"And your sympathies," inquired the old man, "are with the Austrians?"
"Of course," replied Hal quietly, "Russian barbarism must be wiped out."
"Good!" replied the old man. "I suppose you know there is considerable sentiment in favor of the Russians, however?"
"I have heard something to that effect; but I could scarcely credit it," replied Hal guardedly.
"Well," said the old man, "it is true. A plot was discovered not two days ago to give the city into the hands of the Russians. The conspirators were arrested right here in my house. They were friends of mine. I was known to be loyal, and my false friends took advantage of that fact to do their plotting here. Now my house is watched closely, although they have hesitated to arrest me."
The old man made the two comfortable for the night and left them. Before preparing for bed the lads talked over what the old man had told them. As they were getting ready to retire, they heard voices from an adjoining room.
Through a little hole in the wall they could see a stream of light. Hal put his eye to the hole. In the room beyond he made out the figures of two Austrian officers. Then the lad motioned to Chester to remain silent, and laid his ear to the hole.
"You are sure of this other plot?" came a voice.
"Perfectly; but we will nip it in the bud. There is no question but the people would welcome a Russian investment of the city. Galicia is practically in sympathy with the Russians. We have been hard put to it to keep them from rising and turning the city over to the Czar's troops."
"Well, I am sure we are equal to any occasion," said the first speaker.
Hal turned away from the wall and repeated the conversation to Chester.
"I guess that's all we need to know," he added.
"I should say it is," was the reply. "Now the question is, how are we to get back to our own lines?"
"I have a plan that may work," said Hal. "It came to me a moment ago."
"And that is?" prompted Chester.
"Well," said Hal quietly, "we will exchange clothes with those two officers in the next room."
"Good!" cried Chester.
"Let's start then."
"Hadn't we better wait until they are asleep?"
"No; I believe I have a better plan. Come with me."
Quietly the two lads slipped from the room and down the little hall. Then they turned and made their way back again, coming only as far as the door to the Austrians' room. Hal opened it and walked in. At sight of the two Austrian officers he drew back in well-simulated surprise.
"I beg your pardon," he exclaimed. "I am in the wrong room."
"Oh, that's all right," laughed one of the Austrians. "Are you the Americans who are stopping here?"
"Yes," replied Hal.
"Well," said the Austrian. "It's early yet; come in and have a chat with us. You can perhaps tell us some things about America that we would like to know."
Hal accepted the invitation, mentally congratulating himself upon their good fortune. After a lengthy conversation, Hal rose to go.
"It's getting late," he said. "Come, Chester, we may as well turn in."
Chester also rose. In going to the door it was necessary for Hal to pass behind one of the Austrians. As he did so, he quickly threw out a hand and clutched the man by the throat. At the same moment Chester sprang upon the second unsuspecting officer, and the cry that the latter would have let out was stifled in his throat by the pressure of the lad's fingers.
Hal now produced a revolver, and Chester did likewise. They covered the two officers.
"One outcry and you are dead men," said Hal calmly.
While Chester kept them covered, Hal bound and gagged them. Then the two lads stripped them of their uniforms, which they donned themselves. Feeling perfectly secure in these, the lads saw that the prisoners were well tied and unable to cry out, and then left the room, shutting the door behind them.
In the hall they encountered their host, but the latter, recognizing the Austrian uniform, did not even speak to them. The lads left the house quietly, and turned their faces toward the north, intending to go back by the way they had come.
Several times they were spoken to by Austrian officers as they walked along the streets, but to these salutations they made no reply, trusting that their apparent rudeness would cast no suspicion upon them. And it did not.
At length they came to the farthest Austrian outpost, and here, for the first time they were challenged. Hal stepped a little ahead of Chester and spoke.
"We are inspecting the lines," he said calmly.
"You cannot pass here," came the reply. "My orders are to shoot anyone who attempts to get by. The general himself couldn't pass. You will have to go back."
"Oh, all right, if that's the way you feel about it," said Hal, turning his back upon the sentry.
The sentry, believing that the lads would go away, lowered his rifle, and in that moment Hal turned quickly again and sprang upon him. A quick blow knocked the sentry from his feet, and the lads dashed forward. In the distance Hal made out the form of several horses, and the lads ran toward them.
"Quick, Chester!" cried Hal.
But the Austrian sentry had not been knocked unconscious. He was only stunned. He staggered to his feet, brought his rifle to his shoulder and fired. He was too unsteady to aim carefully, however, and the lads were unhurt.
But the sound of the shot aroused the Austrian camp. Men came rushing forward.
The boys leaped to the backs of two horses and spurred on.
"It's a race for life, Hal!" shouted Chester, as the horses dashed ahead.
