itself.
The two Austrians who had arrived in time to prevent his escape after his tussle with Robard now stood guard over the lad, waiting for Robard to return to consciousness. Presently the fallen man stirred, rolled over, gasped a bit, and sat up. He gazed about and took in his surroundings. An ugly look passed over his face as his eyes fell upon Chester.
"I'll get even with you for this," he said harshly, as he scrambled to his feet.
"Oh, I don't know," returned Chester with a smile. "I might only increase my indebtedness the next time we meet."
The Austrian took a threatening step forward. Chester did not flinch and the man paused and dropped the arm he had raised.
"I'll wait till we get to Vienna, and then I'll guarantee to make you whine for mercy," growled Robard.
"We shall see," said Chester.
Robard turned to his men.
"We'll go at once," he said.
"By the way," interrupted Chester, "what has happened to the ambassador?"
Robard gave a start, and looked quickly at his two men, who had turned at Chester's words.
"You'll find him in the next room, I think," said Chester, pointing.
"Shut up!" commanded Robard, again taking a step forward.
Chester smiled and stepped back a bit.
"Where you shot him," he continued pleasantly.
With a cry Robard leaped upon him. Chester struck out quickly with both fists, one after the other, and the Austrian staggered back. Chester turned to the others.
"What I say is true," he said quietly, as he noted the look of uncertainty on their faces. "You can easily tell by investigating."
"It's a lie!" shouted Robard.
The men hesitated.
"Look and see," said Chester.
"The boy is right," said one of them. "I'll look."
He stepped toward the door.
"Stand where you are!" cried Robard.
He moved upon the other and clenched his fists. The man gazed at him a moment without a word; then, suddenly, he seized his superior by the arms and held him as though he had been in a vise.
"You have a look, Fritz," he said to his companion. "I'll hold him safe enough."
The latter wasted no time. He hurried from the room.
"You'll pay for this!" screamed Robard.
"Perhaps," said his subordinate, "but I believe the boy has told the truth. I never did trust you, with your shifty eyes."
At that moment the third man came back into the room, dragging a heavy body after him.
"The ambassador!" cried the other.
"You see, I was right," said Chester.
The ambassador was unconscious still, although it was hours after he had been wounded.
"He's alive," said one of the Austrians, after an examination.
"Get some water," commanded the other.
At this moment Robard took a step forward, and seemed about to wrench himself free from his captor's arms.
"If you gentlemen will allow me," said Chester, "I shall make a suggestion that may save us all time and bother."
"Well?" demanded one of the men.
"If you'll give me the gun you deprived me of," said the boy, "I'll give my word to hold our friend here safe until the ambassador is brought back to consciousness. Also, I give my word not to attempt to escape."
The others eyed him closely for a brief moment.
"All right," said the man who had gone after the ambassador. "Here." He passed over his automatic.
Chester took it and covered Robard.
"You can release him now," he said to the big Austrian's captor. "He'll make no break while I have him covered. He knows me too well by this time, don't you, Robard?"
The latter's reply was a low growl.
The other Austrian released his hold, and stood back. For an instant it seemed that Robard would spring forward and give battle to all three, but as Chester's revolver covered him steadily, he changed his mind and stood still.
Immediately the others began the work of reviving the ambassador, and five minutes later their efforts were rewarded. The ambassador moaned feebly, and a few seconds later sat up. His eyes fell on Robard, and he jumped quickly to his feet.
"So!" he exclaimed. "Guard him carefully, boy. He's a dangerous man."
"I'll guard him," replied Chester briefly.
Suddenly the Austrian smote himself on the breast.
"The plot!" he cried. "Robard's plot!"
"Has failed," interrupted Chester. Then noticing the look of surprise on the ambassador's face, he explained.
"We overheard the conversation in the room where we were locked, sir. My friends managed to escape and give the warning. The plot has failed. Robard told me as much."
"I'm glad," said the ambassador simply. "And now, what am I to do with you?"
"Let me go, sir," was the lad's reply.
The ambassador considered the matter.
"I'll tell you," he said at length, "I would like for you to go to Vienna with me and substantiate my story to the emperor. You will say that my story should need no proof, as I am the ambassador, but Robard has influential friends there. He would easily discredit the stories of these two men here. With you it would be different. Will you go?"
"I would rather not, sir," replied Chester quietly.
"I must insist," urged the ambassador.
For some reason that Chester was never afterwards able to explain to himself, he suddenly grew terribly angry.
"No, I won't go!" he shouted, and waved a fist in the very face of the ambassador.
The latter looked at him in amazement; then took his decision.
"You shall go anyhow," he said softly. "Seize him, men!"
"Any time," said the ambassador gently, "that you are ready to give me your parole, I shall have your bonds removed."
"I wouldn't give my parole to you or any other of your kind," declared Chester grimly.
"I'm sorry you feel that way about it," declared the ambassador, with a deprecating gesture. "I assure you, I shall see that you are given safe conduct back to Italy. But in the meantime, I can take no chances upon your escaping."
"Do as you please," said Chester.
Again a captive, Chester left Venice.
In a first class compartment of the special train that was bearing the Austrian ambassador and his staff rapidly toward Trieste was also Chester, nursing a sore head, the result of trying to vanquish the ambassador and the two other Austrians when the diplomat had ordered him seized. The lad put up such a battle that one of his opponents had found it necessary to tap him gently on top of the head with the butt of his revolver. That had settled the argument, and when Chester returned to consciousness he was aboard the special train, bound, and seated across from the ambassador.
"Sorry we had to give you that crack on the head," the ambassador continued, "but you wouldn't behave without it. Does it pain you much?"
"Not so much as the fact that you are a race lacking in all sense of gratitude," replied Chester. "I wish now I had let you lie where you were. The next time I shall keep my mouth shut, you can bet on that."
"Well, anyhow, here you are," said the ambassador, "and I promise that you shall remain with me until I see the emperor in Vienna, if I have to drug you. After that, I promise you safe conduct to the Italian border. Come, why not be sensible?"
But Chester was in no mood to be sensible, and there is little wonder. Twice he had almost regained his liberty, and a third time, after he had come to the assistance of the ambassador, he felt certain he would be set free. He was far from cheerful now.
"We are now in Austria," said the ambassador, an hour later.
"It won't be so long before it will be Italy, I guess," said Chester, with something like a sneer in his voice.
"Come, come, my friend," said the ambassador. "Don't let your feelings run away with you. You are simply talking to hear yourself talk."
"Don't you believe it," declared Chester. "I know what I am talking about. Say! You fellows don't think you can whip the world, do you?"
"Well, we seem to have been whipping a pretty good part of it," replied the ambassador sententiously.
"That's it! That's it!" cried Chester. "That's your Teutonic air of conquerors. Don't forget that some of these days, however, you will be sorry for all this trouble and bloodshed you have caused."
