AIR SERVICE BOYS OVER THE ENEMY'S LINES
THE GERMAN SPY'S SECRET
CHARLES AMORY BEACH
Author of "Air Service Boys Flying for France"
ROBERT GASTON HERBERT
THE WORLD SYNDICATE PUBLISHING CO.
CLEVELAND, O. NEW YORK, N.Y.
Copyright, 1919, BY
GEORGE SULLY & COMPANY
Printed in the United States of America
THE COMMERCIAL BOOKBINDING CO.
AIR SERVICE BOYS OVER THE ENEMY LINES
CONTENTS Chapter Page I. Back of the Trenches 1 II. The Winged Messenger 10 III. A Spy Baffled 19 IV. Praise From the General 27 V. The Strange Warning 35 VI. Looking Backward 45 VII. The Great Day Arrives 53 VIII. Over the Enemy's Lines 61 IX. Winning His Spurs 70 X. After the Battle 78 XI. A Show on the Front 85 XII. Clowns on the Wing 94 XIII. More Work in Prospect 103 XIV. Off on a Daring Mission 113 XV. The Moonlight Flight 120 XVI. Landing Close To Metz 129 XVII. More Trouble for the Chums 137 XVIII. The Lone House by the Roadside 144 XIX. A Nest of Spies 153 XX. Jack Climbs a Wall 162 XXI. In the Old Lorraine Chateau 171 XXII. Facing More Difficulties 181 XXIII. Left Behind in the Enemy's Country 191 XXIV. Troublous Times for Jack 200 XXV. Back to Safety—Conclusion 208
AIR SERVICE BOYS OVER THE ENEMY'S LINES
BACK OF THE TRENCHES
"Tom, what do you suppose that strange man who looked like a French peasant, yet wasn't one, could have been up to late yesterday afternoon?"
"You mean the fellow discovered near the hangars at the aviation camp, Jack?"
"Yes. He seemed to go out of sight like a wreath of smoke does. Why, if the ground had opened and swallowed him up, once the hue and cry was raised, he couldn't have vanished quicker. I wonder if what they say about him can be true?"
"That he was a German spy? Anything is possible in war times."
"I guess you're right there. German secret sympathizers, and spies in the bargain, seemed to bob up all over the United States before we crossed the ocean to do our fighting for France as aviators."
"They certainly were busy bees, Jack, blowing up munition-works, trying to destroy big railroad bridges so as to cripple traffic with the Allies over here; burning grain elevators in which France and Great Britain had big supplies of wheat stored; and even putting bombs aboard ocean liners that were timed to explode days later, when the boat would be a thousand miles from land."
"Over in France here they make short work of spies, I've heard, Tom!"
"Yes, it's a drumhead court martial and trial. Then, if the man or woman is found guilty, the spy goes out with a firing squad to the most convenient stone wall. They never return, Jack."
"Whee! that sounds like war times, doesn't it? And to think the two of us are right on the firing line, in the midst of all the scrapping. But, Tom, tell me, why should a tricky German spy want to hang out around the aviation field? He could hardly expect to pick up any news there that would be worth taking across the lines to the headquarters of the Crown Prince before Verdun."
"Don't be too sure of that, Jack. Perhaps he might learn of some contemplated bombing expedition, like that one we went on not so long ago." And Tom Raymond smiled slightly.
"They are a mighty clever bunch, those spies," admitted Jack Parmly.
"Why, Jack, half of the successes of the Kaiser's armies on all fronts, Russia, France and Rumania, can be laid at the door of his secret agents. They seem to be everywhere, trying to foment internal troubles, strikes, and discontent, so that when the Germans strike hard they meet a divided enemy in front."
"Well, I certainly wish we had caught that fellow."
"You were in the crowd, you told me, that scoured the whole neighborhood in search of him."
"That's right, I was. But say, he proved too foxy for us all. Anyway, we failed to find the rascal. Then night came on, when we had to give our man-hunt over. And to think that I even glimpsed the fellow's face in the bargain before the alarm went out!"
"Then you'd know him again perhaps, Jack, if ever you met him?"
"I think so. Though I suppose these spies have ways of changing their looks at times. But, to change the subject, Tom, it strikes me neither of us is groaning under the weight of game so far on our little side hunt." And Jack Parmly grinned.
"Oh, I didn't really expect to run across anything, though that French peasant assured us there were still some rabbits in the burrows over here, three miles back of our sleeping quarters. That's why, with a day off-duty, I took a notion to borrow an old Belgian-made double-barrel shotgun he owned, and walk out here."
"More to stretch our legs and get the kinks out, than anything else, eh, Tom?"
"That's it, Jack. Don't you remember that while we were training at the aviation school at Pau we used often to walk from the town, eight miles distant, until we sighted that famous little old red barn at Pau, where the Wright Brothers conducted some of their experiments in flying heavier-than-air machines. That was some little hike."
"Then too, Tom, I guess we wanted to get together by ourselves for a change, so we could talk about our folks at home in little old Bridgeton, U. S. A.," went on Jack Parmly with a sigh. "All the fellows of the Lafayette Escadrille are mighty kind and sociable, but there are times when a fellow gets homesick. Just remember that we have been over here many months now. It seems years to me, Tom."
"Say, I hope you are not homesick enough to want to go back, old fellow?"
"Not me, Tom. I made up my mind to stick it out until we whip the Kaiser. But already I can see it'll never be an accomplished fact until Uncle Sam throws his sword into the scales. And any day now something may drop."
"Yes, matters are at an acute stage in Washington, that's sure. All France, bled nearly white in two-and-a-half years of war, is praying that the day may come soon."
After that the two athletic looking young Americans, dressed in the uniform of the French aviation corps, fell silent for a brief time. They, however, continued to trudge over the devastated fields, looking this way and that for any sign of a stray rabbit that had escaped the general slaughter.
It was just previous to the world-stirring session of Congress, when the President made his thrilling speech that sounded almost from end to end of the world, and put America in line for the cause of democracy. Anxious days those were across the ocean, anxious not only in France, Italy and Great Britain, in Serbia, Rumania, Greece and Russia, but in the Central Empires, also.
For well did those in Teutonic authority know, in spite of their vain boasting, that once great America decided, the thing was bound to be done, sooner or later. Never in the course of her history has our republic been on a losing side. Her wars have invariably brought eventual victory to her arms, because she has never once fought for an unjust cause.
These two vigorous young fellows were fair samples of those enterprising Americans who found it impossible to sit idly by. They could not await the slow course of events that was bound to carry our country into the world war on the side of the Allies, in spite of all the powerful counter currents among the pro-German citizens at home.
Dozens of the brightest of flying men from the States had gone over and offered their services to France, the country they loved. In time there came to be so many, that from the ordinary French Flying Corps there was formed a unit entirely made up of Americans.
This, in honor of the one great Frenchman whom Americans most honor at home, was called the Lafayette Escadrille. Some of its members had become famous at their profession. Names like those of Lufbery, Thaw, McConnell, Chapman, Prince, Rockwell, Hill, Rumsey, Johnson, Balsley and others became household words among readers of the great dailies in the States.
Tom Raymond was the son of a man who had gained fame as an inventor. When the war broke out he started work on numerous inventions, some of which were calculated to become terrible agents for the destruction of human life. Then Mr. Raymond's mood changed, and he set to work to conceive a wonderful stabilizer for airplane use that would save myriads of lives, and if adopted by Uncle Sam was likely to help win the war for the Allies.
Just when this invention was finished a drawing of one of the parts was stolen by a German spy. Later on, after Tom and his chum, Jack Parmly had decided to become war aviators, having already had considerable aviation experience, they went to the flying school conducted by the Government in Virginia.
From there in course of time they crossed the Atlantic and entered the famous French school at Pau. Then, having mastered the science of flying sufficiently to be sent to the front, they had joined the Lafayette Escadrille, as related in a previous volume entitled "Air Service Boys Flying for France; or The Young Heroes of the Lafayette Escadrille."
Tom in particular seemed to have a great career ahead of him, unless some unfortunate accident, or possibly a Teuton pilot, cut it short, as had happened in the cases of Rockwell, Prince, McConnell and Chapman. Every one knew he possessed genius of a high order, and that it would not be long before Tom Raymond might anticipate gaining the proud title of "ace," which would indicate that he had defeated five enemies at different times, and put them entirely out of the running.
Tom was already a corporal in the French service, and expected before a great while to be given the privilege of wearing the chevrons of a sergeant. Jack had not progressed so rapidly but was doing well.
And now to return to the young aviators during their walk.
