"How far do you suppose we have come?" asked Hal.
"I don't know," replied the Frenchman; "but we have covered considerable ground."
"Do you think we are out of danger?"
"We are never out of danger as long as we are in Germany," put in the lieutenant. "We may be safe from pursuit, but we are not out of the woods yet, by any means."
"How long should it take us to get out of the country?" asked Chester.
"With luck, five days."
"Well, let's hope for luck, then," said Hal. "I have had enough excitement to last me for a long time to come."
"Same here," declared Chester.
They remained in their retreat for some time, and then, mounting, moved forward once more. An hour later they succeeded in purchasing breakfast at a farmhouse. As all were draining their second cup of coffee there came from without the sound of galloping. The four jumped to their feet.
"What's that?" cried Chester, in alarm.
"We'll see," replied the young lieutenant briefly, and stepped to a window. The others also advanced and peered over his shoulder.
"Looks to me like a body of Black Hussars," remarked Captain Derevaux.
"And so it is," said the lieutenant, as the horsemen drew closer to the farmhouse.
"Do you suppose they are looking for us?" queried Chester.
"I do not think so. It's hardly likely they have heard of our escape from Stettin."
"Had we better remain here and trust to their passing by, or shall we make a run for it?"
"I believe we had better stay here. They may not stop."
And, indeed, it seemed that the lieutenant's prophecy would prove correct.
The squadron came on without checking their speed; but, just as they swept by the farmhouse, a squad of a dozen men, headed by an officer, detached themselves from the main body, and headed toward the house.
"We are in for it again," remarked Hal, and drew his revolver.
"Put that away!" exclaimed the young captain quickly. "One shot and the whole troop will be on us!"
Hal dropped his weapon back into his pocket.
At that instant there came a loud knock at the front door.
The good housewife hastened forward to answer the knock, but was intercepted by the Frenchman.
"Do not answer!" he commanded.
The woman stared at him aghast.
"Why," she exclaimed, "it is probably my husband. He is a cavalry officer, you know," and she smiled, and made as if to pass.
But the captain again blocked her way.
"Nevertheless," he said, "I must ask you not to go to the door."
The woman gazed at him a moment in astonishment; then a queer look passed over her face.
"I see!" she exclaimed. "You are spies!"
With a scream she evaded the captain and rushed to the door.
"Come!" cried Captain Derevaux, his effort having failed. "I guess we shall have to make a run for it!"
"Out the back door!" exclaimed Lieutenant Anderson, and the four ran through the house, went down the steps three at a time, and rushed toward their horses in the stable nearby.
Hardly had they leaped into their saddles and dashed from the stable, when the woman and a German officer appeared in the back door of the farmhouse, while from around the house came the dozen troopers afoot.
With a shout the riders charged directly at them, bowling the soldiers over on all sides, and for a moment it looked as though they might make their escape.
Then a shot rang out, and Chester's horse stumbled and went to his knees. Chester was flung from his saddle, over his horse's head, and struck the ground with stunning force. He lay still.
Hal leaped to the ground and stooped over Chester. The captain and the young lieutenant pulled up their mounts.
As Hal tried to lift Chester to his feet, a second shot was heard, and a bullet whistled over Hal's head. Hal dropped Chester to the ground, and drew his revolver.
He turned his face toward the enemy.
"Come on!" he shouted, his eyes flashing, "I'll drop one or two of you before you get me!"
But at that moment, the lieutenant's voice rang out.
"Don't shoot!" and Hal stayed his hand.
At the same instant, Captain Derevaux and Lieutenant Anderson raised their hands in token of surrender; and it was well that they did so, for by that time the entire body of troopers had their rifles leveled.
To have missed at that distance would have been impossible, and the lieutenant had realized it.
"Throw your weapons on the ground," came a command, and the captain and lieutenant obeyed.
Hal made as if to raise his revolver again, and the rifles of the troopers were turned on him.
Again the lieutenant called:
"Don't be a fool. Throw that gun down!"
The officer in command of the troop approached and spoke:
"Who are you?" he demanded.
"Travelers," replied Lieutenant Anderson.
"Where are you going?"
"Why did you run at our approach?"
The lieutenant made no reply.
"Well," said the German officer, after a pause, "if you are bound for Brunswick you will get there all right That is our destination."
Captain Derevaux and Lieutenant Anderson had dismounted, and by this time Chester had recovered consciousness.
Calling two of his men, the German officer ordered the four companions bound. Then Chester's saddle was taken from his wounded horse and put upon another, which was brought from the stable. The four companions were assisted to the backs of their animals, and the troop proceeded forward, the prisoners in the center.
The country through which they now traveled was rough and hilly, and rapid progress was impossible. From time to time they passed detachments of troops hurrying in the opposite direction. They did not overtake the main body, of which their captors were a part, until they reached Prenzlau, where the troop was quartered.
There the prisoners were led before the commanding officer, Colonel Waldstein. Lieutenant Anderson spoke.
"Colonel," he said, "I am Lieutenant Anderson, of the British army, and this," indicating the young captain, "is Captain Derevaux, of the French army." Then, pointing to Hal and Chester: "These two boys are in no way concerned in our affairs, and I hope that you will see fit to release them."
"How do they come to be in your company, then?" asked the colonel.
The lieutenant explained the circumstances.
The German officer was silent for some moments, meditating. Then he turned to an aide.
"Summon Lieutenant Schmidt!" he ordered.
Presently an old soldier entered the general's quarters and saluted.
"Lieutenant," said Colonel Waldstein, "take these two lads," indicating Hal and Chester, "and quarter them in your home. You may remain here," he told the boys, "until I have made inquiries and learned what to do with you. You are so young that I can hardly believe you are spies."
"Thank you, colonel," said Lieutenant Anderson.
"But, as for you two," continued Colonel Waldstein, speaking to Captain Derevaux and Lieutenant Anderson, and his voice grew grave, "the fact that I have found you within our lines in civilian attire would justify me in having you shot at once. But I shall not dispose of your cases until we reach Brunswick, for which place we leave to-night by train. You may have valuable information. I shall turn your cases over to my superiors."
Hal and Chester shook hands with their two friends.
"I don't know why you should do this for us," said Hal; "but we appreciate your self-sacrifice more than we can tell you."
"Indeed we do," agreed Chester.
"That's all right, boys," replied the lieutenant. "Now, take my advice, and make no further efforts to get out of the country until you are given a safe escort, which, I am sure, will be within the course of a week."
"That is excellent advice," agreed the young captain. "To get through the country now is practically impossible, as we have proved."
"But what will they do with you?" asked Hal.
The Frenchman shrugged his shoulders.
"Shoot us, I suppose."
Up to this moment the colonel had not interfered with the conversation, but now he called a halt.
"That's talk enough," he declared. "Take the prisoners away."
Hal and Chester followed the old lieutenant from the tent.
"Good-by, good-by!" they called to their two friends, as they passed out.
"Good-by," was the response; "remember our advice."
The lieutenant escorted the boys some distance into the town, then turning into a lane, marched them into a yard, in which, far back, sat a large frame house.
"This is my home," he said; "and as long as you stay you will be welcome. My wife is fond of boys, and will be glad to see you. You will have the freedom of the grounds, but remember, any attempt to leave the town without a permit probably will end in your being shot. Take my advice and don't try it"
A NEW FRIEND.
"Frau Schmidt is certainly a nice old lady," said Chester.
"She certainly is," agreed Hal. "If it wasn't for the fact that I wanted to get out of the country so badly, I wouldn't mind spending a few weeks here."
"Nor I; and Fritz is a likable fellow."
"He sure is."
The boys had spent two days in the Schmidt home when this conversation took place. In Frau Schmidt they had found a lovable and motherly woman, well along in years.
She had made them welcome from the first, and had set before them the best she had. Their room was next to that of her son, Fritz, a young man probably six years older than Hal.
Now, Fritz was of a mechanical turn of mind, and all day and well into the night he was at work in his shop behind the house. From bits of conversation, the boys gathered that Fritz was engaged in the task of building an aeroplane, and they were greatly interested.
The fact that no one was allowed in Fritz's workshop unless he accompanied them, and the additional fact that at night two soldiers were stationed at the door at first caused the boys some surprise. However, Fritz had explained:
"You see, the government has taken over all aircraft in process of construction, no matter how crude and amateurish, and has appointed a commission to investigate all patents. Of course, it was known that I was building an airship, and, as a result, I am working under government orders.
"If my craft should come up to expectations it will mean a great deal to me, and I probably shall either be put to work building more, or, better still, be made a member of one of the aeroplane corps."
"Yes," said Chester again, "Fritz is a fine fellow. Do you suppose his aeroplane will be a success?"
"I don't know. For his sake, I hope so. As he says, it means a whole lot to him."
"So do I. And I will bet Fritz would be of great help to his country. He is a pretty shrewd chap."
