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CHAPTER XXV


THE ESCAPE


"Well, this is tough luck!"

"Tough is no name for it, Jack. It's the worst ever! I don't suppose they'll do a thing to us after what we did to the factories."

"No. We certainly scotched 'em good and proper. Everything went off like a tea party, except our coming down. And we could have gotten up again, only those Germans didn't give us a chance."

"You can't blame 'em for that."

"No, I suppose not. But it's hard lines. I wonder why they're keeping us here?"

Tom and Jack were talking thus while held prisoners by the Germans, after the airship raid over the Rhine. It was an hour after they had been forced to descend.

So sudden had been the rush of the German infantry that no chance was had to destroy the great Italian plane, and it, and all the crew, including the two Air Service boys, had been overpowered, and disarmed. They were thrust into what might pass for a guardhouse, and then, a guard having been posted, the other soldiers hurried back to aid in fighting the fire which had been started in the great factories, and which was rapidly spreading to all the German depot.

"Well, it's worth being captured to think of the damage we've inflicted on the Huns this night," observed Jack, as he stood with Tom in the midst of their fellow prisoners.

"That's right. We don't need to be ashamed of our work, especially as we've helped put the big guns out of business. I reckon the Boches won't treat us any too well, when they know what we've done."

"And the other plane got away, they tell me," observed one of the French crew.

"Yes, I saw her rise and light out for home, after dropping a ton or so of bombs on this district," said Tom. "Well, she can go back and report a success."

"And let the folks know we're prisoners," said Jack. "It's tough luck, but it had to be, I suppose! We're lucky to be alive."

"You said it," agreed Tom. "We came through a fierce fire, and it's a wonder that we weren't all shot to pieces. As it is, the plane is as good as ever."

"Yes, and if we could only get out to it, and start it going we could escape," observed one of the Frenchmen bitterly. "There she is now, on as good a starting field as one could wish!"

From their stockade of barbed wire they could look out and see, by the glare of the flames, that the great plane stood practically undamaged. A good landing had been made, but, unfortunately, in the midst of the German ammunition depot section.

"Whew, that was a fierce one!" exclaimed Jack, as a loud explosion fairly shook the place where they were held prisoners. Some ammunition went up that time."

Indeed the explosion did seem to be a disastrous one, for there was considerable shouting and the delivering of orders in German following the blast. Many of the soldiers who had been summoned to stand on guard about the barbed-wire stockade, where the captured raiders were held, were summoned away, leaving only a small number on duty.

But as these were well armed, and as the wire stockade was a strong one, and as Jack, Tom and the others had nothing with which to make a fight, they were as safely held as though guarded by a regiment.

"There goes another!" cried Jack, as a second detonation, almost as loud as the first, shook the ground. "Some of our bombs must have been time ones."

"No," said Tom. "What's probably happening is that the fire is reaching stores of ammunition, one after the other. This whole place may go up in a minute."

That seemed to be the fear on the part of the Germans, for more orders were shouted, and all but two of the soldiers guarding the captives were summoned away from the wire stockade.

There had been a bright flare of fire after the second explosion, but this soon died away, and the shouts and commands of the officers directing the fire-fighting force could be heard.

Tom and Jack were standing near the wire barrier trying to look out to see what was going on beyond a group of ruined factory buildings, and at the same time casting longing eyes at the great aeroplane which seemed only waiting for them, when the two boys became aware of a figure which appeared to be slinking along the side of the stockade. This figure acted as though it desired to attract no attention, for it kept as much as possible in the shadows.

"Did you see that?" asked Jack of his chum in a low voice.

"Yes. What do you make it out to be?"

"He isn't a German soldier, for he isn't in uniform. Have any of our crowd found a way out of this place by any chance?"

"I don't know. If they have—"

The boy's words were broken off by a low-voiced call from the slinking figure. It asked:

"Are you American, French or English prisoners?"

"Some of each variety," answered Jack, while at the sound of that voice Tom Raymond felt a thrill of hope.

"If you get out, is there a chance for you to get away in your aircraft?" the figure in the shadow questioned. "Be careful, don't let the guards hear."

"There are only two, and they're over at the front gate," said Jack, as Tom drew nearer in order better to hear the tones of that voice. "They seem more occupied in watching the fire than in looking at us," went on Jack.

"Good!" exclaimed the man. "Now listen. I am an American, and I was captured by the Germans, through spy work, some time ago, in Paris. I was brought here, and they have been trying to force me to disclose the secret of some of my inventions.

