AIR SERVICE BOYS OVER THE ATLANTIC
THE LONGEST FLIGHT ON RECORD
BY CHARLES AMORY BEACH
I OUT FOR BUSINESS
II THE RESCUE
III A BOLD PROJECT
IV THE REST BILLET
V THE AIR RAIDERS
VI STRIKING A BLOW FOR LIBERTY
VII THE BATTLE IN THE AIR
VIII BOMBING THE BRIDGE
IX CONVINCING PROOF
X GROPING FOR LIGHT
XI THE AMAZING PLAN
XII GRIPPED IN SUSPENSE
XIII OFF FOR THE CHANNEL
XIV READY FOR THE START
XV THE LONG FLIGHT BEGUN
XVI THE FIRST NIGHT OUT
XVII WHEN THE SUBMARINE STRUCK
XVIII THE COLD HAND OF FEAR
XIX A DESPERATE CHANCE
XX ON THE ICE FLOE
XXI ATTACKED BY A POLAR BEAR
XXII WHEN THE ICEBERG ROLLED OVER
XXIII THE END OF THE FLIGHT
XXIV SURPRISING BRIDGETON
XXV TO SEE THE WAR THROUGH—CONCLUSION
OUT FOR BUSINESS
"Look! What does that mean, Tom?"
"It means that fellow wants to ruin the Yankee plane, and perhaps finish the flier who went down with it to the ground."
"Not if we can prevent it, I say. Take a nosedive, Tom, and leave it to me to manage the gun!"
"He isn't alone, Jack, for I saw a second skulker in the brush, I'm sure."
"We've got to drive those jackals away, no matter at what risk. Go to it, Tom, old scout!"
The big battle-plane, soaring fully two thousand feet above the earth, suddenly turned almost upside-down, so that its nose pointed at an angle close to forty-five degrees. Like a hawk plunging after its prey it sped through space, the two occupants held in their places by safety belts.
As they thus rushed downward the earth seemed as if rising to meet them. Just at the right second Tom Raymond, by a skillful flirt of his hand, brought the Yankee fighting aircraft back to an even keel, with a beautiful gliding movement.
Immediately the steady throb of the reliable motor took up its refrain, while the buzz of the spinning propellers announced that the plane was once more being shot through space by artificial means.
The two occupants were Tom Raymond and Jack Parmly, firm friends and chums who had been like David and Jonathan in their long association. It was Tom who acted as pilot on the present occasion, while Jack took the equally important position of observer and gunner.
Both were young Americans with a natural gift in the line of aviation. They had won their spurs while serving under French leadership as members of the famous Lafayette Escadrille. The adventures they encountered at that time are related in the first book of this series, entitled: "Air Service Boys Flying For France."
After America entered the war, like all other adventurous young Yankee fliers, the two Air Service Boys offered their services to their own country and joined one of the new squadrons then being formed.
Here the two youths won fresh laurels, and both were well on the way to be recognized "aces" by the time Pershing's army succeeded in fighting its way through the nests of machine-gun traps that infested the great Argonne Forest.
It was in the autumn of the victory year, 1918, and the German armies were being pushed back all along the line from Switzerland to the sea. Under the skillful direction of Marshal Foch, the Allies had been dealing telling and rapid blows, now here, now there.
To-day it was the British that struck; the day afterward the French advanced their front; and next came the turn of the Americans under Pershing. Everywhere the discouraged and almost desperate Huns were being forced in retreat, continually drawing closer to the border.
Already the sanguine young soldiers from overseas were talking of spending the winter on the Rhine. Some even went so far as to predict that their next Christmas dinner would be eaten in Berlin. It was no idle boast, for they believed it might be so, because victory was in the very air.
So great was the distress of the Hun forces that it was believed Marshal Foch had laid a vast trap and was using the fresh and enthusiastic Yankees to drive a dividing wedge between Ludendorff's two armies, when a colossal surrender must inevitably follow.
The whole world now knows that this complete break-up of the Teutons was avoided solely by their demand for an armistice, with an agreement on terms that were virtually a surrender—absolute in connection with their navy.
Tom and Jack had displayed considerable ability in carrying out their work, and could no longer be regarded as novices. Each of them had for some time been anticipating promotion, and hoped to return home with the rank of lieutenant at least.
They had been entrusted with a number of especially dangerous missions, and had met with considerable success in putting these through. Like most other ambitious young fliers, they hoped soon to merit the title of "ace," when they could point to at least six proven victories over rival pilots, with that number of planes sent down in combat.
On the present occasion they had sallied out "looking for trouble," as Jack put it; which, in so many words, meant daring any Hun flier to meet them and engage in a duel among the clouds.
Other planes they could see cruising toward the northwest, and also flying in an easterly direction; but as a rule these bore signs of being Allies' machines, and in all probability had Yankee pilots manning them.
Apparently the Hun airmen were otherwise employed. They seemed to prefer venturing out after nightfall, gathering in force, and often taking a strange satisfaction in bombing some Red Cross hospital, where frequently their own wounded were being treated alongside the American doughboys.
During the weeks that the Americans were battling in the great Argonne Forest the two Air Service Boys had contributed to the best of their ability to each daily drive. Again and again had they taken part in such dangerous work as fell to the portion of the aviators. Their activities at that time are set down in the fifth volume of this series, entitled: "Air Service Boys Flying For Victory."
Frequently they had found themselves in serious trouble, and their escapes were both numerous and thrilling. Through it all they had been highly favored, since neither of them had thus far met with a serious accident. Numbers of their comrades had been registered as "missing," or were known to have been shot down and lost.
It was no unusual thing a few days after a flier had gone out and failed to return at evening, for a Hun pilot to sail over and drop a note telling that he had fallen in combat, and was buried at a certain place with his grave so marked that it could be easily found.
There seemed to be a vein of old-time chivalry among the German airmen even up to the very last, such as had not marked any other branch of their fighting forces, certainly not the navy. And the Americans made it a point to return this courtesy whenever an opportunity arose.
Tom was proud of his ability to execute that difficult feat known as a "nose-dive." More than once it had extricated him from a "pocket" into which he found himself placed by circumstances, with three or more enemy planes circling around and bombarding him from their active guns.
At such times the only hope of the attacked pilot lay in his ability to drop down as if his machine had received a fatal blow and when once far below the danger point again to recover an even keel.
Jack never doubted what the result would be, having the utmost confidence in his comrade. The wind rushed past his ears as they pitched downward; and just when objects on the ground loomed up suggestively there was the expected sudden shift of the lever, a consequent change in the pointing of the plane's nose, and then they found themselves on the new level, with the motor again humming merrily.
Jack was on the alert and quickly discovered the object that just then enlisted their whole attention. As he had suspected when using the glasses from the higher level, it was a Yankee bomber that lay partly hidden among the bushes where it had fallen. He could easily see the Indian head marking the broken wing.
The pilot was sitting near by as though unable to make a run for it, although Jack imagined he must suspect the approach of danger, for he gripped something that glinted in the sunlight in his right hand. It was, of course, an automatic pistol.
Looking hastily around Jack glimpsed the creeping figures of the two Germans who, having seen the fall of the Yankee plane, must have come out from some place of concealment and were bent on finishing the pilot, or at least taking him prisoner. They had almost reached a point where it would have been possible for them to open fire on the wounded American.
Jack looked in vain for any second figure near the fallen plane. If the pilot had had an observer with him, which was most likely, considering the fact that he had been using a bombing machine, the latter must have been dispatched for relief some time before.
"There they are, Tom!" burst from the one who crouched close to the machine gun, and pointing as he spoke. "Swoop down and let me give them a volley!"
The Huns evidently realized what was coming, and feared that their intended victim might after all escape their hands. Even as Jack spoke there came a shot from below, and a bullet went screaming past close to the ears of the Air Service Boys. It was followed by a second and a third in quick succession.
What the marksmen hoped to do was either to kill the pilot or else to strike some vulnerable part of the engine, thus disabling it and wrecking the plane. Those were chances which had to be taken continually; but as a rule the rapidity of flight rendered them almost negligible.
Jack waited no longer. The two men were about to fling themselves behind friendly trees, and but a small chance remained that he might catch them before they were able to shield themselves by these close-by trunks.
Jack, in his most energetic fashion, commenced to spray the vicinity with a shower of leaden missiles. The chatter of the machine gun drowned any cries from the two men below. The Yankee plane swooped past the spot where the injured pilot still sat at bay, ready to sell his life dearly if the worst came.
The rat-tat-tat of gunfire suddenly ceased. Jack could no longer cover the spot where the two Huns were hiding behind the tree-trunks, and consequently it would be a sheer waste of ammunition to continue firing.
But already Tom had commenced to circle, and soon they would be swooping down upon the scene from another direction. Jack kept on the alert, so as to note quickly any possible movement of the enemy.
Again he poured a hot fire on the place where he knew the Germans were cowering, tearing up the ground with a storm of bullets as though it had been freshly harrowed. But the sturdy trees baffled him once more.
"Nothing doing, Tom!" he called out, vexed. "We've got to drop down and go it on foot if we want to save that pilot!"
"I see a good landing place!" announced the other almost instantly.
"Great luck! get busy then!"
