"Another placard, eh?" muttered Stephan, as he drew near.
The other three also approached and read:
"The time for surrender has been extended till to-morrow at noon!"
Angrily, Stephan snatched the placard from the tree. Turning, he saw several other trees also bearing placards. These he also tore down.
"Surrender, eh!" he cried. "Never!"
Suddenly he clapped his hand to his side and staggered back. At the same instant, from directly ahead, came the sharp crack of a rifle. But Stephan did not fall. Recovering himself, he dashed straight in the direction of the shot at top speed. There came the second crack of a rifle, but still the Cossack did not pause.
Now Hal, and Chester, dashing after him with Alexis at their side, saw Stephan pause momentarily, raise his rifle and fire quickly twice. Then he dropped to the ground. But it was not from injury, as the others feared, for at that moment there came a volley and bullets whistled overhead. Quickly Hal, Chester and Alexis also flung themselves to the earth.
Stephan, lying upon his stomach, was pumping lead steadily straight before him. Hal, Chester and Alexis drew their revolvers and joined in the fray. Through the trees they could now make out the number of their assailants. There were an even dozen of them, all lying in a little clearing, their rifles trained upon the spot where the four friends lay.
Under the deadly aim of Stephan's rifle, two men dropped to the ground. The others returned the Cossack's fire, but the latter was well protected by foliage, and escaped injury. Another German jumped to his feet, spun round on his heel, and fell to the ground.
Then, at a word from one of the Germans, the remaining nine jumped suddenly to their feet and dashed toward their enemies on a dead run, their rifles spitting fire as they came on. Exposed to the fire of the foe as they were, they realized that their only chance of life lay in rushing their opponents.
Alexis was the first to see the danger in this attack. He jumped to his feet, dragging Hal and Chester with him. Stephan also was up in an instant.
"Quick!" cried Alexis, and at a rapid run, he urged the lads to another secluded spot.
There, as the Germans appeared in the spot where they had stood a few moments before, Stephan, the only one of the four armed with a rifle, fired three more quick shots at the foe. One tumbled forward on his face, and a second dropped his rifle.
And now unexpected aid came to the four friends. From the rear of the Germans came several rifle shots in quick succession, and two more of the enemy bit the dust. As they turned to face this new attack, Stephan stepped forward and opened on them again. Caught thus between two fires, the Germans fought well, firing blindly at their unseen foes on both sides.
But such a struggle could have but one ending. The Cossacks, screened from the fire of the enemy who lay between them, were practically safe from the German fire, at the same time having the Germans at their mercy. No quarter was asked, nor none was given. Soon a heap of fallen bodies marked the spot where the Germans had made their last stand.
From the other side of the Germans, two Cossacks now stepped forth, and approached. Stephan advanced to meet them. Alexis made his way to the fallen foe, and gathered up the rifles. Returning, he passed one to each lad, with the remark:
"Here; these beat revolvers for this kind of warfare."
After a short conference with the two newcomers, Stephan motioned for his friends to follow, and the party, now increased to six, moved on. For perhaps half an hour they marched through the woods, and at the end of that time stopped once more before the entrance to a second cave.
"Before we enter," said Stephan, "I will tell you that these men have just informed me that inside a consultation of war is being held. There are perhaps 60 men there, who have gathered here for that purpose. I have vouched for you, and you will therefore be admitted to the consultation without question."
The others signified that they understood, and Stephan led the way into the cave. Inside, the lads looked quickly around. This cave, they saw, was much greater than the first they had entered. Also it showed signs of human handiwork. Large pillars ran up through the center of it, and beyond the far entrance the lads could see one, then two more compartments.
Sitting about on the floor of the first compartment were more than half a hundred men, talking in low tones. They looked up in surprise at the sight of Hal and Chester, but Alexis they greeted with a nod. The latter stepped forward and greeted them in their native tongue. The lads could not make out all he said, but the looks of suspicion on the faces of some vanished immediately, and they moved a bit to let the newcomers join the circle.
Plainly it was the opinion of most of the men that the guerilla warfare had been carried far enough. Some were in favor of making a last desperate raid upon the enemy before attempting to get back across the Russian border, while others were in favor of attempting to get back immediately.
For an hour the discussion waged and then it was rudely interrupted. The man left to guard the entrance to the cavern rushed in.
"Germans approaching in great force!" he cried.
Immediately all were on their feet, and one man rushed to the narrow entrance. He started through but fell back, a bullet in his head. A second, rifle in hand, also advanced, but Hal, springing quickly to his feet, stopped him.
"Wait!" he cried. "They can pick us off one at a time as we go out. Some other plan will have to be found."
Stephan and Alexis took their stand by the lad's side, and faced the men who would have rushed to certain death.
"The lad is right," said Stephan. "Out the other end of the cave, men, and scatter!"
Rapidly this order was obeyed, and soon none were left in the first compartment but Hal, Chester, Alexis, Stephan and Marquis.
Now Hal also dashed after the others. But the lad was not bent upon flight, leaving his friends to face the enemy alone. Quickly he hurried through the three compartments of the cavern, casting a keen eye here and there. Clear to the far entrance he went, and then turned back. As he made his way along, he stumbled over something and fell heavily. He was up in a moment, however, and glanced curiously at the object over which he had tripped. Then a smile lighted up his face. He made his way back to his friends.
"How many do you suppose there are out there?" asked Alexis.
"We have no means of telling," replied Chester. "However, there are probably no less than two or three hundred."
"If we stand here and fire as they attempt to enter, we may have some success," said Stephan.
"Yes," said Alexis, "but the detonations may occasion the falling in of the cavern. At the first shot from outside a piece of falling rock grazed my shoulder."
"We must do something quickly," said Hal. "We cannot leave without striking at least one blow at them."
"Assuredly not," agreed Alexis. "I have a plan."
THE MIGHT OF ALEXIS.
"What is it?" demanded all eagerly.
"We will retreat to the second compartment," said the giant, "and I will place myself behind the pillar, which I can see from here." He stooped and picked up a long heavy iron bar from the ground. "I will have this for my weapon, and invisible in the darkness, if they come in a rush, I can let my bar fall upon their skulls thirty times a minute."
"Good!" cried Hal, "and at the same time I have another plan. The rest of us shall retreat to the third compartment, leaving Alexis, for the moment, to deal with the foe alone. But Alexis, when I say retreat, you must leave your post and come to the third compartment. Is it agreed?"
"Agreed!" cried the giant.
"All right, then. To your post!"
Quickly the four retreated to the second compartment, where Alexis took up his post behind the large pillar, concealed from view by the narrowness of the entrance between the compartments themselves. The others retreated to the third compartment.
For a long time, it seemed to Alexis, he waited in silence. Then the head of a man appeared through the entrance to his compartment and came toward him. There were more heads behind him.
"Strike, Alexis!" came Hal's voice from the next compartment.
The giant obeyed. The iron bar rose and fell full upon the head of the first man, who dropped without a cry. Ten times in almost as many seconds the huge iron bar rose and fell again and not once did it fail to find its mark.
The German soldiers could see nothing; they heard sighs and groans; they stumbled over dead bodies, but as they did not realize the cause of all this, they still came forward. So far there had not been a sound to tell those behind what was transpiring in front.
But now an officer, bearing a torch, approached. On arriving at the entrance to the compartment where Alexis had exterminated all that had come, he drew back in terror; but his retreat was blocked by those pressing on from behind. The officer saw the heap of dead, but as yet he had not discerned the cause.
Suddenly a gigantic hand issued from nowhere and clutched him by the throat. A second later the captain fell close to the now extinguished torch, adding another body to the heap of dead. All this was effected as mysteriously as if by magic. Another officer, unable to account for the pile of dead, cried to the men behind him:
A volley rang out, and for a moment the cavern was lighted as if by day. But none was hit. From behind him Alexis now heard the sound of Hal's voice.
"Come back quickly!" whispered the lad.
The giant obeyed instantly, and glided softly through the door to the third compartment. Hal took him by the arm and led him to the side of the room, where he showed him the object over which he had stumbled when in the compartment a few moments before. It was a barrel of powder.
"Alexis," said Hal, "you will take this barrel, the fuse of which I am going to light, and hurl it at our enemy. Can you do it?"
Alexis stooped over the barrel, weighing fully seventy pounds. He lifted it easily with one hand.
"Light it," he said briefly.
"Throw it right in among them," explained Hal.
"Light it," repeated Alexis.
Hal did so, and the giant, picking up the barrel, advanced to the door of the compartment. Beyond he could hear the confused shouts of many men, as they in vain sought to explain the death of their companions.
Alexis blew on the fuse, that it might burn quicker.
And now, by the light of the sparkling fuse, the enemy made out his form. They saw the barrel he held in his hand; they understood what was going to happen.
A cry of terror arose. Some attempted to fly; officers cried out to Alexis that they would spare him if he would extinguish the fuse. Others commanded their men to fire; but the latter were too terrified to do so.
Now the arm of the giant swung round. There passed through the air the train of fire, like a falling star. The barrel fell into the midst of the terrified German soldiers. Immediately Alexis dashed for the far end of the cavern, just outside which his friends now stood.
