ARMY BOYS IN THE FRENCH TRENCHES
HAND TO HAND FIGHTING WITH THE ENEMY
AUTHOR OF "Army Boys in France" and "Army Boys on the Firing Line"
Illustrated by ROBERT GASTON HERBERT
I A SLASHING ATTACK
II THE UPLIFTED KNIFE
III TAKING CHANCES
IV BETWEEN THE LINES
V THE BARBAROUS HUNS
VI A TASTE OF COLD STEEL
VII NICK RABIG'S QUEER ACTIONS
VIII COLONEL PAVET REAPPEARS
IX THE ESCAPE
X A GHASTLY BURDEN
XI WITH THE TANKS
XII BREAKING THROUGH
XIII CAUGHT NAPPING
XIV IN CLOSE QUARTERS
XV THE FOUR-FOOTED ENEMY
XVI CHASED BY CAVALRY
XVII THE BROKEN BRIDGE
XVIII RESCUE FROM THE SKY
XIX PUTTING ONE OVER
XXI A FAMILIAR VOICE
XXII THE SHADOW OF TREASON
XXIII A HAIL OF LEAD
XXIV A DEED OF DARING
XXV STORMING THE RIDGE
A SLASHING ATTACK
"Stand ready, boys. We attack at dawn!"
The word passed in a whisper down the long line of the trench, where the American army boys crouched like so many khaki-clad ghosts, awaiting the command to go "over the top."
"That will be in about fifteen minutes from now, I figure," murmured Frank Sheldon to his friend and comrade, Bart Raymond, as he glanced at the hands of his radio watch and then put it up to his ear to make sure that it had not stopped.
"It'll seem more like fifteen hours," muttered Tom Bradford, who was on the other side of Sheldon.
"Tom's in a hurry to get at the Huns," chuckled Billy Waldon. "He wants to show them where they get off."
"I saw him putting a razor edge on his bayonet last night," added Bart. "Now he's anxious to see how it works."
"He'll have plenty of chances to find out," said Frank. "This is going to be a hot scrap, or I miss my guess. I heard the captain tell the lieutenant that the Germans had their heaviest force right in front of our part of the line."
"So much the better," asserted Billy stoutly. "They can't come too thick or too fast. They've been sneering at what the Yankees were going to do in this war, and it's about time they got punctures in their tires."
At this moment the mess helpers passed along the line with buckets of steaming hot coffee, and the men welcomed it eagerly, for it was late in the autumn and the night air was chill and penetrating. "Come, little cup, to one who loves thee well," murmured Tom, as he swallowed his portion in one gulp.
The others were not slow in following his example, and the buckets were emptied in a twinkling.
Then the stern vigil was renewed.
From the opposing lines a star shell rose and exploded, casting a greenish radiance over the barren stretch of No Man's Land that separated the hostile forces.
"Fritz isn't asleep," muttered Frank.
"He's right on the job with his fireworks," agreed Bart.
"Maybe he has his suspicions that we're going to give him a little surprise party," remarked Billy, "and that's his way of telling us that he's ready to welcome us with open arms."
"Fix bayonets!" came the command from the officer in charge, and there was a faint clink as the order was obeyed.
"It won't be long now," murmured Tom. "But why don't the guns open up?"
"They always do before it's time to charge," commented Billy, as he shifted his position a little. "I suppose they will now almost any minute."
"I don't think there'll be any gun fire this time before we go over the top," ventured Frank.
"What do you mean?" asked Bart in surprise, as he turned his head toward his chum.
"Do you know anything?" queried Tom.
"Not exactly know, but I've heard enough to make a guess," replied Frank. "I think we're going to play the game a little differently this time. Unless I'm mistaken, the Huns are going to get the surprise of their lives."
"Put on gas masks!" came another order, and in the six seconds allowed for this operation the masks were donned, making the men in the long line look like so many goblins.
It was light enough for them to see each other now, for the gray fingers of the dawn were already drawing the curtain of darkness aside from the eastern sky.
One minute more passed—a minute of tense, fierce expectation, while the boys gripped their rifles until it seemed that their fingers would bury themselves in the stocks.
With a roar louder than a thousand guns the earth under the German first-line trenches split asunder, and tons of rock and mud and guns and men were hurled toward the sky.
The din was terrific, the sight appalling, and the shock for an instant was almost as great to the Americans as to their opponents, though far less tragic.
"Now, men," shouted their lieutenant, "over with you!" and with a wild yell of exultation the boys clambered over the edge of the trench and started toward the German lines.
"We're off!" panted Frank, as, with eyes blazing and bayonet ready for instant use, he rushed forward in the front rank.
"To a flying start!" gasped Bart, and then because breath was precious they said no more, but raced on like greyhounds freed from the leash.
On, on they went, with the wind whipping their faces! On, still on, to the red ruin wrought by the explosion of the mine.
For the first fifty yards the going was easy except for the craters and shell holes into which some of the boys slid and tumbled. The enemy had been so numbed and paralyzed by the overwhelming explosion that they seemed to be unable to make any resistance.
But the officers knew, and the men as well, that this was only the lull before the storm. Their enemy was desperate and resourceful, and though the cleverness of the American engineers had carried through the mine operation without detection, it was certain that the foe would rally.
Fifty yards from the first-line trench—forty—thirty—and then the German guns spoke.
A long line of flame flared up crimson in the pallid dawn.
"Down, men, down!" shouted their officers, and the Yankee lads threw themselves flat on the ground while a leaden hail swept furiously over them.
"Are you hurt, Bart?" cried Frank anxiously, as he heard a sharp exclamation from his comrade.
"Not by a bullet," growled Bart. "Took some of the skin off my knee though when I went down."
A second time the murderous fire came hurtling over them, but the officers noted with satisfaction that the enemy were shooting high.
"They haven't got the range yet," observed Billy.
"Up!" came the word of command, and again the men were on their feet and racing like mad toward the trench.
They came at last to where it had been. For it was no longer a trench!
Gone was the zigzag line that the boys knew by heart from having faced and fought against it for weeks. The mine had done its work thoroughly.
Everywhere was a welter of hideous confusion. Barbed wire entanglements with their supporting posts had been rooted from the ground. Guns had been torn from their carriages. "Pill boxes" had been smashed to bits. Horses and men and wagons and camp kitchens were mingled together in wildest chaos.
Parts of the trench had been filled to the surface with earth, while huge boulders blocked the entrance to some of the communicating passages.
There were a few sharp fights with scattered units of the enemy that had retained their senses and were trying to get their machine guns into action. But these detachments were soon cut down or captured. The great majority of the survivors were so dazed that they surrendered with scarcely a show of resistance and were rounded up in squads to be sent to the rear.
The first trench had been won, and it was almost a bloodless victory, only a few of the American troops having fallen in the sudden rush.
But sterner work lay ahead, for the second and third German lines were still intact, bristling with men and supported heavily by their guns.
"This was easy," grinned Billy.
"Like taking a dead mouse from a blind kitten," chuckled Tom, as he wiped the grime and perspiration from his face.
"Don't fool yourselves," warned Frank, as a shell came whining over their heads. "This was only a skirmish. The real fight is coming, and coming mighty quick!"
THE UPLIFTED KNIFE
Even while Frank Sheldon spoke, the artillery of the enemy took on a deeper note until it reached the intensity of drumfire.
But now the American gunners took a hand, and the shells came pouring over the heads of the boys, searching out the line of the second enemy trench and preparing the way for the advance.
In obedience to commands, the American soldiers had sought shelter wherever they could find it, while they were recovering their wind.
Only a moment could be granted for this, however, for time was everything just now. They had caught the enemy off his guard and must take advantage of the opportunity.
"Line up, men!" cried the leader of Frank's detachment, and the high state of discipline that the American forces had reached was shown by the promptness with which the order was obeyed.
A signal was sent back to the supporting guns, and they opened up a deadly barrage fire over the heads of Frank and his comrades, clearing the ground before them of everything that dared to show itself in the open.
Behind this curtain of fire, the boys advanced, slowly at first, but gathering speed at every stride, until they were running at the double quick.
Bullets rained about them from the machine guns of the enemy and great shells tore gaps in the ranks. At Frank's left, a soldier suddenly wavered and then pitched headlong into a shell hole and lay still. Another toppled over with a bullet in his shoulder. But the lanes that were made closed almost instantly.
Now they had reached the wire entanglements that had been battered by the artillery until they hung in festoons around their posts, leaving paths through which the American lads poured.
Then like a great tidal wave they struck the trench!
The Germans had clambered out to meet them, and when the two forces met the shock was terrific. Back and forth the battle surged and swayed, each side fighting with the fury of desperation. The cannon had ceased now, for in that locked mass the shells were as likely to kill friends as foes. It was man against man, bayonet against bayonet, each combatant obeying the primitive law of "kill or be killed."