"You bet he—Hello! What's that?"
A sudden cry had come from the direction of the kitchen, and the sounds of a struggle followed.
"Come on!" shouted Chester. "Somebody is in trouble!"
The two boys ran madly around the house.
Dashing through the door into the kitchen, a terrible sight met their eyes.
Huddled into a corner was Frau Schmidt, and over her, with a naked knife, stood a man, ragged and unkempt. A second man was ransacking the drawers of a dresser in the room beyond. The boys could see him through the open door.
Just as they dashed in the door, the man with the knife snarled in a low voice:
"Give me the key to the workshop, I tell you. We mean business!"
"You mean business, do you!" shouted Hal, striding toward him. "Well, so do I!"
The man turned at the sound of Hal's voice, and, with upraised knife, awaited the lad's attack.
"You cowardly ruffian!" cried Hal, "to attack a defenseless old woman!"
As he spoke, he leaped upon the man, dodging the blow the latter aimed at him with the wicked-looking knife. Before the latter could recover his balance, Hal seized the arm that held the knife.
A sharp twist and the knife went spinning across the floor. Both leaped for it, but Hal was quicker than his opponent, and placed his foot upon the weapon. With a snarl the man sprang upon him.
Chester had entered the room upon Hal's heels; and, as his friend jumped for the first intruder, Chester rushed at the man in the next room. The latter heard him advance, and, stepping back, picked up a chair, which he brandished over his head. Taking a rapid stride forward, he swung his improvised weapon at Chester's head.
Chester avoided the blow with a quick, backward leap, and the chair was smashed to fragments against the door. Then Chester jumped forward and closed with his opponent.
With a rapid movement he placed his knee behind the other's leg and pushed suddenly. The man went over backward, with Chester on top of him. As the intruder fell, his head came into contact with the sharp projection of the bureau, and when he struck the floor he lay still. Chester rose to his feet.
As Hal's opponent sprang toward him, the lad stepped in close and delivered a stinging short-arm blow over the other's heart. He staggered back, and, as Hal took another step forward, Chester, having disposed of his adversary, threw his arms about the man from behind, and bore him to the floor, where both boys piled on top of him.
While the three were struggling on the floor, a voice from the doorway exclaimed:
"What is going on here?" and Fritz rushed into the room.
He took in the situation at a glance, and, rushing forward, lent a hand in subduing the boys' opponent.
The struggle was over quickly, and, seizing a strong rope, which hung from the wall, Fritz soon had the two men safely bound. Then he turned to his mother, who still sat huddled on the chair, where she had been when the boys entered the room. The excitement had been too much for her, and she had fainted.
She was soon revived, however, and, when she was strong enough to sit up, jumped to her feet, and, throwing her arms around Hal, kissed him loudly. Then she turned her attention to Chester, and repeated the operation.
"My preservers!" she cried, laughing and crying at the same time. "Fritz, but for these two boys your old mother would now be dead."
Rapidly and somewhat incoherently she related what had occurred, and Fritz was no less warm in his praise for the actions of the two boys.
"Those men are undoubtedly spies," he declared. "They most certainly had designs upon my biplane, which they evidently knew had been completed. I shall turn them over to the military authorities."
He left the house, and in a few moments returned with a squad of soldiers, who took the assailants in charge. Fritz explained to the officer how the two men had been captured, and the German officer complimented the boys highly for their prompt action.
After the two prisoners had been led away, Hal bethought himself of the remark Fritz had made concerning his biplane.
"Do you mean to say your aeroplane is ready for use?" he asked.
"Yes; I am going to make a short flight this afternoon. Would you care to watch me?"
"Would we!" exclaimed Hal. "You can just bet we would!"
"All right, then; come on."
The two lads followed Fritz to his workshop. Inside the boys approached the large aircraft, which rested lightly on its wheels at the end of the speedway. The huge planes which served as wings stretched out on either side like two great box kites, while underneath the aviator's seat the gearing could be plainly seen.
The aviator looked at the machine with great pride, and spoke of the improvements he had made in the propellers and in the system of power transmission. He explained to the boys that, by this direct system, he had gained twenty per cent more velocity; and, now that the war had begun, he hoped to be able to prove this to the army experts.
The boys helped Fritz push the machine out into the open, and watched intently while he tested the steering gear and tried the ignition. After some further tinkering, Fritz finally took his seat, pulled a lever, and, after skimming the ground for a few rods, the machine rose gracefully into the air.
"By George!" said Hal to Chester, as the craft rose from the ground. "That looks easy. I believe I could do it myself."
"It looks easy," Chester admitted. "But how do you suppose a fellow would feel sailing along up there?"
"I guess it would scare me a little at first, but, just the same, I should like to try it."
After circling around for several minutes, Fritz brought the machine back to its starting point and, lightly as a bird it dropped to the ground.
"Would you like to take a short flight?" he asked the boys.
Chester backed away.
"Not for me," he declared. "I would lose my head sure, if I got up there."
"You don't want to pay any attention to him when he talks like that," he told Fritz. "I never saw anything yet he was afraid to do."
"After what I saw in the house to-day, I can well believe that," replied the young German. "Would you like to go up?" to Hal. "You know the machine will only carry two."
"Why, yes," answered Hal; "I would like it."
"Climb in, then," ordered Fritz.
Not without some misgiving Hal obeyed.
Once more the huge machine skimmed gracefully over the ground, and again went sailing into space.
As the plane rose from the ground, Hal grabbed the side of the seat and hung on for dear life. Looking down and seeing the ground dropping rapidly away, he experienced a choking sensation in his throat.
As the machine stopped rising, however, and stretched itself out for a straight flight, Hal's composure came back to him, and he looked around with interest.
Then Fritz explained the mechanism of the machine to him. He showed him how to stop, how to increase the speed of the plane; how to rise and how to glide to earth. He also showed him how to work the steering wheel.
While they were sailing about in the air he told Hal that, if necessary, his craft could make a speed of one hundred miles an hour for hours. He declared it could attain an altitude of a mile. Practically the only danger, he said, came from conflicting air currents.
After sailing around for nearly half an hour, Fritz again brought the machine to the ground a few feet from where Chester stood.
"Great!" exclaimed Hal, as he alighted and helped Fritz roll the machine back into the shop. "No more automobiling for me. When I get home I am going to get an airship."
"Wouldn't you like to go up with me to-morrow, Chester?" asked Fritz, as he locked the door to the shop.
"I believe I would," was the reply. "I guess I can stand it if Hal can."
"Then you shall," said Fritz, and the three turned toward the house, where Frau Schmidt stood in the doorway, calling to them that supper was ready.
IN THE AIR.
The boys were busily engaged in disposing of a hearty supper when there came a knock at the door. Frau Schmidt answered the knock, and, returning a few moments later, placed before Hal an important-looking letter, bearing the official seal of the German government.
Hal opened the document and read.
"Great Scott!" he exploded, after a hasty perusal.
"What's the matter?" demanded Chester anxiously.
"Why, here is an order, commanding us to report to the commanding officer the first thing in the morning, so that we may be transported back to Berlin!"
"Berlin! What in the world do we want to go back to Berlin for?"
"We don't; but it looks as though there were no help for it. The letter says that, after an investigation of our case, it has been decided that we shall be sent back to Berlin and that, if we are to be allowed to leave the country, such arrangements must be made by the United States ambassador."
"Well, what do you think of that!"
"It's too bad," declared Fritz; "but an order is an order. I am afraid you must go!"
"You poor boys!" exclaimed Frau Schmidt "I can't see why they won't let you stay here."
"No more do I," declared Hal. "But I guess this letter means business."
"It sure looks like it," said Chester.
"That's what I call pretty tough luck," declared Hal, when the two boys were alone in their room that night, Fritz and his mother having retired.
"Tough? I should say it is tough," returned Chester. "After all the trouble we have had getting away from Berlin, then to have to go back. Tough is no name for it."
"Well," said Hal, "I guess there is no use kicking. We ran a good race, but we lost. It's back to Berlin for us."
Suddenly Chester sat bolt upright
"By George!" he exclaimed.
"What's the matter now?" asked Hal in surprise.
"I've an idea."
"Strange," replied Hal, with a smile; "but let's hear it."
"Well, in the first place, you took an airship ride to-day. How did you like it?"
"Like it? Oh, I liked it all right. Why?"
"You saw Fritz work the thing. Did you get the hang of it?"
Hal jumped to his feet with a subdued exclamation.
"I see what you are getting at!" he declared. "An airship! Why didn't I think of it myself?"
"There are only two objections I can see to the plan," said Chester.
"What are they?"
"Well, the first is, can you run the thing without spilling us out?"
"I am willing to take a chance if you are. Fritz explained the workings of the machine while we were aloft to-day. I am sure I can do it. What is the second reason?"
"The second reason is that it seems a shabby trick to play on Fritz, particularly after the way he has treated us."
