"Have you perfect confidence in Count de Reslau, Your Excellency?" asked Hal.
"Absolute confidence," replied the Grand Duke. "Why?"
"No particular reason," replied the lad.
At this moment Count de Reslau himself entered the tent.
"I hear Brunnoi has escaped," was his first remark to the Grand Duke.
"Unfortunately, that is true," replied the Russian commander.
"Strange," said the count. "When I talked to him a couple of hours ago he seemed resigned to his fate."
"But," said the Grand Duke, "he paid these lads a visit soon after his escape. Following a struggle, he again got away."
The count glanced at the lads incredulously.
"Has it ever occurred to Your Excellency," he said quietly, "that these two lads may know more about Brunnoi than they care to admit?"
"What!" exclaimed the Grand Duke.
Hal took a quick step forward.
"What do you mean by that?" he asked calmly.
"You know what I mean," replied the count with a sneer.
He turned again to the Grand Duke. "Has it never occurred to you, Your Excellency, that these boys may be associated with the bandit—that they may have been leading you on."
"But, but," stammered the Grand Duke, "their mission to the Carpathians. Their struggle to get away and their flight. What of those?"
"Mere fiction, I should say," said the count with a shrug of his shoulders.
Hal stepped directly in front of the count.
"That is a lie," he said quietly.
The count raised a hand as if to strike him, then thought better of it and turned away without a word. Plainly the count's words had made an impression upon the Grand Duke. He looked at the two lads closely.
"What have you to say to that charge?" he demanded.
"Nothing," replied Chester, "except that it is too absurd to be given credence."
"Absurd," sneered the count. "You brought the bandit here in the first place, realizing that it would give you standing with the Grand Duke, and knowing all the time that the way had been paved for his escape. If you had no hand in his escape, how did you know he had gotten away before coming here?"
"He came after us," said Hal, "and would have led us away had it not been for Alexis."
"Absurd," said the count again and turned to the Grand Duke. "You see," he said, "how foolish that is. You should have concocted a better story," he added to Hal.
Now the Count de Reslau was one of the Grand Duke's closest friends, and, as the Duke had said, he had implicit confidence in him. It was only natural, therefore, that he should be impressed with his reasoning.
He advanced upon the two lads, and pointed an accusing finger at each.
"The count is right!" he exclaimed in a loud voice. "I can see it all! You are traitors! I would have sworn by your honor in spite of the short time I have known you. You have rendered me, I still believe, valuable service; but you have caused me to play into the hands of the enemy in other matters."
"Your Excellency," said Chester, stepping forward. "Count de Reslau possibly means well, but he is badly mistaken. His reasoning is at fault. We are innocent of this charge."
"You deny it?" fairly shouted the Duke.
"Of course they deny it," said the count. "It is hardly probable they would admit being traitors and spies."
"I understand perfectly," declared Nicholas as he stepped to the door of his tent.
"Orderly," he called, "summon the corporal and ten men."
He stepped back into the tent and turned upon the two lads angrily.
"You shall see how we treat traitors in Russia," he said.
An officer and ten men now strode into the tent. The Grand Duke waved his hands toward the two lads.
"Take them out and shoot them immediately."
The officer advanced toward the lads.
"Your Excellency!" exclaimed Hal, stepping forward.
"Enough!" cried the Grand Duke. "I will be trifled with no longer. Officer, do your duty!"
The guards surrounded the boys, and they were marched from the tent.
Count de Reslau smiled to himself as they were led away, and turned to the Grand Duke.
"Let us go out and watch the proceedings," he said.
"Very well," agreed the Grand Duke, and they hurried after the firing squad and the prisoners.
The lads stood facing their would-be executioners when the Grand Duke and Count de Reslau appeared. At that moment, Hal felt something in his pocket that gave him a sudden thrill.
"I am going to take one last chance," he said to Chester. To the Duke he called: "Your Excellency, may I make a last request?"
The Grand Duke nodded an assent.
"I would say once more, Your Excellency," said Hal, "that we are innocent. But," he paused, "I can produce Brunnoi himself!"
THE MYSTERY CLEARED.
Chester stared in astonishment at his friend. Had he gone mad and taken this means of staying their execution?
The Grand Duke staggered back a step, and Count de Reslau smiled incredulously.
"Have I your permission to do so, Your Excellency?" asked Hal.
The Grand Duke waved his hand.
"You shall have three minutes to produce him," he said angrily.
"Good!" said Hal. "It will require even less."
His right hand was in his pocket. Suddenly it flashed forth, and with it something white. Straight toward Count de Reslau the lad sprang, and before the latter could leap out of the way Hal grasped him firmly by the back of the neck with his left hand, and with his right clapped a long, flowing white beard to his face. Then with a twist, he whirled him so that he faced the Grand Duke.
"Behold Brunnoi, chief of the bandits!" he cried.
The Grand Duke staggered back again, and put one hand to his eyes.
"Impossible!" he exclaimed.
But he was forced to believe what his eyes saw. Count de Reslau and Brunnoi, the bandit chief, were one and the same man. There could be no doubt of that.
In vain did the bandit struggle to free himself from Hal's firm grasp. The lad clung to him tightly in spite of all his efforts. Then, realizing that the Grand Duke must be convinced, he dropped the beard to the ground and stepped back while half a dozen rifles covered the count.
The Grand Duke, with a wave of his arm, instructed the officer in command of the firing squad to release the two lads. Then he ordered him to conduct the bandit chief to his quarters, and motioned the lads to follow. Inside the tent the Grand Duke turned upon his false friend.
"De Reslau," he said, addressing the prisoner, "we have been friends, and for that reason I am offering you a chance to make a satisfactory explanation—if you can."
"I have nothing to say," replied the prisoner.
"Will you tell me how you have conducted your operations?"
The bandit did not reply and Hal stepped forward.
"Your Excellency," he said, "I believe I can rehearse it from beginning to end. The count probably will correct me if I am wrong."
The Grand Duke ordered him to proceed.
"Well," said Hal, "the count knew of our mission. We went horseback, but the count, being prepared for these rapid journeys, proceeded by automobile."
The bandit chief glanced at the lad in surprise.
"How did you know that?" he demanded.
"We stumbled upon your automobile garage in the mountains," said Hal quietly. "Of course, when we returned, the count was waiting for us. Why he left us behind alive when he came back here, I don't know, but I now remember how greatly surprised the count was to see us back safely. Immediately he planned to get us out of the way. Hence the attack the other night, in which we were fortunate enough to capture him."
"But the escape?" demanded the Grand Duke. "How did he escape?"
"Very simple," replied Hal. "The man to whom you gave the pass to see the prisoner was of course not Count de Reslau, but a man made up to resemble him. Am I right, count?"
"Yes," replied the bandit. "I have kept him near me for that very purpose. He had his orders that in the event I was ever arrested, he would make up to resemble me."
"Exactly," continued Hal. "Once alone with the prisoner the rest was easy. He removed his disguise, and Brunnoi removed his. Brunnoi came out as Count de Reslau, and the other man stayed. Naturally, the first thing the count thought of when he was free was to dispose of Chester and myself. Hence his call this morning. As he escaped from Alexis I succeeded in pulling off his beard. That's all there is to it."
"And now," demanded the bandit chief, "what are you going to do with me?"
"There is but one thing I can do with you," replied the Grand Duke. "The fate of Count de Reslau shall be the same as that already pronounced for Brunnoi, the bandit. You shall be shot within the hour. Personal friendship shall not keep me from doing my duty. Officer, see that my command is carried out."
The guard closed in about Count de Reslau and he was led away. Then the Grand Duke Nicholas, commander-in-chief of the Russian armies, sank into a chair, and buried his face in his arms on the table. Quietly the lads left the tent.
"By Jove!" exclaimed Chester, as they walked along, "you spotted de Reslau just in time. Another moment and it would have been too late. Tell me, how did you happen to hit it?"
"Ever since I pulled Brunnoi's beard off this morning," replied Hal, "another face has kept flashing into my mind. I could not make it out clearly until just as we stood before the firing squad. Then I saw it as plain as day."
"It's lucky for us that you did," said Chester with enthusiasm. "But here comes Alexis. He'll be glad to know that Brunnoi has been disposed of."
And he was.
"But you make much over a small matter," he said.
"Small matter!" exclaimed Chester. "I should say that proving Brunnoi and Count de Reslau were one and the same person was quite a big matter."
"If you had asked me," returned Alexis calmly, "I could have told you that several days ago."
"You could?" cried both lads in a single voice.