A DASH FOR LIFE.
One glance over his shoulder convinced Hal that at least half a dozen of the enemy had mounted and were spurring forward in pursuit. He passed the word to Chester, and bending low in their saddles, the lads urged their horses to greater efforts.
From ahead suddenly came a body of horsemen. Before they realized it, the lads were dashing by these at a distance of less than a hundred yards. Here the Austrian uniforms stood them in good stead. The officer hesitated to give a command to his men to fire on what were apparently Austrian officers, and before he was made aware of the situation by shouts from behind, the lads had placed considerable distance between themselves and these new enemies.
Now the latter also turned and gave chase.
After some minutes the lads realized that they were easily maintaining their lead and breathed easier.
"We'll get away yet if our horses don't give out!" shouted Chester.
"All right!" Hal shouted back. "Keep up the pace!"
In their haste in seizing upon two horses, the lads had not had time to look the animals over and it soon developed that they had made a bad choice. The animals which the boys bestrode had returned only an hour before from a long and tedious journey, and consequently were almost exhausted. Under the spur they put forth their best efforts, but finally they began to tire, and despite the urging of the lads, faltered in their stride.
Hal was the first to notice this.
"I am afraid it is all up!" he shouted to Chester.
Right in the face of his oncoming enemies he drew rein. Chester followed his example, and then both lads quickly dismounted.
At this spot there was a small clump of trees. Slapping their horses across the flanks with their hats, the lads plunged in among the foliage while the tired horses made off slowly.
"Up into these trees quick," shouted Chester. "It has saved us before; it may again!"
Quickly the lads clambered up among the branches, where they lay perfectly still. The sound of the approaching Austrians grew nearer, and at last half a dozen of the enemy pulled up their mounts almost under the lads' hiding place.
"Which way did they go?" asked a voice.
"They have probably made off through the woods," said a second. "We'll have to search for them."
The tree in which the lads were hiding was the largest nearby. Up in its dense foliage the boys were absolutely hidden from the ground below. One of the Austrians glanced up into the tree.
"They may be hiding up here," he said to his companions.
"Hardly likely," replied a second.
"Well, I'll send up a couple of shots and see," said the first speaker.
His rifle spoke sharply twice. Hal felt a slight stinging sensation in his left arm. One of the bullets, as it passed, brushed his skin. The other sang close to Chester's head. But in spite of this, and in spite of the fact that another shot from below might end one of their lives, neither boy so much as shifted his position.
After firing the shot into the tree the Austrian became still, listening, as did his companions. There was no sound.
"They can't be up there," said a voice. "If they were, and even had not been hit, they couldn't remain still."
"You are right," said another voice. "We shall have to look for them elsewhere. Scatter out, men, and we'll search the woods."
The Austrians moved from beneath the tree. Waiting until he was sure that they had gone, Chester whispered to Hal:
"What shall we do now?"
"If possible," replied Hal, "we shall slip down and try to pick out a couple of fresh horses. Then we can make another dash for it."
"All right," agreed Chester, "but we had better wait here until we can get down the tree unseen."
Hal nodded in assent, and for perhaps half an hour the lads waited silently. In the distance they could hear the enemy beating up the bushes for some trace of them, but these sounds gradually grew farther away; then died down altogether.
Cautiously Hal peered down from his hiding place. There was no sign of an enemy. The lad dropped quickly to the ground, and Chester followed suit a moment later. Then they dashed silently toward the road.
Upon entering the woods in pursuit of the fugitives, the Austrians had abandoned their horses and were searching afoot. Approaching the edge of the forest, the lads saw six horses tied to trees. They ran rapidly toward them. As they did so a single Austrian, who had been left to guard the animals, stepped suddenly forward, raised his rifle and cried: "Halt!"
There was no time for either lad to draw his revolver. Chester's hand went to his pocket, even as he ran, but he did not wait to extract the weapon. With his hand still in his pocket, he pointed the muzzle of his revolver at the Austrian and pressed the trigger. The bullet sped true through the cloth, and the Austrian dropped his rifle and toppled over to the ground.
"Good work, Chester!" shouted Hal, not pausing in his stride toward the horses.
He had all six horses untied in a jiffy, and passing the bridle of one to his chum, leaped lightly into the saddle. Chester did likewise. The other horses stood still.
"No use leaving them here for the enemy to pursue us with," decided Chester.
He rode his own horse among the others, and with several quick blows of his cap, started them on ahead of them.
At that moment, the Austrians who had been scouring the woods for the fugitives, attracted by the sound of the shot, came into sight and dashed toward the lads, their revolvers spitting fire as they ran.