Then, from inside the second compartment came the terrible thunder of the explosion, blowing the cavern to pieces, hurling men to death by the force of its shock, falling stones crushing out the life of many more.
Alexis dashed for the open air, where his friends stood awaiting him, a happy smile on his face at the success of his exploit. Three more paces and he would be free of the cavern—two more. And right at the exit, a heavy piece of rock, sent hurling in the air by the explosion, fell upon him—striking him upon the shoulder—bearing him to the ground—pinioning him beneath it.
And at the same instant the walls of the cavern began to give. Chester, realizing what was happening, sprang into the mouth of the cave, closely followed by Hal and Stephan. Now, under the massive rock, Alexis stirred. In spite of the great weight upon him, he turned slowly under it, until it rested squarely upon his back. Then stretching his hands out before him, he rose to his knees balancing the rock upon his back. Then he straightened up, and the rock tumbled from him with a terrible crash. He turned, and with his friends, dashed from the cave.
They had not escaped a second too soon.
There was a terrible rending sound, the crunching of rock against rock, and slowly the walls of the cavern gave; then fell inward with a fearful crash.
Some distance from the cavern the four stopped running. Hal wiped the moisture from his brow.
"A close call and no mistake," he said weakly.
Chester grasped Alexis by the hand.
"I thought you were done for," he exclaimed.
"Can't kill me that way," he said. "What's a little rock like that? It was play for me to lift it."
"Maybe so," replied Chester, "but even now, I can scarcely believe what I saw."
"Why," said Alexis, "I could have lifted that rock with one hand. It was child's play. Now I can still remember one great feat I accomplished. It was in St. Petersburg—Petrograd now, by the grace of God and the Czar. There is a little stream runs through the city. Over this there is a bridge. I was passing along one day, when I saw that the bridge, having been weakened in the middle, was about to fall. Well, there was no one on it, so that would have been all right. But, dashing down the street was an ambulance. The woman in it was very ill. It was absolutely necessary that she be taken across the bridge at once. At the bridge the driver was held up. The guard would not allow the ambulance to cross. It was too dangerous. But delay meant death for the lady. I leaped into a small boat and was quickly under the middle of the bridge. The bridge was low, and by standing I could just touch it. I put my two hands under the bridge and braced it while the ambulance crossed. I was sorely tested, but I held out. I account that one of my greatest feats."
"And so you should," said Hal dryly.
"But," demanded Stephan, who was greatly interested in his brother's wonderful narrative, "how is it, that with all that weight resting upon you, and you standing in a boat, the boat didn't sink? I can't understand how, with that weight upon it, it remained afloat."
"Why," said Alexis with perfect gravity, "I forgot to mention that the stream was very shallow—in fact it could be waded. The boat was forced down by the great weight until it rested on the bottom. In that way, it was perfectly simple."
"I see," exclaimed Stephan. "A wonderful feat, truly!"
"Was the bridge made out of rubber?" asked Chester, laughing to himself.
"Rubber?" repeated Alexis. "No; it was a wooden bridge."
"Then," said Chester, "how do you account for the fact that it stretched so when the boat went to the bottom of the stream?"
"I didn't say it stretched," said Alexis.
"I know you didn't say so," grinned Chester; "but it must have stretched unless it broke in two."
Alexis looked aggrieved.
"If you don't believe me——" he began.
"I wouldn't dispute you for the world," said Chester. "I just wondered."
Alexis would have replied, but at that instant his hat was lifted from his head, and all four became aware of the distant sound of a shot. Quickly all dropped to the ground, but they were not quick enough to go unscathed. A bullet struck Stephan in the arm, and he dropped it to his side with a cry.
Instantly Alexis was all anxiety. He jumped to his brother's side.
"Are you much hurt, Stephan?" he asked tenderly, taking the injured arm in his hand.
"Just a scratch," replied Stephan. "I'll be all right."
Nevertheless Alexis would not rest until he had bound up the wound with his handkerchief. In the meantime, from their positions on the ground, the others had been popping away at the enemy. Several rounds of shots were exchanged but none of the four friends was hit again. The enemy was so far away that the lads could not tell whether or not their fire was effective.
Bullets began to drop closely about them, in their exposed position. Also they fell oftener now, indicating that the force opposed to them was numerically superior.
"Great Scott!" exclaimed Hal, as his hat seemed to leap suddenly from his head. "We'll have to get away from here. This is too close for comfort."
"You bet," said Chester. "Now when I say the word we'll all jump to our feet and make a dash for those trees in the distance."
At the word, the four sprang to their feet, and not even waiting to take a parting shot at the enemy, dashed away as fast as their feet would carry them. Hal took the lead, and behind him came Stephan, then Alexis and then Chester.
When Hal reached the trees, uninjured, he turned to speak to Chester. What was his amazement and dismay to find that Chester was not there. At that moment Alexis and Stephan dashed into the shelter. Hal glanced back over the distance they had come.
There lay Chester, in the open field. He had been struck down by a German bullet, and even now the enemy, with a triumphant cry, was charging down upon him. With a cry, Hal leaped forward, but the iron hand of Alexis stayed him.
"You stay here," said the giant. "I'll get him!"
Discarding his rifle, he dashed forward in the very face of the onrushing foe. Chester's life hung in the balance!
TWO TO THE RESCUE.
As friend and foe alike bore down on him, Hal saw Chester raise himself. He got to his knees, struggled to his feet, staggered, and then fell back again.
The Germans rushing toward the lad numbered twenty—Hal counted them. They were approaching the prostrate form of the lad as rapidly as they could, afoot. But Alexis was nearer, and it was evident that he would reach the lad first.
The giant Cossack covered the intervening space with long bounds, going at a speed of which Hal had not deemed him capable.
And now, as he came close to Chester, a second form bounded after him. There was a flash of a hairy body as Marquis leaped forward and set out after Alexis. He came up with the latter before he reached Chester, and they came to the lad's body together.
In the meantime, Hal and Stephan kept up a steady fire with their rifles, pouring a hail of bullets in the direction of the advancing Germans. One man fell, but the others dashed on.
At this point Hal made a startling discovery. The magazine of his weapon was empty and he had not another cartridge. At the same moment Stephan fired his last remaining shot. Hal sprang forward and seized the weapon Alexis had thrown down when he dashed to Chester's aid. It was empty. The lad uttered a cry of dismay, and turned his eyes. The two still had their revolvers, but the distance was too great for a pistol bullet.
Alexis, having reached Chester's side, knelt and raised the lad's head to his knee. Hurriedly he drew his canteen and poured a little water down his throat. Chester looked up into the Cossack's face and smiled feebly. Alexis tried to place him upon his feet, but the lad was too weak to stand.
A fierce growl from Marquis, who had been standing guard over the two, with bared fangs and bristling back, called Alexis to more serious work. The Germans, apparently fearing nothing at the hands of one man, a wounded boy and a dog, had come within fifty feet without firing a shot at the trio. Now, as they approached closer, the leader of the band called out: "You are my prisoners!"
Without waiting to reply, Alexis leaped toward them. His sword flashed from his scabbard and whirled aloft even as he jumped. He was among the enemy before they realized what had happened.
The suddenness of the giant's spring stood him in good stead. Before a rifle or a revolver could be brought to bear on the huge form, Alexis had come to such close quarters with his foes as to prevent the use of firearms. The German leader did draw his revolver, but the melee was so fierce and men were tangled up so that he was unable to fire for fear of hitting one of his own men.
To the right, to the left, and straight ahead darted the fiery sword of the giant Cossack. The Germans gave back before the very savageness of this attack, but Alexis kept close in among them, for while he was fighting mad, he was still cool enough to realize that his hope of life lay in his keeping in the center of the enemy.
Before the thrust of the angry sword three men fell. The blades of the others who encircled him hissed above his head, flashed by his side, but his single weapon so far had formed a perfect barrier. Not a thrust or a slash had passed it. Ten swords clashed against the giant's blade at once. With a quick move, he swept them all aside, and with a quick thrust disposed of another of the enemy.
With a rapid spring forward he avoided the weapons that would have been buried in his back by his foes in the rear, and sweeping his sword around his head with such rapidity that he seemed a circle of fire, for a moment he cleared a space around him.
But in that instant the German officer brought his revolver to bear and fired.
Alexis had perceived this move out of the tail of his eye and, leaping straight forward into the midst of the foe once more, escaped the bullet.
Whirling his sword about his head, the Cossack spun on his heel. The guard of the German soldiers was not strong enough to ward off this terrible blow. Two swords went spinning in the air, and Alexis' weapon, sweeping through one of the enemy, also cut down another. But again the Cossack had left an opening for the officer's pistol, and the latter was not slow to take advantage of it.
Slowly he raised his weapon and took careful aim. He had determined not to miss this time. His finger tightened on the trigger, and——
Aid came from an unexpected source.