The ground chanced to be unusually smooth, and the plane, after bumping along for a short distance, came to a stand. Meanwhile, both young fliers had succeeded in releasing themselves from their safety belts.
Together they jumped to the ground and started on a run toward the spot where those crouching figures had last been seen. Of course, the Huns must already know of their landing and would be ready to defend themselves, if not to attack; but, nothing daunted by this possibility, the pair pushed ahead through bushes and past trees.
"Better separate, and attack 'em from two different angles, hadn't we, Tom?" panted Jack presently, as a shot was heard and something clipped a twig from a bush within a foot of his hand.
"Take the left, and I'll look after the right!" snapped out Tom.
Both were armed with automatic pistols, for airmen can never tell when their lives may depend upon their ability to defend themselves, and so seldom make a flight without some such weapon in their possession.
"They're on the run!" cried Jack, in a tone of disgust; for he had really hoped to have a further brush with the skulking enemy.
He sent several shots in their direction whenever he caught glimpses of the bounding figures, but without much hope of striking either of them. Still, they had undoubtedly accomplished the business in hand, which was to save the Yankee pilot.
"He's over this way, Jack," observed Tom, moving to the right still further, after being joined by his comrade. "I can see the opening where he must have struck. The Hun flier didn't bother to follow him down and find out if he'd made a count. He may have been here for some time."
"I see him now," continued Jack eagerly. "And it strikes me there's something familiar about his looks. Yes, we've met that pilot before, Tom. It's Lieutenant Colin Beverly, one of the cleverest Yankee aces of the newer squad."
The aviator had already discovered the Air Service Boys' presence. Doubtless all that had occurred had been noted by him as he sat, waiting for anything that might happen; and the swoop of the American plane, as well as Jack's firing, had of course told him help was near.
"He's waving his hand to us," continued Jack, answering in kind.
"Keep your gun ready for business," warned the other, inclined to be more cautious. "There may be other Huns prowling around, because we're not far from their lines, you understand."
A minute afterwards they reached the pilot of the wrecked bomber.
"Hello, fellows!" was his familiar greeting, as he thrust a hand out toward them. "Glad to see you, all right. They were after me, just as I suspected. My observer was wounded in the arm, but went for help. As for me, save for a few scratches, I made the fall in great luck. But I'm still crippled from that other accident. Just got out of hospital a week ago. They tried to keep me from going up, but I'd have died only for the permission."
Colin Beverly they knew to be one of the liveliest fliers then serving in the American ranks. He had gained a name for daring second to none. Early in his service he had won a reputation, and was already a double ace; which meant that he was officially credited with at least twelve victories over enemy fliers.
Tom and Jack had met him a number of times previously, and there had always been a strong attraction between the three. Lieutenant Beverly was one of fortune's favorites in so far as worldly riches went, since he had a million at least to his credit, it was said.
He had enlisted as soon as the United States entered the war, and had chosen aviation as his branch of the service, since it offered his venture-venturesome, almost reckless, spirit a chance for action. He had had numerous escapes so narrow that his friends began to believe some magical charm must protect him.
As he had mentioned when speaking to them on their arrival, his closest call had sent him to the hospital with a fractured bone in his left leg; and even when discharged as cured he really should not have returned to the harness; only, those in authority found it difficult to keep such an energetic soul in check.
"Those chaps will come back with more of their kind, I reckon," Tom remarked. "They've made up their minds to get you, Lieutenant, and when a Hun is bent on a thing he keeps on trying. We can take you along with us."
"I hate to desert the bus," complained the other, giving his wrecked plane a wry look. "But then what's the use of sticking it out? Chances are we'll be through the mess before they ever get it in fighting trim again. Yes, I'll go along, boys, if you'll lend me a shoulder. Gave that game leg another little knock in falling; but then, I might have broken my neck, so I'm thankful."
"The Beverly luck again!" chuckled Jack, at which the intrepid flier nodded with kindling eyes.
"Getting to believe I can carry anything through I care to tackle, for a fact, fellows," he remarked, with the same amazing confidence that had taken him along so many times in a whirlwind of success.
They ranged alongside, and he leaned on Tom's arm as he limped off, giving no further heed to the mass of damaged engine, crumpled wood, bent steel guys, and torn canvas that had once been a powerful bombing plane.
Jack kept in readiness to meet any attack that might spring up, though they had reason to believe the Huns had temporarily withdrawn from the field of action.
"Your friend Harry Leroy dropped in to see me while I was laid up, Raymond," remarked the lieutenant, with a broad grin, as he saw how his words caused the color to flash into the bronzed cheeks of the other.
"Haven't seen Harry for some time," Tom replied, his eyes twinkling with pleasure; "but I heard of you through his sister. Nellie said you were the hardest patient she'd ever tackled, because you kept fretting to get out and be at work again."
"Yes, Miss Leroy was my nurse for a week, and I think I improved more under her care than at any other time. She's a fine girl, Raymond."
"Sure thing, Lieutenant. I ought to know," came the unabashed answer. "I've known Nellie for some time, and that was always my opinion. We're good friends all right."
"H'm! I guess you must be," chuckled the other. "I wish you could have seen her look when I mentioned that I knew you well, and liked you in the bargain. I kept talking Tom Raymond a full streak just to watch the blushes play over her face and the light shine in her eyes. Raymond, you're a lucky dog."
"Here's our plane, and we'll soon be able to get going with such a smooth bit of ground ahead," Tom hastened to remark, though it was easy to see that what the other said had thrilled him.
"All aboard!" sang out Jack, after a last quick look around. "No Huns in sight, as far as I can see."
The ascent was easily made, for, as Tom had said, they were favored with an unusually level stretch of ground beyond, over which the plane rolled decently until the pilot switched his lever and they started to soar. From some place close by an unseen enemy commenced to fire again, but without success.
Once fully on their way, the danger faded out of sight. Again they were spinning through space, with the earth fading below them.
"Back home, Tom?" called out Jack, and the pilot nodded an affirmative.
Swiftly they sped, and presently were dropping back to earth at the spot whence their outgoing flight had started. Here there were evidences of bustle, with planes coming and going all the while. Couriers could be seen on horses or motorcycles speeding away with important news to be sent from the nearest field telephone station in touch with division headquarters.
The landing was made without incident, though curious glances were cast in their direction. Many knew that Tom and his chum had made their ascent without a third passenger, and the presence of Lieutenant Beverly announced that some sort of tragedy of the air had occurred.
A number of other pilots swooped down upon them to learn the particulars. As usual they were inclined to be jocular, and greeted the limping Beverly with a volley of questions, as well as remarks concerning that "luck" of which he had talked.
"They can't get you, no matter how they try, Beverly," one called out.
"Another machine to the scrap-heap!" laughingly observed the most celebrated of Yankee aces, slapping Colin on the shoulder. "Makes an even dozen for you I understand. Planes may come and planes may go but you go on forever. Well, long may you wave, old chap! Here's wishing you luck. So the boys picked you up, did they? Nice work, all right."
"Just in time, too," confessed Beverly, "because there were some Huns on the way to finish me that had to be chased off."
Tom had been noticing something which he thought a bit strange. It was a way Lieutenant Beverly had of looking at him curiously, as if deciding something in his mind which had suddenly gripped him.
"Is there anything else we can do for you, Lieutenant?" he finally asked, when they had left the bevy of pilots and mechanics behind and were heading toward their quarters; for Tom wished to see the other comfortable before he and Jack ascended once more.
"I don't believe there is—at present," the other slowly replied. "But this accidental meeting may develop into something worth while; that is, if you chaps would care to join me in a sensational flight."
At hearing these words Jack began to show a sudden interest.
"If you know anything about us, Lieutenant!" he exclaimed eagerly, "you ought to understand that we've always been willing to tackle any job coming our way."
"This one," continued the other gravely, "promises to be an unusually dangerous enterprise that if successful, will be sure to win the crew of the big bombing plane tremendous honors and perhaps rapid advancement."
"You're only exciting us more and more by saying that," said Tom. "Suppose you explain what it is, and then we could decide whether we'd want to join you or not."
"My sentiments exactly," added Jack.
Lieutenant Beverly looked from one face to the other. He seemed to be mentally weighing the chances of his ever being able to run across two more promising candidates for the honor of sharing his secret than the pair of ambitious lads then in touch with him. As though his decision was taken he suddenly exclaimed:
"It's a go, then! I'll let you into my little secret, which so far hasn't been shared by a single living man. Then later on you can decide if you care to accept the risk for the sake of the glory success would bring, as well as striking a blow for the flag we all love!"
A BOLD PROJECT
"Pitch in, please!" urged the impatient Jack Parmly.
"Listen, then, boys," commenced the other earnestly. "You doubtless know that I've got more money than is good for any single man to handle? Well, I've squandered a small bunch of it in having a wonderful plane made and sent abroad. Of course it's intended to be handed over to the Government in due course of time, but with the proviso that they allow me to engineer the first long flight in it."
"That sounds interesting, Lieutenant," admitted Jack, apparently considerably impressed.
"Tell us some more about it, please," urged the practical Tom.
