If pride must have a fall, Tubby began to experience the first twinges of regret at that moment as he scrambled to his feet, and waited to hear what Rob or Merritt would say.
"It may be only a false alarm," Merritt suggested. "These poor people have been seeing imaginary regiments of Uhlans ever since war was declared."
"But they're making oodles of noise, anyhow!" Tubby protested.
"We can soon find out if it's so," said Rob, hurrying over to one of the windows, which were partly screened with flimsy curtains, through which any person from the inside could look out, but which would prevent scrutiny from the village street, except when the lamps were lighted later.
They quickly saw that their worst fears were realized. Down the street at least fifty horsemen were riding. The fact that they carried lances and wore the customary spiked helmets of the German troopers told Rob as well as words could have done that at last they were gazing on the far-famed Uhlans.
They were not at all the fierce-appearing warriors the boys may have pictured them, having the Russian Cossacks in mind at the time. Indeed, a number seemed to be laughing heartily, doubtless on account of the evident terror their presence had apparently inspired in the breasts of the villagers. And some of them were rosy-cheeked young fellows, who, shorn of their military accouterments, would have struck the scouts as good-natured German youths.
Others, however, were more grim and haughty, as though they thought it their duty to impress these stubborn Belgians with a due sense of their importance as factors to be dealt with.
It was a thrilling sight to see those hard-riding soldiers of the Kaiser coming along the village street, with people staring at them from open doors and windows, yet none daring to utter a word of protest. Fear was written largely on nearly every face, though doubtless there were also those who viewed the coming of the hated Uhlans with illy suppressed rage. Perhaps they had lost some dear one during the battles that had already been fought around Liege and other places; or in the destruction of Louvain.
"Rob, don't you see they're heading right this way?" whispered Tubby suddenly, after they had watched the stirring picture for a minute or so.
"Yes, that's a fact," replied Rob. "Let's hope they mean to only ride through the village, and leave by the other side."
"Gee! I hope now they won't fall in love with our horses, and run them off!" ventured Tubby, excited by his fears in that respect; for Tubby did not like to walk any more than he could possibly help.
"Not much danger in that line," scoffed Merritt. "But look at that officer in front of the column—he's pointing right this way, you notice, Rob, and is saying something to another rider close behind him."
"Oh! can he have seen us?" wailed Tubby, no doubt having very positive visions of prison life before him just then, with solitary confinement on a diet of bread and water, which was the worst punishment he could imagine.
"That's impossible," Rob instantly assured him. "The chances are he's discovered this inn, and is telling the other officer they may be able to secure something to eat, and a bottle of wine here. Their men can pick up supper through the place, making the poor people furnish the meal, or have their houses knocked about their ears."
"But if they come in here do we want to stay and be arrested for English spies?" asked Merritt; whereat Tubby's lips could be seen to move, although no words came forth, while he anxiously waited for Rob to decide.
The other had already made up his mind.
"That would be foolish on our part," he told Merritt, "and unnecessary in the bargain. They may only stop for five minutes to drink wine, and then go on again, because they know they're in the enemy's country here. We must find a place to hide till they leave. Come along with me, fellows."
Now it happened that Rob had never forgotten one of the things all scouts are enjoined to impress upon their minds; which is to observe the most minute detail wherever they happen to be. In the woods this faculty for observation had often served the patrol leader a good turn, and the same thing happened now.
While sitting there and enjoying the warm supper which the keeper of the village inn had spread before them, Rob had taken note of his surroundings. Thus he knew just where the stairs leading to the upper etage or floor of the inn was located; and also that it could not be easily seen from the door leading to the street.
He led Tubby and Merritt over to the stairs.
"We'll slip up here," he told them, for a quick glance around had assured Rob that no one was watching them.
Most of those who had been around the tavern hurried outside at the first sign of alarm, and were now gaping at the coming troop. The proprietor, guessing that his establishment would be the first object of attention on the part of the invading enemy, was wildly striving to conceal certain valuables he possessed under a board in the floor, where, perhaps, he also kept his choicest wines.
Once the scouts had climbed aloft they managed to gain a sort of garret where broken furniture and hair-covered trunks seemed to be stored.
"This will answer us as well as any other place," Rob told them, as he closed the door, and managed to push a heavy trunk against it.
"And there are two little peephole windows, too, for all the world like eye-glasses, but big enough for us to see through," Tubby remarked, groping his way among the collection of riffraff with which the garret was encumbered, until he found himself able to kneel and look through the dusty glass of a window.
"They're spreading all over the place," he immediately announced, "and making the village people get supper ready for them. Chances are, too, they won't whack up a red cent for all they eat and drink. Whee! so this is war, is it? Well, all I can say is it's a mighty mean game."
"Some of them have come into the inn," ventured Merritt. "I can hear heavy voices below us, German voices, too. You know sound travels up walls like everything. And there's a heap of bustle going on below, as if the landlord, his wife and everybody else might be on the jump to wait on the Uhlan guests."
"Can you blame them?" said Tubby, "when like as not if they said no they'd find a torch put to their house? Rob, you don't think they'll come up here, do you?"
"Oh! hardly, unless they take to ransacking the house for valuables, or more wine. They must know time is too valuable for that, because there are Belgian forces all around this place who might drop in on them. No, they'll get a hurried bite and then be off again."
For some little time they continued to listen to the confused sounds that came to their ears. Considerable shouting from the street testified to the fact that some of the soldiers might be acting, as Tubby expressed it, "rough-house"; and although the light outside was commencing to grow rather dim, looking through the window they saw several instances where a soldier struck some half grown boy who may have acted in a sullen fashion, or declined to do what he was told.
All at once there was a shot!
This was followed by a great outcry, in which loud German voices could be heard giving orders. A scrambling downstairs announced that the officers who had been eating at the inn were hurriedly rejoining their command.
"Are the Belgian troops coming, Rob?" asked Tubby, finding it impossible to see what was going on, because he had been unable to open his window, as the others had done.
"No, it must have been some desperate villager sniping from a house," replied Rob; and a minute later he continued hastily: "Yes, they're carrying a Uhlan to his horse, and threatening the people with guns and lances."
"Oh! I hope now they don't start in to shooting the poor things down!" cried the sympathetic Tubby, wringing his hands, though hardly conscious of what he was doing.
"They've rushed into the house next to this," Merritt now exclaimed, "and seem to be searching it, which tells me the party who fired, man or boy, must have been concealed there!"
"Gee! that's getting pretty near home!" muttered Tubby.
"Rob, did you see that puff of smoke coming out of the house then?" Merritt presently demanded, almost bursting with the excitement.
"Yes, I'm sorry to say I do see it," replied the leader of the Eagle Patrol, as he continued to look downward. "They've set fire to the building; and what bothers me most of all is the wind coming straight this way. I'm afraid it means the inn will take fire too, and like as not be burned to the ground!"
WITH FIRE AND SMOKE.
"Gingersnaps and popguns! then we're in for a warm time of it!" Tubby burst out.
"Let's hope they manage to get the fire out; or that it doesn't spread to the inn," Merritt soothed him, after the manner of one who wished to throw oil on troubled waters.
"If only the Germans would pull out right away we could get down from here in good time," continued Tubby hopefully. "Look again, fellows, and see if they show any signs of skipping."
"They seem to be galloping all over the village, as far as I can see, and threatening to shoot if anybody dares take a crack at them," Rob announced, after making a hurried survey.
"Oh! my stars!" groaned Tubby, "little did I ever dream that I'd stand a chance of being cooked before I'd been in Belgium two days. I always said I liked cold weather best, and now I know it. Baked or stewed or even broiled doesn't suit my taste."
"The fire next door is beginning to rage fiercely," remarked Rob. "The people are just standing on, and sullenly watching it burn. They don't seem to dare to offer to help save a single thing, because they might be shot down."
"That house is doomed!" asserted Merritt, gloomily.
"Better keep back more," cautioned Rob. "The light grows stronger all the while, you notice, and we might be seen up here by some Uhlan, who'd think it fine sport to send a shot if only to frighten us. I thought I saw one man glance up. If he happened to see that we wore khaki and had on these military looking hats he'd pass the word along that there were Belgian soldiers hiding in the inn."
"Please don't start a riot," begged Tubby. "It's sure bad enough as it stands without that happening. If we had wings now we might sail away. What wouldn't I give for an aeroplane to come along at this minute, and pick me up? Rob, has our house taken fire yet?"
At first Rob did not see fit to answer, upon which the suspicious Tubby pressed him to declare the truth.