The opposing forces at this part of the line were nearly equal, with the Germans having a slight advantage in numbers. But to make up for this, the Americans had the advantage of the attack and the tremendous momentum with which they had struck the enemy's line.
For a time victory hung in the balance, but then Yankee determination and superior skill in bayonet work began to tell. The Americans would not be denied. The German line was pierced, and the forces broke up into a number of battling groups.
Frank and Bart, Billy and Tom, who all through the fight had managed to keep together, found themselves engaged with a squad of Germans double their number, two of whom were frantically trying to bring a machine gun to bear upon them.
With a bound Frank was upon them. He toppled one over with his bayonet, but while he was doing this the other fired at him point-blank with a revolver. At such a close range he could not have missed, had not Bart, quick as a flash, clubbed him over the arm with his rifle, making the bullet go wild.
"Quick, Bart!" panted Frank, as with his comrade's help he slued the machine gun around, gripped the trigger, and sent a stream of bullets into a group of the enemy charging down upon him.
Before that withering fire they dissolved like mist, and a circle was cleared as though by magic.
What Germans were left in that immediate vicinity leaped back into the trench on the edge of which they had been fighting.
"Now we've got them!" cried Frank, as with his friends' assistance he quickly wheeled the gun to the brink of the trench and depressed the muzzle so that it commanded the huddled bunch below. "Come out of that, you fellows. Hands up, quick!"
They may not have understood his words, but there was no misunderstanding the meaning of that black sinister muzzle of the machine gun with a hundred deaths behind it. They were trapped, and their hands went up with cries of "Kamerad!" in token of surrender.
On that part of the line the battle was over, for the plan did not contemplate going beyond the second trench at that time. The American boys had won and won gloriously. From all parts of the trench, on a two-mile front, groups of captives were coming sullenly out with uplifted hands, to be herded into groups by their captors and sent to the rear.
"Glory hallelujah!" cried Bart, as he removed his mask and wiped his streaming face. "And no gas, either."
"Some scrap!" gasped Billy, as he sank exhausted to the ground.
"Did them up to the Queen's taste," chuckled Tom.
"We certainly put one over on the Huns that time," grinned Frank happily.
And while they stand there, breathless and exulting, it may be well for the benefit of those who have not previously made the acquaintance of the American Army Boys to sketch briefly their adventures up to the time this story opens.
Frank Sheldon, Bart Raymond, Tom Bradford and Billy Waldon had all been born and brought up in Camport, a thriving American city of about twenty-five thousand people. They had known each other from boyhood, attended the same school, played on the same baseball nine and were warm friends.
Frank was the natural leader of the group. He was a tall, muscular young fellow, quick to think and quick to act, always at the front in sports as well as in the more serious events of life.
His father had died some years before, leaving only a modest home as a legacy, and Frank was the sole support of his mother. The latter had been born in France, where Mr. Sheldon had married her and brought her to America.
Later, Mrs. Sheldon's father had died, leaving her a considerable property in Auvergne, her native province. This estate, however, had been tied up in a lawsuit, and she had not come into possession of it. She had been planning to go to France to look after her interests, but her husband's death and, later on, the breaking out of the European war, had made this impossible.
She was a charming woman, with all the French sparkle and vivacity, and she and her son were bound together in ties of the strongest affection. Naturally her ardent sympathy had been with France in the great war raging in Europe. But when it became evident that America soon would take part, although she welcomed the aid this would bring to her native country, her mother heart was torn with anguish at the thought that her only son would probably join in the fighting across the sea.
But Frank, though he dreaded the separation, felt that he must join the Camport regiment that was getting ready to fight the Huns. The deciding moment came when a German tore down the American flag from a neighbor's porch. Frank knocked the fellow down and in the presence of an excited throng made him kiss the flag that he had insulted. From that moment his resolution was taken, and his mother, who had witnessed the scene, gave her consent to his joining the old Thirty-seventh regiment, made up chiefly of Camport boys, including Billy Waldon, who had seen service on the Mexican border.
Bart Raymond, Frank's special chum, a sturdy, vigorous young fellow, was equally patriotic, and joined the regiment with Frank as soon as war was declared. Tom Bradford, a fellow employee in the firm of Moore & Thomas, a thriving hardware house, wanted to enlist, but was rejected on account of his teeth, although he wrathfully declared that "he wanted to shoot the Germans, not to bite them." In fact, almost all the young fellows employed by the firm, except "Reddy," the office boy, who wanted to go badly enough, but who was too young, tried to get into some branch of the army or navy.
A marked exception was Nick Rabig, the foreman of the shipping department, who, although born in the United States, came of German parents and lost no opportunity of "boosting" Germany and "knocking" America. He was the bully of the place and universally disliked. He hated Frank, especially after the flag incident, and only the thought of his mother had prevented Frank more than once from giving Rabig the thrashing he deserved.
Frank's regiment was sent to Camp Boone for their preliminary training, and here the young recruits were put through their paces in rifle shooting, grenade throwing, bayonet practice and all the other exercises by which Uncle Sam turns his boys into soldiers. There was plenty of fun mixed in with the hard work, and they had many stirring experiences. A pleasant feature was the coming of Tom, who although rejected when he tried to enlist had been accepted in the draft. Not so pleasant, though somewhat amusing, was the fact that Nick Rabig also had been drafted and had to go to Camp Boone, though most unwillingly.
How the regiment sailed to France for intensive training behind the firing lines; how their transport narrowly escaped being sunk by a submarine and how the tables were turned; the singular chance by which Frank met a French colonel and heard encouraging news about his mother's property; how he thoroughly "trimmed" Rabig in a boxing bout; how the Camport boys took part in the capture of a Zeppelin; how the old Thirty-seventh finally reached the trenches; Frank's daring exploit when caught in the swirl of a German charge; these and other exciting adventures are told in the first book of this Series, entitled: "Army Boys in France; Or, From Training Camp to the Trenches."
"Do you remember what that airship captain said the day we bagged him?" chuckled Billy.
"About it being impossible for Americans to get to France?" asked Bart. "You bet I do. I'll never forget that boob. I wonder if he still believes it."
"He'd sing a different tune if he were here to-day," observed Tom.
"I don't know," laughed Frank. "The German skull is pretty thick. Still you can get something through it once in a while if you keep on hammering."
"I guess these fellows haven't any doubts about our being here," observed Billy.
"They've had pretty good evidence of it," confirmed Tom, as he watched the enemy captives standing about in dejected groups, waiting to be sent to the rear.
One thing that struck the boys forcibly was the disparity of age between the prisoners. There was an unusual proportion of men beyond middle life and of youngsters still in their teens.
"Grandpas and kids," blurted out Tom.
"The Kaiser's robbing the cradle and the grave," commented Billy. "Germany's getting pretty near to the limit of her man power, I guess."
"That's true of France and England, too," observed Frank thoughtfully. "They lost the flower of their troops in the early fighting and they all have to do a great deal of combing to keep their ranks full."
"And that's where America has the Indian sign on the Huns," jubilated Bart "We'll have our best against her second best."
"We'll trim her good and proper," predicted Frank. "Even at her best, we'd down her in the end. But don't let's kid ourselves. She's full of fight yet, and will take a lot of beating. And there are plenty of huskies in her ranks yet. Look at that big brute over there. He looks as though he could lift an ox."
He pointed to a massively built German corporal, who was evidently mad with rage at his capture. He was gesticulating wildly to his fellow prisoners and fairly sputtering in the attempt to relieve his feelings.
"Seems to be rather peeved," grinned Tom.
"I can't catch on to what he's saying," laughed Bart. "But I'll bet he could give points to a New York truckman or the mate of a Mississippi steamboat. They'd turn green with envy if they could understand him."
"He's frothing at the mouth," chuckled Billy. "I'd hate to have him bite me just now. I'd get hydrophobia sure."
There was no time for further comment. The officers had had to give the men a short breathing spell, for all were spent with their tremendous exertions. But now after the brief rest, all was bustle and hurry.
"The Huns will be back for more," predicted Frank, as he and his friends were set to work changing the sandbags from the side of the trench that had faced the Americans to the other side that looked toward the German third line.
"They must be hard to please if they haven't had enough for one morning," growled Tom.
"They're gluttons for punishment," remarked Bart. "The first-line trench is junk from the mine explosion, but they won't give this second one up without making one mighty effort to get it back."
The young soldiers were working feverishly to organize the captured position, when their corporal, Wilson, summoned them out and they scrambled forth promptly and stood at attention.
"Fall in to take back the prisoners," he ordered.
A look of disappointment came over their faces and Wilson's eyes twinkled when he saw it.
"Haven't you had enough fighting yet?" he demanded. "Well, I feel that way myself, but orders are orders. Come along."