"Come on!" cried Hal to Chester.
It was no time to hesitate, nor to fight back while there was a chance of getting away. Putting spurs to their horses both lads were soon out of range.
"Now," said Chester, "we shall have to keep a sharp lookout for other Austrians in front; for it is certain all of our pursuers didn't enter the woods after us."
"Right you are," replied Hal.
They rode forward at a quick trot, and soon were out of sight of the enemy behind. For perhaps fifteen minutes they continued on their way without interruption, and then a band of horsemen bore down on them.
"Austrians," said Chester briefly. "What shall we do?"
"Go straight ahead," replied Hal quickly. "Perhaps they will not recognize us. We still have our Austrian uniforms. It may be they will take us for some of the searching party."
They drew nearer the approaching horsemen. The latter reined in their mounts.
"Did you find them?" Hal called out.
"No," came back the reply; "did you?"
"No," said Hal, "they must have given us the slip."
The horsemen came closer and Hal and Chester kept their faces averted as much as possible, for they knew that a close scrutiny would betray their identity.
"Well," shouted Hal, "we will look a little farther on. You search the woods. Perhaps your eyes may be better than ours."
"All right," was the reply, and the boys rode on slowly so as to give their mounts a rest. Some moments later there was a great commotion behind, and turning in their saddles, the lads saw the Austrians coming rapidly after them. They had come upon the little party who had seen the lads leaving the woods.
With a cry to Chester, Hal put spurs to his horse and soon both were literally flying over the ground, the Austrians in full chase.
But the horses that the boys now bestrode were much fresher than had been their first mounts; still, Hal saw that several of the Austrians were gaining.
Now one of the enemy drew well ahead of his companions, a bit behind came a second, while a third, who was some distance ahead of the remainder, closely followed the second. These three, at their respective distances, slowly drew closer to the lads.
Suddenly, without a word to Hal, Chester checked his horse abruptly, and his revolver flashed in his hand. Before the first Austrian could check his mount, he had come within range of the lad's weapon, which spoke sharply. The Austrian tumbled sidewise from his horse.
Chester turned and spurred on after Hal.
Now the second Austrian drew close upon the lad. Once more the latter abruptly checked his horse and turned to face the Austrian. The latter, perceiving the boy's maneuver, also drew rein. But he was not quick enough, and a second bullet from Chester's revolver laid him low. Once more the lad turned his horse's head forward and dashed on.
The third Austrian, unmindful of the fate that had overtaken his two companions, still dashed after the lads. He gained steadily, and was now a considerable distance ahead of the main body of the enemy. A third time Chester turned suddenly on the foe and a third time his revolver spoke. He missed, and the Austrian opened with his own revolver. But his aim was no better.
Chester, sitting quietly on his horse, then took careful and deliberate aim and at his next shot, the Austrian fell to the ground. Then he turned and rode on after Hal, who had slowed down to wait for him.
Once more the lads put spurs to their horses and dashed on—each forward stride of their animals taking them much nearer the Russian lines and safety—until at last they made out in the distance the outposts of the Russian camp.
Hal raised a cry of triumph, but at the same moment his horse stepped into a hole and went to his knees, hurling Hal over his head.
Chester reined in alongside his friend and leaped to the ground. The Austrians, perceiving the lad's misfortune, bore down on them with a wild cry of joy.
In spite of his tumble, Hal was uninjured and sprang quickly to his feet. Chester turned to the prostrate horse, and attempted to get it to its feet. The horse moaned with pain, and Chester gave up the attempt, for he realized in an instant that the animal had broken its leg in the fall.
With revolvers in hands, both lads turned to face their foes.
"We won't give up without a fight!" declared Hal grimly.
"No, we won't give up without a fight!" Chester agreed.
Standing behind the horse that was still on its feet the two lads pointed their weapons at the foe, who bore down upon them at top speed. There were at least a score of them, and the boys realized that the encounter could have but one end. Still they were determined to fight it out.
But now, from the rear, came a fierce yell. Turning their eyes momentarily in that direction, the lads beheld a welcome sight. Mounted on their superb chargers and galloping forward as swiftly as the wind, came a full squadron of Russian Cossacks; and as they came on, with loose-hanging reins, waving their weapons in the air, the fierce Cossack yell split the air time after time.
The Austrians hesitated; then, not mindful to retreat and allow their victims, whom they had followed so far, to escape scot-free they advanced on the lads again. Chester calmly picked off the first man on the right, and Hal disposed of the first man on the left. Realizing that assistance was on the way, the boys fought coolly and with determination, keeping the rearing and plunging horse always between them and their foes.