Marquis, who, up to this instant, had remained alert over Chester, had not taken a hand in the battle. His eyes fastened at this moment on the German officer, his canine intelligence told him as clearly as words that his giant friend stood at death's door. With one fierce growl, he sprang from Chester's side, and leaped upon the German officer from behind, even as the latter pressed the trigger. The officer's aim had been deflected, and the bullet passed over Alexis' head.
The German turned upon this new assailant with an imprecation. His hand went to his holster in an attempt to draw his second revolver. But Marquis was prepared for this move. His teeth met in the officer's hand and the latter yelled with pain.
Marquis released his hold and sprang straight at his enemy's throat. The latter was thrown from his feet by the force of this attack, and in falling his head came in contact with the sharp barrel of his revolver, knocking him unconscious.
Marquis, now having entered the battle, had no thought of leaving Alexis to fight it out alone. Once in the fight, he was there to stay. He sprang forward and leaped upon a German soldier who at that moment would have plunged his sword into Alexis' defenseless back. The man gave a choking cry as the teeth of the dog found lodgment in the back of his neck and he was borne to the ground.
And still the giant Cossack, with herculean strength and unbelievable prowess, was fighting his assailants. A sword had pierced him through the left hand, another had scratched his cheek and a third had struck him in the right shoulder. But still, unmindful of these wounds, he fought on with the same determination and courage as before.
Marquis, having dragged the man off his back, Alexis plunged into the midst of his enemies anew. Two more were pierced through and through by the quick and mighty thrusts of the powerful arm. Another dropped with a bleeding head, as Alexis caught him squarely with a quick back-handed blow just in time to avoid the point of the other's weapon.
Now there were but eight Germans left, and these leaped quickly backward, thinking to put enough distance between them to allow them to draw the revolvers. But Alexis gave them no time for this. Springing after them as they turned to flee, he cut two more down with mighty strokes. Then the others scattered. The Cossack sprang after one and disposed of him before he could draw his pistol, but the others now had had time to get their guns.
A bullet struck Alexis in the right shoulder, but he did not even stagger. He rushed quickly upon one of his enemies, who stood with a revolver pointed squarely at him, his finger on the trigger. There was a sharp report, followed instantly by another and the German fell to the ground with a bullet in his head. Alexis sprang out of the cloud of smoke unharmed.
This time the Cossack had been saved from death by the hand of Chester. The lad having recovered sufficiently to take in the scene about him, had staggered to his feet, thinking to go to the aid of his companion. But he was so weak he could not stand. Then, seeing the revolver dropped by the German officer, he had crawled toward it. At last he reached it, and he had just time to aim and fire before the man who had drawn a bead on Alexis could pull the trigger.
There remained but four Germans on their feet, and these, having witnessed the mighty prowess of the giant Cossack, turned to flee. But Alexis was after them in a flash. His blood was up, and though bleeding in a dozen different places, he had no mind to quit the battle until the last of his enemies had been laid low.
But the fleeing Germans, unfortunately for them, had turned their faces in the wrong direction. Hal and Stephan, who had been struck spellbound by the terrible fighting of their friend and brother, saw the four men coming toward them, weapons in hand, with Alexis in hot pursuit. Quickly they aimed and fired. At this distance a miss was impossible. Two Germans staggered in their stride, reeled, and dropped over backward.
The others halted, appalled by the forgotten presence of this new enemy. The stop was unfortunate for them. Alexis bore down on them like an avenger, and close on his heels came Marquis. The Germans hesitated, then started to run. It was too late.
Alexis' mighty sword cut down one before he had taken a dozen steps. The other, bewildered, and not knowing which way to turn, threw down his weapons and raised his hands in token of surrender.
Alexis, however, did not perceive this move. The light of battle still flashed in his eyes, and he could see nothing but glittering swords and shining revolver muzzles. His upraised sword would have split the head of the German, had not Hal, stepping forward quickly, caught the blow upon his own weapon.
"Alexis!" he cried sharply.
The giant paused and looked around as one in a dream. Then he slowly raised his sword, gazed at the lad blankly for a few seconds, spun twice around and fell forward on his face. He had swooned.
Stephan leaped forward, and from his canteen poured water over the face of his brother. Knowing that the giant was in good hands, Hal dashed forward to where Chester still lay, having fallen back after firing the one shot. The prisoner, now unguarded, took to his heels and was soon out of range.
"Are you badly hurt, Chester?" asked Hal, anxiously, bending over his friend.
"I feel pretty weak," was Chester's reply. "But I don't believe I am seriously hurt. A bullet must have grazed my temple, and the force of the shock put me out. But say! Isn't Alexis a terrible fighter?"
"I should say he is," answered Hal. "I don't believe anyone ever saw such fighting before. Certainly not since the days of Hereward."
Hal assisted Chester to his feet and, supporting him by an encircling arm, led the way to where even now Alexis, having received first aid treatment at the hands of his brother, was sitting up and gazing about somewhat vacantly.
Chester spoke to the big Cossack.
"I owe my life to you," he said simply. "I shall never forget it."
"That's all right," replied Alexis. "I remember now. It was quite a fight, wasn't it? But I remember once when I was attacked by——"
His voice died away, and he sank to the ground again.
His friends bent over him anxiously, and Hal placed a hand over his heart. It was beating regularly while his deep and regular breathing proclaimed his condition.
"He is sleeping," said Hal quietly.
ON THE VISTULA.
"How far are we from the Vistula now, Alexis?" asked Chester, as the little party rode rapidly forward.
"Not more than seven or eight versts, I am sure," was the reply.
"Is it likely the Germans have advanced that far in this section?"
"There is no telling; we shall have to be careful."
All day long the four friends had been hurrying toward the Russian lines. Alexis, after his terrible struggle with overwhelming odds, when he had dashed forward to save Chester, had slept for hours without moving-all night, practically. When he awoke, shortly before dawn, he announced that he was in condition to move on.
Chester's wound also had benefited by the rest and now bothered him little. While Alexis and Chester slept, Hal and Stephan had succeeded in capturing four horses; and so, long before sunrise, the little party continued their flight, Marquis, as usual, trailing along behind.
For another hour now the four rode on, and then a welcome sight confronted them. Hal was the first to perceive water ahead, and called the attention of the others to it.
"The Vistula," said Alexis briefly.
There was not the sign of either friend or foe. For some unaccountable reason neither bank of the stream was guarded. Hal supplied an explanation.
"The Germans have probably been pushed back further to the South," he suggested, "thereby doing away with the necessity of a patrol here."
They drew nearer the river. At this point the stream was very deep, and there was no bridge; but as the four drew up on the bank, Chester made out a cloud of smoke coming up the stream.
"A steamer!" he exclaimed.
The lad was right. The smoke drew nearer, and at last the friends were able to discern the outline of a small river vessel steaming toward them. They jumped from their horses, and advanced to the very edge of the water, where they awaited the approaching boat.
"She may be a German," said Hal.
"It is hardly likely," said Alexis.
"But I understood the Germans had fitted out several river steamers," said Hal.
"True," replied Alexis; "I had forgotten. We shall have to be careful."
But now the vessel was close enough for those on shore to make out her flag. The emblem flying aloft was that of the Czar. Hal drew off his coat and waved it about his head.
"If they will stop and pick us up," he explained, "it may save us a tedious ride."
A sharp blast of the whistle signified that Hal's signal had been seen. The steamer came to a stop in midstream, a launch put off toward the shore, and soon grounded at the spot where the four friends stood.
Quickly they leaped into the little craft and were soon aboard the steamer, where they were greeted by the commander of the vessel. Hal explained their situation as briefly as possible.
"Well," said the commander, "I can't promise to put you ashore immediately, for I am bound further up the river in pursuit of a German steamer that has been bombarding several upstream towns. When I have disposed of the enemy, however, I shall be glad to land you down the stream, for I shall return immediately I have sunk the foe."
With this the fugitives had to be content. They were assigned quarters on the steamer, and after washing the dirt and grime from their hands and faces, they returned on deck, where they made themselves comfortable as the steamer continued on her way. They passed several little towns without stopping.
Suddenly those on deck were brought to their feet by the booming of a single heavy gun. All strained their ears to listen. The first report was followed by the sound of others. The commander of the vessel sprang to action.
"Full speed ahead!" he cried.
The steamer leaped forward faster than before. The crew prepared for action. The guns were made ready and the crews stood to their posts. The commander, from his position, motioned the four friends toward him.
"We have run the enemy down," he informed them. "Can I count upon your services if they are needed?"
"You may," replied Hal and Chester briefly.
Alexis and Stephan nodded their heads in assent.
"Good!" said the commander. "You will stay here near me, then. I shall not hesitate to call upon you."
Rounding a slight bend in the river, the Russian steamer came in full sight of the enemy. So silently had she approached, that the Germans, engaged in hurling shells upon a little village, did not perceive their presence until a shell from the Russian plowed up the water under the prow of their boat.
As soon as the Germans became aware of the presence of another enemy they turned to meet it. Their forward guns were quickly trained upon the Russian steamer and burst into action. The first salvo was harmless, for the range had not been gauged accurately.