"We have caused?" echoed the ambassador. "You mean that England has caused."
"No, I don't mean England," replied Chester.
"Why," exclaimed the ambassador, "if it had not been for England, this war would never have happened."
Chester looked at the ambassador sharply for a moment.
"Good night," he said at last, and fell back in his seat.
It was dusk when the train pulled into Trieste, and the party alighted.
"We shall spend the night here," the ambassador decided. "I have some work to do."
"One place suits me as well as another, if I have to stay in this kind of a country," said Chester.
At a hotel where they were driven in a taxi, Chester was locked in a room on the fifth floor. It was a handsomely appointed room, and Chester would have been content to spend the night there had he been in other circumstances. But right now he wasn't content to spend the night in Austria, no matter how well he was treated.
"I want to get out of this country," he told himself repeatedly. "I guess it's a good enough country, so far as it goes, but I can plainly see it's no place for me."
Left alone, Chester made a tour of inspection. The door was heavily barred. He looked out the window.
"A long way to the ground," he muttered.
There was no other means of egress.
"Looks like I was safe enough," he muttered.
Again he examined the window carefully. A slight whistle escaped him.
"A little risky," he told himself, "but I believe it can be done."
He walked to the door, laid his ear against it and listened intently. No sound came from without.
"Well," he said, straightening up, "if I am going to do it, the sooner I get busy the better."
Quickly he stripped the covering from the bed, and with his knife slit it lengthwise. Each strip he tied to another, until he had a strong improvised rope. He stretched it out on the floor, and measured it carefully with his eye. Then he again walked to the window and peered out.
"Pretty close," he muttered, "but I believe it will reach. The trouble is some one in one of the rooms below is liable to see me."
Now he pushed the bed close to the window, and securely knotted one end of his improvised rope to the heavy iron bars. Then he walked across the room to the door again and listened.
It was now dark outside and Chester realized that he could not have a better moment for his desperate attempt. Quickly he recrossed the room, and dropped the other end of the rope out the window. He glanced down.
"O.K.," he said. "Here goes."
He leaped quickly to the sill, and a moment later was lowering himself hand over hand. And at length he came to the end of the rope.
The ground was still far below him, but Chester had not figured the rope would reach to the ground. Clinging tightly to the rope, he gazed quickly about.
He was now even with the window on the third floor, and he succeeded by clever work in getting a foothold on the sill; and, still clinging to the rope, he stood erect. Inside, Chester saw the figure of a man. Inadvertently, the lad's foot crashed against the window pane, shattering the glass. There was a crash, followed by a guttural exclamation from inside the room.
"I've got to move now!" exclaimed the lad.
Taking a firm hold on the rope, he swung himself outward, giving his flight through space an added impetus by pushing with his right foot. He went sailing through the air, even as a pistol shot rang out behind him.
Chester had calculated truly. Headfirst he crashed among the branches of a tree, at the far side of the walk. Instantly he released his hold upon the rope and was safe in the tree.
"I thought I could do it," he muttered. "Now to get down before some of these fellows get after me."
Rapidly he made his descent, and a few moments later stood upon the sidewalk, unhurt. For a moment he paused to gain a much-needed breath, and then, turning, he stalked quickly away. And as he did so there came cries from within the hotel, and men rushed out and after him.
Chester took to his heels.
"I don't know whether they saw me on the street or not," he told himself, "but the safest place for me is a long way from that hotel."
He doubled around several corners, and at last, as he turned into a more traveled street, he slowed down to a walk. He drew a long breath.
"Guess I have shaken them," he said. "Now, if I only knew where I was, I might manage to get out of here. Guess I had better pick one direction and keep going that way. I'll trust to luck that it is either north or west."
He turned down the next street and set out resolutely, having determined in his mind to stick to the direction he had selected. Fortunately, although the lad could not be sure of it, he was heading northward, where, eventually, he would reach the Italian frontier, although it was much further away than was the western border.
Chester walked along for an hour without even being challenged.
"Funny, too," he muttered. "It's a wonder every street corner doesn't spout soldiers and police at me. I must be getting to be rather a lucky young man."
He had now reached a less thickly populated district. There were few pedestrians upon the streets, houses became farther and farther apart. An occasional automobile passed him, but no attention was paid to the hurrying figure.
Chester slowed down a trifle as he made out a form approaching. As it drew closer Chester noticed it was a uniformed figure. He drew a deep breath.
"Looks like there was liable to be something doing here," he muttered.
He continued his way. The officer, for such Chester perceived the man to be, drew closer. As Chester would have passed him, he suddenly stopped in his tracks, and commanded:
Chester did so.
"Who are you?" demanded the man, "and where are you going?"
To Chester's great relief, he spoke in German, and the lad replied in the same language, which he spoke without an accent.
"I am on an errand for the ambassador, sir. A prisoner has recently escaped, and I am bearing word to the outposts to be on the watch for him."
"Hm-m-m," muttered the officer. "Why didn't the ambassador make use of the wireless 'phone?"
"I don't know, sir," replied Chester.
The officer laid a heavy hand on the lad's arm, and peered into his face in the dim light. Then the hand tightened.
"You are no German!" was his quiet comment. "You are probably a spy. You are my prisoner!"
Chester's heart sank.
A FRIEND IN NEED.
Many thoughts ran through Chester's head as he stood there for a brief moment with the hand of the man who had accosted him on his shoulder. He thought of flight and he thought of fight, but most of all he thought of the ill fortune he had encountered in the past few days.
"This is the limit," he told himself ruefully. Aloud he said: "You are mistaken, sir."
"No, I'm not mistaken," returned the officer, "and I suppose most would take you at your word. You speak German without an accent, but your face betrays you. At a guess, I would say you are English."
"You are wrong," declared Chester.
"Nevertheless, I shall have to ask you to accompany me," said the officer.
For a moment Chester hesitated; he was tempted to leap upon his captor and make a fight for it, but he had hesitated too long now. The officer produced a revolver, which he held carelessly in his right hand.
"I have a little persuader here, in case you should think of disobeying my order," he said quietly.
"Oh, all right," said Chester. "I'll go along."
"I thought you would," replied his captor, with a smile.
He motioned for Chester to walk on ahead of him, which the boy did, the while grumbling to himself.
"I should have run when I saw him coming," he muttered.
There was little doubt in Chester's mind now that he was due for his trip to Vienna with the ambassador. After that, in view of his attempt to escape, he wasn't sure what might happen, for he believed the ambassador would recall his offer of a safe conduct after this.
"Yes, it looks like Vienna to me," he told himself.
And so it probably would have been but for one thing—or rather, for one person; and Chester had no more idea of seeing him than he had of encountering Hal at the next cross street.