"I reckon we've gone far enough, Jack," Tom remarked presently. "Our friend Jean may have been telling the truth when he said there were still a few bunnies left alive in this war-racked section of country, but I can see they've got the good sense to stick to their burrows during the daytime. We won't be burdened with our bag of game on the return trip."
"Yes, that's always the trouble, when you go out after rabbits and haven't any hound along to get them up and bring them within gunshot," grumbled Jack.
"But we've had a good walk," returned his companion; "and for a time we managed to get away from that terrible explosion of shells, and big-gun firing. We ought to be thankful for our little time off, Jack."
"Oh! I'm not really complaining," remarked the other young aviator, with a whimsical expression on his good-natured face. "But don't you know I hate to go back without having fired even one shot." He stopped short and pointed upward. "Hold on, Tom; there's some kind of bird going to pass over right now! Crow or anything, please bring it down! I'll promise to eat it, no matter what it is."
Laughingly Tom threw the gun up to his shoulder, and the next instant the report sounded. It seemed almost contemptible, after listening to the roar of those monster shells exploding for so long.
The bird fell fluttering in a heap. Tom evidently was a fair marksman, for it had been moving swiftly over their heads at the time he fired. Jack ran forward and picked the game up. As he did so he gave utterance to exclamations that naturally excited the curiosity of his chum. So Tom, after reloading his gun with a fresh shell, waited for Jack to rejoin him, which the other did, his face full of mystery.
THE WINGED MESSENGER
"What do you call this, Tom? A queer sort of crow, I'd say. Looks more to me like the blue-rock pigeons Sam Becker used to raise at home," and so saying Jack held up the still quivering bunch of feathers.
Tom took one quick look, and then a startled expression flitted across his face.
"Just what it is, Jack!" he hastened to say. "A homing pigeon in the bargain! You can tell that from the bill and the ring around the eyes."
Jack in turn became aroused.
"A homing pigeon, is it?" he ejaculated. "Why, birds like that are used for carrying messages across the lines! Some of our airplane pilots have told me that sometimes they take a French spy far back of the German front. When he had made an important discovery he would write a message in cipher, enclose it in a tiny waterproof capsule attached to a ring about the pigeon's leg, and set the bird free. Inside of half an hour it would be safe back in its loft, and the message on the way to French headquarters."
He lifted one limp leg, and then the other.
"Look here, it's got a message, as sure as anything!" Jack exclaimed.
Tom leaned forward and took the bird in his hand, dropping the gun meanwhile. He carefully took off the gelatine capsule, and from it extracted a delicate piece of tough paper, which he spread open. There were a series of strange marks on the paper, of which neither of the air service boys could make anything.
"Looks like hieroglyphics, such as you'd expect to find on an Egyptian tomb or in the burial places under the pyramids," complained Jack, after he had stared at the lines in disgust for a brief period of time.
"It's a cipher of some kind," explained Tom, seriously. "With the key all this would resolve itself into some sort of communication, I suppose, connected with valuable information concerning the French armies here at Verdun."
"Then it was made by a spy!"
"No question about that part of it," came the ready reply.
"This carrier pigeon with this message, was on its way across to some point in the rear of the enemy line when you fired, and brought the poor little thing down in a quivering heap, I'm sure that's it," continued the other.
"Yes. And so after all it's turned out to be a lucky thing you chanced to see the bird coming along, Jack, and begged me to knock it down so we could show some sort of game when we got back to camp."
"What ought we do with this message?" asked Jack, accustomed to depending on his more energetic chum in many cases; though when left to his own resources he could think for himself, as had frequently been proved.
"I shall see that it gets to French headquarters, with an account of the singular way we ran across it," Tom told him.
"Do you think it would be possible for any one there to translate this cipher of the German secret code?"
"Why not?" Tom demanded. "They are clever people, these wideawake French, and I shouldn't be at all surprised if they turned this incident to some good use."
"Oh, it could be done in many ways. Suppose they found the key to the code. Don't you see how a fictitious message could be sent on in some way, if they could bag another pigeon from the same coop? They might even coax the Germans to deliver a furious attack at a supposed weak place in the line, which would of course be heavily guarded."
"That would be something worth while!" exclaimed the other with glowing eyes. "Lead them into a trap, where they would be mowed down like ripe grain, terrible as that sounds!"
"Yes, that's the idea I had in mind. But it would depend on several things. First of all would come the successful solving of this cipher code."
"Yes, and then the finding of another homing pigeon," added Jack. "I wonder if the fellow who released that bird could have a lot more of the same kind hidden away somewhere around back here."
"I was just going to suggest that we take a turn toward the south, and look around a bit before going back to camp. Do you feel equal to it, Jack?"
"What, me! Tom? Why, I'm as fresh as a daisy! This business has made me forget there's such a thing as getting tired walking."
"Let's see, we stood here when I fired," continued Tom reflectively, "and you walked straight to where the bird dropped. That would make the direction due northwest by southeast. How about that, Jack?"
The other took a survey, and then pointed with his hand.
"When I saw the bird coming first of all, Tom," he finally remarked, "it was just showing up over that clump of trees killed by gunfire. And it was heading as straight as can be for us."
"Yes," Tom went on to say, "because a homing pigeon on being released will rise to a certain height and take its bearings. Then it starts in a bee-line for its loft, whether that is five miles away or hundreds of miles. Some peculiar instinct tells it in which way home lies. It seldom if ever goes astray. Sometimes birds have made a thousand miles, and shown up at their home coop days after being set free."
"Well, then, the man who threw it into the air, after fastening this cipher message to it, must be over to the southeast of us," affirmed Jack.
"The bird was released within five minutes or so of the time I fired," Tom told his chum. "It's even possible the spy may have heard the report of my gun."
"Tom, why not try to capture that spy?" asked Jack, eagerly, ready for any sort of excitement.
The young aviators started off, walking briskly. They kept their eyes alertly open as they proceeded. At the same time, on Tom's suggestion, they continued to act as though still looking for game, even investigating at a burrow that certainly was used by rabbits, as the tracks plainly indicated.
Tom never deviated from a direct line due southeast. He knew that their best chance of making a valuable discovery lay in finding the place where the carrier pigeon had been released, to fly across the lines to its home loft. This might be many miles to the rear of the fighting front, even on Lorraine territory, in the neighborhood of the fortified city of Metz itself.
The two passed over a mile without making any sort of discovery, Jack, who did not possess quite as determined a nature as his comrade, was already commencing to make certain sounds akin to complainings, as though he felt keenly disgruntled because of their lack of success.
"Guess we'll have to give it up, Tom," he finally remarked.
"Wait," said Tom. "Before doing that let's investigate that old shattered farmhouse over yonder."
"Hello!" exclaimed Jack, plucking up some fresh interest, "have you located one of those remains of a building, then? I was coming to believe there wasn't so much as a broken wall left standing for a space of five square miles, so complete has been the destruction. But I see what you mean, Tom."
They walked ahead again, and approached the ruined farmhouse. It had been riddled through and through by shot and shell. Three-fourths of the original building lay in piles, the stones heaped up as they had fallen.
"Queer, isn't it, that the kitchen part escaped the smashing fire, and still stands," observed Jack. "I warrant you this is the only part of a building left around here. Tom, would our spy be likely to take up his headquarters in such a place as this, do you think?"
"I don't know," came the answer. "We can soon find out."
"He might feel desperate enough to open fire on us," suggested Jack, though he did not shrink or hold back when Tom advanced; for Jack Parmly did not have a drop of cowardly blood in his veins.
Tom turned and waved his hand as though beckoning to others who might be coming after them. He even called out in his best French, as if there were a dozen back of him, that there was a possibility of securing at least a drink of cold water at the old-fashioned well with a sweep that stood near the kitchen of the ruined farmhouse.
"Good idea, Tom!" commented the other, chuckling with amusement. "If he gets the notion in his head that we are legion he won't be so apt to blaze away at us, knowing it would mean a short shrift for him. He may prefer to play the poor French peasant part, and try to pull the wool over our eyes."
Presently they arrived at the door. It was hanging from one hinge, and the entire place presented a vivid picture of the utter desolation cruel war always brings in its train.
Tom's first act before entering was to look down at the ground just before the door. Some intuition told him that if the place had been recently occupied they would possibly find some evidences of the fact in the earth.
"See there, Jack!" he suddenly exclaimed, as he pointed down close to his feet. "Fresh tracks, and made by a man's shoes in the bargain!"
"Some one has been in here for a fact, Tom, and I wouldn't be afraid to wager he saw us coming and cleared out in a hurry. He could have skirted those bushes, and got clear easy enough. Do you think it could have been the same chap who freed that pigeon?"