"Hard luck," muttered Frank in a low tone to Bart, as they obeyed the command.
"We'll miss some lovely fighting," agreed Bart.
"I was just getting warmed up," mourned Billy.
"Don't worry," advised Tom. "We'll be sent back after we get these fellows to headquarters, and we'll have a chance to get another crack at them."
The prisoners, having been searched, were placed in double file between the members of the guarding squad, who walked at a few paces interval on either side of them.
"Fall in!" came the corporal's order. "Shoulder arms. March!"
They started out briskly.
Frank and Bart happened to be close beside the big German corporal whom they had before observed. His wrath was not yet abated, and he kept up a volley of epithets as he sullenly marched along.
"He's making as much fuss as though he were the Kaiser," chuckled Tom, who was vastly amused at the prisoner's antics.
"Slap him on the wrist and tell him to be nice," counseled Billy with a grin.
The captive glared at them with insane rage in his eyes.
"I think he's going nutty," remarked Bart. "It's lucky for him there aren't any squirrels around."
"You want to keep your eye peeled for him," warned Frank. "He's bad medicine."
"He's safe enough," replied Bart, carelessly. "He hasn't any weapon, and if he started to run he wouldn't get far. He isn't cut out for a sprinter."
"Even if he were, a bullet would catch him," chimed in Billy. "He'd make a big target and it would be a pretty bad shot that would miss him."
When they reached the blown-up first trench they found it difficult to keep in line, and had to pick their way over the heaped-up ruin that had been made by the mine explosion.
Bart tripped over a strand of broken wire, and in trying to save himself from falling, his rifle slipped from his hand.
The German corporal was within a foot of him and saw his opportunity.
Quick as a flash he drew from his clothing a trench knife that the searchers had overlooked. The murderous blade gleamed in the air as the corporal brought it down toward the neck of Bart, who had stooped to pick up his rifle.
"Look out, Bart!" yelled Billy, while Tom made a desperate leap to his comrade's rescue.
But Frank was quicker than either.
Like lightning he lunged with his bayonet and caught the German in the wrist, just as the knife was about to bury itself in Bart's neck.
With a howl of rage and pain, as his arm was forced upward, the prisoner's hand lost its grip on the weapon and it clattered harmlessly to the ground.
In an instant the German was overpowered and his arms tied behind him with his own belt. Then his wounded wrist was bound up with a surgical dressing, and under a special guard he was urged forward in no gentle manner, for all were at a white heat at his treacherous attempt.
By the laws of war his life was forfeited, and he seemed to realize this, for all his bravado vanished and from time to time he looked fearfully at his captors. He saw little there to encourage him, for Bart was a great favorite with his company and the attack had stirred them to the depths.
"A close call, old man." said Frank, affectionately tapping his friend on the shoulder. "It would have been taps for me, all right, if you hadn't acted as quickly as you did," responded Bart gratefully.
"Frank was Johnny-on-the-spot," said Billy admiringly. "My heart was in my mouth when I saw that knife coming down."
"It was a waste of time to tie up that fellow's arm," remarked Tom, as he glowered at the miscreant. "He'll soon be where he won't need any bandages."
"I guess it's a case for a firing squad," judged Billy. "But it serves him right, for it was up to him to play the game."
Before long they reached headquarters and delivered up their prisoners. If they had expected to be sent back immediately to the firing line, they were disappointed, for the examination of the prisoners began at once, without the squad receiving notice of dismissal.
This had its compensations, however, for although they had captured prisoners before, they had never been present at their examination, and they were curious to see the turn the questioning would take.
Captain Baker, of the old Thirty-seventh, was detailed to do the examining, and because time was precious and it was most important to learn just what enemy units were opposed to the American forces, he got to work at once, an interpreter standing at his side while a stenographer made note of the replies.
The captain signaled to one of the most intelligent looking of the prisoners, and the latter stepped out, clicked his heels together smartly and saluted.
"What is your name?" asked the captain.
"The Seventy-ninth Bavarian."
"Who is your colonel?"
"Who commands your division?"
"Who is your corps commander?"
"How many men have you lost in the last few days' fighting?"
The captain repeated the question.
"I do not know," the prisoner answered evasively.
"Well, were your losses heavy or light?" pursued the captain patiently.
"I cannot tell."
The captain switched to another line.
"Do you know who have captured you?" he asked.
"The English," was the prompt answer.
"No," replied the captain. "We are Americans."
The prisoner permitted himself an incredulous smile.
"Can't you see these are American uniforms?" asked the captain, with a sweep of his arm.
"Yes," was the reply. "But our captain tells us that the English wear that uniform to make us think that the Americans have arrived in France."
A grin went around the circle of listeners.
"You blawsted, bloody Britisher," chuckled Bart, giving Frank a poke in the ribs.
"Where's my bally monocle, old top?" whispered Frank, while Billy and Tom grew red in the face from trying to control their merriment.
The captain himself had all he could do to maintain his gravity.
"Do you believe your captain when he tells you that?" he inquired.
"I must believe him," answered the prisoner simply.
"There's discipline for you," muttered Billy.
"Such childlike faith," murmured Tom.
"But even if the Americans are not already here," persisted the captain, "don't you believe they are coming?"
"They may try to come," answered the captive doubtfully; "but if they do, they will never get here."
"Our U-boats will stop them."
"That settles it," whispered Bart. "We think we're here, but we're only kidding ourselves. We can't be here. Heinie says so and, of course, he knows."
"What a come-on he'd be for the confidence men," gurgled Billy. "They'd sell him the Brooklyn Bridge before he'd been on shore for an hour."
Questioned as to food supplies, the German admitted that their rations, although fairly good, were not so abundant as at the beginning of the war. Then with characteristic arrogance he added:
"But we will have plenty to eat and drink too when we get to Paris."
"I suppose your captain tells you that too," remarked the inquisitor.
"Yes," was the reply.
"That eternal captain again," murmured Bart.
"He must be a wonder," chuckled Tom.
"You've been rather a long time on the road to Paris, haven't you?" asked the captain, with a tinge of sarcasm. "Seems to me I've heard something about a banquet that was to celebrate the Crown Prince's entry into Paris a month after the war was started."
A discomfited look stole over the prisoner's face.
"That was Von Kluck's fault," he said sullenly.
"Seems to me the French army had something to do with it too," whispered Frank to Bart. "What does your captain tell you your armies are fighting for?" continued the questioner.
"To give Germany her place in the sun," answered the prisoner without hesitation.
"That seems to be a stock phrase of the Huns," whispered Billy. "I'll bet it's part of the lesson taught in every German school."
A few more questions followed, but failed to elicit any information of special importance, and the prisoner was dismissed, to have his place taken by some of his comrades.
But what they told the boys never knew, for just then Corporal Wilson, who had been in close conference with his lieutenant, beckoned to them and they filed silently out of the quarters.
"Back to the firing line for us," remarked Frank.
"About time too," replied Bart, as he shouldered his rifle. "We've been missing all the fun."
But the first words of the corporal showed them that they were mistaken.
"You lads are out of it for the rest of the day," he remarked. "Go back to your old trench now, get some grub and tumble into your bunks."
They looked at each other in surprise, for the sun had not much more than risen.
"You heard what I said," reiterated the corporal. "Get all the sleep you can to-day, for you won't do any sleeping to-night!"
BETWEEN THE LINES
The Army boys looked at each other in blank inquiry, but the corporal did not offer to enlighten them, and they were too good soldiers to ask questions when orders were given.
"What do you suppose is in the wind now?" asked Bart, as they made their way to their sleeping quarters.
"Search me," replied Frank.
"Aeroplanes," chirped Billy.
Bart made a thrust at him which Billy dodged.
"I guess we're picked for a scouting party," remarked Tom. "The captain may want to confirm some of the information he's getting from those chaps."
"Information!" snorted Bart. "More likely misinformation. Those fellows struck me as being dandy liars."
"They wouldn't be Huns if they weren't," remarked Billy. "You know Baron Munchausen came from over the Rhine, so they come rightly by their talent in that line. But what's the matter with Tony here?" he added, as they passed by one of the field kitchens in a protected nook, where one of the bakers was kneading away desperately at some dough and muttering volubly to himself.
"He seems all riled up about something, for a fact," commented Frank.
"What's the matter, Tony?" inquired Bart of the perspiring baker, an Italian who had spent some years in the United States and who was generally liked by the boys of the old Thirty-seventh because of his customary good nature and his skill in compounding their favorite dishes.
Tony looked up in despair.
"I can't maka de dough," he complained. "I worka more dan hour. It lika de sand. It getta my goat."
The boys laughed at his woe-begone face.
"Put some more water with it," suggested Billy at a venture.
