"It's all right, Chester," Hal called. "Here is the light and an old friend to greet you."
"Old friend," said Chester in surprise. "I didn't know I had any friends on this side of the line."
"Well, have a look at this man and see if you recognize him," said Hal, and pushed Major Derevaux forward.
Chester took one look at the major and then dashed forward with hand out.
"Major Derevaux!" he cried.
The two clasped hands warmly.
"Now, Chester," said Hal, "I want you to meet our hostess, Mademoiselle Vaubaun."
Chester bowed in acknowledgment of the introduction, then added: "I suppose it was your mother who admitted us some time since?"
The girl laughed lightly.
"Why, no," she said. "I admitted you myself."'
"But - but —" said Chester, nonplussed.
"I'm not surprised at you, Chester," said Hal. "Cannot a woman or a girl wear a disguise as well as you?"
"By Jove!" said Chester. "I hadn't thought of that. So that was it, eh?"
"Yes, that was it," said the girl.
The Canadians now were introduced around, after which the young girl said.
"Come. I may as well show you to your hiding places. It is as well for you to be there as here. There is no telling when some of the Germans may arrive." I
"But aren't you afraid to be among them alone?" asked Hal.
"Pshaw!" exclaimed the girl. "Who would hurt a harmless old woman?"
She led the way into the room beyond, walked across and pressed a hidden spring in the side of the wall. Instantly a secret door moved open.
"It can be opened from within as well," said the girl. "You may have a light here if you wish. The door is so constructed that the rays cannot be seen from without. I shall leave you now. My only injunction is, do not talk too loud. I'll bring you food and water in the morning."
She bade them good-night and took her leave.
The friends talked in low tones for some moments, then stretched out on the floor and soon were fast asleep.
ANTOINETTE "MAKES GOOD"
True to her word, Antoinette appeared with food and drink early the following morning. She was again disguised as an old woman, and Hal and Chester could scarcely believe that a wig and a few dabs of paint could possibly conceal the girlish face they had seen the night before.
"I have had word to prepare a big dinner for a dozen officers of the general, staff," the girl informed Major Derevaux, "so it may be that I shall have the necessary information by nightfall."
"Let us hope so," said the major devoutly.
"And let us hope that you are not risking your life in getting it," said Hal.
"Thank you," said Antoinette. "I assure you I shall be very careful. Now, you must all remain here quietly today. You may be able to leave soon after dark."
She left the hiding place and closed the secret door behind her.
"And after we leave the house, then what?" asked Hal of Major Derevaux.
"Don't you worry," said the major with a smile. "All that has been taken care of. Ten minutes' walk from here is a large army airplane. It brought me here and it will take us all back again."
"All of us?" exclaimed Hal.
"Yes," the major replied. "I have made trips in it before. The machine will carry ten passengers beside a pilot."
"And you do the driving, eh?" said Hal.
"No," said the major. "I have never learned the art. The pilot is with the craft."
"You mean he is in hiding in the woods?"
"Great Scott!" cried Hal. "I wouldn't care about his job. Your job now isn't so bad, because you've a chance of action. But just think of sitting in a woods and waiting - waiting — never knowing what minute you are likely to be discovered."
"It is hard," agreed the major. "And here I am refreshed by a night's sleep, while he must remain there in the cold with his eyes open every minute."
"If he is discovered, then what?" asked Chester.
"His instructions, if discovered," said the major, "are to attempt to escape, leaving me behind."
"In which event," said Chester, "you'd have a hard time getting away."
"That's true. But nothing risked nothing gained, you know."
"True enough," said Hal. "Well, we must take what comes, but I hope Mademoiselle Vaubaun does not get mixed up in any trouble."
"You seem to take rather a great deal of interest in the fair Antoinette," said Chester slyly.
Hal's face turned red.
"Well, why shouldn't I?" he demanded. "No one likes to see a girl or a woman mixed up in this kind of business."
"Are you sure that is it?" demanded Chester. "Or is it just because it chanced to be Mademoiselle Vaubaun?"
"What do you mean?" exclaimed Hal angrily.
"Oh, no offense, no offense," declared Chester. "I was just talking to hear myself talk — maybe."
Major Derevaux smiled.
"Antoinette is a very nice girl," he said. "I'm sure she would appreciate Hal's interest in her. I'll tell her about it."
"I say! Don't do that!" exclaimed Hal in some confusion.
"Ha, ha!" laughed Chester.
Hal sat down again, his face still burning.
Even the Canadians joined in the general laugh, and Hal himself smiled. The joke was on him, and he was not the lad to get angry.
"Oh, well, have it your own way," he said. "It does no good to deny it."
The day passed slowly.
Antoinette did not appear at noon with food and water, as the others had expected she would.
"Probably busy serving the German officers," said Hal. "What's the difference, though. We can get along very well without one meal."
Night came, though to those in the little secret room it was not apparent that darkness had fallen. Hal glanced at his watch. It was after 7 o'clock.
"It's funny she hasn't come yet," he declared.
"Who do you mean by she?" asked Chester.
"Why, Antoinette," said Hal. "I —"
"Oh, sure," said Chester. "I know who you meant, all right. So you are calling her by her first name already, eh?"
"Look here," said Hal, "I don't think that is a bit funny."
"I apologize, old man," said Chester quickly. "I shouldn't have said it."
"Say no more about it then," said Hal. "I am afraid, though, that there is something wrong downstairs."
"I am beginning to think the same thing," declared Major Derevaux. "I wonder if it would not be well for one of us to sneak out and have a look?"
"I don't believe it would do any harm," declared Hal. "I'll go."
Chester was about to joke Hal again, but he changed his mind and held his tongue.
"I agree," he said. "If you want to go, Hal, we'll wait here."
"Good. If I have not returned in fifteen minutes you will know something has happened. In that event, I would advise that you all come down together, lend me a hand if I'm still in the house and in condition to be helped, and we'll all make a break for the airship."
"That is satisfactory," said Major Derevaux.
"And if I'm not in condition to be helped," said Hal, "go along without me. You will not have time to be burdened with excess baggage."
The others nodded and Hal gently slid open the secret door.
"Remember," he whispered back, "fifteen minutes."
