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"There, there," said the man soothingly, "of course you're not spies. I didn't intend to have you understand that you would be acting the part of spies in giving me the trifle of information I wanted. You failed to understand me, that's all."
"Well, then," replied Ned, "I apologize. I thought you were asking me about the German troops and their movements."
"So I was," went on the man. "I wanted to know so that the good people of this stricken village could be prepared."
"How could the people of this village resist the Germans?" asked Ned wonderingly. "I don't see any fighting men about."
"That's just the point," pursued the other. "All the men and boys capable of carrying weapons or doing anything like a man's job at any kind of work have been drafted by the Germans."
"Then what's the excitement about?" put in Jack impatiently. "We can't see why you or the village people should worry if the Germans have taken everything that can be taken."
"You don't understand, I see," continued the other. "The Germans have left here only women and children and very old men. They even took away with them such food supplies as could be transported easily. Now there is very little grain left, and with it perhaps a few potatoes and other things. But all the cattle and other food supply has been removed. The villagers are on the point of starving."
"Won't the soldiers feed them when they come--that is, if they're actually coming?" inquired Jack, presenting his own solution of the case.
"We are afraid they will not," was the answer. "They have not a very savory reputation here. It is the intention of the remaining people to escape to the country, taking with them whatever they can carry, when they know the Germans are again moving in this direction."
"Why, then, don't they go now and be done with it?" asked Ned.
"Evidently you do not understand the characteristics of this people or their love of their home, no matter how humble it may be," was the answer. "If you only understood the fact that these good people have a gentler side to their nature and that their love of home and family is fully as great as you will find in your own country, you would not need to ask such a question. It is a most serious matter to most if not all of these people to go away from their homes."
"But I don't see that any information we can give you would be of the slightest assistance at this time," objected Ned.
"It would give us time to prepare for the intended flight."
"I can't see it," argued Ned. "You seem to know that the Germans are moving westward from Peremysl. That is more than we know."
"We know that they have been successful in their assault on the town, and we understand that the capture of that stronghold will leave many troops free for use at other points. What can be more natural than that they should leave Peremysl in the hands of a force sufficient to guard it against any possible attack by the Russians and rush the remainder of their troops to other points where they are needed--say a few regiments at strategic points like Verdun?"
As he finished speaking the man glanced casually about the place, as if observing a passer-by. Ned and his companions exchanged quick looks of inquiry. Using the mute language in which the boys were adept, Ned flashed a question at his chums.
"What do you suppose he wants?" he asked. Then in the same manner he went on: "Be careful. I mistrust this fellow! He is not square!"
Jack and Harry had only time to nod their understanding of the message before the man again turned to them and went on:
"So you see, don't you, that you would be rendering a real aid to a stricken and starving people by giving us whatever information you may have about the movements of the German troops?"
"No, I can't say that I do," replied Ned positively. "You seem to have plenty of information on hand right now to enable you to make any necessary preparations for the advent of the Germans if such a thing should happen. For myself, I don't believe that the Germans would visit this place a second time. It isn't at all likely."
"And why not, pray?" was the man's query.
"For the same reason that lightning doesn't strike twice in the same place and a mule doesn't kick twice in the same place--they don't have to," was Ned's quiet answer. "That's a good reason, isn't it?"
Although Ned's answer had been made in a quiet tone, the words were full of meaning, and it was apparent to all that the man was capable of understanding the firmness and resolve in Ned's manner and voice.
"So, then, you refuse to give me any information concerning the movement of the troops?" went on the other with an air of finality. "Of course, I suppose you realize that the result of a German raid on this town would be laid at your door if an inquiry were made? The good people here are not so ready to forgive as you may imagine. If you have information that would help them to safety and do not give it, could you blame them if they felt rather unfriendly toward you?"
"Now see here, Mister--whatever your name is--," began Ned, slightly nettled, "we came here only to find a place to buy some gasoline and some food. We are not in this country as spies, and we have repeatedly declined to give information to either side. We can't start now."
"All right, then," said the man, nodding his head slightly, "have your own way about it. But," he went on, "if you fail to make any purchases such as you desire, please don't blame anyone but yourselves."
With these words he turned on his heel and left the three lads staring after him in amazement. He proceeded quickly, and was soon out of sight behind a house slightly larger than the others.
"Well, he told us where we were, at any rate," said Ned with a huge sigh as the man disappeared from their view. "He's generous!"
"Nix on the sarcasm," counseled Harry; "it strikes me that we are in a pretty tight fix right now. That fellow won't do a thing but make it interesting for us if he gets half a chance."
"You're right, Harry," put in Jack with vigor. "Do you know, boys, I wouldn't object to making a little bet that our visitor is a German himself, put here for the purpose of keeping an eye on everything that goes on. He was just trying to pump us, that's all."