"No doubt about it," and Tom, stooping, picked up some small object. "See, here's a feather that was sticking to that dead weed. It's from a bird of the same color as the pigeon, perhaps from the very one I've got in my pocket."
"That settles it," snapped the pleased Jack. "I must say you're a clever hand at finding these things out. I'd have never dreamed of looking down at my feet, but blundered right into the shack to see if——Oh! What do you think of the luck we're in this day, Tom? See what stands there on that poor old three-legged table!"
Jack's excitement was natural, as Tom readily understood when he looked; for there was a small basket or cage made from oziers or willow wands; and inside this they could see two blue gray homing pigeons, mates to the one Tom had shot only a short time before!
A SPY BAFFLED
Both young aviators stared at the wicker cage containing the two pigeons. The birds had been still up to then, but now commenced to make cooing sounds, as though pleased at having human company. Apparently they were inclined to be sociable, as Jack afterwards put it.
"So he discovered us coming along," Jack went on to say, "and skipped out in such a hurry he didn't have time to carry away the cage with him."
"He must have climbed out of this window in the side of the wall," observed Tom. "We could have seen him if he had used the door. Yes, there are footprints underneath the window. He ran down behind those bushes and reached the stone wall that leads to the broken country and what is left of the woods."
"The chances are he had all that mapped out beforehand," suggested Jack. "Surely a spy has always to keep a door open for retreat."
"Yes. Why not? They take their lives in their hands every time they enter the hostile lines, and you can't blame a man for wanting to live a little longer, especially if he believes he can serve his country."
"Perhaps he hasn't got such a good start but that we could overtake him if we went after him now," suggested Jack.
"We might take a turn that way," his chum agreed. "But not too far afield. We didn't start out to search for spies, and we've only got a single gun between us. Even my automatic was left behind, because I didn't expect to have any use for it, and get tired carrying the thing, with its belt."
"But these pigeons here, Tom?"
"We can leave them until we get back. That's one reason why I don't want to get out of sight of the place. He might make a round, and carry the birds away while we were engaged in a hunt half a mile off. And it may be of much more importance that those live birds arrive in the French camp than that we should bag the spy."
"I get you, Tom; so let's commence our little man-hunt right away."
The two friends set off. Tom tried to follow the course he believed the spy must have taken on quitting the old farmhouse ruins. That his reckoning was clear he proved several times by pointing out to his companion plain evidences that some other person had passed along the way before them.
Here the marks of shoes could be detected in the soft earth. A little further on, and at a point where the man must have crawled in order to keep from being seen, they found tracks where his toes had dragged along, as well as the indentation of his knees in the soil.
Presently they arrived at the terminus of the stone wall, about the only thing remaining intact connected with the French farm. There was not a single tree showing signs of life in that patch of sombre forest; where shell-fire had failed to do the work of destruction a malicious hand had girdled the trunk with a keen-edged tool, and thus encompassed the doom of the trees.
Tom came to a pause.
"I reckon we've come far enough," he said, taking a look over toward the fragment of a house on the slight elevation, which could just be seen from their present position.
"I'd have liked to catch up with that duck and march him back to camp, along with his feathered messengers," Jack grumbled disappointedly. "Somehow I hate and despise a spy above all created things."
The youths set their faces once more in the direction of the ruins, where they soon arrived. Jack half feared that in spite of them the cage and its feathered inmates had been spirited away. He hastened inside ahead of his companion and then called out cheerily:
"It's all right, Tom, and nobody at home. Here's the wicker cage and the pigeons, just as we left them!"
"As the afternoon is passing, and we have a long distance to go, we'd better be making a start," Tom remarked, when he reached the open door.
"Let me carry the pigeon cage, Tom, as you have the gun," suggested Jack, after slipping his hand through the ring at the top. "Say, perhaps the boys won't give us a laugh, to see what queer game we've brought back from our hunt!"
They left the ruins of the once peaceful farmhouse behind them, and commenced retracing their steps. Tom was too old a hand at hunting to get lost. He had kept his bearings through the whole tramp, no matter how many turns they took in examining some promising ground where rabbit burrows might be found. On this account then he would have no difficulty whatever in leading his comrade straight back to the villa in which the entire Lafayette Escadrille of American fliers was quartered.
They were passing along about half a mile from the wrecked farmhouse kitchen, and not far from the spot where Tom made his successful shot, when without warning the report of a gun came to their ears. Jack involuntarily ducked his head.
"Say, did you hear that whining sound just over us, Tom? That was caused by a bullet skipping past!"
Tom for answer dragged his chum down behind a fringe of dead bushes that chanced to lie close by.
"It was a bullet, all right, Jack," he replied, not without a tremor in his voice, for this thing of being made a target by some murderous unseen person was a new and novel experience.
"Do you suppose it was fired by the man who owns these pigeons?" further questioned Jack, though showing no intention of loosening his grip on the wicker cage.
"It could hardly be any one else. He has dogged us this far, or else just happened to catch sight of us. That shot was fired from a distance, and if we take a notion to run he couldn't possibly hit us. But we might as well make use of this fringe of bushes to creep some way off. Then we'll get on our feet and put out for home at full speed."
This they proceeded to do without further delay. When it was no longer possible to utilize the bushes for cover, they sprang to their feet and ran. Jack fully anticipated hearing other shots—yes, and perhaps having more leaden missiles singing their vicious songs about his head. But he was agreeably disappointed in his expectations, for not a report came.
Evidently the spy had gone away, thinking discretion the better part of valor. He may have noticed that they were in uniform, and armed in the bargain.
Later on the air service boys moderated their mad pace, and as there seemed to be no further signs of danger they finally fell into a walk. Still neither of them lagged, but kept up a brisk pace, Jack casting numerous apprehensive glances over his shoulder, haunted by a lingering suspicion that the spy might yet give them trouble.
They came through safely at last. The villa in which the American fliers were quartered was reached, and seemed to be deserted at that hour in the afternoon. Everybody must be busy at the front, the boys concluded, for the din was more distracting than usual.
"We picked out a bad day for getting off, I'm afraid, Tom," Jack sighed. "They told us there was nothing big in prospect; but since we started out on our hunt I guess the Huns have put up something of size. And the boys will be in the thick of it all too! We might have had a share if we'd been on duty to-day."
"Brace up, Jack," chided his chum. "For all you know, what we've done may turn out to be ten times more important than all the work of the entire escadrille to-day. These captured birds and that cipher message, represent possibilities beyond anything you or I can know. Leave all that to the general."
"When do you mean to see him, Tom?"
"As soon as I can arrange it. And you're coming with me when I get the summons to his headquarters, depend on that, Jack. Your part in this affair is just as important as mine."
Tom put the cage with its cooing inmates in their room. Then he started out to try to get into communication with the commanding general. He had met him once by mere chance, but he hardly believed General Petain would remember him in the least.
The action was about over for the day. The Crown Prince had once again thrown a heavy storming party forward in the endeavor to make a breach in the French lines, through which he could pour the veteran reserves he had in waiting. But, as had often happened before, he counted without his host; and when the sun went down all he had to show for his stroke was a greatly increased casualty list.
The French could not be moved.
Tom understood how to go about it, and in the end managed to get an obliging French captain whom he knew very well, to carry a message to the commander-in-chief to the effect that he had news of great importance to communicate. Just as Tom expected would be the case, this brought back a speedy answer.
"You are both to come with me, young Messieurs," said the captain, his eyes sparkling with interest, for Tom had told him enough to excite his curiosity, and he knew the Americans would not aimlessly take up the precious time of the general. "Our valiant commander is tired after a strenuous day; but never is he too weary to attend to duty; and he already finds himself interested in everything you brave young airmen attempt. So please accompany me to headquarters."
Shortly afterwards the boys found themselves face to face with General Petain.
PRAISE FROM THE GENERAL
General Petain received the pair with his accustomed kindness. He loved youth, and his eyes sparkled with pleasure as he gave each of them a hand.
"My time is limited, I regret to say, my gallant Americans, or I should gladly ask you all manner of questions concerning your own country. We are all anxious to know when the great republic across the sea will decide to cast her decisive influence into the scales to bring us the victory we await with much patience. Tell me now what this strange thing is you have come across to-day."
Tom waited for no second bidding. He realized how tired the general must be after a strenuous day in keeping his finger on the pulse of the whole front, where the fierce German attacks had been hurled without success.
Accordingly he started at once his tale of how they had been given a day off for rest, and, having a love for hunting in their veins, had borrowed an old shotgun and started forth. Without wasting any time in useless descriptions he quickly reached the point where the pigeon was shot.