The door closed behind him.
Hal made his way quietly through the two rooms that led to the stairs, and as quietly descended. As he passed through the parlor and approached the room in which he had met Major Derevaux the night before he heard the sound of voices. He paused and listened.
One he made out was a male voice, which he took to belong to a German officer. The second was that of Mademoiselle Vaubaun. Then a third voice boomed out. This, Hal knew, was that of a second German.
Hal approached the door and put his eye to the key-hole. Then he started back and whipped out his revolver.
In the center of the room sat Antoinette Vaubaun. She was no longer attired as an old woman. She was the girl that Hal had seen the night before. Her hair hung down her back. It was perfectly plain to the lad that she had been discovered. Her face, though pale, was set sternly. Hal listened to the conversation that ensued.
"So you are a spy, eh?" said a big German officer who sat on her right.
The girl made no response.
"Why don't you answer?" demanded the third occupant of the room, a heavily bearded man, and shook his fist threateningly in her face.
"I'll answer only what I choose to answer," returned Antoinette quietly. "Neither you nor the whole German army can make me talk."
"Is that so?" sneered the first man. "I suppose you've heard of the fate that came to an English nurse called Edith Cavell, eh?"
"I have," replied the girl angrily, "and it was crime for which Germany will have to pay some day. But you can't frighten me."
"You, too, will be shot as a spy," declared the larger German.
"And do you think that frightens me? I have done a whole lot for my country. Many times I warned my countrymen of an impending German attack. I am only sorry that I shall no longer have the opportunity."
"What!" exclaimed the German. "You admit it!"
"Of course I admit it. Why not?"
The German took a step toward the girl and raised a hand as though he would strike.
This was more than Hal could stand. He sent the door crashing in with a swift kick and dashed into the room.
It would have been possible for Hal to have shot the German where he stood, but the lad was so angry that he wanted a word with him first.
"You big, hulking coward!" he cried.
Both Germans dropped their hands to their revolvers.
Hal's revolver flashed fire.
The German nearest the young French girl clapped a hand to his forehead and sank to the floor.
There was a flash as the second German fired.
A FIGHT FOR FREEDOM
Hal felt a stinging sensation in his left side. He paid no attention to this however, but, dropping suddenly to the floor, turned to face his adversary. He saw in that instant the reason the German's bullet had not penetrated a vital spot.
As the German had fired, Antoinette, with a quick movement, had grasped at his arm. She had not succeeded in turning the revolver from its victim, but she did manage to spoil the man's aim. Therefore, the bullet had glanced off one of Hal's ribs.
He now held the advantage, and yet it was not an advantage, for, realizing that he was facing almost certain death, the German had swung the girl in front of him and was using her as a shield.
"Shoot! Don't mind me!" Antoinette called.
But Hal would not fire without first making sure that he would not hit the girl. The German had succeeded now in freeing his hand, and, pointing the revolver over the girl's shoulder, pulled the trigger again.
Hal escaped this bullet by a quick spring aside, and, before the German could fire again, he had skipped forward, darted back of his opponent, and gripped him with his left hand by the throat.
Antoinette clawed so furiously at her captor that the German suddenly released her with a cry of anger, and swung about to confront Hal. He struck out so viciously that Hal stepped back to avoid the blow. The German again raised his revolver, but Hal, moving quickly forward, again struck at the German's revolver with his own — he had no time to raise it to fire. The German's revolver was knocked from his grasp, but Hal also lost his grip on his weapon and both went clattering to the floor together.
Realizing that he was no match for his heavier opponent if they came to hand grips, Hal stepped quickly back and threw himself into an attitude of defense. It was the lad's plan to stand off, if possible, and spar.
But the German had no mind to indulge in this kind of fighting, of which he had not the slightest knowledge. He came forward with a rush. Hal side-stepped and planted his right fist with great force above his opponent's left ear. The German staggered, but he did not go down. Before he could recover, Hal struck twice again — right and left, but neither blow found a vulnerable spot.
The German uttered a terrible roar of anger and charged again. This time Hal was not successful in avoiding the rush and the man's arms went about him. Hal felt his breath leaving his body as the German squeezed.
In vain the lad struck out right and left . Several times he felt his blows land, but there was no power behind them now.
As Hal struggled with the German, Antoinette had picked up one of the revolvers and circled around behind the struggling figures, trying to find an opening that she might fire without risk of hitting Hal. None presented itself.
Hal was gasping for breath. His mouth was open and his tongue hung out. Suddenly the lad's struggle relaxed and he became limp in the German's arms. The latter threw the boy's inert body from him roughly, and as he did so Antoinette fired. The German staggered as the bullet struck him in the side. As he turned to face her the girl fired again.
The German dropped to the floor and the bullet passed over him. Before the girl could aim again, the man had seized a revolver from the floor and covered her.
"Drop that gun!" he cried.
There was nothing for Antoinette to do but obey. She dropped the revolver.
"Sit down!" the German commanded.
Again the girl obeyed.
Her captor now saw signs of returning consciousness in Hal. He walked across the room, and, still keeping his revolver ready in one hand, stooped and picked Hal up with the other.
He deposited the lad on a sofa near the girl.
"Now I've got you both, so there'll be a double execution," he growled. "I'll just sit here and guard you till some of my men turn up."
Meanwhile, upstairs, Chester, Major Derevaux and the four Canadians had waited impatiently. The sound of revolver shots below had not carried to their ears. Chester closed his watch with a snap.
"Time's up," he said quietly. "They must have nabbed Hal. Let's go down."
There were no objections offered, so Chester led the way.
The American lad, the French officer and the four Canadian. troopers descended the stairs as quietly as had Hal, and as quietly approached the door to the room where the German officer now guarded his captives. Chester peered through the key-hole and took in the situation at a glance.
Chester, however, used more caution than had Hal. Also he chose to proceed with strategy rather than force. Now, the lad realized, was a time when his German uniform would stand him in good stead. He explained his plan in whispers, and as the others stood back out of the way, Chester walked calmly into the room.
The German officer rose to his feet. He did not know Chester from Adam, of course, but he recognized the uniform.