"No matter how bad it is," he said soberly, "we should know the worst, instead of pulling the wool over our own eyes, and believing everything's lovely. How about it, Rob?"
"I'm afraid it's a bad job, Tubby."
"You mean we're on fire, do you?" questioned the other, with a hurried intake of his breath, as his heart possibly beat tumultuously with new apprehension.
"Yes, it's caught the end of the inn, and with that breeze blowing there isn't a chance for this house to be saved," Rob continued. "I'm sorry for the poor man who owns it; but then he'll be no worse off than tens of thousands of other Belgian sufferers."
"But think of us, will you?" the fat scout urged. "We're neutrals only, and it's a shame to make us stand for that foolish shot some sniping boy may have fired. Hadn't we better make our way downstairs, Rob, and throw ourselves on the mercy of the Uhlans?"
"I'm in favor of sticking it out just as long as we can," said Merritt desperately; for only too well did he know that once they fell into the hands of the Germans, all chances of carrying out his well laid plans would be lost.
"Oh! so am I, when it comes to that," affirmed Tubby; "and I hope that neither of you think I'd be the one to scream before I'm hurt. But I do smell smoke, and that looks bad, as the plight of Bluebeard's wife."
There could be no questioning that what Tubby said was so, for little spirals of penetrating smoke had commenced to come under the door, so that they could already feel their eyes begin to smart.
Rob went back to the open window to watch. He knew that the thing calculated to help them most of all would be the flitting of the Uhlan troop. If the raiders would only gallop away from town there would be an opportunity for the three Boy Scouts to make their way from the garret of the doomed inn.
"Are they showing any signs of going yet?" asked Tubby, rubbing one hand continually over the other; and then he burst out into a half hysterical fit of laughter as he went on to add: "D'ye know, when I said that it made me think of Bluebeard, don't you remember where the wife was waiting to be called down to lose her head, and expected her brothers to come to the rescue, she had her sister watching out of the window for a cloud of dust on the road? And all the while she keeps on asking: 'Sister Ann, Sister Ann, do you see anyone coming?'"
"I guess you're not as badly rattled as you make out, Tubby," suggested Merritt, "when you can joke like that with the house on fire. In this case you're wanting to know whether there's anybody going. Well, they're here yet, I'm sorry to tell you."
"But I think they are getting together to ride away," Rob added.
"Did they shoot down many of the poor villagers on account of that sniper?" asked the fat scout anxiously.
"No, I couldn't see anything like that," Rob hastened to assure him. "There was some firing, but it looked to me as if it might be done for effect, just like cowpunchers ride into town, yelling, and shooting their guns in the air. But at the same time I think they must have got the person who did the sniping."
"Yes, I heard several shots that seemed to come from inside that next house," Merritt admitted. "It'll certainly be his funeral pyre. The house is all aflame, and burning fiercely."
"Poor chap! he must have been crazy to fire on Uhlans when they were in such force," Tubby declared. "They never refuse a dare, I've heard said. And believe me, I don't ever want to test them. I hope they hear the call soon now. That fire must be getting pretty close to us by this time, boys!"
Rob opened the door of the garret a trifle, after having pushed back the heavy trunk. Immediately a cloud of smoke entered, at which poor Tubby fell back in dismay.
"Oh! we're goners, I'm afraid!" he moaned, making his way through the pall in the direction of the one small window that was open, so that he might secure a breath of fresh air.
"If we can keep the smoke out a little while longer it's going to be all right," Rob informed them. "The Uhlans are all in the saddle, and seem to be only waiting for the order to leave. I can hear the captain in charge of the troop telling the villagers something or other, and he is speaking in French, too; so I reckon it must be a warning that if a single shot is fired as they ride away, they will turn back and not leave one stone unturned in the place."
"That seems to be the usual Uhlan way, I've heard," muttered Tubby, glad he could say anything; for at the time he was desperately clutching his nose with thumb and fingers, as though in hopes of keeping the pungent smoke from entering his lungs.
He had apparently gotten beyond the seeing stage, for both his eyes were kept tightly closed. At the same time Tubby was listening eagerly for good tidings. He knew that his chums were constantly on the lookout.
"There they go off!" he heard Rob say presently, when the situation had almost become unbearable.
The sound of many hoofs coming to their ears, even above the roaring of the fire, affirmed this statement. Tubby acted as though he wanted to cheer, and then reconsidered his intention, through fear that the sound might be heard by the Uhlans, and work them harm.
"Now, let's get out of here," said Rob briskly. "Take hold of my coat, Tubby. Merritt, bring up the rear. We'll find a room just below this where we can drop out of a window easily, if the stairs are ablaze, as I'm afraid may be the case."
Passing down from the garret in this fashion, through dense billows of smoke that struck terror to the soul of Tubby, they presently found themselves in one of the ordinary rooms, used perhaps for stray guests.
Looking from the window Rob saw that it would be easy for him and Merritt to drop down on the turf below. Tubby must be taken care of first, and so Rob snatched a sheet off a bed, and twisted it into the shape of a rope.
This he forced Tubby to take hold of, and then climb over the window sill.
"Keep a fast grip, and we'll lower you!" Rob told the fat scout, who had full confidence in his comrades since they had never failed him.
After all, it was an easy thing to let him down, because the distance was short. As for themselves, the other two boys scorned to make use of such means. Clambering out of the window, when Tubby reported himself safe below, they hung down as far as they were able, and then just let go. There was a little jar as they struck solid ground, and it was all over.
"Beautifully done, fellows," Tubby was saying, as he dug his fat knuckles into his still smarting eyes. "We'd pass muster for fire laddies, I tell you. After all, it takes scouts to know what ought to be done. But I think some of these people must have gone out of their minds to whoop it up so. What's that poor woman shouting now, Rob? Can you make it out? And look how they're holding her back, would you? It must be the wife of the inn keeper; the loss of her home has unsettled her reason, I'm afraid, poor thing!"
But Rob, who had been listening, knew better, as he immediately proved.
"It's a whole lot worse than that, I'm afraid," he told the others. "She keeps calling out for her baby; and I think the child's been left in the burning building!"
THE DUTY OF A SCOUT.
Tubby was dreadfully shocked when he heard the news.
"The poor thing!" he cried, "to be forgotten in all the row, and left to be smothered by the smoke, perhaps burned up in the bargain. Oh! Rob, I hope you're mistaken!"
"I wish I could believe so myself, Tubby, but if you look you can see them all staring up there at that window next to the one we jumped from. Some even point at it, and you notice more than a few of the women are crying like everything."
"But my stars! why doesn't somebody run up and get the child out, if that's so?" Tubby demanded,—forgetting that his eyes still smarted,—because this discovery, and the distress of the parents overwhelmed him.
"Because the lower floor is all afire, and the stairs can't be used," Merritt told him.
"If only we'd known about the child before we came out, we might have saved it," Tubby wailed. "If I could climb like some fellows I know, who can even go up a greased pole in the contests, I'd be for making my way up there right now. Hey! what are you going to do, Rob, Merritt? Let me help any way I can. Stand on my back if you want to; it's broad enough to do for a foundation! The poor little thing! We mustn't let it be burned if we can help it!"
Neither Rob nor Merritt had waited to give Tubby any answer when he made that really generous offer. They knew there would be no need of his back as a means for elevating one of them to the sill of the upper window. In fact, Rob had made a sudden discovery that must have been the main reason for his speedy actions.
"The tree is close to the house, Merritt!" he was saying as he sprang forward.
"Better still, Rob, one limb grows right alongside the window!" the other scout added, keeping in touch with the patrol leader.
They were quickly on the spot, Rob starting up the trunk of the tree at once.
"Don't follow me," he told his chum, as he climbed upward. "If I find the child I may want to drop it down to you. Get busy underneath, Merritt!"
"All right, Rob; I understand!" came the answer.
Tubby had also heard what was said. He came puffing forward, as though he did not mean to be left out entirely of the rescue.
"Let me help you, Merritt," he was saying, between his pants from his recent exertions.
"Sure I will, if there's any chance, Tubby."
"Can Rob reach that window from the limb?" the fat scout asked anxiously, as he tried to look straight upward, a task that was always a trying one with Tubby because of the odd shape of his chubby neck.
"He's about there now, you notice. There's something of a little ledge underneath and he's going to make it all right."
"There! He's clinging outside and starting to throw a leg over," Tubby exclaimed in evident rapture. "And if there is a child inside that room, our chum will find it. If it was me now, I'd be so blind with the smoke I'd have to just grope my way around, and p'raps get lost in the shuffle."