"Of course. I knew it right along. You see, my eyes are unusually keen. I remember once how this keen sight proved of great advantage. We were on a raid. The officer in command, using his glasses, could not quite make out objects moving some miles away. He called upon me. My eyes, being far more powerful than the glass, showed me plainly what was going on, and we were thus kept from falling into a trap. Then I remember another case——"
"One is enough," said Hal dryly. "If you knew Brunnoi and Count de Reslau were the same person, why didn't you say so?"
"Why," said Alexis in no wise disconcerted, "I didn't see that it made any difference."
"Then your sight is not so good after all," said Chester. "But what are we going to do now, Hal?"
"Well," said Hal, "I guess we might as well go get Marquis and return to our regiment. Our work here is done."
The dog was indeed glad to accompany his three friends forth once more, and so, procuring three fiery chargers, the trio set out to rejoin their regiment at the front—some miles to the west of the city of Lodz.
Most of the officers of the regiment to which the three were attached had been killed in the previous battle, and so when they finally reached it, Alexis found that instead of being a lieutenant he had become a captain.
"You see," he told the boys confidentially, "a brave man always comes into his own. You will see how these fellows fight with me at their head. They will be a whole lot different, I can tell you."
The Russians had intrenched themselves along the entire front, as had the Germans only a short distance away. During the days in which the lads had been in the midst of the Carpathians, there had been only skirmishing between the opposing forces. Long range artillery duels raged incessantly; but there had been little work for the cavalry and infantry.
There had of course been several charges and counter charges, but the advantage rested with neither side. The Russian troops, in spite of the cold weather, made themselves comfortable in the trenches, wrapped to the chin in their heavy sheepskin garments. Used to severe winter weather, the Russian troops did not fare as badly as did the Germans, who suffered severely.
The lads' regiment was stationed near the center of the long line of battle. Preparations for a movement of some sort were being made on all sides. Troops were being hurried here and there, and officers dashed hither and yon. Occasionally the men burst into song; while from the German trenches came the chanting of the "Watch on the Rhine." The men of both armies were making the best of the situation, and seemed reasonably happy.
From his pocket one of the Russian officers now produced a pack of cards. Alexis, invited to take a hand, consented, but Hal and Chester refused.
"What's the matter?" demanded the officer. "Are you too good to play cards?"
"Not a bit," smiled Hal. "We simply don't care to play, that's all. We do play occasionally, for pastime, but we don't gamble."
"Don't gamble!" exclaimed the officer. "How can you play cards if you don't gamble. Come on now, we need two more players."
"No," said Hal, decidedly. "We shall have to ask you to excuse us."
Even Alexis glanced at the lads in astonishment. Plainly this was beyond his comprehension, as gambling among the Cossacks is an ordinary pastime. But the other officer was not satisfied. He arose and came directly up to Hal.
"You must play with us," he said.
"I am sorry," replied Hal, "but we do not care to play."
"Afraid, eh?" said the Russian.
"No," replied Hal, "we are not afraid. We simply don't care to play."
"You are cowards," said the Russian, and jostled Hal with his shoulder.
Hal stood his ground and refused to be pushed aside. The Russian reached out a thumb and finger and pulled Hal's nose. Then he staggered back, for Hal had sent his fist crashing against his chest.
Quickly the Russian officer drew his sword and sprang upon the lad, who also drew his weapon and stood on guard. But now Alexis leaped to his feet, and his own sword struck up the weapons of the others.
"Enough of this," he said sternly. "Put up your swords."
"I have no desire to fight," replied Hal calmly.
"I know you haven't," sneered the Russian. "You are afraid. But I demand satisfaction for that blow."
"Well," said Alexis, "if you must fight, let it be with fists."
"Any way suits me," said the Russian.
"If he insists on a fight, I am willing to give it to him," said Hal, and quickly threw off his coat.
The Russian also discarded his heavy coat, and the two squared off. It was perfectly plain to Hal that the Russian, although considerably larger than himself, was no boxer, and he had little doubt of the outcome, for the lad was proficient in the use of his fists.
The Russian came forward with a rush. Hal sidestepped neatly, and the huge fist passed by harmlessly. Hal sent a quick sharp blow to the Russian's cheek, staggering him a bit. The latter turned and again rushed at the lad.
Quite a crowd had now collected around the combatants and watched the contest eagerly. As the Russian rushed at him this time, Hal struck up the blow with his left forearm, and stepping in close planted his right over his opponent's heart. The Russian staggered back, and at the same time Hal sent a series of left and right jabs to his opponent's face.
But the Russian, recovering, bored in again, striking out wildly at the lad. The latter gave a clever exhibition of footwork, and not a single blow landed. At the same time he continued to tap the Russian lightly on either side of the face.
Suddenly the Russian lowered his hands and stepped back.
"I quit," he said, smiling foolishly. "There is no use trying to hit a man when he runs away all the time. Now with swords or pistols——"
"There will be no swords or pistols used while I am here to prevent it," exclaimed Alexis.
At that very instant the clear call of a bugle sounded in the Russian trenches. Quickly all personal animosities were forgotten, and the men sprang to their posts.
It was the signal for an advance.
The reconnoitering cavalry of the advancing forces gave way to groups of infantry, scattered in loose formation, feeling their way toward the German trenches. The points and small flanking parties of the advance guards, in front of each column of advance, crept along with straining eyes in search of the enemy's line of observation.
A few hundred yards to the rearward the supports advanced alertly, ready to scatter into a thin line of skirmishers at the first shot and rush ahead to where the points halted. In the rear of them the infantry columns, with one rumble of artillery close to the front, moved and halted, as the thin line to the front paused for a moment to scan ahead, then pushed on again.
Out of the stillness of the dew-dripping woods in front, the shot came. There was no reply for a moment, then two or three closer reports rang loud in reply; then there came another pause, and as the hurrying supports deployed and flung themselves behind the nearest cover, in momentary scanning before pushing ahead to investigate decisively, there came a short, ragged volley from out ahead.
The reports were flat and dull, as a rule, but a few cracked viciously as though fired close at hand. These last followed the vacuum of low-flying bullets and had a spat and twang of their own.
For weeks these two armies had been facing each other; for a week assault had wrestled with counter assault and the armies had striven time after time to snatch an advantage from a massing of columns, or a seeming check.
For miles to right and left, every road, every footpath, every few yards of broken ground was trodden by the feet of short columns, prepared to charge into lines at the needed moment, when the fire of the enemy became a menace. The trenches were abandoned in the rear, yet should the columns in the rear, which by the heads formed a long, long line of supports, be hurled back in repulse after an unsuccessful attack, the trenches would be greeted as comfortable old friends and reoccupied.
The leading columns deployed into thin lines, with short intervals between the men, as the shrapnel broke. From out the blur of the mingling of landscape and sky there came, simultaneously, a whir, a crash, and the quick dash of shrapnel balls over the ground, and of the brief flash which marked the shrapnel's burst there remained only a dimly-seen lingering cloud of dirty smoke and some silent, writhing forms on the ground.
Then came crash after crash, as the hostile artillery opened in strength. The silence of the morning fled into a hideous din as the infantry broke into a dog trot and pushed ahead.
There came a clank of trace chains and the pounding of hoofs mingling with hoarse commands as the artillery of the Russians wheeled out of column to position in battery, the ring of hastily-opened breechblocks, the hollow thump of the blocks closing and the shrill notes of a silvery whistle. Then the earth began to tremble.
Thunderbolt after thunderbolt seemed to be discharging close in the rear, until the very trees shook and men swayed under the compression of air in the vicinity. Over the heads of the silent infantry, shrapnel shrieked in reply, one after another, as the batteries opened with salvos from flank to flank.
Through the gaps between the belching batteries poured the infantry, the columns dashing forward until, beneath the trajectory of the guns, it was safe to spread out in the always thin line of the infantry advance. The leading lines pushed on till they disappeared in the yet dim light, and at a short distance behind them came others, until it seemed that the end would never come, and that a hurrying city was passing.
Ahead, the leading infantry line, absorbing the scattered men of the first light contact line, halted at command under the mounting rifle fire of the enemy, halted and flung itself prone, while ready hands reached backward for intrenching tools, and the line scraped, clawed, scooped and burrowed into the fresh earth in shallow pits, and went about its business of returning the German fire.
Then a second thin line ran up and merged with the first. Again shovel and small mattock came into play and the volume of fire redoubled. Above the cracking of the rifles the only sounds to be heard were the sharp whistles of the officers. They shrilled in a variety of notes and combinations, yet with an understood speech of their own, for in parts of the line the fire slackened and two or three men left their shelter and crept forward a few paces; or, crouching down low, dashed ahead until the whistles spoke again.
