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CHAPTER XXIV


PRISONERS


Under the evening stars, the two big Italian machines slowly, and, it must be said, somewhat ponderously, as compared with a speedy Nieuport, winged their way toward the German river, behind which it was hoped, some day, to drive the savage Huns.

"What do you think?" asked Jack of his chum, for in these latest machines, by reason of the motors being farther from the passengers, and by means of tubes, some talk could be carried on.

"I don't know just what to think," was the answer. "So much has happened of late, that it's almost beyond my thinking capacity."

"That's right. And yet I can guess one thing you have in mind, Tom, old scout."

"What is it?"

"Your father! You're hoping you can rescue him."

"That's right, I am. And as soon as this drive is over—if we come back from it with any measure of success, and I can get a long leave of absence—I'm going to make a thorough search for him."

"And I'll be with you; don't forget that!"

There was not time for too much talk of a personal nature, as Tom and Jack had to give their attention to the great plane. The motors were working to perfection, and with luck they should, within a few hours, be over the great German works, which they hoped to blow up.

Tom was in charge of the plane, but he had Jack and others to help him, and there was a certain freedom of movement permitted, not possible in even the big photographing or bombing planes.

Down below little could be seen, for they were now over the French and German trenches, and neither side was showing lights for fear of attracting the fire of the other.

But Tom and Jack had been coached in the course they were to take and, in addition, they had a pilot who, a few weeks before, had made a partially successful raid in the region beyond the Rhine, barely escaping with his life.

And so they flew on under the silent stars, that looked like the small navigating lights on other aeroplanes. But, as far as the raiders knew, they were the only ones aloft in that particular region just then. They had risen to a good height to avoid possible danger from the German anti-aircraft guns. There was not much danger from the German planes, as, of late, the Huns had shown no very strong liking for night work, except in necessary defense.

Off to the left Tom and Jack could see the other big Italian plane, in charge of Haught. It carried only small navigating lights, carefully screened so as to be invisible from below.

"I suppose you understand the orders," said Tom, speaking to Jack.

"Well, we went over them; but it wouldn't do any harm to refresh my memory. You're to be in general charge of the navigation of the plane, and I'm to see to dropping the bombs—is that it?"

"That's it. You'll have to use your best judgment when it comes to your share. I'll get you over the German works and railroad centers, as nearly as I can in the dark, and then it will be up to you."

"I hope I don't fail," said Jack, speaking through the tube.

"You won't. Don't get nervous. Any kind of a hit will throw a scare into the Huns, and make them feel that they aren't the only ones who can make air raids. But in this case we're not bombing a defenseless town, and killing women and children. This is a fortified place we're going over, and it's well defended."

"Some difference," agreed Jack.

"And if we can get some direct hits," went on Tom, "and blow to smithereens some of their munition or armament factories, we'll be so much nearer to winning the war."

And that, in brief, was the object of the flight over the Rhine.

Once more the boys fell silent.

On and on swept the planes. Whether the Germans beneath were aware of the danger that menaced them, it is impossible to say. But they made no attempt to fire on the Italian craft. Probably because of the darkness, and owing to the great height at which they flew, the Huns were in ignorance of what was taking place.

On and on in the night and beneath the silent stars they flew. Now Tom and the pilot began watching for some landmark—some cluster of lights which would tell them their objective was within sight. But for another hour nothing was done save to guide the big craft steadily onward.

Once, as Jack looked down, he saw what seemed to be a city, and he thought this might be the place where the great factories were situated.

"No, it's an important town," Tom said, in answer to his chum's inquiries, "but it is only a town—not a fortress, as the Huns call London. That isn't fair game for us."

But half an hour later the pilot spoke sharply, and gave an order. He pointed downward and ahead and there a faint glow, and one that spread over a considerable area, could be made out.

"That is where we are to drop the bombs," said Tom to Jack.

The other machine, which had flown somewhat behind the one in which were the two chums, now swerved over at greater speed. Her pilot, too, had picked up the objective.

And now began the most dangerous part of the mission. For it would not do to drop the bombs from too great a height. There was too much risk of missing the mark. The planes must descend, and then they would be within range of the defensive guns.

But it had to be done, and the order was given. As Jack and Tom went lower, in company with the other plane, they observed that they were over a great extent of factory buildings, where German war work was going on.

And now the noise of their motors was heard. Searchlights flashed out below them, and stray beams picked them up. Then the anti-aircraft guns began to bark.

"We're in for a hot time!" cried Jack.

"You said it!" echoed Tom, as he steered the great plane to get into an advantageous position.

Through a glare of light, and amid a hail of shots, the great airships rushed down to hover over the German factories. They would not let go their bombs until in a position to do the most damage, and this took a little time.

"How about it, Tom?" asked Jack, for he was anxious to begin dropping the bombs.

"Just another minute. We'll go down a little lower, and so do all the more damage."

And down the airship went. She was hit several times, for shrapnel was bursting all around, but no material damage was done, though one of the observers was wounded.

"Now!" suddenly signaled Tom.

"There they go!" shouted Jack, and he released bomb after bomb from the retaining devices.

Down they dropped, to explode on striking, and the loud detonations could be heard even above the roar of the motors. Tom noted that the other machine was also doing great destruction, and he saw that their object had been accomplished.

Several fires broke out below them in different parts of the factory property, and soon the Germans had to give so much attention to saving what they could, that their fire against the hostile airships noticeably slackened.

"Any more bombs left, Jack?" asked Tom.

"A few," answered his chum.

"Let 'em have it now. We're right over a big building that seems to be untouched."

Down went the bombs, and such an explosion resulted that it could mean but one thing. They had set off a munition factory. This, as the boys afterward learned, was the case.

So great was the blast that the great plane skidded to one side, and a moment later there came a cry of alarm from some of the crew.

"What's the matter?" shouted Tom.

"Out of control," was the answer. "One of the motors has stopped, and we've got to go down."

"Can't we go up?"

"No!" was the despairing answer. "We've got to land within the German lines."

And down the great Italian plane went, while her sister ship of the air sailed safely off, for it would have been foolhardy for her to have tried to come to the rescue.

The crew worked desperately to send their craft up again, but it was useless. Lower and lower she went, fortunately not being fired at, so great was the confusion caused by the destruction of the factories.

"Take her down as far away as possible from this scene," said Tom to one of his men. "If we land in a lonely place we may be able to make repairs and get up again."

"I will," was the answer.

Through the light from the burning buildings, a spot in a level field was selected for a landing. And down the Italian plane went.

A hasty examination showed little wrong with the motor, and this little was quickly repaired.

But the hope of getting the airship to rise again was frustrated, for just as the raiding party was about to take its place in the machine again, a company of German soldiers came running over the fields, demanding the surrender of the intrepid men of the air. There was nothing else to do—no time to set the craft on fire.

So it fell into the hands of the Germans! Tom, Jack and the others were prisoners!