Jack, having nothing to say just then, contented himself with watching the various shades of expression that flitted across the face of the commander. At mention of the pigeon his eyes sparkled, and he leaned forward with an air of expectancy, as though anticipating what would come next.
Then, as Tom produced the message written on the thin but tough paper and handed it to the general the French officer eagerly scanned it. Jack also noticed that he did not appear disappointed because he could not immediately read the baffling communication. Of course it would be written in some secret code; that was to be expected.
"It is fortunate," remarked the French officer, "that I have on my staff one who is considered an expert at solving any and every species of cipher code. He will speedily figure it all out for me, and then we shall see what news this spy was transmitting to his commander. Please continue your story, which is very interesting, and in which your part does you both credit."
Tom, thus encouraged, went on. He told of their further search for the mysterious man who had set the homing pigeon free after attaching the secret message to it.
When he presently told of coming on the ruined farmhouse, and discovering the ozier cage containing two additional pigeons, just where the spy had left them in his hurried flight, the general fairly beamed.
"It is splendid news you have brought me—you aviators from our sister republic across the sea," he remarked exultantly, as though already in his fertile mind he could see great possibilities looming up whereby those pigeons might be made to serve a purpose.
The story was soon finished. Tom, of course, thought it necessary to tell of having been fired on while on their way back to the aviation post, though no harm had resulted. He did this not for the purpose of impressing the general with the idea that they had run any great personal risk, but because it might have some influence on the plans the officer probably had in mind.
After all had been told the commander again shook hands with both of the air service boys. This indicated, as Tom well knew, that he had given them all the time he could spare and that a dozen important things were awaiting his attention, so he saluted and turned to depart.
"This may prove to be a most important thing you have discovered," the general halted the aviators to say warmly. "The cipher will be solved, and then, if the facts warrant it, we may have another written that can be sent forward by one of your birds. You will give them over into the charge of an officer whom I shall dispatch back with you to your quarters. That will be convenient, I suppose?"
Tom hastened to assure him that they had expected just such a thing, and had hoped that the two captured pigeons might prove the means of leading the Crown Prince's forces into some sort of trap.
The general's black eyes snapped on hearing Tom say this.
"Ah! I see that you too have thought it out!" he exclaimed enthusiastically. "Some day perhaps you may have command of an army, and exercise that talent with glorious success. France thanks you."
Both boys were deeply moved by their brief interview with the busy commander-in-chief of the French forces. They did not feel any humiliation at being addressed as "my children," knowing that it was a term of endearment used freely by officers high in command when addressing, those in the ranks. In fact, the French army is very much like a big family, the men loving those they serve under.
"Well, that job's over," remarked Jack, heaving a sigh of relief when they were on their way to their quarters, accompanied by a jaunty captain who, Tom believed, must be a member of the general's staff.
"I'm glad to have had such a fine opportunity for meeting General Petain," Tom returned, for the captain at the time was walking a little in the rear, conversing with a courier who had come running after him, as if on important business.
"He was fine, wasn't he, Tom?"
"Next to Joffre I understand General Petain is the most beloved commander the army has ever had," replied the other. "I'll always feel proud that he shook hands so heartily with both of us."
The air service boys were soon in the automobile that had carried them to the general's headquarters back of the French lines. Here the captain joined them, having finished his hasty consultation with the courier. On the ride to the aviation camp he chatted pleasantly with the young Americans. He, it appeared, had spent several years attached to the French Embassy at Washington.
He asked particularly concerning the feeling of the common people in America, and what influence the powerful cliques of naturalized but pro-German citizens were apt to have on the Government.
Tom was able to assure him that slowly but surely the people of free America were becoming aroused to the deadly menace of German imperialism, and that presently—it might come at any day, according to the latest advices—Congress would assemble to hear a ringing appeal from the President, urging them to declare war upon the Kaiser, war to the finish.
Apparently what the boys said had much in it to comfort the French captain. He knew only too well how eagerly his wearied nation was listening to hear just such a message of hope. He knew, also, just what it would mean for the brave defenders of France.
In due time the three arrived at the villa, Several of the American pilots saw the trio leave the car, wondered much what was in the wind that Tom and Jack should return with a member of General Petain's personal staff. Their curiosity was considerably heightened when later they saw the captain come out of the villa carrying a small ozier cage containing two blue-rock carrier pigeons, and effusively shake hands with both Tom and Jack, calling out to them as the car moved off:
"In the name of France and General Petain I thank you for what you have done this day, my brave Americans!"
As the chums were about to pass into the building there was a hail.
"Wait a minute, Jack!" called one of their fellow pilots, hurrying up with some object in his hand at which the two boys stared with rising curiosity. "I've got something here for you!"
"For me?" cried the youth addressed. "I'm ever so much obliged, but it strikes me I've got beyond the point of playing with a toy balloon; though honestly now, when I was a kid I used to be pretty fond of sailing one of 'em at the end of a long string, until it would get away, and leave me staring up while it climbed toward the clouds."
"Oh, this one is about past doing any climbing, I should say," replied the pilot, laughing at Jack's description of his childish woes. "In fact, it's been out during the night, and the heavy air forced it to come down. Listen, and I'll tell you a strange story that will make you believe in fairy tales."
"Go on then, please," urged Jack. "You've got me all worked up already. So there's a history attached to this little balloon, is there?"
"There was something attached to it, something that may mean much or little to you fellows," came the reply. "This thing was found by a French dispatch bearer on his way across country. Out of curiosity he stepped aside to look at the bobbing red object he had noticed among some bushes in an open field. When he found that it had a paper fastened to it, which on the outside had an address, he concluded to bring the whole business along with him. He came here half an hour back inquiring for Jack Parmly, and on finding you were away at the time left the balloon and the paper in my charge. Take it, and see what the message is, Jack!"
THE STRANGE WARNING
"Open it, Jack, and see what the message is," urged Tom, as his chum stood with the scrap of damp paper held between his fingers, having allowed the sagging little toy balloon to fall at his feet.
Jack was thinking just at that moment of the other message his companion and he had found attached to the homing pigeon. But of course they could not possibly have any sort of connection!
He opened the small bit of paper. It had some writing in lead pencil. Once it had doubtless been plain enough, but the dampness must have caused it to become faint. Still, Jack could make it out without much difficulty. This was what he read aloud, so that Tom and the other pilot could hear:
"Look carefully to your planes; examine every part. There is treachery in the air!"
"That's all, fellows," said Jack, much puzzled, as he turned the paper over and over, looking for some signature.
"No name attached, Jack?" asked his chum.
"Nothing whatever to tell who wrote that warning. Here, take a look at it, Tom. Your eyes may be sharper than mine and see something I've missed."
But Tom and the other pilot both failed to throw any light on the matter after examining the paper thoroughly. They exchanged stares. Then Jack laughed, a little queerly.
"This is certainly a mystery," he went on to say, trying to take the thing as a joke. "Some kind friend sends me a solemn warning, and then neglects to sign his name. Do you think any of the fellows of the escadrille could be up to a prank?"
Tom shook his head. The other pilot also exhibited positive signs of doubt in connection with such a thing.
"The boys often have their little jokes, and we are a merry bunch much of the time, just to change off from the nervous strain we're living under," the man observed. "But I'm sure not one of them would dream of doing a thing like this. It would be a mean trick."
"Then both of you are inclined to believe this warning was meant in all seriousness, are you?" continued Jack, no longer grinning as before.
"Yes, I do," Tom instantly announced. "It seems a bit childish, sending it in such a queer fashion; but then perhaps it was the only way open to the person. There was one chance in ten that it would be found; but you know sometimes we can't choose our way of doing things, but must accommodate ourselves to circumstances. This toy balloon being handy suggested a possible way of getting the warning to you, Jack."
"But why me any more than you, Tom, or any other fellow in the escadrille?" continued Jack, sorely bewildered.
"That's something we can only guess at," he was told. "Evidently this person had your name, and knew you were working here with the Lafayette boys. Try to think of some one you may have done something for to make him feel grateful to you. Could it have been that boyish-looking German prisoner we talked with the other day, and for whom you bound up a badly damaged arm, Jack?"
"Oh! that boy!" exclaimed the other, and then shook his head. "No, it's impossible. You see the poor chap could hardly talk halfway decent English, and I'm sure he never could write my name like this. Besides, Tom," Jack went on triumphantly, "I never bothered to mention to him that I had a name. To him I was simply an American flying for France."
"Anybody else you can think of?" persisted Tom, for it seemed to him that it meant considerable to try to discover who had sent the message by such a strange channel.