Intrenching tool again; then fire. That was the order of the advance. More men crept or rushed to the new position to dig themselves into the ground and open fire, until the entire line had advanced a few yards under the hostile shots and a new line occupied the shelter trenches recently abandoned.
Here and there lay quiet forms across the path of advance. The hardy bodies in the well-fitting uniforms seemed pitilessly small and their clothing hung in baggy folds. Their comrades passed them by with hardly a glance. The litter sections were far to the rear, for their time was not yet. Duty called for assault, not for succor.
The thunder of the contending batteries continued. Over the hastily carved trenches the hostile shrapnel scorched their way, singing along with a note of wild rage, searching the crevasses and folds of the ground and scoring the earth.
But the Russian infantry still advanced.
Quietly filling the gaps that had grown in the firing line since the attack commenced, the supporting lines came to the front. Each accession of reenforcements seemed to give an added impetus to the forward movement, for upon the arrival of each fresh contingent the line surged ahead like breakers on a coast, and, like the incoming tide, each surge left its mark higher upon the strand.
With a calmness which bespoke experience, despite the light of battle which blazed in their eyes, the new men brought and distributed fresh bandoliers of ammunition to those who had gone before, then took their places alongside to aid in its expenditure. The lines were not straight. They zigzagged a trifle. There was no time for chalk-mark adjustment or inspection, and the moment a panting body struck the ground after a forward rush, the earth began to fly on the spot beneath the chop of the trench-digging tools, and the hot rifles to speak.
Men growled, muttered and shouted. Under the fighting fog that beset each one in its own way, there came snatches of song, humming and whistling. There were those, too, who fought silently, as though deeply wrapped in thought, and there was bickering when a hasty comrade crowded too close for free operation of the flying breechbolts; yet the faces were ever turned to the front, except when they turned to the sky or the earth, and nerveless hands fell sprawling with half-emptied rifles.
Where officers, binoculars in hand, bent hastily to the line, men detached themselves at intervals, and clawing at their belts, seized the wire cutters pendant there and crawled forward. Now and then one of the creeping ones would spring into the air and topple over, but the rest, apparently paying no heed, continued on their way toward where the Germans had erected wire entanglements to hold the stormers under the blast of the enemy's fire.
Ahead, the trenches of the Germans crackled and spat with fury, and even under the ceaseless rain of shrapnel from above the assaulting lines the enemy kept his place. The firing line had thickened until it was a solid mass, one man deep, and in the rear line after line had sprung to its feet and was closing up in support to the crucial assault. At the trenches of the defenders, batteries, with horses falling and being cut away in an instant, dashed to the line, unlimbered and poured in their scattering salutations of zero shrapnel to the men in front.
Came a clank and rattle of bayonets snapped onto the muzzles of the assaulting line; then, with a last frenzied emptying of magazines, the lines sprang to foot, and with hoarse voices screeching at top note, the slender line charged forward.
The trenches were lined with the defenders in an instant. The rifle fire redoubled in intensity and the artillery, which had come up to stem the tide, or assault when the supporting batteries of the attack were compelled to hold their fire for fear of obliterating their own attacking lines, barked at four-second intervals, opening great gaps in the racing line at every discharge.
In rear of the supporting lines of the assault, which were closing up at a dead run, galloped the batteries which were to make a rallying point in case the assault failed, or occupy the trenches, should the defenders be driven out, and the cannoneers clutched the side rails as the pieces swayed and rocked across the rough ground and clustered bodies which strewed the field.
At the crest of the parapet the lines, attack and defense met with a ring of steel. Bayonets flashed, darted, parried and struck. Rifle butts whirled above bare heads and the stocks crashed down through bone and flesh. From both sides came a rain of hand grenades, bombs which exploded upon touch. From the rear of the trenches there came running formed troops, to assist in the repulse of the Russians, and as the supporting lines of the attack threw themselves into the fray, the whirling, struggling, fighting lines on the trenches' top thickened and swayed.
The line sagged, bulged, trembled, and broke in huge gaps. Into the splaying breaches there rushed fresh troops from front and rear, and the lines thickened and swayed again. Men discarded their arms to lock in one another's embrace, fighting to the last.
The din was deafening, yet above it there rang out the detonation and shock of a great explosion, where a delayed mine belched upward under the pressure of the hastening troops coming up with the attacking reserve. Earth, stones, wire entanglements, arms and men shot upward in a dense geyser of death, and came down in the midst of the fierce fighting.
Then the line broke again, and the shattered reserves of the attack, summoning the last resources, poured into the breach with bayonet and magazine.
The defense gave way.
Crumpled under the last despairing hurling of last reserves, the entrenched line shuddered along its length, then the line lost its cohesion, stood irresolute for a moment, then fled precipitately to the rear.
The whistles of the Russian officers blew again and again. Officers had fallen until corporals and sergeants commanded platoons and companies; yet they, too, had their whistles and knew their duties; and out of the scramble of the attack, regardless of company, regiment or brigade, the Russians fell into rough line, knelt, and opened fire upon the routed enemy, while the supporting batteries dashed to the trenches, unlimbered and belched fire and iron into the fleeing mass.
The standards of the Russians, which had changed hands a dozen times, during the course of the assault, were planted on the works; the troops themselves, exhausted and spent by the might and fury of their efforts, threw themselves into tired heaps as other brigades came up to hold the position.
The trenches were won!
THE DEATH OF A FRIEND.
Hal, Chester and Alexis had been in the midst of the fray, where the fighting was the thickest. Not in the first line of attack, they had advanced with the first reserves. And beside them, snapping, biting and snarling, strode Marquis.
Now the herculean prowess of the giant Cossack stood them all in good stead. More than once Hal or Chester would have gone down, or been trampled under foot by the troops behind, had not the quick eye of Alexis signaled out their danger and his powerful arm come to their aid. Guarding himself perfectly from the sword and bayonet thrusts of the enemy, after the fighting became hand to hand, the Cossack fought like a madman, as did others of his race, hurling himself upon his foes with almost superhuman ferocity.
For the first time the two lads had the experience of digging trenches as they advanced upon the enemy, and in spite of the fact that they were officers, they did not shirk the work. Just before reaching the parapet, the first line of reserves—to which the friends were attached—joined the original first line and sprang into the trenches together.
There they fought with desperation. Not a word was exchanged between them, although they fought side by side. There was no time for conversation. The press was too thick, and death too near.
But now that the Germans had turned to flee, the Russians sent up a wild cry of triumph. Hal, Chester and Alexis rested upon their weapons, watching the troops pour a hail of lead into the flying foe. Marquis advanced several paces ahead of the farthest Russian troops, stood up on his hind legs and let out a bark of joy. Bullets flew around him, and Chester, realizing the dog's danger, whistled sharply. Marquis turned and wagged his tail at his friend, and opened his mouth in one more joyful bark.
It was at that moment that a German bullet struck him. Without a sound the noble animal crumpled up and fell to the ground. The ball had pierced his throat. But life was not extinct. Marquis struggled to his feet, and dragged himself toward Hal and Chester, who, having seen him fall, dashed toward him.
Gently Chester lifted Marquis' heavy weight up in his arms, holding him so that the blood would not flow so rapidly from the gaping wound in his throat. Marquis looked up into the lad's face, and uttered a low, painful bark. His tail wagged.
Quickly the lads hurried back to Alexis and as quickly sought out a surgeon. Chester laid Marquis gently on the ground, and the surgeon bent over him. After a brief examination he arose and shook his head.
"No hope," he said quietly. "The bullet pierced his jugular vein."
"Isn't there something you can do?" pleaded Chester, tears streaming down his face.
The surgeon shook his head sadly.
"Nothing," he said, and hurried away.
Chester picked Marquis up again, and followed by Hal and Alexis, made his way toward the rear, where the troops were more scattered, and where there was none to bother them. Hal drew off his coat, and Chester laid the dog on it.
Marquis did not whimper. He, as well as his three friends, seemed to know that death was not far off, and he was prepared to meet the end bravely, as a soldier-dog should. He turned slightly and licked Chester's hand that lay upon his head. Chester patted him gently, but he was beyond words.
Alexis extended a huge hand and softly stroked the dog's soft body.
"Poor fellow!" he said to himself.
Marquis' keen ears caught these words, and he turned feebly toward the giant Cossack, and strained slightly toward him. At the same time he slowly raised a paw. Chester saw the movement.