Tony looked at him with such a glare of contempt that the amateur baker wilted.
"I usa de water!" he exclaimed. "Plent water! No maka de stick."
"It looks all right," remarked Frank, as he picked up some of the substance on the kneading board and let it dribble through his fingers, "but as Tony says, it's like so much sand."
"And it tastes queer," said Billy, putting a bit of it on his tongue.
"Looks as though some of the food profiteers were trying to put something over on us," observed Tom.
Just then one of the commissary men came along, evidently looking for something.
"There's a bag of trench foot powder missing," he said. "Have any of you chaps seen anything of it?"
"Not guilty," returned Bart. "Though the way my feet feel it wouldn't do them a bit of harm to have some of that powder on them right now."
A sudden light dawned upon Frank.
"Say, Tony!" he exclaimed, "let's see the bag you got that flour from."
Tony complied and brought forth from one of his receptacles a large paper bag which was two thirds full.
Frank seized it and turned it around to see what was stamped on the other side. Then he almost dropped the bag in a wild fit of hilarity.
"No wonder Tony couldn't make his dough!" he exclaimed, when he could speak. "Some chump in the supply department has handed him out a bag of foot powder when he asked for flour."
He showed the others the marking on the bag, and their merriment equaled his own, while Tony alternately glowered and grinned. He had begun to think that somebody had cast on him the "evil eye," so dreaded by his countrymen, and he was relieved to find that his plight was due to natural causes. Yet the thought of all that wasted effort stirred him to resentment.
"That's one on you, Tony, old boy!" chuckled Billy, with a poke in the ribs.
"It's lucky the dough wouldn't stick," laughed Frank. "There wouldn't have been much nourishment in that kind of bread."
"Dat guy a bonehead," asserted Tony, as he scraped his board with vigor. "A vera beeg bonehead."
The boys assented and passed on laughing.
"And now for grub!" exclaimed Billy. "Oh, boy, maybe it won't taste good!"
"I guess we've earned our breakfast, all right," said Bart.
"I can stand a whole lot of filling up," observed Tom. "Talk about exercise before breakfast to get you an appetite. We've sure had enough of it this morning."
"I never ran so fast in my life," declared Billy. "A Marathon runner would have had nothing on me."
"We must have covered the space between those trenches in about twenty seconds," agreed Bart.
"Well, as long as we weren't running in the wrong direction it was all right," grinned Tom.
"The Boches haven't seen our backs yet, and here's hoping it will be some time before they'll have that treat," said Frank with a laugh.
They ate like famished wolves and then threw themselves on their bunks to get a long sleep in preparation for the strenuous night that lay before them. And so used had they already become to roaring of cannon and whining of bullets and shrieking of shells, that, although the din was almost incessant all through that day, it bothered them not at all.
It was nearly dusk when the corporal passed along, giving them a shake that roused them from their slumbers and brought them out of their bunks in a hurry.
"Time to get up, boys," said the corporal. "Not that we're going to start out right away. But we've got quite a job before us and I want you to have plenty of time to think over your instructions and have them sink in."
They dressed quickly and after a hearty supper reported to Wilson at their company headquarters.
They found the corporal grave and preoccupied.
"As I suppose you fellows have already guessed," he began, "we're going to-night on a scouting party. We're to find out the condition of the wire in front of that third trench that the Huns still hold, and we want to get more exact information about the location of the enemy's machine guns. Anything else we find out will be welcome, but those are the main things.
"It's going to be pretty risky work," he continued. "Not but what there's always plenty of risk about a job of this kind, but to-night there's more than usual. The fierce fighting to-day has got the enemy all stirred up and he'll be on the alert. Likely enough he'll have scouting parties of his own out, and we may run across them in the dark. Then it will be a question of who is the quicker with knife or bayonet. Now you boys scatter and get your crawling suits and hoods and masks, and we'll be ready for business.
"I can see that there'll be no monotony in our young lives to-night," observed Frank to Bart, as they obeyed instructions.
"Not that you can notice," agreed Bart. "The corp has quite a little program marked out for us."
"So it seems."
"And No Man's Land is going to be a little rougher land to-night than it ever was before," predicted Tom. "That mine explosion hasn't done a thing to it."
"All the better," chimed in Billy. "There'll be better places to hide in when Fritz throws up his star shells. But let's get a hustle on or the corp will be after us."
They got into their "crawling suits," so named because they were used only on scouting duty, when it was necessary to move over the earth on their stomachs or at best on hands and knees. They were a dead black in color, and in addition to the suit itself comprised a black mask and hood. The hood was loose and shapeless, so as to avoid the sharp outline that would have been afforded if it were tight-fitting.
Dressed in this fashion and lying prone and motionless on the ground whenever a star shell threw its greenish radiance over the field, the scouts were reasonably safe from detection and sniping. They would seem, if seen at all, to be just so many more objects added to the hundreds that littered up the ground between the two armies.
Since they had been in France, the boys had had special training in scouting duty, and the one thing that had been drilled into them perhaps more than anything else was the necessity for "playing dead," as Tom expressed it. One of their exercises compelled them to lie on the ground absolutely motionless for an hour. Not even a muscle could twitch without bringing a reprimand from their keen-eyed instructor. Another part of the drill made them take half an hour merely to rise to their feet from a prostrate position, each move in the process being marked by the utmost caution. It was hard drill, but necessary, and in time the boys had gained a control over their muscles that would have done credit to an Apache Indian.
In a few minutes they were fully arrayed in their crawling suits and reported to Corporal Wilson. He looked them over carefully and noted with satisfaction that nothing that was essential to the success of their night foray was lacking.
"With a fair share of luck we'll bring home the bacon," he remarked, as he led the way from the trench.
At the start there was no special caution necessary, as would have been the case the day before. For the two trenches in front of them that had been occupied by the enemy were now in the possession of the United States troops.
All that day, since the mine explosion had given the signal for attack and storm, the Germans who had been driven from their first two lines of trenches had made desperate efforts to get them back. There had been fierce counter attacks, many times repeated, but through them all the Americans had stood like a rock and thrown the enemy back without yielding a foot of the conquered ground.
At nightfall the enemy had ceased his infantry attacks, although the big guns on both sides, like angry mastiffs, kept growling at each other.
"It's been a great day for our fellows," exulted Frank, as they picked their way through the welter of debris that bore testimony to the violence of the fighting.
"It sure has," agreed Bart.
"We've got there with both feet," remarked Tom.
"And in both trenches," chimed in Billy.
"Yes," said Frank. "I'm glad we didn't stop at the first one. The mine caught the Boches napping there and stood them on their heads. But in the second it was an out and out stand up fight, man to man, and we licked them."
"And licked them good," asserted Billy. "I guess they won't do any more sneering at the Yankees after this day's work."
They passed the place where Bart had so nearly met his death through the treacherous attack of his captive.
"Here's where you nearly went West," remarked Tom.
"Don't talk of it," objected Bart with a grimace. "It makes the chills creep over me to think of it. I could stand being knifed in a square fight, but I'd hate to get it the way that fellow meant that I should."
"One of the Frenchmen was telling me of something like that that happened at Verdun," said Frank. 'Two Frenchmen were carrying a wounded German officer on a stretcher to the hospital. The officer got out his revolver and shot the first stretcher bearer dead."
"That's gratitude for you," remarked Bart. "Something like another German in a hospital, who pretended he wanted to shake hands with the Red Cross nurse who was tending him, and then with a sudden snap broke her wrist."
"You hear it said sometimes," said Billy, "that 'the only good Indian is a dead Indian.' That's always sounded a little tough on poor Lo. But if the Huns keep on the way they are going, it won't be long before all the world will be saying that the only good German is a dead one."
"I'm beginning to say it already," replied Tom.
They passed stretcher bearers carrying away the wounded, and burial parties engaged in a business still more sad. There was plenty for them to do, for death and wounds had come to many that day, which had been the most strenuous for the United States troops since they had come to the fighting line.
That many of their regiment had fallen and still more been wounded the boys knew well, although the full toll of their losses would not be known until the next day. But the enemy had lost still more, and a large number of prisoners were in American hands. They had taken two trenches on a wide front, and that night American boys were eating their suppers in the dugouts where Germans had breakfasted in the morning. It had been a dashing attack with a successful result, and Uncle Sam had reason to be proud of his nephews.
"One more step on the road to the Rhine," exulted Frank, voicing the thought that stirred them all.
"Right you are," replied Bart "It's a long, long road, but we'll get there."
"Do you remember what old Peterson said just before we left for France?" queried Tom. "'The United States has put her hand to the plow and she won't turn back.'"
"Good old Peterson!" remarked Billy. "He was a dandy scrapper himself in the old days when he wore the blue. I'll bet he's rooting for us every day."
"Sure he is," agreed Frank. "Everybody in the old firm is."
