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UNDER FALSE COLORS
"Well, let 'em come," declared Harry, hastening toward the Eagle with the last load of gasoline. "We are ready for a quick start now, and if they want to see a correct imitation of three boys beating it down the road they'd better hurry. We can't wait much longer."
"Sure!" put in Ned. "Shall we whistle a warning signal to hurry them up a little, or shall we let them miss the boat?"
"Let 'em miss the boat if they can't get here on time," laughed Jack, carrying out the joke, although the case of the lads was apt to become anything but a joke if their presence was discovered by the German soldiers who were approaching at some distance down the road.
"Hurry, boys," cautioned Ned, laying aside his jovial air as he began preparations for departure. "We mustn't get caught now."
"All right, Boss, we're with you every minute," declared Jack.
The boy was already in the fuselage of the Eagle. He reached an eager hand to assist Harry with the gasoline. Harry climbed up to a favorable position and was about to pour the gasoline into the fuel tank while Ned, in his haste to be off, was priming the motors.
Suddenly all three were startled to hear a voice from the rear of the machine they were occupying.
"Halt!" they heard. "Come out of that machine or I fire!"
"Who's that?" asked Jack, pausing in the operation of emptying the fuel. "What do you want and how did you come there?"
"Give her the gas, Ned!" urged Harry. "We're all ready to go and he's on the ground. He can't catch us in a million years."
"I can't make the engine go at all," almost sobbed Ned in his excitement. "Somebody has been monkeying with the machinery."
"Ha, ha!" laughed the newcomer. "So the engine won't run, eh?"
"No, it won't!" snapped Ned as he turned a wrathful face toward the rear of the Eagle to observe the stranger. "Did you do it?"
"Yah!" came the answer. "Mine comrade and myself, ve done tings mit der wires. Dere is no current by der spark plugs alretty!"
"Good night!" was Ned's ejaculation of despair as he realized that the words of the stranger were but too true. "No current!"
"Yah!" laughed the stranger. "But," he added, "we haf current in our guns. Maybe you like dot ve show you. Und ve vill, too, aber you don'd come out of dot machine, und do id quick!"
"I guess it's all up, boys," said Ned forlornly. "We might as well unload. They have got the upper hand of us this time."
"I move we cut and run for it," proposed Jack with spirit. "We could easily beat them in the darkness and amongst the trees."
"I don't think so," cautioned Harry. "They have got help coming up the road, and we don't know how many of them are near here."
"No, boys," counseled Ned, "we'd better try some other stunt. If they get angry at us they might do anything, and we can't stand it to get shot to pieces just now. Remember, Jimmie and Dave need us."
"All right, then, Old Fox," was Jack's reply in a resigned tone, "we'll just trot along as meek as lambs and leave the Eagle to their tender mercies. I tell you, though, I hate to do it."
"Hark! I hear the others coming through the hedge!" said Harry.
"There's quite a bunch of them, to judge by the sound."
"Well, the more the merrier," declared Ned. "In numbers there is strength, I've heard, and perhaps in numbers will come our chance. If they'll only get in one another's way for a while we'll give them an opportunity to hear what a real old-fashioned 'good-by' is like."
"Come oudt, now," commanded the stranger, banging at the framework of the Eagle with a very serviceable looking rifle.
"Coming!" announced Jack as he prepared to descend. Ned and Harry at once followed their comrade, and directly found themselves on the ground, confronted by several men in the uniform of one of the German regiments. The officer in command looked his surprise.
Only a few words were needed from their captor to acquaint the officer with the situation. He laughed immoderately at the apparent joke of the purloiners of his gasoline being caught before they had time to use it. His merriment was infectious, and presently the entire group were giving vent to their feelings.
The three boys felt that they were the object of the soldiers' ridicule, yet they were unable to make any reply, since they did not understand sufficient German to be able to converse with their captors.
When the officer had finally laughed himself tired he gave a command and the soldiers formed about the lads and began escorting them toward the town. Once there, the officer led the way to a house with which he was evidently familiar.
Lights were brought and an examination of the lads was begun. After several preliminary questions the officer found that he had met his match in the matter of wits. Ned declined absolutely to give any information other than that he and his comrades were from the United States and heartily wished to be back there.
"So-o-o," was the astonished comment of the officer. "Und you are neutral and vish to be neutral all the while?"
"Yes, sir," was Ned's reply as he looked the other squarely in the eye. "We are not spies and cannot give you any information."
"But you, would go oudt and start somethings maybe if I let you go."
"No, sir, we wouldn't," declared Ned. "We came to this village and wanted to buy some gasoline and food, but a man we met wouldn't sell any. Instead of that we were shot at as we were leaving."