"So it does," agreed Hal slowly, but, after a pause, he added: "However, I believe we had better do it. To me it looks like the survival of the fittest."
For a long time the boys debated this point, but the matter was finally settled when Hal said:
"Well, if we don't, we are likely to be stuck in Germany until the war is over; and there is no telling when that will be."
"As long as we are going to do it, then," returned Chester, "the sooner we start the better."
"Right," replied Hal. "Let's get busy."
"How are we to get the aeroplane out of the shop? You know the door is locked."
"Yes, but I know something else, too. I noticed it to-day, and wondered why those men who came after the key didn't take advantage of it."
"What is it?"
"The bolts in the hinges of the door can be lifted out easily, and we can take the doors off."
"But we must get rid of the two soldiers who keep guard at night."
"We will do that some way, all right."
"Come on, then; let's get started."
Chester opened the door of their room and peered out.
"Coast clear," he announced.
Softly the two boys stole from the room and crept along the hall. They tip-toed down the stairs, opened the door, and went out with scarcely a sound. Outside they stopped. In front of the workshop they could see the two guards in conversation.
"We must get to the rear of the shop without being seen," whispered Hal. "When one guard makes his rounds, we must grab him and prevent him from making an outcry. We can then dispose of the other. You wait here a minute, while I go back and get a piece of clothes-line, so we can tie them up."
He returned almost immediately with two pieces of rope.
"Careful, now," whispered Hal, as, keeping in the shadow of the house, they made a short detour.
Out of sight of the guards, they made a silent dash for the rear of the workshop, where they stood, silently awaiting the approach of the guard.
"I hate to do this," whispered Hal, as he heard the footsteps of the guard; "but it has to be done."
As the guard rounded the corner of the shop, Hal struck out. Swift and true was the blow; and struck upon the point of the chin, the man crumpled up without a sound.
The boys bound and gagged him quickly, using their handkerchiefs to stuff into his mouth. Then silently they ran to the opposite side of the shop and waited the approach of the second guard.
A moment later his footsteps were heard approaching. As he turned the corner, Hal again struck out swift and true, and the second man went to the ground. The boys bound and gagged him, and then hastened to the front of the shop.
As Hal had predicted, the doors were removed with little difficulty, and silently the lads rolled the huge machine into the open. Hal's experience with automobiles had taught him something of engines, so he had little trouble starting this one. Finding everything in working order, Hal climbed into the driver's seat, and Chester, not without a tremor, took his place beside him.
Hal's afternoon experience and his natural aptitude for mechanics now stood him in good stead. Reaching out he threw over a lever and the machine moved forward. There was a whirring sound as the plane skimmed over the ground. As the machine began to rise, Hal pressed another lever, and they shot into the air rapidly.
So swiftly did they go up that their breath was almost taken away.
"Great Scott!" gasped Chester. "This is more than I bargained for!"
With the lights of the village like pin points below him, Hal, who had not for a moment lost his presence of mind, checked the rise of the machine, and headed toward the southwest, gauging his direction by a compass before him, the moonlight luckily permitting him to see.
As the machine settled down to its flight, Chester regained his composure.
"This is more like it," he said. "For a moment I was afraid it was all up with us."
"I was scared for a minute myself," replied Hal. "But you must remember this is not my first trip aloft."
"I guess it's all right after you get used to it," was the answer, "but the way I feel right now, if I ever get my foot on terra firma again I am going to stay there."
"Oh, you will be all right directly," he said. "For my part, I like it."
"How fast do you suppose we are going?"
"About fifty miles an hour."
"Great Scott! That's going some!"
The machine was skimming at great speed through the air, flying low, as Hal did not wish to lose sight of the ground entirely.
"This is high enough for me," he explained. "I might want to go down suddenly, and I want to see where I am going. Of course, if it is necessary, we will go higher."
"I guess we might as well fall ten miles as to fall from here," remarked Chester. "If anything went wrong it would be good night for us."
For a time they flew along in silence.
Suddenly there was the sound of a shot from below, and a bullet whizzed by the flying aeroplane.
Hal sent the machine higher into the air with a jump, and Chester let out an exclamation as he was almost thrown from his seat.
"That was too close for comfort!" cried Hal.
"Well, the next time you decide to shoot up like that, let me know first!" exclaimed Chester. "You almost lost me that time!"
"Hang on tight!" shouted Hal. "You never can tell what will happen with me running this thing, so don't take any chances."
"I'll hang on tight in the future, never fear," was the reply. "What do you suppose that shot was?"
"Some sentry, I suppose. I guess he knew no machine was supposed to be flying around here. That's probably why he took a shot at us. We were flying too low, anyhow. We will stay up here, where we can't be so easily seen or heard."
For some time the boys sailed along without a word, and then, just as Chester opened his mouth to ask Hal where he supposed they were, there was the sound of rushing wings, and, turning in his seat, Chester beheld a huge shape rushing after them.
"Speed up, Hal!" cried Chester. "We are pursued!"
Without stopping to ask questions, Hal threw the speed lever over, and the machine leaped forward like some live thing.
At the same moment there came the crack of a rifle, and, as Hal dropped one arm from the steering wheel the aeroplane rocked crazily and dived toward the ground.
The bullet had grazed Hal's left shoulder.
With a desperate effort, the lad righted the machine with his one good arm, and it shot upward again.
"What's the matter?" gasped Chester. "Are you hurt?"
"Hit in the shoulder," replied Hal briefly. "I suppose whoever fired aimed at the machine. I just happened to be in the way, that's all."
"But you can't drive with one arm! Hadn't we better—"
"Can't!" exclaimed Hal. "I've got to!"
At that moment both boys were almost blinded by the glare of a dazzling light directly ahead!
OVER THE FRONTIER.
"What's that?" cried Chester, in consternation.
"I haven't any idea," replied Hal; "but it looks like a searchlight."
"Hadn't you better slow down?"
"With our pursuers just behind? I guess not."
And, with a touch of the lever, Hal sent the machine forward even faster than before.
For a moment they were in the center of the blinding glare, and then they had passed beyond it. Then Hal spoke.
"I can tell you now what it is," he said.
"Lighthouse? What do you mean?"
"Why, that brilliant light we just passed through came from the ground. The powerful flares are used for the guidance of war aviators, or airship men, during the night. They prevent the aviator from getting lost, and denote a safe landing,"
"I see what you mean; but it gave me a scare for a minute."
"And me; at first I thought it was the searchlight of another airship."
"But why should such lighthouses be in use here? I should imagine they would be used only in places of danger."
"Maybe that is the reason."
"Surely there can be no danger for a German airship around here."
"I don't know about that. We have traveled a considerable distance. Perhaps we are closer to the border than we think."
"Well, we can't get across it any too soon to suit me," declared Chester.
Hal did not reply, and the flight was continued in silence. For more than an hour the huge machine sailed swiftly through the air. At length Hal said:
"I guess we had better drop down a bit. Perhaps we may be able to see something."
Suiting the action to the word, he let the machine glide slowly downward, until the distant shadow of the earth could once more be seen. Then the craft sped out on its straightaway course again.
The twinkling of faraway lights drew the boys' attention.
"I wonder what that is?" asked Chester.
"We'll see," was the brief reply.
The machine dropped still lower.
"An army camp!" exclaimed Hal, when he was at last able to make out the objects below. He shut off his engine, and for a few moments both boys gave their attention to the awe-inspiring sight.
Dimly they could discern the outlines of the great camp. With its thousands upon thousands of huts, it spread out like a great fan, extending almost as far as the eye could see.
"Great Scott!" exclaimed Chester. "There must be a million men down there!"
"Hardly that many," laughed Hal; "but there are a few. I guess we had better go a little higher. We might be seen, and a chance bullet might bring us down in the middle of them."
The machine rose gently again; but, as the airship headed once more upon its course, there was a muffled explosion, and the machine rocked dangerously.
"What on earth is the matter now?" demanded Chester.
Hal bent over his engine.
"I don't know what has blown out," he replied. "But the engine has gone dead."
"Dead!" exclaimed Chester.
"Can you fix it?"
"Not up here. It is impossible. I am not familiar enough with it."
"What shall we do, then?" cried Chester, in alarm.
"We shall have to go down."
"What! And land right in the middle of the German camp?"
"I am afraid so. There is no help for it. However, I shall sail just as far as possible before we hit the earth."
Slowly the machine dropped, its strong planes still holding it on its forward course. So gentle was the fall that it was almost imperceptible; but presently the distant earth below could be seen; and then Chester cried:
"Look! We are almost beyond the camp. We shall clear it when we hit the ground."
Hal glanced down.
"So we shall," he agreed, and there was hope in his voice.... "Maybe I will be able to fix the engine before we are discovered."
Nearer and nearer to the ground glided the huge machine. They were now well beyond the farthest outposts of the camp, and consequently had recovered their good spirits.