"He wants to shake hands with you, Alexis," he said brokenly.
The giant drew nearer, and gravely took Marquis' right paw in his great hand. Once, twice, three times he shook it gently, then laid it upon the ground and turned away. Marquis moved restlessly, and uttered a short bark. He was trying to see Hal, who was kneeling behind him.
Hal arose and came around. To him also Marquis extended his paw, and Hal grasped it and pressed it. Then, shifting his position slightly, the dog also extended the paw to Chester. He seemed to know well that the end was swiftly approaching, and he wished to shake hands with all his friends before he passed away.
Now the three gathered about the head of their dying friend. Alexis clenched his great fists and spoke to Marquis.
"I shall see that you are avenged," he said fiercely. "Twenty German lives will not pay for this day's work, but I'll do the best I can. Do you understand, Marquis?"
Marquis' tail beat a weak tattoo upon the ground, and he barked feebly. He understood.
"I'll do it!" said Alexis. "You may rest assured of that."
Now the end was fast approaching. Marquis' breath came in quick gasps. Suddenly he staggered to his feet, stood upright a second, turned his face toward the distant enemy, and gave utterance to one sharp bark—a bark of defiance. Then he sank to the ground.
His three friends dropped to their knees and bent over him. He looked up into their faces and it seemed to all that he smiled at them. His tail struck the ground feebly, once, twice. He shook once with a silent convulsion. Then his body straightened out and stiffened. He lay still.
Marquis was dead.
His three friends rose slowly to their feet, and lifted their caps from their heads.
"Good old Marquis!" said Hal. "But he died as a soldier should!"
"Yes," said Chester, "and with almost his last breath he breathed defiance to the Germans, whom he hated."
"There wasn't a better or braver soldier in the Russian army," said Alexis. "We must bury him with honors."
"We shall!" cried Chester.
"I am somewhat handy with a knife," said Alexis. "I shall carve him a little monument."
"And he shall be laid to rest with full military honors," said Chester.
And so it was done.
All that day Alexis worked upon the little monument. When it was finally completed, all was in readiness for the burial. The dog had made friends in the regiment. Not a man but had become attached to him; and so it was no small funeral cortege that escorted the body of the dog-hero to his last resting place.
From the quartermaster Chester had secured a large French flag.
"He shall be buried beneath his own flag," he said, and spreading the tricolor upon the ground, he laid the stiffened body of Marquis upon it.
Gently he wrapped it about the dog, and then, while practically the whole regiment stood at attention around the little grave, he placed the body in the ground and stepped back. A volley was fired over the grave, and the lads shoveled in the earth.
Now Alexis approached, and, making a small hole at the head of the grave, set up the little monument. And when he had finished, the soldiers crowded around to read the epitaph that the giant Cossack had inscribed in the hard wood. It was this:
"Marquis—killed on the field of honor!"
It was upon the following day that the welcome news came that there was to be further action. Practically every Cossack regiment at the front in Poland was ordered back to Lodz, their places being taken by other Russian cavalry and infantry.
Again in Lodz the lads learned what this new movement meant. Grand Duke Nicholas, the investment of Galicia having been successful, had decided upon an immediate invasion of Hungary. The Cossacks had been called to lead the dash over the Carpathians into the heart of the enemy's territory.
Hal and Chester had an audience of the Grand Duke. The latter summoned them to his quarters to offer an apology for his hasty action in ordering them shot some days before. Also he talked a little of the proposed invasion.
"Sixty thousand Cossack cavalry will be the advance guard," he informed them. "Behind these will come the infantry in great force. I plan to have a million men in Hungary within two months. If we are successful in forcing a passage of the mountains, and I am sure we shall be, Budapest will be at our mercy, with Vienna as the next goal.
"In the meantime the Poland campaign will be pressed, that the Germans may be unable to go to the aid of the Austrians in the south. The thing that I fear now is that Turkey may be drawn into the war on the side of the German emperor. The Kaiser has brought great pressure to bear upon them, and I fear that they cannot long be kept neutral."
"What effect would that have upon the invasion of Hungary?" questioned Chester.
"It would unquestionably delay it for days, possibly weeks. While we are prepared for the Turks, nevertheless it would probably necessitate the sending of reenforcements toward the border, and naturally I should have to draw upon the forces I am now sending into Hungary."
"I see," replied Chester. "But the Turk, as a fighting man, doesn't amount to much, as I understand it."
"In the recent Balkan war they did not show much fighting prowess, it is true," said the Grand Duke, "but officered by Germans, and under German discipline, there may be a different story to tell."
"But there is no danger of their affecting the ultimate outcome of the war?" asked Hal.
"None," was the confident reply. "What it will mean, however, is that Turkey, as a nation, will be wiped off the map of Europe, and, possibly, of Asia also."
"The sooner the better," was Hal's comment.
The Grand Duke smiled.
"It may take time," he said, "but it will be done just so surely as Turkey casts in her fortunes with Germany."
After some further talk the lads left the Grand Duke's tent, and rejoined their regiment. Everything was now practically ready for the advance to the southward, and the troops were eagerly awaiting the word that was to send them into the Carpathians, to strike a decisive blow at the Austrians.
And the word was given early the following morning.
At a fierce gallop the troop of Cossacks bore down upon the little mountain town—firing at a detachment of Austrian soldiers who ventured forth to give them battle—without checking their speed. This band of Cossacks, reconnoitering well ahead of the main advance guard, was probably 1,000 strong; the Austrians opposing them much less. With the rapidly advancing Russians were Hal, Chester and Alexis.
The advance of the Czar's troops to the Carpathians had been without incident. Whenever troops of the enemy had opposed them they had been put to flight without difficulty. The cavalry, dashing rapidly ahead, had outdistanced their cavalry and artillery support, and the entire force of mounted men—60,000 of them—were in the midst of the wild mountains.
Harassed from front and, now that they had advanced well into the mountains, also from the sides and rear, the Cossacks nevertheless pushed on. From behind rocks and trees, isolated bands of Austrians fired upon them, doing great execution, disappearing in the hills when the Cossacks turned upon them.
The reconnoitering force to which the lads were attached dashed down upon the little mountain town, the sun gleaming on their lances and revolver barrels. In vain did the Austrian officers urge their men to stand firm. After one volley at the approaching horsemen, they broke and fled, scattering in all directions. The very name, Cossack, spread terror.
Right into the middle of the little village dashed the troop. Now from every window came a hail of lead, and the Cossacks, apparently trapped, turned this way and that, not knowing which way to go. Struck by a rifle bullet, the officer in command threw up his hands and toppled from his horse. Quickly Alexis sprang to the head of the men, Hal and Chester beside him.
"Dismount!" cried Alexis.
The cavalrymen threw themselves from their horses, and at a second command, rushed directly upon the houses. With heavy kicks they smashed in the doors and rushed upon the occupants within. They soon put an end to these snipers.
But now, around one side of the town appeared a troop of Austrian horse.
Hal raised a cry of warning, and quickly the Cossacks turned and leaped upon their own horses; but the Austrian cavalry had no mind to give battle to their foes, and after pouring in a volley, turned and fled down the narrow mountain pass.
"After them!" cried Alexis.
He put spurs to his horse and dashed ahead, his men following closely.
The Austrians had not gone far when their leader called a halt and consulted with his subordinate officer. They were, the leader knew, not far from a point where he could expect reenforcements.
A plan was quickly formed. The Austrians divided into two parts. The foremost blocked the road—down which the Cossacks were rapidly approaching—near a turn, so as to remain unseen by the approaching enemy until almost the moment of contact. The second force stayed some rods behind the first, forming in two lines, one along each side of the road. Some were armed with lances and sabers, but many also carried rifles.
As for the Cossacks, all carried lances and revolvers.
The Russians went forward at a gallop. Alexis was expecting to overtake the enemy, but he was hardly prepared for the suddenness of the encounter.
Ere he could give an order, there came one loud, flaming, whistling discharge from that living barrier drawn up across the road. Alexis' horse reared, as did others of the troop. Some of the men came to a quick stop, others were borne forward by the impetus of their former speed, but reined in for orders. No man fell, though one groaned and two hurled epithets at the foe.
Alexis, now that he had his horse under control, drew his sword with his right hand, his pistol with his left, which also held the rein, and ordered his men to charge, to fire at the moment of contact, then to cut, slash and club.
The first line of Austrians, as soon as they had fired, retreated between the two lines of supports, stopping at some further distance to reform. The second line, being thus cleared of the first, poured a hail of bullets into the Cossacks as the latter were caught between them.