As the two walked along, Chester slightly in front, his captor following him closely with drawn revolver, a figure left the shadow of a nearby building, and with a whistle of amazement, crept silently in their wake.
"Well! Well!" muttered this figure to himself. "What do you think of that? I can't stand for this. I'm liable to get killed or hurt, but I've just got to take a hand."
As Chester and his captor turned into another street and disappeared from sight, the man broke into a run, stepping lightly on his toes. When he rounded the corner he was only a few feet behind the other two. Silently as a cat, he closed up the distance, drawing a weapon from his pocket as he ran.
He took the revolver by the barrel, and with a sudden leap, sprang upon the officer who had captured Chester. A quick blow and the officer staggered. He seemed about to cry out, but even as he opened his mouth, the newcomer repeated the blow and the man fell to the sidewalk without a word.
"It's all right, Chester," said the newcomer.
Chester, who had stood as if petrified during the struggle—he was so surprised at this sudden and unexpected aid—uttered an exclamation of surprise.
"Who are you?" he asked, in vain trying to pierce the darkness with his eyes.
The stranger chuckled.
"You don't know, eh?" he asked.
Again Chester peered at him intently. It was so dark he could not make out the man's features, but there was something very familiar about the short, rotund figure that stood before him.
"By Jove!" cried the lad at last. "It is—it can't be—yes, it must be—"
"Anthony Stubbs, war correspondent of the New York Gazette, sir, and very much at your service," came the now well-known voice.
Chester sprang forward and seized the extended hand.
"And what in the name of all that's wonderful are you doing here?" he asked in amazement.
"Getting some red-hot news for the New York Gazette," was Stubbs' laconic response. "You are liable to find me most any place. As I told you before, there is no place a newspaper man cannot go. Now, what's all this mess I find you in?"
Chester explained and Stubbs listened attentively.
"Hm-m-m," he said, when the lad had concluded, "I guess the best thing for you to do is to hop back into Italy as fast as the law allows."
"My idea," said Chester dryly. "The trouble is it's a pretty long hop, and in the next place the Austrian law doesn't allow it."
"That's so," agreed Stubbs. "However, you just leave these little things to Anthony. He'll get you through or the New York Gazette will lose its best man."
"Well, I hope the Gazette doesn't lose him," said Chester; "but I would like to get back into civilization."
"Civilization?" echoed the little man. "And what do you call this? Let one of these uniformed gentleman on this side of the border hear you say that and you won't ever get any place except under the sod. This, take the Austrian word for it, is the last word in civilization. Therefore, what you mean is that you want to get out of civilization."
"Whichever way suits you," agreed Chester.
"All right. Then you come with me. It's time to be moving, anyhow. This fellow is getting about ready to get up and there is no use of our being here to greet him when he opens his eyes. Let's go."
He led the way back toward the heart of the city and Chester followed, though not without a protest.
"What's the use of going back there?" he wanted to know. "That's the place I have been trying to get away from."
"Now listen here, young man," said Stubbs, "you didn't have much luck getting away by yourself, did you?"
"No," replied Chester, "but—"
"And you won't have any better now, if you don't do as I say," declared Stubbs. "But I'll tell you. I am leaving here myself in the morning. I am going to Italy. I've dug up all the stuff I can get around here and now I'm going to have a look at the Italian army in action. If you wish, you can come along."
"Of course I'll come," said Chester. "That is, if they will let me."
"Oh, they'll let you, all right," replied Stubbs. "Say, I guess you don't know who I am! I'll tell you: I'm the war correspondent of the New York Gazette, and these fellows over here are glad to show me what favors they can. It doesn't do them any harm, and it might do them some good. See?"
"I see," agreed Chester briefly.
"All right, then. I'll take you to my lodgings and you can spend the night there with me. We'll leave early in the morning."
Chester followed the little man, though not without some misgivings.
Apparently Stubbs had not spoken without reason. Along the way they passed several officers, each of whom, after recognizing the war correspondent, gave him a formal military salute.
"You see," said Stubbs, "I am some pumpkins around these parts."
"So I see," replied Chester.
"Here is where we put up," said Stubbs presently, turning into a large and well-lighted hotel. "Put your best foot foremost now, and walk in like you owned the place. Can you swagger a bit?"
"Well, some," said Chester hesitatingly.
"So can I," said Stubbs, "which is the reason I get along so well. Follow me."
His usual manner—the one to which Chester had become accustomed when he had been with the little man in the French theater of war, left him as he entered the door, and he swaggered in like a true bravo. Chester threw out his shoulders and did likewise.
Straight up to the desk walked Stubbs, where a clerk came courteously forward to see what was desired.
"My friend here," said Stubbs, with a wave of his hand, "will share my room to-night. Have us called at six o'clock and send a man to help me with my things at that hour. Understand?"
"Yes, Herr Stubbs," replied the clerk, rubbing his hands together, though why Chester did not know. "It shall be done."
"All right," said Stubbs. "My key!"
The clerk hastened to get it.
"Now that's the way to get by in this benighted land," said Stubbs to Chester as they made their way to the little man's room. "Make 'em think you own the place. It never hurts anything."
"So I see," said Chester dryly. "Now, about the morning. How do we get out of this country?"
"Simple," said Stubbs. "We take an automobile from here to a little town called Gorz, to the north. And then we circle around the little neck of Italy to Trent, again in Austria. Of course there are quicker ways out, but I have made these arrangements already and it would look suspicious to change now. Until we get to Trent there will be no trouble. There we shall have to do a little figuring, but the best way is this: I have a safe conduct, given me by the Austrian commander here. It will pass me into Italy. What I shall do is give it to you and you can cross the border."
"But you—" began Chester.
"I'm coming to that. They will stop me, of course. Then I'll raise a holler. I'll demand that they wire the commander here and give a description of me, saying I have lost my papers. They will identify me, all right, because there are no more like me. A second safe conduct will come along and I'll move into Italy. Simple little thing, isn't it?"
"Quite simple—if it works," said Chester.
"Oh, it'll work all right!"
"I hope so," declared Chester.
"It's got to work," replied Stubbs. "I can't afford to have it fail. My paper will be expecting something out of Italy from me within a few days and I've got to be there to give it to them. Otherwise, I'm liable to be dismissed."
"I guess that won't happen," said Chester, with a smile.
"Not if I can help it," agreed Stubbs. "Now let's climb between the sheets."
BACK INTO ITALY.
"Now here," said Stubbs, "are my papers. You just take them, and for the moment you will be Anthony Stubbs, war correspondent of the New York Gazette. You are a little young looking, so put on all the airs you can, for they'll think you must be awful good to have such a job."
Chester and the little war correspondent had left Trieste without trouble and had arrived in Trent without adventure of any kind. True to his word, Stubbs had arranged for Chester's departure with him and now the time for parting had come.
Chester took the papers Stubbs held out to him and thrust them into his pocket.
