Air service boys in the.., p.16
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       Air Service Boys in the Big Battle; Or, Silencing the Big Guns, p.16

           E. J. Craine
 
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  CHAPTER XVI. JUST IN TIME

  It was with mingled feelings of alarm and sorrow that Tom Raymond sentthe speedy Spad aeroplane on its homeward way toward the French lines.He was worried, not chiefly about his own safety, but on account ofJack; and his sorrow was in the thought that perhaps he had taken hislast flight with his beloved chum and comrade in arms. He could not seewhere Jack had been hit, but this was because the other lad lay in sucha huddled position in the cockpit. Jack had slumped from his seat, thesafety straps alone holding him in position, though he would not havefallen out when the machine was upright as it was at present.

  "One of those machine gun bullets must have got him," mused Tom, as hestarted the craft on an upward climb, for it had darted downward whenJack's nerveless hands and feet ceased their control. For part of thesteering in an aeroplane is done by the feet of the pilot, leaving hishands free, at times, to fire the machine gun or draw maps.

  Tom had a double object in starting to rise. One was to get into abetter position to make the homeward flight, and another was to havea better chance not only to ward off the attack of the Hun planes, ofwhich there were now three in the air, but also to return their fire.It is the machine that is higher up that stands the best chance in anaerial duel, for not only can one maneuver to better advantage, but themachine can be aimed more easily with reference to the fixed gun.

  In Tom's case he did not have access to this weapon, which was fixedon the rim of the cockpit where Jack could, and where he had beencontrolling, it. With Jack out of the fight, through one or more Germanbullets, it was up to Tom to return the fire of the Huns from his swivelmounted Lewis gun. He was going to have difficulty in doing this andalso guiding the craft, but he had had harder problems than this to meetsince becoming an aviator in the great war, and now he quickly conqueredhis worrying over Jack, and began to look to himself.

  He gave one more fleeting glance at the crumpled-up figure of hischum, seeking for a sign of life, but he saw none. Then he swung about,turning in toward the nearest Hun airman, and not away from him, andopened up with the machine gun, using both hands on that for a moment,while he steered with his knees.

  It was not easy work, and Tom hardly expected to make a direct hit,but he must have come uncomfortably close to the Boche, for the latterswerved off, and for an instant his plane seemed beyond control. Whetherthis was due to a wound received by the aviator, or to a trick on hispart was not disclosed to Tom. But the machine darted downward andseemed to be content to veer off for a while.

  The third plane Tom soon saw was not going to trouble him, as it had notspeed equal to his own, so that he really had left only one antagonistwith whom to deal. And this plane, containing two men, with whom he hadnot yet come to close quarters, was racing toward him at great speed.

  "I guess there's only one thing to do," mused Tom, "and that's to runfor it. I won't stand any show at all with two of them shooting at me,while I have to manage the machine and the gun too. If I can beat 'em toour lines I'd better do it and run the chance of some of our boys comingout to take care of 'em. I'd better get Jack to a doctor as soon as Ican."

  And abandoning the gun to give all his attention to the motor, Tomopened it full and sped on his way. The other machine's occupants sawhis plan and tried to stop it with a burst of bullets, but the range wasa little too far for effective work.

  "Now for a race!" thought Tom, and that is what it turned out to be.Seeing that he was going to try to get away, the Hun plane, which wasalmost as speedy as the one Tom and Jack had started out in, took afterthem. The other German craft was left far in the rear, and the one Tomhad shot at appeared to be in such difficulties that it was practicallyout of the fight.

  Thus the odds, once so greatly against our heroes, were now greatlyreduced, though not yet equal, since Jack was completely out of thegame--for how long Tom could only guess, and he seemed to feel coldfingers clutching at his heart when he thought of this.

  But Tom soon discovered, by a backward glance over his shoulder now andthen, that his machine, barring accidents, would distance the other, andthis was what his aim now was. So on and on he sped, watching the Germanoccupied French territory unrolling itself below him, coming nearer andnearer each minute to his own lines and safety.

  Behind them, he and Jack--for the latter had done his share before beingwounded--had left consternation in the German ranks. The bombs had doneconsiderable damage--as was learned later--and the dropping of packageswithin the prison camp was fraught with potential danger to an extent atwhich the Boches could only guess.

  On and on sped Tom, sparing time, now and then, to look back at hispursuers, who were, it could not be doubted, doing their best to getwithin effective range. And, every now and again, Tom would glance atthe motionless form of his churn.

  But poor Jack never stirred, and Tom was fearing more and more that hischum had made his last flight. As for the Hun aviators, after using upa drum or so of bullets uselessly, they ceased firing and urged theirmachine on to the uttermost.

