Chapter XX. The Escape
 

For a space of several seconds no one moved or spoke. In the flickering light of the candle they looked at one another, and then at the fantastic pillars of salt all about them. Then Mr. Damon started forward.

"Bless my trolley car!" he exclaimed. "It isn't possible! There must be some mistake. If we'll keep on we'll come out all right. You know your way about, don't you, Mr. Petrofsky?"

"I thought I did, from what the guard told us. but it seems I must have taken a wrong turning."

"Then it's easily remedied," suggested Tom "All we'll have to do will be to go to the place where we started, and begin over again."

"Of course," agreed Ned, and they all seemed more cheerful.

"And if we start out once more, and get lost again, then what?" asked Mr. Damon.

"Well, if worst comes to worst, we can go, back in the tunnel, go to our cells and ask the guard to come with us and show us the way went on Tom.

"Never!" cried the exile. "It would be the most dangerous thing in the world to go back to the prison. Our escape has probably been discovered by this time, and to return would only be to put our heads in the noose. We must keep on at any cost!"

"But if we can't get out," suggested Tom, "and if we haven't anything to eat or drink, we--"

He did not finish, but they all knew what he meant.

"Oh, we'll get out!" declared Ned, who was something of an optimist. "You've been in salt mines before, haven't you, Mr. Petrofsky?"

"Yes, I was condemned to one once, but it was not in this part of the country, and it was not an abandoned one. I imagine this was only an isolated mine, and that there are no others near it, so when they abandoned it, after all the salt was taken out, most people forgot about it. I remember once a party of prisoners were lost in a large salt mine, and were missed for several days."

"What happened to them?" asked Tom.

"I don't like to talk about it," replied the Russian with a shudder.

"Bless my soul! Was it as bad as that?" asked Mr. Damon.

"It was," replied the exile. "But now let's see if we can find our way back, and start afresh. I'll be more careful next time, and watch the turns more closely."

But he did not get the chance. They could not find the tunnel whence they had started. Turn after turn they took, down passage after passage sometimes in such small ones that they almost had to crawl.

But it was of no use. They could not find their way back to the starting place, and they could not find the opening of the mine. They had used two of the slow burning candles and they had only half a dozen or so left. When these were gone--

But they did not like to think of that, and stumbled on and on. They did not talk much, for they were too worried. Finally Ned gasped:

"I'd give a good deal for a drink of water."

"So would I," added his chum. "But what's the use of wishing? If there was a spring down here it would be salt water. But I know what I would do--if I could."

"What?" asked Mr. Damon.

"Go back to the prison. At least we wouldn't starve there, and we'd have something to drink. If they kept us we know we could get free--sometime."

"Perhaps never!" exclaimed Ivan Petrofsky. "It is better to keep on here, and, as for me, I would rather die here than go back to a Russian prison. We must--we shall get out!"

But it was idle talk. Gradually they lost track of time as they staggered on, and they hardly knew whether a day had passed or whether it was but a few hours since they had been lost.

Of their sufferings in that salt mine I shall not go into details. There are enough unpleasant things in this world without telling about that. They must have wandered around for at least a day and a half, and in all that while they had not a drop of water, and not a thing to eat. Wait, though, at last in their desperation they did gnaw the tallow candles, and that served to keep them alive, and, in a measure, alleviate their awful sufferings from thirst.

Back and forth they wandered, up and down in the galleries of the old salt mine. They were merely hoping against hope.

"It's worse than the underground city of gold," said Ned in hollow tones, as he staggered on. "Worse--much worse." His head was feeling light. No one answered him.

It was, as they learned later, just about two days after the time when they entered the mine that they managed to get out. Forty-eight hours, most of them of intense suffering. They were burning their last candle, and when that was out they knew they would have the horrors of darkness to fight against, as well as those of hunger and thirst.

But fate was kind to them. How they managed to hit on the right gallery they did not know, but, as they made a turn around an immense pillar of salt Tom, who was walking weakly in advance, suddenly stopped.

"Look! Look!" he whispered. "Another candle! Someone-- someone is searching for us! We are saved!"

"It may be the police!" said Ned.

"That is not a candle," spoke the Russian in hollow tones as he looked to where Tom pointed, to a little glimmer of light. "It is a star. Friends, we are saved, and by Providence! That is a star, shining through the opening of the mine. We are saved!"

Eagerly they pressed forward, and they had not gone far before they knew that the exile was right. They felt the cool night wind on their hot cheeks.

"Thank heaven!" gasped Tom, as he pushed on.

A moment later, climbing over the rusted rails on which the mine cars had run with their loads of salt, they staggered into the open. They were free--under the silent stars!

"And now, if we can only find the airship," said Tom faintly, "we can--"

"Look there!" whispered Ned, pointing to a patch of deeper blackness that the surrounding night. "What's that."

"The Falcon!" gasped Tom. He started toward her, for she was but a short distance from a little clump of trees into which they had emerged from the opening of the salt mine. There, on the same little plane where they had landed in her was the airship. She had not been moved.

"Wait!" cautioned Ivan Petrofsky. "She may be guarded."

Hardly had he spoken than there walked into the faint starlight on the side of the ship nearest them, a Cossack soldier with his rifle over his shoulder.

"We can't get her!" gasped Ned.

"We've got to get her!" declared Tom. "We'll die if we don't!"

"But the guards! They'll arrest us!" said the exile.

An instant later a second soldier joined the first, and they could be seen conversing. They then resumed their pacing around the anchored craft. Evidently they were waiting for the escaped prisoners to come up when they would give the alarm and apprehend them.

"What can we do?" asked Mr. Damon.

"I have a plan," said Tom weakly. "It's the only chance, for we're not strong enough to tackle them. Every time they go around on the far side of the airship we must creep forward. When they come on this side we'll lie down. I doubt if they can see us. Once we are on hoard we can cut the ropes, and start off. Everything is all ready for a start if they haven't monkeyed with her, and I don't think they have. We've got room enough to run along as an aeroplane and mount upward. It's our only hope."

The others agreed, and they put the plan into operation. When the Cossack guards were out of sight the escaped prisoners crawled forward, and when the soldiers came into view our friends waited in silence.

It took several minutes of alternate creeping and waiting to do this, but it was accomplished at last and unseen they managed to slip aboard Then it was the work of but a moment to cut the restraining ropes.

Silently Tom crept to the motor room. He had to work in absolute darkness, for the gleam of a light would have drawn the fire of the guards. But the youth knew every inch of his invention. The only worriment was whether or not the motor would start up after the break-down, not having been run since it was so hastily repaired. Still he could only try.

He looked out, and saw the guards pacing back and forth. They did not know that the much-sought prisoners were within a few feet of them.

Ned was in the pilot house. He could see a clear field in front of him.

Suddenly Tom pulled the starting lever. There was a little clicking, followed by silence. Was the motor going to revolve? It answered the next moment with a whizz and a roar.

"Here we go!" cried the young inventor, as the big machine shot forward on her flight. "Now let them stop us!"

Forward she went until Ned, knowing by the speed that she had momentum enough, tilted the elevation rudder, and up she shot, while behind, on the ground, wildly running to and fro, and firing their rifles, were the two amazed guards.