The Russians were more fortunate with their second fire. A shell burst squarely upon the deck of the German with a loud explosion. There was a shower of steel and wood, followed by a cry of triumph from the crew of the Russian vessel. A second shell carried away the enemy's single smokestack and a third burst in the muzzle of one of the foe's forward guns, blowing it to atoms.
At full speed the Russian advanced, and when within two hundred yards swung her broadside to the enemy and poured in a rain of shells. The Germans fought back gamely, but with the first success of the Russians they seemed to have lost their heads and fired wildly. Their aim was poor, and the Russians suffered little.
Having delivered his broadside, the Russian brought his forward guns to bear and with these he raked the deck of the enemy—fore and aft—with shot and shell.
All this time the vessels had been drawing closer together. Now the German commander, apparently realizing that he was fighting a losing battle, steamed full speed for the Russian ship. By a hasty maneuver the Russian commander avoided being run down, but a second later the vessels crashed broadside to broadside.
The German vessel stood somewhat higher in the water than did the Russian craft, and before any aboard the latter realized what was happening, the foe swarmed down the side onto the Russian vessel. So sudden and unexpected was their onslaught, that for the moment the Russians on deck gave way before them; and had it not been for the presence of mind of Hal and Chester, it is likely the German rush would have been successful.
The two lads sprang forward into the very faces of the enemy, their automatics spitting fire as they leaped. Alexis and Stephan came close behind them. The very fury of their attack caused the Germans to halt momentarily, and this gave the Russian sailors time to rally and spring to their aid.
Their automatics having been emptied, the lads leaped into the thick of their foe, striking out with their naked fists. Hal twisted a sword from the hand of a German officer, and laid about him lustily. Chester, stooping, came to his feet with a sword in his hand, and joined his friend in the press. Alexis also possessed himself of a weapon and rushed forward.
By this time the Russian sailors had met the foe and the conflict became general. Slowly the Germans gave way, retreating to the side of the ship. Then, suddenly, they turned and leaped for their own vessel, which still lay close, under the guiding hand of the German commander. The Russians plunged after them, following them to the deck of the German ship.
Brought to bay, the Germans turned in a last desperate stand. Releasing the helm, the German commander himself sprang into the midst of the struggle. His sword flashed aloft, and two Russian sailors hit the deck, pierced through and through. He was a big man, this German commander, and a powerful one. As he pressed fiercely forward, for a moment the first line of Russians gave way; but at that moment he ran against a solid obstruction in the form of Alexis.
They fell to, hand to hand, and on all sides of them the others gave way. Thrusting and parrying, the two skipped forward and back, each losing ground and then recovering it. Alexis, by a quick sidestep, avoided a fierce thrust, and stepped forward to put an end to the encounter. In his haste he slipped, and slid to the deck.
With a fierce, guttural cry of satisfaction, the German stepped forward, raised his sword and would have plunged it into his opponent's breast; but Alexis was too quick for him. With his bare hand he seized the naked blade aimed at him and clung to it. In vain did the German try to draw his sword through the Cossack's hand. Alexis' mighty grip held it easily.
Now, putting forth greater exertion, by the aid of the weapon to which he clung, Alexis dragged himself to his feet. In vain did the German commander wrench at the sword. He could not free it. He at length gave up the idea, dropped the sword and leaped back.
As Alexis, now firm upon his feet once more, took a step forward, the German commander turned and ran toward a rack of rifles. Alexis did not take time to reverse the weapon he still held by the point. Raising it high above his head, he carefully gauged the distance, and let fly. The sword went hurtling through the air, turning once in its flight. Alexis' aim was true, and the point of the weapon pierced the German commander squarely between the shoulder blades. He threw up his hands and fell forward on his face.
Alexis turned and surveyed the battle.
The Germans had been pressed back by the Russians, led by Hal and Chester, until now they were fighting desperately on the stern of the vessel. Alexis dashed forward to take part in this fray; but the Germans, having witnessed the death of their commander, had lost heart. Perceiving the giant form rushing down upon them, they threw down their arms as one man. Some turned quickly and leaped overboard into the river and struck out for the shore, while others stood quietly waiting to be bound by their captors. The battle was over.
Immediately the commander of the Russian steamer ordered his men and the prisoners back aboard his own ship. Then he turned to Hal and Chester.
"As you have taken such a prominent part in this victory," he said, "I will allow you to finish the work by blowing up the enemy. You will attach a fuse to the magazine and then hurry back here, that we may reach safety before the explosion."
The two lads saluted, and made their way to the magazine of the German vessel. Here they quickly attached a fuse, and lighted it. Then they hurried aboard the Russian steamer, which immediately got under way. One hundred yards, two hundred yards, three hundred, they steamed from the doomed vessel; then there came the sound of a muffled explosion, the German craft burst into a sheet of flame, broke into two pieces, and settled slowly beneath the waters of the Vistula.
"A good job done," said the Russian commander briefly.
He turned once more to the two lads. "I want to say," he added, "that it has never been my fortune to meet two braver lads. You are English, I take it?"
"Americans," replied Hal briefly.
"So? Still, I might have known it. I have known several Americans, and they were always cool and brave. Where do you wish to go now?"
"Well," said Hal, "we would like to get back to Lodz. I suppose our regiment is still stationed there."
"I will see that you get there with all possible dispatch," the commander promised. "I will land you where it will be most convenient for you."
The lads thanked him, and walked across the deck, where they rejoined Alexis and Stephan.
"You would make a pretty good sailor, Alexis," Chester told him.
The Cossack drew himself up and strutted proudly for several moments.
"Of course I would," he said. "It is nothing new to me."
"Nothing new!" exclaimed Hal in some surprise.
"No," replied Alexis.
"You mean you have been a sailor?" demanded Chester.
"Certainly. Of course the commander of this vessel did a fair piece of work a few moments ago; but I could tell him a few things. Why, when I commanded a ship in the battle of——"
"Enough! Enough!" cried Hal, throwing up his hands in protest.
"Do you doubt my word?" demanded Alexis fiercely.
"Not at all," Hal hastened to assure him. "But, Alexis; have you learned yet what 'drawing the long bow' means?"
"No," replied the giant, "are you going to tell me at last?"
"I had about decided to," said Hal slowly; "but after this, never!"
INTO THE CARPATHIANS.
"So," said the Grand Duke Nicholas, "you find that there are adventures to be found in the eastern as well as the western theater of war, eh?"
"Yes, Your Excellency," replied Hal.
"And tell me," continued the Grand Duke, "what do you think of the Cossacks as fighters?"
"From what we have seen," replied Chester, "I should say that there are none better."
"Good!" was the emphatic rejoinder. "There are none better!" and he regarded the lads silently for some moments.
Hal, Chester, Alexis, Stephan and Marquis, after the battle on the Vistula, had returned to Lodz without difficulty. The commander of the Russian river steamer had made it as easy for them as possible. In Lodz they learned that their regiment had been ordered to the front, and had been on their way to join it, when the Grand Duke, inspecting his troops, had come upon them. He immediately had the two lads taken to his quarters, for he was greatly interested in them. Alexis, Stephan and Marquis waited without.
At last the Grand Duke spoke. "I have a mission for you, if you are willing to undertake it," he said.
"Yes, Your Excellency," replied Chester.
"Very good! As you may know, my primary aim, from the beginning of the war, was an invasion of Hungary—the capture first of Budapest and next of Vienna. This necessitates the capture of Cracow, in Galicia, and the forcing of a passage through the Carpathian mountains—a tremendous feat at this time of year. The investment of Cracow is certain. Even now my troops are within a few miles of that stronghold, and I had word this morning that part of it is in flames. Do you follow me?"
"Perfectly, Your Excellency," replied both lads.
"Very well! Now, in some unaccountable manner, my plans have always been anticipated by the Austrians. How or by whom I do not know; but I believe it has been by some of Brunnoi's bandits, who have a stronghold in the Carpathians, but mingle freely with our soldiers. Do you know who Brunnoi is?"
"No, sir," from both the lads.
"Well, Brunnoi is a veritable bandit chief—a man of great cunning and influence, besides being a born gentleman. A Hungarian, and therefore a Slav, he should naturally support the Russian cause. He has a strong following and his men would make first-rate soldiers. We are seeking his support, and so are the Austrians. However, if it is through his spies that my plans are being given to the Austrians I would like to know it. Do I make myself clear?"
"You mean," said Hal, "that you would have us find out just where he stands?"
"Exactly! He has sent me word that he will espouse our cause, but I fear he may be double-dealing. Naturally, therefore, you will keep your identities secret. That is all."
The lads saluted, and turned to depart, but before they could leave the tent a man in civilian garb entered the tent. The Grand Duke greeted him warmly and then called to the lads.
"I wish to introduce you to Count de Reslau," he said. "He, if any man, can give you information that may be of aid to you."
The two lads acknowledged the introduction, and as he recognized the newcomer, Hal started back. The latter smiled.
"I see you remember me," he said pleasantly. "I must apologize for my previous rudeness. I did not then know you were friends of the Grand Duke."
