Chapter VI. With the Flying Squadron
 

"Go around to the front and come in," a voice said--a voice from the room where the boys were. "I've just got here, and am trying to find a light."

There was a rattle of arms outside, then the heavy tread of men still making some pretense, even in the darkness and the rain, of moving in marching order. The men who had come to the assistance of the Boy Scouts were preparing to enter the house.

How would they be received? This was the question uppermost in the minds of all the boys as they waited.

Would they be greeted with treacherous words, or with a murderous fusillade of bullets and knives stabbing in the darkness? It would seem that the Chinamen would hardly dare attack an American military squad, yet these men were outlaws, and there was no knowing what they might do.

The lads heard the marines, as they supposed the newcomers to be, pass around an angle of the old house and stand for an instant talking in the doorway to which they had been directed by the voice of the man on the inside. Frank was preparing to set up a cry of warning, let the consequences be what they might, when the rattle of arms told him that the marines had surrounded the house, and that every door and window was guarded! The men who were guarding the boys evidently knew what was taking place, for they released their clutches on the lads and moved away.

Next came a struggle at the window, and then a strong electric light swept into the room. Jimmie jumped forward and bumped into Ned, who was clambering over the decayed window sill.

There were several shots exchanged on the outside, followed by shouts of both rage and pain, then three men in the uniform of the United States marine service entered the room. One of them picked up Ned's searchlight, which had fallen to the floor when Jimmie bunted its owner, and turned its rays on the mix-up under the window.

There was a flutter of arms and legs, as Frank and Jack, half choking with laughter at the manner in which tragedy had so suddenly and unexpectedly been changed into comedy, pulled Ned and Jimmie apart. Jimmie sat up, wrinkling his nose until one would think it never would smooth out again, and gazed at Ned with provoking grin.

"Gee!" he cried. "I thought I was mixing it with six Chinks! Wonder you wouldn't knock before entering a private room!"

"I did knock," laughed Ned, rising from the floor and taking the flashlight.

"Yes, you knocked me down," grunted Jimmie.

The three marines, standing in the middle of the room with amused faces, regarded the four boys curiously for a moment and then moved out of range of the window. Also Ned was asked to shut off the light.

"We're not out of it yet," one of them said. "Our men chased the Yellow Faces into a bad part of town, and they are likely to be chased back, not by a few, but by a mob! These Chinks like Americans about as much as brook trout love the desert."

"Perhaps I'd better go out an' see what's comin' off," suggested the little fellow.

"You'll only get captured again," Jack suggested, provokingly.

"I ain't got nothin' on you in getting tied up with ropes," Jimmie retorted. "You looked like one of these mummy things when the light was turned on."

The officer in charge of the marines motioned to Jimmie to remain where he was, but the order came too late. Having been relieved of his bonds by Ned's quick fingers, he fairly dived out of the window into the darkness.

"Now there'll be trouble catching him again," complained the officer. "If he doesn't get a hole bored through him, we'll have to hunt the town over to get him out of the Chinks' hands. Why can't you boys behave yourselves?"

"Ruh!" Jack retorted, annoyed at the tone of superiority adopted by the officer. "I guess we've been doing pretty well, thank you! I reckon you fellows must have followed off a cow path! We've been waiting here for you long enough to walk to Peking on our hands!"

"That's the fact!" the officer replied, speaking in a whisper in the darkness. "We were the first ones to fall into the snares set by the Chinks. Only for Ned, we would still be waiting for you in a house something like this one, in a distant part of the town. How the boy found us I can't make out, but find us he did."

"What are you going to do about that runaway kid?" asked Frank of Ned. "Shall I go get him?"

It was not necessary for Ned to reply to the question, for at that moment a figure came tumbling through the window and a voice recognized as that of the little fellow cried out:

"Gee!" he said, feeling about in the darkness, "what do you think of my ruinnin' into a sea soldier an' getting chucked through the hole the carpenter left?"

"If you boy will get ready now," a voice said, "we'll be on, our way toward Peking."

"How many of the Chinks did you catch?" asked Ned.

"Not a blooming one," was the disgusted reply. "They ran away like water leaking into the ground."

"If you'd only let me alone," wailed Jimmie, "I'd have got one. I want to soak the man that tied me up."

The marines, a full dozen of them, now gathered in the old house and all made ready for departure. Directly a motorcycle for every man was wheeled up to the door.

"We have been practicing riding while waiting for you," the officer in charge explained, "and the fellows think they can go some!"

"It is a wild night for such a ride," Frank suggested.

"Couldn't have been better for our purpose," said the officer.

"Do you know why we are going on motorcycles?" asked Ned.

"I think I do," was the reply.

"Why don't you out with it, then?" asked Jack.

"You'll learn of the reason soon enough!" replied the other. "Before we go to Peking you may understand why you are going with a flying squadron of Uncle Sam's men!"

"Who directed you to the house where I found you?" asked Ned.

"A chap who called himself Lieutenant Rae," was the reply.

"Japanese-lookin' chap?" asked Jimmie.

"That's the fellow."

"There's one more question," Ned went on. "Are all the men you took from the ship with you?"