"Reddy's rooting the hardest of them all," laughed Bart, referring to the red-headed office boy. "Do you remember how excited the little rascal got when the old Thirty-seventh went past? He almost tumbled out of the window. And how he cheered!"
"He's got the right stuff in him," said Tom. "Do you know, I shouldn't be a bit surprised to see that kid turn up here some time."
"You're dreaming," replied Bart.
"You wait and see," prophesied Tom. "When any one wants a thing hard enough he usually gets it. He'll ship as cabin boy or something of the kind and some day, when we're least expecting it, Reddy will pop up here. Watch my hunch."
"How scared the Huns would be if they knew that Reddy was coming to clean them up," mocked Tom.
"He might account for some of them at that," remarked Billy. "A bullet from Reddy's gun would go as fast and hit as hard as any other. You know what David did to Goliath."
By this time they had passed the second captured trench and were facing the enemy's trench about three hundred yards away. Their talk ceased or died down to whispers.
Before them stretched the desolate waste of No Man's Land, pitted with shell holes, blasted and seared by the pitiless storm of fire that had swept it all that day.
Once it had been fertile and beautiful. Now it was withered and hideous. It was a grim commentary on the war that had been as ruthless toward nature as it had been toward man.
"Now, boys," said the corporal in a low voice, "you know what we've got to do. Keep together as much as you can and—Drop!"
The last command came out like a shot, and was caused by a star shell that rose from the opposing trench and burst in a flood of greenish light.
Had they been standing, it would have revealed them clearly, but at their leader's word they had dropped instantly to the ground, where they lay motionless until the light died away.
Then they rose and like so many shadows moved cautiously forward, with a motion more like drifting than walking, their ears alert, their eyes strained, their hearts beating fast with excitement.
THE BARBAROUS HUNS
The night was as black as pitch, which, while an advantage in one way, was a disadvantage in another. For though it lessened their chance of detection, it also made it more difficult to get the lay of the land and keep their sense of direction.
But here again their training came into play, for they had been specially drilled to be blindfolded and remain in that condition for hours at a time. In that way they had developed their sense of feeling just as a blind man does and had acquired an almost uncanny ability to avoid obstacles and steer a course without the aid of their eyes.
"Gee!" whispered Bart to Frank, as the two comrades moved along side by side, "I never saw a night so dark."
"Yes," replied his comrade, "it's as black as velvet. You could almost cut it with a knife."
"Lucky if that's the only cutting we'll have to do before the night is over," murmured Tom.
Soon they reached a little patch of woodland that stood almost halfway between the lines. Only a few gaunt trees had been left standing, mere skeletons of what they had been, every branch and twig swept away by shells and bullets and even the bark stripped off, leaving the trunks in ghastly nakedness.
But they still afforded shelter from bursting shrapnel or a sniper's bullet, and the boys stood behind them for a few moments while they listened intently for any sound that might betray the presence of an enemy patrol, prowling about on an errand similar to their own.
But nothing suspicious developed, and, reassured, they again, at a signal from their leader, moved forward. But new they were no longer on their feet. They were too close to the German line for that.
Down on hands and knees they wormed their way along inch by inch, reaching out their hand cautiously for each fresh grip on the uneven ground. Sometimes their hands encountered emptiness and they were warned that they were on the edge of a shell hole. At other times they drew back in instinctive repulsion, as they felt the rigid outlines of a dead body. But whatever detours they had to make, they managed by touch or whisper to keep together, and although their progress was slow it was still progress, and they knew that they were steadily nearing the German lines.
Suddenly Frank's extended hand came in contact with a sharp object that he recognized on the instant. It was the barb on a broken strand of wire.
They had reached the entanglement protecting a segment of the German trench.
Frank had been a trifle in advance of his comrades, and he softly signaled his discovery to the others. In an instant they had stiffened out and lay as rigid as statues.
For five minutes not one of them stirred, while they listened for the tread of the sentry who might be stationed behind the wires.
Some distance off they could hear the sound of voices in guttural tones, the occasional click of a bayonet as it was slipped into place, the low rumble of what might have been field pieces being moved into position.
Now too their eyes came into play, for ahead of them the darkness was threaded with a faint ray of light that rose above the trench, and while it did little more than make darkness visible, it was still sufficient to form a background against which they could have detected the figure of a sentinel.
But they drew no false assurance from that fact, for the enemy's patrol might be lying on the ground, as silent as themselves and as watchful, ready to fire in the direction of the slightest sound.
It was a nerve-trying situation, but life or death might depend on their self-control, and they stood the test successfully, although poor Tom had an almost irrepressible desire to sneeze, in conquering which he almost broke a blood vessel.
Convinced at last that it was safe to move, they commenced to crawl along the outside of the wire, trying by the sense of touch to find out what havoc had been made in it by the American artillery fire and where it would be easiest to break through.
They had drawn on rubber gloves, for they knew that the Germans sometimes charged the wires with electricity, and a touch with the bare hand would mean instant death.
But that day the fighting had been so fierce and the enemy had been kept so busy in resisting the American onslaught that no such precaution had been taken. And this better than anything else told the boys how badly the enemy had been shaken.
At several places they found gaps that had been made by the Yankee guns, and these they widened by the use of the wire cutters that they carried in their belts.
At each such breach the boys tied small pieces of white rag, so that on the next day these fluttering bits of white could be seen through field glasses by the American officers, and the full force of guns and men could be brought to bear against these weakened portions of the line.
They worked rapidly and silently, timing their cutting with the roar of the guns that still kept up the artillery duel, so that the click of the nippers would be drowned in the heavier sound.
Little by little in the course of the work, the members of the patrol had drawn apart, depending upon their ability to rejoin each other by following the line of the wire.
Frank found himself working on a specially tangled bit of wire that was made still more difficult of handling because it was intertwisted with the stalks of a thick hedge. He had just nipped a piece of wire in two, when his quick ear detected a sound on the other side of the hedge.
Instantly he stiffened. Every muscle became as taut as tempered steel. He scarcely seemed to breathe while his unwinking eyes tried to bore through the mass of tangled brush and wire to see what was on the other side.
There too the rustling sound had ceased and a silence prevailed as deep as his own.
For minutes that seemed ages this condition persisted. Then slowly, so slowly that Frank at first was not sure that he saw aright, a slender spear-like point broke the outline of the top of the hedge. Only the fact that it stood out against the dim light that came from the enemy trench enabled Frank to see it at all.
Gradually the object rose higher until it seemed to broaden out at the base; and then with a quickening of the pulse Frank realized that what he saw was the spike of a German helmet!
He had won in the duel of silence. The other, unable to stand the strain, had risen first. Would he win in the grimmer duel that seemed to be impending?
Frank's fingers stole toward his revolver, but stopped before they reached it. There must be no shooting so near the enemy trench. A horde of Germans would be upon him in a twinkling.
His rifle lay beside him where he had placed it while working on the wire. His fingers closed upon the stock. Here was a weapon that he might use at either end with deadly effect. The butt could serve as a club, while the bayonet, painted black like the rest of his accoutrements so that no glimmer of steel should betray it, carried death on its point.
Now beneath the helmet the head of a man appeared, then the shoulders, and finally the sentry, evidently satisfied that his suspicion had been without foundation, straightened out to his full length. He stood for another minute or two peering into the darkness. But Frank's black-clad form merged so perfectly into its surroundings and he remained so motionless that the German at last was convinced.
With a grunt of satisfaction he stooped to pick up his rifle.
Lithe as a panther, Frank sprang to his feet, leaped over the hedge and landed heavily on the stooping form, knocking the breath out of the German's body.
In a flash Frank's sinewy hands were upon the sentry's throat, stifling the cry that sought to issue from his lips.
There was a brief struggle, but the attack had been so sudden and tremendous that it was soon over, and the German lay limp and unconscious.
The instant Frank realized this, he relaxed his hold. He tore open the man's coat, felt for his heart and found that it was still beating.
What his foe would have done if the case had been reversed, Frank knew perfectly well. A dagger point would have pierced his heart and stilled its beating forever. More than once he had looked on the bodies of comrades who had been butchered while lying wounded and helpless on the battlefield, and had been stirred by a wild desire to take similar vengeance on those who had violated all the laws of war.
But he was an American, with all the proud traditions of honor and chivalry that had come down to him through generations. He could not slaughter a helpless foe. He had the man a prisoner. It was enough.
Quickly he tied the sentry's hands, using the German's own belt as a strap. Then he tore some strips from the white cloth he had been carrying to fasten on the bushes and made a gag, in case the man should recover his senses and try to give the alarm.
He dragged the man through a gap in the hedge so that he would not be found by any of his comrades who might come that way. Then he crept down to where the corporal and the other members of the patrol were still busy on the wires and in a whisper told what had happened.