Both lads bowed. Count de Reslau was the man who had laughed at Alexis in a store in Lodz some time before—the man whom the lads believed to be responsible for their being set upon in the street. The count explained the matter to the Grand Duke.
"Well," said the latter, "I am sure these lads bear no malice." To the boys he added: "The count is one of my best friends. Being a Hungarian he has not taken up arms against Hungary, although he is in sympathy with us. I am sure he can aid you."
He then gave the count an idea of the mission the lads were about to undertake, and the count promised to help them in every way possible.
"Your Excellency," said Hal, as they prepared to take leave of the Grand Duke, "have we your permission to take Alexis with us?"
"And who is Alexis?" demanded the Grand Duke.
"Take him by all means," was the Grand Duke's reply; "and return to me at the earliest possible moment."
The lads saluted and left the tent. Alexis joined them on the outside and the boys told him of the work ahead of them.
"But how about me?" Stephan demanded. "Am I not to go too?"
"No; I am sorry," replied Hal. "The Grand Duke said nothing about you. Besides, three are better than four."
Stephan was greatly disappointed, and showed it plainly. However, he was not a man to complain. He wished them good luck, shook hands all around and set off to rejoin his own regiment.
Suddenly Hal bethought himself of Marquis.
"We can't take him," he said. "He would be in the way. What shall we do with him?"
Alexis bethought himself of a friend in the city who, he was sure, would be glad to look out for the dog while they were away. Accordingly Marquis was taken to this home, where the woman of the house readily agreed to take care of him; but when they came to leave, Marquis wanted to go, too.
"No," said Hal, and he talked to the dog quietly for several minutes, explaining to him the necessity of his remaining behind.
There could be no doubt that the dog understood, for a sorrowful look came over his face. His tail wagged in understanding of his orders, but there was a hurt look in his eyes. However, he did not protest, and when his three friends finally walked away, he stood looking after them regretfully, although making no attempt to follow.
"The first thing," said Hal, "is to procure three good horses."
"Yes," agreed Alexis, "and another to carry food."
"No," answered Hal. "We cannot be bothered with that. We shall have to live off the country."
Alexis made no objection, though it was plain to both lads that the Cossack would have rather made due preparations to care for the inner man. Three strong, wiry Cossack horses having been placed at their command, the three leaped into the saddles and set off through the streets of Lodz at a slow trot.
Darkness was falling when they came to the outskirts of the city, and turned their heads toward the southwest. As far as Cracow the roads were held by Russian troops in force, and the three travelers experienced no difficulties. They did not go close to the beleaguered city, but bore off a bit to the north, just skirting the great Russian army before the Galician stronghold.
Three days and nights they traveled without incident. Their food they purchased at little towns through which they passed, or at farmhouses; and they slept wherever they happened to be when night overtook them. But now that they were drawing close to the Carpathians, Hal decided that the order of things must be reversed.
"In the future we shall travel at night," he said. "We'll do our sleeping in the daytime."
This plan was approved by both Chester and Alexis, so that the morning of the fourth day found them approaching the long line of mountains.
The Carpathian mountains encircle Hungary on three sides, separating it from Germany on the northwest, from Galicia on the northeast and from Turkey on the southeast. At the southern extremity of the range, a branch proceeds in a southerly direction across the Danube to the center of European Turkey, connecting the Carpathian mountains with the great eastern branch of the Alps.
It can readily be seen, therefore, that the Carpathians are much like the Alps—made up of rugged peaks between which are narrow passes. These passes furnish the only means of getting across the mountains.
In their search for Brunnoi, the boys and Alexis were now approaching that part of the mountains which separates Hungary from Galicia, and through which there are but three passes; so that their traveling had to be done slowly and with great care.
"Now, if you will permit me, I shall take the lead," said Alexis. "I have been in these parts before. Besides I have been told of certain landmarks in these foothills which indicate where Brunnoi holds forth—not definitely enough to lead us straight to him; but I have a general idea of the direction."
No objection being offered, Alexis swung into the lead and the horses plunged up a narrow pass into the midst of the wild hills, probably the wildest and most desolate spot in all Europe. Great trees and massive rocks overhung the little pass, making progress extremely difficult. At the top of the first steep incline, the riders allowed their horses to stop and rest. Then they fared on again.
It was nearing daylight when they came upon a small hut, shrouded by trees, through which a dim light twinkled.
"We'll wait here until daylight," said Hal, "and when the occupants of the hut come out we will accost them."
They waited. Daylight came, and with its coming, a man came from the hut. Hal approached him, and addressed him in German. The man looked at him shrewdly, and then answered in the same tongue.
"Yes," he said, "we can spare you something to eat; also your friends. May I ask what you are doing in the mountains?"
"We are trying to make our way to Budapest," replied Hal. "We were captured by the Russians, and escaped. We are not familiar with the ground, however, and have met with difficulties."
"Well," said the man of the hut, "I can set you right. Come."
Over the meal they talked of the war. Finally Chester said:
"Is there any truth in the report that Brunnoi will go over to the Russians?"
"None!" cried the man, striking the table a hard blow with his fist. "I know, because I am one of his men."
"What!" exclaimed Hal, in well simulated surprise, though he had surmised as much.
"Yes," said the man quietly. "Brigands, they have called us. But they will find that when the Russians attempt to cross the Carpathians, as they surely will, we bandits will give as good an account of ourselves as will the trained troops. We love our country just as well as do those who live in Budapest. But tell me, you are not Hungarians nor Austrians, nor even Germans?"
"No," said Hal, thankful that they had been wise enough to discard their uniforms before setting out upon their mission. "We are Americans."
"Ah!" said the man. "I have heard much of them. And you have been fighting with the German army?"
"Yes," said Chester truthfully.
"But this man," said their host, turning to Alexis. "Is he an American also?"
"Yes," replied Hal, and signified for Alexis not to speak, for fear that his accent might betray him.
Their host was evidently satisfied. The meal finished, the man walked with them to the door, and pointed out the direction they were to take. Then he pointed also to the southwest.
"In that direction," he said, "lies the home of Brunnoi. No, there is no truth that he will espouse the Russian cause. Even now he is able to do much harm to their cause. He is with Austria to the last drop of blood in him."
The three took their departure, going in the direction the man had pointed out. But once out of sight, Hal changed the course, and they bore off to the southwest for several hours, looking for a place to secrete themselves for the day.
"We shall have to be very careful," said Chester.
The truth of this statement was proved a moment later. From behind came the sharp crack of a rifle. Chester's hat leaped from his head.
THE BANDIT CHIEF.
Hal, Chester and Alexis threw themselves to the ground with a single movement. A second bullet sped harmlessly overhead.
"We didn't come here to fight," Hal whispered to his friends, "so here goes."
He drew a handkerchief from his pocket, and waved it aloft. This was answered by a command in German, from some distance away.
"Stand up; put your hands above your heads and advance."
The three friends did as commanded. Three swarthy-faced men, with leveled revolvers, advanced to meet them. Quickly they searched their prisoners, relieved them of their weapons, and bound their hands securely.
"Forward march," commanded one, poking the muzzle of his weapon into the small of Chester's back.
There was no help for it. The three friends obeyed.
"Where are you taking us?" demanded Hal of one of their captors.
"To Brunnoi!" came the brief response.
"Great Scott!" said Hal to Chester, in English. "We certainly couldn't have got there quicker any other way. You don't suppose he has learned of our mission."
"I don't see how that is possible," replied Chester.
"Nor I; I suppose the thing to do is to try and convince him we are German soldiers, or else come straight out and tell him who we really are and why we are here."
"The latter way might be best," said Chester, thoughtfully. "For Brunnoi after all may not be such a staunch Austrian supporter as our late host would have us believe."
"True," said Hal. "I hadn't thought of that."
After an hour's ride they came to a little clearing in the forest that covered this point of the mountain. Here they were ordered to dismount, and for half a mile proceeded on foot. As they advanced still further the lads made out the mouth of a huge cavern. Into this dark hole their captors pushed them. Down the mouth of the cavern they walked, and then suddenly came to a sharp turn. Ten more paces and they bumped into a solid wall. One of their captors stepped forward and passed his hand over the surface of the smooth rock, and it gave way before him, turning on well-oiled hinges.
"Great Scott!" muttered Chester. "I have read of these things, but I never expected to see one."
The rock fell into place behind them, and the boys saw that they stood in a well-lighted compartment, in which stood a table and chairs. Their guards led them further along, to where they perceived a closed door. On this one of their captors knocked sharply.
"Come in," came a deep voice from beyond the door.
One of the guards opened the heavy wooden door, and stood back, signifying for the prisoners to enter.
The three friends did so. The room was brilliantly lighted. At a large mahogany desk sat a man in a military uniform, though of what country or what his rank the boys could not tell, for they had never seen a similar uniform and the man wore no shoulder straps. The chairs in the room were beautifully upholstered, and pictures were hung about the walls. All this the lads saw at a single glance.
The man at the desk rose and approached them. He bowed slightly, and, after ordering their hands released, indicated three nearby chairs.
"Be seated, if you please," he said politely, at the same time motioning the guards to withdraw.