  But Tom had the start of them, and he was also on a higher level, sothat the Germans must climb at an oblique angle to reach him.

  And, thanks to this, Tom saw that, if nothing else happened, he wouldsoon be in comparative safety with the unconscious form of Jack. Theanti-aircraft batteries were firing in vain, as he was beyond theirrange, and, far away, he could see the lines of the French armies,behind which he soon hoped to be.

  And then the unexpected happened, or, rather, it had taken place sometime since, but it was only then brought to Tom's attention. His enginebegan missing, and when he sought for a cause he speedily found it.Nearly all the gasoline had leaked out of the main tank. As he knewthat there had been plenty for the return flight, there was but oneexplanation of this. A Hun bullet had pierced the petrol reservoir,letting the precious fluid leak away.

  "Now if the auxiliary tank has any in it, I'm fairly all right," thoughtTom. "If it hasn't, I'm all in."

  His worst fears were confirmed, for the auxiliary tank had suffered alike fate with the main one. Both were pierced. There were only a fewdrops left, besides those even then being vaporized in the carburetor.

  With despair in his heart, Tom looked back. If the Hun plane chose torush him now all would be over with him and Jack. He had only enoughfuel for another thousand meters or so, and then he must volplane.

  He saw a burst of flame and smoke from the enemy plane, and realizedthat he was being shot at again. But the distance was still too far foreffective aim.

  And then, to his joy, Tom saw the pursuer turn and start back toward theGerman territory. The firing had been a last, desperate attempt to endhis career, and it had failed. Either the Huns were almost out of petrolthemselves, or they did not relish getting too close to the Frenchlines.

  "And now, if I can volplane down the rest of the way, I'll be in a fairposition to save myself," mused Tom, as he made a calculation of thedistance he had yet to go. It was far, but he was at a good height andbelieved he could do it.

  Suddenly his engine stopped, as though with a sigh of regret that itcould no longer serve him, and Tom knew that volplaning alone would savehim now. He was still over the enemy country, and had his plight beenguessed at by the Germans, undoubtedly they would have sent a machine upto attack him. But they were in ignorance.

  There was nothing to do but drift along. Gravity alone urged the crafton. As he swept over the German trenches Tom was greeted with a burst ofshrapnel, and he was now low enough to be vulnerable to this. But luckwas with him, and though the plane was hit several times he thought hewas unharmed. But in this he was wrong. He received a glancing woundin one leg, but in the excitement he did not notice it, and it was notuntil he had landed that he saw the blood, and knew what had happened.

  On and on, and down and down he volplaned until he was so near his ownlines, and so low down, that he could hear the burst of cheers from hisformer comrades.

  Then he aimed his craft for a level, grassy place to make a l
anding,and as he came to a gradual stop, and was surrounded by a score of eageraviators, he cried out, as soon as he could speak, "I'm all right! Butlook after Jack! He's hurt!"

  A surgeon bent hastily over the huddled form, and with the aid of somemen lifted it from the cockpit. Jack's legs were covered with blood, andwhen the medical man saw whence it came, then and there he set hastilyto work to stop the bleeding from a large artery.

  "You got back only just in time, my friend," he said to Tom, as Jack wascarried to a hospital. "Two minutes more and he would have been bled todeath."

  CHAPTER XVII. A CRASH

  Not until a day or so later, when Jack was able to sit up in bed andgreet Tom with rather a pale face, did the latter learn all that hadhappened. And it was a very close call that Jack had had.

  As Tom had guessed, it was some of the bullets from the Hun machine gunthat had stricken down his chum. One had struck him a glancing blow onthe head, rendering Jack unconscious and sending him down, a crumpled-upheap in the cockpit of his machine. Another bullet, coming throughthe machine later, had found lodgment in Jack's leg, cutting part waythrough the wall of one of the larger arteries.

  It was certain that this bullet, the one in the leg, came after Jackwas hit on the head, for that first wound was the only one he rememberedreceiving.

  "It was just as though I saw not only stars' but moons, suns, comets,rainbows and northern lights all at once," he explained to his chum.

  The bullet in the leg had cut only part way through the wall of anartery. At first the tissues held the blood back from spurting out ina stream that would soon have carried life with it. But either someunconscious motion on Jack's part, or a jarring of the plane, broke thehalf-severed wall, and, just before Tom landed, his chum began to bleeddangerously. Then it was the surgeon had made his remark, and acted intime to save Jack's life.

  "Well, I guess we made good all right," remarked Jack, as his chumvisited him in the hospital.

  "I reckon so," was the answer, "though the Huns haven't sent us any loveletters to say so. But we surely did drop the packages in the prisoncamp, though whether Harry got them or not is another story. But we didour part."