Jack pondered. Then all at once he looked up with a light in his eyes.
"You've thought of something!" exclaimed the other pilot eagerly.
"Well, it might be possible, although I hardly believe she'd be the one to go to such trouble. Still, she had children, she told me, at her home in Lorraine, back of Metz; and this is a child's toy, this little hot-air balloon."
"Do you mean that woman you assisted a week or so ago? Mrs. Neumann?" asked Tom, quickly.
"Yes, it was only a little thing I was able to do for her, but she seemed grateful, and said she hoped some day to be in a position to repay the favor. Then later on I learned she had secured permission to cross over to the German lines, in order to get to her family. She is a widow with six children, you know, a native of Lorraine, and caught by accident in one of the sudden furious rushes of the French, so that she had been carried back with them when they retreated. At the time she had been serving as a Red Cross nurse among the Germans. It was on that account the French allowed her to return to her family. They are very courteous, these French."
Tom was listening. He nodded his head as though it seemed promising at least.
"Let's figure it out," he mused. "Which way was the wind coming from last night, do either of you happen to know?"
"Almost from the north," the other aviator instantly responded. "I chanced to notice that fact, for other reasons. But then it was almost still, so the little balloon could not have drifted many miles before the heavy atmosphere dragged it down until finally it landed in the field."
"Well, that settles one thing," asserted Tom. "It came from back of the German lines, don't you see?"
"Yes, that seems probable," admitted Jack.
"Your unknown friend was there at the time," continued Tom, in his lawyer-like way, following up the trail he had started; "and hence apparently in a position to know that some sort of plot was being engineered against one Jack Parmly. Don't ask me why you should be selected for any rank treachery, because I don't know."
"And this person, this unknown friend of mine," Jack added, "wishing to warn me so that I might not meet a bad end to-day, sent out this message in the hope that it might fall back of our lines and be picked up. Tom, it makes me have a queer feeling. I almost think I must be asleep and dreaming."
"No, it's real enough. We may never know who the writer of this note is; but we can heed the warning just the same, and go over to examine our planes minutely. Whoever it was, spelled your name correctly. I've studied the writing, but it seems to be assumed, and clumsy. There was a reason for that too, as well as the writer failing to sign a name."
"What sort of reason?" queried Jack.
"Fear that in some way the message, and the balloon, might fall into German hands and lead to unpleasant results," Tom continued. "We know about how those Huns would serve any one who tried to spoil their plans. They believe in frightfulness every time, and it might mean death to the writer. This she evidently knew full well."
"Just why do you say 'she' when you speak of the writer?"
"Oh, I have an idea that Mrs. Neumann may be the mysterious friend who is taking such desperate chances to send you a warning. Anyway, something about it seems to say it isn't a man's handwriting. Besides, neither of you may have noticed it, but there's a faint odor, as of perfume, adheres to that bit of paper, though the dampness has taken it almost all out."
Jack looked astonished at such shrewd reasoning.
"Well, you are certainly a wonder at seeing through things, Tom," he hastened to say. "And so of course that settles it in my mind. Mrs. Neumann sent this message to me; though how she could have learned that there was anything treacherous going on beats my powers of reasoning."
"But don't you think it would pay to learn if there's any truth about it all?" asked the other pilot, whose curiosity had been stirred up by such a strange happening.
"Yes, let's all go over to the hangars and have the planes out for a regular inspection," said Tom. "If mischief has been done the chances are it would be in a part not usually examined by the mechanician before a flight. Then again the damage, if there is any, might be so covered up by the shrewd schemer that it would not be noticeable."
There were always cars going to and fro, for pilots came and went from time to time; so the trio quickly found themselves being whirled along over the road so often traveled in their daily work.
"How about that fellow they chased late yesterday afternoon, who was loitering about the hangars and acting in a suspicious way?" asked the friendly pilot, as they rode along. "More than a few of the fellows say he must have been a spy, and up to some mischief, because he slipped off so slickly."
"I had him in mind all the while," said Tom. "And if any mischief has been done, of course we can lay it at his door; though just how he managed to work we'll perhaps never know."
"I caught sight of him, too," Jack remarked; "and I only wish now I'd had a good look at the chap who owned those pigeons to-day, so as to tell if they were one and the same, which I believe to be a fact."
Just then Tom gave his chum a kick with the toe of his shoe. This suddenly reminded Jack that he was treading on forbidden ground, since they had resolved not to say anything to a third person concerning the adventure of that afternoon.
The other member of the escadrille was looking interested. He understood that Tom and Jack must have met with some singular adventure; but since they did not see fit to take him into their confidence he was too polite to ask questions, feeling there must be a good reason for their silence.
Presently they arrived at the hangars. It was now almost sunset. The fliers were coming down one by one, their labor for the day having been accomplished. It had been a pretty arduous day, too, and two members of the escadrille had new honors coming to them, since they had dropped enemy planes in full view of tens of thousands of cheering spectators, after thrilling combats high in the air.
One had also passed through an experience that few aviators can look back to. He had started to drop rapidly when, at almost ten thousand feet altitude, his motor was struck by a missile from a rival pilot's gun. When halfway down, either through a freak of fortune or some wonderfully clever manipulation on the part of the pilot, the machine righted, and he was enabled to volplane to safety, though considerably bruised and cut up through hasty landing.
Jack quickly had his little Nieuport out of the hangar, and the three airmen began a minute inspection. For a short time nothing developed that had a suspicious appearance. Jack, in fact, was beginning to believe the warning might after all be in the nature of a fake, or else the spy had not found a favorable chance to do his foul work before being frightened off.
But presently Tom gave utterance to an exclamation.
"Found anything, Tom?" asked Jack eagerly.
"Yes. Come around here, both of you!"
When the others joined Tom he pointed to where an important wire stay had been dextrously filed so that it must snap under a severe wrench or strain, such as commonly comes when a pilot is far afield, and wishes to execute a necessary whirl.
Jack shivered as he took in the meaning of that partly severed stay. If it gave way while he was far above the earth it must spell his certain doom!
"Just see the fiendish cleverness of the fellow who filed that stay!" Tom cried, as they all stared. "He filled the indentation his sharp file made with a bit of wax or chewing-gum of the same general color. Why, no one would ever have noticed the least thing wrong when making the ordinary examination."
"Then how did you manage to find it, Tom?" asked Jack, breathing hard, as he pictured to himself the narrow escape he had had.
"I suspected something of the kind might be done; so I ran my thumb-nail down each wire stay," came the answer. "And it turned out just as I thought."
"There may be still more places filed in the same way," suggested the other pilot, looking as black as a thunder-cloud; because such an act was in his mind the rankest sort of treachery, worthy of only the most degraded man.
"We will find them if there are," replied Tom, resolutely. "And when this thing is known I imagine there'll be a general overhauling of all the machines on the aviation field. One thing is certain, Jack. You were playing in great luck when you suggested that we ask for a day off and then picked out this particular one."
Jack shrugged his shoulders as he replied:
"That's right, Tom."
Nothing could be done just then, with night coming on. Tom talked with several of the attendants at the hangars, and left it to them to go to work with the coming of morning. He even showed them how cunningly the work had been carried out; so they might be on their guard against such a trick from that time forward.
Then the three returned to the villa. Others of the members of the escadrille were in the car with the trio, so the talk was general, experiences of the day's happenings being narrated, all told in a careless fashion, as if those young aviators considered all such risks as part of the ordinary routine of business.
Later on the news concerning Jack's singular warning, and what came of it went the rounds. He was asked to show the brief note many times; but in answer to the questions that came pouring in upon him, Jack could not say more than he had already said with regard to his suspicions concerning the probable writer of the message.
That night Tom and Jack preferred the quiet of their own apartment to the general sitting-room, where the tired pilots gathered to smoke, talk, play games, sing, and give their opinions on every topic imaginable, including scraps of news received in late letters from home towns across the sea.
"Do you know, Tom," Jack said unexpectedly; "I'd give something to know where Bessie Gleason is just at this time. It's strange how often I think about that young girl. It's just as if something that people call intuition told me she might be in serious trouble through that hard-looking guardian of hers, Carl Potzfeldt."
Bessie Gleason was a very pretty and winsome girl of about twelve years of age, with whom Jack in particular had been quite "chummy" on the voyage across the Atlantic, and through the submarine zone, as related in "Air Service Boys Flying for France." The last he had seen of her was when she waved her hand to him when leaving the steamer at its English port. Her stern guardian had contracted a violent dislike for Jack, so that the two had latterly been compelled to meet only in secret for little confidential chats.
