Chapter X. The Dark Road to Peking
 

Half an hour later the American consul, Captain Martin, and Ned sat in a private room at the consulate. The marines and Jimmie and Hans were in the large outer room.

The cablegram from Washington lay open on a table with a translation by its side. It read:

"Proceed to Peking immediately and report to the American ambassador. Keep within reach of the flying squadron. Avoid complications with the natives. Look out for plots to delay your party. Important that you should reach Peking at once. Wire conditions."

"Not much news in that," said Ned. "Guess we've met all the trouble the Washington people anticipated."

"Shall you go on to-night?" asked the Captain.

"Certainly."

"It is a dark, rainy night," the consul warned, "and the highways of China are none too safe, even in daylight, for American messengers who are insufficiently guarded."

"We'll look out for our part of the game," Captain Martin laughed.

"We'll, keep close together," advised the consul. "You will meet trouble on the way. The men who bribed the telegraph people will not get into the discard now. You'll find their hirelings waiting out on the dark road to Peking."

Ned pointed to the dispatch.

"We've got to go," he said. "I can't tell you how thankful I am to have met a true American here," he added, extending his hand to the consul. "I shall tell the story of to-night in the State department at Washington when I get back."

"Well, get it straight," laughed the consul. "Say that a blundering German boy, who said he was a Boy Scout from Philadelphia, nearly dragged me out of bed about midnight and informed me that other Boy Scouts were in trouble at the telegraph office. I knew that Ned was expected here, and so lost no time in getting down. That's all. The marines did the rest."

"Save for that beautiful bluff of yours!" laughed Ned. "But how in the Dickens did Hans ever get to you? How did he know where to go? How did he get to Tientsin, anyway?"

"Give it up!" smiled the consul. "You might as well ask me who got the marines out just in the nick of time."

"Jimmie did that, of course," replied Ned. "I think I know all about it now," he added. "We saw Hans in a room opening on the court. The little fellow burglarized the window and found Hans. I don't know how Hans got there, but Jimmie found him, anyway. Then the kid told his story and Hans went to the consul and Jimmie went after the flying squadron. I have a notion that this is the way it came about."

In this supposition Ned was exactly right, for Jimmie had found Hans in the room off the court and the two had planned their movements just as Ned explained. The only mystery was as to how Hans got to the Tientsin house and the room where he was found.

"We'll learn all about that in time," Ned added. "Now we must be off. By the way, I wonder where Jack and Frank are? I haven't seen them since I left the camp. In the rush of events I quite forgot to ask for them."

"Just wait until I talk with one of the boys out here," the Captain said. "Probably Jimmie is already telling them of his adventures."

But when the door was opened and Jimmie questioned he opened his eyes wide in wonder. The Captain drew him into the private room.

"Say," the boy said, excitement in voice and manner, "didn't you leave Frank and Jack at the camp when you left?"

"Why, I left when you did," was the reply. "They were there then."

Jimmie sprang to the door and beckoned the second in command into the room. By this time both Ned and the consul were on their feet.

"Where did you leave Frank and Jack?" asked Ned, as the officer entered the apartment.

"They left us," replied the officer, with hesitation. "We made our beds of blankets and tumbled in, leaving one man on guard. When I turned in the boys were in their bunks. When Jimmie awoke us, they were nowhere to be seen. They probably sneaked off to have a look at Tientsin by night--and a beautiful time they will have."

"Didn't you see them when you went back?" asked Ned of Jimmie.

"No; I looked for them, and one of the marines told me they had gone on ahead. I'm goin' out an' dig 'em up!"

"You'll make a sweet fist of digging them up in this man's town, at this hour of the night," the consul declared, anxiety showing on his face. "You'll have to leave them, Mr. Nestor," he went on, "and I'll rake the city with a fine tooth comb but I'll find them."

Ned hesitated. There was the cablegram on the table. A delay of an hour or two might not prove serious, but this search for Frank and Jack might occupy days, if not weeks!

It was inconceivable that the boys, disregarding all instructions from the Captain and all warnings from Ned, should have stolen off into the city for a night ramble. They both knew how much depended on the party keeping together and keeping prepared for action.

"They must have had some reason for leaving the camp," Ned said, after a long pause. "They never would have gone away without some object other than amusement, or love of adventure in their minds."

Captain Martin went to the door and stepped out into the main office, facing the marines.

"Boys," he said, in as matter-of-fact tone as he could assume, "what did Frank and Jack say when they left the camp?"

Nine of the men looked up in wonder, but the tenth hastened to answer the question.

"Not a word," he said. "I was on guard, and I saw a young chap come into the little bit of light there was about the old house where we were stopping."

"Who was it?" Ned interrupted.

The marine shook his head.

"I didn't ask him who he was," he said. "He asked where the boys were, and said he was a Boy Scout from Boston, and wanted to see some one from home. I knew that the lads would be as glad to see him as he would be glad to see them, and showed him where they had bunked down in a little dog-house of a shack just outside the house."

"And they went away with this fellow?" asked Ned, anxious to get the story in as few words as possible. "Why didn't you notify the officer then in charge of the squad?"