  "That's right," agreed Jack. "Now the next thing is to get busy andbring Harry out of there if we can."

  "The next thing for you to do is to keep quiet until that wound in yourleg heals," said the doctor, with a smile. "If you don't, you won't doany more flying, to say nothing of making any rescues. Be content withwhat you did. The whole camp is talking of your exploit. It was noble!"

  "Shucks!" exclaimed Tom, in English, for they had been speaking Frenchfor the benefit of the surgeon, who was of that nationality.

  "Ah, and what may that mean?" he asked.

  "I mean it wasn't anything," translated Tom. "Anybody could have donewhat we did."

  But of this the surgeon had his doubts.

  In spite of the dangerous character of his wound, Jack made a quickrecovery. He was in excellent condition, and the wound was a clean one,so, as soon as the walls of the artery had healed, he was able to beabout, though he was weak from loss of blood. However, that was soonmade good, and he and Tom, bidding farewell to their late comrades,returned to the American lines. They had been obliged to get anextension of leave--at least Jack had--though Tom could report back ontime, and he spent the interim between that and Jack's return to duty,serving as instructor to the "huns" of his own camp. They were eager tolearn, and anxious to do things for themselves.

  Before long Jack returned, though he was not assigned to duty, andhe and Tom visited Paris and told Nellie, Bessie and Mrs. Gleason theresult of their mission.

  "You didn't see Harry, of course?" asked Nellie, negatively, thoughreally hoping that the answer would be in the affirmative.

  "Oh, no, we couldn't make out any individual prisoner," said Tom. "Therewas a bunch of 'em--I mean a whole lot--there."

  "Poor fellows!" said Mrs. Gleason kindly, "Let us hope that they willsoon be released."

  "Tom and I have been trying to hit on some plan to rescue Harry," put inJack. "And we'd help any others to get away that we could. But is isn'tgoing to be easy."

  "Oh, I don't see how you can do it!" exclaimed Nellie. "Of course Iwould give anything in the world to have Harry back with me, but I mustnot ask you to run into needless danger on his account. That would betoo much. Your lives are needed here to beat back the Huns. Harry maylive to see the day of victory, and then all will be well."

  "I don't believe in waiting, if anything can be done before that." Tomspoke grimly. "But, as Jack says, it isn't going to be easy," he wenton. "However, we haven't given up. The only thing is to hit on some planthat's feasible."

  They talked of this, but could arrive at nothing. They were not evensure--which made it all the harder to bear--that Harry had received thepackages dropped in the prison camp at such risk. The only thing thatcould be done was to wait and see if he wrote to his sister or hisformer chums. Letters occasionally did come from German prisoners, butthey were rare, and could be depended on neither as to time of deliverynor as to authenticity of contents.

  So it was a case of waiting and hoping.

  Jack was not yet permitted to fly, so Tom had to go alone. But he servedas an instructor, leaving the more dangerous work of patrol, fighting,and reconnaissance to others until he was fit to stand the strain offlying and of fighting once more.

  "Sergeant Raymond, you will take up Martin to-day," said the flightlieutenant to Tom one morning. "Let him manage the plane himself unlessyou see that he is going to get into trouble. And give him a goodflight."

  "Yes, sir," answered Tom, as he turned away, after saluting.

  He found his pupil, a young American from the Middle West, who was notas old as he and Jack, awaiting him impatiently.

  "I'm to get my second wing soon, and I want to show that I can manage aplane all by myself, even if you're in it," said the lad, whose name wasDick Martin. "They say I can make a solo flight to-morrow if I do wellto-day."

  "Well, go to it!" exclaimed Tom with a laugh. "I'm willing."

  Soon they were in a double-seater of fairly safe construction--that is,it was not freakish nor speedy, and was what was usually used in thisinstructive work.

  "I'm going to fly over the town," declared Martin, naming the Frenchcity nearest the camp. "Well, mind you keep the required distance up,"cautioned Tom, for there was, a regulation making it necessary forthe aviators to fly at a certain minimum height above a town in flyingacross it, so that if they developed engine trouble, they could coastsafely down and land outside the town itself.

  "I'll do that," promised Martin.

  But either he forgot this, or he was unable to keep at the requiredheight, for he began scaling down when about over the center ofthe place. Tom saw what was happening, and reached over to take thecontrols. But something happened. There was a jam of one of the levers,and to his consternation Tom saw the machine going down and headingstraight for a large greenhouse on the outskirts of the town.

  "There's going to be one beautiful crash!" Tom thought, as he worked invain to send the craft up. But it was beyond control.

 
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