But this protection was soon removed. An Austrian bullet struck the horse in the head and he fell to the ground. Quickly the lads dropped behind the prostrate body and continued to pop away at their enemies. Two more went down, and still the lads were uninjured. The Cossacks were still some distance away, although approaching with the swiftness of the wind. The Austrians, seeking to end the encounter, spread out, fan-wise, and drew in upon the lads from three sides. The lads shifted their positions so as still to face all their foes. Then the Austrians came forward on a charge.
But they had delayed too long, for now the onrushing Cossacks had come within range, and a powerful voice rang out:
In response to this command, the gallant chargers of the Cossacks leaped forward. A volley rang out, and bullets whistling over the heads of Hal and Chester found lodgment in Austrian breasts and heads. The enemy turned and fled.
With a quick word of command to his men the Cossack captain, now close to the kneeling lads, pulled in his horse with a sudden movement and sprang to the ground. The rest of the troop continued its mad dash after the Austrians, who were fleeing as fast as their tired horses could carry them.
There was but one possible result of such a chase. Noble animals, though the Austrian horses were, they were no match, at their best, for the Cossack chargers. And there was no mercy in the hearts of the Cossacks for their enemies. The Austrians did not cry for quarter, and no quarter was given. Ten minutes later the Cossacks, their ranks thinned by four, returned to where their leader had dismounted beside the lads.
As the Cossack commander flung himself to the ground by their side, both lads gave a cry of glad surprise.
"Alexis!" they exclaimed in a single voice.
"The same!" replied their Cossack friend. "Don't tell me any more about your strategy. Where would you have been, if I hadn't arrived just now, eh?"
"Well," said Chester slowly, "we wouldn't be here."
"You would have been dead, that's where you would have been," said Alexis calmly. "As it was, I almost arrived too late. Perhaps next time you will not leave me behind."
"We won't try to thank you," said Hal. "But how did you happen to arrive so opportunely?"
"Why," replied Alexis, "looking across the plain I saw two horsemen pursued by many others. I knew you would return from that direction, and I surmised who it was. But here is one case where my keen eyesight almost worked to your disadvantage. I made out your Austrian uniforms, even as I would have ordered my men forward, and hesitated. It wasn't any of my business if two Austrians were killed. Then I remembered your talk of strategy, and guessed that maybe the uniforms were part of it. But, you may take my word for it, you almost used too much strategy."
Alexis now ordered one of his men to secure two of the riderless horses, and, mounting, the lads rode back toward the Russian lines with the Cossack troop. Here they wasted no time, but started at once on their return journey to Lodz, Alexis, having obtained permission from his superior officer, going with them.
Grand Duke Nicholas was well pleased with the lads' report and complimented them highly upon their bravery and resourcefulness. Then he added, somewhat sorrowfully, the lads thought:
"I shall indeed be sorry to lose you."
"To lose us!" exclaimed Chester, in surprise. "Why, Your Excellency, we have no intention of being killed."
"I didn't mean that," replied the Grand Duke, with a slight smile, "but I have other work of importance for you. In fact, I may say of greater importance than any which you have yet accomplished."
"And we shall be glad to undertake it, no matter what it is," said Hal. "I am sure we can carry it through successfully."
"So am I," replied the Grand Duke dryly. "After some of the things you have done, I would not say there is anything you cannot do."
"But this new mission?" questioned Hal.
"The new mission," replied the Grand Duke, "will carry you back into France."
"What!" exclaimed both lads in surprise.
"Exactly," said the Grand Duke. "That is why I said I would be sorry to lose you, for I know that, once back with the British troops, you will not return again to Russia."
"Well, Your Excellency," said Chester, "we have seen service with the Cossacks, and we like it immensely, but——"
"But," interrupted the Grand Duke, "you would much prefer to be fighting with the English, your own people, or a kindred people, at least. Is that it?"
Both lads bowed in assent.
"It is, Your Excellency," replied Hal.
"Well," said the Grand Duke, "so be it."
He drew from his pocket a document, which he placed in Hal's hands.
"This," he said, "you will place in the hands of either Sir John French, the British commander, or General Joffre, the French commander-in-chief. I could, of course, send the message by wireless to London, but it would be intercepted by the Germans, and, while it naturally would be sent in code, I am not at all sure that the Germans could not decipher it."
"When shall we start, Your Excellency?" asked Chester.
"Whenever it is convenient," was the reply. "And the manner of your going I leave entirely to you. I will not hamper you with instructions."
"Your Excellency," said Hal, struck with a sudden thought.
"I should like to make a request."
"Consider it granted," said the Grand Duke.
"Well, then," said Hal, "I should like to ask permission to take Alexis with us."
The Grand Duke was plainly surprised.
