THE BIG FIVE MOTORCYCLE BOYS ON THE BATTLE LINE
With the Allies in France
"The Big Five Motorcycle Boys Under Fire," "The Big Five Motorcycle Boys at the Front," "The Big Five Motorcycle Boys' Swift Road Chase," "The Big Five Motorcycle Boys in Tennessee Wilds," "The Big Five Motorcycle Boys Through by Wireless," "The Big Five Motorcycle Boys on Florida Trails."
A. L. Burt Company New York.
Copyright, 1916 By A. L. Burt Company
THE BIG FIVE MOTORCYCLE BOYS ON THE BATTLE LINE
THE BIG FIVE MOTORCYCLE BOYS ON THE BATTLE LINE.
ON THE STREETS OF ANTWERP.
"Good-bye, Elmer, and you, too, Rooster!"
"It's too bad we have to hurry home, and break up the Big Five Motorcycle Boys' combination, just when we've been having such royal good times over in the country of the Great War!"
"But there was nothing else to do, Elmer, when you got that cable message telling you to take the first steamer home, as your mother was about to undergo an operation, and wanted to see you first."
"And Rooster here chose to go along with you, because he's got such a tender chicken heart he just hates to see all the misery and suffering these poor Belgians are enduring."
"There's the last call to go ashore. Come along, Josh, and you too, Hanky Panky. Boys, to be honest with you I more than half wish I was going along. Home would look mighty fine to me just now."
"Oh! shucks! you'll soon get over that feeling, Rod," said the lanky boy called Josh, taking the alarm at once, for he seemed perfectly contented to stay where he was; "just wait till we're spinning along on our bully machines down through Ostend, Dunkirk, and Calais to Boulogne, where we may take a steamer to the U. S. if we can find berths."
"Be sure to keep a regular daily log of your happenings, Josh, so we can look it over when you get back home," begged the boy who went by the strange nick-name of "Rooster," doubtless because he crowed so much over his accomplishments.
"Good-bye, and good luck!" called out Elmer, waving his hand again.
"Remember us to everybody in Garland, particularly all the pretty girls!" shouted Hanky Panky, after the last exchange of handshakes, when with his two chums, Rod and Josh, he hurried down the gang-plank to the dock.
The steamer for London was leaving its Antwerp pier, and all seemed excitement. Many people were already fleeing madly from Belgium, now partly overrun by the vast invading army of the German Kaiser. At any day Antwerp was likely to be bombarded by the tremendous forty-two centimetre guns that had reduced the steel-domed forts at Liege and Namur, and allowed the conquering hosts entrance to Brussels.
While the trio on the dock continued to frantically return the salutes of their two chums as long as they could distinguish their figures on the hurricane deck of the staunch steamer bound down the Scheldt, a few brief explanations might not come in amiss. Possibly some of those who start to read this book may not have had the pleasure of meeting Rod and his four friends in previous volumes of this series.
The boys who wore the khaki lived in the enterprising town of Garland across the water in the States. How they came by the fine motorcycles they owned would be too long a story to narrate here, and those who are curious about the circumstances must be referred to earlier stories for the details.
They called their organization the Big Five because they planned to carry out numerous enterprises that might have daunted less courageous spirits. Rod Bradley was really the leader, though Elmer Overton, the Southern boy, often proved himself a good second.
Then there were Henry Jucklin, known to all his mates as "Hanky Panky" because of his skill as a magician; Josh Whitcomb, with a bit of the Yankee in his composition; and Christopher Boggs, otherwise "Rooster."
They had covered many thousands of miles with those wonderful steel steeds, and met with some surprising adventures up to the time when an opportunity arose allowing them to go abroad. A wealthy old gentleman of their town, who knew their calibre well, had given them an important errand to carry out, and stood responsible for their expenses to the other side of the Atlantic.
Coming leisurely down the Rhine country they had been suddenly caught by the war tide; and as it was in Antwerp that Rod expected to meet the party he sought they had to strike out boldly for that far-distant city.
Strange happenings had marked their course through the war-stricken country of Belgium. Indeed, several times it looked very much as though they would never attain their goal, but might be sent back as prisoners of war to Germany.
Of course, their sympathies were mainly with the Allies, and particularly after they had seen with their own eyes how the poor Belgians, fighting heroically to defend their native land, were being cowed by the seemingly limitless legions of the Kaiser.
But in the end they reached Antwerp, and had about decided to make a run down the coast to Boulogne, where they might take a steamer home, when that fatal cable message upset their plans.
Elmer and Rooster would not hear of the others accompanying them home. Josh, too, was really wild to see more of the great war. So finally Rod, finding that Hanky Panky seemed of the same mind, consented to stay over for a week or two longer.
Now that their two chums had left them the boys wandered about the city on the Scheldt and tried to amuse themselves as best they could. But they soon found that ordinary sights no longer availed to satisfy them.
"You see, the war fills the air wherever you go," explained Josh, to account for this seeming lack of interest. "What does anybody want to go snooping into things that had to do with battles of centuries ago, when the biggest war the world ever knew is raging right now through Northern France and Belgium?"
"Yes, with Great Britain dragged in, and perhaps Italy and other countries to follow, not even excepting our own land," added Rod, seriously.
"Why," spoke up Hanky Panky, excitedly, "everywhere you look you see signs of the war game right here in Antwerp. Soldiers are marching through the streets to the cheers of the people. Artillery is dashing this way and that. Armored cars can be seen starting out to harry the enemy with their Maxims. And hardly an hour of the day but half a dozen British or Belgian aeroplanes soar above us, doing all kinds of stunts calculated to make your hair stand on end."
"It's the greatest thing that ever happened, barring none," declared the delighted Josh, looking as though he could almost hug himself, such was his joy; "and let me tell you we're the lucky boys to be on the spot when history is being made so fast."
"The party I'm to see for Mr. Amos Tucker," remarked Rod, "will be in the city to-night. I'll get that out of my system; and once I send the documents by registered post I'm free for anything that crops up."
"Hurrah! then we'll have a chance to climb aboard our wheels again, and strike out for France!" said Josh. "Here's hoping we may run across a corner of the big fight that's taking place north of Paris. I'd be a happy fellow if I could actually see those brave Frenchmen, backed up by the British troops, meet the boastful Germans who believe they can clean up the whole world."
Rod shrugged his shoulders, and made a wry face.
"We've already seen something of a battle from a distance, you remember, Josh," he told the other, "and all of us decided that it was simply terrible. For my part, while I'd like to see the French in action I'm not going out of my way to take chances. The way they fill the air with deadly missiles from quick-firers and with bursting shrapnel gives you a cold feeling."
"Rod," said Hanky Panky, who somehow had not been taking part in this talk, "do turn and watch that poor little woman over there. She's in a peck of trouble, I reckon, by the way she acts, first looking at a paper she's been reading, and then wiping her eyes with her apron."
"You mean the one with the dog team, and the tall, brass-mounted milk cans, don't you, Hanky Panky?" asked Josh quickly. "I saw her a while ago, and heard her speak to the little child in wooden sabots that is tagging at her heels. It was pure French she used, and I'd wager a cookey she isn't a Belgian at all. There are lots of people from northern France in Antwerp, you know."
"Well, she's having a hard time of it, some way or other," added Hanky Panky. "You can see her hug and kiss the little girl, and then read her letter again. Now she looks around as if wondering where she can find a friend. Say, Rod, you can speak French right well; what's to hinder our finding out what the matter is? Everybody in Antwerp is too excited about the war to bother over a little thing like a poor French woman's troubles."
Thus appealed to Rod laughed good-naturedly, and then led the way straight toward the spot where the owner of the dog team stood. Evidently she was on her rounds delivering fresh milk, when overtaken by bad news.
When Rod addressed her in her native tongue she looked up appealingly. Evidently she must have liked the appearance of the three frank-looking American boys, for she quickly commenced to talk volubly, all the while shrugging her shoulders, and emphasizing her words with gestures and face expressions.
The other boys could see that she was comparatively young, and not bad looking. As for the child, they were greatly smitten with her pink cheeks and big black eyes, as well as the coy glances the little thing gave them.