"Do you really think so?" asked Ned. "He seemed all right at first."
"I thought so, too," went on Jack, "but did you notice how rather uppish he got when we wouldn't tell him all we know and then some?"
"He was inclined to get rather dictatorial toward the last," admitted Ned. "Come to think about it, he didn't look like an ordinary villager at that. Wonder who he could have been."
"I'm not wondering so much at who he could have been as what he's liable to do," was Jack's answer. "I began to suspect him just the minute you warned us. I'm glad we didn't tell him anything."
"Let's get out of here, boys," suggested Harry. "If that fellow is within fourteen rows of apple trees of the truth and this village is deserted by all the able-bodied men, we won't have much chance of getting gasoline or food or information at this place."
"What shall we do?" asked Ned. "What is your idea?"
"I move we go back to the Eagle and 'get out of town'."
"Second the motion," cried Jack eagerly. "I don't like this place a little bit! Let's be going now."
"All right, then; right about face, march!" commanded Ned.
All three boys wheeled and started back in the direction they had come. They traveled at a good pace for the first few moments.
Jack even essayed to whistle "Tipperary" between his teeth to help them along. With visions of a speedy departure from that neighborhood in their minds, the boys swung along at a good pace.
Suddenly they were startled to hear the report of a rifle and to be greeted by the peculiar tearing sound made by a bullet in its flight through the air. Almost as if actuated by a common impulse the three lads crouched low and broke into a run.
Again came the report of the rifle and the noise of a bullet speeding on its errand of death. As Jack had stooped to run he had taken a quick glance over his shoulder. Now he closed in nearer to Ned.
"That fellow is in the house on our right," he panted. "I saw the flash of the gun as he fired that time."
Ned's only reply was a quick nod. He did not waste breath in making a reply where none was needed. For answer he merely extended his hand to administer a touch of encouragement on Jack's shoulder.
By this time darkness had settled almost completely over the place, and the boys found running in the not over-excellent highway a task that required every ounce of their strength and agility.
Presently Ned slackened speed. His companions did likewise.
"Whew!" the boy panted. "That was rather exciting, wasn't it?"
"Sure was," came Harry's labored answer. "But we ought to be somewhere near the Eagle by this time," he added.
"I think I recognize those trees there now," Ned put in as the three advanced at a walk. "Let's get into the field and be on our way just as quickly as we can. I don't like to be shot at."
"Do you think we have gasoline enough for an extended flight?" asked Harry anxiously. "We'd feel nice to get caught with a flat tire or something a mile up in the air."
"We have plenty, I think," was Ned's answer. "We can gauge the tank easily enough if we can't see the indicator."
"Ha, there she is now!" exclaimed Jack as the three boys broke through the growth of underbrush and entered the field where the Eagle had been left. "She's closer in than I thought," he went on.
"Well, distances are mighty deceptive in the darkness," explained Ned. "It is very easy to be mistaken on a little matter like that."
"All right, Boss," was Jack's answer in a relieved tone, now that he was again near their beloved plane. "Let's have your searchlight."
"Here it is," said Ned, producing the desired article. "Lucky for us that I brought it along. Better start the engine with the muffler on. We don't want the remaining villagers to come storming up here."
Ned handed the searchlight to Jack and then prepared to make ready for the anticipated flight by buttoning his coat tightly at the throat. He knew that the damp chilliness of night would be uncomfortable. Just as Ned and Harry were preparing to assist their chum they were startled to hear him cry out in surprise:
"This isn't the Eagle, boys! This is a strange machine!"
"What?" gasped the two boys on the ground. "A strange machine?"
"Certainly. Look here! Why," Jack continued, "I actually believe it's a German aeroplane! Now, what do you think of that!"
"Then in that case there are Germans near," decided Ned instantly.
"Say, boys, I have an idea!" was Harry's excited statement.
"All right, let's have it," requested Jack. "Such rare occurrences should deserve special mention. We'll mention you in the log of the trip. Perhaps you'll have a medal struck off just for that."
Although the lads were in a situation that was anything but pleasant, Jack could not resist the temptation to have a little fun.
"Let's take the German gasoline and put it into our tanks," went on Harry, without giving attention to the attempted joke.
"Good idea!" declared Ned in lower tones. "But where's the Eagle?"
"I think I can see it right over there," said Harry, pointing.
It was even as the lad said. Their own machine lay not far from the one they were examining. Working quickly, the lads produced a bucket from the Eagle and in a short time had located the drain cock at the bottom of the German plane's fuel tank.
They had successfully transferred several loads of the precious fluid to the tank of the Eagle, working with extreme caution, when Jack gave a warning hiss from his post at the hedge screening the field.
"They're coming!" he cried in a whisper as he hurried up.
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