"Glad you've come, lieutenant," he said. "I've had a deuced hard time here. As you may see, I have been shot in the side. Colonel Brewsterberg has been killed. I'll ask you to take charge of my prisoners."
"Very well, sir," said Chester, and produced a revolver.
The German officer returned his revolver to his holster and made as though to leave the room.
"One moment," said Chester sharply.
The German stopped in his tracks and eyed him in surprise.
"I'll thank you for your gun," said Chester.
A great light broke upon the German.
"I see! I see!" he exclaimed. "Another one!"
His hand groped for his revolver.
"Be sure you keep your finger off the trigger," said Chester pleasantly.
For a moment the German hesitated and it was apparent to Chester that he was considering resistance.
"I wouldn't if I were you," said the lad quietly.
The German shrugged his shoulders, then took out his revolver and passed it to Chester, holding it by the muzzle.
"Thanks," said Chester. "Now sit down over there."
He motioned to a chair and the German sat down.
"All right, major," called Chester. "You can come in now."
Major Derevaux entered the room, followed by the four Canadians. The German prisoner looked at them in amazement. Apparently he thought the whole Allied army was about to follow them in.
"Major," said Chester, "you stand guard over that fellow. I'll have a look at Hal."
"I'm all right," said Hal, as Chester approached him. "Bullet struck me in the side, but it is nothing dangerous, I guess. That big German there nearly choked the life out of me, though. He's a hard customer."
Chester staunched the flow of blood in Hal's wound, and the latter announced that he was fit as a fiddle.
"The thing to do now is to get out of here," he said.
Under Major Derevaux's direction, Gregory and Crean had securely bound and gagged the prisoner.
The major now approached Antoinette.
"Have you learned anything?" he asked.
"Yes," replied the girl quietly. "The next German attack will be made day after tomorrow on this front, in an effort to recapture ground won by General Byng. There will be no activity now in the Verdun sector."
"But will the enemy weaken his lines there?"
"Such is not the plan. The general staff believes that there are enough men on this front to go through."
"Good!" said the major. "That's what I came all this way to learn. But how were you discovered, Antoinette?"
"My wig came off," replied the girl. "One of the Germans tapped me playfully on the head, and his ring caught in my hair. The next thing I knew I was a prisoner."
"It's too bad," said the major. "We have lost a valuable assistant now. Of course, there is no use in your remaining here longer. You must go with us."
"But I would so like to stay," murmured the girl.
"But you can't," said Hal eagerly. "You can see that, can't you?"
Antoinette nodded her head.
"Yes, I must go," she said quietly.
"Then let's be moving," said the major.
The girl got to her feet. Chester led the way to the back door. But as he would have thrown open the door and stepped out, he moved back inside with an exclamation.
"What's the matter?" demanded Hal in some alarm.
"Matter?" exclaimed Chester. "The yard is full of Germans!"
Hal gave a long whistle.
"Now, that's what I call hard luck," he said. "Do they know we're in here?"
"I judge not," replied Chester. "They seem, to be waiting for something."
"Maybe they're waiting for our friend, whom we have tied up here, said Major Derevaux.
"By Jove! I hadn't thought of that," said Hal. "We may be able to make use of him."
The lad stepped quickly across the room and lifted the German to his feet.
"I'm going to remove your gag," he said quietly, "but I want you to understand that if you make an outcry you'll never live to make a second. Do you understand?"
The German signified that he did.
"All right, then," said Hal, "out comes the gag. Chester, keep your gun in the middle of his back. We can afford to take no chances."
"Now," said Hal, "I want you to show yourself at the door and order your men there away."
The German eyed the lad angrily.
"So you want me to help you escape, eh?" he said. "Well, I won't do it."
"We're desperate," said Hal quietly. "If you don't I give you my word you shall be shot."
"Pooh!" sneered the German. "One shot and you will all be killed."
"But you won't be here to see it done," returned Hal. "Now I am not going to waste time with you. I shall count three, and if you have not decided by that time to do as I order, you will die. Chester, do you understand?"
"You bet I do," declared Chester.
"Very well," said Hal. "One! Two!" Still the German made no move. "Three!" said Hal.
The hammer on Chester's revolver clicked.
"Hold on!" cried the German. "I give in!"
Chester drew a breath of relief. He couldn't have shot the man down in cold blood and he knew it. He lowered his revolver a trifle, but still kept the man covered.
"Go to the door and order your men away from here," Hal ordered the prisoner.
The German strode toward the door.
"Careful," said Chester in a low voice. "One false move and it will be your last."
Again he pressed his revolver against the German's back.
"Do you think I'm a fool?" exclaimed the prisoner. "I'm not going to be killed if I can help it. Take that gun away."
"Not until you have done as commanded," returned Chester quietly.
The German opened the door and stepped outside. Chester, still feeling perfectly safe in his German uniform, accompanied him.
"Men," said the German, addressing the soldiers, "I find that I shall not have need of you tonight. You will a return to your quarters."
The soldiers, who had stood at attention as the officer addressed them, at command from a minor officer, wheeled and marched away.
Chester marched his captive back inside.
"There," said the latter. "That's done; now what are you going to do with me?"
"We'll have to tie and gag you again," said Chester. "You will be found and released in the morning."
"And probably court-martialed and shot if this night's proceedings ever leaks out," muttered the German. "However, there is no help for it."
He suffered himself to be bound and gagged without opposition, and Hal then stretched him out on the floor again.
"Now," said the lad, "I guess our way is clear once more."
He moved toward the door, with the others following. Glancing out, he raised a hand suddenly and motioned the others to silence.
Outside two figures approached the house cautiously.
Hal called Chester to his side and the two watched the approaching figures. It was too dark outside to distinguish the features of the men who approached, but there was no room for doubt that they were enemies.
"Back inside and put out the light," whispered Hal. "They're coming in." The light was extinguished promptly. Then Hal added: "Be ready to grab them and stifle their cries the minute they are inside and I have closed the door behind them."
Those in the house stood silent.
A moment later the door moved cautiously inward. Then two shadowy forms stepped inside. Immediately Hal kicked shut the door behind them and sprang forward to lend a hand to Chester and Major Derevaux, who had pounced upon the strangers as they entered.