Many fell, but the others turned on the second barrier with furious force, some, however, rushing upon the reforming first line.
They were the best riders in the world, and many a one of them held his lance aloft in one hand, his revolver raised in the other, the rein loose on his horse's neck.
The Austrians and Alexis' foremost men fired at the same moment. The Austrians had not time to turn and flee, for the Cossacks, unchecked by this second greeting of fire, came on at headlong speed.
"At 'em, boys!" cried Hal excitedly, firing his revolver at a tall Austrian officer, who fell sidewise from his horse.
An Austrian officer struck with a sword at Chester's left arm, but only knocked the pistol from his hand. The lad found himself threatened on the right by a trooper, and slashed at him with his sword. The blow went home, but the sword's end became entangled with the victim's breast knot. A second trooper brought his rifle butt down heavily upon the sword, and it snapped off.
Chester felt a keen smart in his left leg. It came from a second sword blow aimed by the Austrian officer, who might have followed it with a third, but that he was now attacked elsewhere. Chester had no sooner clapped his hand to his wounded leg than he was stunned by a blow from the rifle butt of the trooper who had previously struck the sword. He fell forward on his horse's neck, which he grasped madly with both arms.
Still holding the broken sword in his right hand, Chester now lapsed from a sense of the tumult, the plunging and shrieking horses, the whir and clash of swords, the thuds of rifle blows, into half consciousness, while the unguided horse turned suddenly and made off in the direction from which he had come.
Meanwhile the Cossacks had been pushing the Austrians back. Hal and Alexis, fighting side by side, were so far unharmed. Right into the midst of the enemy they plunged, and for several minutes could see nothing but flying swords and lances. Then, at a signal, the Austrians turned and fled.
Hal turned to speak to Chester, but the latter was not there. In alarm, he called Alexis' attention to the fact that Chester was missing. Quickly Alexis ordered a halt and looked around. Bodies strewed the road, and leaping from their horses, the two investigated. Chester was not there.
"Great Scott!" exclaimed Hal. "What can have happened to him?"
Alexis questioned his men. One remembered that a great black charger had dashed through the troop in the midst of the battle and had fled to the rear. He remembered that a form was upon the animal's back.
"It must have been Chester," said Hal to Alexis. "Do you go on in pursuit of the Austrians, and I will go back and see if I can find him."
"Good," said Alexis. "The horse probably will run back to the main column. You should not have much trouble finding him."
With a word of command Alexis ordered the troop ahead, and Hal started back on the trail of his chum.
When Chester was again aware of things he was still clasping the horse's neck and was being borne along he knew not whither. His head ached and his left leg pained him greatly. He was dizzy and too weak to raise himself from his position. He could not hear any sound of fighting. He tried to sit up and look around, but this added to his pain, so he fell forward on the neck of his horse again.
Suddenly the horse stopped.
Once more Chester tried to sit up. This time he was successful, and in spite of the pain glanced about him. The horse had halted near a little house, set back some fifty feet from the road, and even as he looked up a woman came from the doorway. She started in astonishment at the sight of the horse and its wounded rider, and hastened back into the house. She reappeared in a moment, however, accompanied by a second woman, the latter armed with a huge revolver.
The two now approached the lad and lifted him from the horse. They supported him as he dragged himself into the house, and dropped weakly into a chair. Then the women stepped back and pointed the revolver at him.
"You shall remain here," she said, "until I can turn you over to the Austrians."
Chester was somewhat surprised. By the assistance given him by the women, he had thought that, after resting up, he would be allowed to rejoin his friends; but the set expression on the woman's face told the lad that she meant what she said.
The second woman approached with water and bandages and soon bound up his wounds. Then the lad was escorted to another room, which looked out upon the road. The woman mounted guard over him with her revolver.
"Some of our troops will be here before long," she told him. "Until then I shall guard you."
All this time Chester retained his hold on the broken sword. Suddenly, down the road, came the sound of a galloping horse. Chester glanced through the window and in a moment he had made out the figure of Hal. Quickly he stepped to the window, and before his captor could prevent him, shattered the window pane with his broken sword.
"Hal!" he cried at the top of his voice. "Hal! Here I am, wounded and a prisoner!"
The woman hurled herself upon the lad and bore him back out of sight. In his weakened condition he was no match for her. She thrust him back into the chair. He turned his eyes to the window. Hal had passed on.
"Great Scott!" ejaculated Chester. "He didn't hear me!"
But Hal had heard. He recognized the sound of his friend's voice, and realized that he was in trouble of some kind. Likewise he surmised what the trouble was, for he knew that they were in the heart of a hostile country. Therefore, he did not check the speed of his horse at once, but rode some distance further before drawing rein. Then he dismounted and tied his horse to a sapling.
Springing in among the trees, he advanced cautiously toward the house. Both women, secure in the belief that he had passed on, turned to taunt Chester. The latter shut his lips grimly and refused to make a reply.
Suddenly, from the next room, came a tremendous clattering of pots and pans.
Both women jumped to their feet.
"There is someone out there!" cried one of the women excitedly.
With her revolver pointed straight before her she moved softly toward the door. At the same moment Chester realized Hal's ruse and cried:
"Look out, Hal!"
AT BAY IN THE PASS.
When Hal, after creeping into the house through a window, had inadvertently bumped into several pots and pans, knocking them to the floor with a clatter, he drew his revolver and stood stockstill. He heard Chester's cry of warning, and, realizing that an enemy was approaching, he drew a bead upon the doorway.
An arm with a pistol appeared through the opening; there was a flash of fire and a bullet sped past him. He fired quickly in return, and the weapon of his unseen enemy dropped to the floor with a crash, followed by a shrill scream of pain.
"Great Scott, a woman!" cried Hal and leaped forward.
But the woman was more frightened than hurt. Realizing that she was uninjured, as Hal came toward her, she leaped forward and threw her arms about him, pinioning the lad's hand that held his revolver to his side. At the same moment she cried out to her companion:
"Quick! Pick up the revolver and shoot him while I hold him!"
Hal realized that he was in grave danger and struggled fiercely to free his hands. But his adversary was a very powerful woman, and having gained a secure hold, Hal was unable to free himself.
The woman who had been left to guard Chester, at the command of the other, ran to her aid. Chester, holding to the back of the chair, drew himself to his feet and staggered after her, still clinging to his broken sword.
As the woman stooped to pick up the revolver dropped by the other when Hal's bullet had struck her hand, Chester, in spite of the pain of his wounds, leaped forward. As she arose to her feet and would have fired point-blank at Hal, he knocked the weapon from her hand with a sharp blow of his broken sword.
Then coming quickly to Hal's side he took the lad's revolver from him, and, stepping back, aimed it at the head of the woman with whom his friend was struggling.
"Release him instantly," he ordered, "or I shall fire!"
The woman glanced at him over her shoulder, and smiled tauntingly.
"You wouldn't shoot a woman," she sneered.
"I wouldn't like to," replied Chester, "but if you have not released him and if both of you do not line up against that wall with your hands in the air by the time I count three, I will shoot, just as surely as I stand here. One, two——"
The woman glanced at him. Her eyes must have told her that the lad meant what he said, for, releasing Hal, she stepped quickly back and raised her hands in the air. The second woman followed her example. Chester stepped to Hal's side, and extended the revolver to him.
"Take this quick!" he commanded.
Hal did so, and without another word, Chester suddenly crumpled up in a heap on the floor. He had fainted.
Still covering the women with his revolver, Hal knelt by his friend's side. Then he turned to the woman.
"Some water!" he commanded.
Under the threatening muzzle of the revolver, the woman brought it, and at a command from Hal, bathed Chester's face. Then, still at Hal's command, she lifted the lad and placed him in a chair. Hal took his seat near the window, for he knew that it was only a question of time until some of the Russian troops passed in one way or the other. His revolver still covered the two women, who sat without uttering a word.
Gradually the color returned to Chester's face, and at last he opened his eyes and looked about. He took in the situation at a glance, and smiled faintly.
"Well, I see we won," he said.
"We did," replied Hal grimly. "How do you feel?"
"Better. I shall be all right now."
"Do you think you are equal to holding this revolver while I go out and reconnoiter?"
"Sure!" replied Chester. "Give it to me."
Hal put the revolver in his friend's hand.
"Don't hesitate to fire if one of them makes a false move," he said. "They would kill you in a moment if they had the chance."
"I'll use it if necessary; have no fear about that," replied Chester.