"And when will you be across?" he asked.
"Oh, I'll be there before the day is over," was the reply. "When you once get within the Italian lines, you demand to be taken to the nearest general commanding a division and explain matters to him. Then wait for me, if it is until to-morrow. I'll be there."
"All right," agreed Chester.
"I'll walk as far as the outposts with you," said Stubbs. "No, I won't either," on second thought. "I'll be wanting to get out myself directly and it wouldn't do for us to be seen together."
He held out his hand.
"Good-bye, and good luck," he said. "You just do as I tell you and you'll have no trouble. Remember, you are just as big as any of these fellows, and a whole lot bigger, if it comes to that."
Chester gripped the hand hard.
"Good-bye," he said, "and thanks."
The little man gazed after the boy as the latter strode away with shoulders squared and head held high.
"He'll do," he muttered to himself.
Chester disappeared, and Stubbs turned and strode in the opposite direction.
"Now for my holler—and my new papers," he told himself.
Chester was halted at the extreme Austrian front. He produced Stubbs' papers, which he gave the man without a word. Luckily, as Stubbs had explained, the safe conduct was simply made out to "Anthony Stubbs, war correspondent," without description.
The officer scanned the papers closely, looked Chester over from head to foot and seemed about to speak. Chester gazed at him sternly and the Austrian closed his lips without uttering a word. He shrugged his shoulders, summoned an orderly and commanded:
"Take a flag of truce and conduct this gentleman to the Italian lines."
Two hours later Chester was safe.
To the Italian officer who approached him, he demanded to be taken to the general commanding the division, and this was done without protest. Chester explained the circumstances to the general, and the latter believed him. He turned him over to an orderly, with instructions that he be taken care of; and in a tent of his own, Chester sat down to await the arrival of Stubbs.
Stubbs, after Chester had left him, immediately betook himself to the commander of the Austrian forces at this point. The latter received him, although he didn't know Stubbs from any one else.
"General," said Stubbs, "somebody stole my papers, among them a safe conduct to the Italian lines. I want to get there."
"No papers, no safe conduct," replied the general briefly.
This was what Stubbs had expected.
"Look here now, general," he said familiarly, "that's no way for you to talk. I want to get into Italy, and I had safe conduct from General Oberlatz at Trieste."
The Austrian commander got to his feet.
"I have told you, sir," he said, "that without papers you cannot leave our lines."
"I heard you," replied Stubbs, "but you don't seem to understand the answer to my being here. I've got to get into the Italian lines. You can't blame me. The fellow you want is the one who stole my papers; he's probably a spy."
"And you may be one, too," said the officer.
"Sure, I may be," said Stubbs; "only I'm not. Now, I'll tell you, you just push through a little wire to General Oberlatz and he'll straighten this thing out."
"Can't be done," replied the general.
"But it's got to be done," declared Stubbs. "I can't stay around here when I have orders to go elsewhere. I don't want to have to take this matter up with my friend, the archduke."
The Austrian commander looked up in surprise at this last remark.
"You know the archduke?" he questioned.
"Well, rather," said Stubbs. "He and I are pretty good friends."
"Then," said the general, "it would do no harm for you to appeal to him in person."
"You're right, there, general," declared Stubbs. "My friend, the archduke, would fix this thing up in a minute. The only trouble on that score is the matter of time. Time is precious, you know, general, and time presses."
"Fortunately for you," said the officer, "the archduke happens to be in the next room at this moment. If you will be seated, I shall call him."
Stubbs sat down abruptly. A slight whistle escaped him, though it did not carry to the general's ears.
"Good night!" muttered the little man to himself. "I've sure enough gone and done it this time."
But Stubbs didn't betray himself. To the general he said:
"The archduke here? By Jove! This is what I call luck. Have him come out and talk to me."
With a bow, the Austrian commander turned and passed from the room. The moment he crossed the threshold, Stubbs sprang to his feet and dashed to the door through which he had entered a few moments before.
"This," he said, as he came again into the open, "is no place for Anthony Stubbs."
He disappeared from within view of the general's quarters with amazing rapidity.
"Wasn't much use of me patting the archduke on the back," he told himself. "Never having seen me before, I guess he wouldn't have remembered me. I don't want to be shot."
Half a mile from the scene of his trouble, he entered a little restaurant and sat down to have something to eat and to figure out what he should do.
"This place is going to be too small to hold me," he said to himself over a second cup of coffee. "They'll have all the natives on my trail. I've got to get over the frontier some way. The question before me is how?"
He meditated for some moments, then rose, paid his check and left the restaurant. In front of the door he stopped and looked toward the south, where, in the distance, he knew heavy Austrian patrols faced the Italian pickets only a few miles beyond.
"That's the way I want to go," he told himself. "So I may as well be starting in that direction."
He moved off.
Possibly half a mile from the utmost Austrian line he stopped and sat down. So far he had been unchallenged and now, as he sat there, a plan came to him. He took his revolver from his pocket and examined it.
"I'll try it," he said briefly to himself. "If Chester knew what I was about to do, he would be greatly surprised. But the thing is I am more afraid to stay here than I am to take this chance."
He arose and moved on. As he expected, probably five minutes later, a mounted officer came toward him. There was no one else near. He halted the correspondent.
"Where are you going?" he asked sharply.
"I'll tell you," was the reply. "I am a war correspondent and I am just looking about a bit. Am I going too far? If so, I shall turn back."
"Well, I can permit you to go no farther," said the Austrian, with a smile.
"Oh, all right," said Stubbs.
He drew a cigar from his pocket, bit off the end, struck a match and lighted it. Then, with a start, he produced a second cigar.
"Beg pardon," he said. "Have a smoke?"
The Austrian signified that he would. Stubbs gave him the cigar and struck a second match. The Austrian leaned from his horse and put the cigar to the flame. At that moment Stubbs drew his revolver with his free hand and, dropping the match, seized the Austrian by the leg with the other. The latter came tumbling from his horse, and when he looked up, he gazed squarely into the mouth of Stubbs' revolver.
"Quiet," said the little man briefly. "I want you to change clothes with me."
The Austrian appeared about to protest, but changed his mind and signified his willingness to comply with the command.
"Stand off there and remove your clothes," ordered Stubbs, pointing.
The man obeyed, Stubbs the while keeping him covered with his revolver. The man's clothes removed, Stubbs approached him.
"I'll have to tie you up minus your outer garments," he told him. "I can't take any chances on you while I am donning your robes."
He tied him up in most approved fashion and then gagged him with his handkerchief.
"Just to keep you from giving an alarm," he said.
Rapidly he donned the Austrian's clothes and then walked over to his horse. This he mounted and turned the animal's head southward. He waved a hand at the Austrian.
"Auf Wiedersehen," he said, and rode away.