Presently Rod was seen to be reading a letter she handed him, and which she may have taken from the mail while on her milk route. Again Rod conversed with her, greatly to the mystification of his comrades, who thought he would never stop.
Finally Rod turned toward them.
"For goodness' sake tell us what it all means, Rod!" urged Hanky Panky.
"Yes; has her landlord threatened to turn her out unless she can pay the rent, and ought we put up our spare cash to help settle the bill?" demanded Josh.
"Oh! it's a thousand times more serious than that," said Rod, which remark, of course, aroused the curiosity of his chums more than ever.
"Get some speed on then, Rod, and give us the gist of the business," said Hanky Panky appealingly; "of course there's a heap of trouble in the old city just now, but when a case pokes right out in front of you it's hard to pass by. If we could help the little French woman and her pretty child, why, we ought to wake up and do something."
"Wait till you hear how the thing stands before you get so rash," warned Rod, who knew only too well the hasty ways of his two chums. "This little woman's name is Jeanne D'Aubrey. Her husband is a French reservist named Andre. He was called to the colors as soon as the war broke out, leaving her here in Antwerp with her little daughter, and a living to make from her few cows."
"But what was the paper you read, Rod?" asked impatient Josh.
"I'm coming to that," the other told him; "it is a very important letter she has just received from a law firm in Paris, informing herself and husband that an old uncle, Jasper, has died some time since, leaving his estate to Andre on condition that he sign a certain document within a given time. It now lacks just three weeks of the limit, and unless his signature is properly placed there, and witnessed by three reliable people, the property will go to another nephew, one Jules Baggott by name, who has long hoped to inherit it."
"Great Scott! that is tough, I should say!" ejaculated Josh.
"And her husband away at the French war front, perhaps shot long before now in the bargain," muttered Hanky Panky soberly; "because we've heard that there's been bloody fighting all along the line between the French border and in front of Paris, where General Von Kluck's German army is already pressing."
"You can't wonder then that the poor little woman is overcome with the terrible trouble that has fallen on her," explained Rod. "Once that document is properly signed and she would be fixed for life, no matter what happened to her soldier husband. But she hardly knows what to do. It is utterly out of the question for her to try and find him; and she doesn't know any person reliable enough in Antwerp to trust them with the precious papers. You see, this other cousin, Jules, is here in town, for she has even had him call upon her lately; and she now believes he knows of his uncle's will, so that he might try to keep the messenger from ever meeting Andre!"
Rod paused just there. Perhaps he knew his auditors so well that he really anticipated what the effect would be upon both Josh and Hanky Panky. The pair looked at the French woman, who was observing them with such an eager, hungry expression on her face. She wrung her hands piteously just then, as though she saw the one chance to gain a little fortune for herself and child slipping away for lack of a brave champion who would undertake the task of finding her Andre.
That was the finishing stroke. Josh had been hesitating, wondering whether he ought to make a suggestion that, springing from his generous heart, was already trembling on his lips.
"Rod!" he exclaimed, with boyish animation.
"Yes, what is it, Josh?" asked the other, encouragingly, for just then the child had shot him a roguish, pathetic glance that went straight to his heart.
"Why, I was going to say we've managed to carry out a lot of things before now that looked as hopeless as searching for a needle in a haystack. Rod, we might stand a chance of finding this same Andre, if you thought it was up to us to deliver the goods!"
Hanky Panky uttered a snort as he expressed his opinion.
"I move we undertake the mission," he remarked eagerly; "I'd never sleep decent again if we left this poor little woman in the lurch after she'd told us her story. Rod, shut your eyes and make it unanimous! The Motorcycle Boys in the saddle again!"
A CHANGE OF PLANS.
Rod's hesitation was of brief duration. He saw that both his comrades were fairly wild to go. Josh in particular seemed to look upon this chance to see some more of the fighting taking place between the hostile armies as arranged especially to suit his fancy.
"All right, then," said Rod finally, "let's see what's to be done. If she can put certain facts in our possession, so that we'd stand a chance of finding Andre in the army of General Joffre, we might undertake the task. It'd be hard to refuse, with that little darling of a girl in such great need."
"Bully for you, Rod!" exclaimed Josh; "I knew you'd come to time right handsomely. We'll likely see something of the fierce battles that are raging every day in northern France as the Germans drive the Allies back mile after mile, aiming to take Paris, and end the war with a rush!"
Apparently Josh had been dreaming of something along these lines, and the opportunity to gratify his ambition took him by storm.
Rod again turned to the French woman and started to converse with her once more. How her face did light up when she learned that these brave American boys had decided to lend her their aid, and try to find her absent soldier husband among the legions of patriots defending the beloved Paris.
Hanky Panky and Josh could understand very little of what was said, but by watching the expressive face and motions of Jeanne they were able to translate much of her explanations.
"She has told me where her humble home is," explained Rod finally, "and this very night we will visit her to hear further particulars, and receive the document which was enclosed in the letter from the French law firm in Paris."
"And then?" asked Josh breathlessly.
"Perhaps to-morrow we can start away from here and head south, to cross the border line, and enter France," he was told.
"But not to go as far as Boulogne, eh, Rod?" questioned Hanky Panky.
"No, for that would take us out of our way," the other continued. "After we get to Calais we will have to strike direct for Paris; that is unless we learn that one of the numerous German armies has cut across the road, blocking our way. In that event we will have to shape our plans over again. But there's no use crossing a bridge until you come to it, so don't let's worry."
He once more spoke to the little woman, whose face was now beaming with gratitude. She seized the boy's hand and actually kissed it before Rod had a chance to snatch it away. The act made him flush with confusion, especially since Josh was chuckling in his clumsy way. But one thing was sure, Jeanne considered their crossing her path at the time she needed a friend more than ever before in all her life as a most fortunate thing.
So the boys walked away.
"Just to think what a wonderful change has come about inside of half an hour," remarked the delighted Josh. "We had it all arranged for a little spin down the coast, and then embarking at Boulogne for America. Now we're planning to strike out to that region where a million German soldiers are striking hard blows at the lines of the Allies, and meaning to capture Paris. Why, I'm tickled half to death at the idea of seeing some more thrilling pictures of the Great World War."
Josh and Hanky Panky could talk of little else during the balance of that day. Rod seemed very quiet, and it was evident that he foresaw they would have dangerous work laid out for them, which might try their boldness as few things had ever done before.
"Listen," he told the others at one time, when they were discussing the possibilities of the future; "perhaps neither of you happened to notice a man with a French look who stood by a stoop further along the narrow street, and kept watching us all the time I was talking to the woman. Since then it's struck me that perhaps he may have been the other cousin she spoke of, Jules Baggott, and that he was guessing how the wind lay when he saw me read the paper, and watched her kiss my hand."
"Whoop!" ejaculated the impulsive Josh immediately, "that would mean trouble with a big T, wouldn't it, Rod?"
"If he concluded that we were going to find her husband, providing Andre hadn't already been killed in the fighting," Rod went on to explain, "I should imagine this Jules would go to some trouble to stop us, and get the paper away. You can see what it would mean to him if we failed to make connections."
Many times during the balance of that afternoon Josh and Hanky Panky referred to the business which they were about to undertake. In fact it seemed as though both boys enjoyed the idea of again drawing near the fighting line, and witnessing some of the amazing events taking place there in this modern war. History was being made every day, and the thought of being actual witnesses of these grand undertakings thrilled them as nothing else could have done.
Frequently either one or the other imagined they were being followed; and a dozen times some innocent citizen was suspected of being the skulking Jules. If the French cousin of Andre actually had them shadowed it was done so skilfully that none of the boys were any the wiser.
After supper that night they sallied forth. Rod took extra precautions to dodge the main exit of the hotel at which they were quartered; if a spy waited there to keep tabs on their movements he meant the fellow should have his trouble for nothing.
They found the home of the French woman. It was, of course, an humble abode, but as neat as a pin. Rod again entered into a fervent conversation, and from time to time stopped to explain to his chums what the burden of the talk might be.
In the end Jeanne entrusted him with the precious paper, which, once signed by her husband, with the names of competent witnesses also inscribed according to law, would mean a competency for herself and child the balance of their lives, whether Andre ever came home from the war or not.