"Don't let them cry out and don't kill them if you can help it," the lad cried.
The struggle raged furiously in the darkened room for some moments. Then Hal and Chester found themselves sitting upon one of the intruders, the latter with a revolver pressed to the man's forehead.
Gregory and Crean also had taken a hand in the struggle, and, with Major Derevaux, now held the other man helpless.
"Strike a light, Antoinette," called the major.
The girl obeyed, and then for the first time the lads were able to get a look at their prisoners.
"By the great Horn Spoon!" ejaculated Chester, after one look at his prisoner. "I'll take my oath that this man is Stubbs."
At the same moment a cry of astonishment was wrung from Major Derevaux.
"Anderson!" he cried.
Chester and Hal got to their feet. The former twisted his hand in the collar of his prisoner and lifted him to his feet.
"Stubbs!" he said severely, "you should know better than sneak upon a fellow in the dark. You are liable to get hurt."
"I wouldn't have sneaked up, if I had known you were here," growled Stubbs. "I would have come up openly and with my gun shooting."
"My, my!" said Chester. "Little man's getting bloodthirsty. But didn't I hear someone mention the name of Anderson."
"You did," replied a voice, and Chester found his hand gripped by none other than his old friend, the British colonel. "By George! I'm glad to see you again," continued Anderson, "though I must say that this is rather a strenuous reception for a couple of old friends."
He also shook hands with Hal. Major Derevaux and Stubbs expressed pleasure at seeing each other again. Then Hal demanded:
"Where did you get hold of Stubbs, Anderson?"
"I found him back in the British lines," said the colonel. "I was detailed to come here to see a woman who lives in this house and to bring a companion for the journey. I asked Stubbs to accompany me, and he was glad of the chance."
"What!" exclaimed Hal. "You mean you brought Stubbs where there was danger and he didn't protest."
"No, I didn't protest," declared the little war correspondent. "But I protest now. I didn't sign up for any adventures in your party, and neither will I; you can bet on that."
"If you didn't know him, you'd think he was afraid," laughed Colonel Anderson.
"I am afraid," declared Stubbs. "I'm afraid to go fooling around with these two," and he indicated Hal and Chester with a sweeping gesture. "I'd rather fool around with dynamite."
"Well, we can't stay here any longer," said Major Derevaux, and in a few words explained to Colonel Anderson what had happened. "What was the nature of your business here?" he asked.
"About. the same as yours," returned the colonel with a laugh. "But, as you say, there is no need to linger now. You have learned what I Came to find out. We may as well be moving."
"How'd you come, an airship?" asked the major. "Yes; and you?"
"Then we may as well get both machines back. I'll take half of your party. My plane is only about a hundred yards from here."
"My plane is not much farther — in a little woods there."
"By Jove! So is mine. Wouldn't be surprised if they were near the same spot. Well, let's be moving."
Colonel Anderson led the way from the house, and the others followed him through the darkness.
A NEW VENTURE
It was three days later and Hal and Chester sat in their own quarters in the shelter of the American lines. The flight from the German lines had been made safely. The aeroplanes had been found where Colonel Anderson and Major Derevaux had left them.
These had ascended without knowledge of the Germans, and had started on their homeward flight before being discovered. Then there had been pursuit, but they had landed without being so much as scratched.
"Well," said Hal, rising and picking up a pile of papers, "I've studied these maps until I know them by heart. Now if someone can tell me what it's all about, I'll be obliged."
"Same here," Chester agreed. "Funny, when you stop to think about it. Here they give us these maps and tell us to stuff our heads full of them. Well, my head is full, all right."
"And mine — Hello, here comes someone."
"It's Captain O'Neill. Maybe he'll, be ready to explain now," said Chester.
A moment later the American captain entered the tent. The boys saluted. The captain came to the point at once.
"You are both familiar with airplanes?" he asked.
The lads nodded.
"So I understand," said the captain. "Also I hear that several times you have landed upon unfamiliar ground, and in the dark. I am informed, too, that you are always willing to take desperate risks. Am I right?"
"We are glad to do what we can," returned Chester quietly.
"Understand," said the captain, "you will be asked to land not only in the dark but behind the enemy lines, not knowing who or what is below."
"We understand," said Hal quietly.
"I have come to offer you this opportunity," said Captain O'Neill quietly. "Tonight — the exact time is 10 o'clock — we attack in force. In comparison, the assaults before this have been as nothing. I say we, but I mean chiefly, of course, the French. There will be some American troops in the advance, however. The mission I am now offering you was turned over to us by the French general staff."
"We shall be glad of the opportunity to aid, sir," said Hal.
"Good!" said Captain O'Neill, and continued: "One element alone is uncertain; one only is to be ascertained. The force and disposition of the defending troops in shell holes, in their concrete 'pill-boxes,' in their flanking trenches all have been ascertained. They will be blasted out by our artillery. But they have additional forces below the ground, in great caverns too far down to be reached by our shells; they are tremendous underground works concealing whole battalions, many thousands of men, whose presence is known; but the entrances and the means of egress from those great caverns have so far eluded us.
"We have discovered some of these entrances," he continued, "but immediately they have changed. At present we do not know them. But at 10 o'clock tonight the points from which the German reserves will emerge must be instantly and accurately marked. When our infantry goes over the top and the Germans order their shock troops out from the safe underground refuges to meet our men, we must know the points where the enemy battalions are coming up. Some of these points will be cared for by French already in position to inform us. I offer to you the opportunity of marking others of those points."
"We shall be glad," said Hal simply.
"Very well. You understand, of course, that you will be killed if discovered. Both of you come with me."
He arose, and Hal and Chester followed the captain to his motor-car, which they entered and drove to the main road, over which German prisoners captured early in the day were still streaming to the rear. Overhead a few aeroplanes still buzzed — combat and fire control and staff "observation" machines seeking out their aerodromes in the dark. It grew dark so quickly now that Hal, looking up, saw the colored flash of the signal lights from a pilot's pistol; they burned an instant red and blue and red again as they dropped through the air; and, in response to the signal, greenish white flares gleamed from the ground to the right, outlining the aviation field; then the flying machine, which had signaled, began to come down.