Hal arose and left the room and the house. He gazed up and down the road. There was no sign of troops, nor, by listening intently, could he hear hoof beats. He made his way to where he had left his horse, and tied it alongside the horse that had brought Chester to the house. Then he returned to Chester and his prisoners.
"There is no telling how long we may have to wait for our men to return," he said to his friend. "Do you suppose that if I lifted you up on your horse you could ride?"
"I am sure of it," replied Chester.
"That is the best plan," said Hal. "Come, then, we will try it."
He went to Chester's side, and still holding the revolver in his right hand, threw his left arm around his friend's neck. Chester put an arm about Hal's shoulder, and thus supported, made his way from the room without much pain.
Hal made a stirrup of his hand, and Chester, putting his foot into it, was soon astride his horse, though he winced somewhat with the pain the exertion gave him. Then Hal sprang into his own saddle, and the two turned their horses' heads in the direction of the main body of Cossacks.
Along the narrow mountain trail they rode slowly for perhaps an hour without the sight of either friend or foe. Then, rounding a sharp turning in the pass, at the top of a steep section of the road, Hal reined in suddenly with a muttered imprecation. Chester followed his friend's example.
Perhaps half a mile away came a body of horsemen, perhaps twenty of them. The sun, shining upon their uniforms, showed them to be Austrians. Quickly Hal leaped from his horse, and putting forth his utmost strength, rolled several great stones into place across the road, absolutely barring the pass. Then, after Chester had been helped to the ground, the two lads dropped behind this barrier.
The pass at this point was hardly wide enough for four men to walk abreast. On each side walls of rock rose straight up for perhaps twenty feet. Hal looked at his two revolvers and the one he had taken from the women in the house.
"Lucky we have plenty of ammunition," he said calmly.
He tested all weapons carefully and loaded them. Then he passed one to Chester.
"I am keeping two," he explained, "because, being wounded, you probably won't be able to move about as quickly as I will. I don't know how long we shall be able to hold these fellows off; but if they don't rush us, we may be able to hold out till help arrives."
"If they were Germans I wouldn't feel quite so easy," said Chester; "but I don't believe there is much likelihood of Austrians rushing us."
"Right you are," said Hal cheerfully. "They'll probably dismount, hide behind their horses and try to pick us off."
As yet the Austrians were unaware of the presence of enemies in the pass above them. They came on slowly, laughing and talking. Then one, chancing to raise his head, saw the barrier in the pass. He called the attention of the others to it. No sign of an enemy was visible, but the Austrians approached very carefully.
The two lads waited until the Austrians were so close that a miss was impossible, then, taking deliberate aim, each fired once. Two of the enemy fell to the roadside.
There came a cry of dismay from the Austrians, and they reined in their horses and sprang to the ground.
But two of them had not been quick enough, and while they left their horses at practically the same time as did the others, they did not rise again to their feet.
"Four!" said Chester calmly.
"About ten, if Alexis were doing the counting," said Hal grimly. "But I would give a whole lot if he were here right now."
The Austrians forced their horses to lie down, and took up their positions behind them. Then they blazed away wildly at the barrier ahead. They could see nothing at which to shoot, however, and their bullets did no damage.
"I wonder if the Austrians know this old hat trick?" said Chester.
Picking up a little stick, he put his cap upon it and raised it slowly over the barrier. A hail of bullets flew about it. Chester took deliberate aim at one of the Austrians who exposed himself, and Hal at another. Again their revolvers cracked once each, and two Austrians bit the dust.
"We'll be on even terms soon, if we keep this up," said Hal gleefully.
Chester tried the cap trick again; but this time it did not work. The Austrians had learned a lesson.
For perhaps five minutes there was silence; then Hal, glancing quickly over the barrier, saw one of the enemy jump to his feet and dash straight toward the barrier. In his anxiety to pick the man off, Hal fired too quickly, and missed.
The man dashed on and flung himself to the ground right up against the barrier. Here, for the moment, he was safe, for the lads could not get at him without leaning over the barrier and thus exposing themselves to the fire of the others.
A second Austrian leaped to his feet and dashed forward. This time, however, Hal did not hurry, and picked the man off with ease. Hardly had his weapon spoken, when a shot from below went whizzing by his head. Hal tumbled back to safety rapidly.
"Great Scott!" he exclaimed. "We'll have to get that fellow away from there. He almost got me that time."
"Yes; but how?" demanded Chester.
Hal considered the situation for some moments in silence. Then he passed one of his two revolvers to Chester.
"You blaze away as rapidly as you can at the Austrians with those two guns," he said. "Never mind whether you see anything to shoot at or not. Just shoot when I give the word. That'll keep those fellows under cover. I'll attend to this one."
"What are you going to do?" asked Chester.
"I'm going over after him!" said Hal grimly.
"But he is liable to kill you!" exclaimed Chester in alarm.
"If I don't get him," said Hal quietly, "he is sure to kill us both before long. Here goes!"
At the moment that he sprang to the top of the barrier, Chester opened upon the Austrians with both weapons. The man on the opposite side of the barrier was taken by surprise by Hal's sudden action. Hal toppled over upon him without warning. With a startled cry the Austrian raised his weapon to fire, but Hal was too quick for him.
His revolver, less than a foot from the man's head, spoke sharply. Hal waited long enough to see that the work had been well done, then rose to his feet, placed his hand upon the barrier, and, amid a hail of bullets from the other Austrians, vaulted back to safety.
"I got him!" he told Chester quietly, as he turned and emptied his own revolver at the enemy, who seemed on the point of rushing forward.
Quickly Chester reloaded his own revolvers, and it was well that he did so, for the enemy seemed to be manifesting a desire to come forward to the attack, apparently believing that the lads were out of ammunition.
The lads had now accounted for eight of the enemy, but they were not so foolish as to believe that the Austrians would remain in their present position and be picked off one at a time.
"They'll make a rush soon!" declared Chester.
"Well," replied Hal, "when they do we'll be ready for 'em. We can shoot straighter than they can while they are on the run. We should be able to pick off two more each before they get here."
"We'll have a try at it," said Chester simply.
It was plainly evident that the Austrians were preparing for a move of some kind. Suddenly, at a given signal, all twelve of the foe still alive, sprang to their feet and made a concerted rush toward the barrier.
"Here they come!" cried Hal. "Steady now!"
IN THE NICK OF TIME.
Hal, at the right of the barrier, confined his attention to that side of the road, leaving Chester to deal with the enemy rushing forward on the left. Three times the weapon of each lad spoke, and at each shot an Austrian fell to the ground. Firing coolly and deliberately at such close quarters, a miss was absolutely impossible.
But the lads did not have time to fire again. The enemy was at the barrier; but, instead of hurling themselves over it, as both lads had expected they would, they dropped to the ground on the opposite side of the big rocks, and there they remained.
It was indeed a peculiar situation—the enemies less than six feet apart, separated only by a few rocks. Still the Austrians, in spite of their losses, outnumbered the lads three to one.
Now the rocks of the barrier began to move inward toward the lads.
"Great Scott!" cried Chester. "They are trying to push these rocks over on us. If they tumble this barrier over, we can't hope to account for all six of them."
The lads braced themselves against the rocks; but the strength of the two was not as great as the strength of the six. Such a contest could have but one ending. The boys realized this as well as did their foes.
"Well," said Hal calmly, "it looks as though they had us. All ready for a last stand, Chester?"
"All ready," replied Chester calmly.
"When I say jump," instructed Hal, "leap backward!"
Chester nodded in understanding of this plan.
"Now!" cried Hal. "Jump!"
Both lads leaped quickly backward, and as they did so, the barrier—freed of their supporting shoulders—tumbled inward, while the six Austrians sprawled on the ground. For a moment the lads had the advantage and they made the best of it.
Hal's revolver spoke and one Austrian straightened out in the act of rising. Chester accounted for another, and then both lads sprang in close upon the foe, thus precluding the use of the foe's firearms.
Hal, grappling with two of the enemy, was giving a good account of himself; but Chester, weak from the loss of blood, was unable to hold his own. A blow from the butt of one of the Austrian's revolvers and he went to the ground.
At that moment, from their rear, came the sound of rapidly galloping hoofs. Around the bend some distance away dashed a troop of Cossacks, Alexis himself at their head. The giant Cossack took in the situation with one comprehensive glance and put spurs to his horse. The two Austrians who had attacked Chester saw the advancing Cossacks, and, turning, took to their heels.
The two with whom Hal struggled, however, were too busily occupied to notice the approach of reenforcements and sorely, each trying to bring his revolver to bear.