Rod was very cautious in making his way back to the hotel. He avoided all dark streets, and warned his chums to keep a bright lookout for skulking figures. Nothing out of the way happened, however, and they reached their hotel in safety. For once Josh evinced little desire to stop and watch some of the stirring scenes which were to be met with in all the principal thoroughfares of Antwerp during those days and nights when the shadow of the German mailed fist hung over the heads of the dauntless Belgian nation.
Down at the hotel Rod found the gentleman waiting for him with whom Amos Tucker, far away in America, had business connections of vast importance which he had entrusted to Rod to carry through.
This was finally accomplished, and after Rod made sure that everything had been completed in a satisfactory fashion, he entrusted the papers to the mail to be carried duly to Mr. Tucker, guarded by registry and every possible means against loss in transit.
"There; I feel as if I had a big load off my shoulders," said the boy as he once more joined his two chums, who had spent the hour talking over the immediate future, and what amazing things it might have in store for them.
All of them were tired, for they had been up early that August day, and every hour had been crammed with excitement. Accordingly it was decided that they had better retire without further delay, and get what sleep they could.
"There's no telling what sort of a bed we may have to-morrow night," Rod warned the others; "so make the most of it while you have a soft mattress under you. The ground is pretty hard, sometimes, you know, because often we've tried it, and may have to again."
Both the others only laughed, as though they were so well pleased with the opportunity crossing their path so unexpectedly that they could not find any fault, no matter how things turned.
When another day dawned they busied themselves in getting breakfast, settling their account, and then securing their motorcycles, which had been well taken care of during their stay in Antwerp. Such valuable wheels might have been commandeered by the authorities for use in the army, only that Rod chanced to carry a few lines actually signed by King Albert and which had been placed in his hands by the dauntless Belgian monarch himself, which warned all concerned that nothing belonging to the American boys was to be touched, as they had shown their friendship for Belgium in numerous ways.
Rod was careful enough to make sure that all of them carried a plentiful supply of the necessary petrol, for he realized how difficult it would likely be to secure any of this liquid fuel, since every gallon was being seized for the use of the multitude of lorries and cars employed for transportation purposes by the armies in the field.
It was about nine in the morning when they were ready to start. The early September day was a fair one, though promising more or less heat before noon came and went. Rod led the way, and they soon left the big bustling city on the Scheldt behind them. A splendid road invited an increase of speed, and presently they were booming along right merrily.
How delightfully cheery did the rapid clatter of the exhausts sound to their ears, after having been deprived of this familiar company for days at a stretch, since abandoning their machines at the home of a woman market gardener, who had later on brought them to the city, concealed under a load of produce.
They kept as close together as safety allowed, with Rod as usual in the lead. Well did the other two know they could always depend on him to steer them aright. Rod carried a little map of the country with him. Besides, he had studied it so thoroughly that in most cases he could tell the lay of the land without consulting the chart.
"This is the life!" called Hanky Panky, who brought up the rear, squatted in his saddle something after the manner of a huge toad; for Hanky had a peculiar "style" of his own, entirely original, which he claimed to have as many good points as a horse jockey's method of riding on the neck of his mount.
"Pity our two poor chums who had to set out for home so early!" added Josh, who was in a sense fairly hugging himself on account of the wonderful possibilities for excitement looming up above the horizon just then.
"Well, their machines went with them," said Rod over his shoulder, "and they say 'where ignorance is bliss 'tis a folly to be wise.' Right now they may be over in England, pitying us for being left behind in the land of the Great War."
"This is a hunky-dory road, all right!" ventured Hanky Panky shortly afterward. "Why, we seem to be gliding along as smoothly as if on a parlor floor. We could go twice as fast, if we wanted to."
"No need of that," said Rod, hearing the remark, which was, however, intended only for Josh; "we'll pass through Ostend and Dunkirk, reaching Calais in short order. Then, like as not, we'll have to spend the rest of the day there, and to-night in the bargain."
"Shucks! what's the use of all that, Rod?" demanded Josh, for he was fairly wild to get near the firing line again, and witness more of those wonderful sights that had thrilled him to the bone a short time back.
"We'll have to give an account of ourselves, most likely, and get written permission to go into France," he was told.
"Say, fellows," called out Hanky Panky just then, "there's a car whirling along right now in a cloud of dust, with two men aboard. Wouldn't it be a joke on us if that was the Jules Baggott the woman spoke of, and that he was chasing after us, bent on making us give up the paper she entrusted to Rod here?"
Of course when Hanky Panky made this astonishing statement both his chums commenced to send anxious glances back along the road over which they were spinning so grandly.
"What d'ye think of it, Rod?" demanded Josh quickly.
"They act as if they meant to overtake us, all right," the boy in the van declared, without hesitation; "but I couldn't say for certain whether one of them is the scheming Jules or not. You remember I only thought I had a glimpse of him at the time we talked with Jeanne on the Antwerp street."
"Shall we let them come up, and have it out?" questioned Josh belligerently, for Josh was something of a fighter in his way, and always had a "chip on his shoulder."
"We are looking for no scrap, if it can be helped," said Rod; "so first of all we can try letting out a little more speed."
"And if they follow suit, then what?" asked Hanky Panky, with a vein of anxiety in his voice; for being in the rear he imagined he would necessarily be the target for any stray leaden missiles that might come that way.
"In the first place we'll feel pretty certain they're meaning to overtake us," Rod called back, as he increased his pace considerably, an easy thing to do, although he knew the danger of going at headlong speed over an unknown road, where at any minute they might rush upon a hay-wagon blocking the whole thoroughfare, and concealed by some bend.
"Well, they've let out another notch, all right!" called Hanky Panky, from his position in the rear.
"And believe me that's some racer of a car they're running!" exploded Josh; "why, it can give us a run for our money, try as we may to get away."
Rod had already discovered this, though saying nothing as yet. He knew that it was not safe to put Hanky Panky to a severe test, for the other was apt to get a little rattled, and while going at a mad pace any sort of accident was likely to be serious.
They continued to speed along at this merry clip for a brief time longer. Then the rear guard reported that the pursuing car seemed to be holding its own.
"Hadn't we ought to go faster, Rod?" he besought the leader; "I know you're only holding in on account of me, but forget that, won't you?"
But Rod knew better than that. He was aware of his chum's failing, and dared not risk too much. There had been times in the past when he allowed the limit of speed to be taken, but always with serious misgivings.
"Leave it to me, Hanky," he called out encouragingly; "I'll fix up a game that will cook their goose for them."
"Sure you will, Rod," replied the other at the top of his voice, for the trio of machines made considerable racket as they pushed along in close formation.
Sometimes the dust raised by their passage completely hid the pursuing red car; then a little puff of wind would waft it away, so that the motorcycle boys could easily see the object of their concern.
Past humble homes of the Belgian peasants they rushed. Ducks and chickens and dogs had to get out of the way in great style in order to avoid being run over. This was one of the things Rod had in mind when deciding not to increase their speed any further; a squawking hen has been the cause of a "spill" with many an unlucky motorcyclist; and every one has noticed how persistently "Biddy" will try to cross the road despite the peril, if her home happens to be on the other side.
Rod no longer entertained any doubts concerning the identity of those who occupied the red racing car. One of them he felt positive must be Jules Baggott, the unscrupulous cousin of Andre, who would profit if the soldier should never live to sign the papers which were mentioned in the will of the dead uncle.
By this time Rod had his fighting blood up. Opposition always made him the more determined to accomplish his ends, when his heart was back of the undertaking.
His active mind quickly grasped the situation, and a cleverly arranged plan was formed that gave promise of success.
"Josh, can you hear me?" he called out, not daring to look back now because at the time they were negotiating several sharp turns, and his attention was required at the front.
"Easy thing!" sang out the one just behind him.
"How about you, Hanky?" continued the leader.
"I get you O. K., Rod; let her go!" came the reply in a roar.
"If we can only coax them to leave their car for a short time," explained Rod, "Josh might disable it in some way, so the pursuit would come to an end!"
"A bully scheme, Rod, and don't you forget that you said Josh was going to be Johnny on the spot!" the party in question bellowed exultantly.