The airship came gently to earth, and the boys jumped out. As they did so, there came the faint sound of a command and a rifle cracked.
"We are discovered!" shouted Hal. "Quick! To the woods!" And the boys made a dash toward a clump of trees that could be seen in the distance.
Desperately the two lads ran toward the woods, and, as they ran, the first single rifle shot was followed by a volley; but, thanks to the semi-darkness, the boys gained the shelter of the woods unscathed.
Once under the friendly shelter of the trees the boys did not diminish their speed. Rather, if possible, they ran faster. Then, suddenly they stopped; and the cause of their abrupt halt was this:
A heavy crashing in front of them gave evidence of the approach of a large body of men. For a moment the lads stood as if frozen to the spot; then Hal cried:
"Up in this tree, quick! It's our only chance!"
Acting upon the instant, the two lads swung themselves into the crotch of the great tree under which they stood; then climbed noiselessly higher up among the branches. Just as they had succeeded in screening themselves from possible discovery, a body of horsemen burst in among the trees.
"Caught right in between them," whispered Hal.
"Yes; and, if we get out of this fix alive, we are in luck," Chester whispered back.
The horsemen below them did not pause in their march, but continued on through the woods.
"Evidently a scouting party returning," whispered Hal.
And still the long line of horsemen pressed on beneath them.
Suddenly there came the sharp crack, crack, of many rifles; and from beneath the two lads came the hoarse command of an officer:
The line of horsemen quickened their pace; and then the firing ahead broke into a loud and steady roar.
For many minutes, it seemed to the two lads, the stream of horsemen poured on beneath them. Then the sound of firing became less distinct, and Hal and Chester dropped to the ground.
"At last! At last we are safe!" cried Hal.
"Safe?" repeated Chester. "How do you mean we are safe?"
"Why, you chump, doesn't that fighting going on there mean anything to you?"
"Do you mean that you believe the troop that just passed us are French?"
"Yes; French, Belgians, or English, I don't know which. But, anyhow, they are friends. Hurrah!"
"Hurrah!" repeated Chester, throwing his cap in the air with delight.
Suddenly the beat of the feet of many horses was heard and the sound of firing became more audible. Several riderless horses broke into the woods, followed by the cavalry.
"Grab one of those horses, Chester!" cried Hal, as he jumped forward and seized the bridle of the one nearest him. Chester followed suit, and both lads were soon in the saddle.
At that moment a large body of horsemen broke through the woods from the direction in which they had so recently gone, retiring slowly, turning every now and then to fire.
"It's a retreat!" cried Chester. "They have been driven back! Let us get away from here or we shall be shot down!"
But, even as they turned to flee, a mounted officer laid his hand upon the bridle of Hal's horse.
"Who are you?" he demanded in French. "What do you here?"
Briefly Hal explained that they had just escaped through the German lines, and then asked:
"Where are we? What troops are these?"
"This is a troop of Belgian light cavalry," came the reply, "a reconnoitering force. We were attacked by a strong force of the enemy, and are falling back upon our lines."
"But where are we?"
"About five miles from Liege."
"Yes; where did you think you were?"
"We had not the faintest idea, other than that we were beyond the German lines."
All this time the troop had been retreating slowly, firing as they went, the boys being led along by the officer.
"It will be necessary for me to place you under arrest," declared the Belgian officer. "I shall turn you over to the commanding general when we regain our lines."
Hal and Chester were stricken almost speechless.
"Great Scott!" Chester finally exclaimed. "After all the trouble we have had getting out of Germany, then to be arrested at the end!"
"I am sorry," replied the officer, "but I can do nothing else. You are sure to be looked upon with suspicion, having been found as you were, and, unless you can give a good account of yourselves, I fear you are in a serious predicament."
Fighting every inch of the way, the Belgian cavalry continued its retreat, being hard pressed by the Germans, who were continually reinforced. From the rear the firing became heavier, and then there was heard the sound of a galloping body of horsemen.
"Halt!" cried the Belgian officer in command, and the retreating horsemen came to a stand.
"About face!" And at the command they wheeled to meet the charge of a force of Uhlans.
The Germans came on bravely; but, just as they hurled themselves upon their foe, there came from the Belgian rear a fierce hail of rifle shots. Reinforcements had arrived.
The Germans halted in their fierce charge, and then drew off, shooting as they went. At the same instant a regiment of Belgian infantry rushed forward on the run. They pursued the flying Germans for some distance, and then turned back.
Then the Belgians resumed their retreat to their own lines.
Hal and Chester bore up bravely during this—their first time—under fire. Unable to take part in the fighting themselves, being without weapons, they watched with interest the maneuvers of the officers and the gallantry with which the Belgian cavalry stood up against what at first were plainly overwhelming odds.
Once in the Belgian lines the boys breathed easier.
"Well, here we are at last," said Hal. "I guess we will be able to explain our presence in the woods satisfactorily."
"I hope so," replied Chester.
At this moment the officer who had placed them under arrest approached.
"Come with me," he ordered.
The boys accompanied him to the headquarters of the commanding officer, where their position was explained to the latter.
He listened quietly to Hal's account of their adventures since leaving Berlin, and it was plain to both boys that as he listened he became more and more incredulous.
Hal finished his recital, and for some minutes the general sat silent. Finally he said:
"You have told me a strange story—one that I find it very hard to believe. I must have proof. It must be substantiated. You will consider yourselves prisoners until the matter has been investigated, unless in the meantime there should be someone here who will vouch for your honesty and the truth of this remarkable tale."
"I will vouch for it, general," came a voice.
Turning, the boys beheld in the entrance to the general's hut the smiling face of Captain Raoul Derevaux.
Hal and Chester started forward.
"Captain Derevaux!" they exclaimed simultaneously.
The gallant captain smiled.
"Even so," he returned. Then turning to the general: "I will vouch for the truth of the story told by these boys, sir," he said.
"You know them, then?" questioned the general.
"Yes, sir." And the young captain recounted his first meeting with Hal and Chester and their subsequent adventures. Concluding, he said:
"And I wish to say, sir, that two braver and more resourceful lads it has never been my fortune to encounter."
"Very well, then," said the general. "They are free. I leave them in your charge, captain."
The captain and the two boys left the hut.
"I will take you to my quarters," said the captain, leading the way.
In the captain's hut, seated on a camp-stool, Hal demanded:
"How did you escape? I was sure you and Lieutenant Anderson were doomed to die. And where is the lieutenant?"
"He has returned to England," replied the captain, answering the last question first. "But my story can wait. Tell me about yourselves."
Chester related their experiences after the four had been separated.
"You are certainly a pair of wonderful youngsters," remarked the captain, when Chester had concluded.
"But how did you escape?" demanded Hal again.
"Practically the same as you did," replied the captain. "Airship. Believing that we could not possibly escape, we were left too loosely guarded. Condemned to be shot as spies, we were placed under guard near one of the outposts.
"It was along in the evening that an airship descended within a few yards of us. It had been disabled, and the aviator had alighted to make repairs. When the aviator had thoroughly overhauled the machine, he made his way to the quarters of the commanding general to report.
"As I said, our hut was but a short distance away, and, believing there could be no possibility of our escape, our guards had relaxed their vigilance. Anderson and I stepped to the entrance and looked out. The guards paid no attention.
"Suddenly Anderson shouted: 'Come on!' and we went. There was no one about the machine, and we started it quickly. But, just as the machine was skimming over the ground, the guards noticed our absence, and, running to the open, took a shot at us.
"I had taken the aviator's place, having had some experience with aeroplanes. Anderson was winged at the first shot, but was not badly wounded. By the time the second volley was fired we were high in the air, and the rapidity with which we traveled made accurate shooting impossible. We reached the Belgian frontier without trouble."
"But how does it happen you have not returned to France?" asked Chester.
"When I arrived at Liege I communicated with my government, and was ordered to remain here. I am attached to the Royal French Lancers, the only body of French troops yet in Belgium. The Lancers were ordered here immediately war was declared, to help check the advance of the invader."
"I suppose the best thing for us to do," said Hal, "is to go on to Brussels and try and find mother."
"It is impossible," declared the lieutenant. "Right now you would not be allowed to go. And, in the second place, I took the trouble to inquire, when I first reached Liege, whether your mother was in Brussels. Your ambassador, Mr. Brand Whitlock, informed me that she had left the country."
"What? Gone and left us behind?"
"Yes; but not because she wanted to. It was either a case of leave Brussels then, or run a chance of being held there indefinitely."
"Then what are we going to do? There is no use going to Brussels."
Chester clapped his hands.
"I have it!" he exclaimed.
Hal looked at him in surprise.
"What?" he demanded.
"Why, what we are going to do."
"Well, what is it?"
"Fight? What do you mean?"
"Join the army!"
Captain Derevaux leaped to his feet.
"I will not hear of it!" he exclaimed.
But the idea caught Hal's fancy.