Hal, Chester and Alexis did as requested. There was now no question of the man's identity in the mind of any. He wore a long white beard and had a pleasant, kindly face.
Hal rose to his feet.
"Are you Brunnoi?" he asked.
"At your service," he replied. "Now, what can I do for Lieutenants Payne and Crawford, and their Cossack friend?"
The lads started to their feet upon hearing their own names thus upon the lips of a man they did not believe could possibly know them.
"Come, come, gentlemen," said Brunnoi, smiling at their surprise. "You see, many things are known to me. For instance, now, I could even tell you the object of your expedition to these mountains. Is it necessary?"
Hal threw wide his arms with a gesture of dismay.
"I guess it is not necessary," he said quietly.
"Good!" cried Brunnoi, for the first time evincing real interest in the lad. "You are a man after my own heart. You have nothing to gain by subterfuge."
"Well," said Hal slowly. "You know who we are and the object of our mission. What is your answer? Are you Austrian or Russian? Are you a Slav or not?"
Brunnoi jumped to his feet.
"Yes," he replied, "I am a Slav; but I am not one of your down-trodden Russian Slavs. I am a Hungarian, and a Hungarian—a true Hungarian—to-day is an Austrian!"
"Then," said Hal calmly, "our mission is accomplished. We know where you stand. May I ask you a question?"
"Is it true that you have been able to furnish the Austrian general staff with the Grand Duke Nicholas' plans?"
Brunnoi was silent for some moments, but at length he replied:
"I don't mind answering that question, for you will never repeat my answer to the Grand Duke. Yes, I have furnished the Austrian general staff with important information."
"Well," said Chester, breaking into the conversation, "what are you going to do with us?"
"Why," said Brunnoi, "for the present you shall be kept here as my guests—prisoners, if you prefer. After that—well, it all depends. Should the Russians come, it may be necessary to dispose of you. Therefore, you should be wise and pray for Austrian success."
"Surely you do not mean that you would murder us?" asked Hal.
"I call it by no such name," replied Brunnoi calmly. "Putting away an enemy is not murder."
"Very well," said Chester calmly. "I suppose there is no use talking about it."
"Not the slightest. Come! Follow me, and I shall show you where you will make your home."
The bandit chief arose from his chair and led the way into another compartment. Hal, Chester and Alexis followed him. This room was also fitted up comfortably, though not as pretentiously as the bandit's office. There were several beds in the room.
"You may make yourselves comfortable here," said Brunnoi. "The door will be always locked, but that need not interfere with your comfort."
He bowed and left the room, and the three prisoners heard the key turn in the lock behind him.
"It looks to me as though we are in a bad way this time, all right," said Chester, when they were left alone.
"A bad way is no name for it," replied Hal; "but tell me, Chester, did you notice anything familiar about Brunnoi?"
Chester clapped his hands together.
"By Jove!" he exclaimed. "Now that you mention it, it seems to me I have seen him some place before. But I can't place him."
"Nor I; but I am positive this is not the first time we have met. It is his voice that puzzles me."
In vain the boys racked their brains. Alexis was called into consultation. He also had been impressed by Brunnoi's likeness to some one he had seen before; but he was unable to throw any light upon the resemblance.
"Well," said Chester at length, "I can't place him and that's all there is about it. Nevertheless, I am absolutely certain I have met him some place before to-day."
The door to their prison was now opened and food was placed upon the table in the center of the room. All three were nearly famished, and they fell to with a will.
"Fattening us up for the slaughter," said Chester with a laugh. "However, I guess they won't kill us to-day."
Slowly the hours passed. There was not a single window or opening in the room, and the prisoners could not tell whether it was day or night outside. But now Hal, glancing at his watch, uttered an exclamation of surprise.
"Almost midnight," he said. "Guess we might as well turn in."
Hal and Chester tumbled into the beds, but Alexis continued to sit in his chair, brooding.
"Come on, Alexis, get to bed," Hal called. "What on earth's the matter, anyhow?"
Alexis did not reply, and Hal repeated his question.
"I was just thinking," said the giant, "what a fool I was to let these fellows take my gun away from me without even a struggle. With a good gun apiece, we might be able to get away from here."
"Cheer up," said Hal. "We are not going to be killed. While there is life there is hope. We'll get out of this ticklish situation somehow. Just be patient."
"Patient!" echoed Alexis; "how can a man be patient cooped up in a place like this?"
"Well, it can't be helped now," said Chester. "Come on to bed."
But Alexis was in no mood to turn in. For perhaps another half-hour he sat brooding; then he arose and made a tour of the room. He put his hand on the doorknob and tried it. It was securely locked, and the Cossack had no doubt that it was also bolted on the far side. He rattled the knob angrily, but there was no answer from the outside.
Alexis continued his tour of inspection. He eyed the table speculatively. It was made of oak and while not of great bulk was very heavy—as much as two ordinary men could lift. Alexis picked it up and tested its weight. Then he growled something to himself.
He also tested the chairs and even the bed on which he was to sleep, all the time growling to himself like a dog. Then, his tour of the room completed, he sat down in his chair again. Hal and Chester had been watching him from beneath lowered lids.
Hal raised himself up.
"Find anything?" he asked.
Alexis vouchsafed no reply.
"Great Scott!" cried Chester, sitting up. "Are you going to mope around all night? Come to bed and get a little rest, that you may be fit to meet any emergency should it arise."
"A good idea," growled Alexis to himself, and extinguishing the light, threw himself upon his bed.
All were up long before a guard appeared with breakfast. This they ate leisurely and then sat down to talk their predicament over calmly.
"There must be some way of getting out of here," said Chester.
"Yes," agreed Hal; "and if we are fond of life, I believe we had better get away soon. But what can we do?"
"You leave this to me," growled Alexis. "I have it all figured out and when the time comes, we will go."
"What!" exclaimed Chester. "You have found a way out?"
"Yes," replied the giant briefly.
"Then——" began Chester, but he was interrupted by the sound of a key turning in the lock of the door.
A moment later the smiling face of Brunnoi appeared in the doorway. He entered the room and closed the door behind him.
"I have come to tell you," he said, "that I am going away for possibly a week. You shall be kept here until I return. By that time I will have decided just what to do with you. I am taking most of my men with me, but I have no fear of your getting out of this room."
"We are grateful for your thoughtfulness in letting us know you are going away," said Hal sarcastically. "I am sure we shall miss you."
"I am glad of that," replied Brunnoi. "Your meals will be brought to you at regular intervals. Till I return then."
He waved his hand airily and stepped quickly through the door, closing and locking it behind him. Immediately he had left the room Alexis jumped to his feet. Hal and Chester watched him in surprise.
The giant Cossack walked over to the bed in which he had slept and quickly stripped it of its coverings. Then, when nothing but the bare frame remained he stepped inside of it. Doubling up his huge fist, he drove it into the footboard with tremendous force. There was a splintering crash and it fell in twain. Wrapping his hardly-used knuckles in a cloth he picked up from the floor, he repeated the operation on the headboard—and the bed lay in four pieces on the floor.
Seizing the first portion by one of the heavy legs, he tore at it with his naked fingers, like a dog at a bone; and soon, exerting his tremendous strength, he had stripped it clean. The second of the smaller legs he treated in the same manner, and likewise one of the larger legs at the head. Then, with these three clubs in his hands, he approached the two boys.
"Here is a weapon apiece for you," he said, extending one of the smaller legs to the lads.
Hal and Chester each took the proffered weapons. They were ungainly and heavy, but the lads realized that they were indeed formidable weapons. Alexis stood looking at them with the big leg resting lightly on his right shoulder. It was a massive piece of wood, this third leg, a terrible weapon in the hands of a giant like Alexis.
"Now," said Chester, "we have these weapons, but how are we going to get out of here?"
"Don't let that worry you," replied the giant. "As soon as we are certain the bandit king is well on his way, we'll get out."
An hour they waited—two hours, before Alexis rose slowly to his feet, indicating that the time for action had come. Slowly he approached the door and pressed his great weight against it. It did not budge.
"Surely you are not expecting to get out that way?" said Hal.
Alexis did not deign to reply. Instead he walked over to the table in the center of the room, and with a single movement swept the dishes on to the floor. Then, lifting the heavy table, he raised it above his head, and advanced upon the door.
Once, twice, thrice the stout oak table crashed against the solid door. It gave slightly. The giant struck the door a fourth tremendous blow, and the table burst into a hundred pieces.
"There," said Chester, "I didn't think it would give."
"I was afraid so, too," said Hal.
Alexis said nothing. Instead he approached the door, and pressed against it—testing it. Then he turned, and without exertion, wheeled a second massive bed into position before the door. This he braced with the third bed, so that by straining his hardest, he could not budge them.
"What are you going to do now?" demanded Hal.
"You'll see," replied the giant briefly.
He stepped between the door and the first bed, close to it. Here, bracing himself against the bed, he laid his great hands against the door and pushed. There was a slight cracking noise. Under this terrible force, the door was straining. And still the giant kept up the pressure.