"There's a big house ahead of us," continued Rod, "for I've had several glimpses of the same, and we'll strike it shortly. I don't know why I think we'll find it deserted, but it has that look to me. One end seems to have been burned out. Well, that might be the place we're looking for, to give our pursuers the slip."
"Oh! I see the house right now," barked Josh; "and sure enough it's just as you said, with part of the roof gone."
"It sets near the road, so we can rush around it," called out the leader. "Josh will go on ahead now and hide his machine among the trees near the road. Hanky, you keep with me. Perhaps we'll enter the house, and pass out the back way, to speed on again. Josh, you hurry back so when the men leave their car to see if you're inside the house you can get busy. Understand?"
Both of the others called out that it was perfectly clear to them. The abandoned mansion was now close at hand. Rod believed they must be drawing near the outskirts of Ostend, the Belgian watering place, which could not lie many miles beyond.
It required a clever mind to arrange all the little details of such a plan of campaign in a hurry. The fact that Rod was able to do so stamped him the right kind of a leader. Still, neither of his companions thought it strange, because they had known him to do numerous similar things in times gone by.
Josh managed to get ahead, and would thus have a brief time to hide his machine alongside the road so as to steal back towards the house before the car arrived, for it was still some little distance away.
When the men in it saw only two boys riding off they would naturally suspect that some accident had happened to the machine of the third fellow, who possibly had taken up temporary quarters in the old house. This was just what Rod wanted them to think; it would allow Josh the chance he needed to disable the car in some way or other.
Things moved along swiftly. Rod and Hanky Panky dashed up to the front of the house and stopped. Doubtless the oncoming pursuers would miss the clattering of the exhausts, and understand that they had halted for some purpose or other.
"They've slowed down some themselves, Rod!" cried Hanky Panky, as he stood "at attention," ready to jump on his machine the instant Rod gave the word, so as to continue the mad flight.
The red car had come around the last bend, and was now in plain sight. For a distance of at least two miles the road ran as straight as a yard stick; so that the men could readily see that the third motorcycle lad was not in sight ahead.
"All right; it's time we were off!" cried Rod presently.
The car had covered half the distance between the bend and the deserted house, and they could plainly see the man sitting alongside the chauffeur leaning forward, as though eagerly scrutinizing them. Rod imagined he was a little taken aback by their halting, and was trying to puzzle it out.
Suddenly the popping of the exhausts announced that the two motorcycles were once more in action. Both boys sprang into the saddle and away they went down the dusty road. As they were in plain sight the men could readily see that one of the trio was missing. And it would be most natural to imagine that something had happened to his machine, so that he must have taken temporary refuge in the abandoned house, while his comrades continued their flight.
Would the man they believed to be the plotting Jules stop, and with his assistant rush into the house to look for the missing boy? Much depended on his actions, for if the chauffeur remained with the car, Josh, lying in wait near by, might be utterly unable to accomplish the design he had in view.
Rod had high hopes. He could figure that Jules would want to make sure the third American boy did not have the paper on his person, before speeding after the two whom he could see going leisurely down the road, as if inviting pursuit.
As their pace was now less swift Rod was able to turn again and again and look backward. Hanky Panky was doing the same, though his machine did wabble more or less, and he had to be exceedingly careful not to land in the ditch alongside the fine road.
It was a moment of considerable suspense to both boys. They saw the car approach the house, and noted with more or less interest that its pace was lessening. That began to look as though the bait had taken, and Jules meant to make sure of the "bird in the hand," before trying for those in the bush.
"Rod, they're stopping, as sure as you live!" yelled Hanky Panky in great excitement just then.
"Yes, and there they both jump out; steady, Hanky, don't lose your head!" warned the leader, noticing how the other's machine wavered.
JOSH DOES HIS LITTLE TRICK.
Meanwhile Josh had carried out the preliminary part of his share in the plot to the best of his ability. Rushing ahead of his chums he had succeeded in concealing his motorcycle amidst the bushes skirting the road, just a little distance beyond the house.
His heart was beating like a triphammer as he turned, once this had been done, to discover whether the men in the pursuing car had come in sight so as to notice what he was doing.
"Everything is lovely, and the goose hangs high!" Josh muttered in apparent glee, when he found that this was not the case.
His two chums had by this time halted at the door of the house, and it even looked as though they might be saying something to some one inside. Of course Josh understood that this was part of the plan intended to deceive the men.
He was already making his way back toward the house, bending low so that no one might see his shoulders above the bushes, which grew in profusion just there, as if on purpose to further his designs.
Then came the rapid pulsations of the engines, as Rod and Hanky Panky got going again. The car must be in sight, coming swinging along, with both men keenly observant of all that was taking place.
Still Josh continued to creep forward. He wished to be as close to the building as possible when the car stopped, as he felt sure would be the case. Probably the men would not linger long, once they had rushed inside and taken a look around. Not finding him there they would be likely to "tumble to the game," as Josh put it, and hasten outside again in order to avoid any backset to their pursuit of the shrewd American motorcycle boys.
When the car did stop Josh was only a dozen paces away. The friendly bushes allowed him to lie there unseen, while at the same time he could catch glimpses of those in whom he had such great interest.
"Shucks! I do believe the chauffeur is meaning to stick by the car," he whispered to himself indignantly, only to hastily add in a gratified way: "No he isn't either, for there he jumps out after Jules, who is already bolting inside. Now's my chance, if ever I expect to get one! Here goes, then!"
With the last words Josh was hurrying through the bushes as fast as he could make time. Of course his pulses were thrilled with the sense of responsibility that rested upon his shoulders. Would one of the men come out unexpectedly, and catch him busy with the car? Josh hoped not; at the same time he had his mind made up just what he meant to do under such conditions.
If either or both of his chums happened to be looking back just then they must have seen him there, for he had by now attained his goal, and was alongside the red racer.
Josh flitted from one side of the car to the other. He seemed to be working with all the vim of which he was capable, and every time he made a movement it was accompanied by a strange sighing sound, as though some restrained captive hailed freedom in a joyous fashion.
After all Josh was not detained there more than a couple of minutes, though it may have seemed much longer to the anxious lad, for his heart beat so tumultuously that it really threatened to smother him.
He could constantly hear the men inside the house moving hastily about, and calling to one another in French. Evidently they were wondering where the missing boy as well as his machine could be hidden. They might at any instant begin to suspect that a clever trick had been played upon them, and come rushing forth to protect their own car, upon which the continuance of the pursuit depended wholly.
At last Josh seemed to have finished his work, whatever it may have been, for he turned away from the car and started to run. He took to the road, meaning to reach the spot where his motorcycle lay hidden in the bushes. Given just enough time to arrive and lay hands on the precious machine Josh felt sure he could laugh at any effort on the part of the men to overtake him.
Just as he came close to the hiding place of the wheel he heard a loud shout from the rear. This announced that his presence had been discovered by one or both of the Frenchmen. Of course their first thought would be to leap into the car and try to speed after him. Josh chuckled with fiendish glee as he contemplated their disgust when they found that no matter how hard they tried they could not coax the red racer to make the first move.
He could hear them roaring as he dragged his machine out on the road. One look back was sufficient to show him how matters stood. Both men were tumbling out of the stalled car, wild to make a hasty examination in order to discover why it would not move an inch, though the engine was throbbing away tumultuously all the while, just as they had left it.
"The crack I gave that self-starter rod bent it, and placed it out of commission, all right," Josh exclaimed, as he drew his machine to the middle of the road, and deliberately prepared to follow after his chums; "but that was only a beginning; the worst is yet to come when they look around."
Louder came the angry shouts from the direction of the house. The men must have learned the full nature of their troubles. Josh saw them starting toward him as if under the impression that he would be silly enough to await their coming.
"Not for Joseph; not if he knows it!" he called out, as he turned on the current, and immediately commenced to spin along the roadway.
There was a sudden spiteful crack from the rear, and Josh ducked his head involuntarily as he heard some object whistle past close to his ears.
"Wow! they're trying to wing me, for a fact!" he whooped, at the same time bending low in his saddle, so as to present as little body surface as possible to the aim of the one who was doing the firing.