"I refused, and was sentenced to be shot to-morrow. But to-night you fortunately raided this place. My prison was one of the places to be blown up, and I managed to escape, without being hurt much. I heard that they had captured the crew of one of the airships, and I came to see if I could help. They don't know yet that I'm free, and I have two hand grenades.

"Now listen carefully. I'll throw the grenades at the front gate. By shattering that it may be possible for you to get out. The two sentries will have to take the chances of war. If you get out can you get away in your airship?"

"Yes, and we can take you with us—Dad!" exclaimed Tom in a tense whisper.

"Who speaks?" hoarsely asked the man in the shadow of the stockade.

"It is I—your son—Tom Raymond! Oh, thank heaven I have found you at last!" exclaimed Tom, and he tried to stretch his hand through the barbed wire, but it was too close.

"Is it really you, Tom, my boy?" asked Mr. Raymond in a broken voice, full of wonder.

"Yes! And to think I should find you here, of all places!" whispered Tom. "I won't stop now to ask how it happened. Can you throw those grenades at the gate?"

"I can, and will! Tell your friends to run back to the far end of the stockade to avoid being hurt. I can crouch down behind some of the ruined walls."

Tom and Jack quickly communicated the good news to their friends, that a rescue was about to be attempted. It was a desperate chance, but they were in the mood for such.

The two guards alone remaining of the force that had been posted about the stockade were so distracted by the fires and explosions around them, and so fearful of their own safety, that they did not pay much attention to the prisoners. So when Tom and Jack passed the word, and the airship crew ran to the end of the stockade and crouched down to avoid injury when the hand grenades should be exploded, the guards paid little attention.

Mr. Raymond, for it was indeed he, crawled to a position of vantage, and then threw the hand grenades. They were fitted with short-time fuses, and almost as soon as they fell near the stockade gate they exploded with a loud report. A great hole was torn in the ground, and one of the sentries was killed while the other was so badly injured as to be incapable of giving an alarm. The gate was blown to pieces.

"Come on!" cried Tom to his friends, as he saw what his father had done. "It's now or never, before they rush in on us."

They raced to the breach in the wire wall of the stockade. Mr. Raymond, springing up from where he had taken refuge behind a pile of refuse, was there to greet those he had saved, and he and Tom clasped hands silently in the gloom that was lighted up by the fires and the bursts of light from the munition explosions.

"Oh, Dad! And it's really you!" murmured Tom.

"Yes, my boy! I never expected to see you again. Did you know I was here?"

"I never dreamed of it! But don't let's stop to talk. We must get to the airship at once! But you are wounded, Dad!"

"Nothing but a splinter from a bomb. It's only a cut on the head. Son," and Mr. Raymond wiped away the blood that trickled down on his face.

The newly freed prisoners lost no time. With a rush they made for the airship. If they could only get aboard and start it off all would yet be well. Could they do it?

Momentary silence had followed the detonation of the two hand grenades thrown by Mr. Raymond, but now there came yells of rage from the Germans, disclosing that they had become aware of what was going on.

"Lively, everybody!" cried Tom, as he led the way to the big plane.

"Are we all here?" asked Jack.

A rapid count showed that not one of the brave force had been left behind.

"Is there room for me?" asked Mr. Raymond.

"Well, I should say so!"

"If there isn't I'll stay behind," cried Jack.

"No you won't!" exclaimed Tom. "There'll be room all right!"

The running men reached the plane just as they could see, in the light of the burning factories, a squad of Germans rushing to intercept them. In haste they scrambled aboard, and pressed the self-starter on the engine. There was a throbbing roar, answered by a burst of fire from the German rifles, for the place had been so devastated that no machine guns were available just then.

"All aboard?" asked Tom, as he stood ready to put the motors at full speed and send the craft along the ground, and then up into the air

"All aboard—we're all here!" answered Jack, who had kept count. And Mr. Raymond was included.

Then with a louder roar the motors jumped to greater speed, and the Italian plane started off. In another instant it rose into the air.

With yells of rage the Germans even tried to hold it back with their hands, and, failing, they increased their fire. But though the plane was hit several times, and two on board shot, one later dying from his wounds, the whole party got off. A few minutes later they were above the burning factories, and had a view of the great destruction wrought on the German base. So completely destroyed was it that few defense guns were left in condition to fire at the aeroplane.