"It's possibly by long odds the largest bombing plane that so far has ever been built, even beating those big Caproni machines of Italy that can carry a dozen in the crew. This Martin bomber can be run by three hands, although several more might be used if the right kind were found. Its possibilities in the way of distance and continued flight can hardly be estimated, since all depends on the cargo carried. The less crew, the more petrol and bombs to make up the load."
"Yes, we get that, Lieutenant," said Jack, as the other paused briefly, possibly to get his breath, and then again because he wished the information to sink slowly into their minds.
"With this monster biplane I assure you it will be an easy matter to fly all the way to Berlin, bomb the city so as to terrify the inhabitants even as they tried to do to Londoners, turn around, and return here without touching ground once; yes, and if necessary, repeating the trip."
Jack showed intense excitement, while Tom too was deeply interested.
"We knew that thing would soon arrive," the latter said; "and they say the Germans are getting cold feet already with the prospect before them. But it's come a little sooner than I, for one, expected. What's your big scheme, Lieutenant?"
"Berlin or bust?" chanced Jack explosively.
"You've hit the right nail on the head, Parmly," admitted the other, with a nod of appreciation. "I mean to show that it can be done. Just as soon as I can get that big bomber here, and the permission to take on the job, well start some fine night for Berlin and give Heine the jolt of his life."
Jack thrust out his hand impulsively.
"You can count for one on my going, Lieutenant; that is, provided I get permission from the boss!" he announced promptly.
"I'm inclined to say the same," Tom added quietly, though his face displayed an eagerness he did not otherwise betray.
With that Lieutenant Beverly squeezed a hand of each.
"I mean to start things going shortly," he told them. "And you'll surely hear from me, for I must keep track of you boys."
"Where is the big Martin bomber now, did you say?" asked Jack.
"I didn't mention the fact, but it lies hidden in a special hangar on the French coast, not a great distance from Dunkirk," came the answer. "I have a special guard watching it, and my mechanics keep everything ready for any sudden call. Right now she's tuned up to top-notch pitch, and a full supply of gas is kept on hand all the time, as well as everything needed in the way of supplies. That's where money talks."
Jack looked his admiration, and then burst out with:
"You're sure a dandy, Lieutenant Beverly, and if ever you undertake that wonderful trip to Berlin and back I only hope I have the great good luck to be aboard."
"Consider it settled then," he was told. "And now that I've found my comrades for the venture I can go about further details, and start getting the consent of Headquarters to the enterprise. One of these nights Berlin is going to get a shock that may help bring the war to a speedy close."
"Here's our dugout," said Tom. "We're going back to work again after I've bandaged Jack's finger, for he gave it an ugly scratch when handling the gun, he doesn't himself know just how. Can we do anything further for you right now, Lieutenant?"
"Thank you, nothing, Raymond. I shall get on nicely. I'll rest up a day or so while things are simmering connected with that big affair. Of course it's to be a great secret among the three of us; not another soul knows anything about my project or the giant bombing plane I had shipped over to France."
"That's understood, and we're as mum as a couple of clams," Jack told him; and so they separated, little dreaming at the moment what a remarkable series of circumstances were fated to arise that would bring them together for the carrying out of an enterprise greater than anything as yet recorded in the annals of aerial exploits.
Tom and Jack were back on the field before half an hour had elapsed, making a fresh start for the clouds, just as eager as ever to have some adventurous Hun airman accept their challenge and give them battle.
For a whole hour did they fly back and forth in the disputed territory between the two armies. Far beneath they could see by the aid of the powerful binoculars marching columns of soldiers, all heading toward the northwest. These they knew to be the German forces, making one of their regular daily retreats in fairly good order.
Behind them the Hun armies left innumerable nests of machine-gunners to dispute the advance of the Yankee battalions, and hold them in check, even at the price of utter annihilation. Many times the men selected for this sacrifice to the Fatherland held grimly on until they were completely wiped out by the sweep of the Americans.
Occasionally one of the Yankee pilots, provoked because none of the enemy dared to accept the gauge of battle he flung before them, would swoop down and try to make a target of these marching columns. Then for a brief period there would be exciting work, with the machine gun of the scurrying plane splashing its spray of bullets amidst the scurrying soldiers, and the daring pilot in return taking their volleys.
Perhaps, if the boldness of the Americans caused them to take too great chances, there might be one less plane return to its starting point that day; and the report would be brought in that the pilot had "met his fate in the discharge of his duty."
Wearied at length of the useless task, the Air Service Boys finally gave it up for that afternoon. Jack in particular showed signs of keen disappointment, for he always chafed under inaction.
"There was some talk of another raid for tonight, you remember, Tom," he said, when they once more alighted and gave the plane over into the charge of the hostlers; "and if it turns out that way I only hope we're detailed to go along to guard the bombers. It's growing worse and worse right along these days, when Fritz seems to have gotten cold feet and refuses to accept a dare."
"I see fellows reading letters," remarked Tom suddenly. "Let's hope there is something for us."
"It's been a long time since I heard from home," sighed Jack. "I certainly hope everything is going on well in old Virginia these days. There's Captain Peters waving something at us right now, Tom!"
"Letters, Jack, and a sheaf of them at that!"
"Come on, let's run!" urged the impatient one, suiting his actions to the words by starting off on a gallop.
Tom took it a little more slowly so that when he arrived and received his letters from the aviation instructor, who happened to be in the camp at the time, Jack was already deeply immersed in one which he had received.
It was late in the afternoon. The sun hung low in the west, looking fiery red, which promised a fair day on the morrow. Once he had his letters, however, Tom paid but scant attention to anything else.
His news from Virginia must have been pleasant, if one could judge from the smile that rested upon his wind and sun-tanned face as he read on. Again in memory he could see those loved ones in the old familiar haunts, going about their daily tasks, or enjoying themselves as usual. And whenever they sat under the well-remembered tree in the cool of the early fall evening, with the soft Virginia air fanning their cheeks, the red and golden hues of frost-touched leaves above them, he knew their talk was mostly of him, the absent one, most fondly loved.
Tom looked up. He thought he had heard a groan, or something very similar, break from the lips of his chum. It startled Tom so that when he saw how troubled Jack looked a spasm of alarm gripped his heart.
"Why, what is the matter with you?" he cried, leaning forward and laying a hand on the other's arm. "Have you had bad news from home?"
Jack nodded his head, and as he turned his eyes his chum saw there was a look of acute anxiety in them.
"No one dead, or sick, I hope, Jack?" continued the other apprehensively.
"No, at least that is spared me, Tom; they are all well. But just the same, it's a bad muddle. And the worst of it is I'm thousands of miles off, held up by army regulations, when I ought to get home for a short visit right away."
"See here, is it anything connected with that Burson property—has that matter come to a head at last?" demanded Tom, as a light dawned upon him.
"Nothing less," assented the other gloomily. "The issue has been suddenly forced, and may be settled any day. If I'm not there, according to the eccentric will of my uncle, Joshua Adams Kinkaid, that property will fall into the hands of my cousin, Randolph Carringford, who, as we both know, is just at present over here acting in a confidential capacity to some Government official."
"Yes, I've seen him," said Tom, frowning. "And to tell the honest truth his face didn't impress me strongly. In fact, I didn't like your cousin. What's the use? All Virginia knows that Randolph Carringford is a black sheep—that no decent man or woman will acknowledge him for a friend. Wonder what Joshua Kinkaid meant, anyhow, by ringing him in. But are the lands worth as much as it was believed, Jack?"
"I learn in this letter from our lawyer that the richest kind of coal veins have been located on the Burson property in West Virginia; and that they promise to be valued at possibly a million dollars. Think of what that would mean to the Parmly family! For we are far from being rich. Father lost his grip on business you know, Tom, when he volunteered, and went into the Spanish war, and when he died did not leave very much."
"Do you suppose your cousin knows anything about this new development?" continued Tom sympathetically.
"He is too greedy not to have looked after every possible chance," came Jack's despondent reply. "And now that this thing's come up I can begin to understand why he kept smiling in that way all the time he chatted with me a week ago when we chanced to meet. I think he had had a tip even then that this thing was coming off, and was laying his plans. Though how he could known, I can't imagine."
"Then you suspect he may already be on his way across, and will arrive before you can get there to put in your claim?" asked Tom.
"Even allowing that he had no news until this mail got in, Tom, he'd get off a whole lot easier that I'll ever be able to, and so could catch a boat, while I kept untwisting the army red tape. It's a bad job all around, I'm afraid, and bound to make me feel blue."
"There's only one thing for you to do, Jack." remarked the energetic chum promptly, and his confidence gave the other considerable satisfaction.
"What is that?"
"Apply for leave at once. And include me at the same time, because I'll go with you, of course, Jack. We'll try to get back in time to join in the grand march to the Rhine. Promise me to do this before we sleep to-night!"
"I will, Tom, and here's my hand on it!"
THE REST BILLET
"Here's a pretty kettle of fish, Jack!" Tom Raymond remarked several hours later, as he came into the dingy dugout where his chum was sitting.
A number of other pilots and observers occupied the same quarters, which had once been the refuge of German officers. Wretched though these quarters were, they at least afforded security from the bursting shells that were being sent across now and then by the enemy, from their positions on the hills to the northwest.