He kept as far as possible from the Austrian troops that patrolled the outposts and half an hour later was beyond the Austrian lines. Out of sight he halted and discarded the Austrian uniform he had drawn on over his civilian attire and then rode on more confidently.
And the little man welcomed a command that broke upon his ears a short time later:
He drew rein. A soldier in Italian uniform advanced toward him.
"Thank the Lord," said the little man.
He drew a hand across a moist brow and gave a whistle of pure relief.
"No one will ever know how scared I was," he muttered. "Now to find Chester."
He turned to the soldier who had accosted him.
"Take me immediately to your commanding officer," he ordered.
HAL AND UNCLE JOHN.
While Chester and his old friend, Anthony Stubbs, war correspondent, are resting at ease for the moment with the Italian troops at the extreme northern front, it behooves us to go back and see what has happened to Hal and Uncle John.
When the two were led away from the headquarters of the Italian commander, under guard, Uncle John's rage had by no means subsided; but he cooled down somewhat after Hal had, to the best of his ability, attempted to show him the viewpoint of the general.
"It's a contemptible trick," Uncle John protested.
"Well, let it go at that, then," said Hal helplessly.
And Uncle John did.
Now the thoughts of the two turned to Chester, for both were greatly worried about him, and their anxiety increased as the long hours passed.
So darkness came, and they lay down to sleep. They were awake with the morning light and the first thought of each was whether any word had been received from the Italian commander in Rome.
And two hours after daylight they knew. An orderly entered and informed them that the commander desired their presence immediately. They followed him.
"Everything all right, general?" Hal greeted him, with a smile.
The Italian commander frowned.
"The answer to my wire will hardly gain you your freedom," he replied.
"What, sir?" demanded Hal, in great surprise.
"Exactly," replied the commander, this time smiling a little himself.
"What did General Ferrari say?" inquired Hal anxiously.
"Well, he didn't say anything," replied the Italian. "He is no longer in Rome, but has gone to the front. My wire did not reach him. Consequently, I shall have to turn you over to the civil authorities here for safe-keeping. I cannot be bothered with you."
Hal gazed at Uncle John in dismay.
"What did I tell you?" the latter broke out. "And you sided with him, too. Tried to show me where he was right, didn't you? Well, what do you think of him now?"
In spite of the seriousness of their situation, Hal was forced to smile at Uncle John's righteous wrath.
"It will turn out all right," he said quietly.
"I'm glad somebody thinks so," declared Uncle John. "I don't."
Hal addressed the commander:
"General, I can assure you that all we have said has been the truth. You will learn so in time. I, sir, have seen active service. I have fought with the Belgians, the British in France and the Russians in the eastern war zone."
"From your own accounts you must have had quite a time," said the Italian commander dryly. "Now, I may as well tell you that I do not believe a single word of your story and protests will avail you nothing. Were I to follow my own inclinations, I would order you both shot as spies within the hour. However, there is always a chance that my convictions may be wrong, which is the only thing that is saving you now. I shall wait until I have word from General Ferrari. Orderly!"
A subordinate entered.
"Turn these prisoners over to Colonel Brunoli. Colonel Brunoli," he continued, addressing Hal, "is the chief of police. I can guarantee that you will be safe in his keeping."
Hal would have protested, but the orderly signalled him to march out ahead, of him. Hal took Uncle John by the arm, and they left, but not before Uncle John had hurled a final remark over his shoulder to the Italian commander.
"You will hear of me again, sir," he thundered. "I'm an American citizen and we have an ambassador over in this benighted country. He'll warm things up for you when he learns of this outrage."
"March!" commanded the orderly and Uncle John heeded the order.
Before an imposing building a short distance away, the orderly called a halt and then motioned them up the short flight of steps. Through a long hall they were marched and into a room at the far end. Here a man in uniform with much lace and gold facings sat at a large desk. Hal didn't need to be told that he was the chief of police.
"What have we here?" he demanded, swinging about in his chair and eyeing the two severely.
"Prisoners, sir, whom I am instructed to turn over to you," was the orderly's reply. "You are to hold them until you receive further instructions, sir."
"Very good," said the chief. "You may go."
The orderly saluted, turned on his heel and departed.
"You may sit there until I have completed this piece of work," said the chief, motioning the prisoners to chairs behind him.
Hal and Uncle John sat down and the chief turned again to his desk and was soon busy writing.
Hal's eyes roved about the room. An idea struck him like a flash. They sat between the chief of police and the door by which they had entered. What would be more easy than to tip-toe to the door, which stood slightly ajar, and disappear unbeknown to the chief?
With Hal to think was to act. Fearing to lift his voice in a whisper, he at last managed to catch Uncle John's eye. Then he laid a warning finger to his lips and beckoned Uncle John to follow him. Uncle John manifested some surprise, but he signified that he understood.
Carefully Hal got to his feet and Uncle John followed suit. Then Hal, stepping very softly, moved toward the door. Now it was five, now four, now three paces away—and then the boy laid his hand on the knob. Uncle John was right behind him.
The door swung open without so much as a creak, and Hal stepped out. Uncle John followed him. Hal motioned Uncle John to lead the way down the hall, while he remained behind to close the door. The order was obeyed.
Hal took the precaution to close the door tightly and then hurried after Uncle John. "Well—" began Uncle John, just as they stepped from the building, "I guess we—"
Came a sudden roar from behind them—the roar of a human voice.
"The chief!" exclaimed Hal. "Run!"
Uncle John needed no urging and the two went down the steps four and five at a time. Hal led the way and Uncle John followed close at his heels.
Around the corner they darted even as the chief of police appeared in the doorway—too late to see in which direction his erstwhile prisoners had flown. But the two fugitives could hear his voice raised in another roar, as he thundered out a call for his men to give chase.
"Come on, Uncle John!" shouted Hal, and the latter, although he had long since come to believe that his bones had stiffened with age, surprised himself by the manner in which he flew over the ground.
Fortunately, the street at the moment was deserted. Around one, two, then three corners Hal doubled, and then slowed down.
"Guess we are all right for a few minutes," he gasped.
Uncle John stopped and gasped for breath.
"I'm not as young as I used to be, Hal," he said. "Don't forget that. I can't go a hundred yards in eleven seconds any more."
"Well, you didn't miss it much," said Hal, with a chuckle. "But come on, we must get away from here. If we are caught now, the chances are they will stand us up against a wall and have a shot at us."
"In which event," said Uncle John dryly, "I can still do a hundred yards in ten flat."
Side by side the two walked on.
"The question that now arises," said Uncle John, "is how we are going to get away from here?"
"First," said Hal, "we must go back and see if Chester is still where we left him."
"Like looking for a needle in a haystack," said Uncle John. "This is a pretty good-sized town."
"Not at all," replied Hal. "I have a pretty keen sense of direction; besides, I always make it a point to look at the names of the streets. I can find it in half an hour. Come on."