"Oh, you've taken to imagining all sorts of terrible things in connection with pretty Bessie and her cruel guardian. He claimed to be a Swiss, or a native of Alsace-Lorraine, which was it, Jack?"
"Uh-huh," murmured Jack Parmly, his thoughts just then far away from Tom and his question, though fixed on Carl Potzfeldt and his young ward.
Bessie Gleason was a little American girl, a child of moods, fairylike in appearance and of a maturity of manner that invariably attracted those with whom she came in contact.
Her mother had been lost at sea, and by Mrs. Gleason's will the girl and her property were left in Potzfeldt's care. Mr. Potzfeldt was taking her to Europe, and on the steamship she and Jack Parmly had been friends, and as Potzfeldt's actions were suspicious and, moreover, the girl did not seem happy with him Jack had been troubled about her.
"I'm afraid you think too much about Bessie and her troubles, Jack; and get yourself worked up about things that may never happen to her," Tom went on after a pause.
"I knew you'd say that, Tom," the other told him reproachfully. "But I'm not blaming you for it. However, there are several things Bessie told me that I haven't mentioned to you before; and they help to make me feel anxious about her happiness. She's a queer girl, you know, and intensely patriotic."
"Yes I noticed that, even if you did monopolize most of her time," chuckled Tom.
"How she does hate the Germans, though! And that's what will get her into trouble I'm afraid, if she and her guardian have managed to get through the lines in any way, and back to his home town, wherever that may be."
"Why should she feel so bitter toward the Kaiser and his people, Jack?"
"I'll tell you. Her mother was drowned. She was aboard the Lusitania, and was never seen after the sinking. Mr. Potzfeldt was there too, it seems, but couldn't save Mrs. Gleason, he claims, though he tried in every way to do so. She was a distant relative of his, you remember."
"Then if Bessie knows about her mother's death," Tom went on to say, "I don't wonder she feels that way toward everything German. I'd hate the entire race if my mother had been murdered, as those women and children were, when that torpedo was launched against the great passenger steamer without any warning."
"She told me she felt heart-broken because she was far too young to do anything to assist in the drive against the central empires. You see, Bessie has great hopes of some day growing tall enough to become a war nurse. She is deeply interested in the Red Cross; and Tom, would you believe it, the midget practices regular United States Army standing exercises in the hope of hastening her growth."
"I honor the little girl for her ambition," Tom said. "But I'm inclined to think this war will be long past before she has grown to a suitable size to enlist among the nurses of the Paris hospitals. And if that Carl Potzfeldt entertains the sentiments we suspected him of, and is secretly in sympathy with the Huns, although passing for a neutral, her task will be rendered doubly hard."
"That's what makes me feel bad every time I get to thinking of Bessie. If only we could chance to run across them again I'd like to engineer some scheme by which she could be taken away from her guardian. For instance, if only it could be proved that Potzfeldt was in the pay of the German Government, don't you see he could be stood up against a wall, and fixed; and then some one would be found able and willing to take care of the girl."
Tom laughed again.
"How nicely you make your arrangements, Jack! Very pleasant outlook for poor Mr. Potzfeldt, I should say. Why, you hustle him off this earth just as if he didn't matter thirty cents."
"It isn't because I'm heartless," expostulated the other hurriedly. "But I'm sure that dark-faced man is a bad egg. We suspected him of being hand-in-glove with Adolph Tuessig, the man who stole your father's invention, and who we knew was a hired German spy over in America. And from little hints Bessie dropped once in a while I am certain he doesn't treat her well."
"Still, we can't do the least thing about it, Jack. If fortune should ever bring us in contact with that pair again, why then we could perhaps think up some sort of scheme to help Bessie. Now, I've got something important to tell you."
"Something the captain must have said when he was chatting with you in the mess-room immediately after supper, I guess. At the time I thought he might be asking you about our adventures of to-day, but then I noticed that he was doing pretty much all the talking. What is on the carpet for us now?"
"We're going to be given our chance at last, Jack!"
"Do you mean to fly with the fighting escadrille, and meet German pilots in a life and death battle up among the clouds?" asked Jack, in a voice that had a tinge of awe about it; for he had often dreamed of such honors coming to him; but the realization still seemed afar off.
"That is what we are promised," his chum assured him. "Of course our education is not yet complete; but we have shown such progress that, as there is need of additional pilots able to meet the Fokker planes while a raid is in progress, we are to be given a showing."
"I'll not sleep much to-night for thinking of it," declared Jack.
THE GREAT DAY ARRIVES
By the time the pilots of the American escadrille began to assemble on the field where the airplane hangars were clustered, (these being more or less camouflaged by means of paint cleverly applied to represent the earth), the news concerning the air service boys' narrow escape had become generally known.
Great was the indignation expressed by all. Up to this time there had appeared to be considerable honor exhibited among-the flying men on both sides. In fact many curious little courtesies had been exchanged that seemed to put the aviation service on a plane of its own.
One thing was certain. After that there would be no taking things for granted. Each pilot meant to satisfy himself as best he could that his plane was in perfect order before risking his life in the upper currents.
Jack was besieged for a full account of the matter. He, being an obliging person, gladly told everything he knew. Naturally the mystery attached to the discovery of the message of warning tied to the poor little partly collapsed child's balloon aroused considerable curiosity and speculation among the aviators.
The way some of them pumped Jack made him laugh; but he assured them he was just about as "deep in the mud as they were in the mire."
"I've told you all about the woman named Mrs. Neumann," he repeated for the tenth time. "And she's the only one I can think of who would be apt to care a cent whether Jack Parmly happened to be alive or dead. If anybody can give a better guess I'd like to hear it."
They did considerable "guessing," but after all it became the consensus of opinion that the grateful Mrs. Neumann was responsible. And so finally they let it go at that; for the day had begun, and there was an abundance of work to be accomplished before the sun set again.
"But this is certain," said one of the leading flyers of the escadrille, seriously; "if the Boches mean to stop playing fair it's bound to demoralize the service. Up to now there's been an unwritten set of rules to the game, which both sides have lived up to. I shall hate to see them discarded, and brutal methods put in their place."
Others were of the opinion that there might have been something personal connected with the attempt to kill Jack, through that shabby trick. The German spy might have had a private grievance against the youth, they said, which he meant to pay off in his own dastardly way.
No matter which turned out to be the truth, it was not pleasant for Jack to believe he had become an object of hatred to some mysterious prowler, and that possibly other secret attempts on his life might be made from time to time.
That day passed, and another followed. There did not seem to be much stirring on either side of the line; but such a lull frequently proved the precursor of some gigantic battle, for which the armies were preparing.
Of course, when the wind and weather permitted, there was always plenty of excitement among the airplane escadrilles. All manner of little expeditions were organized and carried out.
Now it was an attempt to get above that string of "sausage" balloons used for observation purposes only, so that a few well-dropped bombs might play havoc among them.
As these were always defended by a force of fighting planes hovering above, all primed to give battle on the slightest provocation, the result of these forays was that a number of hotly-contested fights were "pulled off" high in air.
One pilot brought down another enemy, and increased his score a peg, always a matter of pride with a pilot of a fighting plane. And another of the escadrille had the honor of getting above those observation balloons before a couple of them could be hastily pulled down.
Two of his companions engaged the defending Teuton pilots, and fended them off purposely, in order to permit the raid. The selected man swooped down like a hawk, passed the Gotha guard, and managed to shoot his bomb downward with unerring aim. One of the balloons was seen to burst into flames, and the second must have met with a like fate, since it was perilously near at the time, though the dense smoke obscured everything.
All these things and more did Tom and Jack witness through their glasses as those two days passed. Tom especially was waiting to have his wish realized with as much calmness as he could summon.
"I think it will come to-night, Jack," he told his chum, on the second afternoon, as they prepared to return to their lodgings.
"Then you believe there's some big move on tap, and that to-morrow a battle will be commenced? And all for the possession of some old ruined fort, perhaps, that is now only a mass of crumpled masonry and debris!"
"You mustn't forget, Jack, it is the famous name that counts with these romantic Frenchmen. Douaumont and Vaux mean everything to them, even if there is nothing but a great mound of stone, mortar and earth to tell where each fort once stood."
"Yes, I suppose you're right, Tom; and then again I was forgetting that the retaking of a prominent position which the Germans had captured means a heartening of the whole army. I've heard them talking of Mort-Homme, and Hill Three Hundred and Four, as if those were the most precious bits of territory in all France."
"These are sometimes strategic points, you know, keys to a further advance. But there comes the captain now, and he's got his eye on us, as sure as you live!" ejaculated Tom, giving a little start, and turning a shade paler than usual, owing to the excess of his emotions, and the anticipation of hearing pleasant news.