"But what's that you've got in your hand, Tubby?" pursued Merritt, becoming aware for the first time that the other was holding on to some white object.
"This? Why, what but that fine sheet you used to lower me with," he was told.
"I remember that Rob dropped it down after you landed," said Merritt, "but I never thought you'd want to take it along with you, Tubby."
"Oh! shucks! don't you see, I picked it up when I started over after you," the stout boy tried to explain.
"But why should you do that?" persisted Merritt, who was looking eagerly aloft just then, and possibly not fully paying heed to what he was saying.
"Why, you know how firemen stand and hold a blanket for people to jump into?" explained Tubby; "I thought that if it came to the worst, Rob might drop the baby into this sheet, which both of us could hold stretched out!"
"Well, you are a daisy, after all, Tubby!" cried Merritt, in sincere admiration. "That's as clever a scheme as anyone could think up. Here, give us a grip of an end, and we'll get ready for business!"
Quickly they clutched the four corners of the sheet. Fortunately, it appeared to be a fairly new bed-covering, and might be trusted to bear a certain weight without tearing.
Having reached the point where nothing more could be done in order to assist Rob, the other two scouts had to stand there and wait, as the precious seconds crept by, each seeming like an age to their anxious hearts.
Meanwhile, what of Rob, who had, without the least hesitation, risked his life in order to save the child forgotten in the excitement of the Uhlans' coming, and the strange events that had so soon followed?
When he reached that window, he found it closed, but, on his pressing against the sash, it had swung inward, allowing him free access to the room.
It was rather an appalling prospect that confronted Rob. The smoke seemed to be thick, and he could not see three feet away. For all he knew the fire that was raging in the lower part of the inn might by this time have eaten partly through the floor boards, so that, if he put his weight on them, he stood a chance of being precipitated into the midst of the flames.
Rob never hesitated a second. He had taken all these matters into consideration when making up his mind as to what he meant to attempt. More than this, he did not believe anything partaking of such a disaster threatened him in case he entered that apartment.
The most he feared was that he might be unable to discover where the child lay, for it was manifestly impossible to use one's eyes to any advantage, with all that veil of smoke interfering.
Over the window-sill he climbed, just as the two boys below witnessed. And, no sooner did Rob find himself in the room, than he started to cross it. He expected to find a bed somewhere, and toward this purpose he at once set himself.
He could hear the crackling of the flames below. Besides this, there came to him with painful distinctness the wails of the poor woman who was being restrained from trying to rush into the burning inn.
Rob was listening for something more. He had strong hopes that he might catch another sound, perhaps feeble, but enough to guide him to where the imperiled one lay in the bed or on the floor.
Groping as he advanced, and at the same time feeling with his feet, in case the object he sought should prove to be on the floor, Rob passed away from the vicinity of the open window. The smoke was pouring from the aperture now, as though it were in the nature of a funnel. This turned out to be of considerable help to the boy, for the draught served to thin the smoke that had filled the room to suffocation.
Now he had reached the farther wall, and, turning sharply to one side, started to comb this, every second expecting to come upon a bed of some sort.
It was about this time that Rob thought he heard a low, gasping cry just ahead of him. Though unable to use his eyes with any measure of success in locating the source of the sound, he was encouraged, and persisted in pushing forward. In this way he found himself bending over a cot.
His groping hand came in contact with something warm—something that moved ever so slightly at his touch. It was the forgotten child. Rob found that it was a mere baby, possibly not much more than a year old.
The smoke had not yet choked the little thing, though a short time longer would have certainly finished it.
Rob had no sooner clutched it in his arms than he tried to set himself right for the window by means of which he had reached the room. In this he was assisted by the light that came through the opening, and which served as his guide. By the time he reached it, he could no longer see a single thing, and, when he leaned out of the window, his first thought was to shout:
"Merritt, are you down below? I can't see a thing! The smoke has blinded me!"
To his great satisfaction there came an immediate response, and never had words from the lips of his chum sounded sweeter than they did then.
"Yes, we're both here, Rob. Let the child drop straight down! We'll take good care of it!"
"But you might miss it," objected Rob, still unable to see a thing.
"We can't! We've got a sheet spread out to catch it in!" Merritt sent back. "You're all right just there! Let go! Leave the rest to us!"
So Rob did as he was told. Accustomed to giving orders himself, he at the same time could obey when the necessity arose. Perhaps it was with considerable fear that he allowed the child to leave his grip; but the joyful shout arising from his chums below assured him that all was well.
Then he heard a feminine shriek, and judged that the frantic mother had darted to where the boys were standing, to clasp her rescued offspring to her breast.
Rob crawled over the ledge. He could not see how to make that friendly limb again, but then there was no need of going to all that trouble. He had dropped in safety before, and felt able to do the same again; so down he came like a plummet.
MYSTERIOUS SIGNALS IN THE NIGHT.
Of course once Rob found himself away from that pungent smoke his sight was gradually restored to him, though for quite a while his eyeballs smarted more or less from the experience.
"What will we do now?" asked Tubby, who was very happy in the knowledge that he had been allowed to have at least a hand, two of them, he affirmed, in the saving of the little one.
"I did have an idea of staying here all night," returned Rob. "But, since the inn has been destroyed, or will be utterly before the fire dies down, of course that's out of the question."
"You remember we asked questions of the tavern-keeper," Merritt remarked. "He told us there was another village about three miles farther on along the road. We might make out to go there, and see if they will put us up. If not, it's a haystack for ours, provided there are any haystacks around."
"H'm! three miles or more, on that animated saw-buck, eh? I like that. It just invigorates me, of course," they heard Tubby telling himself, but his voice was anything but cheerful.
"Here comes the mother and the baby; she wants to thank you, Rob," Merritt told the patrol leader.
"Let's hurry and get out of this, then!" urged Rob, who, above all things, seemed to dislike being made a hero of when he felt that he had not done anything worth mentioning after all.
"No, you don't!" exclaimed Tubby, laying violent hands on his chum. "It's only fair that you give the poor woman a chance to tell you how grateful she is. As it stands to reason she speaks only Flemish, none of us can make head or tail out of what she says, unless she mentions that one word I know, which isn't likely."
But the woman could talk French, and she made it very evident to Rob that her mother heart was full of gratitude to him for what he had done. To the intense amusement of Tubby, she even kissed Rob again and again, on either cheek, after the manner of the Belgians.
"Bully! That's the ticket! Give him another for his mother! I like to see anyone appreciate a real hero. And here's the innkeeper; mebbe he'll want to add a few little caresses, too, Rob. Now, don't grieve his heart by refusing. They all do it over here, I reckon."
The man who had owned the inn contented himself, however, by telling Rob just how much he appreciated the gallant work of the American Boy Scout. Rob would not soon forget that experience; and it must always bring a warm feeling to his heart when thinking of how, with such a little effort, he had made these two humble people supremely happy.
When he tried to make the man accept pay for their food, the other utterly refused to listen to such a thing.
"It is the good wife and myself, young m'sieu, who are heavily in your debt," he told Rob, with the simplicity of sincerity. "How, then, could we ever forgive ourselves for taking money from one who has saved our baby's life? It would cause the blush of shame to dye our cheeks. We could never look our neighbors again in the face. It would not be right."
Of course that ended it, although Rob would rather have settled for that supper. Merritt tugged at his coat, understanding what it was all about.
"Don't insist, Rob," he told the other. "You mustn't try to take away the satisfaction he feels in having done one little thing for you. Let it go at that. He is not a poor man, I imagine, and has something laid by. Now, hadn't we better be getting out of here?"
"Oh! by the way, where are our horses?" asked Tubby, suddenly.
That reminded them they had forgotten all about the animals. The horses had been left tied to a rail at some little distance alongside the inn when they went in to get supper. Rob had intended, in case they meant to spend the night there, to have the three animals taken care of, and fed.
The hitching bar was entirely destitute of horses of any type when they turned their eyes in that quarter.
"What if those awful Uhlans took our steeds away with them?" Tubby suggested, with his usual blank look, and that woebegone shake of his head.
"It seems unbelievable to me," Rob replied; "but I'll make some inquiries. The inn-keeper may have had them taken to the stables back yonder, though I remember noticing the animals at the time we were peeping out of the window when the troopers were coming down the village street. Wait for me, and I'll ask him."
"I surely hope you learn good news, Rob!" Tubby sighed, as he thought of three long Belgian miles separating him from some sort of bed, where he could secure the rest he needed so badly.