From far beyond the drum fire of artillery rumbled and rattled.
The car ran up a side road and halted before a little hut. Captain O'Neill alighted.
"We bad the misfortune, in the attack this morning," he said, "to lose one of our most useful people. The enemy had employed him, recently, in excavating certain of their great underground stations, which I have mentioned; but last night they had him in a front-line trench, which we took this morning. He has volunteered to return to his post, if we can place him behind the lines, but, I regret, he is in no condition for further service. Therefore, we must send a substitute."
Captain O'Neill led the way into a candle lighted room, where a man was lying in bed. Civilian clothes — the rags of a French refugee from the other side of the lines — hung on the wall beside him. The man was very weak, with hands which drooped from the wrist as he half sat up as the captain entered. The man's name, the captain informed the lads, was Jean Brosseau.
Captain O'Neill produced a map, a duplicate of the ones which the lads had been given several days before. The man in bed now detailed to them the exact nature and purpose of the markings and spots. It was all lined off into little squares and oblongs, each described with a letter and number. These were for the guiding of the guns — because, for each tiny square on the German side of the lines, there was a battery or a couple of batteries behind the French front, whose business was solely to sweep that square with high explosive shells, gas shells and shrapnel, when the battle was on.
To escape those shells, the Germans again were burrowing, Brosseau pointed out. Some places they had burrowed far too deep to be endangered by shells; but their ways of egress were not known. These were covered with camouflage.
Hal took down the shirt from the wall; vermin crawled in it. Captain O'Neill had not made the mistake of having it steamed or washed or disinfected; vermin and filth of underground communications soiled the rags of Jean Brosseau's jacket, his trousers, his cap. Hal, without ceremony, stripped off his uniform and underclothes. His body was clean and without calluses; the cleanliness was soon remedied. Then he dressed, to give him all the time possible to become accustomed to the garments of a French citizen in the hands of the enemy.
The reverberations of the guns outside had increased mightily; they seemed to double again to topmost intensity. Captain O'Neill frowned a little as he heard them and glanced at his watch. A motorcycle clattered up and stopped outside; a man knocked at the door, delivered a message to Captain O'Neill, and departed. Captain O'Neill read the message and tore it to bits. Hal and Chester waited without question; but the sick man had to ask:
"We have lost ground, sir?"
"No, no! All goes well — very well, except for us here," Captain O'Neill replied. "The time is moved forward; that is all."
He bent again over the map.
"There will not be time now if you are taken far back of the German lines where an aeroplane may come down unobserved. There will not be time," he repeated to Hal, "for you to work forward to the position where you must be."
"What's the matter with coming down near the position where we're wanted?" asked Hal.
"Near their lines?" Captain O'Neill questioned. "There will be men all about, of course; you will be observed."
"What's the matter with coming down observed sir?" said Chester.
"Observed," repeated the captain. "How do you mean?"
"It is something we have talked of before," said Hal. "We have often considered this method of getting a man down inside the German lines, even in a section where discovery is certain. A machine goes up carrying bombs, perhaps; it drops them and attracts anti-aircraft fire. It appears to fall, sir, and comes down in that way."
Captain O'Neill's brows drew together, puzzled, but he was patient.
"But I do not see the advantage," he said.
"It falls in flames, sir," said Hal. "The pilot ignites it when it begins to drop."
"Proceed," Captain O'Neill bade.
"The men found in it are killed," continued Hal "'killed by the shrapnel fire — also, of course, they burn with the aeroplane. It is, to all observers, a bombing biplane shot down in flames."
"And you think such a plan will succeed?" asked the captain.
"I feel sure of it, sir."
"Well," said Captain O'Neill, "you are the two who must take the chances. You have my permission to adopt your own plans."
OVER THE LINES
"You will carry these with you, of course," said Captain O'Neill, "those who will be found in, the plane?"
"Yes, sir," said Hal. "They need not be aviators, but merely in uniform."
"You drop from the machine as she strikes, I suppose?" said the captain. "She will run after that, of course."
"Certainly it will leave us unsuspected," said Chester. "It will aid our escape. Certainly no one would suspect a man had planned to fall in flames."
"You have suggested enough," said the captain. "Your idea alters much. Meet me in half an hour. Everything will be prepared."
He named a place and left the hut.
Jean Brosseau bent forward in bed, his eyes burning.
"When Captain O'Neill gives you final instructions he may tell you to employ certain people on the other side. Here!" he motioned for the map again, "I shall point out to you where they are."
He took a pencil and made a dot toward the corner of one of the squares.
"In the old military maps a house stood there," he said. "My father's house it was. There was also a stable; there was also a cellar, which the Germans have discovered, but beyond it was an old cellar quite concealed. Our people, at different times, have hidden there. There are both men and women there now. They will help you if they can.
Jean Brosseau fell back on the bed and closed his eyes.
An hour later Hal climbed into the pilot seat of the biplane that Captain O'Neill had placed at their disposal. He felt somewhat uncomfortable in his ragged attire, but he knew that he could not be attired in better costume for the undertaking. Chester also had discarded his civilian clothes and donned rags.
The big "bus," as the airplanes were called, with propeller whirling, lumbered over the ground; the smoothness of flying came to it and, deafened to everything but the clatter of the motor and the thrash of the air-screw, Hal gazed down. Points of light, yellow and red and some almost white, glowed on the ground. Some of these marked villages, encampments; others signified nothing at all — decoys to attract the "eggs" of the German night flying falcons.
They neared the lines, and the strip of "No Man's Land," with the pocked and pitted streaks of defenses on both sides, gleamed white and spectral green under the star-dashed shells. An infantry attack was going on; Hal could see the shapes of men as they flattened; they were pinched to dots when they jumped up and then they spread out again.
Before them burst the frightful fireworks of their own barrage; behind them, and above, that of the enemy.
Hal shivered in the cold; it was very chill there flying high above the lines, and he wore but the rags of Jean Brosseau. Directly below them the land had become black again, specked only by little points of light, yellow, ruddy, white; some of these, like the lights behind the French lines, perhaps marked hamlets, encampments; others were mere decoy-lights; others — they showed but for the briefest second when the biplane passed overhead were the guiding lights for the French and American pilots. These were set in chimneys by the French behind the German lines; any light, if seen by Germans and recognized, might cost the annihilation of a family, or a neighborhood; many times such lights had cost such savage penalty. Still, they were set.