"He may be of great aid to us in getting through," Hal explained. "His strength is prodigious, and more than once, as I have told you, has stood us in good stead."
"Well," said the Grand Duke thoughtfully, "I will not order him to accompany you, for he would be out of his element on the other side; but, if he is willing to go, he has my permission."
After some further talk the boys took a friendly farewell of the commander-in-chief of the Russian armies and left the tent. They hunted up Alexis immediately.
"Well, Alexis," said Hal, "to-morrow we start back for France!"
The giant Cossack was on his feet in a moment.
"You mean you are going away for good?" he asked.
"Yes," replied Chester.
Alexis, although not an emotional man, was stirred deeply. The boys realized it in an instant; but he was not the man to give way to his feelings, and he said simply:
"I am sorry. I wish that you would remain here."
Then Hal broached his plan.
"Alexis," he said, "how would you like to come with us?"
The giant looked at him in surprise.
"Go with you?" he exclaimed. "To France?"
"But what would I do in France?" he questioned.
"Fight!" replied Chester briefly.
"True!" muttered Alexis.
"The Grand Duke has given his permission, if you desire to go," said Hal, "and we would indeed be glad to have you. We have grown very fond of you."
"And I of you," replied Alexis.
"In France," said Chester, "there are no such men as you. You would be a veritable Hercules, a man among men. Brave men there are there in plenty, but none such as you."
His vanity thus appealed to, Alexis saw the matter in a different light. He slapped one great fist down upon the table in a mighty blow.
"I'll go!" he shouted.
ON NEUTRAL SOIL.
"Surely you are not afraid, Alexis?" exclaimed Chester.
"Afraid!" shouted Alexis. "Of course I am not afraid. But"—he eyed the large aeroplane dubiously—"but a man was not made to fly about in the air like a bird, particularly a man of my weight. Besides, I do not like great height. If I stand upon a precipice, I am immediately struck with the notion that I must jump off. If I jumped from an aeroplane I might upset it."
Both Hal and Chester laughed.
"I was that way myself once," said Chester, "so I know just how you feel. Many a man, otherwise very brave, has that same horror of height. However, you will soon get used to it."
"Maybe so," said Alexis dubiously. "However, if one man can fly, why, so can I. I am willing to take a chance."
"Good!" exclaimed Hal. "Now to get started."
Leaving Lodz, the three had made their way north, keeping as close to the German border as was safe, until they had reached Riga, on the Gulf of Riga, which extends in from the Baltic Sea. Here they had at first thought of going part of the distance by boat, but, because of the likelihood of the approach of German warships in the Baltic, had given up this plan and decided upon an aeroplane.
"We came to Russia in an airship," Hal had said. "We might as well go back in one. Besides, it is quicker."
And so it was agreed.
Ten miles south of Riga, surrounded by Russian airmen, they climbed into the craft which the Russian commander in the little city had provided for them. The plane was large and roomy, having a seating capacity of five.
Hal took his place at the steering wheel and Chester climbed aboard.
Still eyeing the flying craft suspiciously, Alexis followed Chester, and, sitting down suddenly, took hold of the seat with both hands and hung on for dear life, although the craft was still upon the ground. Then he lowered his head and shut his eyes.
Hal gave the word, and willing hands started the machine along the ground. Gradually it gained momentum until it was skimming over the ground at a rapid gait. Then Hal threw over the elevating lever, and the machine shot into the air amid the cheers of the Russians below.
Alexis was conscious of a sinking sensation in the region of his stomach, and he ducked his head even lower as the car rose higher in the air.
"Look up, Alexis!" shouted Chester, reaching over and laying a hand on the Cossack's arm.
Now that the machine had reached a good height, Hal held it steady, and it darted ahead on a straightaway course. The plane shook with the vibrations of the engine, but otherwise there was scarcely a noticeable motion.
Now that the machine was more steady, Alexis, in response to Chester's command, slowly opened his eyes and looked about. Seeing nothing, he closed them again immediately, and again ducked his head. Once more Chester yelled at him to look about, and at last Alexis raised his head and glanced into the distance.
"This is a terrible place for a man to be," he muttered with a shudder. "If man were meant to fly he would have been given wings. It is tempting the wrath of the elements to be here."
As he looked about him, however, and became conscious of the steadiness of the craft, his composure returned, and soon he was making inquiries regarding the construction of the craft, its speed and the height to which it could ascend. He glanced over the side of the machine, and then looked quickly upward again. The one glance below had made him ill.
He smiled faintly. "I can't look down yet," he said ruefully. "I suppose I'll get used to it in time; but now I had better keep my eyes inside."
"How fast are we going, Hal?" asked Chester.