Presently Rob came back, and, when Tubby saw him shake his head in the negative, he gave a dull sort of a groan.
"Bottom knocked out of everything, is it, Rob?" he asked, in a dazed sort of way.
"Well, nobody could give me any hope," was the reply. "Of course, the landlord was too excited over the burning of his house to notice just what the Uhlans did as they rode away, but one man told us he saw the troopers take our horses trailing behind them."
"Then that settles it," said Merritt; "though I'll never understand what they could want with those bony and tired nags, unless it was to make bologna sausages out of. We're in for a little hike that will stretch our legs."
"Yes, I guess it will," echoed Tubby, in a way that was hardly cheerful.
"And yours can stand a good deal of stretching, Tubby, you know," added Merritt.
"There's no use crying over spilt milk," said Rob, in his usual cheery fashion. "I more than half expected that we'd lose our mounts, sooner or later."
"So did I," agreed Merritt. "Only I thought perhaps they'd die on our hands from over-exertion. I never dreamed that rough riders like the German cavalrymen would want to be caught leading such ragtag animals along."
"Well, shall we make a move?" asked Rob.
There being no word against it, even from Tubby, who knew when duty called, the three scouts took their last look at the still burning houses, and then strode forth on the road leading toward the east.
The night promised to be unusually clear, for one thing. This pleased Rob, for, as they would have no moon to light them on their way, even the stars were welcome.
Three miles, under ordinary conditions, would have been reckoned almost nothing to scouts accustomed to taking lengthy hikes over hills and along valleys. It was a different matter, however, when passing through a war-distracted country, where hostile armies were encamped, so that at any minute they were apt to be greeted with a stern command, either in German or in French or Flemish, to stand and give the countersign, with the warning that to attempt flight would be at the peril of their lives.
Naturally the nerves of the boys were continually on edge. Tubby, in particular, kept his eyes roving from side to side, then into the uncertain distance ahead; and even at times turning to ascertain whether they were being pursued by some soft-footed enemies who thought to take them by surprise.
In this way more than a mile was passed over. When Rob announced that he believed they must be all of halfway to the other village, Tubby expressed fervent thanks.
"I'm still able to put one foot in front of the other," he remarked in a hushed voice, for Rob had cautioned them against speaking aloud, as it might draw unwelcome attention to the little party.
"Wait up a minute, please," whispered Merritt, and there was that about his mysterious manner that gave Tubby another bad shock.
"What's the matter, now, Merritt?" he asked softly but solicitously. "Hope you haven't got a stone bruise on your heel. Did you hear anything suspicious? Are we going to be held up by a patrol? Oh! dear, why don't you hurry and tell us the worst?"
"What do you make of that flickering light over there, Rob?" asked Merritt. "It seems to be in an open field, as near as I can understand. Just watch how it keeps on jumping up and down, then sideways."
"Why, it caught my eye just about the time you spoke, Merritt," came the reply from the patrol leader. "It must either be the work of some crazy person, or else a way of signaling by lantern."
"Say, I honestly believe you've struck the truth that shot, Rob," broke in Tubby, who had, of course, immediately turned toward the spot indicated. "See the way he swings the light around and makes all manner of figures in the air with the same. Why, that was the letter N, as sure as you live. And there goes E, followed by W and S. What does that spell but NEWS? Hey! we're on the track of a discovery!"
"Will you keep still, Tubby, and let's see if he begins again?" said Merritt eagerly.
"That must have been the last word of his message," remarked Rob quickly, "but chances are he'll repeat it. Stand ready to spell it out as well as we can. Three scouts accustomed to reading the Myers code of fire signaling ought to—— There, that was C; and after that O, A, S, T—which means COAST."
Slowly, and somewhat laboriously, the boys spelled the message, letter for letter, their previous training proving of the greatest help; and this was the result:
"Coast clear—safe landing here—important news!"
THE MEETING BETWEEN THE LINES.
"Good for us! We're the ones to read a message! But say, was that in German, or French, or English, I want to know?" and Tubby seized his chums each by an arm, as he asked this question in a husky whisper.
"When you come to making dots and dashes in the Morse code, or what answers for the same with the heliograph, or a torch, or signal flags, I guess all languages are the same!" Merritt told him, more to keep Tubby quiet than for any other reason.
"The question is, who could that message have been for?" Rob was muttering.
"There, he starts in again," said Tubby. "He's a most persistent sort of chap, I take it, and means that the other fellow will get that message, sooner or later. What 'coast is clear'? Why, we're miles and miles away from the sea-shore now, ain't we? And what under the sun does he mean by 'safe landing'? Where's the boat going to come from, somebody tell me quick?"
"I think I know," Rob had just managed to say in reply, when all of them were suddenly startled to hear a queer, rattling sound from behind that kept swiftly drawing nearer and nearer, until presently Tubby, in sheer alarm, dropped flat to the ground.
As he lay sprawled out on his back, judge of his astonishment when he saw some object, that was like an immense bird, pass over not fifty feet above him. It was heading directly for the spot where the light of the lantern glowed in that open field.
The shuttle sound abruptly ceased.
"He's shut off his engine," remarked Rob, apparently intensely interested.
"Yes, because he means to alight in the field," added Merritt.
Tubby suddenly comprehended what it must apparently mean. He hastened to scramble to his feet again, and no sooner had he accomplished this than he was, of course, busily engaged with his questions.
"Was that an aeroplane, Rob?"
"It certainly was," he was informed.
"Then that signal was for the pilot; that was what it meant by 'safe landing here' and 'coast clear!' Oh! I begin to see it all now. The 'important news' he mentioned in his message must be something a spy has gathered, and which he wants this air-pilot to carry back to the German lines for him? Am I on the right track, Rob?"
"Yes; that's about what it all means, Tubby."
"Then that machine must have been one of the Taube aeroplanes they told us about?"
"We expect it is," replied the obliging Rob.
"It must have landed by now, then, hasn't it?"
"As we can hear nothing moving, that's about the way things stand," replied the patrol leader.
"Please shut up, Tubby, so we can listen," Merritt suggested, not unkindly, but with the authority that his position as second in command of the Eagle Patrol allowed him to display.
Tubby thereupon collapsed; that is, he simply mumbled to himself, while staring as hard as he could toward the spot where they could see that feeble little glow, made by the signaling lantern.
Rob was considerably interested in the adventure. It appealed to him in a way that was almost irresistible. He could understand that this might be only one of many methods taken by the astute Germans to get valuable information to the Staff Headquarters, which were at that time supposed to be located in the captured Belgian capital of Brussels.
Some spy, who had the run of the Belgian lines, would gather up certain information which he believed might be appreciated. Then, at a given time, when darkness covered the land, he was to be waiting for a daring aviator, who would take such risks as always accompany night traveling and landing with an aeroplane.
If the man aloft failed to receive the signal agreed on, he would hover around up to a certain hour, and then go back to Brussels. But, if the coast was clear, and the secret agent gave him assurance to that effect, he could dart down, and take charge of the precious documents or maps showing the positions of various hostile forces, or else some new arrangement on the part of the defenses of Antwerp.
"I'd like to be able to just crawl up closer, and see what goes on," Merritt remarked, after they had stood there for a little while, listening and watching, yet seeing only that small light in the open space under the stars.
"Would it be safe?" asked Tubby cautiously; though, no doubt, if his chums decided on the venture, he would be found remaining at their side.
As often happened, here again Rob had to show his leadership, and curb his chum's impetuosity. Merritt was apt to do things sometimes on the impulse of the moment which were really unwise.
The prospect of stealing along, like Indians on the warpath, and gradually drawing closer to the spot where the pilot of the air-craft and the spy were in consultation, was very inviting. Rob, however, took a grip on himself, and decided that it would be most unwise of them to accept such an unnecessary risk.
"It's really none of our business, Merritt," he said. "First of all——"
"Of course not, but——"
"And, if they discovered us, you know what it would mean?" Rob continued gravely.
"I suppose they would fire on us," admitted Merritt.
"They certainly would, because they could only believe that we were enemies," continued the other, who, once he had started in to convince an impulsive comrade, believed in delivering sledge-hammer blows in succession, "and we're not aching to be filled with lead just yet."
"But," urged Merritt, "we might move along the road just a little bit farther; that would take us closer to the place. I'd like to be able to see that Taube machine fly over our heads again."
"Well, there's no objection to doing that, only we must keep mighty quiet. And, Tubby, mind your feet!" said Rob.