Wilson was quick to see the opportunity that the capture had afforded.
"Good work, Sheldon," he commended. "Here's where we get through the wires. And we've got to do it quickly, for we don't know at what time that fellow's relief may be coming along."
His prophecy seemed about to be fulfilled with startling suddenness, for, even while he spoke, a group of several figures, topped by helmets, was revealed by the action of one of them in striking a match. It flared up brightly for a second, but luckily the boys were outside the zone of light that it formed.
They lay perfectly still, although each of them took a tighter grasp on his rifle.
The men conversed in guttural tones for several minutes, that seemed as many ages to the watchers in the shadows.
Would the Germans come toward them or walk away from them? Their lives, or at the least their liberty, might depend upon the answer.
One of the men pointed in their direction and even took a step forward, but his comrades stopped him and an animated discussion ensued, which finally resulted in their retracing their steps in the direction from which they had come.
A sigh of relief went up from the boys and their grip on their weapons relaxed.
"A mighty close shave," whispered Billy.
"It was all of that," agreed Bart.
"As close for them as it was for us," said Tom grimly. "I had that big fellow picked out and I'd have dropped him sure."
Like so many ghosts, the party drifted along in Corporal Wilson's wake until they came to the gap. A glance at the motionless sentry showed that he had not yet returned to consciousness.
"That was a knockout for fair," murmured Billy admiringly.
"He must have thought a house was falling on him," whispered Bart with a low chuckle.
"Frank's no featherweight," agreed Tom. "I'd hate to have those trench clogs of his come down on my back with him inside of them."
A warning "s—sh" from the corporal brought them back to the grim business still before them, and they crept along behind him as he wormed his way through the breach.
Camp utensils were scattered upon the ground and indicated that a field kitchen had stood there recently, an impression that became a conviction when Bart burned his hand by bringing it down upon some smoldering embers covered with ashes.
He bit his tongue trying to repress the exclamation that leaped to his lips, but he succeeded, although his fingers were badly blistered.
Little by little, with many pauses, they reached the edge of a small section of the first trench. Nothing hindered them, no one challenged them. In fact their progress was so free from obstacles that the corporal, a wily veteran who had had long experience among the savage Moros while serving in the Philippines, became uneasy, fearing an ambush.
Still, that was one of the chances that the party had to take, and there was nothing to do but to keep on. But they redoubled their precautions, every sense tingling with watchfulness against a sudden surprise.
They worked their way along the trench until they reached the entrance. No sound came from the interior. They listened for the murmur of conversation, the scraping of feet, the clank of a weapon. They looked down its length for a ray of light. Not a gleam or a sound rewarded them.
As far as they could judge, it was absolutely deserted. But on the other hand it might be bristling with armed men, waiting in a stillness as deathlike as their own the command to fire.
For fully ten minutes their watch continued. Then the corporal gathered them close around him and gave his commands in a whisper.
"We'll raid it," he decided. "There are only a few of us, but we'll have the advantage of surprise. That is, if they're not waiting to surprise us. But we'll have to gamble on that. It's only a connecting trench, and there won't be more than a dozen men or thereabouts in it. If we could bag them and take them back to camp it would be a good night's work. Have your guns ready and be prepared to slip them a few grenades if we have to. I'll lead the way and when the time comes I'll flash my light. Come along now and be right on your toes when I give the word."
Corporal Wilson went first and his scouting party followed close on his heels. It was like going into the jaws of death. It would have taken less nerve to face a charge, for then their blood would have been up and they would have been fired by the sight of their enemy. There would have been nothing of this eerie stillness, this vault-like chill. Yet not one of them hesitated or lagged behind.
Twenty paces had been covered when the corporal stopped, drew out his flashlight and sent out a stream of radiance that illumined every nook and cranny of the trench.
On the instant the boys had their rifles at their shoulders with their fingers on the triggers, ready for a volley.
But their precaution was needless. The trench was empty!
Empty as far as men were concerned. But it was full of other things that made their hair stand up with horror as their meaning swept in upon them!
A TASTE OF COLD STEEL
Planted at intervals in the trench were rows of iron stakes, coming to a sharp point at the top and cunningly camouflaged so that they would not be detected by any one looking over the edge. The Army boys were not slow in seeing the meaning of the trap and the fiendish ingenuity that had conceived it.
"It's a dummy trench!" murmured Corporal Wilson. "The idea is to have their men seem to retreat into it when the fighting takes place on this part of the line. Our boys come on in pursuit, jump over the edge, come down on these sharp stakes and are spitted like larks. Nice way to wage war, that!"
"It's worthy of the Hun," growled Tom.
"And when you've said that you've reached the limit," observed Bart.
"The Turks are pretty good at torture," murmured Frank bitterly, "but they must feel like thirty cents when they compare themselves with their German masters."
"Let's get these things out of the way," said Billy wrathfully, as he grasped one of the spikes.
But the corporal stopped him instantly. "Don't dig them out!" he cried. "There's no knowing but what you may cause an explosion. Or they may have some electric connection that will give warning to the Boches. We've spotted the location of this infernal trap and that's enough. Our officers will see that our men steer clear of it."
"Of course," remarked Bart, "all the value to the Huns of this trap depends upon our boys jumping in from the top of the trench. If they came in from the entrance to the dugout, all the trouble of planting these spikes would be thrown away."
"It would be a trap just the same, only in a different way," replied the corporal. "It's a safe bet that the Germans have machine guns planted where they can sweep the whole length of this part of the trench. They'd wait until our boys were all crowded in here and then the machine guns would start spitting and wipe every last one of them out. There'd be no way to get put except the way they had come in, and no one could get through that storm of bullets. But now let's get out of this while the going's good."
The conversation had been carried on in the faintest whispers, and after the first hurried examination of the dummy trench there had been no light. But they all felt better when they had passed out of the trench without mishap and lay on the ground above. Here they were at least in the open, and if death came to them they would not be slaughtered like rats in a trap.
The corporal consulted his radio watch and found that it wanted but two hours to dawn.
"Not much time left, boys," he murmured. "And unless we get back to our lines before daylight, we'll stand a good chance of losing the number of our mess. But if we don't do anything else, we've done a pretty fair night's work. The finding of this dummy trench will put a crimp in the Heinies' plans. I'd like to have some prisoners to take along just for luck but all we've bagged is that sentry."
"Perhaps we haven't even got him," suggested Frank. "Some of his comrades may have found him by this time."
"Not likely," replied Bart. "He couldn't make a noise, and as we left him outside the wire they wouldn't be likely to stumble over him."
"All the same, we'd better get a hustle on," replied the corporal, and they started on their homeward journey as stealthily as they had come.
They had some difficulty in finding the breach in the wire through which they had entered, but at last they succeeded and wormed their way out. Then they felt around for the sentry and found him in the place they had left him. He had returned to consciousness, for when the corporal risked a ray of his flashlight on the upturned face, they could see that his eyes were open and looking at them intelligently.
The corporal placed the muzzle of his revolver against the man's neck as a gentle reminder of what would happen to him if he should make a sound, and they proceeded to untie his hands. Then they motioned to him that he was to get on his hands and knees and go before them, which, with muffled grunts, and after two or three attempts, he succeeded in doing. He was evidently dazed yet and stiff from the cramped attitude in which he had been lying, but stern necessity was on him and he finally wobbled and staggered on before them.
They had got some little distance away from the wires when Frank suddenly came to a dead stop. His comrades halted instantly.
"What is it?" whispered Wilson, who was nearest to him.
"That blur ahead of us," returned Frank. "It looks a little more solid than the rest of the darkness."
He pointed ahead and a little to the right.
"I don't see anything," remarked Tom.
"Neither do I," affirmed Billy.
"I think I see a little blacker patch than usual," declared Bart. "And it seems to be moving."
The corporal put his ear to the ground.
"I think Sheldon is right," he said, after a moment of intense listening. "At any rate we'll take no chances. Slip into some of these shell holes and lie low. If it should be an enemy patrol and there are too many to tackle we'll let them go by. But if there aren't more than double our number we'll take a crack at them. Keep your weapons ready and let fly when I give the word."
The ground was so pitted with craters from the heavy artillery duel that had been raging all the day before that they had no difficulty in finding shelter. Their prisoner, who judged by the preparations that some of his own comrades were approaching, was inclined to balk a little and delay matters, but a vigorous push of Bart's boot hastened his movements and he was tumbled in unceremoniously. And they blessed the precaution that had still left the gag in his mouth when they had unfastened his hands.
More and more the blur ahead of them detached itself from the surrounding darkness, until even skeptical Tom and Billy knew that what they saw was a body of men bearing down steadily in their direction.