Hal and Chester warmed at sight of them this night as never before. They were going to the people who had set those lights.
The biplane banked and circled. Below was the square where the airplane was to be shot down. Troops were moving through those fields, undoubtedly, advancing in single file through communication trenches or dashing from shell hole to shell hole; other troops lingered in dugouts underground. The French batteries played all over those fields, spraying down shrapnel, detonating the frightful charges of high explosives. But at an hour before the appointed time — at 9 o'clock — the French batteries would remit their fire for ten minutes upon the square where the biplane should fall. Hal looked at the clock fastened before him. It was two minutes to 9; he could see, directly below, the crimson splash of the great French shells; a little way to the side showed the flashes of the German heavy batteries making reply.
Now, as though smothered by the German fire, the French batteries ceased. It was 9 o'clock, and Hal circled above the German batteries, which were firing, and Chester released the first bomb. Before it struck and burst, he let go another. He laid a third "egg" close beside a German battery — so close that the battery ceased to fire; but before the fourth dropped the anti-aircraft guns were going. Chester could hear, above the racket of the motor and the air- screw, the "pop, pop" of smashing shrapnel. They ran through the floating smoke of a shell, the acrid ether-smelling stuff stinging their nostrils. The beams of searchlights swept into the air. Hal circled more carefully and deliberately dropped lower; Chester let two more bombs drop near the batteries; he cleared the frames of the last pair of "eggs," and, leaning forward, struck Hal's shoulder to tell him so.
The phosphorus-painted face of the altimeter showed the pointer registering less than 2,000 feet; before the breaking German shells should do, in fact, what it was to be pretended they had done, Chester reached up and ignited the preparation smeared over the top plane. Yellow flames flared up, and, to keep them above and behind, Hal pointed the nose of the biplane far down and let her fall.
He turned, as he let the machine dive, back toward the French lines. Then, as the German antiaircraft gunners saw their target flashing clear in flames and they strewed their shrapnel closer before it, the biplane fluttered and fell, no longer diving under guidance, but out of control.
Chester jerked about to Hal; over the forms strapped between them, he saw Hal's face in the light of the flame. Hal was not hit; he had merely let go of the controls. It was part of the plan to let the machine fall out of control. But, for a moment, it was too much as if Hal had been hit.
The biplane side-slipped, "went off the wing," sickeningly, dropping down spinning. Then, suddenly, with a catch of a well-made, well-balanced plane, the inherent stability asserted itself, and the planes caught; the big "bus" fluttered like a falling leaf, "flattened out," and rested; now, it side-slipped again and fell, and Hal did not touch the controls.
Chester, looking down, saw that the flashes of the guns off to the side had come halfway to him; if the falling plane caught itself again after the same amount of drop, side-slipping, it would hover not too far from the ground before going "off the wing" again. That is, it might.
Anyway, the flames which had caught the wing fabric and were blazing the breadth of the wings above and jumping back now to the rudder and the tail were kept above; and to anyone on the ground the illusion of a machine shot down, burning and out of control, must have become complete.
Chester held on, not breathing. The momentary flutter and hover of the machine was over. It was dropping down again in a wild, sliding swoop — yet Hal made no move to stop it even when it half turned over.
Soon, however, he made a move, and, before the slide had gone too far, he caught it as before it had caught itself; it fluttered, hovered, the flames streaking up straight above it; the ground now just below. Then it went "off the wing" again and crashed.
Chester, leaping clear at the instant of the impact, stumbled and fell on his face and rolled down a shell hole. He caught himself, half stunned and dizzy, and tried to crawl back toward the burning plane. But Hal blundered against him and carried him back.
"All right," Hal whispered. "Are you?"
"All right," said Chester. "Great landing. I've fixed things back there. Time to be moving. Got your grenades?"
"All right. Good luck."
Their orders were to part now. Chester crawled one way, Hal the other. The biplane was burning with a great deal of smoke, which smothered the glow on the side they had leaped. And no German was near; they could be very sure of that. The gasoline now was ignited, and the wreck was blazing beautifully. The machine was known, of course, to be a bombing machine, shot down during operations. No one would know how many bombs had come down with it; no one would come close until after the flames had burned down. Then the Germans would find the "pilot" and the "bomber," the two still forms the lads had strapped to the machine before leaving their own lines. Everyone would be accounted for; no search for more would be made.
Both boys now were ready for their desperate work.
Chester, having crept a hundred yards, hugged down into another hole and waited. The Germans who had been about now approached the glowing heap of the biplane. What they found seemed to satisfy them. At least they raised no alarm. The shells from the far-off trench guns, which had been breaking in the fields both to right and to left, began searching about here now and scattered them. Chester moved forward toward the lines. And, as he moved, the shells which had been bursting in that direction, ceased.
The feel of the far-off hand of Captain O'Neill and of his superiors — the men who had planned this desperate venture — thrilled through him. Until five minutes to 10 o'clock he would be cared for, Captain O'Neill had promised. The French artillery, opening a path through its fire, would throw its shield around him. Simultaneously, it would be opening another path to Hal, advancing off to the right. Where all the Germans, who held that ground, burrowed below in dugouts or crept and ran through the deep defiles of communication trenches, Hal and he could go at will over the ground and so far as the shells from the French batteries were concerned, be perfectly safe.
Chester stole on through the blackness. Shells were breaking a hundred yards before him, behind him, off to both sides, but no shell came closer. Now, if he remembered rightly, the shells would cease in the square ahead and to the left; he moved that way — and they stopped. Over the ground which he had crossed, shells were bursting again now. When he halted once more, the frightful hurricane of high explosives swept before him, on both sides and behind — but not close to him. So for many minutes he advanced.
It was strange, when used to dodging shells behind his own lines and when accustomed to twist and turn and dive and tumble in the air to avoid the burst of anti-aircraft shrapnel, to feel shells falling like a bulwark about him. That was what they were. For the present, at least, the shells gained for him and gave to him the sole use of the surface of the earth there behind the German lines.