"Oh, vell," said the officer, waving his hand in a deprecating manner, "who cares about a little ting like dot in var time?"
"Well, if we had got hit by one of the bullets we wouldn't have felt very joyful about it, I can tell you that!" said Ned.
"Und why was it that this man wouldn't sell you the gasoline?"
"I don't know unless it was because we wouldn't answer his questions about the movement of German troops," answered Ned.
"I don't think that was it at all," laughed the officer. "It was those uniforms of yours. You see, they are different than what he was accustomed to seeing, and he probably thought they were Russian."
"Possibly that was it," agreed Ned, although he secretly doubted this flimsy explanation. "Of course, I don't know."
"Yes," the other went on, "I'm sure that was it, and I suggest that the best plan would be to change them. You will therefore remove your uniforms and we will provide you with others more suitable."
"Well, if you please," Ned remonstrated, "we'd much rather take our chances wearing these same uniforms. They're ours and others are not. It wouldn't be very nice to go back on your uniform."
"But you will change, nevertheless," announced the other. "We need those uniforms and you don't. So be quick about it."
At a signal one of the men now came forward bearing an armful of clothes, which he threw down upon the floor in front of the lads.
"Good night!" said Jack as he put on a coarse shirt several sizes too large. "This is no joke at all. Those fellows were laughing a few minutes ago, but they'll laugh worse than ever when they see us."
In fact, the boys had to laugh at each other, so strange was the appearance of the three when they were finally dressed.
"Now," said the officer with a smile, when the exchange of clothing had been arranged, "we shall let you occupy this little room for a time."
He indicated a small room leading from the larger one. It was the room from which the soldier had provided the clothing the boys now wore.
In another moment the lads found themselves alone with the door leading into the outer room securely fastened.
"Just a little bit dark in here, isn't it?" inquired Harry as the door closed and the sound of the falling latch came to their ears.
"Yes, but I managed to smuggle my pocket contents into these clothes," said Ned. "I have the searchlight yet."
"Let's use it, then, and be quick about it," suggested Harry. "I don't somehow like the looks of this place. I'd like to be on the little old Eagle again and homeward bound."
"I guess that's the pretty general sentiment," said Ned as he brought forth the searchlight and proceeded to send its flame into the corners of the room. "We can't get anywhere by remaining here."
"Hello!" exclaimed Harry, lighting upon some boxes in one corner. "What's this stuff here? Looks like a gents' furnishing store."
"Why, it's German uniforms, and lots of 'em!" declared Jack.
"Sure enough, it is!" agreed Harry, pulling several garments from one of the boxes. "Now that looks more like business than these ragged old clothes. I wonder if we could get a fit in here."
"Go as far as you like!" urged Jack. "Throw a fit any old place and see if we care. The house is yours, so help yourself."
"Aw, you go on!" scorned Harry, administering a playful blow on Jack's ear. "If you weren't so small I'd give you a licking."
"Yes, you would!" derisively answered the other. "You have never seen the day you could do that. That," he added, "is a man's job!"
"Boys, boys!" cautioned Ned. "A joke is a joke, but don't carry it too far. We must save our strength for more vital things."
Harry and Jack had been busily engaged in pulling the uniforms out of the box, and now stood erect, each holding in his hands garments that seemed to be of suitable size for the boys to wear.
"What's the trouble now, Jack?" asked Ned.
"Why, I can't see whether these clothes are the right size or not."
"You don't need to see," retorted Ned. "Try them on and they'll be like the baby in the story."
"Oh, I know that!" cried Harry eagerly. "The nurse didn't need a thermometer, because if the water was too hot the baby turned red and if it was too cold he turned blue. Is that the answer?"
"Right you are!" declared Ned, laughing. "So we'll try the clothes on, and if they're right they'll fit, and if they're not right, why--"
"Why," interrupted Jack, "if they're not right we should worry."
"Yes, I guess that's about it," answered Ned as he picked up an outfit that he assumed to be the right size.
The boys found little difficulty in getting clothing of suitable sizes, and soon stood forth arrayed in German uniforms.
"Now, then, let's see what the chances of escape may be," said Ned.
A trial of the one small window showed that it was not locked. There appeared to be no one outside guarding the exit, and, since the noises in the outer room had ceased, the lads determined to leave by the window. In a short time they again stood outside the house.
To make their way back to the field where the Eagle had been left was a short task and quickly accomplished. There they found, to their astonishment, that the two aeroplanes remained in the same position and were apparently unguarded.
This time, however, the lads were more cautious in their approach, and reconnoitered the vicinity thoroughly before approaching the plane.
Ned set to work immediately and soon announced that he had again connected the severed wires. In another moment the Eagle rose above the field into the darkness of the night.
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