Of course there was a chance that it was an American patrol out on an errand similar to their own, but it was unlikely, if that were so, that they would be going in the direction of the enemy's lines when the night was so far spent.
Nearer and nearer came the party until not more than thirty feet lay between them and the American boys who knelt in the shell holes, with faces stern and set and fingers on the triggers of their rifles awaiting the word of command.
But for some unknown reason the blur became motionless and remained so for several minutes. Then it receded, as though the party had changed its plan.
"What do you suppose is the matter with them?" whispered Tom. "Do you think they've tumbled to our being here?"
"How could they?" returned Frank. "They'd have to have the eyes of cats to see us in these holes."
"I hope the corp will let us go after them," murmured Billy. "I'm all tuned up for a scrap."
Wilson hesitated. If he went after the supposed enemy, they would probably hear him and he would lose the advantage of the surprise. On the other hand, that they now seemed to be going in the direction of the American lines might indicate that, after all, they were a patrol of his own comrades. But while he weighed the chances, the question was solved for him by the fact that the blur again became distinct. And this time it grew larger very rapidly, indicating that the party had at last reached a definite decision. On they came until only a few paces separated them from the Army boys.
Just then a star shell rose from the German lines and sent a flare of light stabbing the darkness and clearly revealing a dozen or more Germans. As they were facing the glare they were momentarily dazzled by it, and the Americans peering beneath their black hoods on a level with the ground could have easily escaped detection had they been so inclined.
But that instantaneous flash had decided the corporal. The odds were more than two to one, but such odds as that was only a challenge to Yankee fighting blood.
"Fire!" he shouted, and five rifles spoke as one. Three of the enemy went down as though stricken by an axe, and another staggered and his rifle clattered to the ground.
But the enemy rallied almost instantly, and at a hoarse command there was a return volley. This proved harmless, however, for the boys knew that it would come and bent beneath the edge of the craters until the iron storm had swept over them.
"Now, boys, at them with your bayonets!" shouted Corporal Wilson, as soon as he had drawn the enemy's fire.
With a leap the American squad was on the level ground and rushing with leveled bayonets at the foe.
The Americans had the advantage of the surprise, and their headlong charge would have won instantly if the forces had been equal. But although two went down at once, the others, after yielding ground somewhat, closed in a death grip with their assailants, and there was a furious combat at close quarters.
There was no more shooting. It was a matter now of clubbed rifles and bayonet thrusts.
Frank found himself engaged in a bayonet duel with a massive German who towered above him in height and probably outweighed him by twenty pounds. He was well trained too in bayonet work and was a most formidable opponent.
But he met his master when he crossed bayonets with Frank. The latter had made himself expert by long training under skilful French instructors, and, besides, was the most finished boxer in the regiment. At thrust and parry, feint and riposte, advance and retreat, he stood first among his comrades.
Against the furious bull-like rushes of his opponent, he opposed a quickness and agility that more than counterbalanced his enemy's weight It was a contest of a bull against a panther, and the panther won.
For perhaps two minutes the fight continued. Then with a lightning thrust Frank's bayonet found its mark, and the German staggered for a moment, fell headlong and lay still.
His fall seemed to take the heart out of the others who were being outfought and pressed back. They wavered, broke and started to flee, but the sharp crack of the corporal's revolver brought one of them to the ground, and the others halted.
Up went their hands and from the lips of each came the cry "Kamerad!" in token of surrender.
The American boys rounded them up and disarmed them. Then the corporal took account of stock.
Bart was there panting and flushed with nothing worse than a scalp wound where a rifle butt had glanced from his head. Wilson himself was unhurt. Billy also had come through unscathed, but Tom was nowhere to be seen.
An awful fear, a fear that they had never felt in the fighting itself, clutched the hearts of his comrades. Good old Tom, bound to them by a thousand ties of friendship and comradeship—had he met his fate in this desolate stretch of No Man's Land?
Frantically they searched among the bodies for one that wore a suit similar to their own. Frank found it first. His hand went to the heart and to his joy found that it was beating.
He lifted Tom's head and rested it on his knee.
"Tom! Tom!" he called, as he chafed his chum's hands and loosened his suit at the throat.
Tom's eyes slowly opened, and, recognizing his friend, a faint smile came to his lips. But he did not speak, and Bart, who was the only other one who could be spared from guarding the prisoners, joined Frank in redoubled efforts to bring Tom back to full consciousness.
"He doesn't seem to have any bones broken," said Frank after a hurried examination.
"And he isn't bleeding," replied Bart. "But he has a lump on his head as big as an egg."
At last Tom's full consciousness returned, and with his chums' assistance he got slowly and painfully to his feet.
"Guess they haven't got my number yet, but they came mighty near it," he said, trying to grin. "I'd just run one of the Huns through the arm when I saw another out of the tail of my eye swinging for my head with his rifle. I tried to dodge, but he must have been too quick for me, for that's the last I remember."
"Thank heaven it was no worse!" ejaculated Frank fervently.
"It would have been a mighty bad thing for us if you had cashed in, old boy," said Bart with feeling. "How did the scrap turn out?" asked Tom.
"Though I suppose there's no use in asking, or you wouldn't be here taking care of me."
"We trimmed them good and proper," said Frank, from whom a ton's weight had been lifted by finding that his friend had escaped serious injury.
"A lovely scrap," added Bart. "I wouldn't have missed it for a farm. We've wiped out five and rounded out the rest. Let's go over and see how many there are."
"Eight," announced the corporal, as he counted the prisoners who stood in a group sullen and morose. "There must have been a baker's dozen in the party."
"I don't know how superstitious they may be," chuckled Billy, "but I'll bet that from now on they'll agree that thirteen is an unlucky number!"
NICK RABIG'S QUEER ACTIONS
"Well," remarked Corporal Wilson, who was relieved beyond measure to find that his own little force was practically intact, "eight is a pretty good bag for one night's work, not to speak of five more who won't do any more strafing for the Kaiser."
"Nine," corrected Bart. "Don't forget our speechless friend in the shell hole."
"No doubt he'd be perfectly willing to be forgotten," grinned Billy. "But we'd better take him along just for luck. That'll be nearly two prisoners apiece for each of the bunch. Pretty fair work if you ask me."
There was no further time for talking, for it would soon be dawn and they were eager to get back to their own lines. They had been under a terrible strain through all the long hours of the night and were beginning to feel the reaction. And they were not at all averse to showing their comrades in the regiment how well they had fared and how stoutly they had held up the colors of the old Thirty-seventh.
"Who goes there?" came the sharp challenge of the sentry, as they drew near the American trench, and they knew that a score of rifles was trained upon them to back up the sentry's demand if the answer were halting or suspicious.
"Friends," replied the corporal.
"Advance and give the countersign," was the next requirement.
Corporal Wilson complied, and he and his squad were joyfully welcomed.
"I said 'friends'" added the corporal with a grin, as the party made their way through the opening in the wire defences, "but perhaps that doesn't go for all this crowd. Some of them didn't want to come, but we told them they'd better, and here they are."
"A bunch of huskies," remarked the sentry, as he surveyed the prisoners critically. "You don't mean to say that just you five rounded up that gang?"
The four privates merely grinned.
"Looks like it, doesn't it?" answered the corporal with keen relish of the sentry's surprise. "Counting those we brought down, there are just fourteen that will turn up missing when the Boches call the roll this morning."
"That's going some," said the sentry admiringly. "I only wish I'd been along with you. Some fellows have all the luck."
The prisoners were turned over to the officer in charge, and the corporal made his way to headquarters to make his report of the night's work.
Bart and Tom went under the hands of the surgeons to have their wounds and bruises treated, and were assured that with a little rest they would be as well as ever in a day or two. Then the boys, "dog-tired," as Bart expressed it, but happy and exultant that they had done their work well and were back safe once more, tumbled into their bunks to enjoy the rest they had so richly earned.
"Never was so tired in my life," murmured Frank, drowsily, as he fell rather than climbed into his bunk.
"Same here," chimed in Billy.
"Rip Van Winkle won't have anything on me," drawled Tom. "What's twenty years of sleep? I'm going to take forty."
As for Bart, he started to say something but dropped off to sleep while saying it.
None of the quartette woke until late in the afternoon. Then they found that their exploit had made a stir in the regiment. Their fight against twice their number was the most interesting feature to their comrades of the rank and file. But still more important in the view of their officers was the discovery of the dummy trench, which might have been turned into a shambles for the American troops if they had rushed into the trap so cunningly and so fiendishly set for them.
"It was fine work, Corporal," the captain said warmly, when Wilson finished his report. "You deserve credit for having brought your squad back without the loss of a man."