Tubby did not bother making any reply, for none seemed necessary. He knew well enough that, as a rule, he was inclined to be clumsy, and could stumble, if given even half a chance. But, on the open road, and with the starlight to help out, he could not believe there was any danger.
So he sniffed disdainfully, and braced himself to move as softly as a cat; for it is wonderful how light on their feet most fat people can be, when they try their best.
Of course they could not see a thing, but then, imagination often helps out, and by this means they could picture the daring air-pilot, having successfully landed, in consultation with the secret agent.
When he had delivered what news he had picked up, perhaps verbally as well as through some written process, the spy would most likely assist the flier to get his Taube under way again, after which he could return to take up his risky profession amidst the Belgian forces.
Once Tubby did come near falling, as his toe caught in a projecting stone, which, of course, had been invisible. He managed to clutch hold of Merritt, who was on his left, and in this way avoided a tumble that might have caused more or less noise, even if it did not result in any damage to his nose.
Then Rob came to a stop. The others understood that he must have decided they were as near the place where the lantern glowed in the field as they could get without clambering over the stone barrier. This wall fence came up to Tubby's chin, so that he had to stand on his tiptoes to see over it.
"Has he sailed away yet, Rob?" asked Tubby, in his hushed voice, which sounded as though he might be using the soft pedal on his vocal organ.
"We would have heard the clatter of his motor if he had," returned Rob. "So far it hasn't been found possible to deaden the rattle of the propeller. And, on a still night like this, you could get that some ways off. No, they're talking business yet, I reckon."
"Gee whiz! but they must have a lot to say," muttered Tubby.
"After they separate we'd better lie low a while," suggested Rob.
"What for?" demanded Tubby, bound to understand everything, even if he had to swamp his mates with questions.
"The spy, or spies, for there may be more than one of them, might just happen to cross this way, so as to get to the road; and, if they saw three shadowy figures moving along, the first thing they'd be apt to think was that we were enemies who had been listening."
"Oh! now I see!" Tubby admitted. "And, since we don't want to be made targets for them to practice at, we'll be wise to do what you say, Rob."
"Please, please, let up on all that talk, Tubby!" implored Merritt.
"Oh! I will, if it bothers you any," the fat boy answered; "but I think it queer a fellow can't ask a few little innocent questions once in a while, without being sat down on so hard. Now, I know a boy who made himself a real nuisance with his everlasting wanting-to-know, but I only speak up when there's absolute nec——"
Tubby stopped short there. It was not that the annoyed Merritt clasped a hand over his mouth, thus shutting off his supply of breath, for no such thought entered the mind of the corporal of the Eagle Patrol; but just then a horrible din, in which shots, mingled with wild shouts, broke out in the field nearby.
CAUGHT IN THE ACT.
What had happened was no mystery to Rob and Merritt, though possibly Tubby, not quite so apt to jump to conclusions, remained a little bewildered at what was going on.
It seemed that the Belgians must have suspected something wrong, and possibly followed the bearer of the lantern when he went into the open field to flash his signals toward the sky.
The three scouts from across the ocean were not the only watchers who had read that message. Yes, and the coast had not been as clear as the signal man believed, since even then enemies must have been creeping toward him, though utterly unseen in the darkness.
The rapid discharge of guns, and the loud outcries of men engaged in desperate warfare, thrilled the boys. They could not see a single figure, but the spiteful flashing of firearms, as they were discharged, told them that the fight was not all one-sided, and that the Germans must be resisting capture with their usual valor.
All at once they heard another sound.
"It's the motor—the aeroplane man has managed to get going!" exclaimed Rob, instantly comprehending what that meant.
In order to rise, after starting his machine, it was necessary for the aviator to first skim along the field for a little distance, and gradually gain an impetus which, at the proper instant, results in a slow ascent.
Of course he was taking all sorts of desperate chances in making this blind venture; but his life was at stake, if caught. Besides, he undoubtedly must have examined the nature of that level stretch of ground before, and selected it as a landing place on account of its good qualities.
"He's heading this way, Rob!" exclaimed Tubby, almost in a panic.
"If he butts into this wall it'll spell his finish!" added Merritt.
"No danger of that," said Rob. "He knows every foot of ground around here. But duck down, everybody. They will fire a volley after him, and we might get in line of the bullets."
Tubby dropped flat, forgetting that the high stone wall was as good a breastwork as any one could want.
Just as Rob had anticipated, there was a series of explosions, and they could even hear the patter of bullets striking the piled-up stones composing the wall.
This was enough to tell them that the fleeing aviator had headed straight toward the spot where they were crouching. And, as the rattle of his machine grew louder, they realized that he was approaching them with considerable speed.
Then, with an additional clatter, the Taube passed over the wall, clearing its top by not more than ten feet.
"Keep down!" exclaimed Rob, feeling Merritt beginning to make a move, and afraid lest he should stand upright in order to better follow the progress of the aeroplane.
It was well he spoke when he did, for another burst of firing came. The soldiers were sending random volleys after the fleeing airman, in hopes of injuring his machinery or wounding the aviator himself.
"That was sure a great getaway!" bubbled Tubby, still seated there on the ground.
"But I rather think they winged him," added Merritt, possibly with a note of regret in his voice.
It was not that he felt any particular sympathy for the German cause; but, boy-like, he could admire grit and daring, no matter under what flag it might be found. That bold flight of the Taube operator in the face of the flying missiles was quite enough to arouse the spirit of any one with red blood in his veins.
"What makes you say that?" asked Tubby, not meaning to remain in ignorance when he possessed a ready tongue.
"I was pretty sure the machine wabbled as it passed over," said Merritt.
"My opinion, too," Rob chimed in. "It seemed to me he was trying his best to get it to mount, but it balked. That could only mean something had gone wrong with the machinery, or else a wing had been fractured."
"Huh! you talk just like the machine might be a baseball pitcher," commented Tubby. "But, if that's the case, the chances are he'll drop to the ground right away, or else smash up against some tree."
"Just what may happen to him," agreed Merritt.
"You'll notice that the sound of motor and propeller has suddenly died out," suggested Rob, "which I take it looks pretty rough for the man-bird."
"Oh! that would be too bad, now!" Tubby whimpered, as he imagined he could see the bold pilot of the crippled flier dashed to the ground amidst the wreckage of his machine.
"Well, the shooting seems to be over!" remarked Merritt.
"I wonder what happened to the spy?" Rob observed, as he stared over the top of the stone wall toward the spot where the late confusion had taken place.
They could still see that little glow, proving that the lantern had not been kicked over in all the riot when the creeping Belgians had pounced on the enemy.
"Would it be wise for us to head over there now, Rob?"
Plainly Merritt was curious to know what had happened, and his manner of putting this question to the patrol leader showed that he would never be satisfied unless they made some sort of attempt to solve the mystery.
This time he found Rob more agreeable. Conditions had changed considerably since the leader had put his foot down upon any suggestion that they thrust themselves into the game. The Belgians were their friends, and they could not believe any danger was to be feared from that source.
"We might walk over that way," Rob admitted slowly; "that is, if Tubby can get over this wall."
"If not, he could wait for us here," suggested Merritt, with a chuckle.
"I see myself waiting all alone on the other side of the wall, while you two step forward and find out all there is going on. I can climb walls, all right, if somebody only gives me a little boost. Try me, and see, Rob. That's a good fellow!"
Of course Rob was ready to lend the desired assistance; and as Tubby secured a hold on a large stone that crowned the wall, he was able to hunch himself up, puffing and grunting at a great rate.
It was easy enough to get down, if one did not care how he fell; but Tubby proved fortunate in finding toe places where he could secure a hold, and in some fashion managed to "dismount."
He pattered after his two chums, who were already moving toward the middle of the big field.
Rob, always noticing things as he went along, found that the field was very level, and he could understand how the place must have been selected for a rendezvous since it offered such exceptional facilities for an aeroplane to land and start up again.
Perhaps this had been a regular nightly affair, and all sorts of valuable information may have been carried to the German Headquarters by means of this novel air route.
As the three boys gradually drew nearer the place where the lantern could still be seen, they discovered that it was now being held in the hand of some person who wore a uniform.
"Belgians, all right!" muttered Rob, after noting that the garb was not like the khaki-colored clothes of the British troops, nor yet the blue and red of the French soldiers.
There seemed to be more than a dozen of the men, showing that they had come in force. Whether they had discovered the spy by accident or followed him to the place of meeting, Rob, of course, could only guess; nor did it matter to him.