Jack had been paying small heed to the merriment of his mates, who, like most young men gathered together in a group, had been carrying on high. Sitting there with his head resting on his hand he had allowed himself to become buried in deep thought. A strained worried look had taken possession of his usually sunny face.
"What's the matter now, Tom?" he asked, with a deep sigh, as though he had been rudely brought back to a realization of the fact that he was still in France, where the battle raged, and far removed from those peaceful Virginia scenes he had been picturing.
"We're ordered out with that raiding party to-night," Tom continued, lowering his voice to a whisper, since it was supposed to be a military secret, and not to be openly discussed.
"Oh! Well, what does it matter?" asked Jack, beginning to show animation. "We've put in our applications for leave, but the chances are they'll not be acted upon immediately, although we asked for speed. And nothing would please me more than to see action while I'm waiting. I'm afraid I'd go clean daffy unless I could forget my troubles in some way."
"Glad to hear you say that, Jack, because I'm feeling particularly keen myself to be one of that bunch to-night"
"When do we start?" demanded the other tersely.
"Not until two in the morning," came the low reply. "All that's been figured out with regard to the moon you know."
Jack took a quick glance around. So far as he could see, no one was paying the least attention to him and his comrade. One of the air pilots was trying to sing a song, being in jovial mood after receiving a letter that he admitted was from his "girl in the States" and the others manifested a desire to join in the chorus, though none of them dared let their voices out, since it was against the rules.
"Did you learn anything about the job we've got on hand, Tom?"
"Yes, that's what I did; though I believe it was not generally told to all who are to be in the party," came the cautious reply. "Of course just before the flight they'll be given full particulars, when orders are issued to the pilots and observers. It's a bridge this time, Jack!"
"That one spanning the river about twenty miles back of the German lines, do you mean?"
"Yes, it's the most important bridge within fifty miles. Over it day and night the retreating Boche armies are passing. There's hardly a minute that guns and regiments may not be seen passing across at that point."
"Yes," observed Jack, "and a number of times some of our airmen have tried to bomb it in the daytime; but Fritz keeps such a vigilant watch we never could succeed in getting close enough to do any material damage. And so the High Command has decided that bridge must be knocked to flinders!"
"We're going out to make the attempt, anyhow," resumed Tom, nodding. "Four big bombing machines in the bunch, guarded by eight battleplanes; and we've the good fortune to be chosen as the crew of one. I consider we're lucky, Jack."
"That's right, Tom. Though I don't feel quite as keen for it as I would have been had I not received that letter from our lawyer, asking me to hurry back home if I could possibly make it. Still, I'll be in for a bad night, anyhow, and might just as well be working."
"Are you worrying about your cousin?" demanded Tom suspiciously.
"To tell you the truth I am, more or less," Jack confessed. "I know him as a man utterly without principle. When he knows that it is a race between us to see which one can get to America first, so as to win the prize my foolish uncle left in such a haphazard way, there's absolutely nothing, I honestly believe, that Randolph wouldn't attempt in order to keep me from getting there in advance of him."
"Well, try to forget all that just now," said Tom. "I've a nice little surprise for you, Jack. I suppose you know they've got a sort of 'Y' hut running back here a bit?"
"Heard some of the fellows talking about it, but, somehow, didn't seem to take much stock in the news. Fact is, I've temporarily lost my taste for those doughnuts and the girls who give their time to jollying up our fellows, as well as attending to their many wants in the line of letter writing and such things."
"Perhaps," insinuated Tom, with a mild grin, "a doughnut mightn't go so badly now if the girl who offered it happened to answer to the name of Bessie?"
At that Jack suddenly began to show more interest. A gleam came into his saddened eyes and a faint smile to his face.
"That's an altogether different thing, Tom!" he exclaimed. "Do you really mean that Bessie and Mrs. Gleason are so close as all that?"
"If you care to walk out with me you can be talking to them inside of fifteen minutes," came the ready answer. "And while about it, I might as well tell you that Nellie is there too. Seems that she's attached to a field hospital staff that's keeping us close company, and, meeting the Gleasons, came over for the evening. She's been overworked lately, and needs some rest. I promised to come back for a short while, and fetch you along."
"Did—er, Bessie ask you to look me up?" asked Jack confusedly.
"To be sure! Twice at least. And I had to promise solemnly I'd do it even if I had to take you by the collar and hustle you there. But our time is limited, and we'd better be on our way, Jack."
The other showed an astonishing return to his old form. Apparently the mere fact that he was about to see the Gleasons again caused him to forget, temporarily at least, all about his fresh troubles. They were soon hurrying along, now and then dropping flat as some shell shrieked overhead or burst with a crash not far away.
Their relations with Mrs. Gleason and Bessie were very remarkable, and of a character to bind them close together in friendship. In fact, as has been described at length in one of the earlier books of this series, Tom and Jack had been mainly instrumental in releasing the mother and young daughter from a chateau where they were being held prisoner by an unscrupulous and plotting relative, with designs on their fortune.
The so-called "hut" of the Y.M.C.A. workers was really only another dilapidated and abandoned German dugout, which had been hurriedly arranged as a sort of makeshift headquarters, where the doughboys who could get leave might gather and find such amusement as the conditions afforded.
There were Salvation Army lassies present too, with their pies and doughnuts that made the boys feel closer to home than almost anything else, and even a sprinkling of Red Cross nurses from the field hospital who had been given a brief leave for recuperation.
Adjoining this particular rest billet was another of similar character run by the K. of C., which was also well patronized; indeed there seemed to be a friendly rivalry between the organizations to discover which could spread the most sunshine and cheer abroad.
Jack immediately was pounced upon by a pretty, young girl whose face was either very sunburned or covered with blushes. This was of course the Bessie mentioned by Tom. Others who watched professed a bit of envy because Jack received all her attention after he appeared.
Nellie Leroy, the Red Cross nurse, looked very sweet in her regulation hospital uniform, with the insignia of her calling on her sleeve. If her face bore a sad expression it was no more than must be expected of one seeing so much suffering at close quarters as came to the share of all the women and girls who devoted their very lives to such a calling. In Tom's eyes she was the prettiest girl in all France. It could also be seen that Nellie was very fond of the stalwart young air pilot, from the way in which her eyes rested on his figure whenever he chanced to be absent from her side during the next hour; which to tell the truth was not often.
Of course nothing was said about the night's dangerous work that lay ahead for the two chums. But Bessie noticed that Jack occasionally looked grave, and questioned him concerning it. In answer he took her into his confidence to a certain extent concerning his reason for wanting to be in Virginia.
The time for separating came all too soon. Tom was very particular about this, being a firm believer in duty before pleasure.
"Look us up often if you get the chance," said Mrs. Gleason, who had been actively at work all the evening carrying out her customary duties, and proving indeed a "good angel" to scores of the young soldiers, who looked upon her as they might on their own mothers.
"You can depend on it we will," said Tom, giving Nellie a warm look that caused her eyes to drop and a wave of color to come into her cheeks.
"Wild horses couldn't keep me away, if I can get across," Jack told Bessie, as he was squeezing her little hand at separating. "But then you never know what's going to happen these days. All sorts of things are possible. If I do start across the big pond you'll hear of it, Bessie."
Jack looked back and waved his hand to the little group standing in the door of the dugout. He seemed much more cheerful than earlier in the evening, Tom thought; and as that had been one of his motives in getting the other across from the aviation camp he felt satisfied.
"And now for business," he remarked as they made their way along, with a frequent bursting shell giving them light to see any gap in the road into which they might otherwise have stumbled.
Fritz was unusually active on this particular night, for some reason or other, for he kept up that hammering hour after hour. It might be the German High Command suspected that the Americans were ready to make a more stupendous push than had as yet been undertaken, with the idea of capturing a whole division, or possibly two, before they could get away; and this bombardment was continued in hopes of discouraging them.
The two Air Service Boys did not bother themselves about this, being content to leave all such matters to those in command. They had their orders and expected to obey them to the letter, which was quite enough for them.
Once more in their dugout, Tom and his comrade crawled into their limited sleeping quarters simply to rest, neither of them meaning to try to forget themselves in slumber.
When the time came for action they were soon crawling out of the hole in the ground. As pilots came and went unnoticed, each intent on his individual work, their departure caused not the faintest ripple. In fact, there were two other airmen who also came out and joined them when making for the place of the temporary canvas hangars, they, too, having had secret orders concerning this same night raid.
Arriving on the open field, they found a busy scene awaiting them. Here were mechanics by the score getting planes ready for ascension. The hum of motors and the buzz of propellers being tuned up could be heard in many quarters.
Those sounds always thrilled the hearts of the two boys; it seemed to challenge them to renewed efforts to accomplish great things in their chosen profession. When, however, they reached their own hangar and found a knot of mechanics working furiously, Tom's suspicions instantly arose.
"What's wrong here?" he asked the man who was in charge of the gang.
"There's been some sort of ugly business going on, I'm afraid," came the reply; "for we're replacing several wire stays that look as if they'd been partly eaten by a corrosive acid. Smacks of rank treachery, Sergeant."
THE AIR RAIDERS
Upon hearing the words uttered by the mechanic who handled the men working at their battleplane, Tom and his chum exchanged meaning looks.
