Air Service Boys over the Rhine/Chapter 22
OVER THE RHINE
It was a battle of the air and on the ground at the same time. From above the French, American and British airmen were dropping tons of explosives on the emplacements of the big guns and on the railway spurs that brought them to the firing points. It might seem an easy matter for an airship flying over a place to drop an explosive bomb on it and destroy it. But, on the contrary, it is very difficult.
The bombing plane must be constantly on the move, and it takes a pretty good eye to calculate the distance from a great height sufficiently well to make a direct hit.
But a certain percentage of the bombs find their mark, and they did in this case. Tom and Jack, as well as the other scouts, looking down from their planes, saw fountains of brown earth being tossed into the air as the French bombs exploded. At the same time the photographers in the other planes were making pictures of the guns and their location.
They were hindered in this not only by the shooting of the Germans from below, who were working their anti-aircraft guns to their capacity, but by screens of smoke clouds, which were emitted by a special apparatus to hide the big guns. At the same time other cannons were being fired to disguise the sound from the immense long-range weapon, but this was of little effect, now that the location had been discovered.
Meanwhile a score or more of the Hun planes appeared in the air. They had taken flight as soon as their pilots saw the squadron of enemy machines approaching, and were eager, this time, to give battle.
"Our work's being cut out for us," murmured Tom, as he steered his machine to engage a German who seemed eager for the fray. Tom sent a spray of bullets at his enemy, and was fired at in turn. He knew his craft had been hit several times, but he did not think it was seriously damaged.
Jack, too, as he could tell by a quick glance, was also engaged with a German, but Tom had no time then to bestow on mere observation. His antagonist was a desperate Hun, bent on the utter destruction of Tom's machine. They came to closer quarters.
Down below the fighting was growing more furious. It was in the form of an artillery duel. For now the French observation machines were wirelessing back the range, and French shells were falling very near the big guns.
The heavy guns, in modern warfare, are placed miles away from the objects they wish to hit, and the only way to know where the targets are is by aeroplane observation. When the guns are ready to fire one of the artillery control planes goes up over the enemy's territory. Of course it is the object of the enemy to drive it away if possible.
But, hovering in the air, the observer in the double-motored machine notes the effect of the first shot from his side's cannon. If it goes beyond the mark he so signals by wireless. If it falls short he sends another signal. Thus the range is corrected, and finally he sees that the big shells are landing just where they are needed to destroy a battery, or whatever is the object aimed at. The observation complete, the machine goes back over its own lines—if the Germans let it.
This sort of work was going on below them while Tom, Jack and the others in the Nieuports were engaging in mortal combat with the Hun fliers. Some of the heavy French shells fell beyond the emplacements of the big guns, and others were short. The observers quickly made corrections by wireless for the gunners. Tom Raymond, after a desperate swoop at his antagonist, sent him down in flames, and then, seeking another to engage, at the same time wondering how Jack had fared, the young aviator looked down and saw one of the largest of the French shells fall directly at the side of the foremost of the three German giant cannons.
There was a terrific explosion. Of course, Tom could not hear it because of his height and the noise his motor was making, but he could see what happened. A great breach was made in the long barrel of the German gun, and its emplacement was wrecked, while the men who had been swarming about the place like ants seemed to melt into the earth. They were blotted out.
"One gone!" exclaimed Tom grimly. And then he noted that the other two guns had been withdrawn beneath the camouflage. They were no longer in sight, and hitting them was a question of chance.
Still the French batteries kept up their fire, hoping to make another hit, but it would be a matter of mere luck now, for the guns were out of observation.
The airmen observers, however, still had a general idea of where the super-weapons were, and the French gunners continued to send over a rain of shells, while the bombing machines, save one that had been destroyed by the German fire, kept dropping high explosives in the neighborhood.
"The place will be badly chewed up, at any rate," mused Tom.
He glanced in the direction where he had last seen Jack, and to his horror saw his chum's machine start downward in a spinning nose dive.
"I wonder if they've got him, or if he's doing that to fool 'em," thought Tom. As he was temporarily free from attack at that instant he started toward his friend. Hovering over him, and spraying bullets at Jack, was a German machine, and Tom realized that this fighter might have injured, or even killed. Jack.
"Well, I'll settle your hash, anyhow!" grimly muttered the young birdman to himself. He sailed straight for the Hun, who had not yet seen him, and then Tom opened fire. It was too late for the German to turn to engage his second antagonist, and Tom saw the look of hopelessness on his face as the bullets crashed into his machine, sending it down a wreck.
"So much for poor old Jack!" cried Tom.
They were well over the German lines now, and the fight was going against the French. That is, they were being outnumbered by the Hun planes, which were numerous in the air. But the French had accomplished their desperate mission. One of the German guns was out of commission, and perhaps others, while the location had been made "considerably unhealthy," as Boughton expressed it afterward.
It was time for the French to retire, and those of their machines that were able prepared to do this. But Tom was going to see first what happened to Jack before he returned to his lines.
"He may be spinning down, intending to get out of a bad scrape that way, and then straighten for a flight toward home," mused Tom. "Or he may be—"
But he did not finish the sentence.
There was but one way for Tom to be near Jack when the latter landed—if such was to be his fate—and to give him help, provided he was alive. And that was for Tom himself to go down in a spinning nose dive, which is the speediest method by which a plane can descend. But there is great danger that the terrific speed may tear the wings from the machine.