Several more shots rang out, sounding like the popping of champagne corks. Doubtless the marksman, no other than Jules himself, was more or less excited, and although he might be a clever shot under ordinary conditions, just then he failed to accomplish anything.
So Josh rolled away, waving his hand derisively when he felt that he was safe beyond pistol shot. The boy was trembling all over, though hilarious concerning the wonderful success of the little plan which Rod had conceived, and left to him to carry out.
"You've got to have your eye-teeth cut when you run afoul of the Big Five Motorcycle Boys, and don't forget that!" he shouted over his shoulder, as he sped along; although of course the outwitted pursuers could hardly have caught the words, and even if they did might not understand their import.
Rod and Hanky Panky had halted half a mile further on, watching to see what happened. It might be they meant to turn back, and come to the assistance of their comrade, should Fate play a scurvy trick on Josh, so that he fell into the hands of the enemy.
When they saw him mounting and caught the familiar music of his engine's exhaust, the muffler being open, both Rod and Hanky Panky felt like giving shouts of exultation, for they had already discovered that the two men were having some difficulty with their car, after Josh had "fiddled" with the same.
Then came the shots, and of course they felt a new anxiety lest Josh be brought to grief through this means.
"Look at him leaning low over his handlebars, will you?" cried Hanky Panky, lost in admiration over the smart way Josh was accomplishing the trick, which perhaps he had seen riders in the Wild West Show do when pursued by Indians of the plains.
"It's all right, and Josh has saved the day for us!" exclaimed Rod, beaming with gratification. "Jules will begin to wonder what sort of boys they raise over in the States, when he finds out what happened."
"But what did Josh do to the car, Rod?"
"You'll have to ask him," replied the other, "though I suspect he put the starting gear out of commission to begin with. Here he is, and grinning at a great rate."
The third rider slowed up as he approached the spot where they awaited him. No danger of the two men starting their car, and swooping down on the allies; if they commenced to run on foot toward Rod and his chums it was only necessary to leap into their saddles and be off like the wind.
"It worked like fresh grease, Rod!" panted Josh, as he threw himself down from his seat, and held one hand to his aching side, for that boisterous laughter was weakening him more or less; "oh! they fell into your little trap like innocents. It was like taking candy from the baby to work them like I did."
"There they are, shaking their fists at us right now!" burst out Hanky Panky, as he pointed along the road toward the deserted house.
"It's about all they can do; when you come to think of it!" grinned Josh.
"We were getting cold feet when we heard them shooting, old fellow; and I hope none of the lead so much as touched you! I saw the dust fly up after nearly every shot, it seemed to me."
"I rather think the fellow meant to hit my wheel and disable it," explained the latest arrival; "but it isn't so easy to do a thing like that, when a motorcycle is speeding along at the rate of a mile a minute. No matter what he aimed to do he missed his guess, and I gave him the slip."
"Rod here says you must have jammed his self-starter so it wouldn't work when he tried it; how about that, Josh?" asked Hanky Panky, who never would be satisfied until he had learned all the particulars.
"You just bet that was what I did the first thing," the other told him exultantly; "but I had another card up my sleeve, too. You see they might hammer that back into shape again, and get a move on; but I fixed it so they'll not chase after us to-day."
"What did you do, then?" demanded Hanky Panky.
"I had my big knife all ready," said Josh grimly, "and I used it with all my might and main."
"On the tires, do you mean, Josh?"
"Every one of them is sliced and slashed the worst way you ever saw," replied the other. "I never was guilty of doing such a mean thing before in all my life; but it was absolutely necessary if we meant to shut off pursuit. You ought to have heard the air sizzling out after I jammed that big blade through, and ripped it along! Whee! it was mighty exciting, because I half expected to see one of the men come rushing out any old second, and chase after me down the road. But I was lucky, and nothing like that happened."
Hanky Panky looked his deep admiration. He often wished Nature had made him as smart as Josh, with that underlying streak of Yankee blood in his veins. Hanky was willing to try to accomplish anything that came his way; but being a bit clumsy in his actions there was always a chance that he would bungle his job, and fail to attain the expected results.
He slapped the late actor in the stirring little drama heartily on the back.
"Good boy, Josh!" he went on to say; "you're all wool, and a yard wide. Why, even Rod here couldn't have done a whit better. There, see, the men are starting this way as if they meant to make us get a move on."
"Oh! we're willing to oblige Jules," laughed Rod; "especially since we've accomplished all we meant to do, and their car is placed out of commission. Good-bye, Jules; if we meet again before we've played this game out it will be where the cannon are roaring, and the battle is on! Until that time, then, adieu!"
Immediately the trio started along the road leading to Ostend. Rod had figured some time back that they would soon be across the border, and traversing French soil. The last glimpse they had of the baffled plotter he was standing in the road and still staring hard after the vanishing Motorcycle Boys.
ON THE ROAD TO CALAIS.
"What's this I see ahead there, boys? Looks like there might be some other motorcycle fellows around these regions, though I guess they've left their mounts behind."
It was Hanky Panky who said this. They had halted at a wayside spring to refresh themselves, for the road was proving pretty dusty.
At noon the three boys had swung through Ostend on the Belgian coast. The famous watering place did not look just the same as on other summers, when tens of thousands visited it for the sport to be enjoyed in the sea. True, it was swarming with people, but in the main soldiers walked the sands, and there was a decidedly martial air to the place generally given up to gaiety.
The boys had, of course, been stopped quite frequently. With war in the land this was only to be expected. Still the papers they carried always won the day, and they were allowed to proceed. This could hardly be wondered at when one of those little documents was written wholly by King Albert himself, and contained an express desire that the bearer and his friends should be given every possible courtesy by loyal Belgians, as they had proved their friendship for the little kingdom to the utmost.
Then later on the motorcycle trio knew they were on French soil, for they had been stopped by a patrol in the famous blue tunics of the republican army. Once more had their passports been scanned, and after a little consultation, in which Rod was able to mingle a few sentences, he speaking French, they were saluted respectfully by the patrol, and allowed to proceed.
After that they had arrived at Dunkirk, where later on hundreds of thousands of British soldiers were destined to be landed.
Once through this city the boys headed on south, aiming to reach Calais before evening came. So far nothing serious had hindered their forward progress, and all of them felt light-hearted indeed.
Then had come the halt at the cool wayside spring; and it was after drinking their fill of the delightful water, thanks to a gourd some kind person had supplied, that Hanky Panky announced his discovery.
Josh took a look, and then burst out into a loud laugh.
"Why, if you're going to believe because a fellow wears khaki he must own a motorcycle," he told the other, "you'll have the whole country full of spinning machines. Those are British soldiers, Hanky; Tommy Atkins, you know, come over to France to give a helping hand to keep the Germans out of Paris."
"Sure they are," grinned the other; "as if we didn't spy a lot of the same up at Dunkirk when we slipped through. I was only guying you, Josh. But we must be near Calais, don't you think, Rod?"
"Only a few miles more and we'll get there," the leader advised him. "Like as not there's a regiment of Britishers camped near by, ready to start off in the direction of Paris when trains can be supplied."
"Huh! they'll need all the hands they can muster to hold back that army we saw passing through Brussels, I wager," said Josh.
"Hundreds of thousands of Germans, if there was one," added Hanky Panky; "why, they passed on the dog-trot for hours all that afternoon; and in the morning the drab-colored line was still moving steadily through the city, headed south."
"There, those two men are going down the road now, in the same direction we are," Josh went on to say; "I'd like to come up with them, and hear a few words in my own mother tongue. Let me tell you I'm tired of listening to only German, Flemish and French."
The two soldiers, hearing the splutter of the motorcycles behind them, drew to one side of the road so as to allow the trio of boys to pass. Instead of doing this the chums dismounted and saluted.
"We're three Americans boys who got caught in the whirl of the war on the border of the Rhine country," Rod hastened to explain. "We've had a pretty warm experience getting through Belgium with our machines, but by great good luck managed to do so. Now we want to get to the front where the fighting is going on. We've a good reason for wishing to do that, you see. Where is your camp, may I ask, fellows?"