"Can you make it perfectly safe again before half an hour passes?" asked the former anxiously.
"Surely," came the confident reply. "I know what's in the wind, and you'll be fit for any sort of flight when another fifteen minutes has gone by. We're on the last stay now, and I've carefully examined the motor and every other thing about the plane. Don't fear to risk your lives on my report. I'd go up myself willingly if I had the chance."
"All right, Sessions, we're willing to take your word for it," Tom assured him, and then drew his comrade aside.
Jack on his part was eager for a little talk between themselves. That staggering fact had appalled, as well as angered, him. Why should their particular plane have been selected for such treacherous work, among all the scores connected with the air service in that sector of the fighting front?
"What do you make of this thing, Tom?" he immediately demanded.
"It's an ugly bit of business, I should say," came the guarded reply.
"You mean calculated to make every one feel timid about taking any extraordinary risk—is that it?" continued Jack.
"Yes, if the fact were generally circulated. But according to my mind they'll keep it quiet until after the armada gets off. No use alarming the others, though orders have gone out I presume to have every plane carefully examined. Still, that would only be ordinary caution; we never go up without doing such a thing."
"Tom, do you think there could be any possible connection between this work of a German spy, as it appears on the surface, and my news from Mr. Smedley, the lawyer?"
"It's possible—even probable, Jack. A whole lot depends on whether we learn of any other plane having been meddled with. One thing sure, it'll spur them to greater vigilance about watching things here. This isn't the first time there's been a suspicion of rank treachery. Planes have been known to be meddled with before now."
"I wouldn't put it past him!" muttered Jack sullenly.
"Meaning your cousin Randolph, I suppose," Tom added. "Nice opinion to have of a near relative, I must say. But then I'm inclined to agree with you. It may be only a queer coincidence, your getting such important news this afternoon, and some unknown party trying to bring about our downfall and death in this brazen way only a few hours afterwards."
"And using corrosive acid, too," spluttered the indignant Jack. "I've heard of ropes being partly cut, even wire stays or struts filed to weaken them; but this is the limit. Don't I wish they'd caught the skunk in the act!"
"He'd never have left this aviation camp alive," said Tom sternly. "Why, the boys would be so furious they'd be tempted to lynch him offhand."
"And I'd be glad to help pull the rope!" snapped Jack. "A more cowardly act couldn't be imagined than this. Air pilots take great enough chances, without being betrayed by spies or traitors."
"We'd better say nothing about it," Tom concluded. "I'm going to run over the entire machine on my own account."
"And I'll do the same, Tom; for a pilot can't be too sure of his mount, especially when there's such meanness afoot."
They accordingly busied themselves after their individual fashion. Every brace and stay was looked over carefully and tested as only pilots know how. Long experience, and many accidents have taught them where the weak spots lie, and they understand how to guard against the giving way at these points.
So the minutes passed. Other pilots had already ascended to await the assembling of the picked squadron at some given altitude. Every minute or two could be heard the rush of some unit starting forth. There were few of the accompaniments of an ordinary ascent, for all loud cries had been banned.
"All ready!" came the welcome words at last.
The last strut had been carefully gone over, and now everything was pronounced in perfect condition. At the same time, after such a discovery had been made, it was only natural for the boys to feel a queer tug in the region of their hearts as they climbed to their seats, and with hands that quivered a little proceeded to make fast the safety belts.
"There goes another bomber, which makes four—the full number you spoke of, Tom," remarked Jack. "I suppose we're holding up the procession more or less, worse luck, when usually we can be found in the lead."
"The commander must know about our mishap," replied Tom, "and isn't apt to blame us for any little delay. The night's still young, and we can reach our destination in half an hour, with time to spare. So cheer up, old comrade; everything's lovely and the goose hangs high. Now we're off!"
With that he gave the word, and paid attention to his motor, which started a merry hum. The propellers commenced to spin, and down the slight slope they ran with constantly increasing speed. All around them could be heard the refrain of planes in action; from above came similar sounds, and Jack, looking up, discovered dim scurrying forms of mysterious shape that flitted across the star-decked sky like giant bats.
Now they, too, were rising swiftly in spirals. Both kept a keen watch, for it was at this time they stood the greatest chance of taking part in an unfortunate collision that might result in a fatal disaster.
But every pilot was on edge, and careful to avoid any such blunder. They had been well drilled in all the maneuvers connected with just such a hurried ascent in numbers. Each plane had its regular orbit of action, and must not overstep the bounds on penalty of the commander's displeasure.
After mounting to the arranged height, the Air Service Boys found that it was a very animated region, though fully a thousand feet from the earth's surface. Almost a dozen planes in all were moving in a great circle, their motors lazily droning, and the pilots ready to enter into squadron formation on signal.
In fact, Tom and his chum were the last to arrive, which under the circumstances was not to be wondered at.
"All on deck, I reckon," called out Jack, after he had taken a survey about him. "There's the signal from the flagship, Tom. We've got to keep the red lantern ahead of us and fall into line. There go the bombers to the center, and our place you said was on the left, tailing the whole bunch."
Like a well disciplined aerial navy they fell into place, each taking its position as previously arranged. When the formation was made complete another signal was given. This meant the advance was now to begin, and the crossing of the German lines undertaken.
Unless there chanced to be some mistake made concerning the proper altitude required, so as to clear all possible bombardment when over the Hun lines, this might be accomplished without danger. So far as was known, they had gauged the utmost capacity for reaching them possessed by the German anti-aircraft guns, and Jack promised himself to jeer at the futile efforts of these gunners to explode their shrapnel shells close to the speeding armada.
Something must have been underrated, however; and, in fact, few plans can be regarded as absolutely perfect. The advancing raiders were passing over the enemy front when a furious bombardment suddenly burst forth below.
Jack could see the spiteful flashes of the numerous guns, and while the sound of the discharges came but faintly to his ears, to his consternation, all around them, as well as above and below, came sharp crackling noises, accompanied by bursts of dazzling light.
They were actually in the midst of a storm of bursting projectiles and in immediate peril of having some damage done to their swift-flying planes such as would spell ruin to the enterprise, perhaps bring instant death to some of the fliers!
STRIKING A BLOW FOR LIBERTY
"Climb, Tom! Climb in a hurry!"
Jack Parmly shrilled these words close to the ear of his chum. Really, there was no need of his saying a single word, since the pilot had sensed their immediate danger just as quickly as had Jack himself. Already Tom was pulling the lever that would point the nose of their aerial craft upward toward the stars, and take them to a much loftier elevation.
The experience was very exciting while it lasted, Jack thought. He saw the numerous planes, forming the raiding squadron break formation in great haste, each pilot being eager to dodge the bursting shells and seek an elevation where they could not reach his flimsy craft.
It would take only one accidental shrapnel shell to cause the destruction of the best machine among them, and thus reduce the number of available airmen serving the cause of liberty.
For a brief interval the explosions continued to sound all around them. But presently Jack was enabled to breathe easily again. They had climbed beyond the range of the German guns, no matter how heavily charged; and, besides this, they sped along rapidly, so that the Hun lines were soon left behind.
"Trouble's past. Admiral signaling keep on this level, Tom!" called out the observer.
"Got you, Jack!" came the answer, heard above the rushing noises that "made the welkin ring," as Jack told himself.
The firing ceased as the German gunners realized, to their chagrin doubtless, that again their intended prey had eluded them. They must have set those anti-aircraft quick-firers of theirs in fresh elevated emplacements after the Yankees had taken the measure of their power to do harm; but the trap, if such it was intended to be, had failed to catch a single victim.
"Did they get any of our crowd?" Tom called out, feeling considerable uneasiness as to the result of the bombardment.
"Never touched us," he was immediately assured by the observant Jack. "All the same it was a smart trick, and somebody's bound to be hauled over the coals on account of the blunder."
"Yes," admitted Tom, speaking loud so as to be heard above the roar of the numerous planes around them, "because it might have played hob with the squadron, and even ruined the success of the whole expedition."
After that they relapsed into silence. It was exceedingly difficult to try to keep up any sort of conversation while going at such a furious pace through the upper air currents. Besides, the night was cold at such an elevation, and consequently both boys had their heads well muffled up, making use of hoods with goggles for the purpose. They also wore gloves on their hands, as well as heavy sweaters under their leather-lined coats.
The formation, in a way, reminded Jack of many a flock of wild geese that he had seen flying north or south over Virginia in their spring and autumn migrations. In the lead went the battleplane containing the squadron commander, forming the apex of the triangle, and showing a fiery red eye in the shape of an automobile rear light as a rallying point for all the other machines.
Then the seven other battleplanes sank away from the apex, three on one side and four on the other, that of the Air Service Boys being the one to the rear of all the rest.
Flying two and two abreast, and guarded on both sides by those sturdy fighting craft came the four huge bombers, each heavily laden with the most destructive of explosives. They, too, could show teeth if cornered and compelled to depend on their own defensive powers; for each of them carried a machine gun, of which the observer had been trained to make good use, just as he must know how to drop his bombs successfully when the proper instant arrived.