"Every one of my men is here," answered the officer, "but there was a fellow, a friend of yours, with us at first who is not with us now. Queer chap he was, too! German, I think, and a master at tangling up the United States language. He came on board the ship, and managed to get off with us when we left. In two days he disappeared."

"That was Hans!" cried Jack.

"Who's Hans?"

"A German Boy Scout we picked up on an island. A member of the Owl Patrol, of Philadelphia, he said. We left him on the submarine."

"Well, he asked after you boys, and looked disappointed when we did not find you, owing to the misleading statements of that fraud, Rae. He left us without a word of explanation, and is probably looking for you. Did he know where you were going?"

"Yes," admitted Ned, "I told him we were going to Peking by way of Tientsin. I should not have done that."

"Oh, it can do no harm, and may be for your benefit. If the lad was not killed by the Chinks, he is doubtless on his way to Peking."

"Then you think he knew there was something wrong because we did not meet you?" asked Ned.

"Yes; he acted queerly."

"There are evidences of a struggle in this house," Ned went on, "and we thought the messenger we were waiting for had been attacked, but it may have been Hans after all. I hope he is not in serious trouble."

"I am the only messenger sent to you," the officer said, "so, as you say, it might have been the German who was attacked, though no one knows how he ever found this house, or why, when attacked, he didn't make himself heard."

The rain was now falling heavily, and it was decided to remain under shelter for a time, so the flashlight was brought into use again.

"If your men can keep up with us," Jack said to the officer, "we can get to Peking in six hours, so there is no need of hurrying."

"If you get to Peking in six weeks you'll be doing well," laughed the officer.

"What do you mean by that? Demanded Ned, who was anxious for a start.

"I can't tell you," was the answer. "But it was never believed you could make a quick jump to the capital city. There maybe things to do on the way there. That is why you have to escort. I don't like this diplomacy game, but have to obey orders."

"What I want to know," Jimmie broke in, "is how Ned got away. They had him tied up plenty last time I saw him. And, after he got away, how did he happen to blunder into the company of our escort? China is a land of mystery, all right!"

"They didn't watch me closely," Ned replied, modestly, "after they took you away, and when I did get out of the house I had only to follow one of my captors. Believing that I was safely tied, my captors talked a lot about having the marines waiting in the wrong house while they disposed of the Boy Scouts!"

"This man Rae?" asked the officer. "Was he there with your captors? That's one of the men we must take."

"Oh, he is the man that caused us to be taken," Jimmie cut in. "I'd like to break his crust for him. I'm gettin' sick of bein' tied up in every case, like the hero in a Bowery play!"

"Was there a Chink who spoke English like a native?" asked Jack.

"There were two."

"Dressed in native costume?"

"Yes, and looking bored and weary."

"Then they're the men that sat with the others in a grinning row up against the wall," Frank exclaimed. "Do you think they are Chinamen?"

"Disguised Englishmen," Ned replied.

"That's my notion," Frank went on. "Oh, we'll get this all ironed out directly! If we could find Hans we might start off with a thorough understanding of how the game was carried out here."

The rain now slacked a little, and here and there stars showed through masses of hurrying clouds. The boys led their steel horses to the door and prepared to mount.

"Plenty of mud," Jack suggested.

In the little pause caused by the marines getting out their machines a dull, monotonous sound came to the ears of the party. It was such a sound as the Boy Scouts had heard on the rivers of South America, when the advance of their motor-boat was blocked, and hundreds of savages were peering out of the thickets.

"What is it?" asked Jack.

"Sounds like the roaring of a mob," answered the officer. "You understand that a word will stir the natives to arms against foreigners. As there is no knowing what this fake Lieutenant Rae and the men we drove away from this house may have said to the Chinks, we may as well be moving. It may be safer out on the road!"

"I should say so!" exclaimed Jack. "We can't fight a whole nation, can we? Look there! That was a rocket, and means trouble."

The distant murmur was fast growing into a roar, and rockets were flecking the clouds with their green, red, and blue lights. Shadowy figures began to show in the darkness, and a group was seen ahead, in the street which led away toward Peking.

"More dangerous than wild beasts!" exclaimed the officer. "Be careful to keep together and in the middle of the road, when we get under way, for if one of us gets pulled down there's an end of all things for him!"

"It is too bad we can't stay long enough to find Hans," Ned said.

"If we remain here five minutes longer," the officer replied, "someone will have to come and find us. Are you ready?"

All were ready, and the next moment sixteen motorcycles shot out into the street and headed northwest for Tientsin, which city lay in the direct path to Peking. The group in the road ahead parted sullenly as the squadron pressed on its outer circle and the company passed through without mishap.

That was as wild a ride as any living being ever engaged in. Nothing but the speed of the motorcycles saved the boys, for enemies sprung up all along the way. Some mysterious system of signaling ahead seemed to be in vogue there.

The sky cleared presently. The road was muddy, but the giant machines made good progress, especially through little towns, through the doors and windows of which curious eyes peered out on the silent company, marching, seemingly, to the music of the spark explosions.

After a run of two hours the officer halted and dismounted.

"Now," he said, "we've got a bit of work cut out for us here. If we make it, we may go on in peace. If we fail, all must keep together and take chances on speed."