The lad had not boasted and less than an hour later they stood again in the house where so lately they had been prisoners.
"Well, he's gone," said Hal quietly. "We cannot help him here. The best thing for us to do is to return to Rome and lay the case before the ambassador, who can take the matter up with Ambassador Penfield at Vienna, or through Washington."
"The thing to do, then, is to hunt the railroad station," declared Uncle John. "Do you think you can find it?"
"If I can't, I can ask," replied Hal.
Thirty minutes later saw Hal at the ticket window asking what time the next train left for Rome.
"In an hour," was the reply.
Hal purchased two tickets. Then with Uncle John he strolled about the station.
Suddenly the boy halted in his tracks and grabbed Uncle John by the arm, pulling him into a corner. And it was well that he did so, for a moment later there brushed by the spot where they had stood none other than the chief of police and several other men in uniform.
"He may not be looking for us, but the chances are he is," said Hal.
The chief went straight to the ticket office, where he engaged the agent in conversation.
"No Rome for us now," declared Hal. "Come on."
He led the way out of the station and directly stood in the train shed. The boy heard a cry of "All aboard" and saw that a train was about to pull out.
"Don't know where it is going, but we'll get it!" he cried, and Uncle John followed him in his mad dash. By a hard run they succeeded in climbing into an unoccupied compartment even as the guard would have closed the door.
"Where do you suppose we are bound?" asked Uncle John, as he sat down, panting.
"Don't know," was Hal's reply. "We'll find out directly."
A few minutes later the conductor enlightened them.
"Milan," he said.
WITH THE ARMY.
"Milan!" echoed Hal. "Good night!"
"Oh, well," said Uncle John, with rare optimism for him, "I guess we can double back from there, can't we?"
"I suppose it can be done," agreed Hal. "But we haven't any business wandering all over this country. We want to get to Rome."
"We'll get there, all right," said Uncle John.
"Yes; but if they happen to nab us we are likely not to get there whole," declared Hal.
When the train arrived in Milan, Hal and Uncle John were among the first to alight.
"Well, here we are; now what?" demanded Uncle John.
"You've got me," declared Hal.
They made their way to the street and there they halted suddenly, for a wonderful sight had met their gaze.
Passing along the street were thousands and thousands of soldiers, mounted and afoot, fully equipped for the field. They passed by in a steady stream. For an hour Hal and Uncle John watched the imposing sight and still the long line wended its way along. Hal's heart beat faster as his eyes rested upon this imposing array of fighting strength.
"By Jove! I'd like to go along," he muttered to himself.
And it was to be so, even sooner that he could possibly have hoped. But the suggestion came from an altogether unexpected source.
"Tell you what, Hal," said Uncle John suddenly. "As long as we are here we might as well see a little something. What do you think?"
"Just what do you mean?" asked Hal.
"Well, let's go along to the front with these fellows; that is, if we can make it. We may see something that we will never have another chance to see."
"Suits me," declared Hal. "Let's see if we can get a couple of horses—it's pretty tough walking and we don't know how far we may have to go."
This was easier than could have been expected; and an hour later found them riding slowly along in the direction taken by the Italian troops.
"Don't suppose the authorities here have been apprised of our escape from Milan," said Hal. "I guess we are safe enough."
Hour after hour they rode along, passing regiment after regiment of infantry as it moved toward the front. Uncle John was greatly impressed by the military carriage and bearing of the troops, but in spite of their impressiveness Hal could not help thinking that they did not have the businesslike appearance of the British troops.
Now, in the distance, they made out what they could see was a great camp, stretching out as far as the eye could see on both sides.
"This," said Hal, pointing, "will be the end of our tour of inspection. Beyond those lines they will not let us go."
"We'll go as far as we can," declared Uncle John.
Suddenly from directly ahead came the heavy thunder of a single gun, followed almost immediately by another giant voice. Other big guns began to speak, and soon the roaring of thousands filled the air.
"A battle!" exclaimed Hal.
Other voices now, more faint but sharper of note, took up the fighting—rapid firers and the rifles of the infantry coming into play. From their present position Hal and Uncle John could not tell just where the fighting was in progress, the numbers engaged, or whether the Italians had taken the offensive, or the Austrians, or how the battle was progressing. All they could hear was the terrible din and roar. They could see nothing. They were at present far from the battle line.
Still they advanced.
Now they were suddenly in the center of the Italian troops, still stationary, awaiting the word to move forward in support of the second line or the first line as the case might be.
An officer rode up to them.
"What are you doing here?" he demanded.
"Nothing particularly," replied Hal. "I am a British officer and, being in this neighborhood, thought I would look around a bit."
"Your papers?" was the next command.
"Unfortunately, I have none with me," returned the lad.
The officer hesitated.
"I'll tell you," he said finally, "there is a British officer commanding a regiment here. Perhaps he will know you. I shall conduct you to him. He has arrived from France only recently."
"I don't know all the British officers in France," said Hal, "but there is always the possibility I may know this one."
"Follow me," commanded the Italian.
The two did so. To the far left wing their guide led the way, and finally stopped before a tent somewhat larger than the rest.
An orderly came forth.
"Tell the colonel I have a man here who claims to be a British officer," said the Italian.
A moment later there stepped from the tent a long, tall Englishman, attired in British uniform, youngish of face, and at sight of him Hal started forward with a glad cry.
"Major Anderson!" he exclaimed.
The officer gazed at him in surprise, then came forward with extended hand.
"Bless my soul," he exclaimed. "What in the name of all that's wonderful are you doing here? I thought you were dead. And where is Chester?"
"I don't know," answered Hal, answering the last question first.
Upon Colonel Anderson's—he was no longer major—request, Hal plunged into an account of what had transpired since they had last seen the gallant Englishman. Now the Italian officer stepped forward.
"Then they are all right?" he questioned, indicating Hal and Uncle John.
"This one is," replied Anderson, laying a hand on Hal's shoulder. "I don't know the other."
He hastened to introduce the two men.
Anderson turned to the Italian.
"It's all right," he said.
The latter saluted and moved away.
"While you are here," said Anderson, "you will make yourselves at home in my quarters. I am now called to the front."
"Can't we go with you?" asked Hal anxiously.
The colonel hesitated.
"Well, I guess it can be done," he said at length. "You have your horses; wait until I get mine."
A command to his orderly and the horse was soon waiting. The three rode forward and as they went the colonel explained something of the situation and his reason for being with the Italian army.
"I was sent here immediately Italy declared war," he said, "at the request of the Italian government. Of course, they didn't ask for me personally, but they did ask for a British officer who had seen active service. General French selected me, with the rank of colonel. That's why I'm here."
"And this fighting now?" questioned Hal. "Who is on the offensive?"