Troops were all about, of course; but all were hiding. They could not imagine anyone purposely advancing through the open there; they could not imagine anyone surviving if he tried it. They noticed, undoubtedly, that the fall of the French shells intermitted for a moment in this direction and that; but when any of them went out the shells burst upon them again and annihilated detachments. The cease and the start again of the French fire seemed merely capricious, to tempt them out to destruction. Not having the pattern of the pass by which the two boys advanced, they could not suspect any pattern about it.
And now Chester no longer could trust his own memory of that pattern. He went to the bottom of a deep shell crater, and, lying upon his stomach, he took a scrap of map from under his shirt and spread it below him. He took a tiny electric torch from his pocket and illumined the sheet dimly. A series of squares, into which that sector was divided, marked his path for the front — each square of the series numbered in ink and designated by a time, such as 32, 24, 19, 16, 10 and so, forth. They told the moment before 10 o'clock, at which, upon the square marked, the French fire would cease, not to start again until the fire ceased, at the next lowest minute, upon the next square. Down to five minutes to 10 o'clock they showed the safe path, after that friend and foe alike on this side of the German lines must shift for themselves.
Chester's mind caught the pattern of the next numbered square; he repeated to himself the time intervals. He climbed up out of the shell hole and swiftly passed the next square as the shells began falling behind him. Had Hal, off there to the right four squares away, now, as good luck as he? Or, was the French fire opening a path for no one there now?
By the ceasing of the shells on this square it was 24 minutes to 10 o'clock — the hour when the French forces would stream over the top. And for ten minutes, upon the square, the French fire would cease. That was because it was upon this square that Hal and Chester — if both survived to reach it — would meet. It was under the ground in this numbered ten minutes to 10 o'clock — that the French were hidden, of whom Jean Brosseau had told. And as Brosseau had expected and hoped, Chester and Hal - or whichever of them survived to this square — were ordered to employ those people.
Chester crept forward, searching for the ruins of the house to mark the spot. There was a communication-trench some yards away to the left of it, he remembered. He could hear them working upon it now, calling to each other as the shells had given them a few minutes respite. He crept by them and came upon stones — the square stones of the walls of a house demolished and scattered. Only one house had been at that point, and, crawling carefully, he dropped into the pit of the cellar. There, in that cellar, Hal and he were to meet, if Hal yet lived.
Hal was not there; he had not been there. The heap of old charred beams and rubbish, which covered the opening of the tunnel to the French hiding in the old cellar deeper and beyond, was undisturbed; he heard no sound except that of the shells and the scraping and voices of the Germans at work thirty yards away.
Chester flattened down upon the rubbish of the cellar; he raised a black beam a little and thrust himself under. Feeling ahead, he found more rubbish, which he cleared; and then, beyond, his hand found emptiness and the smell of earth — and the odor of people and the closeness of foul air. But there was no sound ahead.
He crawled his length and then spoke quietly in French:
"I come for the redeeming of France," words which he had been ordered to use upon his arrival.
He got no reply. from the silence ahead; so he said again:
"I am not Jean Brosseau; he sent me. I come to ask your aid."
"Aid?" a voice repeated; "aid?"
Chester lighted his little torch again, and men's faces showed before him.
"Quick!" one of the men said. "Get away. It's a trap!"
"The Germans have taken us," said a second voice. "We —"
His voice stopped and choked. It was stilled forever, Chester knew. He could not see — he had extinguished his light.
A revolver was fired in his face, but the bullet went over him. He pressed to one side of the tunnel as he pushed back, and the next bullet went into the sand where he had been. He was back under the beams; and the Germans, choking, fired no more.
Someone pulled at his leg. Someone jerked him out and pulled him up — it was Hal.
"The people in there were taken," said Chester quietly. "They -"
"You've still got your grenades," said Hal. "I've got mine. We can do it alone, with luck!"
The Germans, working on the tunnel off to the left, yelled at each other to jump for cover, for the French shells were coming again. They burst all about — except now, just ahead, where Hal and Chester were running. Two minutes they had to run and crawl and run again across the square, three minutes for the next one. Then, again, they parted. Two squares to the left, two minutes for one, three for the next — Hal was to go; two squares to the right — for three minutes and two the French fire was to be remitted — Chester must travel. There were two other small squares to be spared for five minutes to provide for help which might have been gained from the refugees' dugout.
Those squares were being spared now, anyway.
But the minutes of respite for all were finishing fast.
It was five minutes to 10 o'clock and Chester, running bent over, stumbled and fell; the frightful concussion of great high explosive shells, bursting close to him, shook and battered him. He hugged down into a hole, and from about his neck, he drew a flat bag, which held a gas mask; he adjusted it quickly. Shells were striking about him, which did not break; but from the butts of these fumes were floating. The Germans, showing in the light of the star-shells, had become snouted creatures in their gas helmets.
They appeared only for an instant, as, jumping up from one trench, where the shells were falling, they rushed to another deep defile. Half a score, who had shown themselves in one group, vanished; and Chester was buffeted again by the shock of high explosives.
Gas and still more gas followed high explosives again.
Chester, creeping now, got, even through his mask, smarting, searing twinges of the gas. He was among bodies and wounded men. Their masks, when, they fell, had become torn or broken. The gas had got them.
Five minutes to 10 o'clock had passed.
It was three minutes to the attack or less, and the hurricane fire of the French artillery swept cyclonic over the German lines.
A thousand yards away, more or less, as the ground gave advantage, the French front-line trenches were filled with men awaiting the hour of 10 — two minutes off now — to go over the top.
The German batteries, behind, knew that the time was near; but just when it would be, in two minutes, or in ten or in an hour-they did not know. When the fire of the French guns lifted, they did not know whether it would be to let the poilus assault, or whether it would be only to trick the German infantry and machine-gun men out of their tunnels and dugouts to meet the frightful fall of the French hurricane fire again.
But the German guns doubled their response now when the French trebled theirs.
One minute to 10 o'clock!