"Good boy, Chester!" he exclaimed. "That's just what we will do!"
"It is impossible," exclaimed the young captain. "In the first place, it would not be possible, at your age, to enlist. But I will tell you what I will do for you."
"What is it?" asked the two lads eagerly.
"In times such as these," explained the captain, "young fellows like you may be useful in many ways without running the risk of going into battle—scouting expeditions and the like. I will speak to the general about you and see what I can do. Understand, I wouldn't do this did I not know that if I didn't you would get mixed up in trouble in some other way, and in a way that would be much more dangerous."
"We are willing to take our chances," replied Hal.
"Of course we are," agreed Chester.
"Oh, I know that," replied the captain, "and what I am proposing is not without danger. But what I have in mind calls for quick wits rather than for strong arms, although I know you have both. I will go now and speak to the general."
"All right," replied Hal. "In the meantime, Chester and I will go out and look around the town."
Everywhere, as the boys strolled about the streets, preparations to withstand a siege were being made; but everything was being done quietly and without confusion. The great steel forts, some of them practically isolated, were subjects of great interest to the lads.
"I'll bet the Germans have a hard time capturing this place," remarked Hal, as they examined one of the forts.
"Yes," agreed Chester, "as the battle of the Monitor and the Merrimac, in Hampton Roads, in our own civil war was the first battle between iron ships, so will an attack on these forts be the first in which such impregnable defenses will be tried out. I was reading about them long before war was declared."
"And I believe the Germans are making a sad mistake when they say the Belgians can't fight," said Hal.
"You bet they are. They will fight till the last. Do they look like people who would give up without a struggle? Look at the way those fellows who captured us turned to face the Uhlans, knowing that, unless reinforced, they were bound to be slaughtered."
"Right. Which reminds me we were in a ticklish position ourselves for a few minutes."
"You bet we were."
As the boys continued their walk, almost on every hand they were mistaken for English, and time after time they were accosted with the question:
"When are the English coming?"
Suddenly the lads were attracted by the sounds of great confusion down a side street.
"Let's see what is going on," cried Hal, and, quickening their pace, they were soon in the midst of an excited crowd.
In the center of the mob a lone man struggled desperately to shake off the many hands that grasped him.
"Hang him!" came a voice from the crowd.
Other voices took up the cry immediately.
"Hang him! Hang him!"
Hal turned to a man in the crowd.
"What's the matter?" he asked.
"Matter? Why, the man was caught spying near one of the forts."
"How do you know he was spying?"
"He is a German. Why else should he be prowling around, if not to spy?" And their informant rushed into the thick of the crowd, gesticulating violently, and adding his voice to the din.
"Great Scott! We can't stand for this!" exclaimed Chester. "Come on!"
Together the two lads rushed into the thick of the mob. Elbowing and pushing men to right and left they made their way through the mass of humanity.
The cause of all the confusion had now freed himself from the clutches of the angry mob, and was laying about him furiously with his cane. He cleared a space before him. But those in front were pushed forward by the men in the rear of the crowd, and once more surged to the attack, just as Hal and Chester, with a final effort, burst through.
The lads took their places, one on each side of the fighting German, and Chester raised a hand to check the mob.
"Get back!" he shouted. "Shame upon you to attack a single man like this. Is this Belgian bravery?"
For a moment the crowd hung back, then rushed forward again, and the three were soon fighting desperately against fearful odds.
But the boys this time had tackled a task that was beyond them. They struck out rapidly, as did the man to whose aid they had rushed, but the sheer weight of numbers finally told.
Chester, Hal and the stranger all went down at last, and were in imminent danger of being beaten into insensibility.
But at that moment the sound of a bugle rang out, and the crowd scattered in all directions. A troop of cavalry was hurrying to the scene.
Hal, Chester and the stranger picked themselves up and brushed the dirt from their clothes. A cavalry officer dismounted and came up to them.
"What is the meaning of this?" he demanded.
The officer turned to the German.
"Come with me," he ordered.
The German obeyed and the troop continued on their journey.
Hal and Chester returned to the captain's quarters. The captain was already there.
"Did you see the general?" asked Hal.
"What did he say?"
"It's all fixed, boys," replied the captain, smiling at their eagerness.
"You mean that the general has consented to the plan?" asked Hal.
"Hurrah!" shouted Chester.
"Hurrah!" cried Hal.
"Yes," continued the captain, "you are ordered to hold yourselves subject to the command of your superior officer," and he concluded smilingly, "which is me."
"And we couldn't have a better!" exclaimed both lads in a single voice.
CHESTER SAVES THE DAY.
The day was at its noon!
From the first break of dawn the battle had raged; now, at mid-day, it was at its height. Hour after hour the fighting had continued under a shadowless sky, blue as steel, hard as a sheet of brass. The Germans had attacked the Belgians and French with the first streak of light.
Circling, sweeping, silently, swiftly, a marvelous whirlwind of force, the Germans had rushed on. Swift, as though wind-driven, they moved. An instant, and the Allies broke into violent movement. Half-clothed sleepers poured out. Perfect discipline did the rest.
With marvelous and matchless swiftness and precision they got under arms. There were but fifteen hundred or so in all—six squadrons of French Lancers, the only French troops yet to reach Belgian soil, and a small body of infantry, without artillery.
Yet, rapid as the action of the Allies was, it was not as rapid as the downward sweep of the German horde that rushed to meet them.
There was a crash, as if rock were hurled upon rock, as the Lancers, the flower of the French cavalry, scarce seated in the saddle, rushed forward to save the pickets, to encounter the first blind ford of the attack and to give the Belgian infantry, farther in, time to prepare for defense.
The hoofs of rearing chargers struck each other's breasts, and these bit and tore at each other's throats and manes, while their riders reeled down dead. The outer wings of the Germans were spared the shock, and swept on to meet the bayonets of the infantry.
The cavalry was enveloped in the overwhelming numbers of the center. It was a frightful tangling of men and brutes.
The Lancers could not charge; they were hemmed in, packed between bodies of horsemen that pressed them together as between iron plates; now and then they cut their way through clear enough to reach their comrades, but as often as they did so, so often the overwhelming numbers of the Germans surged in on them afresh like a flood, and closed upon them, and drove them back.
It was bitter, stifling, cruel work; with their mouths choked with dust, with their throats caked with thirst, with their eyes blind with smoke; while the steel was thrust through nerve and sinew, or the shot plowed through bone and flesh.
The answering fire of the infantry kept the Germans farther at bay, and mowed them down faster—but in the Lancers' quarter of the field—parted from the rest of their comrades, as they had been by the rush of that broken charge with which they had sought to save the town and arrest the foe—the worst pressure of the attack was felt, and the fiercest of the slaughter fell.
The general in command of the cavalry had been shot dead as they had first swept out to encounter the advance of the German horsemen; one by one the officers had been cut down, singled out by the keen eyes of their enemy, and throwing themselves into the deadliest of the carnage with impetuous self-devotion characteristic of their service.
At the last there remained but a bare handful of the brilliant squadrons of 600 men that had galloped down in the gray of dawn to meet the whirlwind of German fury. At their head was Captain Derevaux, and beside him rode Hal.
It was not the gallant captain's fault that Hal was thus in the thick of the battle. This had been an accident, and had come about in this manner:
Late the night before Hal and Chester had been called to the quarters of the commanding general and dispatched on separate missions. Their ways led past the outposts—even beyond the farthest—where the six squadrons of French Lancers and a small body of infantry had been thrown out, under orders, to make a reconnaissance in force in the morning. Advancing beyond this line, Hal had turned east and Chester west.
His mission accomplished, Hal had just reached the Allies' line upon his return, when the Germans bore down on them. Hal saw that his one chance for safety lay in throwing in his fortunes with the troops.
Accordingly he turned his horse, just as the Lancers swept past on their first charge, and reined in beside Captain Derevaux. The latter had recognized the danger and realized that the boy's keen wit had detected his one hope of life. He had greeted him with a smile; nor had he blamed him for his choice.
And so Hal had swept forward in the charge. Seizing a sword from a falling trooper, Hal, riding at the captain's side, was soon in the thick of the terrible carnage, and, in spite of the terrible fighting, had escaped injury.
Two horses had been killed under Captain Derevaux. Twice he had thrown himself across fresh, unwounded chargers, whose riders had fallen in the fray, and at whose bridles he caught as he shook himself free of the dead animal's stirrups. His head was uncovered; his uniform, hurriedly thrown on, had been torn aside, and his chest was bare; he was drenched with blood, not his own, that had rained on him as he fought, and his face and hands were black with smoke and with powder.
Hal could not see a yard in front of him; he could not tell how the day went anywhere save in that corner where the Lancers were hemmed in. As fast as they beat the enemy back, and forced themselves to some clearer space, the Germans closed in afresh.