"Sixty-five miles an hour," was Hal's reply.
Alexis was astonished.
"Sixty-five miles!" he ejaculated. "Why, it seems as if we were standing still."
"If we were close enough to the earth you would soon notice the difference," said Chester.
For another hour they continued on their way without incident, and then Chester discovered the dim outline of a second aircraft trailing them at a distance. It was not gaining, but even when Hal put on more speed, at a word from Chester, he was unable to shake it off.
"Evidently a German," said Chester. "I suppose he wants to see where we are going."
For another hour the plane pursued them. Then Chester perceived that there were two instead of one, and that both were creeping up on them.
With a cry to Hal, Chester picked two rifles from the bottom of the car.
"We'll have to fight them off!" he cried.
Alexis stirred uneasily in his seat.
"I was afraid of it," he muttered. "Now, what will happen to me when I go hurtling through space to the ground below?"
Hal, in response to a command from Chester, slowed down suddenly. Taking careful aim at one of the pursuers, Chester emptied the magazine of his first rifle. There came from behind the sounds of screams, followed by an explosion.
"What was that?" cried Alexis in alarm.
"I got one of them!" replied Chester calmly. "The plane has gone to earth."
The second pursuing plane reduced its speed, but still clung on the trail of its would-be prey.
"We'll have to dispose of it some way, Hal," shouted Chester. "Turn quickly and run toward it, and I'll see if I can't send it to the ground."
He held his rifle ready as he spoke. Reducing the speed of the craft a trifle, Hal brought its head about in a wide circle; then darted suddenly toward the enemy.
But the latter was not caught unprepared, and a rifle bullet whistled close to Alexis' ear.
The giant Cossack clapped a hand to his head and for the first time looked toward the enemy. Then, reaching to the bottom of the machine, he raised up with a weapon, and, aiming at the hull of the enemy in the distance, poured the entire contents of the magazine into it. At the same moment a well-directed shot from Chester's rifle struck the pilot. He sprang to his feet, spun around crazily, and plunged from the car. A moment later and the aeroplane blew up with a loud bang.
Alexis, who had seen the pilot go overboard, let out a cry of dismay. He could not help but think of the terrible fall to the ground.
"Good work, Alexis!" cried Chester. "I told you you would get used to it before long."
"I am not used to it," replied the giant, "but when a bullet whistles past my ear I get mad. I just naturally have to fight back."
Nevertheless he made a brave effort to appear unconcerned, and he took a look over the side. At that moment Hal allowed the car to glide slowly nearer the earth. For a moment Alexis was unaware of this sinking sensation; but suddenly treetops came into view, and the Cossack let out a cry of alarm:
"We're sinking!" he exclaimed.
"Just coming down to get a look about," he replied. "Now, if you will look over at the earth a few moments, you will soon overcome your uneasiness."
Alexis, taking a long breath, did so; and he continued to peer over the side, even after Hal, touching the elevating lever, sent the plane high in the air again.
Darkness fell and still the 'plane sped on. Then, so suddenly that they seemed to spring up from nowhere, the swiftly moving aeroplane was surrounded on all sides—as it seemed to the voyagers—by a score of hostile aircraft, while shots rang out from several sides.
Hal acted promptly, as had always been his wont. He allowed the 'plane to drop a good quarter of a mile with a sudden lurch, and then righting it, darted forward again. For a moment they had shaken off the foe, but the latter was not long in finding them. Searchlights flashed in the sky, seeking out the prey.
By a series of clever maneuvers, Hal succeeded in evading the hostile craft during the long hours of the night, turning first this way and then that, rising and falling. But with the first gray of dawn, it became plain to both boys that escape was practically impossible. Looking down Hal saw water below him, and at the same moment the hostile air fleet ten 'planes strong, swooped down on them.
Chester's rifle cracked, as did that of Alexis. Bullets flew about all three occupants of the machine, and then the craft, struck in a vital spot, staggered. The 'plane began to sink slowly. In vain did Hal try to check the descent. The machine, still heading slightly toward the north, glided toward the water below.
Suddenly Hal made out something below besides water. It was land. The lad breathed easier, for it was plain, that at the rate at which the craft was sinking, it could clear the water by a good quarter of a mile, beyond which the lad could see a sandy coast.
"It must be the coast of Sweden or Denmark," he said to himself, "in which event we are safe, for it is neutral ground."
The Germans, realizing that their foe was sinking, did not waste another shot on it, but swarmed after. Now the craft was close to the water. Gently it skimmed over it, across a short stretch of sand, and then settled slowly to the ground.
Hal and Chester glanced about. There was no one in sight on the sandy beach and the Germans were coming right after them.