The two young Britishers exchanged surprised looks. Evidently they hardly knew whether to believe Rod or not, his story seemed so remarkable. Still they must have been favorably impressed with his looks, as nearly every person was, for presently they smiled broadly, and insisted on shaking hands with each of the motorcycle boys.
"Our camp is about a mile ahead, and alongside the road," one of them hastened to explain; "you will be held up there, unless you sheer off on a little side road that lies just beyond that batch of squatty trees."
Evidently this was intended as a gentle hint. Rod, however, only laughed.
"Thanks for the tip, my friend," he said gaily; "but we mean to spend the night in Calais, and will be only too glad to meet your commanding officer. We have papers he will be pleased to see; and there isn't a general on French soil but who would gladly let us pass on the recommendations we carry."
"When do you expect to start for the front?" asked Josh just then, as with his companions he prepared to move on.
"We have received notice that a train will be ready for us an hour after sundown; and let me tell you we are highly pleased to know it," came the reply, accompanied with a good-natured smile.
"What is the news from the front?" continued Josh eagerly.
"A tremendous battle is on before Paris," replied the Britisher. "Von Kluck has swung around from the northwest, and is trying to envelope the city with his forces, while two other armies are bearing down from the north and northeast. It will be all the French can do to hold them back. Most of us expect that Paris will fall inside of a few days. But we're fair wild to get in the ruck, and strike a blow at the Kaiser's soldiers. He's called the British a contemptible little army, you must know."
"Here's hoping that you do have that pleasure!" called Josh as he turned and looked back over his shoulder, for the three boys had started along the road; "and my dearest wish is that I get on the ground before all the scrapping is over."
A short time afterwards and they arrived at the place where the regiment of khaki-clad Britisher regulars was in a temporary camp. They were awaiting the summons to take their train when it was made up, and be whirled off to the scene of carnage, where tens of thousands of men on both sides were fated to be killed and wounded before three more suns had set.
Rod expected to be held up, and therefore was not in the least surprised when a patrol stepped into the road, motioning to the three lads to halt. They were soon taken to the place where several officers sat looking over a map of Paris and its environs, where they fully expected to be in action before another twenty-four hours had passed.
The British officers eyed them with more or less wonder, and not a little suspicion in the bargain, for they soon realized that the boys were not English, as they had at first supposed; and ugly rumors concerning clever German spies had already begun to pass current in the ranks of the Allies.
When Rod gave a brief account of all their adventures, from the time they heard the first news of how war had been declared against Russia and France by Germany, all of them were deeply interested. And they scanned the wonderful paper bearing the signature of King Albert with eager eyes, for already had the monarch of the dauntless little Belgian nation become an heroic figure over across the Channel, on account of his defiance to the Kaiser's demand that he allow the German army to march through neutral territory in order to swoop down on Paris.
After a very pleasant ten minutes with the British officers the boys passed on toward Calais, followed by the best of wishes.
"No use talking," Josh was heard to say, "blood is thicker than water, after all. I've got some English and Scotch and Irish blood in me, and that's why my heart is with the cause of the Allies. I suppose if I'd had German ancestors I'd be just as much for their cause; but all the same I am not."
Shortly afterwards they arrived in Calais, and put up at an inn recommended by one of the officers as being decent and reasonable. Calais was already in the throes of the war, for the streets were crowded with marching soldiers; and artillery trains could be seen moving this way and that, as they were being loaded on flat cars to be taken to the front.
The boys expected to pass the night there, getting such sleep as was possible, considering the confusion that prevailed. In the morning, if all were well, they could make an early start in the direction of Paris, expecting to find splendid roads all of the way, and with nothing to delay them, unless it were the fact that moving armies clogged the thoroughfares so that a passage was impossible.
After they had had their supper they wandered forth to look around a little, because on account of meaning to get away so early they knew there would be no opportunity to do this in the morning.
All of them felt rather tired, however, and it was not long before Hanky Panky voiced the general sentiment when he suggested that sleep would fill the bill better than anything else he knew of.
They had a room with two beds, and as Josh was a restless sleeper he was given the single cot. It may have been about one or two in the morning when Rod awoke, oppressed with the conviction that there was something moving in the room, which suggestion sent a thrill through his whole being, and aroused him thoroughly.
[Footnote 1: See "The Big Five Motorcycle Boys Under Fire."]
THE FRETFUL ROAR OF BATTLE.
Rod held his breath and listened. Though his nerves were quivering with excitement he could hold himself in check wonderfully well. Josh was breathing heavily, while Hanky Panky lay quite still; somehow Rod half suspected that the other might also have been aroused, and was, like himself, listening with bated breath to find out what had caused that slight noise close by.
A thrill passed through Rod when something touched him. Then he suddenly realised that it was his bed-fellow, Hanky Panky, wishing to be reassured; and accordingly Rod gave him a slight nudge with his elbow.
Something moved again, and, on straining his vision, for the room was fairly dark, Rod managed to discover what seemed to be the bent-over figure of a man. He guessed instinctively that it was no common thief who had managed to enter their chamber in this Calais inn at the dead of night, meaning to steal money, or any other valuable he could get his hands on.
Jules must have managed to follow after them, and was also in the French city by the sea, which later on the Kaiser became so wild to possess in order to harass the coast of England twenty miles away that he ordered mad charges on the part of his men, and thousands on thousands were slaughtered without accomplishing any favorable result.
Rod did not mean to lie quietly there and allow this sneak-thief time to rummage around. Of course the precious paper wanted by Jules was securely hidden; but for all that it went against his grain to allow such liberties.
Managing to get his mouth close to the ear of Hanky Panky he whispered:
"Shout when I do, and jump out of bed!"
The other gave a sign to the effect that he heard and understood; although this consisted only of a nudge with his knee it was sufficient to tell Rod the game was ready for touching off.
When both of them started to yell the effect was weird, and must have given poor, unsuspicious Josh the scare of his life; for he rolled out of bed and commenced to thresh wildly about him, perhaps under the impression that dreams were realities and his clothes actually on fire.
Rod had eyes only for the dusky figure of the unwelcome intruder. The man made a headlong dive for the open window through which he evidently must have entered the room of the inn. It was all of ten feet, perhaps twelve, to the ground, and he went plunging through space like a huge frog.
They heard him strike heavily, though he managed to gain his feet, and go limping away, groaning as he vanished in the darkness.
Of course there was more or less excitement about the inn. People could be heard calling out as they thrust their heads from the windows. Some men who had been lying asleep in the wagon-yard near by came hurrying up, asking if it was a fire.
Rod explained to the landlord, who appeared, candle in hand; and as no damage had been done the excitement soon quieted down. The boys, however, decided to set a trap by means of a cord, that would warn them if any one again attempted to enter their room by that exposed window.
Apparently the failure of his plan discouraged the schemer, for they were not annoyed any further during the remainder of the night. With the coming of morning they ate an early breakfast, settled their reckoning with the French landlord, who insisted on apologizing profusely for their being so rudely disturbed, just as if he was to blame, and then once more mounted on their reliable motorcycles the trio of boys started forth.
It was a fine morning in early September. All Nature seemed smiling, and it required quite a stretch of the imagination to realize that not so very far away from this fair spot two million determined soldiers were facing one another, bent on slaughter unparalleled. The Battle of the Marne was even then opening, with the fate of fair Paris trembling in the balance.
One thing they soon noticed, which was that the road they were following now seemed to keep even with a railway line, over which trains were passing at a dizzy speed, all heading in the same direction, toward Paris.
Every time one of these was sighted the boys could see that the passengers were wholly soldiers. Sometimes they wore the blue coats of the French, with the beloved red trousers, which have been so dear to the hearts of the fighting men of the republic from away back to the time of Napoleon; then again the dull khaki of the British regulars predominated. They occupied first-class carriages, freight vans, cattle cars—anything sufficed so long as it allowed them to get closer to where a chance for glory awaited them.
All these things kept the boys in a constant condition of expectancy. As the morning wore away and they continued to make good headway Josh even found himself indulging in the hope that they would reach the scene of activity before many hours had elapsed.
Once, when they had halted at a wayside farmhouse to see if anything in the shape of a lunch could be secured for love or money, he even called the attention of his two mates to a faint rumbling far away in the distance.