Alexis now jumped from his horse and dashed forward toward the three. He stretched forth two mighty hands and plucked the Austrians off the lad. Raising each high in the air, he stretched wide his arms, and then brought them together with great force. There was a crunch as the heads of the two met with terrific force. Then they hung limp in the giant's hands. He hurled them from him with a disdainful gesture, and, snatching his revolver from its holster, dropped to his knee and fired two shots in quick succession at the two remaining enemy, who were fleeing down the road.
His aim was true, and as the last of the Austrians bit the dust, Alexis turned to where Chester lay and picked him up gently in his arms. From his canteen he poured water over the lad's face and soon came signs of returning consciousness. Then he laid him gently on the ground and turned to Hal.
He gazed first at the lad, then at the dead bodies of the enemy and then back to Hal.
"Hm-m-m," he said gruffly. "Quite a fight. But where would you have been if Alexis had not arrived so opportunely?"
"Dead, I guess," replied Hal quietly. "We owe you our lives, but there is no need to tell you that we are grateful."
"Not a bit," said Alexis. "Thanks from one brave man to another are never necessary; but did you see how easily I disposed of those four Austrians?"
"It was very pretty," replied Hal.
"Wasn't it?" cried the giant gleefully. "Still, it was a trifle. I remember the time that I——"
Hal walked over to Chester's side and bent down and so did not hear the story of Alexis' might. The giant looked sorrowfully after him for a moment, muttered to himself and then he walked after him.
Chester now sat up and looked about. His eyes rested on the dead bodies.
"Looks like Alexis had been here," he muttered, for he had not yet seen the giant.
Alexis heard him and his face glowed with pleasure.
"He is here," he said, stepping forward.
Chester's face lighted up.
"By Jove!" he exclaimed. "It is good to see you. We have wished several times in the last hour that you were with us. We needed you badly. However, you arrived just in time."
Alexis blushed like a schoolboy, for he was not used to hearing others praise his prowess.
"Yes, I did arrive in the nick of time," he said awkwardly. "But come, we must get away from here."
"Have you learned the strength of the enemy in the mountains?" asked Hal a few minutes later, as they rode along down the pass.
"I learned enough to make sure that, without infantry and artillery support, the cavalry will probably be annihilated," replied Alexis briefly. "By a dash, we might be able to reach the plains of Hungary, but without support we should end our days there. I shall counsel retreat."
"But I thought you would never counsel retreat?" said Hal, smiling.
"For myself, never!" replied the giant. "But there are more lives than mine depending upon this. Therefore I say retreat."
Alexis was as good as his word. Upon their return to the main column, Alexis was called into consultation with the commanding officer. He recounted what he had learned, and urged that the retreat be begun at once.
"There are half a million men in these hills," he informed his commander, "and they are trying to draw us on. We will be allowed to go so far, and then they will close in on us. One hundred or two hundred thousand, I don't mind. We could whip them with ease; but half a million are too many for sixty thousand. If we had not outdistanced our infantry and artillery, we might do it, but without them, no."
"Still," said the commanding officer, "I have set my heart on striking one more blow at the enemy. Would you counsel against it?"
"I am always in favor of striking one more blow at the enemy," replied Alexis. "I suppose I should counsel against it, but I will not."
"Good!" exclaimed his commander. "One decisive blow to the enemy in the hills, and then we shall fall back into Galicia. Now, where are the Austrians massed?"
"It will be extremely hazardous," said Alexis slowly, "but I guess it can be done. Fifteen miles straight along this mountain pass you come to a small plateau. I advanced that far myself. Encamped there are in the neighborhood of one hundred thousand of the enemy. By a quick and silent dash and a night attack, we may be able to deal them a crushing blow; but even so, we must fall back immediately. Even then we shall be greatly harassed by the foe."
"Well," said the commander, "we shall make the attack, come what may afterward."
Alexis saluted his commander and returned to where he had left the two lads, where he repeated his interview. Then he turned to Chester.
"It is too bad," he said, "that you will be unable to take part in the battle."
"But I shall take part in it," exclaimed the lad. "You don't think I am going to sit idle while there is fighting going on, do you?"
"I am afraid you cannot help yourself," replied Hal. "You will go with the advance, of course; but you will be kept well in the rear."
In vain did Chester protest. His commanding officer overruled all of his complaints, and at last the lad was forced to make his way to the rear of the Russian army. All that day the army rested, and it was not until the following afternoon that the signal was given for the advance, for the Russian commander had so timed his movement that he would come upon the enemy after nightfall.
It was indeed an imposing sight, these 60,000 men, able to march scarcely six abreast through the narrow mountain pass, moving hurriedly through the midst of the wild Carpathians. For miles they stretched out, but they advanced rapidly, and long before night the advance guard was within sight of the Austrian position.
This was made known to the Russian commander by his scouts; and still out of sight, the Cossacks halted.
The pass was considerably wider here, and the men spread out somewhat. Outposts were thrown out to guard against a counter surprise attack, and the men allowed to lie down and rest.
The battle formation was preserved, however, and the men fell to sleep upon their arms, each and every one ready to spring up and dash forward at a moment's notice.
And still the Austrians were unaware of their approach.
Stealthily the vanguard of the Cossacks crept forward afoot. They had dismounted that they might approach the enemy with less danger of being heard. Naked blades were held firmly in their hands; revolvers and hand grenades were ready. The night attack of the Cossacks was under way.
Not a shot had been fired. Silently they stole on toward the sleeping Austrian camp. Feeling perfectly secure in the mountain fastness and believing their position practically impregnable, the Austrians failed to keep vigilant watch.
Now the first line of Cossacks, at a whispered word of command, fell to the ground on their faces. A sentry walked directly toward them, but in the blackness of the night he did not make out the silent forms.
As he turned his back on them, one shadowy form rose quickly to his feet and moved swiftly forward. There was the sound of a brief struggle, a cry stifled in his throat and the Cossacks moved forward again.
A second and then a third time this operation was repeated. Three Austrian sentinels lay dead upon the ground; still the camp slept on, unsuspecting.
More swiftly now, other troops issued from the mountain pass and spread out in a great semi-circle over the plateau. For two hours this movement continued in the darkness. The first line of Cossacks stood ready to fire at the first sign of discovery, but, undiscovered, waited for the rest of the force to get in position.
A dog in the Austrian camp barked. Others took up the cry. A sentry, aware of some strange sensation, fired his rifle in the air. At the moment the last of the Cossacks issued from the mountain pass. These last troops were mounted and stood with bared lances awaiting the word to charge.
The huge Austrian camp stirred along its length, but at that instant the Cossacks sprang to action. Came quick commands from the officers, and the first line moved upon the Austrian camp at a dead run. A hail of revolver bullets sped through the canvas of the tents, striking down those who were yet asleep and reaping a toll of death among those who were dashing to arms. Then the Cossacks charged with cold steel.
In little parties, without the semblance of formation or discipline, the Austrians dashed from their tents to beat back this sudden attack. There was no time for them to fall into position. The Cossacks were upon them. Right into the heart of the enemy's camp rushed the fearless horde in a terrible charge, cutting, slashing, hewing their way through.
The Austrians, caught unprepared, gave ground. The Cossacks followed up their first advantage closely, pressing the enemy so that they had no time to get into battle formation. A squad of Cossacks sprang toward a battery of field pieces, quickly wheeled it into position, and opened fire on the fleeing Austrians. The execution was fearful. Men went down in heaps, and those that survived fled faster than before.
The surprise was complete. A terrible confusion reigned among the enemy. The Russians pursued them relentlessly. Here and there men threw down their arms and surrendered by the hundreds.
Other mountain batteries now had been seized by the Cossacks and turned upon the foe. For a mile the Cossacks pursued the beaten enemy; then drew off as suddenly as they had come. Prisoners were abandoned. Quickly the big guns were put out of commission, and the advance guard—now the rearguard—fell back slowly, protecting the retreat of those in front.
In almost less time than it takes to tell it, the Cossacks were again in the saddle and dashing back down the mountain pass.
The Austrians, for a moment, were unable to form in solid ranks. But, at length, under the command of their officers, they formed and gave chase. But the Cossacks had too great a start. The losses of the Austrians had been terrible, those of the Cossacks comparatively slight. In spite of the fact that they had been in the midst of the fighting, Hal and Alexis had escaped without injury.
Now the Austrian cavalry, having had time to form, scattered on each side of the pass and rode after the Cossacks. They came up with the rear guard, and from the sides poured in bullets, until they were forced to draw rein because of the treacherous nature of the ground on either hand. It was here that the Cossacks sustained their heaviest losses.