All seemed quiet just at present, but none of those guiding the aerial racing craft deceived themselves with the belief that this could last long. It went without saying that the Huns must realize the necessity for guarding the important bridge across which their beaten armies were flocking day and night in constantly increasing numbers. Unless the guns could be taken across in safety, they stood to lose many of their best batteries.
Consequently they would be apt to assemble a flotilla of fighting planes in that vicinity, ready to soar aloft and give furious battle to any Allied squadron venturesome enough to make the attempt at destruction.
If the blowing up of the bridge could only be accomplished, the sacrifice of a few planes with their crews might be counted a cheap price to pay for the great benefits reaped.
The minutes passed, and all the while the raiders were drawing nearer and nearer their intended goal. Every pilot and observer in that squadron had been carefully selected with a view to his fitness for the gigantic task that had been laid out for accomplishment.
There would be no hesitation when the eventful moment came, since none was present save those who had been tried in the furnace of battle and found to be fine gold, eighteen carat pure. Such a thing as flinching when the test came was not to be considered; they would carry through their appointed tasks or fall while in the endeavor, paying the price the airman has ever had dangled before his eyes.
Jack was using his night-glass, and he now broke out with a cry.
"We must be getting close to the bridge, Tom! I can see flickering lights darting about, and I believe they must be planes rushing up into the air!"
"Like as not they've been warned of our coming by the row we're making," replied the pilot, in a shout. "Then again those Huns along the line would send word back, for they must know what we're aiming at. It's all the same to us. We came out after action, and we'd be terribly disappointed if we didn't get a lot of it."
Then came signals from the leading plane. Closer formation was the rule from that time forward, since the bombers must be amply protected in order to allow their gunners an opportunity to get to work with those frightful explosives and hurl them at the place where the bridge was supposed to lie.
Both boys began to feel their pulses thrill with eagerness, as well as excitement. Looking down, Jack could detect moving lights, the source of which he could only speculate upon. Then came a flash which must mark the discharge of the first anti-aircraft gun. The enemy was showing exceeding nervousness, for as yet the leading American plane could not be anywhere within range.
With the burst of shrapnel there came a realization that the gunners below were only trying to get their range. The whole pack would break loose in another minute or less; but Jack had reason to believe their altitude was such as to render the fusillade harmless.
Then down below he saw a sudden brilliant flash. That must mark the falling of a flaming bomb, dropped from one of the big planes in order to get a lead on their location. Jack believed he had even glimpsed the bridge itself in that brief interval. How the prospect thrilled him!
Tom, on his part, had little opportunity to observe anything that was taking place earthward. His duty lay closer at hand, for he knew that a swarm of fighting Gothas had started up to engage the attacking squadron, and realized that one or more of these hostile aircraft might suddenly appear close at hand, bent on bringing about their destruction.
Besides, constant vigilance was the price of safety in other particulars. With almost a dozen of their own planes speeding through space, a false move on the part of a careless pilot was apt to bring about a collision that could have only one result.
Jack made a discovery just then that caused him to cry out.
"The signal, Tom! We are to drop down and give the bombers a better chance to get there. No matter what the cost, we've got to reach that bridge to-night!"
Already Tom was changing the course. They had begun to swing lower, each unit of the attacking squadron in its appointed place. A brief interval followed, and then came the bursting shrapnel again around them, while from several quarters close by hovering German planes commenced using their machine guns, to be answered by the challengers in like manner.
THE BATTLE IN THE AIR
The din soon became general, one after another of the American planes joining in the battle. The German aircraft held off a little, fighting from afar, evidently thinking to accomplish their ends without taking too much risk. Had they boldly assaulted, doubtless the result would have been much more disastrous to both sides.
The big bombers had but one object in view, which was to bomb the important target below. To drop an explosive on a certain spot had been the most important training of those aboard these craft. They had been carefully selected from the ranks of the many observers taking service in the aviation branch of the service; and great things were expected of them now.
The Huns had concentrated the glare of numerous searchlights on the hub of the squadron's activities, so that the speeding planes could be seen darting hither and thither like bats during an August evening, darting around some arc-light in the street.
The flash of the distant guns aboard the planes looked like faint fire-flies in action. No longer was the earth wrapped in darkness, for flares dropped by the bombers kept continually on fire. The bridge stood plainly out, and a keen eye, even without the aid of glasses, could distinguish the rush of terrorized German troopers trying to get clear of the danger zone before a well directed bomb struck home.
Jack, leaning from his seat, took all this in. He was keyed to the top-notch by what he saw and heard. Tame indeed did most other incidents of the past appear when compared with this most stupendous event.
"Wow!" burst from his lips, as a sudden brilliant flash below told that the first huge bomb had struck; but with all that racket going on around of course no ordinary human voice could have been heard.
He could see that it had not been a successful attempt, for the bomb struck the ground at some little distance away from the terminus of the structure spanning the river. However, it did considerable damage where it fell, and created no end of alarm among those who were near by.
As yet the Air Service Boys had not been engaged with any of the hostile planes, though most of the other Yankee pilots seemed to be having their hands full in meeting and repelling fierce attacks.
Both kept in readiness for work should their turn come, Tom manipulating the plane, and Jack working the rapid-fire gun which he had learned to handle so cleverly.
Strangely enough, Jack, as he looked, was reminded of a vast circus which he had once attended, and where tumblers, athletes, and trained animals were all performing in three rings at the same time. He had found it utterly impossible to watch everything that went on, and remembered complaining lustily afterwards in consequence.
Now there were some eleven rings in all, besides what was taking place thousands of feet below, where the bombs had started to burst, tearing great gaps in the ground close to the bridge, and causing the water itself to gush upward like spouting geysers.
Lower still dropped the venturesome pilots guiding the destinies of the four huge bombers. What chances they were taking, bent only on succeeding in the important task to which they had been assigned!
Jack knew he would never forget that dreadful crisis, no matter if he were allowed to live to the age of Methuselah; such an impression did it make upon his mind.
But their turn came at length, for in the dim light two big Gothas were discovered swinging in toward them as though bent on bringing about the destruction of the Yankee battleplane.
Jack forgot about what was taking place below, since all of his energies must now be directed toward beating off this double attack. It had come to the point of self-preservation. The Hun airmen were playing a prearranged game of hunting in couples. While one made a feint at attacking, the other expected to take advantage of an exposure and inflict a fatal blow that would send the American aeroplane whirling to death.
Jack saw when the nearest plane opened fire. The spitting flame told him this, for it darted out like the fiery tongue of a serpent. He also realized that the bullets were cutting through space all around them; and a splinter striking his arm announced the fuselage of the plane had already been struck, showing the gunner had their range.
Then Jack began work on his own account, not meaning to let the fight become one-sided. His duty was to pepper any of the enemy craft that came within range, regardless of consequences. To Tom must be left the entire running of the plane motor, as well as the maneuvering that would form a part of the affray.
Heedless of what was taking place around them, the two chums devoted their attention to the task of baffling the designs of their two foes. Wonderfully well did Tom manage his aerial steed. They swung this way and that, dipped, rose, and cut corners in a dizzying fashion in the endeavor to confuse the aim of the Hun marksmen.
Once Jack experienced a sudden sinking in the region of his heart. There was a strange movement to the plane that made him fear the motor had been struck. He also missed the cheery hum at the same time, and felt a sickening sensation of falling.
But immediately he realized that Tom was only executing his pet drop, the nose-dive. One of the Huns followed them down, just as a hawk-might pursue its prey. When the American plane came out of the dive at the new level Jack saw that the Hun was closer than ever, and once again starting to bombard them.
At least they now had only a single adversary to deal with, which could be reckoned a point gained. Most of the fighting was going on above them, but Jack believed the bombers must be somewhere near by, possibly at a still lower level.
Again the maneuvering, or jockeying, for position commenced. In this air duel the pilot who knew his business best was going to come out ahead. It might be they were opposed by some celebrated German ace with a long list of victories to his credit, which would render their chances smaller.
Tom, however, seemed to be keeping up his end wonderfully well. The hissing missiles cut through the canvas of their wings, beat upon the side of the fuselage, and even nipped the Air Service Boys more than once as they stormed past. Neither of the boys knew whether they were seriously wounded or not; all they could do was to fight on and on, until something definite had been achieved on one side or the other.
Once Jack felt something blinding him, and putting up a hand discovered that it was wet; yet he was not conscious of having been struck in the head by a passing bullet. Dashing his sleeve across his eyes he shut his jaws still tighter together, and continued to play his gun as the opportunity arose.
They were coming to closer quarters, and the issue of the battle, however dreadful the result, could not be much longer delayed, Jack knew.
Then it happened, coming like a flash of lightning from the storm cloud!
BOMBING THE BRIDGE
"Tom, we've done it!" Jack shrieked, when he saw the enemy Gotha plane take a sudden significant dip and flutter downward like a stricken bird.
Evidently a shot more fortunate than any that had preceded it had struck a vital part of the rival craft, putting the motor suddenly out of repair.
When he felt his plane begin to crumple up under him the Hun pilot had commenced to strive frantically to recover control. Jack, horror-stricken by what was happening, leaned over and watched his struggle, which he knew was well nigh hopeless from the beginning.