The leader of the Lafayette Escadrille smiled as he drew near. He waited until he could speak without being overheard, for it was not always wise to shout aloud when dealing with matters in which the High Command had a deep interest, such as a pending advance movement.
"It is to-morrow, Raymond," he said quietly, yet with a twinkle in his eye.
He had taken a great liking to these daring lads who had already made such strides toward the goal of becoming "aces" in time, granting that they lived through the risky period of their apprenticeship.
"Both?" gasped Jack eagerly.
The head pilot shook his head in the negative.
"Sorry to disappoint you, Parmly, but you'll have to wait a bit longer," he announced, whereat the other's face fell again, though he gulped, and tried to appear content. "There are several things you must correct before you can expect to take such chances. We are short a fighting pilot for to-morrow, and I thought it was time we gave Raymond his initiation."
Then as he walked alongside the chums he entered into a minute description of the duties that would devolve upon Tom in his first time up to serve as a guardian to the heavier planes acting as "fire-control" and scouts, or "eyes of the army."
"Of course you are only to butt in if we are outnumbered," the leader explained in conclusion. "The experienced and able fliers must take care of such of the enemy as venture to attack our big machines. Some of these Boches will be their best men, with records of a dozen or two machines to their credit. It would be little short of suicide to send a novice up against them, you understand."
Tom was ambitious, and would of course be delighted to prove his metal when opposed by a famous ous "ace;" whose name and reputation had long made him a terror to the French and British airmen. Nevertheless he recognized the wisdom of what the captain was telling him, and promised to restrain his eagerness until given the prearranged signal that his chance had come.
It made Tom feel proud to know he had won the good opinion of such a brave man as the captain, as well as the friendship of those other gallant souls composing the American squadron of aviators fighting for France.
"Still," he said to Jack later on, when they were together in their room getting into their ordinary street clothes, "it made me feel a bit cheap when he spoke of my being pitted against just an ordinary pilot, some fresh hand as anxious as we are to achieve a reputation. At the same time that's what we must seem to these veterans of scores of air combats, all of whom have met with the most thrilling adventures again and again."
Jack managed to hide his bitter disappointment. He realized that he would never be in the same class as his more brilliant chum. Tom fitted for becoming an expert in the line had chosen for his calling. On the other hand Jack began to believe that he was a little too slow-witted ever to make a shining success as a fighting aviator, where skill must be backed by astonishing quickness of mind and body, as well as something else within the heart that is an inherited birthright.
"Anyhow," he consoled himself by saying, not aloud, but softly, "I can be the pilot of a bombing machine, and perhaps in time they'll give me charge of a plane used as fire-control during the battle. That is as far up the pole as I ought to aspire to climb. These chaps in the Lafayette are one and all picked men, the very cream of the entire service."
OVER THE ENEMY'S LINES
"I say, Tom, it looks like a poor day for flying I'm afraid," Jack called out in the chill of the early dawn the next morning, he having been the first to get out of bed and step over to the window of their sleeping room.
It was of course in the villa placed at the disposal of the escadrille, many miles back of the first line of trenches.
Tom, however, did not bother his head about the weather to any appreciable extent.
"It's likely to turn out a fair day for work," he told his chum, in his cheery way, as he followed Jack to the window. "You know that's happened lots of times. So far we've been lucky enough not to get caught in a storm while aloft. Yes, I can already see that there isn't going to be a stiff breeze; and what would a sprinkle of rain amount to?"
"I suppose the thing has to be pulled off, no matter what the weather is," mused Jack, as he proceeded to dress, since breakfast had been ordered at an unusually early hour that morning.
"Well, the High Command has made all arrangements for a big time. You know what that means, when tens of thousands of poilus have to be transferred during the darkness of night, so that the enemy pilots can't glimpse the movement and give warning? So, unless the skies fall, we are bound to get busy this morning."
The air service boys were soon at the hangars, where an animated scene was taking place. Any one could see that something unusual was about to take place, because of the numbers of men rushing this way and that, while motors were popping and machine-guns being tried out so as to be certain they were in prime condition for service. Scores of mechanicians, chauffeurs, observers, as well as other helpers, went about their work of getting "ready for business."
The air fighters were dressed in their fur-lined union suits, with fur overcoats, gloves, and caps; for they would soon be soaring to great heights, where the atmosphere was almost Arctic in its intensity.
They were examining their automatic pistols, seeing that their airplane compasses, speed indicators, special airplane clocks, mounted on wire springs, and altitude barometers were in their proper places and in working order. Their very lives might depend on a little thing, and no one could afford to neglect even trifles.
Every few minutes one of the planes would roll over the surface of the level ground in front of the long line of hangars. Then, when sufficient momentum had been attained, it would commence to climb swiftly upward. Soon the machine would get into spirals like a winding staircase, and mount toward an altitude of perhaps four thousand feet, there to await the coming of companion craft before heading toward the battleground, far distant.
Jack squeezed the hand of his chum, and gave him one last look. There was no need of words to tell the deep feelings that gripped his loyal heart; indeed, Jack was utterly unable to utter a single sentence.
Then Tom was off.
He made the ascent with his customary brilliancy, which had won him the admiration of the entire escadrille. The air seemed to be filled with various types of planes. Some were already moving off toward the front, from which came the roar of battle, showing that already the action had begun by an intense bombardment of a portion of the German trenches which the French longed to retake.
Tom spent some little time "knocking around" while awaiting the coming of those members of the Lafayette Escadrille who were the last to leave the ground.
What is twenty or even thirty miles to a pilot in a speedy Neiuport capable of going two miles a minute when pressed? They could be over the lines in a very brief time after leaving the aviation camp.
Tom looked at the scene below him, which was spread out like a gigantic map. He never wearied of observing it when simply "loafing" up in the air, as at present. The sun was fairly above the eastern horizon, though clouds drifted along in scattered masses, and it was as yet impossible to tell what the day might bring forth.
Then the last of the squadron arrived, and the signal was given to start for the front. Away they went with a whirr and a roar, seven strong. They overtook a number of clumsy two-seaters on the way, observation planes, bombing machines, or it might be those included in the "fire-control" units going to relieve some of their kind already doing their appointed bit in the battle.
Tom looked far beyond. He could see great oceans of smoke arising that told of innumerable high explosives bursting, and enormous guns being discharged. Both sides seemed hard at work, though the French were certainly sending ten shells to one that came from the forces of the Crown Prince. This told plainly enough which army expected to do the attacking that day.
And yet while all this wonderful panorama of war was spread beneath them, the seven pilots moving onward in wild-geese formation, with the captain at the head of the V, they heard nothing of the tumult raging. In their muffled ears sounded only the loud whirr of the propellers, and the deafening explosions of the engines. It was almost as noisy as a boiler shop in full blast.
The fire-control planes were already sending back their signals, the observer aboard intently following the course of each monster shell to note exactly where it landed, and then communicating with the gunners, so they might correct their faults and make each missile count.
German pilots were in the air also, sometimes in swarms. Theirs was the task to attack these heavier machines and try to cripple or destroy them.
Of course each one of these machines of the French "relage," or fire-control, was armed with a quick-firing gun; and there was an observer aboard, as well as a deft pilot. They carried such a large assortment of material, consisting among other things of a complete wireless outfit, that they had to be built with unusually large wings.
This makes them slow to answer to the call of the pilot; and when attacked by the more nimble Fokkers they have a hard time to keep from being shot down. That is why a number of the Nieuports with well known "aces" in charge, must always be hovering over the fire controls, ready to fly to their assistance in case they are attacked.
"Things are surely beginning to happen," murmured Tom. "The Boches seem to be in an unusually fierce and aggressive humor on this particular morning."
The youth was right in this. The Germans had been thrown out of numerous hard-won positions lately, and this gave them cause for feeling bitterly toward the French.
By the time the American unit reached the field of battle, several furious combats had already taken place with disastrous results. Two of the enemy machines had been sent down, one of them in flames, after the pilot had fallen at his post, fairly riddled by the gunfire of the Frenchman. A birdman had also paid the great debt on the side of Petain's men. As the score was two against one there seemed no cause for depression.
The Americans would not be kept out of the fight for long. No sooner were three adventurous Teuton pilots seen climbing up to attack the big fire control machine when Tom's companions dropped down from the "ceiling" to engage them.
Tom watched everything as though photographing the thrilling happenings on his brain forever. He had a greater interest in these things than at any previous period of his life, for was he not also hovering over that observation Caudron, upon which the movements of the advancing French troops depended? At any minute might he not receive the signal from the captain to attack some fresh Boche, who had climbed high above the battle lines to join the general scrimmage, or else "get" the big French machine while its defenders had their hands full with his comrades?