"The Austrians, at the moment," was the reply. "They have massed thousands of men to the north, and at the far side of the Alps. We have let it be known that we were in insufficient strength here and the Austrians evidently hope, by a quick drive, to gain a foothold on Italian soil. Fortunately, however, our lines were strengthened no later than yesterday and reinforcements still are arriving. The Austrians have delayed too long.
"Now our troops are falling back slowly and in good order. The Austrians, feeling sure of a quick victory, will follow them too far. Then for our coup. First the artillery, then the infantry and cavalry, and let me tell you something, this Italian artillery fire is going to be one of the wonders of the war. Its effect will be terrific. Watch and see."
In the distance now the three made out a squad of a dozen men advancing toward them, with what appeared to be two prisoners in their midst.
"We'll have a look and see what's up," declared Colonel Anderson.
They rode forward.
As at last they were able to make out the faces of the two apparent prisoners, Hal uttered a loud shout and spurred his horse forward. Uncle John took a second look and did likewise. Colonel Anderson rode rapidly after them.
At the side of the squad, Hal leaped quickly from his horse, and plunging directly into the squad, threw his arms about one of the prisoners.
"Chester!" he cried.
And Chester it was.
The latter returned his friend's embrace with gusto, and then freeing himself, fell into the bear hug of Uncle John.
The latter was sniffling with joy; but at last released, Chester caught sight of Colonel Anderson.
Again there was an affectionate greeting and then Hal heard a voice in his ear.
"And haven't you anything to say to me, young man?"
Hal whirled about and caught sight of the smiling face of Anthony Stubbs, war correspondent of the New York Gazette.
"Stubbs!" he cried, and his delight was so evident that the little man flushed with pleasure.
Introductions followed all around now and then Colonel Anderson addressed the officer in charge of the squad.
"Are these men prisoners?" he asked.
"No, sir," was the reply, "but General Ferrari instructed me to have them taken to a place of safety."
"Then you can turn them over to me without question?"
"Good! Then I shall relieve you of further responsibility."
The Italian saluted, ordered his men to "'Bout face" and marched off toward the front.
The shrill, clear voice of a single bugle broke the stillness of the early morning. There was a second of intense silence, and the call came again. A second took it up, and a third, and many more, each less distinct than the first, for they were farther away.
Hal, Chester, Uncle John and Anthony Stubbs, three of them accustomed as they were to the life of the military camps, were upon their feet almost before the sound of the first bugle had died away, and strained their ears to catch a repetition.
They had spent the night in a large tent assigned them by Colonel Anderson, not far from his own quarters, and had retired completely exhausted as the result of the strenuous time they had gone through. But they were all perfectly wide awake now and rushed from their tent with the sound of the second call.
"A call to arms!" exclaimed Hal.
"Probably means an advance," said Chester quietly.
"I guess you are right," returned his chum. "And here we are, nothing but spectators at the best."
"And that's where you are lucky," chimed in Stubbs. "Now take me, I've got to get out among all this fighting and maybe I'll be killed. But I've got to do it. You fellows can stay here where it is perfectly safe."
"Well, I'd much rather be in your place, then," said Chester.
"Same here," declared Hal.
The Italian camp had sprung to life as if by magic. Half-clothed sleepers poured from the tents and formed into ranks in the darkness. Officers ran hither and thither shouting hoarse orders. For a moment confusion reigned, but this gave place almost immediately to perfect order. The discipline of the Italian troops was remarkable. In almost less time than it takes to tell it, the whole Italian army of the North, stretching out as it did for mile after mile and mile after mile, was under arms, eagerly awaiting the word that would send it against the strongly entrenched Austrian columns ahead.
Less than a hundred rods away Hal made out the form of Colonel Anderson, as he now stood at the head of his men; gazing steadily ahead except when he turned to give an order to one of his subordinates. Far back, just distinguishable in the now half light, could be seen the dense masses of cavalry, unmounted as yet, but ready to leap to the saddle and dash forward at command.
A gun boomed, shattering the almost oppressive stillness. Another followed suit. More took up the work and the air was filled with their thundering. It became apparent to Hal and Chester, to whom this was nothing new, that the infantry would make the first advance, under the support of the artillery.
"A good-sized job, if you ask me," declared the latter.
"Rather," replied Hal dryly. "Hey," breaking off suddenly, "where are you going?"
"To the front," replied Stubbs, to whom the lad had addressed his remark, pausing for a moment and glancing back over his shoulder. "Got to get a little news, you know."
"You'd better look out or you are likely to get a little bullet," remarked Uncle John.
"Well, I'll have to take a chance," replied the little man.
With a wave of his hand he disappeared in the darkness.
"Forward!" came a clear voice from their rear.
Came the heavy tramp, tramp of marching feet, as the First Infantry moved forward. Steadily they marched ahead, silently and with an air of determination. They made an imposing appearance in the dim light of early morning.
"A gallant body of men," muttered Hal. "They'll give a good account of themselves."
Came a word of command from Colonel Anderson—the boys recognized his voice—and more troops moved forward. As far as the eye could see dense masses of men were marching rapidly toward the front. It became apparent that this was to be no mere skirmish—no mere feeling-out process. It was to be a battle, and as both lads realized, it might well last for days.
"We may as well go forward a bit," said Hal.
Accordingly the three started out. Half an hour later they were suddenly surrounded by a body of infantry, and, in some unaccountable manner, were separated from Uncle John. In vain they looked, called and whistled for him. He had disappeared.
"Well, I guess he will be able to find the way back," said Chester. "We'd better see if we can find him."
They retraced their steps. For an hour and more they waited, but Uncle John failed to put in an appearance. And all the time, from ahead, came the dull roar of battle.
"Well, what shall we do?" asked Chester at length.
Hal shrugged his shoulders.
"Guess your peaceful Uncle John has gone on to the front," he said. "We may as well do the same. He'll turn up sooner or later."
Chester was struck with a sudden idea.
"By Jove!" he exclaimed.
"What's the matter now?" demanded Hal, eyeing his chum in some surprise.
"I was just thinking," said Chester. "Say, let's see if we can't find a couple of spare uniforms around here."
"H-m-m," muttered Hal, who knew what Chester meant. "Maybe we shouldn't do anything like that."
"Maybe we shouldn't," agreed Chester, "but there is no one here to tell us not to. Come on."
Hal followed him.
They looked into several tents, but their search met with no success, but in the sixth tent they were more fortunate. Chester, rummaging around in a corner, produced a lieutenant's uniform.
"Looks like it might fit," he said. "I'll try it on."
"Fits well enough," he said.
"All right," said Hal. "But where is mine?"
"Oh, we'll find you one, all right," said Chester.
And, after half an hour's further search, they did—a second lieutenant's uniform. Hal donned it hurriedly.
"Might as well hunt up our horses," he said.