Still the German ace made a valiant effort to avoid his fate. He could be seen working madly to keep from overturning, but apparently his hour had struck, for the last Jack saw of the beaten Gotha it was turning topsy-turvy, falling like a shooting star attracted to the earth by the law of gravitation.
That affair being over, Jack, breathing hard, now allowed himself to pay some attention to what was going on in other quarters. At the same time he proceeded to introduce a fresh belt of cartridges into the hungry maw of the machine gun, in case they were forced into another engagement.
Above them the battle still raged, though of course Jack could not decide which side might be getting the better of it. His interest focused chiefly on the bombing machines, which he found were now far away, moving along in erratic courses as their pilots strove to get in exact position for a successful blowing up of the bridge.
Jack could count only three of them. Unless the fourth had wandered far afield it looked as though disaster had overtaken its crew. No matter, even such a catastrophe must not deter those remaining from seeking by every means in their power to reach their objective.
Even as he stared downward Jack saw another of those brilliant flashes that proclaimed the bursting of a bomb. He felt a sense of chagrin steal over him, because so far no explosive seemed to have succeeded in attaining the great end sought. The bridge still stood intact, if deserted, for he could catch glimpses of it when the smoke clouds were drifted aside by the night breeze.
Fires were now burning in several quarters, started undoubtedly by some of the bombs that had missed their intended objective. These lighted up the scene and gave it a weird, almost terrifying aspect as witnessed from far above.
All at once Jack saw some bulky object pass between their machine and the ground below. It must be the missing bomber, he concluded, though the realization of the fact made him thrill all over in admiration of the nerve of those who could accept such terrible chances.
Yes, despairing of getting in a telling blow at such a height, the reckless crew of the big Yankee plane had actually dropped down until they could not be more than a thousand feet from the earth. And now they were speeding forward, meaning to test their skill at such close quarters.
Not being able to make Tom hear his voice, Jack gave the other a tug, and so managed to call his attention to what was passing below. Just in time did Tom look, for at that very moment there came another of those amazing brilliant illuminations, and the dull roar greeted their ears a few seconds afterwards.
They saw with staring eyes the air filled with the material that had once constituted the wonderful bridge, across which day and night the retreating Huns were taking their valuable guns and stores. A brief space of time did the scene bear the aspect of chaos, and then, when the smoke cleared sufficiently for them to see, they looked upon a void where the bridge had stood.
Jack fell back appalled, yet quivering with deepest satisfaction. Their raid would be one of triumph, since the main object had now been achieved.
Hardly had he allowed himself to exult after this fashion than Jack discovered that Tom seemed to be greatly agitated. So he once more looked down, filled with a sudden fear lest the gallant fighters in that adventurous bomber had paid dearly for their success.
He immediately saw that his alarm was not groundless. The big Yankee plane must have been struck in some vital part, for it was rapidly sinking as though doomed. Jack's only consolation lay in the fact that the crew seemed to be in better luck than those of the stricken Gotha; for they managed to keep from turning turtle; and unless striking the ground with too great violence might yet come out of the affair alive, even though finding themselves prisoners of war.
Tom was already striking for the upper levels. He saw that the other three bombers had also commenced to climb, since their mission was now carried out, and further risks would be only a needless hazard. Then, too, the crews of the battle Gothas, realizing that they had failed to save the bridge, concluded to withdraw from the combat, leaving the Americans to make their way back to their starting point, victorious and rejoicing.
Yes, there was the signal flashing from the plane of the commander, which meant that the raiding squadron should assemble above the reach of the crackling shrapnel, and prepare in a body for the homeward journey.
A sense of exultation, mingled with sincere thankfulness, gripped the hearts of the two Air Service Boys as they realized that the peril was now really a thing of the past. The homeward trip would be a mere bagatelle, for surely no Huns would venture to attack them while on the way. By exercising good judgment they ought also to keep above the reach of those elevated anti-aircraft guns along the front hills.
Now Jack remembered the temporary blinding sensation. He found on investigating that he had been near a serious accident, since a passing bullet had grazed his head, cutting the skin and causing quite a copious flow of blood.
"What's happened to you?" called out the alarmed Tom, on seeing that the other was binding his handkerchief about his head.
"Another scratch, that's all," replied Jack, as though that were only a matter of course, to be expected when modern knights of the upper air currents sallied forth bent on adventure. "A miss is as good as a mile, you know, Tom. And I guess I have a hard head in the bargain. It's all right, nothing to worry over. Fortunately it didn't strike me in the face, and mar my beauty any."
Jack could joke under almost any serious conditions; but Tom felt relieved to know the worst. They were at the time back again in their appointed place, tailing the procession.
Counting again as best he could, Jack discovered that there were only seven of the battleplanes in the double line now. It looked very much as though the loss of the big bomber was not the only penalty they had paid for their daring raid. But no doubt the story would all be told after the flight was over and the various pilots and observers could get together to compare notes.
Again were they subjected to a bombardment when they sailed over the German front lines; but this time, taking a lesson from their previous experience, they maintained such an altitude that no shrapnel was able to reach them.
Shortly afterward, and one by one, the battered Yankee planes dropped on the open field where the hangars lay, like huge buzzards alighting to satisfy their hunger in an orgy.
The first thing Tom did when he and Jack found themselves again on their feet and the waiting mechanics and hostlers looking after their plane, was to reach out and seize upon his chum's hand.
"We've got good reason to congratulate ourselves on coming through that nasty business so well, Jack," he said earnestly. "If you look at our machine you'll see how near we came a dozen times to cashing in our checks. They knocked us up pretty well, for a fact."
"I should say they did," admitted Jack, as he examined the various marks showing where the Hun bullets had punctured different parts of the wings, or struck the fuselage, narrowly missing both the motor and the partly protected petrol supply tank.
They lingered around for a full hour, there was so much to talk about as they gathered in groups and compared experiences, as well as commented on the possible fate of their fellow aviators who had failed to return.
In spite of the loss incurred, the achievement accomplished was of such a character as to fill them with pardonable pride. No member of that historical night raid, whereby the retreat of the Germans was so badly handicapped by the loss of the big bridge, would ever have cause to blush for his part in the bold undertaking.
Finally the two chums, finding themselves exhausted and in need of sleep, broke away from the chattering throng and sought their bunks in the former Hun dugout. All was now silence around them, the enemy batteries having ceased sending over even occasional shells; and they were able to enjoy a few hours of rest undisturbed by having the roof of their shelter damaged by a chance explosion.
On the following morning the advance was resumed, the same tactics being employed that had met with such success all through the Argonne. Wherever they discovered that machine-gun nests had been placed these were "mopped-up" by surrounding them, and then attacking from the rear, while the attention of the defenders of the stone house, or it might be a windmill foundation, was gripped by a pretense at frontal assault.
Those who had participated in the air raid on the bridge were given a day off, so as to recuperate. They felt that they deserved it, for the destruction of that bridge was apt to be a serious stumbling-block in the path of the retreating Huns, one that might cost them dearly in the way of prisoners and lost artillery.
Jack utilized this opportunity by striving to learn important facts in connection with the matter that was weighing so heavily on his mind. He absented himself from the dugout which the air pilots continued to occupy and which they disliked giving up until assured of some other half-way decent billet in a village that might be abandoned by Fritz when falling back.
Of course Jack had to have his slight wounds attended to, and in order to make sure that he had not neglected this before going off, Tom, during the morning, found it absolutely necessary to wander over to the field hospital, where of course he looked up Nellie.
Really it took almost a full hour for him to make all the inquiries he considered essential; and he might have consumed a still longer time but that there was a call for the nurse's services, and she had to excuse herself.
"Never mind," said Tom grimly to himself, as he made his way back to the old dugout, "it was well worth the walk. And Nellie is looking fine, for a fact. They call her the most popular nurse at the front, and I've heard fellows in plenty say that if ever they got knocked out by Hun bullets they'd want nothing better than to have her take care of them."
He did not find Jack anywhere around when he got back, nor had those he asked seen anything of him since early morning. Of course Tom knew what it was that engaged the attention of his comrade, and he only hoped Jack might not meet with any bad luck in his endeavor to learn something of the movements of his cousin, Randolph Carringford.
Then came the afternoon. From indications Tom fancied that would be their last night in the old dugout. The Huns were still falling back, and word had been going around that by another day the Yankees would undoubtedly occupy the village that lay just beyond the hills where the bursting shrapnel had ascended on the occasion of the passage of the air squadron.
It was about four o'clock when Tom sighted his chum. Jack's face was gloomy, and he lacked his customary sprightliness of walk.
As he came up he tried to smile, but it was a rank failure.
"Well," he said disconsolately, "the very worst has happened, Tom. I've managed to get word after trying for hours, and have learned that my cousin sailed yesterday from Havre. He's beat me to it, and I've lost out!"
"Are you sure about that?" asked Tom, though at the same time realizing that Jack was not the one to give in easily, and must have used every avenue for gaining information before reaching this condition of certainty.
"There's not the slightest reason to doubt it, I tell you, Tom," Jack replied slowly, shaking his head at the same time to emphasize his sorrowful feelings in the matter. "I asked particularly, and the word came that a passenger named Randolph Carringford had sailed yesterday on the La Bretagne for New York."
