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- The Boy Allies with Haig in Flanders - 30/33 -
Overhead a few aeroplanes still buzzed -- combat and fire control and staff "observation" machines seeking out their aerodromes in the dark. It grew dark so quickly now that Hal, looking up, saw the colored flash of the signal lights from a pilot's pistol; they burned an instant red and blue and red again as they dropped through the air; and, in response to the signal, greenish white flares gleamed from the ground to the right, outlining the aviation field; then the flying machine, which had signaled, began to come down.
From far beyond the drum fire of artillery rumbled and rattled.
The car ran up a side road and halted before a little hut. Captain O'Neill alighted.
"We bad the misfortune, in the attack this morning," he said, "to lose one of our most useful people. The enemy had employed him, recently, in excavating certain of their great underground stations, which I have mentioned; but last night they had him in a front-line trench, which we took this morning. He has volunteered to return to his post, if we can place him behind the lines, but, I regret, he is in no condition for further service. Therefore, we must send a substitute."
Captain O'Neill led the way into a candle lighted room, where a man was lying in bed. Civilian clothes -- the rags of a French refugee from the other side of the lines -- hung on the wall beside him. The man was very weak, with hands which drooped from the wrist as he half sat up as the captain entered. The man's name, the captain informed the lads, was Jean Brosseau.
Captain O'Neill produced a map, a duplicate of the ones which the lads had been given several days before. The man in bed now detailed to them the exact nature and purpose of the markings and spots. It was all lined off into little squares and oblongs, each described with a letter and number. These were for the guiding of the guns -- because, for each tiny square on the German side of the lines, there was a battery or a couple of batteries behind the French front, whose business was solely to sweep that square with high explosive shells, gas shells and shrapnel, when the battle was on.
To escape those shells, the Germans again were burrowing, Brosseau pointed out. Some places they had burrowed far too deep to be endangered by shells; but their ways of egress were not known. These were covered with camouflage.
Hal took down the shirt from the wall; vermin crawled in it. Captain O'Neill had not made the mistake of having it steamed or washed or disinfected; vermin and filth of underground communications soiled the rags of Jean Brosseau's jacket, his trousers, his cap. Hal, without ceremony, stripped off his uniform and underclothes. His body was clean and without calluses; the cleanliness was soon remedied. Then he dressed, to give him all the time possible to become accustomed to the garments of a French citizen in the hands of the enemy.
The reverberations of the guns outside had increased mightily; they seemed to double again to topmost intensity. Captain O'Neill frowned a little as he heard them and glanced at his watch. A motorcycle clattered up and stopped outside; a man knocked at the door, delivered a message to Captain O'Neill, and departed. Captain O'Neill read the message and tore it to bits. Hal and Chester waited without question; but the sick man had to ask:
"We have lost ground, sir?"
"No, no! All goes well -- very well, except for us here," Captain O'Neill replied. "The time is moved forward; that is all."
He bent again over the map.
"There will not be time now if you are taken far back of the German lines where an aeroplane may come down unobserved. There will not be time," he repeated to Hal, "for you to work forward to the position where you must be."
"What's the matter with coming down near the position where we're wanted?" asked Hal.
"Near their lines?" Captain O'Neill questioned. "There will be men all about, of course; you will be observed."
"What's the matter with coming down observed sir?" said Chester.
"Observed," repeated the captain. "How do you mean?"
"It is something we have talked of before," said Hal. "We have often considered this method of getting a man down inside the German lines, even in a section where discovery is certain. A machine goes up carrying bombs, perhaps; it drops them and attracts anti-aircraft fire. It appears to fall, sir, and comes down in that way."
Captain O'Neill's brows drew together, puzzled, but he was patient.
"But I do not see the advantage," he said.
"It falls in flames, sir," said Hal. "The pilot ignites it when it begins to drop."
"Proceed," Captain O'Neill bade.
"The men found in it are killed," continued Hal "'killed by the shrapnel fire -- also, of course, they burn with the aeroplane. It is, to all observers, a bombing biplane shot down in flames."
"And you think such a plan will succeed?" asked the captain.
"I feel sure of it, sir."
"Well," said Captain O'Neill, "you are the two who must take the chances. You have my permission to adopt your own plans."
OVER THE LINES
"You will carry these with you, of course," said Captain O'Neill, "those who will be found in, the plane?"
"Yes, sir," said Hal. "They need not be aviators, but merely in uniform."
"You drop from the machine as she strikes, I suppose?" said the captain. "She will run after that, of course."
"Certainly it will leave us unsuspected," said Chester. "It will aid our escape. Certainly no one would suspect a man had planned to fall in flames."
"You have suggested enough," said the captain. "Your idea alters much. Meet me in half an hour. Everything will be prepared."
He named a place and left the hut.
Jean Brosseau bent forward in bed, his eyes burning.
"When Captain O'Neill gives you final instructions he may tell you to employ certain people on the other side. Here!" he motioned for the map again, "I shall point out to you where they are."
He took a pencil and made a dot toward the corner of one of the squares.
"In the old military maps a house stood there," he said. "My father's house it was. There was also a stable; there was also a cellar, which the Germans have discovered, but beyond it was an old cellar quite concealed. Our people, at different times, have hidden there. There are both men and women there now. They will help you if they can.
Jean Brosseau fell back on the bed and closed his eyes.
An hour later Hal climbed into the pilot seat of the biplane that Captain O'Neill had placed at their disposal. He felt somewhat uncomfortable in his ragged attire, but he knew that he could not be attired in better costume for the undertaking. Chester also had discarded his civilian clothes and donned rags.
The big "bus," as the airplanes were called, with propeller whirling, lumbered over the ground; the smoothness of flying came to it and, deafened to everything but the clatter of the motor and the thrash of the air-screw, Hal gazed down. Points of light, yellow and red and some almost white, glowed on the ground. Some of these marked villages, encampments; others signified nothing at all -- decoys to attract the "eggs" of the German night flying falcons.
They neared the lines, and the strip of "No Man's Land," with the pocked and pitted streaks of defenses on both sides, gleamed white and spectral green under the star-dashed shells. An infantry attack was going on; Hal could see the shapes of men as they flattened; they were pinched to dots when they jumped up and then they spread out again.
Before them burst the frightful fireworks of their own barrage; behind them, and above, that of the enemy.
Hal shivered in the cold; it was very chill there flying high above the lines, and he wore but the rags of Jean Brosseau. Directly below them the land had become black again, specked only by little points of light, yellow, ruddy, white; some of these, like the lights behind the French lines, perhaps marked hamlets, encampments; others were mere decoy-lights; others -- they showed but for the briefest second when the biplane passed overhead were the guiding lights for the French and American pilots. These were set in chimneys by the French behind the German lines; any light, if seen by Germans and recognized, might cost the annihilation of a family, or a neighborhood; many times such lights had cost such savage penalty. Still, they were set.
Hal and Chester warmed at sight of them this night as never before. They were going to the people who had set those lights.
The biplane banked and circled. Below was the square where the airplane was to be shot down. Troops were moving through those fields, undoubtedly, advancing in single file through communication trenches or dashing from shell hole to shell hole; other troops lingered in dugouts underground. The French batteries played all over those fields, spraying down shrapnel, detonating the frightful charges of high explosives. But at an hour before the appointed time -- at 9 o'clock -- the French batteries would remit their fire for ten minutes upon the square where the biplane should fall. Hal looked at the clock fastened before him. It was two minutes to 9; he could see, directly below, the
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