No orders reached the little troop, and Hal could not tell whether the Belgian battalions were holding their own or had been cut utterly to pieces under the immense numerical superiority of their foes.
Glancing about the field, Captain Derevaux could see that every officer of the Lancers save himself was down, and that, unless he took the vacant place and rallied them, the few troopers still left would scatter.
With Hal at his side, he spurred the horse he had just mounted against the dense crowd opposing him—against the hard black wall of dust and smoke and steel and savage faces, which were all that either could see. He thrust his horse against the mob, while he waved his sword above his head:
"En avant!" he shouted.
His voice reached the troopers, clear and ringing in its appeal. Hal, turning in his saddle at this moment, caught from the hands of a reeling trooper the Eagle of France, and as he raised it aloft, the light, flashing upon the golden wings, brought an answering shout from those that remained of the troop.
"En avant!" came the rallying cry.
The young French captain glanced back on this little troop, guarding his head the while from the blows that were rained on him, and his voice rang out:
Like arrows launched from a hundred bows they charged, Hal and the young captain still slightly in advance, Hal striking aside the steel aimed at him, as they pushed on, and with the other hand holding high the Eagle of France.
The effort was superb.
Dense bodies of Germans parted them in the front from the part of the field where the infantry still was engaged, harassed them in the rear with flying shots and forced down on them on either side, like the closing jaws of a trap.
Their fierce charge was, for a moment, irresistible; it bore headlong all before it. For a moment the Germans gave way, shaken and confused. For a moment they recoiled under the shock of that desperate charge.
As Captain Derevaux spurred his horse against the enemy, twenty blades glittered against him. The first would have pierced his chest had not Hal struck up the blade with a quick move.
To pause was impossible. Though the French horses were forced through a bristling forest of steel, the charge availed little.
Hal waved the Eagle aloft, as the captain looked around at the few who were left and shouted:
"You are the sons of the Old Guard! Die like them!"
"Surrender!" came a cry from in front.
Hal looked back once more on the fragment of the troop, and raised the flag higher aloft, as he muttered to himself:
"This will be the end. I wish I could have seen Chester once more; good old Chester!"
Hot and blinded, with an open gash in his shoulder where a sword had struck a moment before, but with his eyes flashing and a smile on his lips, the young captain cried his reply to the command to surrender:
"Have we fought so poorly that you think we shall give up now?"
Then, with upraised swords, the troop awaited the onward rush of the Germans; and, as they waited the young captain found time to murmur to Hal:
"I am sorry to see you here now, but you are a fighter after my own heart."
Hal was unable to speak. He put out his hand and the young Frenchman grasped it warmly.
"I guess it is good-by," he said quietly.
Then came the shock. With a yell the Germans threw themselves forward. A moment more and the onrushing horde would have massacred them like cattle. But, even at the moment of impact a voice rang out over the field:
Above the din of shouting and rifle shots it came; and from behind came a full troop of Belgian light cavalry; and in front, with drawn sword, rode Chester.
The troop came on at a whirlwind rush; and, even as they did so, Captain Derevaux urged his men into another charge, and pressed forward into the thickest of the conflict. And Hal rode by his side.
Blow after blow was aimed at them, but none found its mark. Parrying and striking, they pushed on; and then a German bugle sounded a recall, and the enemy drew off.
Panting, Chester rode to Hal's side.
"I was afraid we would be too late!" he exclaimed.
"I am not even scratched," returned Hal, grasping his friend's hand.
A Belgian officer hurried up to Captain Derevaux.
"You have this lad to thank for our opportune arrival," he declared, indicating Chester. "He told us of your plight, or we would not have arrived in time."
The captain grasped Chester's hand.
"You saved the day!" he said simply.
A DANGEROUS MISSION.
Chester was embarrassed.
"I did nothing," he said. "I only rode fast."
The hurrahs of the men who heard him drowned his words.
"The general will think differently," returned the captain.
"How does it happen you arrived so opportunely, Chester?" asked Hal.
"It's very simple. I was returning from my mission, and was riding between you and the outposts. I heard firing and rode forward to see what was going on. I saw how things were with you. Even from where I was I thought I could recognize you in the front rank.
"At first I thought I would ride directly toward you, but then I knew that I could be of greater service by hurrying back and summoning aid. When I told the general of your perilous position, he acted at once, and I came with the reinforcements. That's all there is to it. You, Hal, are the one deserving of praise."
"And I shall see that he is rewarded for it!" exclaimed the captain. "But your gallant conduct also shall be made known. Certainly I made two good friends when I met you two boys. At some time I hope to be able to repay you in some slight measure, although I know I can never entirely cancel my indebtedness to you both."
In the hut of the officer commanding the division Captain Derevaux went into detail concerning the gallant actions of our two boys.
The general congratulated them.
"I shall see that your conduct is brought to the personal attention of the King," he declared. "You shall both be rewarded if I live long enough to write out my report."
"Thank you, general," both lads replied, and then accompanied Captain Derevaux to his quarters, where his wound, which was found to be slight, was attended to.
It was the next afternoon that the general again summoned the lads to his hut.
"I have a mission of importance," he said, "and I am seeking volunteers. It is somewhat dangerous, and I am loath to order anyone to go. But in view of your gallant conduct, I thought I would give you the first chance."
"We shall gladly undertake it, general, no matter what it is," replied Hal.
"Yes, sir," agreed Chester, "we shall always be glad to aid the cause of the Allies, no matter what the dangers."
"Well, then," replied the general, taking a paper from his desk. "I want this paper put into the hands of General Givet, at Louvain. If there is any danger of your being captured, destroy it. It contains information that would be invaluable to the enemy.
"In view of your past resourcefulness, I am putting great confidence in your ability to get through. The country between here and Louvain, while not precisely in the hands of the Germans, is being constantly overrun with parties of raiders. You will bring General Givet's reply to me here."
The lads saluted and departed.
"You certainly have made a great impression upon the general," said Captain Derevaux, when the boys informed him of their mission. "Just keep as cool as you have been in the past, and I am sure you will get through without trouble."
It was late that night when the lads made their way from the young captain's quarters, passed beyond the outposts, and made their way into the forest beyond, following the road, but keeping well within the shadow of the trees.
"This is the best summer vacation we have ever had," declared Hal, as they went slowly along.
"You are right, there," replied Chester. "Of course, war is a terrible thing, but as long as there is a war I would rather be over here where I can see what is going on than to be sitting home reading about it in the newspapers."
"Yes; and then you couldn't be exactly sure you were getting the facts."
Shortly after sunrise the boys came upon a large farmhouse.
"It's pretty early," remarked Hal, "but perhaps we can find some one and get a bite to eat."
They approached and found the household already astir. As they ascended the steps, a young girl, probably sixteen years of age, came out on the porch.
"Can you provide us with a little something to eat?" asked Hal politely in French, doffing his cap.
The girl glanced at him, a puzzled expression coming over her face.
"I don't understand French very well," she said, in English.
"By George!" exclaimed Hal. "I thought so. That is," he apologized for his exclamation, "I was sure you were not French."
This time Hal had spoken in English, and a look of surprise had come over her face, followed by an expression of delight.
"I was sure you were Americans!" she exclaimed, and then added hesitatingly, "or are you—can it be you are English?"
"No; we are Americans, all right," Chester broke in; "but we certainly didn't expect to run into an American girl in this corner of the world."
"No; particularly at a time like this," agreed Hal.
"Oh, I am perfectly safe here," replied the girl "Uncle, who is a Belgian officer, has joined his regiment, and I am here with only two servants. He wanted me to go to Liege with him, but I preferred to remain here. No one will harm me."
"But the Germans may come through here at any time, and then you would be in danger."
"Oh, no. Several German regiments already have passed by, and some of the officers were here. They assured me I would not be molested."
"Nevertheless, you are likely to be. You can't tell what may happen."
"I am not afraid," replied the girl. "The Germans won't bother an American."
Remembering their own experiences, Hal and Chester looked at each other and smiled.
"I am not so sure," replied Hal; "but if you have decided to stay, I suppose you will. You see," smiling, "I know something of American girls."
The girl also smiled.
"I suppose you wonder who I am," she said. "I am Edna Johnson, and I live in Chicago. Mother was here with me, but she went home just before war was declared. I suppose she is worried to death about me, but I believe it is safer here than elsewhere, and I have heard Americans are having great difficulties getting home."
Hal and Chester introduced themselves.
After a few minutes Edna suddenly exclaimed:
"Here I am, keeping you chatting, when I know you must be awfully hungry. Come with me and we shall have some breakfast."
The boys followed her into the house, where a hearty meal was soon set in the dining-room, and the three fell to with a will.
Hardly had they satisfied their appetites when there was the sound of many feet upon the porch. Miss Johnson glanced through the door.
"Germans," she said, with a smile; "but they won't bother us."
Hal and Chester jumped to their feet.
"We must hide, Miss Johnson," exclaimed Hal. "If we fall into the hands of the Germans it may mean death to us."