"Then that point seems settled," admitted Tom, though disliking to acknowledge the fact. "Still, something might happen to prevent his reaching New York City, or Virginia."
"What could stop him, since I'm utterly powerless to do anything?" asked Jack, still unconvinced.
"Well," continued the would-be comforter, "vessels have started out before this and never arrived at their destination. Take the Lusitania for instance. More than ever are the Hun submersibles on the job these critical days, for their commanders know they've almost got to their last gasp."
"No such luck for me, I'm afraid, Tom," sighed the other, quickly adding: "And for that matter I wouldn't want to profit at the expense of the lives of others. So I hope the French boat gets safely past the closed zone, no matter what it costs me personally. But it galls me to feel how helpless I am. If my hands were tied this minute I couldn't be worse off."
"Are you sure cabling would do no good, if we could manage to send an urgent message?"
"Nothing will do except my presence there in person before Randolph can present himself, thanks to our uncle's foolish will that puts a premium on rascality. Yes, it's a bitter pill I have to swallow. I'd do anything under the sun if only I could hope to beat that scheming cousin out! But it's useless; so I'll just have to grin and bear it."
"I wish I had any suggestion to offer," remarked Tom; "but to tell the truth I don't see what you can do but wait and see what happens. We've got our applications for leave in, and some influential friends pulling wires to help us through. Something may turn up at the last minute."
"It's mighty fine of you to say that, though I know you're only trying to keep me from discouragement."
"See who's coming, will you?" suddenly ejaculated Tom.
Even before he looked the other could give a shrewd guess as to the identity of the person approaching, for Tom seemed unduly pleased.
"It's Nellie, as sure as anything," muttered Jack. "I wonder what's brought her over here. You don't imagine anything could have happened to Bessie or Mrs. Gleason—the Huns haven't been trying to bomb any 'Y' huts or hospitals lately, have they, Tom?"
"Not that I've heard," came the ready answer. "And besides, I had the pleasure of chatting with Nellie for a whole hour this morning. You see I got a bit anxious about you; was afraid you'd neglected to step over and get those cuts attended to as you'd promised; so to make sure I wandered across."
"Of course you did!" jeered Jack. "And if that excuse hadn't held water there were plenty more shots in the locker! But never mind; here's Nellie hurrying toward us. Doesn't she look rather serious, Tom?"
"We'll soon know what's in the wind," was the answer, as the pretty Red Cross nurse hastened to join the two boys.
"You didn't expect to see me again so soon, I imagine, Tom," she said as she came up, trying to catch her breath at the same time, for she had evidently hurried.
"No, I must say I didn't dream I'd have that pleasure, Nellie," replied the air pilot, as he took her hand in his and squeezed it. "But something unusual must have brought you all the way over here, I imagine."
"Well, it was, Tom," she told him.
"It isn't safe either," continued Tom, "for you to be abroad. The Huns are likely to begin long range shelling any minute, and the road's a favorite target for their gunners; they've got it's range down fine."
"It isn't about Bessie, I hope?" ventured Jack, still more or less apprehensive.
Nellie looked at him and slightly smiled, for she knew Jack was exceedingly fond of the young girl.
"Bessie is perfectly well," she assured him; "and when I passed the Y hut she and her mother were helping some of the Salvation Army girls make a fresh heap of doughnuts. But my coming does concern you, Jack."
"Please explain what you mean by that?" he begged her, while his face lighted up with interest, showing that for the moment his troubles, lately bearing so heavily upon him, were forgotten.
"I will, and in as few words as possible," she answered, "for my time is limited. I left several cases to be cared for by a nurse who has not had as thorough a training as she might have had, and the responsibility lies with me. But I can give you five minutes before I start back again."
Needless to say Nellie by this time had both boys fairly agog with curiosity, for neither of them could give the slightest guess as to the nature of the news she was bringing.
"You see, they were bringing in a lot of fresh cases," she explained, "for there has been some furious fighting going on this morning, as our boys drove in to chase the Huns out of the village. Among the number of wounded, one man among others fell into my care. His name is Bertrand Hale, and I think both of you know him."
Tom and Jack exchanged looks.
"We have met him many times," said the former; "but I can't say that he has ever been a friend of ours. He's rather a wild harum-scarum sort of chap—I imagine his own worst enemy, for he drinks heavily when he can get it, and spends much of the time in the guard-house. Still, they say he's a fighter, every inch of him, and has done some things worth mentioning."
"I imagine you describe him exactly, Tom," Nellie told him. "Very well, this time he's in a pretty bad way, for he has a number of serious injuries, and, besides has lost his left arm, though it's possible he may pull through if his constitution hasn't been weakened too much through dissipation."
"But what about Bertrand Hale, Nellie? Did he tell you anything that would be of interest to us?" asked Tom.
"I can see that you're beginning to suspect already, Tom," she continued. "For that is exactly what happened. He kept following me with his eyes as I moved around doing my work, after taking care of him. Then he beckoned to me, and asked whether I wasn't a particular friend of Jack Parmly and Tom Raymond.
"Of course I assured him it was so, and with that he looked so very eager that I knew he had a secret to tell me. This is the gist of what he said, boys. Just four days ago he was approached by a man he didn't know, who managed to get some strong drink into his hands, and after Hale had indulged more than he ought made a brazen proposition to him.
"It was to the effect that he was willing to pay a certain sum to have you boys injured so that you would be laid up in the hospital for weeks. He had gained the promise first of all that Bertrand would never say a word about what he meant to tell him.
"Although he admitted that his mind was hardly clear at the time, still Bertrand assured me he had repelled the offer with indignation, and even threatened to beat up his tempter unless he took himself off. The man hurried away, and then in the excitement of the order for his battalion to go over the top, Bertrand Hale forgot all about it.
"From that time on it was nothing but fighting and sleeping for him, so he had no time even to think of warning you. Then he got into the mess this morning that finished him. With that arm gone he's done with fighting, he knows, even if he pulls through.
"It was the sight of me that made him remember, for he said he surely had seen me with one of you boys several times. And so he confessed, begging me to get word to you, so that if the unknown schemer did find a tool to carry out his evil plots you would be on your guard.
"I could not wait after hearing that, but came as fast as I could, fearing you might have set out again and that something would go wrong with your plane. That is the story simply told, Tom. Can you guess why any one should wish to do either of you such a wrong as that?"
"What you tell us, Nellie," said Tom soberly, "clears up one mystery we've been puzzling over."
Then he rapidly sketched what they had discovered on the preceding night, when they had arrived at the hangar prepared to go forth with the raiders, only to learn that some unknown person had been meddling with their plane.
"So it looks as if Bertrand's refusal to play the dirty game didn't prevent that man from finding some one who was willing to sell his soul for money," was the way Tom wound up his short story.
Nellie was appalled. Her pretty face took on an expression of deepest anxiety, showing how much she cared should ill-fortune attend these good friends of hers.
"How can such wickedness exist when war had made so many heroes among our boys?" she mourned. "But you must be doubly on your guard, both of you. Tell me, can you guess why this unknown person should want to injure you?"
"Simply to keep me from setting out for America," said Jack bitterly. "Let me describe my cousin Randolph to you, Nellie; and then tell me if what Bertrand said about the unknown man would correspond to his looks."
After she had heard his accurate description Nellie nodded her head.
"He saw very little of his face, so he said. Bertrand only said the other was a man of medium build, with a soft voice that made him think of silk and then too he had a trick of making gestures with his left hand, just as you've said your cousin does. Yes, something tells me your guess is close to the mark; but he must be a very wicked man to attempt such a dreadful thing."
"Worse than I ever thought," admitted Jack grimly. "But after all nothing came of his lovely scheme; nor did it matter, since he's given me the slip, and is right now almost a third of the way across the sea. I'm like a race-horse left at the post."
"Whatever you do, Jack, don't lose the fine courage that has been your mainstay through other troubles," Nellie said, as she laid a hand on his arm and looked steadfastly into the young air-pilot's face.
"Thank you, Nellie, for your confidence in me," he continued, showing some of his old spirit again. "I ought to be ashamed to give in so easily. Yes, Tom and I have been in plenty of bad scrapes, and pulled out just because we set our teeth and refused to admit we were down and out. So I'm going to try the same dodge in this case, and not acknowledge defeat until the ninth inning is through, and the last man down."
"Good-bye, both of you, and remember, no matter what comes some of us are always thinking of you and praying for your safety."
With these words, long remembered by both boys, Nellie gave each of them her hand, and hurried away before they could see how her eyes dimmed with the gathering mists.
"A brave girl," said Tom, with considerable vigor, as he tenderly watched her retreating figure and waved his hand when he saw her turn to blow a farewell kiss in their direction.
"Yes," said Jack, heaving a sigh. "She and Bessie seem to be our good angels in this bad mess of war, Tom. I feel better after hearing her words of encouragement; but all the same I'm still groping in the dark. How am I going to beat Randolph across the Atlantic? For once I wish I had wings, and might fly across the sea like a bird. How quickly I'd make the start."
GROPING FOR LIGHT
Tom realized that for once his chum was completely broken up, and hardly knew which way to turn for help. This told him that if anything were done to relieve the desperate situation it would have to originate with him.