But the raid had been a success; there could be no doubt about that.
The Russian commander was elated as, in the midst of his men, he ordered the retreat; but as the retreat continued, it became more hazardous. Even as Alexis had predicted, the mountains swarmed with the enemy, who rained bullets upon the Russian columns from every hand.
In spite of this, however, by noon of the following day the Cossacks had reached the spot from which they had started the day before; and here a halt was called. Videttes were placed and the troops settled down for a brief rest. While they made a good mark for the guerillas, they nevertheless were in too great force to permit of an attack in force.
Night fell, and once more the troops sprang to the saddle and continued their retreat. Morning found the vanguard well out of the mountains on the plains of Galicia, and soon the last of the rear guard had issued from the pass. Then the mighty columns spread out. There was no pursuit, and the commander ordered the retreat conducted more slowly.
Two days later the columns of raiding Cossacks rode in among the Russian troop besieging the Galician city of Cracow. Here the commander decided to remain until he should receive instructions from the Grand Duke. He dispatched Chester, who had now recovered sufficiently from his wounds as to be feeling perfectly fit, Hal and Alexis to carry word of the expedition to the Grand Duke. So the three friends again set out upon a journey.
They traveled without haste and without incident and at length found themselves once more in Lodz. Here all three reported to the Russian commander-in-chief. After receiving his congratulations, and while they yet stood in his presence, there came a terrible roar from outside the tent.
The Grand Duke listened intently. Thousands upon thousands of voices rose on the air. They were cheering. Thousands upon thousands of voices took up the cry:
"God save the Czar!"
The Grand Duke advanced rapidly toward the entrance to his tent. The two lads and the giant Cossack made as if to depart; but the Grand Duke, with a movement of his hand, signified for them to stay and so they remained.
The sound of cheering drew nearer. The Grand Duke left the tent, and through the door the lads could see him standing with bared head. Came the sound of galloping hoofs, and a cavalry troop drew up at the Grand Duke's tent. The latter stepped forward, and giving his hand to a brilliantly uniformed man, assisted him to dismount. Then, bowing low, he escorted his visitor into his tent.
As they appeared in the small enclosure Alexis fell upon his knee, and bowed till his head all but touched the ground.
Nicholas, the Czar of all the Russias, turned toward the three with a question on his lips. But the Grand Duke spoke first:
"These, sire, are three of your majesty's bravest soldiers, who have only now returned from a successful raid into the heart of the Carpathians."
The Czar glanced at the two lads.
"But these," he said, pointing his finger at Hal and Chester, "are not Russians."
"No, sire," replied the Grand Duke. "They are American lads; but they have rendered invaluable services to our cause," and while the lads stood listening, he gave the Czar a brief account of some of their experiences.
The Czar advanced and placed a hand upon the shoulder of each.
"I am glad," he said in perfect English, "to know you; and I envy my cousin George the services of such gallant youths."
Both lads bowed in acknowledgment of this compliment, and the Czar turned to Alexis, who was still kneeling.
"And this man," he said, "surely he is one of my Cossacks?"
"Yes, your majesty," replied the Grand Duke. "There is not a braver in the whole army," and he related some of Alexis' feats, as told him days before by Hal and Chester.
The Czar stretched forth a hand to Alexis, and the latter kissed it.
"You shall be remembered," said the Russian monarch.
Alexis' face glowed with pleasure. He was so taken by surprise that he was unable to speak.
The Grand Duke now signified that the three might leave the tent, and they accordingly bowed themselves out. Outside Alexis could restrain himself no longer.
"I told you I was a brave man!" he cried; "but I am even braver than I thought. I have been addressed by the Czar!"
An officer entered the Grand Duke's tent, and departed a moment later in great haste. A second later and the shrill call of a bugle carried through the town. It was the order for inspection. The Czar was about to review his troops.
An hour later Czar Nicholas stood before his army, or such a part of it as could be crowded in the plain before the Grand Duke's tent. Far out it stretched on all sides. In a short address, in which he praised his troops for their gallantry in action, the Czar predicted that success would eventually crown the Russian arms. Then he turned to an officer of the Grand Duke's staff and gave a command.
Immediately the latter approached Hal, Chester and Alexis, who, being apart from their regiments, stood a little to one side watching the ceremonies.
"Follow me!" he commanded.
Without a word the three obeyed. Straight to the Czar the officer led the way, the two lads and the Cossack wondering what it was all about. In front of the Russian monarch the officer withdrew, leaving them alone before the Czar.
The Russian ruler stepped between the three, with a smile on his face drew something from his pocket, approached each in turn and pinned something on his breast.
Alexis, Hal and Chester let their eyes drop to these objects, and all three cried out in surprise.
For the Czar of Russia, there in the presence of the army of Poland, before the Grand Duke and other Russian nobles and dignitaries, with the eyes of the entire assemblage focused upon them, had pinned upon the breasts of the two American lads and the giant Cossack the Cross of the Order of St. George!
It was their reward for bravery, and a great cheer went up from the assembled hosts.
A NEW MISSION.
The two lads were again having an audience of the Grand Duke. The latter, after ordering them to bear word to the commander of the Cossack force that had invaded the Carpathians to remain before Cracow until further notice, had also proposed a new mission to the lads.
"I would like to learn," he said, "whether there is any truth in the report that, in the event we capture Cracow, the population of Galicia will come to our support and throw off the Austrian yoke. Of course I have heard these rumors from apparently reliable sources, but I would prefer to know the truth from someone I can trust implicitly."
"We shall be glad to undertake that mission, Your Excellency," said Hal. "I believe that by using a little strategy we can gain entrance to the city. It would probably be easier for us than for one of your own men, because we are Americans and may be able to use that to advantage."
"I had thought of that," replied the Grand Duke. "In fact, it is for that reason that I selected you. I will give you a message to your commander, relieving you from active duty. My advice is that you do not take Alexis on this mission. He would probably hinder you."
The boys saluted, and taking the paper the Grand Duke extended to them, departed. On their way back toward Cracow they informed Alexis of their mission and of the fact that he was not to accompany them. The Cossack was disappointed and astonished.
"Not take me!" he exclaimed in surprise. "Why, I am good for fifty men! You know that!"
"But this is not a case of strength and fighting," Hal explained. "This is a case where strategy will count more than a hundred men."
"Well," demanded Alexis, "am I not a strategist? Did you not tell me so with your own lips? As a strategist there is none better than I. Why, I can tell you how I——"
"But, Alexis," Hal interrupted, "one look at you would tell an Austrian your nationality. You cannot expect to fool them as we did the peasant of the hills. I am sorry, but there is no help for it."
Alexis was greatly crestfallen, but he admitted the truth of the boys' reasoning.
"It is true that anyone would know I am a Cossack," he replied, "but if it came to a fight——"
"If it comes to a fight," said Chester, "we shall miss you greatly; but we shall have to try and get along without you this time."
Back with their regiment they gave the message releasing them from active duty to their commander; then, changing their uniforms for civilian garb and bidding Alexis good-by, they set out in the direction of the Galician stronghold, making a wide detour so as to approach from the north, rather than from the direction of the Russian troops in the East.
They went horseback, and they rode slowly, for they did not wish to attract undue attention to themselves by too great speed. The route they traversed made it a good two-days' journey, and long before coming to the city proper they encountered bands of Austrian troops. To these, however, they paid little heed and they were not molested.
"Evidently they don't care who goes in," remarked Chester.
"Looks that way," replied Hal; "but I'll bet they pay strict attention to anyone who tries to get out. That's where our hardest work probably will come in."
"I guess you are right," said Chester.
Nevertheless they were halted by an Austrian patrol when close to the city. To him, however, they explained that they were American tourists, caught in Galicia at the outbreak of the war, and that they had penetrated beyond the Austrian lines without being aware of it.
"We want to get back to safety," Hal told him.
The Austrian officer smiled and let them pass without further words. Inside the Galician city the lads prowled about leisurely. The extreme eastern end of the city was a mass of ruins. The shells hurled by the big Russian guns had done great damage; but the flames had been extinguished before they had reached the heart of the city, and as the Russians had later fallen back a considerable distance the city now was perfectly quiet.
Night came on, and the lads sought shelter in the home of a Galician peasant. The house was small but comfortable, and the old man who lived in it admitted them without question. They repeated to him the story told the Austrian officer, adding that the place in which they had been staying had been destroyed by a Russian shell.