"I can see the prisoner!" whispered Merritt.
"Yes, and there seem to be two of them," added Rob, noting that the men were being held by several soldiers, and it was as though the officer in command might be questioning them closely, for a voice could be heard speaking in French.
"They've been up against hard knocks, it looks like," Tubby mentioned, eager to let his chums know he was close at their heels, and able to see a few things for himself.
Indeed, the men did have the appearance of having been through the mill. Their hats were missing, so that their hair hung about their faces, which looked as if they had been brought in contact with a pile-driver, for there was blood, also contusions and bruises visible.
"And one of them stands as if he hadn't any use for his left leg, which means most likely he's got a bullet through it," Rob continued.
He spoke aloud, and for a reason. It were better that the soldiers in the field learned of their advance by some such method as this. If, on the other hand, the trio of scouts were detected advancing in any sort of suspicious manner they might be unfortunate enough to evoke a volley. Excited men sometimes shoot first and ask questions afterward.
A harsh voice suddenly demanded in French to know who they were, and what they had to say for themselves; adding that unless they replied instantly the order to cut them down would be given.
THE FIELD HOSPITAL.
"We are friends, three American boys only!"
Very often Rob had practiced his French so as to get this explanation correct. If his accent happened to be altogether wrong, what he said could be understood, and that was the main thing.
Apparently, what he had called out must have surprised the Belgian officer in charge of the detachment, for he could be heard exchanging comments with someone else. Then he spoke aloud again.
"Advance, and hold up your hands above your heads!" he ordered.
Rob understood the words, but of course his chums could not; so the first thing he did was to elevate both hands as high as he could, and say to them:
"Do the same as I am, both of you. The officer has ordered it. And then come on over to where they are waiting for us!"
In this manner they drew near the spot where the others stood. Everyone was staring very hard, for to see three boys dressed in khaki, and talking unmistakable English among themselves, was indeed a considerable surprise.
The one who held the lantern proved to be a lieutenant. He was a man of middle age, and as the newcomers drew near he held up his light in order the better to examine their make-up. What he saw must have created a good impression, for the frown began to leave his face.
"It is fortunate that I speak English," he started in to say, greatly to the delight as well as the surprise of Rob, "so you shall tell me how it comes we find you here on this particular night, and so close to a spot where a suspicious transaction was going on which we had the pleasure of nipping in the bud."
Apparently the lieutenant was not wholly satisfied. He could not tell but that these smart looking boys might have some connection with the game he and his detachment had blocked in the capture of the two spies.
So Rob hastened to explain as briefly as he could.
"We have come to Belgium on some very important business that has nothing whatever to do with the war. There is a man we must see, and it happens that he was last reported in a town near Brussels. We know what great risks we run in trying to pass between the lines of the hostile armies; but we hope to keep out of the hands of the Germans; and as for the Belgians, we are carrying with us a letter that has up to now always passed us."
This was the signal for Merritt to produce the passport written for them by the obliging burgomaster of Antwerp. The lieutenant received the paper gravely. He was evidently puzzled to know how much of Rob's strange story to believe; for it seemed remarkable that three boys should take such a dangerous mission upon their shoulders.
When he had read the short recommendation through, and saw the signature at the bottom, the officer uttered an exclamation of satisfaction.
"You could not have chosen a better sponsor than the worthy burgomaster of Antwerp," he said warmly. "I have met him more than once, and he is held in high respect throughout the land, as is Burgomaster Max of Brussels. Let me return your paper safely. It is worth keeping."
"And you will allow us to go on when we choose, then?" asked Merritt eagerly.
"There is no occasion for your detention," he was informed, "but if I sought your best welfare I should order that you turn back, and give up this foolish mission, for there is hardly one chance in ten that you can escape capture at the hands of the enemy, since they are everywhere. But you know best, and I shall not interfere. It must be a serious motive that brings you into this wretched country?"
"It means a great lot to my family that I find this man, Steven Meredith," Merritt told him, possibly with a faint hope that the lieutenant might recognize the name, and admit that he knew the person.
Rob had noticed several things. For one, that the taller prisoner was certainly badly wounded, since he stood on one leg, and had his teeth tightly clinched as if to keep from betraying any weakness that might be deemed unmanly.
One of the Belgians also carried a bandage, roughly fastened, possibly by a clumsy comrade, around his arm. It showed traces of blood, and Rob could guess that a speeding bullet fired by the spies at bay probably had caused the wound.
"I notice that a couple of men here have been wounded," he ventured to say to the lieutenant, "and, as you must know, Boy Scouts are taught something of field surgery. Would you mind if I and my friend here looked at them? We might stop the flow of blood, anyway, and perhaps make the men a bit easier."
The Belgian officer hesitated for a brief time. He looked at Rob, and seemed to be considering. Then he nodded his head.
"As we have to stay here until my superior officer and a larger detachment come along in answer to the signals we are about to make, it could do no harm. Yes, I have heard that Boy Scouts are supposed to know something of surgery, although I myself have never seen them practice it. You may proceed. Albert!"
He beckoned to the private who had his arm bound up. The man upon being told to show his injury hardly knew what was about to happen. He could not believe that mere boys would know what a surgeon was supposed to do.
That man evidently had the surprise of his life when Rob, assisted by Merritt, washed the wound by the aid of some water obtained from a canteen, and then neatly bound the arm up, using some strips from a little roll of linen which Rob took from his pocket.
The officer watched the whole operation with considerable interest.
"That was neatly done," he commented, after the man had stepped back to where a comrade was holding his gun for him. "As you expressed a wish to attend to the prisoner, I give you full permission to do so. Though, after all, it will make but little difference with him, since his doom is sealed."
The tall German said never a word, but allowed the boys to do as they willed with him. He realized the desperate condition in which his boldness had placed him and was evidently determined, if convicted of being a spy, to die game.
His injury turned out to be much more serious than that of the Belgian soldier, for the bullet had made a bad puncture, and he had already lost much blood.
Tubby turned his head away at first, as though he could not bear to see the wound, but evidently realizing that a display of such timidity was hardly in keeping with what they wished these men to believe of Boy Scouts, he finally forced himself to offer to assist his chums in their gruesome work.
It took all of ten minutes to wash and dress that wound with the few things at their command the best they were able to. During all that time the spy did not say a word, nor did he groan even when Rob knew he must be hurting him more or less, although that could not be avoided.
And the officer had commenced to ask questions. It seemed to surprise him that even in far-away America there, too, the boys had organized themselves into patrols and learned all these valuable lessons calculated to make them better citizens when they came to take their places in business, on the firing line, or among the professions.
"Then the scouts over in your country are also taught to be ready for any emergency, the same as the boys are in Belgium?" he asked Rob, as he watched the latter's nimble fingers, with considerable dexterity into the bargain, draw the bandage tightly into place.
"Oh! yes," replied the boy, only too pleased to say a good word for the thousands upon thousands of comrades in khaki whom he represented. "You see, most of us camp out a good deal, and all sorts of accidents happen. I've known a boy to cut himself so badly with an ax when he was chopping wood that he would have bled to death long before they could get him to a doctor, but it was easy for his mates to stop the flow of blood, and do the right thing."
"It is grand, this teaching boys to be able to save human life," declared the middle-aged officer, who perhaps had sons of his own in the army, "and yet it never came to me before that even in America they were practicing these noble avocations. I have seen them in England, yes, in France also, but in America—it is superb to think of it. And there are other ways in which boys in camp could be injured, you are telling me?"
He had become so deeply interested that Rob only too willingly proceeded to explain at greater length.
"Why, sometimes a boy is taken with a cramp when in swimming, and of course he is saved by those who know just how to get him without being pulled down themselves."
"And," continued the Belgian lieutenant, "if the poor fellow should be nearly gone, what then? I myself once had a narrow escape that way, and to this day it gives me a cold feeling every time I remember it."
"Oh! every scout, even when he's a tenderfoot, is supposed to learn how to resuscitate a comrade who has swallowed lots of water, and come near drowning. Unless he was pulled out too late, he will be brought back every time. Then there are the bites from poisonous snakes and insects that may happen; we are taught how best to counteract the effect of poison, so as to save the victim."
"I am delighted to know all this," the officer told them. "It has been quite a pleasure to have met you, although under peculiar conditions, I admit. And the more I see of you, young messieurs, the more I am convinced that you can look out for yourselves. At first I considered it was a shame that three tender boys were allowed to travel over this dangerous country. I no longer feel that way. If anybody should know how to take care of themselves, I surely believe you know, and are equal to do it. I am proud to shake hands with you, and wish you all a successful journey."