"As sure as you live, fellows," Josh went on to say eagerly, "that must be made by some of those monster guns the Germans are rolling along with them, meaning to batter down the forts defending Paris, just like they did the steel-domed ones up at Liege and Namur in Belgium, as we know happened."
Rod was not quite so positive about it. They had covered many miles, because of good roads, and the few obstacles encountered, but he hardly believed they could be so close to Paris as that.
"I can see something low down ahead of us that may be clouds," Hanky Panky now asserted.
"More'n likely that's the smoke of the battle that's raging over yonder," declared the positive Josh, who always had to be wrestled with before he could be convinced that he was wrong.
"No matter which is the correct solution of the puzzle," laughed Rod, not wishing to take sides against either of his chums, "we're meaning to go ahead after we see if we can get some grub at this little farmhouse."
Fortune played them a kind stroke, for the farmer's wife, a voluble little French woman, who had a husband and three sons in the army, on learning that they were actually American boys, insisted on their settling down while she cooked them a fine dinner.
It turned out that Madame had herself spent several years in America, and even then had relatives living in the French Quarter in New York City. She asked them a multitude of questions, and was especially anxious to learn if the great republic across the sea would align itself with the Entente Allies, who were now, she insisted, engaged in fighting the battles of the whole world for freedom from military domination.
Taken altogether, the boys quite enjoyed that hour at noon. They learned considerable about things that interested them, especially the lay of the land ahead, and where they might expect to come upon trouble in meeting some of the troops engaged in the fighting.
Josh was especially tickled when she assured them that the dull throbbing sound they heard almost constantly was indeed the fretful murmur of big guns. Being a French woman, and very sanguine with regard to the valor of her countrymen, the farmer's wife could already in imagination see the beaten Germans fleeing in mad haste before the invincible soldiers of the republic.
In this humor then they once more started forth, feeling considerably refreshed after that fine meal. Indeed, Rod had been unable to make the little patriotic woman accept the three francs he offered her; and watching his chance he had laid the money on the table where she must later on find it.
An hour later and the throbbing had grown much more perceptible, showing that they must be rapidly drawing closer to where the vast armies were marching and countermarching, with the field batteries in almost constant action.
They understood that several German armies were approaching Paris at the same time, one coming from the north, another veering more to the east, but the most dangerous of all, that commanded by the clever Von Kluck, swinging around so as to come down on the devoted French capital from the northwest.
More than forty years had passed since another hostile army had laid siege to Paris and taken the gay city after many months of desperate fighting. Rod wondered whether history was going to be repeated now. He felt sure that if once those Germans managed to get their terrible forty-two centimetre guns busy, no fort was capable of standing up under their frightful pounding.
So the afternoon began to wear away, and all this while the motors hummed cheerily, as they worked unceasingly, carrying the three bold riders closer and closer to where the greatest battle of the age was being fought to a finish.
There was a sudden whoop from the rear, where Hanky Panky held his place. When the others managed to glance around, almost afraid that they would find him in the ditch alongside the road, with his machine a wreck, they discovered Hanky pointing wildly overhead, while at the same time he shouted:
"Looks like old times, fellows, to see that aeroplane spinning along up there half a mile high; and say, it's sure a German Taube in the bargain. How about that same, Rob; you ought to know what they look like?"
CLOSE TO THE FIRING LINE.
"You're right about it, Hanky Panky!" announced Rod, after he had taken a good look aloft, and recognized some of the familiar features distinguishing the Taube aeroplanes used almost exclusively at that early stage of the war by the German military forces.
"It's snooping around getting information so's to help Von Kluck strike the Allies where they don't expect him, most likely!" the boy in the rear called out.
"Mebbe not," said Josh stoutly; "for all we know old Von may have put his fingers in the trap laid by wily General Joffre, and what he wants to do now is to find a way to draw out again."
Whether Josh really believed all he said or not was an open question, but at any rate it was in his heart to stand up staunchly for the French and English, whatever came to pass. He had seen that vast German horde overrun poor Belgium, and he was praying they might meet an obstacle when they finally ran up against the whole Allied army, standing before Paris, and determined to do or die there.
They cast many a glance upward as they continued to move along. The aeroplane did not seem to be disturbed, as far as they could make out. If there were French birdmen in the vicinity they had other work cut out for them besides chasing a hostile flier. Possibly they were over the fighting armies, finding out valuable statistics for the use of the French commanders, and which might affect the ultimate outcome of the battle.
All doubt concerning their being in the vicinity of the field of gigantic operations was by this time removed. The roar of guns had kept on growing more and more intense. Besides, it was easy for them to make sure that what Hanky Panky had suggested as a threatening summer storm cloud was in reality smoke from artillery and burning cottages along the line of Von Kluck's advance.
Once they had to stop and get on one side of the road in order to permit the passage of a convoy of motor lorries loaded with wounded men. The boys noticed that some of these wore the khaki of British soldiers, which seemed to prove that a portion of General French's little army from across the Channel must be valiantly holding a part of the thin line against the furious rushes of the disciplined German troops.
The three boys took off their hats and waved them heartily as the procession of trucks passed by. Some of the wounded answered them lustily, showing that their spirit had not been in the least quenched by their hard luck in getting in the way of hostile missiles.
Josh was burning with a feverish desire to be moving again.
"Why, judging from that," he told the others excitedly, as the last of the sad procession passed them by, heading possibly for some French town where a hospital had beds ready against their coming, "we must be almost in the riot by now. Listen to how the guns keep up that whoop, will you? I'll bet you they're not more'n five miles away from here! Rod, can't we push right along?"
Rod, however, realized that they must now begin to exercise a great deal of caution. No matter which side they happened to come upon, there was a fair chance of the three boys being held up, and not permitted to go any further.
"Keep on the lookout for some hill or other elevation, where we can get a good view of the neighborhood!" he told them, remembering former occasions when they had adopted a similar method for seeing operations.
It was late in the day by now. They had come at a tremendous pace over scores and scores of miles, since that start at six o'clock in the morning. Along about two in the afternoon Josh had declared that his cyclometer was marking the hundred-and-fifty mark since beginning the day's run, which was a pretty good spin, all things considered.
Thanks to the excellent French highways, and the fact that they had met with no accident to detain them, this record could be hung up as one of which any fellow might be proud.
It would be utterly impossible to describe all they saw while on that wonderful day's run. Each of the boys had secured a little French tri-color, and this flag they took pride in attaching to their machines. It aroused the greatest enthusiasm all along the road. In every town they passed through they were taken for some new type of native soldiers mounted on motorcycles. That they did not carry any guns may have occasioned more or less surprise; but then doubtless they had other methods for destroying the rash invaders when the time came; small but powerful bombs would take up little space in a knapsack, every one knew.
In the country sections where the neat French market gardens predominated they had found the women working amidst the crops, and few men in evidence. Of course those of a military age were already called to the colors, and at that moment might be laying their lives down cheerfully in defence of their beloved land; for their old hatred of everything German had once more leaped to the surface as soon as war was declared.
Rod was trying to figure out what his course should be under the circumstances. He knew how difficult it must prove for them to reach a place where they could observe any of the desperate fighting. The best they might expect would be to see some detached action, and possibly learn where the French regiment might be found to which Andre belonged.
As they proceeded slowly along the road, after watching the procession of motor lorries loaded with wounded wind past, all of them were using their eyes to the best advantage.
The country was hilly to the north of Paris, Rod knew, with many roads crossing in every direction. At any time they might expect to discover some movement of troops belonging to one of the armies engaged.
This came to pass shortly afterwards, and when they found that it was a British regiment that was crossing a field on the double-quick, with guns ready for business, the boys sent up a real American cheer.
"There, they've come to a halt, somehow or other!" said Josh, "and listen to the fellows send back an answering cheer, will you? Guess they must take us for some of their boys from over the Channel. Here comes an officer on horseback to interview us, Rod."
Great was the surprise of the British colonel to find that they were not English boys at all, but cousins from the great republic across the ocean. He asked many questions while his men rested before continuing their movement, which was undoubtedly meant to carry out some purpose or other.
