Air Service Boys over the Rhine/Chapter 16
News of the shelling of Paris by the long-range gun had, of course, been received at the aerodrome, though there had not, as yet, many details come in. Tom and Jack, as the latest arrivals from the big city, were called upon to tell all they knew, and they related their experiences in the raids, and also told about the various theories of the big gun.
"But how are we going to find it?" asked Boughton. "It's easy enough, of course, for our squadron to go out with a lot of bombs. But where are we going to drop 'em?"
"Oh, we're to go to Paris for further instructions before starting on the quest," said Tom, who had made some inquiries about the orders concerning the picked squadron.
"And they may have discovered its location by this time," added Jack. "We know about where it is—somewhere in the sector between Hamegicourt and Condé. The rest ought to be easy."
"Not so easy as it sounds, my friends," put in a French flier. "I know that region. It is a big one; and the Germans no doubt have their gun well camouflaged. It will not be easy."
"But we'll get it!" asserted Tom.
"Naturally," said the Frenchman, as if that was all there was to it.
Tom's wound was painful, but not dangerous, though it would keep him on the ground for a day or two. Though, as a matter of fact, none of the members of the picked squadron was allowed to go aloft after the orders came detailing them for work in connection with the monster cannon. Their places were taken by others who were sent for, some being new fliers who were burning to make a name for themselves.
Besides Tom and Jack, in the picked squadron there were Boughton, another American, Cerfe and Tierse, two intrepid Frenchmen, and Haught, an Englishman, who insisted, but with little success, that his name be pronounced as though spelled "Hoo."
These six were to be depended on to find and destroy the German cannon—all of them if there were more than one, as was likely. And to this picked squadron other members would be added as need arose. All six were skillful fliers, and brave men of the air, as may easily be guessed. They were to use whatever type of machine they liked best—the single seaters, the great bombing planes, and, it was even said, one of the immense Italian fliers. This last was a craft capable of carrying several men and a quantity of supplies and ammunition.
Very soon, then, Tom Raymond and Jack Parmly were on their way to Paris again, accompanied by their comrades, and all would soon be engaged in the difficult and perilous task of finding the new German long-range cannon.
"I suppose you'll make another attempt to find your father?" suggested Jack to his chum, as they rode in on the train.
"Indeed I shall, if I have time. I can't understand why I haven't had some word before this. There are several possible reasons, of course. If it wasn't that we know he got to Rue Lafayette I'd say his ship had been sunk 'without a trace,' as the Germans ordered in other cases. But, of course, he safely reached this side. Then he just seems to have dropped out of sight, for I can't believe he was killed when the shell from the big gun hit the house where he had taken lodging. He may have found it advisable to return home at once, for some reason, and didn't have a chance to leave any word for me, or send me any message. And perhaps he hasn't got back to America yet. Then, too, he may be in Germany, a prisoner."
"Let us hope not," said Jack, softly, and Tom echoed the wish.
Much as he wished he could devote some time to the search for his father, Tom realized that he was working under military orders, and, however dear his father was to him, the sacrifice of his personal affairs must be made. He knew he would only have time to make some brief inquiries, and then he and Jack must go with the squadron to the headquarters assigned to it, as near the location of the big German gun as possible, and there try to silence it.
The train the picked squadron was traveling on was late, and it was dusk when they alighted at the railroad station.
"Think we'll have a chance to see anything of the bombardment?" asked Boughton.
"I was going to say I hoped not," answered Tom, "for I wish the beastly gun, or guns, would blow up. But that would take away our chance to pot 'em, and I know we all want to do that. You may see something, though they don't bombard at night as often as they do by day. Of late, however, before we left, the night firing was more frequent. Possibly they have found some means of hiding the gun flashes or of letting them mingle with others along a line so the exact location of the big Bertha is a matter of doubt."
As they alighted from the train, and were about to seek some taxicabs to take them to lodgings that had been assigned them, they all became aware of the fact that something unusual was going on. Suddenly the electric lights went out, leaving the region about the station, and indeed all of Paris, in comparative darkness.
At the same time a motor fire engine rushed screeching through the streets, giving an alarm.
"What is it?" cried Boughton. "Is the big gun firing?"
"It's a Zeppelin raid! I was here once before when they had one," said the Englishman coolly. "Mind your heads, boys. Just our rotten luck not to have a machine to go up after it."
He hurried out into the open street where he could have a view of the sky, and the others followed. There was more excitement than during the bombardment of the big gun. People were rushing here and there in search of safe places, and taxicabs, with their lamps like fireflies in the darkness, were skidding hither and yon, their horns calling for a clear way.
Suddenly there was a muffled roar, at some distance off. This was followed by a hoarse murmur, as though a burst of rage from many throats at the unspeakable outrage of the Huns in killing women and children.
At the same time the anti-aircraft guns, with which Paris is so efficiently guarded, began to bark and to send their red flashes out into the blackness of the night. They were shooting at the Zeppelin, as yet unseen by the men of the picked squadron, and the gunners aimed according to instructions sent them by wireless from scouts hovering in the air above the city.
As soon as word comes from the front, about eighty miles from Paris, that a Zeppelin is on its way to raid, an elaborate system of defense is put into operation. There are some airmen above Paris all the while, frequently as many as forty on sentry duty. But when word comes of a Zeppelin raid the whole squadron, numbering close to three hundred, goes aloft. By their searchlights, aided by those on the surface, these fliers endeavor to pick up the German machine, and, too, they endeavor to get near enough to attack it.
This was what was now going on. Pandemonium appeared let loose, and the explosion of the German bombs, mingling with the noise of the French guns, made Paris seem like a battlefield. Occasionally could be heard, when the guns were silenced for a moment, the roar of the many aeroplane motors aloft.
The Zeppelin seemed to be over a section of Paris near the Tuileries, judging by the bursts of light in that direction. Tom, Jack, and their friends wished with all their hearts that they might take a hand in the defense, but it was not to be. For perhaps half an hour the anti-aircraft guns roared out their defiance to the Hun, and then a large flare of gasolene was lighted in a public square.
This was a signal for the aeroplanes to return, for the Zeppelin had left, either because she found the situation too perilous for her, or because she had used up all her bombs.
The lights were turned on again, and the new arrivals watched the aeroplanes returning one by one, being recognized by their lights in the air as they moved about like gigantic illuminated insects.
"Well, that's some excitement," observed Tom, as he and the others finally succeeded in getting cabs, and started for their destination. "I hope no one was killed."
But the bombs of the inhuman Huns had found several marks, and while the harm from a military standpoint was small, a number of persons had been killed. Some damage had been inflicted on the Zeppelin, it was said later, one brave airman saying he got near enough to spray some bullets into one of the cabins where a crowd of officers and men were working the machine.
"We will be with you a little later," said Tom to the other members of the squadron, as, having reached their lodgings, the two chums set out.
"Where are you going?"
"To call on some ladies," answered Jack, for he and Tom had planned to see Bessie and her mother.
They reached their own former stopping place, to which they had been sent by Major de Trouville, but when they inquired for the Gleasons the landlady, who remembered the boys, stared at them in surprise, and said:
"Why, Madam Gleason and her daughter are not here! They went out this morning to meet you, and have not come back!"
"To meet us?" gasped Jack.
"Yes, in answer to your note bidding them do so!"