Which operation he proceeded to immediately put into execution; though Tubby, having had one previous experience with a hearty Belgian hand-grip, was mighty careful just how he allowed the other to take hold of his plump digits.
Rob was quite satisfied now that they had done the right thing in coming forward and joining the party. At least it had been the means of easing the pain of those who were wounded, and stopping the flow of blood sensibly.
The German had actually broken his silence to thank the boys when they finished their work. It was evident, however, that he was not caring very much what happened to him, since he knew the probable penalty for allowing himself to be captured in the act of delivering important plans of fortifications—death.
None of the boys so much as mentioned the fact that they believed the Taube machine might have been injured, and even fallen a short distance away. If the Belgians did not see fit to investigate conditions, it was no part of the scouts' business to put them on the track. The dashing aviator deserved to get away, Rob thought, and it would hardly be fair for outsiders, who had really no interest in the matter, to betray him to his enemies.
So they left the soldiers still waiting for their comrades to come along with a superior officer in charge. The lieutenant had taken quite a sudden fancy for Rob and his two chums; but then that was not strange, Tubby told himself, since the patrol leader always had a knack of making friends wherever he went.
They soon arrived at the stone wall, and to Tubby's satisfaction found a break where they could actually pass to the road without once more climbing the barrier.
The last they saw of the field was when the lighted lantern was being waved in a way that looked as though the lieutenant might be signaling to others. In the opposite quarter only darkness was to be seen. Rob wondered what had become of the operator of the Taube aeroplane; whether he had indeed come crashing to the earth, or managed to sail away to safety. But they were never fated to know.
CHASING A JACK-O'-LANTERN.
"I wish you could tell me we were nearly at that old village, Rob. Seems to me we've been trudging along for hours, and I own up to feeling just a little bit tired."
Tubby had a beseeching way about him that was hard to resist; and so Rob really felt sorry that he could give him no joyful news.
"I would like to be able to tell in the worst way, Tubby," he told him, "but you see we're making this turn only on hearsay. None of us knows a single thing about it. There must be some sort of a place ahead of us, because several times I've heard dogs barking, and I even thought I could hear people calling."
"It's all right, Tubby," chimed in Merritt, "because there's a light, yes,—two, three of the same kind. We'll soon be there, and I hope we'll find some sort of a bunk, even if we have to drop in the hay."
"That's what I say," the fat scout declared energetically, bracing up, now that it seemed the haven might be in sight. "I could sleep standing up, I believe, if only you braced me on the sides."
"I believe you," remarked Merritt; and Tubby hardly knew whether he ought to demand an explanation of that insinuation or not; he finally concluded to change the subject.
They soon found they had arrived at another of those frequent little Belgian hamlets where, in the past, thrift had held sway, but which were rapidly becoming demoralized under the pressure of the war fever. Most of the men were serving the colors, of course, those remaining being the very aged or crippled, the women, and always the flocks of children.
"Seems to me they're carrying on kind of queer here, as if something might be going on," Merritt hazarded while they were approaching the border of the place.
"Gingersnaps and popguns!" exclaimed Tubby, "I hope there isn't a bunch of those terrible Uhlans in town, smashing things, and threatening to burn every house unless the wine and the ransom money are brought out!"
"Let's go slow till we can make sure about that," suggested Rob.
Their recent unpleasant experience was so fresh in their minds that they did not care to have it duplicated. The next time they might not be so fortunate about escaping from a burning inn, or avoiding capture at the hands of raiding Uhlans.
"I don't seem to glimpse any cavalrymen around, do you, Rob?" Merritt questioned, as they hovered on the outskirts of the place, ready to melt away in the darkness should any peril arise.
"No, and it's safe for us to push on," the patrol leader announced.
"But there are a raft of people around," ventured the cautious Tubby, who had been closely observing each and every soul, as though he suspected that crafty Uhlans might be hidden under peasants' garb, or in the clothes of the stout Belgian dames.
"Well, a lot of them are fugitives, the same as those we've been seeing on the roads all day long," Rob explained. "Some of them have been burned out of house and home; but in the main they're people who have believed all these awful fairy stories about the terrible Germans, and think that if they stay they'll be eaten up."
"This place must have escaped a visit from the Germans so far," Merritt suggested, "and they are coming to believe it's a lucky town, which would account for so many stopping here in their rush to get away."
"That's bad!" muttered Tubby.
"Why is it?" demanded Merritt.
"All the spare beds will be taken, you see," explained the other dejectedly, "and those who come late, like we are doing, must sit up all night, or else sleep in the dog kennel or the pigsty or the barn. Well, I said before and I mean it, if I can have some hay under me to keep my bones from the floor, I won't complain, or make a single kick. I'm easily satisfied, you all know."
"That must be the village inn, over yonder, Rob," Merritt remarked, pointing as he spoke. "Judging from the crowd in front we've got a poor show to get beds for to-night."
"Everybody stares at us as if they thought we might be some kind of wild animal," Tubby complained.
"Well, I can see that they've had some sort of circus here lately because the showbills are still posted on the fences," Merritt observed with a chuckle, "and can you blame them for thinking that the side shows have bust up, with the freaks hiking all through the country, unable to ride on the railroads, which are all taken over by the Government to haul cannon, horses and soldiers? I'll pass for the Living Skeleton, while you could stand for the Fat Boy, Tubby!"
Tubby was so used to having his friends joke at him on account of his chubby build that as a rule he let such reminders pass by without showing any ill feeling. In this instance he hardly noticed what Merritt was saying, because so many other events were happening around them.
Being satisfied at last that they were in no apparent danger from concealed Uhlans, Tubby felt his spirits rise once more.
At the inn Rob entered into a brief conversation with the proprietor. As this worthy knew very little French, and Rob next to nothing of Flemish, the "confab," as Tubby called it, had to be conducted mostly through a series of shrugs and gestures.
"What luck, Rob?" asked Tubby, when the other chum turned to them again.
"He's cram full of sleepers to-night, and couldn't give us even a cot," explained Rob. "When I said we'd put up with the hay, he gave me to understand we could pick out any place found unoccupied."
"Gee whiz! 'unoccupied,' you said, didn't you, Rob?" cried Tubby hastily. "Now, does that mean the place is apt to be swarming with these peasant women and children, and shall we have to listen to babies bawling all night long, not to speak of roosters crowing, dogs barking, horses neighing, pigs grunting and cows mooing?"
"'Beggars should never be choosers,' they say," Merritt warned him.
"And, after all, let's hope it won't be quite so bad as all that," said Rob.
They sought the stable. It was in the rear of the inn, and a rather decent looking structure in the bargain.
"Why, this isn't half bad," admitted Tubby, as they entered and found that the kind proprietor of the house had hung up a lighted lantern, by means of which it was possible for the boys to see the stack of hay.
"It smells like a sweet new crop," Rob remarked, glad to find something to commend when surrounded by such dismal prospects.
"And so far as I can see we're the only barn guests," Tubby announced jubilantly as he started to burrow in the hay.
He had hardly made much progress before he came backing out in a hurry.
"There's a great big dog sleeping in there!" he declared excitedly.
"What makes you think so?" asked Rob, who could hardly believe it possible.
"I tell you he tried to bite me," urged Tubby, holding up one finger of his right hand, and on which a tiny speck of blood was visible.
"Shucks! you only stuck it on a thorn, that's all!" protested the unbelieving Merritt, "and I'll prove it by crawling in the same hole."
"Look out, now!" warned Tubby, anxious, and yet with some eagerness, for he hoped to have his words proved in a fashion even Merritt could not doubt.
Immediately there was more or less excitement in the hay; and then came the unmistakable scolding of a setting hen. Merritt backed out, laughing.
"There's your ferocious bulldog!" he told Tubby; "but we'll leave old Biddy to her eggs, and try another place. Plenty of room in this hotel without chucking the other guests out of their nests."
After a while they made themselves comfortable. Tubby, before turning in, had prowled around a little. He told the others that as a true scout he was only taking an inventory of his surroundings, so that if there should happen to come a sudden midnight alarm he at least would know what to do in order to lead the way out of the barn by a rear exit.
"Smart boy, Tubby," Merritt told him, when he heard him say this; and it always pleased the fat scout to receive a word of praise, possibly because the occasions when he deserved any were few and far between.