The muscles in the back of his neck stood out like bands of iron. The sinews in his bare arms quivered and seemed about to leap from beneath his skin; and still Alexis struggled with the unyielding door. There came again the sound of cracking; and the giant released the pressure. Even from where they stood, the lads could see the door sway inward into place, thus showing the pressure that had been put against it.
The two lads were lost in admiration of the great strength of Alexis.
"It doesn't seem possible," said Hal, half to himself.
"It isn't possible," declared Chester.
But Alexis did not heed these remarks. Hurling the beds away with fierce kicks, he cleared a space in front of the door. Then he drew back.
"Look!" exclaimed Chester in an awed voice.
Even as he spoke, Alexis drew himself together for a spring. Ten quick steps he took, and then hurled his giant frame against the heavy door. There was a thud as he smashed against it, followed by a great crash of splintering wood, and Alexis, door and all went down in a tangled heap.
Quickly the giant extricated himself and darted back into the room, where he picked up his massive club. Whirling it wildly about his head he shouted to the lads:
Without a moment's delay, surprised as they were, the lads lifted their own weapons, and dashed after the Cossack. Straight out the door of the bandit chief's private room the three ran into the corridor beyond. Sprawling figures sitting idly about gave evidence that the chief had not taken all of his men with him. At the abrupt entrance of Alexis these jumped to their feet, drawing knives and swords.
Alexis was upon them in a trice, Hal and Chester close behind him. Rapidly the huge club of the giant rose and fell, once, twice, thrice—even to five times, and with each crushing blow a man went down with a crushed skull. The others drew back.
The two lads now ranged themselves on either side of Alexis, and together they charged the foe. There was no escape for the bandits, now backed into a corner; but they fought back with a desperation born of despair. Three minutes later there was not a man standing on his feet.
Alexis rested the end of his club upon the ground, and leaning on it, wiped the perspiration from his brow. Then, after a brief rest, he led the way to the entrance to the cavern, barred by the great rock.
"Here," said Chester, "I am afraid, is where we stop. We do not know how to open it."
Alexis pushed the lads aside and examined the rock. Then, without a word, he dropped his club and put his shoulder to the boulder that barred the exit. The first attempt made no impression. Taking a deep breath, the giant tried again. Putting every ounce of his herculean strength into this final effort, he exerted himself to the utmost.
Slowly the huge rock began to move. Slowly it began to swing outward. Then, more rapidly, until, as the catch was released, it swung away back on its hinges. Alexis, unable to recover his balance, fell forward on his face. He was up in a moment, however, and the three darted from the cavern.
For half a mile they sprinted, seeking to put as great a distance as possible between themselves and the cavern before pausing for breath. Then, suddenly, Alexis toppled over on the ground.
Hal dropped to his knees and gently raised the giant's head.
"Quick, Chester! Some water!" he cried.
Chester darted away, and soon returned with water in his cap. This Hal sprinkled over the giant's face. His efforts were rewarded at length. The color slowly returned, and Alexis heaved a deep sigh. Consciousness was returning.
"Poor fellow," said Hal softly. "He has worn himself out."
"Yes," said Chester, "and had we not brought him along, we would still be prisoners in the cavern, with our death only a question of days or hours."
"True," said Hal. "And such strength," he added, "I never saw before."
"Nor do I ever expect to see again," said Chester.
Now Alexis stirred and groaned. Then he sat up.
"What has happened?" he demanded.
"Through your prowess and bravery," Hal made answer, "we have escaped."
Alexis jumped to his feet and patted himself on the chest.
"It is true," he said, "I am a brave man; and I am a strong man, am I not?"
"There can be no question about either," replied Hal.
"Still," continued the giant, "all things considered, that was not such a remarkable feat. Now I remember once——"
"Come," he said, taking Alexis by the arm, "we must get away from here. The story can wait."
Alexis subsided without further words, and the three continued on their way.
"The thing to do now," said Hal, "is to get back to Lodz as quickly as we can. With luck, we should make it in four days."
"Yes," agreed Chester, "we have learned what we set out to learn. There is no use delaying."
The attention of all three was at that moment attracted by the sound of galloping horses, nearby. The hoof beats were coming toward them. Alexis sprang to action.
"We must have horses," he said in a hoarse whisper. "Otherwise we will be weeks getting back. We will take these."
"How?" demanded both lads in a single voice.
"Follow me," commanded the giant.
Breaking into a quick run he hurried along the road to where it curved sharply. Here they could not be seen by the approaching riders until they actually met.
Alexis took his stand in the center of the road, motioning for the boys to take positions, one on each side of the road. Then all stood waiting.
The hoof beats drew nearer, and then the horses came trotting round the bend.
"Only three! Good!" Hal muttered to himself unconsciously.
The riders were right upon Alexis before they realized that their way was blocked. They quickly drew rein and attempted to check their animals; but it was too late. Alexis had two of the horses by the bridles, and pushing them back on their haunches by main strength, succeeded in unseating the riders.
Hal and Chester pounced upon the two unhorsed men, and had their weapons before they could make a move to defend themselves. Alexis, still holding to the two horses, called upon the lads to cover the third rider, who seemed about to make a dash for liberty.
Hal was quick to obey.
"One move," he said quietly, as he pointed his newly-acquired revolver squarely at the third man, "and you are a dead man."
The latter raised his hands above his head. While Hal kept him covered, Chester advanced and relieved him of his weapons. Then he ordered him to dismount.
Alexis now approached with the other two horses, one of which he turned over to Chester. Hal took the third horse.
"We are sorry to be forced to do this," said Hal to the men whose horses they had appropriated, "but necessity knows no law. We need these animals worse than you do; therefore, we take them."
"We are thankful," said one of the men, "that you have spared our lives."
Quickly the three friends leaped into their saddles, and spurred their horses onward.
For several hours the friends rode along the narrow mountain pass without incident. They stopped once at a little mountain stream to quench their thirst and to allow their horses to drink. Then they rode on again.
Rounding a sharp turn in the road, they came squarely upon half a dozen riders, all attired in Austrian uniforms. Hal realized their peril and acted upon the instant.
"Quick!" he shouted to his two friends. "Ride them down!"
The Austrians were no less surprised than the three friends at this unexpected encounter; but they also acted quickly. They reined in their horses and drew their swords and revolvers.
But before they had time to bring their revolvers to bear, the two lads and the huge Cossack were upon them, Hal slightly in the lead.
Hal fired one shot as he swept down upon the foe, but there was no time for more. The nine horsemen met with a shock, but the Austrians, being motionless, had the worst of it. The momentum of the horses ridden by the two lads and the Cossack carried them through.
"Ride!" shouted Hal, as they burst through the enemy.
It was no time for fighting if it could be avoided, and the lads realized it. All three put spurs to their horses and dashed down the road, rounding a bend just as the Austrians, having recovered, fired. None was hit.
"This is one time where discretion is the better part of valor," panted Hal to his friends, who were riding close beside him. "We'll run for it."
The Austrians quickly turned their horses and dashed on in pursuit.
Hal, glancing back, saw that the enemy was not gaining, and reported this to his friends. Thus encouraged, they urged their mounts even faster, and before long had drawn out of sight of the pursuers. But at the very moment they seemed to be safe, Chester's horse stumbled and fell, hurling the lad headlong.
Quickly the others drew up and rushed to his assistance. The lad was not badly hurt, and was soon able to stand. Then, from the rear, came the sounds of their pursuers.
"We can't stand here," cried Hal. "Quick, Chester! Into this clump of trees."
Chester did as told and Alexis followed him. Hal, however, seizing the two horses that were standing led them in between the trees. Then he sprang to the side of the fallen animal. Grasping him by the head, he succeeded in getting him to his feet and under cover just before the Austrians came into sight. A minute later the Austrians swept by.
Hal breathed a sigh of relief.
"Pretty close," he said quietly. "Now let's get out of here by the other side."
Leading the two horses they started on. Five minutes later there loomed up through the trees what appeared to be a barn. They advanced toward it. Not a soul was about, but they proceeded cautiously for they did not wish to walk into a trap.
Hal tried the door to the barn. It was locked. Alexis soon remedied this, however. One quick twitch of his wrist and the lock came off. Hal went in, and started back with a cry of surprise.
"What's the matter?" demanded Chester.
"Matter?" repeated Hal. "Look!"
He stepped back and Chester peered over his shoulder.
"Automobiles!" he said in astonishment
It was true. Inside the shed were four large touring cars.
"What on earth can they be doing here, I wonder," said Chester.
"I haven't the faintest idea," replied Hal, "but if we can find any petrol I should say it is a lucky find for us."
He made a rapid inspection of the shed, and stopped at the far end with a low whistle.
"What is it now?" demanded Chester.
"Petrol," replied Hal. "Gallons and gallons of it. Now what do you suppose it is here for?"
"That doesn't concern us," said Chester dryly. "We'll fill up the tank of one of these cars and get away."
Quickly this was done, and the car was run out the door. Chester climbed into the rear seat and motioned for Alexis to follow him. Alexis hesitated.
"I've never been in one of those things," he said slowly. "Now, a horse is all right. I know all about a horse. But I don't know anything about these things."