"Well, we did that in great shape!" exclaimed Jack, as they were on their way over the Rhine again.

"Couldn't have been better," conceded Tom. "And, best of all, we have dad with us."

"How did it all happen?" asked Jack.

"I don't know. We'll hear the story when we are safe in France."

And safe they were as the gray morning broke. They arrived just as the crew of the other plane were relating, with sorrow, the fall of Tom, Jack and their comrades, and the rejoicing was great when it was known they were safe, and had not only outwitted the Huns, but had brought away a most important prisoner.

"And now let's hear how it all happened," begged Major de Trouville, when the injured had been made as comfortable as possible. There were three of these, and one dead on the plane that returned first.

The story of the attack on the German base was given in detail, and then Mr. Raymond took up the tale from the point where he had landed in Europe.

He had started for Paris, just as he had written Tom, and had taken lodgings in the Rue Lafayette. He went out just before the starting of the bombardment by the big gun, and so escaped injury, but he fell into the hands of some German spies, who were on his trail, and who succeeded, after having drugged him, in getting him into Germany.

The spies had succeeded in getting on the trail of a new invention Mr. Raymond had perfected, and which he had offered to the Allies. He had come to Paris on this business. The Huns demanded that he devote it to their interests, but he refused, and he had been held a prisoner over the Rhine, every sort of pressure being brought to bear on him to make him accede to the wishes of his captors.

"But I refused," he said, "and they decided I should be shot. Whether this was bluff or not I don't know. But they never got a chance at me. In the night I heard, in my prison, the sound of explosions, and I soon realized what had happened. It was your bold airship raid, and one of the bombs burst my prison. I ran out and saw the Italian planes in the air.

"What then happened you know better than I, but what you probably do not know is that you very likely owe your lives to a dispute that arose between the German infantry and the air squadron division," and he indicated Tom, Jack and the others who had been in the stockade.

"How was that?" asked Jack.

"The airmen claimed you as their prey, and the infantrymen said they were entitled to call you theirs. So, even in the midst of the fire and destruction, the commandant had to order you put in the stockade until he could decide whose prisoners you were. The infantrymen said they had captured you, but the airmen said their fire had brought down your plane."

"Well, that was partly true," said Tom. "But it was an explosion from below that knocked us out temporarily. But we're all right now. And so are you, aren't you, Dad?"

"Yes, but I worried a lot, not knowing what had happened to you, Tom, and being unable to guess what would happen to me. I was in the hands of clever and unscrupulous enemies. How clever they were you can judge when I tell you they took me right out of Paris. Perhaps the bombardment made it easier. But tell me—what of the big guns?"

"Some of them are out of commission, thanks to your brave boy and his comrades," said Major de Trouville.

"Good!" cried Mr. Raymond. "Some rumor to that effect sifted in to me there, but it seemed too good to be true. The Germans must be wild with rage."

"I guess they are," admitted Jack.

"And it would have gone hard with you if they had found you were the ones responsible," went on Tom's father. "As soon as I was out of my prison and saw the state of affairs, I managed to get the grenades, and I decided to rescue the airship men if I could. I never dreamed my own son would be among them, or that I might be brought away."

And now it but remains to add that because of their exploits Tom and Jack received new honors at the hands of the grateful French, and, moreover, were promoted.

Mr. Raymond, who had steadfastly refused to reveal the secret of his invention to the Huns, immediately turned it over to the Allies.

Word of Mr. Raymond's safety and of the success of Tom and Jack was sent to those in Bridgeton, and that city had new reasons for being proud of her sons.

But the war was not over, and the Germans might be expected to develop other forms of frightfulness besides the long-range guns, which, for the time being, were silenced. However, the destruction of the factories and ammunition stores by the raid over the Rhine was a blow that told heavily on the Hun.

"Well, it seems there's another vacation coming to us," said Tom to Jack one morning, as they walked away from the breakfast table in their mess.

"Yes? Well, I think we can use it. What do you say to a run into Paris to see your father? He's surely there now, and I'd like to have a talk with him."

"With—him?" asked Tom, and there was a pecular smile on his face.

"Of course," said Jack.

"Oh," was all Tom answered, but he laughed heartily.

And so, with Tom and Jack on their way to Paris, for a brief respite from the war, we will take leave of them for a time. That they were destined to take a further part in the great struggle need not be doubted, for the Air Service boys were not the ones to quit until the world had been made a decent place in which to live.


THE END