One startling piece of information he gave the three motorcycle boys.
"The Germans have shot their bolt, and are retreating!" was what he declared in his hearty British way. "Von Kluck meant to take Paris by surprise from the northwest, but he made a terrible mistake and left his flank uncovered. It was threatened by our British troops, as well as by a new army that came out of Paris, sent by General Gallieni, the commander of the city. There was nothing to be done but swing in a half circle past Paris without coming within cannon shot of the forts. We are now about to strike with all our force, and beat him back on the Marne. Paris is saved for the time being!"
This was the amazing news that thrilled the three boys through and through. In their minds it meant that the German tide had already reached its flood stage; and that from the hour Von Kluck changed his plans with regard to attacking the forts defending Paris the campaign of invasion was fated to meet with its Waterloo.
Josh actually shouted aloud to show his glee, nor did the grim British officer consider this any discourtesy. He himself was feeling in much the same humor, for victory was already in the air for the Allies, and he knew what that would mean for the future of the whole of Europe.
After a very pleasant and interesting chat the three boys again mounted their machines, and set out. They had been warned by the accommodating officer that they might run into a nest of the enemy at almost any time now, for detachments of the Germans were raiding the country, trying to inspire a reign of terror among the inhabitants.
"If they can catch us," the confident Josh had remarked in his customary boastful fashion, "they'll be welcome to our mounts. All the same we don't mean to let ourselves be taken off our guard. To be made prisoners just now would upset all our lovely plans, you see, Colonel. But it's awful kind of you to give us the tip, and make sure we appreciate it."
Shortly afterwards Rod announced that there was something of a hill ahead, and once they had managed to reach the crown they might find a chance to take an observation that would prove profitable to them.
"Drive ahead, then," chirped Josh, always willing to do anything that came along, especially when it promised fresh excitement; possibly he was hoping that from the top of the low elevation they would be able to see many stirring dramas connected with the great battle that was now opening, and which must seal the fate of the French capital, one way or the other.
"I'm going to slow up first," observed the cautious leader; "because we don't know what we may run on at the top of that hill. It'd be rough on us to suddenly come face to face with a whole battalion of Germans, advancing up the other side, and reaching the crown just at the same time we did."
"Rod, you're right there!" Josh was heard to call out almost instantly; "look up where we're heading, and you'll see the Germans have got there even before we did!"
All of them came to a sudden halt, and dropped off their motorcycles in a desperate hurry.
OUT OF THE JAWS OF THE TRAP.
The summit of the low hill was not more than a quarter of a mile away from the spot where Rod and his two chums had dismounted, to stare aghast at what was transpiring before their eyes.
The hill was almost devoid of trees near its top, and a minute before they had taken note of the fact that the bushes stood out against the sky-line with nothing to interfere with the vision of an observer perched aloft. But now it seemed as though the whole hilltop were alive with moving figures. The declining sun glinted from hundreds of polished guns and bayonets. And clearly could the boys see that these men were garbed in the dun-colored uniforms distinguishing the Kaiser's troops.
"That settles our hash so far as getting a peek at the fighting goes," muttered Josh discontentedly, for he always gave a cherished object up very lothfully.
"Oh! I wouldn't say that!" declared Hanky Panky; "there are other ways of doing it, you can wager. That hill yonder isn't the only pebble on the beach. What'll we do now, Rod?"
"Get out of this, and in a hurry, too," snapped the other instantly.
"We certainly can't keep on going forward, for a fact," admitted Josh, still filled with gloom and disappointment; "those chaps'd gobble us up like fun, and it'd be good-bye to our bully wheels."
"Course they'd take us for Britishers, from our khaki uniforms," admitted Hanky Panky; "and say, if they once got their hands on us they'd snatch all our papers away in a hurry. I'm counting on keeping that one our friend Albert gave us, to show the boys over in old Garland when we get back home; because they'll never believe half we expect to tell 'em if we don't have some evidence to prove it."
"Huh! That isn't the worst by a long shot," continued Josh. "Don't you see our having those papers on our precious persons would make it look like we might be spies, working in the interest of Belgium and France? You just better believe we don't want to be nabbed by the Kaiser's men, not if we know what's good for us, and I reckon we do."
"The worst is yet to come!" exclaimed Rod just then; "look off there to the left and tell me what you see moving across those fields toward the road back of us."
Hardly had he said this than loud outcries arose from his two companions.
"Why, Rod, they're whole regiments of the Germans, and they're deploying so as to cut off our retreat, you see!" cried Hanky Panky, in a near panic.
"I don't expect they've even noticed us as yet," Rod went on to say; "but all the same if ever they do reach the road we'll be caught like rats in a trap."
"Looks like we might be between two fires," said Josh, frowning savagely; "what can we do about it, Rod?"
It was second nature for the other fellows to depend on their leader whenever a knotty problem arose that needed solving. And seldom did Rod disappoint their expectations. He came up smiling on the present occasion.
"Get turned around in a hurry!" he called out; "we've one chance in three to slip past before they get near the road. Are you both game to try for it?"
"Sure!" bellowed Josh; "try anything once, is my motto!"
"I'll go where you lead, Rod," was the simple but eloquent tribute which Hanky Panky paid the other; and Rod must have felt deeply gratified to know he was able to inspire the hearts of his chums with so much confidence.
"Then let's get busy!" was all he told them.
The rattle of the machines' exhausts instantly announced the start. Rod led the way, with the others close behind him. He did not dread the soldiers who were upon the hilltop, even though every movement made by the fleeing motorcycle boys must be plainly seen by their observing eyes; for the distance was too great for them to expect to damage the mounts of the escaping enemy by any gunfire.
It was the forces coming up on the double-quick to reach the road over which the three boys had so lately passed that aroused Rod's greatest fears. He knew that with the speed of which the machines were capable they could manage to sweep past before the troops reached the road; but should the Germans open fire on them the result might be disastrous indeed.
Hoping for the best, and ready to accept the desperate chances, they dashed along, every fellow bending low in his saddle from some instinct of self-preservation. It was a serious time for them, and with set teeth they hastened into the danger zone. Now they approached the place where there would be the most peril from a volley fired by the oncoming soldiers, who of course ere now had seen them, and perhaps judged that they must be British scouts caught in a trap.
Rod had changed his mind. He suddenly remembered that there was a branch road leading off from the one they had come along. Of course it was a blind move, because none of them could even give a guess where it went to; but if they took it they might manage to slip out of the dilemma into which the fortunes of war had thrown them.
"Be ready to follow me when I turn into a side road!" he called to the others.
Undoubtedly they heard him, though they gave no answering shout. It would have availed little, however, because just at that moment there was a savage burst of firing back in the direction of the hill, and many spent bullets dropped all around them, some even kicking up little clouds of dust as they fell on the road.
Rod turned in the saddle to see if there was any sign of his chums having been struck. So far all seemed well, for they were coming right along after him, and without any indication of having received even the slightest damage.
The forks of the road were now close at hand. Rod was never more delighted in his life than to realize this, for once they turned into this lesser thoroughfare he believed they would be protected by friendly trees from the gaze of those on the hilltop.
A dreadful crash gave him another chilly feeling. He understood that it must be the explosion of a shrapnel shell, not more than fifty feet behind them. The gunner may have been on the hill with the gathering troops; but in calculating the distance he had failed to take into consideration the speed which the escaping boys were making.
Perhaps if given an opportunity to try a second shot he might be able to correct this error of judgment, and the next shell would burst directly over their heads.
Rod almost held his breath. He felt as though so much depended on the next twenty seconds of time, perhaps even the lives of his two brave comrades, as well as his own.
Then he arrived at the forks, and, making a detour, left the main road to plunge into the smaller thoroughfare. Again Rod looked back to assure himself that both of the other boys were as successful in turning as he had been.
Yes, there was Josh, safe and sound, and Hanky Panky, wabbling a bit to be sure, but keeping a firm grip on his speeding machine had now managed to accomplish the deal.
Rod saw something suddenly explode on the road exactly where the forks came. He knew full well it must be that second shrapnel shell, and only for their sudden change of base, which the gunner had not calculated on, it must have burst so near Hanky Panky that he might have suffered seriously.