"What!" exclaimed the girl.
"Exactly. I neglected to tell you that we are attached to the Belgian forces and our capture would not only mean trouble for us, but would be a blow to the cause of the Allies."
The girl looked at the lads in amazement, but there was no time for words. There was a loud knock at the door, followed almost immediately by the tramp of feet within the house.
Edna acted promptly. Rushing to the side of the room, she pulled open a door to what appeared to be a closet and motioned to the boys.
"In here, quick!" she cried, and closed the door tightly.
As they passed through the door the boys saw a flight of steps leading apparently to the cellar. Hardly had the door closed behind them ere the steps of the Germans were heard in the room they had just left.
They also heard the girl greet them pleasantly, and the gruff demand for breakfast. Edna called one of her servants, and gave an order that breakfast for the Germans be prepared immediately.
"It is too cramped here," whispered Chester. "Let's go down these stairs. If we were to make a move here, they would surely hear us."
The boys descended the steps. At the bottom they emerged into what, upon inspection, proved to be a wine cellar. At the far side they saw another passageway and moved toward it.
As they did so, they heard the door to the closet through which they had recently passed open again, and a voice exclaim:
"I know these high and mighty Belgian gentlemen too well. There is always wine in the cellar. Come, Franz, we shall explore."
Heavy footsteps descended the stairs, and two German officers hove in sight. The boys, in the dimness of the cellar, were not seen.
"Quick!" whispered Chester, "into the passageway."
As Hal followed Chester into the darkness of the passageway, he tripped over some obstacle in the dark, which gave forth the sound of tinkling glass. The boys stopped stock still.
"What was that?" demanded one of the officers.
"I didn't hear anything," was the reply.
"I thought I heard something moving in the cellar."
"Probably a rat. Here is what we came after. Let's go back upstairs."
The boys heard the sound of retreating footsteps, and presently the door above slammed once more.
Hal and Chester breathed easier.
"Pretty close," remarked Chester, in a low tone.
"You bet it was close," was the reply. "For a minute I thought it was all off."
"Well, I guess we are safe enough now."
"Yes, I guess so. But we must wait here until the Germans have left the house."
"I suppose they will go as soon as they have finished their breakfast."
"I hope so; we haven't any time to waste."
The boys sat down and waited.
What seemed like hours later, the door to the closet above again opened, and the voice of the girl floated down the stairway.
"It's all right, now," she exclaimed. "They have gone. You can come up."
THE FIGHT IN THE FARMHOUSE.
The boys ascended the stairs and followed the girl back into the dining-room.
"Well," said Chester, after the three had talked for some minutes. "I guess we had better be moving. We have wasted too much time already."
They turned toward the door, and, as they did so, Hal uttered a low exclamation.
"Look!" he whispered.
Turning to where Hal pointed, Chester and Edna beheld a face pressed against the window pane.
"It is one of the German officers!" cried the girl. "He has returned for something."
It was apparent that the officer had seen the two boys. He turned from the window, and the lads saw him making violent gestures to someone in the distance. A moment later two soldiers joined him, and the trio turned toward the door.
There came a loud knock, followed by the sound of footsteps in the hall, as one of the servants went to open the door.
"Do not open the door, Bento!" called the girl.
The footsteps halted.
"Open that door at once!" came a voice of command from outside.
Again came the sound of footsteps, as the servant, evidently frightened, moved toward the door.
"Bento! Do as I command you! Do not open the door!" cried the girl again, and the servant stopped.
"Break down the door!" came the command from outside.
"What shall we do?" cried the girl, clasping her hands nervously.
"Fight!" was Hal's brief reply.
His eyes roved about the room. His gaze fell upon a pair of old dueling swords hung upon the wall. Stepping on a chair, he took them down, and passed one to Chester.
At that instant there came the sound of a crash, as the door gave way, followed by a command from the officer:
Edna and the two boys retreated to the far end of the room, as the three Germans rushed through the door.
"Surrender!" cried the officer.
"Come and take us!" replied Hal, his lips set grimly.
The officer covered the lads with his two pistols.
"Stun them with your rifle butts, my lads!" he cried to his soldiers. "Take the spies alive!"
Reversing their weapons, the two soldiers strode forward. As one raised his rifle preparatory to bringing it down upon his head, Chester leaped forward between them, thinking to take the officer, who stood behind them, unprepared, and cut him down.
But, even as he stepped forward, the officer's revolver spoke, and Chester fell to the floor with a groan, a bullet in his chest. But, at that instant, and before the officer could fire again, Hal, who also had avoided the attack of the two soldiers, sprang forward and aimed a slashing blow at the officer.
The latter warded off the blow with his arm, but one of his pistols was sent flying from his grasp. As he raised his other revolver, his arm was suddenly seized from behind, and Edna attempted to wrench the revolver from him. He turned on her, and as he did so the revolver came away in her hand.
Pointing the weapon straight at the officer, the girl pulled the trigger; but the revolver missed fire. Stepping back, as the officer advanced, the girl grasped the pistol by the muzzle and hurled it squarely in his face. With blood gushing from his mouth and nose, the man fell to the floor.
In the meantime Hal had turned swiftly once more to face the second attack of the two soldiers. As they again raised their rifles to strike him down, he leaped between them, thrusting with his sword.
Pierced through the shoulder, one of the soldiers threw up his arm and staggered back. In doing so he struck the arm of his companion, and the latter's blow was deflected; and Hal was unharmed.
Turning, Hal dashed into the next room—the parlor—closely followed by the two soldiers, the wounded man not being seriously hurt. At the same time the German officer sat up on the floor, looked around dazedly, then picked up one of his revolvers, drew his sword, and followed his men.
"Shoot the dog in the legs!" he commanded, and the soldiers brought their rifles to their shoulders.
An instant before they fired Hal sprang upon the piano stool, which was just behind him, and the bullets went low. Hal jumped to the top of the piano, and then dropped behind it. As the soldiers again prepared to fire, Hal put his shoulder to the piano, and sent it tumbling over, and the bullets were imbedded in the soft wood.
Hal ducked as the officer raised his revolver and fired at him, and then, stepping around the piano, made a sweeping slash at the officer. The sword struck the latter on his pistol hand, and, with a groan, the officer dropped his revolver.
Hal turned to the two soldiers, who had leaped on the overturned piano to get at him before he stepped from behind it, and again his sword darted out. The thrust went true, and one soldier fell to the floor, blood streaming from a deep wound in his chest.
Before the second soldier could bring his rifle to bear, Hal ran from the room into the hall. The soldier followed. In the hall, dimly lighted by a single chandelier over the stairway, Hal sprang up the steps.
At the bottom of the steps the soldier stopped and took aim at the lad. With a backward sweep of his sword, Hal knocked the chandelier crashing to the floor, throwing the hall into inky darkness, and with a quick leap was several steps higher up.
There came the sharp crack of a rifle, and the hall was lighted for a second by a flash, as a bullet sped past Hal. With a light leap the lad dropped over the railing into the hall, and, taking a step forward, lunged swiftly in the darkness from where came the sound of a muttered imprecation. There was a stifled groan, and the second soldier dropped to the floor.
Hal made his way back to the parlor, where the German officer still stood, trying to bind up his injured hand with a handkerchief. He saw Hal approach, and raised his sword, taking a step forward. At the same moment, Edna, who had in the meantime dragged Chester's inert body out of harm's way, stepped into the room.
His face red with fury, the German officer took another stride forward, and thrust. The blade passed through Hal's guard and through the side of his open coat, grazing his body.
As the sword went through the boy's coat, it looked to Edna as though the lad must have met his death; and she screamed. The German officer laughed gleefully, but, even as he did so, Hal, smiling, took a step forward.
With a quick stroke, he sent the German's sword flying from his grasp, and the officer was at his mercy.
The German's rage burst like a bubble.
"Kill me!" he said quietly to Hal.
"No," replied the lad; "I cannot kill a man in cold blood. Pick up your sword."
The officer obeyed, and Hal placed himself on guard. But, taking the weapon by the blade, the German extended the hilt to Hal.
"I surrender," he said.
The lad took the extended sword, and then passed it back to the officer.
"Keep your sword, sir," he said.
The German glanced at him a moment in silence; then took the sword.
"You are a generous enemy, sir," he said. "You will have no occasion to regret your confidence in me."
"I am sure of it, sir," was the lad's answer. "You are at liberty to leave at any time you choose."
The officer scrutinized Hal closely.
"You are a gallant lad," he said finally. "There are few men who could have done what you have. I hope that we may meet again."
Turning, with a polite bow, first to Edna and then to Hal, he made his way from the house and was gone.
"How is Chester?" was Hal's first question, after the German had departed.
"He has recovered consciousness," replied the girl. "He is badly wounded, but I believe he will be all right in a few days. Bento, who has some knowledge of medicine, is attending him."