"I didn't think it was necessary," was the reply. "Well, the kid went to the shack where Frank and Jack were, and I saw them talking together there for a few minutes. Then I saw the three of them pass through the circle of light, walking toward the city, and that's all I know about it. I wasn't under orders to tell them when to go, or where to go, or when not to go. It wasn't for me to interfere."

"Bonehead!" exclaimed Jimmie.

The marine glanced up at the little fellow with a frown.

"Don't you go to abusing me," he said. "I won't stand for it. I was raised a pet!" he added, with a smile, as the boy grinned.

"Stop that!" commanded the Captain, sharply. "If you have told all you know about the matter you may go."

"'Wait," Ned said, as the marine moved toward the door, "I would like to ask a question. Would you know this lad you speak of if you should see him again?"

"I don't think so. It was dark, and he didn't look me squarely in the face."

"That's all," Ned said, turning to the consul. "You'll do what you can to find them?" he asked.

"Sure I will!"

"I can't remain and help you," Ned went on, and there was a tremble in his voice. "I've got my work to do."

"I understand."

"And we'll start right away," Ned continued, "if you are ready, Captain. We ought to be in Peking early in the morning."

"It is a bad road," the consul said, "and you'll find, echoes of the scrap you had here waiting for you along the way. In the language of the cablegram, keep together!"

When all were mounted there were still two vacant cycles--those the missing boys had ridden. Ned pointed to one and spoke to Hans:

"Can you ride?"

"Sure!"

"Then you may take one of the machines and come along with us."

Hans sprang onto one of the motorcycles just as he had observed the others do. Under the impetus of the leap the machine trundled along for a few feet and tipped over, landing Hans on his back with the rear wheel scraping acquaintance with his nose.

"Ouch!" he shouted. "Dake him off! He bites! Vot issit if I hand himone? Vot?"

While the others were laughing at the plight of the German, he made an effort to arise and the machine promptly slid down an incline and sparked and gyrated until Hans' hair fairly stood on end with fright.

"Catch heem!" he shouted. "Catch heem! He runs py the road avay! Dunner! Vot a streets!"

"You mustn't tickle his ribs with your heels when you get on," advised Jimmie. "That always makes him buck. It is a wonder he didn't tramp you when you were down."

"Holy schmoke!" cried Hans. "Vot a nose I vill haf! Me for the walks to Peeging!"

"I guess you'll have to give up going with us"' laughed Ned. "You may remain with the consul until we return. And help him hunt Frank and Jack, will you?"

Hans willingly agreed to this, and, with many handshakes and well-wishes from the consul, the boys were off for Peking. By this time the streets were rather quiet, although they knew that before they could pass beyond the limits of the great, sprawling town with its million of inhabitants dawn would be showing in the sky.

The swift ride through the city was a revelation to the American boys. All was strange with an atmosphere of age and decay. The habitations, save those occupied by foreigner--and these were grouped together--were mostly old and mean. The streets were in bad condition--worse than usual because of the softening effects of the rain--and the lights were, in places, infrequent.

Watchmen patrolling the thoroughfares in the idle manner peculiar to all alleged guardians of the night, gazed menacingly at the machines as they whirled by, talking in their spark language, as Jimmie expressed it, but the uniforms kept them at a respectful distance. Here and there were little tea shops, and before these were groups of natives, circled close together.

It seemed to Ned like a ride through a cemetery, the occupants of which had been awakened to life for an instant and would go back to their graves and their dreamless sleep again as soon as the machines had passed. The weight of ten thousand centuries seemed to hang over the place.

There was a faint line of dawn in the direction of the Yellow Sea when the boys came to the suburbs of Tientsin. Before them lay nearly eighty miles of rough road to the capital city. With good luck, they figured that they could make that in four hours.

Now, at dawn, the road which curved like a ribbon before them, started into life. From field and village streamed forth natives carrying and drawing all kinds of burdens. In that land the poor are obliged to be early astir, and even then the reward of their labors is small.

It was autumn, and the produce of the field was ripe for barter. There were loads attached to horses and loads drawn in carts; there were 'rickshaws, and bundles on backs, and on long poles carried over bent shoulders.

The strange procession of the motorcycles and the marines caused many a surprised halt in the procession of industry. Chinamen stood at one side while the steel horses shot by them, and then gathered in little groups by the wayside to discuss this newest invention of the foreign devils.

The sun rose in a cloudless sky and the earth steamed under its rays, sending back in eddying mist the rain which had poured upon her with such violence the night before. It would be a hot day, notwithstanding the lateness of the season, and the eyes of the boys soon turned to a shaded grove not far from the highway.

"Me for breakfast!" Jimmie declared, and the marines looked as if the lad had echoed their own thoughts.

"We may as well halt a little while," Captain Martin said to Ned, "as my boys are beginning to look empty. They have had a hard night of it, and we can't afford to cultivate any grouches!"

Ned, although he was anxious to go forward, saw good judgment in this and ordered a halt. In five minutes little fires were burning in the grove and the odor of steaming coffee soon rose softly with the mists of the morning.