"Ours?" queried Chester.
"Well, mine and Uncle John's, or anybody else's, for that matter. It's a long walk to the front."
They were fortunate enough to find two mounts without much trouble, and, leaping to the saddles, they rode forward.
"Got a gun?" asked Chester.
"No," replied Hal. "Have you?"
"No such luck. Maybe we can find one further on."
This hope was realized.
As they rode forward the sights of battle became evident. Here and there were fallen men, some dead and some dying, struck down by the long-range artillery of the Austrians. Red Cross nurses and physicians were busy attending to the wounded.
Hal leaped to the ground, and from the fingers of a dead officer took a revolver. A second he removed from his holster. Then he unstrapped the officer's sword belt and put it on himself.
"Well, I'm fixed," he said, leaning down and producing the unfortunate officer's supply of ammunition.
"My turn next," said Chester.
Half a mile further along he relieved a second fallen officer of his sword, revolvers and ammunition.
"Now," said he, "we are ready to go into battle?"
"We're ready," agreed Hal, "but we have no business there."
"Well, we won't do any fighting unless we have to," said Chester, "but we'll go as far to the front as we can."
They rode forward more rapidly.
Meanwhile, the Italians pressed forward to the attack. With the first shell hurled within their lines by the enemy's artillery, the Austrians came to life. Weak spots in the long battle line were strengthened, reinforcements were hurried forward all along the entire front. The Austrian artillery opened fire and for an hour the long-range artillery duel continued.
But now the Austrian officers grew greatly excited. From the shelter of the distant Italian trenches rose a long line of men. Coolly they formed under the Austrian fire, and stood awaiting the signal to advance. And a moment later it came.
On came the Italians in spite of the withering fire of the Austrian infantry and the still more deadly execution of the great guns, which mowed them down by the hundreds.
But as fast as these gaps appeared, they were filled by others, and the Italians continued to forge ahead.
An Austrian bugle spoke sharply, and there sallied forth from the Austrian entrenchments masses of infantry at the double, closely followed by cavalry.
Evidently the Austrian commander had determined not to put his entire dependence upon his artillery.
The Italians sprang forward to meet the foe. They rushed as though hurled from a catapult.
The solid lines of infantry met with a shock. Rifles flashed and revolvers spoke sharply. Steel flashed in the air and hand grenades added their deadly execution to the terrible work.
And now the Italian infantry parted suddenly in the center and from behind at a furious pace came squadron upon squadron of cavalry, possibly, all told, five thousand men.
With impetuous bravery they dashed forward, throwing themselves upon the bayonets of the Austrian infantry, which had braced to receive the shock. But the enemy could not withstand this desperate charge. They faltered, hesitated, broke and fled. In vain their officers sought to bring order out of chaos. It was beyond their effort.
Straight in among the broken infantry plunged the Italian cavalry. Sabers whirled in the air and descended with terrible effect. Horses trampled fallen men, and bit at those who stood in their way, stamping and striking at others with their feet.
Realizing that his infantry was completely demoralized, the Austrian commander gave the word to send his own cavalry into the fray.
With a shout the horsemen charged. The Italians drew up their horses sharply and braced themselves to meet this new attack.
Chester and Hal, who came within view of this deadly work at this moment, stood spellbound.
Then Chester spoke.
"Now," he said, "you will see what I call real fighting. Look!"
The two bodies of horsemen met with a crash.
THE BOYS GO INTO BATTLE.
Sitting their horses quietly, their lives endangered every moment by shot and shell that dropped around them and whistled by their heads, Hal and Chester watched keenly the hand-to-hand struggle that ensued.
The two bodies of horsemen met with a crash less than a quarter of a mile from where the two lads had taken their places. With swords and sabers flashing aloft, the Austrians had charged with a wild yell. The Italian cavalry, stationary and braced for the shock, received their foes silently.
Hal and Chester could see that the opposing bodies of horse were about evenly matched; and they realized that skill, horsemanship and fighting prowess would play important parts in the encounter.
The very fierceness of the Austrian charge swept away the front rank of the Italian cavalry; and, over the fallen bodies of men and horses the foe pressed on, taking no count of their own dead and injured that reeled and fell from the saddles. The horses themselves became imbued with the spirit of battle, and bit and struck at each other as their riders fought with sword, saber and pistol.
It was a terrible sight, and the lads shuddered unconsciously. It was more frightful to the spectator than it was to the struggling men themselves, who, in the heat of battle, took no thought of the dead and the dying and pressed forward bent only upon protecting themselves while they sought the lives of their foes.
For an hour the fierce hand-to-hand struggle raged, with advantage apparently first to one side and then to the other. In other sections of the field, at least where Hal and Chester could see, operations had ceased for the moment, each commander evidently loath to hurl forward additional troops until the cavalry action had been decided. However, the troops were engaged in other quarters of the field. Upon the right the Italians had made no impression on the Austrian, but the Italian left wing had had better success. The first line of trenches of the enemy had fallen to the attacking forces after a fierce bayonet charge by the infantry, and the left wing had now taken shelter in the trenches and was preparing to beat off a counter attack which the Austrian commander even now was about to make.
And in the center the cavalry still fought sullenly and fiercely.
Suddenly Hal uttered an exclamation of dismay.
From a quarter of a mile to the left of the struggling cavalry, a second body of Austrian horsemen appeared. These men had been ordered to make a detour and fall upon the Italian horse from the left. They now charged with a shout.
Apparently this had taken the Italian commander by surprise, for no additional Italian troops were for the moment hurled forward to the support of the cavalry. Beset by this new foe, the Italians were forced back slowly, fighting every minute, however, and contesting every foot of ground as they retreated.
Hal and Chester now realized for the first time that they were directly in the line of retreat.
"We'd better move, Hal," said Chester, "or we shall have to fight whether we want to or not."
Hal signified his assent with a nod of his head, and they turned their horses' heads to ride out of harm's way.
But they had delayed too long.
From behind them came a loud, terrible, blood-curdling shout, and gazing quickly about, the lads saw that they were directly in the road of large cavalry reinforcements that were being rushed forward to the support of the hard-pressed men in front.
"Quick, Chester!" cried Hal, and put spurs to his horse.
But it was too late.
The Italian cavalry was upon them, and rather than be thrown down and trampled, the lads were forced to turn their horses in with the troop; and thus they were carried along like a whirlwind in the very front rank of the charge, and Hal, glancing to his left, felt a sudden sense of satisfaction as he saw that the man who led this desperate charge was none other than Colonel Harry Anderson, his old companion in arms, the man by whose side both he and Chester had faced death more than once.
Hal's hand dropped to his belt, and his revolver came forth in his left hand. The reins he allowed to fall loose upon his horse's neck, while with his right hand he drew his sword. Chester, with the light of battle in his eyes, was already prepared.