"Even though this be Sweden," said Hal, "unless Swedish troops come to our aid, the Germans are likely to violate the neutrality of the country and take us anyhow."
"Not without a fight," declared Alexis. "Let me get my feet on the ground again, and I will show you such a fight as you never saw. On the ground I can fight."
Now the 'plane was but a few scant yards from the earth. It grounded with a shock.
THE DEATH OF A TITAN.
Quickly the three leaped out. In spite of the Germans hovering overhead, Hal examined the 'plane.
"Great Scott!" he exclaimed, after a quick, though careful, inspection. "I can fix this thing in five minutes."
Now the German machines came to the ground a short distance away. From each craft leaped three men, who dashed toward the three friends.
Alexis turned to Hal and Chester.
"Do you," he said calmly, "fix up the airship. I will meet these fellows!"
Before either lad could reply, he had hurled himself upon the foe.
For some reason, probably because they did not wish to attract the attention of the Swedish authorities by the sounds of a struggle, the Germans, at first, drew no firearms. Perceiving but one form rushing toward them, they advanced to meet him confidently. Plainly they considered it the wild dash of a madman.
Hal and Chester turned their attention to the aeroplane, and while Alexis fought against overwhelming numbers, they overhauled it carefully.
Right into the midst of his foes rushed the giant. Such a superb attack was never seen before—such a mad wild dash as he took the enemy by surprise and hurled them back—all of them—back against the airships that stood on the sands.
As the huge Cossack rushed forward, his sword flashed above his head. His revolver he gripped tightly by the barrel. A fighting fire darted from his eye, and his thin lips were bared in a slight smile.
If ever a man felt the joy of battle it was he. He heeded not the number of his adversaries nor the steel that flashed forth against him. Slashing, cutting, parrying, thrusting, he hurled himself in upon them. They were carried back by the very fierceness of his attack. They gave way before him, parting to retreat around one of the aircraft. With one swift sweep of his foot, Alexis tore a ragged hole in the bottom of the first craft; and at the same instant two men fell beneath his slashing blows.
They could not stand before him—their very numbers were against them as the giant pressed ever forward. Now a man dropped to the ground and seized the giant by the left leg, thinking to drag him down. Alexis drove his right boot into the man's face, and at the same moment, by a quick back-handed sweep of his sword, cut down a man who would have sprung upon his back.
His revolver rose and fell, once, twice, three times, and beneath these crushing blows more Germans went down. But Alexis did not escape unscathed. A sword thrust had pierced his chest, not deeply, but the blood streamed forth. There was a gaping wound in his cheek; his clothing was pierced in a dozen places.
But in spite of this he pressed on. He thought only of advance, never of retreat; and as he hurled his gigantic body, time after time, upon the overwhelming number of his foes, they gave back in consternation and astonishment.
Ten men lay dead upon the ground, their skulls battered by fierce blows of the revolver, or pierced through and through by the great sword.
And now Hal and Chester, the aeroplane once more ready for flight, dashed forward to the rescue with loud cries.
They ranged themselves alongside the fighting Cossack. He greeted them with a half-smile; he had no time for more. Three men threw themselves upon him. One he hurled from him with a stroke of his mighty leg, another felt the weight of his revolver butt and the third fell back with a sword wound in his chest.
Unmindful of his own danger, the giant turned to the aid of Chester, who, at that moment was at the mercy of an enemy's sword. A mighty stroke of the massive arm and the German lay dead on the ground.
The Germans, having had the worst of this encounter with a single foe, stood back and drew their revolvers. Quickly Alexis reversed his own weapon and fired. There was one enemy less. A bullet struck him in the chest. He staggered, but recovered, and again fired at his foes.
The revolvers of the two lads were also spitting fire. A bullet grazed Hal's head and he toppled over. He was up in a moment, however, fighting more fiercely than before. Chester felt a stinging sensation in his right arm. Quickly he transferred his weapon to his left hand, and it continued to send out its deadly missiles.
But this unequal contest could not last. It must be ended.
Alexis, wounded in a score of places, his giant body hacked and hewn, hurled himself forward in one last desperate attack. Germans quailed before the very fury of his face; they tumbled here and there beneath his sword, or sweeping blows of his now empty revolver. A bullet struck the giant in the throat. He dropped his revolver and clapped his hand to the wound. Another struck him in the shoulder. He sprang forward, struck down another of the enemy, then staggered back.
And at that moment there came the sound of tramping footsteps on the sand. Turning quickly Hal and Chester perceived approaching rapidly a body of Swedish troops. The Germans saw them at the same instant. They were still a mile away across the sands, but the Germans had no mind to be caught and interned. Quickly they leaped for their aircraft, all except those who remained upon the sands, their faces turned upward or buried therein.