They lay in the sweet hay, and talked in low tones. No one else seemed to be pushed so hard for a place to sleep as to come to the barn, for which all of the chums professed to be very grateful.
In the course of the conversation, which had more or less bearing on their strange mission abroad, the subject of the precious paper came to the front. Perhaps it was Merritt himself who mentioned it, because the matter was frequently in his thoughts, and he seemed to be growing more and more anxious, the nearer they drew to the place where he anticipated finding Steven Meredith.
"You've never really told us who this man is, Merritt, and how he comes to be wandering around the world with a paper belonging to your grandfather hidden away under the lining of the case containing his field-glasses," Rob remarked while Tubby, who had just been yawning, sat up and seemed to be wide awake again.
"That's a fact, Merritt," he chimed in. "If you don't object, why, we'd like to be told."
"The fact of the matter is," replied Merritt, "I don't know a great deal more than you do, come to think of it. Grandfather Crawford comes from old Scotch stock, so he's a canny sort of an old gentleman. No use of my telling you about the way he treated my father when he was a young man and married against the wishes of his parents, because that you already know. It's about the paper, also of Steven Meredith you're curious to hear?"
"Yes, go along, please," begged Tubby.
"The paper is a little scrap, he told me, on which are marked certain directions as how to find a certain rich gold mine out in our Southwest country. Grandfather has one-half his paper, and the other half is lodged in the cover of that field-glass case—if the man is still carrying it with him."
"That gets more and more queer, I must say," grumbled Tubby, looking as though he could not untangle the knot that was presented to him.
"Yes, if anybody had told it to me," admitted Merritt, "I'd have made up my mind right away he was trying to pull the wool over my eyes with a silly yarn. And yet there was Grandfather Crawford just as sober as you ever saw anyone, and vouching for every word of it as true."
"Well, how on earth did the half of the map or the directions happen to get in that field-glass case, without Steven Meredith, who carries the same, knowing a thing about it?" asked Rob.
"This deposit was discovered by an old miner who never worked it, but had samples of wonderfully rich ore, which he showed my grandfather at the time he was rescued by my relative from being tortured by a couple of halfbreeds who wanted to get the miner's secret. He gave grandfather the half of the map, and directions he had on his person, and told him where he would find the other half."
"Now it's beginning to look understandable," Tubby admitted. "The old miner did that so if anybody got hold of him they wouldn't be able to locate the secret mine—wasn't that it, Merritt?"
"Just what he had in mind," the other told him, "and of course the injuries received in the fight carried the miner off eventually, leaving my grandfather as his sole heir, if he could only lay hands on the other half of that valuable little paper, for neither portion alone made any sense.
"Gee! this is getting real interesting—if true!" ventured Tubby.
"Oh! it's a straight yarn, never fear," retorted Merritt without any trace of ill feeling, however, for no one ever could quarrel with Tubby. "And just about here is where this man Steven Meredith, as he calls himself, breaks into the story. The old miner had told my grandfather that for security he kept the other half of the chart, and the directions how to find the treasure, hidden in the lining of the case holding a pair of field-glasses that he had carried for years, as they were of a special make and considered extra fine."
"And when your esteemed relative came to make a hunt for the said glasses," remarked Tubby, anxious to show that he was following the narrative closely, "why of course he found that Steve had got away with them—is that the stuff, Merritt?"
"Great head, Tubby," chuckled the other, as if amused at this unexpected smartness on the part of the stout boy. "You've said it, after a fashion; for that was what really happened. The glasses were supposed, along with other things owned by the old miner, to be in the charge of an old and invalid sister in a small town. To that place my grandfather went, armed with a paper which would give him possession of the traps of the dead man, including the case with the glasses. And that was where he came up against a staggering disappointment.
"It seemed that this sister of the miner was a little queer in her head. When a visitor chanced to examine the glasses, and offered her a pretty fine sum for them, she, not knowing how her brother valued them because of their association with his prospecting life, thought it a good chance to dispose of some useless property.
"And so the wonderful half of the chart was gone. My grandfather took enough interest in the matter to learn that a man by the name of Steven Meredith possessed the glasses. He even started a search for him, thinking that he might be able to buy the glasses back, so as to satisfy his mind about the worth of the chart.
"Later on he learned that some valuable ore had been struck in the region where the secret mine of the dead prospector was said to be located. This kept making him take more and more interest in the finding of Steven and the lost paper. He became absorbed in the hunt, and in the end had three men on the track.
"They traced Meredith across the ocean. All sorts of strange rumors came back as to what he really was. Once it was even said that he was secretly in the pay of the German Government. Anyway, he went to Berlin, and was known to meet with certain men high up in the Secret Service there.
"Just a little while ago my grandfather received positive word from one of his agents that Steven Meredith was stationed in a Belgian town, though what his business there could be was a mystery. This little town was an obscure one near Brussels, where he could keep in the background. Its name is Sempst; and that's where we are headed now."
"But just explain one queer thing, won't you, please, Merritt?" asked Tubby.
"I know what you're going to say," replied the other. "Of course you're wondering why my relative didn't wire his agent about the glasses, and offer him a good sum to get them, with the case. Well, the fact is he didn't have as much faith in his agents as all that."
"You mean that if the man knew he valued the article so much he would begin to smell a rat, and perhaps examine the lining of the case himself, after he had managed to steal or buy the glasses?" suggested Rob.
"That's what he had in mind," Merritt continued. "So he hardly knew what to do, or whom to trust, until I asked him to send me, and let me have you along. They didn't like the idea of us boys starting over here when things were so upset; but grandfather believes Boy Scouts can do almost anything. So it came about. And in a nutshell that's the strange story."
"Gee! you'd think it a page from the Arabian Nights," Tubby declared. "But queer things can happen to-day just as much as ever. I only hope that if we do manage to rake in that old field-glass case, and the paper is still nestling underneath the lining, it doesn't turn out to be a pipe dream—something that old miner just hatched up to make himself feel he was as rich as a Vanderbilt."
"We'll have to chance that," said Rob. "Our part of the business will be done when we carry the case back to Merritt's grandfather. It's up to him for the rest. But don't you think we'd better try and get to sleep, for it's growing late?"
They determined that this was a wise suggestion, and shortly afterward not only Tubby and Merritt, but Rob as well had lost all realization of trouble and stress in sound slumber.
The night passed, and with the coming of dawn the boys were astir. Nothing had apparently happened during the night to disturb them.
In the morning hens were beginning to cackle, and cows to low, as the boys awoke and crawled from the hay. A few minutes later, at a nearby pump, they washed the last bit of drowsiness from their eyes; after which they began to think, from the pleasant odors in the air, that it was nearly time for breakfast.
"I dreamed about that grand paper hunt you told us about, Merritt," Tubby announced, as with his chums he sauntered over to the inn to see what chance there was for getting something to eat. "And talk to me about your will-o'-the-wisps, or what they call jack-o'-lanterns, such as flit around graveyards or damp places nights, that certainly did beat the record. Lots of times I was just stretching out my hand to grab it when I'd hear a laugh, and Steve, he'd snatch the old field-glass case away. I woke up still on the trail, and as set as ever to win out."
"Let's hope that will prove to be the case with us," ventured Rob cheerily.
They found that they were to be given breakfast; and as all of the boys had a ferocious appetite they soon did justice to the meal set before them.
It was while they were finishing that they suddenly became aware of the fact that something along the line of a battle had broken out not a great ways off. The first intimation they had of this was the deep-throated sound of a heavy gun. It made them jump; and the entire village seemed to become aroused at once, as people began to run this way and that, chattering like magpies, some of their faces turning white with apprehension of what was to come.
They had heard of the fate of Louvain, and dreaded the hour when the German army should come sweeping with irresistible force across that section of the country.
Quick on the heels of that opening gun came other sounds—the long roll of rifle firing in volleys, and the faint cheers of charging men. The boys even fancied they could hear amidst all the confusion the loud singing that was said to mark the advance of the German legions as they went into battle chanting the "Watch on the Rhine." Rob could well believe it, for he knew singing was to the Teuton mind what the bagpipes meant to Scotch Highlanders, or cheers to American boys in khaki.
It was evident that the gallant little Belgian army, determined to resist to the uttermost the passage of the Germans across their territory in the direction of Antwerp and Ghent, had again given battle to overwhelming numbers.
Of course the boys had rushed out of the inn and immediately sought the best position from which they could see something of what was going on. Many of the villagers were clustered there, gazing with deepest concern at the section where the smoke of battle was beginning to spread like a pall over the country.