Hal hurried to the room upstairs where Chester had been carried. Chester, lying in bed, greeted him with a smile.
"You certainly have all the luck!" he exclaimed. "Here I was unable to walk while you were doing all the fighting."
"Never mind that," replied Hal. "How do you feel? Are you in pain?"
"Not much, now," was the reply. "Bento is quite a surgeon. He has fixed me up to the queen's taste. It appears the ball glanced off my third rib."
"But you won't be able to travel!"
"I am afraid not. I am so weak I cannot stand. But you must go on just the same."
"What! And leave you here?"
"Of course. I shall be perfectly safe here, more so than you will be on the road. I wish I could go with you, but I am afraid it will be a day or two before I can walk."
"Then I shall wait for you."
"What! Then how about the letter to General Givet, at Louvain?"
"It will have to wait."
Chester raised himself feebly on one elbow and looked at Hal in surprise.
"A fellow like you to say a thing like that?" he exclaimed. "That letter must be delivered at once. You and I are of secondary importance. If you had been wounded instead of me I should have gone on without you, much as I should have hated to do so. The letter must be delivered immediately."
"You are right, as usual," replied Hal, after a pause. "The letter must come first. But I hate to leave you here alone."
"Alone?" exclaimed Edna, who up to this time had remained silent. "Do not I count for something?"
"I beg your pardon," said Hal. "I spoke thoughtlessly. I am sure he will receive the best of attention at your hands."
"There is no question about that," replied Chester.
"Well, I must be going, then," said Hal. "I have delayed too long already."
"You will stop by on your return, will you not?" asked the girl.
"Yes, if I come this way; and I see no reason why I should not."
"I shall be ready to travel when you return," said Chester.
"All right," replied Hal. "But, if I have not returned in three days, you will know something has happened to me, and you will make your way back to Liege alone."
Chester agreed to this, the two lads shook hands, and Hal left the house and set out upon his journey to Louvain.
IN THE HANDS OF THE ENEMY.
Although it had been a trying morning for Hal, and he was very tired, the lad continued on his way as swiftly as possible. From time to time, as he hastened along, he heard the sound of distant firing, and he proceeded with the greatest caution; but he encountered no more of the enemy.
It was late afternoon when he made out in the distance the town of Louvain. He quickened his pace, and soon came upon the outposts.
"I have a communication for General Givet," he told the soldier who stopped him.
The soldier lowered the weapon, with which he had barred the lad's progress, and called a nearby officer. The latter led Hal to the general's quarters.
Hal gave General Givet the letter, and stood at attention. The general read in silence. Then he turned to Hal.
"All right," he said briefly, signifying that Hal might go.
"But, general," said the lad, "I was ordered to bring back your answer."
The general looked at him in surprise.
"Do you mean you intend to go back to-night?" he demanded.
"I thought I would start along about midnight," replied Hal. "I would sleep until that time."
The general was silent for some moments, musing.
"You are a brave lad," he said, at last. "I had figured on sending my answer by another courier; but perhaps your plan is better. You may report to me at midnight, and I shall have the answer ready."
Hal saluted and turned to leave the hut.
"Wait a minute," commanded the general. "Tell me something of yourself. How comes it that you, an American, I take it, have been selected for such perilous work? Why, you cannot be more than eighteen years old."
"Seventeen, general," replied Hal, with a smile; and then he told the Belgian officer of his experiences since leaving Berlin.
The old general was amazed.
"Remarkable! remarkable!" he repeated, time after time.
Finally he called an officer, and commanded that the latter find Hal a place to sleep.
"Remember, midnight," called the general, as Hal was leaving the hut.
Hal saluted again.
"Yes, general," he replied, and followed the young officer.
Promptly at midnight Hal, greatly refreshed by a sound sleep and hearty meal, once more entered the general's quarters and came to attention.
"The answer you are to carry back is simply: 'I shall act upon your plan,'" said General Givet. "Good luck to you on your journey, and I have only one command: Make all possible haste."
Hal saluted and set out on his return, journey to Liege.
It was early morning when he came once more to the farmhouse where he had fought so nobly the day before. His fear for Chester's safety increased as he approached, and it was not without some misgiving that he ascended the porch steps and knocked softly at the door.
He heard a light footstep within, the door swung open, and Edna peered forth at him.
"What! Back so soon?" she exclaimed gladly.
"Yes, I made pretty good time. How is Chester?"
Hal's doubts were soon set at rest.
"He is much better this morning than could have been expected," replied the girl. "He ate a hearty breakfast, and says he is feeling fine."
Hal followed her up the steps to where Chester lay, impatiently awaiting his coming. Edna went downstairs to see about getting him something to eat.
"Will you be able to leave to-day?" asked Hal, of Chester.
"I am ready to go right now. I am still weak, but I am sure I can make it all right. I'm bandaged up fine."
"You are sure you are feeling fit?"
"Certainly. Besides, I don't want to be left behind again. You are having all the fun. I want to get in on a little of it myself."
And so it was arranged that the boys should leave immediately after luncheon. They sought long and earnestly during the morning to prevail upon Edna to accompany them, or to make her way to Louvain; but she declared her intention of remaining where she was.
"I am much safer here than I should be on the road," she said. "No one will harm me. Besides, I must take care of the house."
Unable to shake her determination, the boys gave up the attempt, and for the rest of the morning the three chatted pleasantly.
Luncheon over, the boys immediately prepared to fare forth again. Edna accompanied them to the bottom of the steps, where they said good-by.
"Come and see me again," she urged, as they shook hands with her. "You are always welcome here."
"We certainly shall," cried both lads together, as they started upon their way.
Chester was still weak, but he walked along wonderfully well, considering the nature of his wound. Still, it was plain to Hal that every step cost him an effort, and their progress was necessarily slow.
All afternoon they plodded onward without encountering the enemy, and soon after nightfall came upon the place where the Belgian outposts had been stationed the night before. The signs of a struggle were plainly evident.
"There has been a battle here," remarked Hal, after inspecting the ground.
"There is no doubt about that," returned Chester, "and the Belgians have been driven back. We shall have to be careful."
They were proceeding on their way more cautiously than before, when from ahead there suddenly came the sound of trampling hoofs.
"A Belgian reconnoitering party, I guess," said Hal. "We are safe enough now."
Presently a body of horsemen came into view. The lads continued toward them, and the horsemen were but a few yards away, when Chester cried suddenly:
It was true. It was a squadron of Uhlans, returning from a reconnaissance of the Belgian position.
It was too late for the boys to run. The cavalry was upon them. The lads stepped to the side of the road, and continued on their way apparently unconcerned. A German officer stopped them.
"Who are you?" he demanded. "What are you doing here?"
"We are American boys," replied Hal, "and are making our way to Liege."
"Well, you won't get to Liege to-night. Turn about and march the other way."
There was nothing to do but obey. With a sinking sensation in their hearts the lads about-faced and headed toward the great German camp. For a long time, it seemed to them, they were marched along slowly, and finally the first huts of the German army came into view.
"I am afraid our mission is a failure," whispered Hal, as the two lads were led to a hut and placed under heavy guard.
"It looks that way," Chester agreed; "but we must hope for the best. It may be lucky for us that we have no papers on us."
"What are they going to do with us?" Hal asked one of their guards.
"Shoot you in the morning, I suppose," was the answer. "Persons found between the two armies in civilian clothes cannot hope for mercy."
"But we are not spies!" cried Chester.
"Perhaps not; but I don't believe that will make any difference."
The guard would talk no more.
"Our only chance is that they believe we were trying to get to Liege simply to get out of the country," whispered Chester. "If they knew we were just returning from a mission, we would be bound to die."
"Looks to me as though we were bound to die, no matter what they know," was the reply.
The boys got little sleep that night. They realized just how near they were to death, and, while their courage never faltered, they nevertheless had practically given up all hope.
At the first streak of dawn they were led to the quarters of the division commander, and their case was disposed of with remarkable rapidity. Their protests availed nothing, and they were sentenced to be taken out and shot.
With a firm step the two lads walked to the place of execution, surrounded by their guards. But the hearts of both were heavy.
"I wish I could have seen mother once more," said Hal softly.
Chester gave his chum's hand a slight squeeze.
"Well, it can't be helped now," he replied, with an attempt to appear cheerful. "But come, brace up; if we must die, we will die bravely."
"You are right," said Hal, brushing the tears from his eyes with a rapid movement.
With heads erect, the two lads marched on.
At that moment a group of German officers approached on horseback. They eyed the two captives, and suddenly one left his companions and rode over to the firing squad. The officer in command of the squad halted his men and saluted.
"What have we here?" demanded the newcomer.
"Two spies, sir," was the reply. "They were taken between the lines, and have been ordered shot."
"These two boys are my business," declared the mounted officer, a note of authority in his voice. "Their execution is stayed. Take them to my headquarters."