Chester, lying in a shell hole with, his bag, of grenades open before him, felt a shock on his back. A bit of shell or shrapnel had struck him, but he moved his arms and, except for the stinking pain, he was all right . He choked — and instantly held his breath. A bit of metal, flying from somewhere, had pierced his gas mask. The tear was right before his mouth. He thrust the fabric into his mouth and bit it, holding it tight between his lips. That patched the hole; there was no other. He breathed again without choking.
From over the German front-line trenches, a half mile or more forward, the storm of the French artillery fire had lifted — lifted to add to the cyclone of shells sweeping the reserve lines. The German star-shells, rising and floating and glaring constellations, spread their garish light over the front, and showed the French charging forward in the open.
They rushed onward, few falling, almost unopposed. For the Germans in the front-line trenches — those who had not been withdrawn under that hurricane of shells-were dead or crouched down, stunned, and in stupor.
The French took the advanced trenches, the second supporting, and came on.
Now, from the "pill-boxes" — the few scattered points for machine-gun support which the artillery had not found — resistance came. The French, though fewer, came on.
Before Chester, lying with his bag of grenades open at the edge of a shell crater, the ground suddenly opened and, a great causeway gaped down into the earth. Where solid ground had seemed to be, men were rushing forth — German infantrymen with rifles and bayonets fixed to the counter-attack.
Off to the right twenty yards another such gap yawned in the ground. And Chester, rising, hurled a missile from the bag he had carried.
It burst among the emerging men; he hurled another. A leap of blue flame, which flared high and blinding, followed its detonation. He hurled at the other causeway, first halting by a bomb the out rush of men; and thus he marked the mouth of this second causeway the next instant by a sheet of blue game.
Off to the side, 200 yards, blue flames shot up and glared. Hal was alive, that meant — at least, he had been alive a moment ago, calling shells upon himself from the French batteries, as well as attack from the Germans coming from the ground.
For the shells already were arriving; one burst just beside the great causeway and blocked it.
The shell annihilated the men rushing at Chester. He rolled over, deaf and unseeing. Shells were coming true and straight. An aeroplane appeared overhead so close down that Chester could see it plainly in the light of the star-shells when his sight came back. Aeroplanes were guiding the guns and dropping aerial torpedoes.
One landed in the mouth of that other causeway and blew it out of shape, and this was the last thing which, for a long time, Chester remembered.
When Chester opened his eyes, he lay on a bed with the whitest of sheets. For a moment he could remember nothing, then the details of the great battle carve back to him.
His first thought, naturally, was of Hal. He sat up in bed. There, in another bed in the center of what Chester now recognized as a hospital tent, lay Hal, his head swathed in bandages.
"He's safe, anyhow," said Chester to himself.
The lad passed a hand across his head, and ascertained that his head also was wrapped tightly, and that there were more bandages around his body.
"Wonder what's the matter with me?" he muttered. "I don't remember being hit, and here I am all wrapped up like a baby doll. I must be in pretty bad shape."
Nevertheless, now that his mind had been eased regarding Hal's safety, Chester soon closed his eyes, again and slept.
It was late the following day that the lad was aroused by the sound of voices at his bedside. One voice he recognized as Hal's, the other came to him later. It was the voice of Stubbs.
Chester opened his eyes, and gazed at the little war correspondent. The latter spoke first.
"The sleeper awakes," he said to Hal. "See, Chester thinks it's time to get up, and I'm not a bit sure he isn't right. He's been in bed for four days now. That's longer than I ever slept"
"I'm not so weak I can't get out of here and pull, your nose," declared Chester, sitting up.
Anthony Stubbs grinned.
"I feel pretty safe right here," he said.
"What's the matter with me, anyway?" demanded Chester. "Hello there, Hal. What's the trouble with you? You seem to be pretty well bunged up."
"Guess neither of us is going to die," said Hal with a smile. "The doctor tells me that we both have holes in our heads, and that we have a few pieces of shell in our legs and bodies. He says we are about the luckiest pair he ever saw."
"How long does he figure we must stay in bed;"' Chester wanted to know.
"He said something about thirty days," said Stubbs, with another grin.
"Then he's barking up the wrong tree," Chester declared. "I don't feel exactly lovely, but I know I'm not going to stay here a month. Any broken bones, Hal?"
"No; and neither have you, according to the doctor. He said that we should be able to get about in a week or two."
"Well, that's a little better," Chester grumbled. "What do you mean by telling me a month, Stubbs?"
"I didn't say he said a month," Stubbs protested. "I said the doctor said something about thirty days, and so he did. He said that most men would have to lie in bed thirty days with your wounds, but that he felt you would be able to leave the hospital sooner because of a pair of remarkably fine constitutions."
"I think you were trying to have a little fun with me, Stubbs," Chester declared.
"You know I wouldn't joke with a sick boy," said Stubbs.
"No, I don't know it, either, Stubbs; and when I get out of here, I shall make it a point to get even with you."
"To get even?" Stubbs exploded. "You listen to me. You're even and a long ways ahead right now. In fact, you're so far ahead that I couldn't get even with you in a life time. However, when you get well, I'm going to have a try."
"You'd better not fool with me, Stubbs," said Chester. "I'm liable to get out of here right now and have a little bout with you."
"Well," said Stubbs, "I can lick you now."
"Guess you're right," he said. "Maybe I had better postpone it. By the way, did the attack succeed?"
"Did it?" exclaimed Stubbs enthusiastically. "I rather think it did. The French have advanced from four to five miles into the enemy's lines; and I overheard a man say if it had not been for your work in bottling up the enemy underground the French would have been surprised and hurled back."
"Well, I'm glad we helped," said Hal simply.
"And I'll be glad when we can help some more," declared Chester. "It won't be long before we are up and doing again."
"I should think you had had enough," said Stubbs.
"We haven't, though," said Hal. "Now, run away, Mr. Stubbs, and come back later. I want to take a little snooze."
"Same here," said Chester.
Both made themselves as comfortable as possible under the circumstances. And while they are taking a much-needed rest, we will bid them a brief adieu, only to meet them later on in a succeeding volume, entitled: "THE BOY ALLIES WITH PERSHING IN FRANCE; OR, OVER THE TOP WITH UNCLE SAM'S WARRIORS."