Hal and Chester each seized Alexis by an arm and dragged him back toward their own aeroplane, now righted and waiting only the touch that would send it into the air. The giant Cossack staggered along, but it was plain to both lads that he was about to collapse.
"Come, come, Alexis!" cried Hal, trying to urge him on. "Only a few more steps and we will be all right."
To the very side of the craft they carried him; but here, shaking himself free of their detaining hands, he suddenly fell, face forward, upon the ground. Quickly the two lads bent over him, and succeeded in turning him on his back.
His voice came in faint gasps. The boys bent near to catch what he was saying.
"Leave me here! You go on!" came his voice. "I am done for! Save yourselves!"
The lads waited to hear no more. Chester took him by the feet and Hal by the head, and with great effort succeeded in placing him within the aeroplane, stretching him out, as well as they could across two of the seats. Then Chester sprang in and Hal jumped to the wheel.
Along the beach the craft skimmed lightly, then arose from the ground. At the same instant a volley rang out from the approaching Swedish troops and the officer in command called out to surrender. The German airships, for some unaccountable reason, had not waited to resume the fight upon ascending into the air, but had made off.
Hal headed the aeroplane due westward, making for the coast of England. Alexis had lapsed into unconsciousness upon being placed in the machine, but now he stirred feebly and spoke.
"A real fight, wasn't it?" he gasped. "I told you I could do it if I were on the ground. How many was it I killed? Twenty—thirty—forty——"
He broke off and burst into a fit of coughing. Chester bent over him anxiously.
"You'll be all right in a day or two, old man," he said gently.
Alexis smiled feebly.
"Don't try to fool me," he said. "I am a man. I know when death is near and I am not afraid to face it."
Both lads realized that their giant Cossack friend was near his end, but there was nothing they could do for him. Chester bound up the wounds as well as he could, stopping the flow of blood, but that was all.
As the aeroplane flew over the sea toward the coast of England, the dying man continued to talk. Now he sat up in the craft and gazed down over the side.
"I had always thought," he said slowly, "that I should end my days in my own land. As it is I shall not end them in any land at all; but in the air. It is strange."
Hal slowed the aeroplane down until it was barely moving and turned to Alexis.
"You are wrong," he said. "You are not going to die. In a few hours we shall be in England, where you shall have the best of medical attention."
"It is too late," replied the Cossack calmly. "I shall not live an hour."
His breath came with difficulty.
"There is one thing I should like to know," he said.
"What is it, Alexis?" asked Hal.
"Will you tell me what you meant by 'drawing the long bow'?"
Hal was silent for some moments, and then replied gravely.
"When a man boasts of things he has never done, in America it is called 'drawing the long bow.' I was mistaken in your case. It would be impossible for you to 'draw the long bow.' You have done too much."
"That is true," agreed Chester.
Suddenly the giant frame fell back. Hal turned as best he could while Chester leaned over him anxiously. Alexis extended a hand to each of them, which they grasped.
"This," he said, pressing their hands in a still strong grip, "is the end. I wish that I could have lived to see the outcome of this war."
"There can be but one outcome," replied Chester softly. "You may rest assured of that."
"True," said the giant, "but I would like to have seen my old home again."
The lads were silent. Finally Hal spoke.
"To think," he said, "that we are responsible for your fate; but for us you would have remained with the army and have lived to the end of the war. We are to blame."
"Sh-h-h," whispered the dying giant. The hand which held Chester's freed itself and groped in his pocket. "But for you lads," he continued, "I should never have won this."
He pulled from his pocket the Cross of St. George, pinned to his breast by the Russian emperor, and gazed at it lovingly.
"It is well worth the sacrifice," he said.
Still holding the medal his hand again sought Chester's and pressed it. His other hand still gripped Hal's.
"Good-by, boys," he said firmly. "Let the Grand Duke know."
The pressure upon their hands relaxed. The giant frame of Alexis Vergoff, brave man and fighter extraordinary, stiffened and lay still. He was dead.
And as the aeroplane swept over the sea to the distant coast of England Hal and Chester mourned the loss of a true and stanch friend.
Arrived in England the lads saw the body of Alexis laid to rest with fitting honors, and continued their mission to the continent, where Hal put the document entrusted to his care by the Russian Grand Duke Nicholas into the hands of Field Marshal Sir John French, commander-in-chief of the British forces on the continent.
And so we shall take leave of them for a short time. Their subsequent adventures will be found in a succeeding volume, entitled: "The Boy Allies in the Trenches; or Midst Shot and Shell Along the Aisne."