"Never mind that," said Chester. "Get in here quick. Those Austrians are likely to be back any minute and we must hurry."
Alexis climbed in, plainly not without trepidation, and sank back in one of the comfortable seats. Hal already had taken his place at the wheel, and slowly the large machine moved forward.
"I wonder," said Hal to Chester, "whether we can go down these passes safely."
"Where a machine has gone once, another may go," said Chester calmly. "Besides, if you'll notice, there is a well-defined track ahead of you, and unless I am much mistaken, it goes not toward the road but away from it."
"By Jove!" replied Hal. "You are right. Now I wonder how that happens."
Gradually the car gathered speed, until it was traveling along at a good gait. Hal did not wish to go too fast, for he was not familiar with the roads, and besides, the steep grade also precluded this.
Night fell. Hal stopped the car long enough to light the searchlights.
"They may betray our presence," he said, "but if I don't light them we are likely to go into a ditch."
The car crept along slowly during the night hours, and morning found them still in the mountains. With the coming of dawn, however, Hal put on more speed, and by noon they were once more on the plains of Galicia. Then Hal "let her out."
Suddenly the machine flashed by a body of troops. Hal swerved to one side of the road just in time to avoid running into them. Chester caught a glimpse of their uniforms.
"Russians!" he called to Hal.
"Are you sure?" the latter called back.
"Sure," replied Chester.
Hal reduced the speed of the car.
"In that event I'll slow down," he said.
The car went along now at a more moderate pace; but once again on a road clear of troops, the speed was increased. They made several stops along the route, and it was late the following afternoon when they recognized the familiar minarets of Lodz. Half an hour later the lads were admitted to the presence of the Grand Duke, Alexis remaining outside in the automobile.
Hal made his report to the Grand Duke clearly and concisely.
"I feared as much," said the Russian commander-in-chief, when the lad had finished. "You have done well, however. You will rejoin your regiment as soon as convenient."
At this moment Count de Reslau appeared in the Grand Duke's tent. He did not at first notice the presence of the two lads, and bowed to the Russian commander.
"Your Excellency——" he began.
At that moment his eyes rested on Hal and Chester and a look of surprise and consternation passed over his face.
"You here?" he cried.
Hal and Chester bowed.
"Yes, sir," said the latter quietly.
The Grand Duke turned to the count with a smile.
"And they have successfully performed their mission," he said. "But it is even as I have feared. Brunnoi will support Austria. And what is worse, my plans are being learned by at least one of his agents and sent to the Austrian general staff."
"Impossible!" exclaimed the count, who had now regained his composure. He turned to the two lads. "Certainly," he said, "when I saw you last I did not expect that you would ever return here. It was a hazardous mission the Duke sent you on. Are you sure your information is authentic?"
"Perfectly," replied Hal calmly. "Brunnoi himself was our informer."
"In that case," said the count with a shrug of his shoulders, "you must be right."
He turned, and with a few brief words to the Grand Duke, left the tent. The lads talked for some moments with the Russian commander-in-chief, and then left the tent, informing him that they would join their regiment the following day. Outside, they climbed again into the automobile and Hal drove the car to the house where they had left Marquis.
The dog was overjoyed at seeing his friends again. His tail wagged fiercely and he barked with gladness, insisting upon kissing all three, in spite of their protests.
"Down, Marquis!" cried Hal with a laugh. "Do you want to eat us up. Now what do you say, sir, will you be glad to rejoin your regiment to-morrow?"
"Yes! Yes!" barked Marquis.
"Good!" said Chester. "But we will leave you here while we get something to eat. Then we will come back and get you."
The three left the house, and made their way to the nearest restaurant, where they ordered a sumptuous meal. It had been long days since they had tasted food in plenty, and they ate hungrily. It was almost dark when they left the restaurant and started after Marquis.
As they passed down a side street, five men armed with long knives sprang out upon them. The three friends were caught off their guard by the suddenness of the attack, and in spite of the fact that they drew their swords, for they were again in uniform, their assailants pressed them sorely. A sword thrust pierced Hal in the arm, and his weapon fell to the ground. He drew his revolver with his left hand, however, and fired point-blank at his adversary. His aim was true, and there was one enemy less.
At the same moment Chester ran his opponent through, and Alexis brought another to the ground. The other two turned and fled.
"I wonder what that was for?" said Chester, brushing himself off.
"I can't imagine why we should have been attacked," declared Hal.
He broke off; for at that moment he espied a figure standing in a nearby doorway; eyeing them evilly. Hal caught Chester by the arm, and pointed to the figure.
"There is the answer," he said quietly.
Chester gazed in the direction indicated. Then, with a sudden cry, both boys dashed toward the doorway.
For the man they saw, with a sneer curving his lips, wore a long, flowing, white beard and a military uniform.
He was Brunnoi, chief of the Hungarian bandits!
A STRANGE DISCOVERY.
Seeing that he was discovered, Brunnoi darted from the doorway and tried to escape. But he was not quick enough. The lads were upon him in an instant, and beneath their weight the bandit chief was hurled to the ground. He struggled fiercely, clawing and scratching like a cat; but Hal and Chester were too much for him.
Brunnoi finally ceased his struggles and lay quietly in the lads' hands. Hal took him by the collar and jerked him to his feet; then, each lad taking an arm, they led their prisoner straight to the Grand Duke's quarters. They were admitted instantly, and pushing their captive before them, they approached the Russian commander-in-chief.
"Whom have you there?" demanded the Grand Duke, looking at the prisoner.
"Brunnoi, sir," replied Hal calmly.
"What!" cried the Grand Duke, springing to his feet. "Is this the bandit chief?"
"It is, sir," replied Chester.
"I am Brunnoi," said the bandit calmly. "You have me. What will you do with me?"
"You shall be shot in the morning!" cried the Grand Duke angrily.
"I fear you are mistaken," he said quietly.
The Grand Duke grew very angry.
"You shall be shot at eight o'clock," he said very quietly. "You have already caused me much trouble. I can't afford to let you escape."
He summoned a guard of an officer and ten men, and turned the bandit chief over to them, with orders that he be shot in the morning at eight o'clock.
As Brunnoi was led by the three lads, he smiled at them.
"I will see you later," he said calmly.
The Grand Duke thanked the lads for their important capture, and then, with Alexis, they made their way to the house where Marquis was waiting for them. They were given connecting rooms and were soon in bed.
Tired out they slept heavily. Therefore, while they had expected to arise before eight o'clock, nine found them still sleeping. They were awakened at last, however, by the sounds of a commotion in the adjoining room.
The two lads sat up in bed and listened intently. Heavy footsteps tramped toward their door and it was thrown open with a quick jerk.
Hal and Chester uttered exclamations of surprise. Confronting them, in the doorway, was the smiling face of Brunnoi, who was to have been put to death an hour before. In his hand he held two revolvers, covering the lads.
"You see I have kept my word," he said. "I was not shot."
"How did you escape?" demanded Hal, asking the only question he could think of at that moment.
"Never mind that," replied the bandit. "Get your clothes on quickly, and come with me."
Under the muzzles of the two revolvers, the lads dressed hurriedly. The presence of Alexis in the adjoining room—the giant lying completely covered up by bed clothes—passed unnoticed. But Alexis, beneath his covering, heard what was going on and understood.
"Go out ahead of me," ordered Brunnoi.
He dropped his two revolvers into side pockets, but kept his fingers on the trigger of each.
"One false move and I'll drop you," he said quietly. "Now, march!"
Slowly the lads left the room, and Brunnoi followed them; but hardly had they disappeared through the door, when Alexis bounded out of bed and silently followed.
At the outside door, Brunnoi stepped back to allow his captives to pass out first. For an instant he was off his guard. It was Alexis' opportunity and he leaped suddenly forward.
Brunnoi heard the sound of the giant's footsteps. He turned quickly, and drew his revolvers, but the Cossack's leap was too quick. With a single movement he sent both of the weapons from the bandit's hands, and reached out to seize him.
Brunnoi was as slippery as an eel. He eluded Alexis' grasp and darted through the door. Now without weapons, he took to his heels.
Hal perceived the flying apparition, and reached out a hand to detain him. He clutched the flowing white beard of the bandit chief—and the beard came away in his hand. Brunnoi fled down the steps and made good his escape, Hal being too surprised to move.
Chester and Alexis were equally as astonished.
"Well, what do you think of that?" demanded Chester, in great surprise. "A false beard! But I wonder how he escaped from the firing squad."
"It's too deep for me," Hal admitted. "But we had better report this to the Grand Duke."
Together they made their way to the quarters of the commander-in-chief. The latter listened to their story with interest.
"I have just learned of Brunnoi's escape from the firing squad," he said when they had finished their account of their experience with the bandit chief. "Count de Reslau, being a Hungarian himself, was greatly interested in this Brunnoi. He asked me for a pass to see him, I granted this request. The guards saw the count leave the tent after a few moments' conversation. But when they went in to lead Brunnoi forth to execution, he was gone, and another man was there in his stead. He had exchanged places with Brunnoi."