Had Tom been able to use his binoculars just then, which was out of the question of course, and look back to where the monster French guns were firing, he might have noticed various white sheets spread out in fantastic patterns on the ground, the picture varying every little while.
These were used to "talk" with the observer who was sending those messages from the fire-control plane, telling the gunners just how many metres their fire was short, long, to the right, or to the left of their intended objective.
Then again information was being sent by another observer to the advancing infantry, warning them of perils that lay in their way, which might have cost them great and grievous losses if they remained unknown until the German trap was sprung.
The morning was advancing. Tom had seen his comrades chase off several flocks of enemy aircraft that endeavored to interrupt the deadly work of the observers. As yet his anticipated chance had not come. He was beginning to feel impatient. Could it be that he must stay there almost up among the clouds, and only be a "looker-on?"
How eagerly did his heart throb with renewed hope each time he discovered signs of another attempt on the part of the enemy pilots to engineer a raid that might check this observation work. They knew what it was doing to advance the cause of the battling French; and that, as often proved to be the case, the airplanes were again the "vigilant eyes of the army."
It was well along in the morning when Tom Raymond's time came. The fighting below had been going on for some time, and from fugitive glimpses Tom snatched every now and then as he looked down, he had reason to believe things were moving successfully for the assailants. At least the French troops occupied a long line of trenches where the Boches had been in possession at the close of the previous day.
Yes, there was another burst of ambitious fliers rising to take a chance. The fact that already seven of their men had been dropped, several with their planes ablaze, did not deter them; for those German airmen had often proved their courage and were known as stubborn fighters.
Soon another battle below the clouds was in progress. Besides Tom, there were now only three of the Americans in the air, the remainder having been driven down, some in trouble of some kind, others to replenish their supplies. And there were four enemy planes, Tom noticed, even as he watched the machine of the captain and received the signal to attack the latest arrival in the enemy squadron.
WINNING HIS SPURS
Those were the expressive words that broke from Tom Raymond's lips when he saw the commander give him the long-anticipated signal. Tom had already discovered his intended antagonist. A fourth plane was coming up quickly. It had held back to await the chance that would be offered when the three defenders of the fire-control machine were hotly engaged with the trio of skillful Boche pilots.
The game was very apparent. It was likewise exceedingly old. The French commander was too experienced an aviator to be so easily caught. That was why he had signaled to Tom to take care of the fourth and last German airman, and guard the important observation plane.
Tom started down with a rush, just as a hungry hawk might swoop upon a pigeon it had marked for its intended prey.
"I've got to make good!" the young aviator told himself. "I've got to make good!"
The German pilot saw him coming. He had more than half expected to be interfered with in his designs; but it would please him first of all to riddle this ambitious young airman, and his Nieuport, and then to accomplish his main purpose.
Now the two were so close that Tom could plainly see the black Maltese crosses on the wings of the Teuton plane as it tilted in climbing. Already had the other opened fire on him, for as his motor was silent during his first long dive Tom could catch the tut-tut-tut of the rapidly exploding mitrailleuse.
Somehow this did not unnerve him in the least, as he had feared it might. Even when he realized that the missiles were cutting holes through the wings a few feet away he did not grow uneasy. The spirit of battle had gripped Tom. He was now attaining what had seemed to be the height of his ambition. He was trying out his mettle against one of the enemy pilots, a man with considerable more experience than himself, and therefore well fitted to spur him on to do his level best.
He could see the pilot crouched in his place, and working his gun with one hand while he managed some controls of his fleeting machine with the other, for there was only one man aboard, though German machines usually hold two. Long practice had made him an adept at this sort of thing, it seemed.
But then Tom had been taught the same clever trick down at the French school of aviation at Pau, and over on the lake at Casso. He was now about to show whether he had learned his lesson to advantage. It was French ways pitted against those of the German school.
Tom tried to aim directly at the foeman as he rushed toward him. Then he pressed the release hard, and instantly the rapid-fire gun commenced its staccato barking, as it spit out the bullets.
Crack! crack! crack! crack!
Thus the two rivals, rushing at each other like opposing birds of enormous size, passed and dived, as though ducking to avoid the hot fire. Tom looked back, hoping to discover the enemy winged and dropping out of the fight. Nothing of the kind occurred; but on the contrary his antagonist was sailing on, apparently untouched, at least in any vital point.
That meant it must all be tried over again. The second round in the air duel was about to open. It was impossible to predict what the outcome might be, but at any rate Tom felt renewed courage and confidence.
If he had passed through one siege unscathed he believed he could show considerable improvement the next time. Already had he learned how he might avoid several little errors of judgment, not much in themselves possibly; but which tended to interfere with his doing the one thing necessary—firing point blank into the muffled face of the German pilot.
Once more were they rushing headlong toward each other. Tom was steadier now, and more alert. He had his plan of campaign mapped out clearly in his mind. He had moreover noticed a weak point about the other's method of attack, of which he intended to take advantage.
The other three Americans were just as hotly engaged not far away; but it was a case of every man for himself. Tom counted on receiving no assistance. Indeed, while that feeling of confidence pulsed through his veins he would have scorned to call for help, or even to allow it, if he could prevent such a thing.
Again the guns opened fire as the two foes advanced with savage fury. Such a battle in the clouds is on a plane that almost beggars description. Nothing resembling it has ever been known before in all the annals of history until the present world war broke out, and the airplane was perfected as it stands to-day.
This attack was even more tumultuous than the first had been. The planes tried dodging, and several tricks were brought to bear on either side; for it seems that every pilot has his pet theories as to how best to catch an opponent napping. Everything is fair, once the battle royal has started and German wit is matched against American, or French.
Again did they pass each other for a sudden dip. Each feared to be caught in a condition that would not permit of defense. They looked for all the world like a couple of agile boxers engaged in a contest, in which foot-work counted almost as much as that of the fists.
Around and around they flew, coming back to the attack a third, and even a fourth time. Tom was beginning to grow impatient. Try as he could, he did not seem able to bring the other down, though he was almost sure he had poked his rapid-fire gun straight for the German's face, and when only a comparatively short distance away.
"I've got to get him!" he muttered. "Or else he'll get me!"
He wondered whether there could be anything in what he had heard one old aviator say, to the effect that he firmly believed some of those Germans must be wearing armor or suits of mail, since he had poured streams of missiles straight at them, and without the least appreciable effect.
The German was getting a bit reckless. No doubt he had anticipated an easy victory over the other, whom he must have guessed was something of a beginner at this sort of aerial combat. Tom's agility in avoiding punishment annoyed him; likewise the way the bullets splashed around him had a disconcerting effect on his mind.
This was the fifth dash, and it seemed as though the time had come when one or the other should win the contest. They were growing more and more desperate now; the fire of the battle had gone to their heads, and each must have made up his mind to finish the fight then and there, judging from the way they headed straight toward one another. At any rate Tom had determined that he must win, and win without delay.
Tom realized suddenly that he had been struck, for he felt a sudden acute twinge. He neither knew nor cared how serious the injury might be, so long as it did not incapacitate him from serving his machine. And, best of all, thus far no missile from that popping mitrailleuse of the German had done serious damage to the vitals of his plane.
Let the bullets cut holes all they pleased through the linen of the wings; there would be no splitting, as happens in the case of cotton or other fabrics; and such tiny apertures do not count for much in retarding the upholding power of a plane.
Another dash, and this time Tom felt absolutely certain he had made a hit. It seemed to him he must have fairly riddled the other pilot, so close was he when he poured all that torrent of lead aboard his craft.
They rushed past one another, but Tom took the earliest possible opportunity to redress, and look back at his foe. A thrill ran through his entire being as he discovered that the other was in trouble. The Fokker was descending in erratic spirals, evidently out of control. Man or machine, perhaps both, had come within the deadly line of fire, and the fight was over.
Turning, Tom watched the enemy plane go down. He had a queer, choking sensation in his throat. Every novice probably feels that when he watches his first rival heading earthward, with a mile or more to fall before he strikes. Still, Tom grimly held his feelings in check. A successful air pilot, especially when he manages a fighting craft, can not let sentiment get the better of his combative spirit. It is a fair test of skill and endurance, and as a rule the better man wins the game. And war must always be an exhibition of cruelty in that human lives are the stake played for.
Nevertheless Tom was secretly glad to discover that the plane was being fairly well guided to earth, showing that the German pilot, though he had lost his fight, could not have been killed outright, or even mortally wounded.