"I'm going to risk it, though," decided Tom.
Down and down he spun, and as he looked he became aware, to his joy, that Jack had his machine under some control.
"He isn't dead yet, by any means," thought Tom. "But he may be hurt. I wonder if he can make a good landing? If he does it will be inside the German lines, though, and then—"
But Tom never faltered. He must rescue his chum, or attempt to, at all hazards.
Down went both machines, Jack's in the lead, and then, to his joy, Tom saw his friend bring the machine on a level keel again and prepare to make a landing. This was in a rather lonely spot, but already, in the distance, as Tom could note from his elevated position, Germans were hurrying toward the place, ready to capture the French machine.
"If he's alive I'll save him!" declared Tom. "My machine will carry double in a pinch, but he'll have to ride on the engine hood."
Tom was going to take a desperate chance, but one that has been duplicated and equalled more than once in the present war. He was going to descend as near Jack's wrecked machine as he could, pick up his chum, and trust to luck to getting off again before the Germans could arrive.
That Jack was once more master of his craft became evident to his friend. For the Nieuport was slowing down and Jack was making ready for as good a landing as possible under the circumstances. It was plain, however, that his machine was damaged in some way, or he would have gone on flying toward his own lines.
Tom saw his chum drop to the ground, and then saw him quickly climb out of his seat, loosing the strap that held him in. By this time other German planes were swooping toward the place, and a squad of cavalry was also galloping toward it.
"I'll beat you, though!" cried Tom fiercely.
He throttled down his engine, intending to give it just enough gas to keep it going, for he would have no one to start it for him if the motor stalled. He calculated that he could taxi the craft across the ground slowly enough for Jack to jump on and then he could get away, saving both of them.
Jack understood the plan at once. He waved his hand to Tom to show that he would be ready, and Tom felt a joy in his heart as he realized that his chum was uninjured.
Down to the ground went Tom, and he guided his machine toward Jack, standing beside his own damaged craft, waiting. Suddenly there was a sharp report, and Tom saw Jack's machine burst into flames.
"He fired into the gasolene tank!" thought Tom. "That's the boy! He isn't going to let the Huns get his machine and the maps and instruments. Good!"
Jack leaped back from the blaze that suddenly enveloped his aeroplane and then ran toward Tom's machine. As he leaped upon the engine hood, which he could do with little more risk than boarding a swiftly moving trolley car, there was a burst of rifle fire from the cavalry, some of which had reached the scene.
Jack gave a gasping cry, and fell limp. He almost slipped from the motor hood, but with one hand Tom quickly fastened his companion's life belt to the support and then, knowing Jack could not fall off, opened his engine wide.
Across the ground the double-loaded craft careened, while the cavalry opened fire.
"If they hit me now, it's all up with both of us!" thought Tom desperately.
But though the bullets splattered all around him, and some hit the machine, neither he nor Jack was struck again, nor was any vital part of the machinery damaged. Poor Jack, though, seemed lifeless, and Tom feared he had arrived the fraction of a minute too late.
Then up rose Tom's plane, up and up, the powerful engine doing its best, though the machine was carrying double weight. But the Nieuports are mechanical wonders, and once the craft was free of the earth it began climbing. Fortunately there were no swift German machines near enough to give effective chase, though some of the heavier bi-motored craft opened fire, as did the cavalry from below, as well as some of the anti-aircraft guns.
But Tom, keeping on full speed, soon climbed up out of danger, and then swung around for a flight toward his own lines. He could see, ahead of him, the fleet of French planes, going back after the raid on the big guns. Tom's plane was the rearmost one.
Then he knew that he was safe! But he feared for Jack!
One after another, such as were left of the raiding party landed. Their comrades crowded around them, congratulating them with bubbling words of joy. Yet there was sorrow for those that did not return.
"Is he dead?" asked Tom, as orderlies quickly unstrapped Jack, and prepared to carry him to the hospital. "Is he dead?"
"Alive, but badly wounded," said a surgeon, who made a hasty examination.
And then all seemed to become dark to Tom Raymond.
"Well, Jack, old man, how do you feel?"
"Oh, pretty good! How's yourself?"
"Better, now that they've let me in to see you."
"You got the big guns, I understand."
"You mean you did, too. It was as much your doings as mine. Yes, we sprayed 'em good and proper. They won't fire on Paris again right away, but I suppose they'll not give up the trick, once they have learned it. But we have their number all right. Now you want to hurry up and get well."
Jack was in the hospital recovering from several bullet wounds. They had not been as dangerous as at first feared, but they were bad enough. Tom had come to see him and give some of the details of the great raid, which Jack had been unable to hear because of weakness. Now he was convalescing.
"What's the idea of hurry?" asked Jack. "Are we going after more big cannon?"
"No, this is a different stunt now. We're going over the Rhine."
"Over the Rhine?" and Jack sat up in bed.
"Monsieur—I must beg—please do not excite him!" exclaimed a pretty nurse, hurrying up. "The doctor said he must keep quiet."
"But I want to hear about this," insisted Jack. "Over the Rhine! Say, that'll be great! Carrying the war into the enemy's country for fair!"
"I'll tell you a little later," promised Tom, moving away in obedience to an entreaty from the nurse.