"They mostly brought themselves back, sir," replied Wilson with a smile. "It's a pleasure to command such a nervy crowd as that. You don't need to use the spur. I'm mostly busy putting on the brakes. It would have done your heart good if you could have seen the way they waded into the Huns. That fellow Sheldon particularly is a crackerjack when it comes to a scrap. He's as strong as an ox and as quick as a cat."
"I've had my eye on him," replied the officer. "He'll go far before the war is over. You can go now, Corporal. I'll have your work mentioned in the order of the day."
He was as good as his word, for when the regiment was drawn up for inspection the order of the day commended each man of the squad by name for their gallant exploit that, as the order ran, "reflected credit on the regiment."
"How's your head feeling now, old man?" Frank asked of Tom, as they rejoined each other at mess.
"Pretty groggy," responded Tom. "But I'm not kicking. I'm lucky to be alive at all. That fellow made an awful swipe at me, and if it had hit me fair it would have been all over."
"A miss is as good as a mile," put in Bart. "I had a pretty close shave myself. Seemed as though twenty star shells were going off at once."
"Yesterday was your lucky day," remarked Billy. "You had two narrow escapes."
"Let's hope it won't be three times and out," responded Bart lightly." By the way, I wonder what they did with that corporal who tried to do me up?"
"Most likely he's shot by this time," observed Tom. "If he isn't, he ought to be."
"He isn't shot yet at any rate," remarked Fred Andon, who sat near by. "I guess the fighting was so hot all day yesterday that they didn't have time to attend to him. Likely enough he's down in the prisoners' pen waiting for the court-martial."
"Let's go down and see after we've finished our chow," suggested Billy. "That is if you fellows ever get through eating. Look at Tom stowing it away. He'd eat his way through the whole quartermaster's department if he was let."
"And he's the fellow that they wouldn't let enlist because of his teeth," gibed Bart. "They didn't know Tom."
"I'm not the only one that got a raw deal," replied Tom, with whom it was always a sore point that he had been refused when he wanted to enlist, but had been accepted in the draft. "There's a drafted man here who was telling me the other day that he walked ninety miles to enlist. And do you know what the enlistment board did to him?"
"What?" was the query.
"Turned him down because he had flat feet," responded Tom. "Told him he wouldn't be able to stand a five-mile hike."
There was a roar of laughter.
"I heard another good one," chimed in Billy. "A fellow wanted to enlist, and the examining board wanted to reject him because he had a cast in his eye. 'Oh, that's all right,' he drawled, 'I allus shets that eye anyway when I shoot.' That made them laugh and he got by."
In high spirits they finished their meal, and as they were off duty for the next hour or two, made their way down to that quarter of the field where the prisoners' camp was placed.
Behind the barrier at the point nearest them they saw one bulky captive, who was munching contentedly the food that had been given him, and who had none of the woe-begone expression that a man in his position is commonly expected to show.
"See him shovel it in," laughed Billy.
"He doesn't seem to have a care in the world," remarked Bart.
"Probably glad to be behind our machine guns instead of in front of them," conjectured Tom.
"Hello, Heinie!" said Frank good-naturedly.
"Hello yourself," came the answer.
"Do you speak English?" asked Frank in surprise.
"A little," replied the German, and proceeded to prove it by answering, although in rather a halting manner, the questions they put to him.
No, he at any rate had not wanted the war. He was a skilled mechanic in one of the munition factories. There had been a strike on account of bad conditions and he had been one of the leaders. The Government had seized him and bundled him off to the front. He was glad to be captured. After the war the Kaiser would see that men were born to be something else than cannon fodder.
"Well," remarked Frank as they moved along, "there's one fellow at least that doesn't cry: 'Hoch the Kaiser.'"
"Seems good to see it so full," remarked Bart with great satisfaction, as he saw the large number of Germans who had been captured in the fierce fighting of the day before.
"If only the Kaiser and the Crown Prince were in that bunch," sighed Tom.
"That's a pleasure still to come," replied Frank. "But where's the fellow that tried to stab Bart? I don't see him anywhere. Seems as though the party isn't complete without him."
They made inquiry of one of the guards.
"Oh, that one," replied the guard. "They've roped him out from the rest of these mavericks and given him a hut all by himself. I guess he's thinking of making his will. I hear they're going to have him out before a drumhead in the morning."
"Which hut is it?" asked Frank, as his eye took in a little group of shacks at the further end of the field.
"That end one down by the big tree." The guard pointed it out with the point of his bayonet.
They went down in that direction, and as they neared the hut saw that it was guarded by a single sentry.
"Who's that fellow on guard?" asked Tom. "My head's so dizzy yet that I'm seeing things double."
"Looks rather familiar for a fact," said Bart. "Wait till he turns his head this way."
The next instant the sentry turned, and there was a whistle of surprise from Billy. "By the great horn spoon!" he ejaculated. "It's Nick Rabig!"
"Set a Hun to watch a Hun," remarked Tom bitingly.
"Oh, come, Tom," remonstrated Frank, "that's going a little too far. I've no reason to like the fellow, and we know he had to be dragged into the army, but that doesn't say he's a Hun."
"All except the uniform," persisted Tom. "He'd rather be fighting for the Kaiser this minute than for Uncle Sam."
"Shouldn't wonder if Tom's more than half right," assented Billy. "You know the way he" used to talk in Camport."
"You notice that we've never seen him volunteering for any of the raiding parties," said Billy.
"But that may only mean that Rabig has a yellow streak in him. It doesn't say that he's a traitor," returned Frank.
"Well, maybe he isn't," conceded Tom. "But all the same it seems rather queer that he should have been picked out to guard this Heinie. They could talk together in German through that closed door and nobody be wise to what they were saying."
"I don't suppose the officers know Rabig as well as the rest of us do," said Billy. "But say, fellows, look at that bit of white under the door of the hut. What do you suppose it is?"
"Oh, just a scrap of paper," laughed Bart. "Just like the Belgian treaty."
"Something the wind's blown up against the door, I guess," conjectured Tom.
"Wind nothing!" exclaimed Frank, whose vision was keener than that of any of the others. "It's under the door and it's getting bigger and bigger all the time. I tell you what it is, fellows," he went on excitedly, "it's a note that's being pushed out by the fellow inside."
"Let's get behind these trees and see what's going on," suggested Bart, indicating a clump of trees near which they happened to be standing.
In a moment they were screened from observation. Then they watched with the keenest interest what would follow.
That Rabig had caught sight of the paper was evident, for he stopped his pacing and turned his eyes on the door. Then he looked stealthily about him. The nearest sentry was some distance away, and the boys were well hidden by the trees.
Then Rabig made a complete circuit of the little hut, as though to make sure that no one was lurking about. Having apparently satisfied himself on that point, he returned and resumed his pacing until he was directly in front of the door.
Here he paused and drew out his handkerchief and wiped his forehead. But as he went to put it back, it dropped from his hand so that it lay close by and almost upon the protruding piece of paper.
He was stooping to pick it up, when he caught sight of a sergeant coming in his direction. Instantly he straightened up, and as he did so the butt of his rifle knocked against the door.
The paper disappeared as though it had been drawn swiftly back from the inside, just as the sergeant came up.
"Gee!" gasped Tom.
"Prisoner all right, Rabig?" inquired the sergeant.
"Yes, sir," replied Rabig. "He seems to be keeping pretty quiet. I looked in a little while ago and he was lying asleep on the bench."
"Keep a close watch on him," counseled the sergeant. "What he tried to do to Raymond yesterday shows that he's a desperate character. But I guess that by this time to-morrow he won't need any one to watch him."
The sergeant passed on and the boys looked at each other with speculation in their eyes.
"What do you think of it?" asked Frank thoughtfully.
"Think?" snorted Tom. "I think that Rabig is a bad egg. What else is there for any one to think?"
"It certainly looks suspicious," said Bart with a little wrinkle of anxiety creasing his brow.
"One thing is sure," declared Billy. "It was a note that was being pushed outside that door. The fellow inside was trying to get into communication with Rabig."
"True," assented Frank. "But that in itself doesn't prove anything. You or I might be on sentry duty and a prisoner might try to do the same thing to us."
"Yes," agreed Billy. "But we wouldn't act the way Rabig did. We'd have picked up the note and given it to the sergeant of the guard."
"And we wouldn't have sneaked around the hut to see if any one was near by," said Tom. "Why did he drop his handkerchief, except to have an excuse for picking it up and copping the note at the same time?"
"And his rifle butt didn't hit the door by accident," put in Billy. "That was a tip to the prisoner that some one was coming. Did you see how quickly the note disappeared?"
"I hate to think that there's a single man in the regiment who's a disgrace to his uniform," remarked Frank, "but it certainly looks bad. That fellow Rabig will bear watching."
"I told you he was a Hun," declared Tom. "His body's in France, but his heart's in Germany."
COLONEL PAVET REAPPEARS
The Army boys thought over the situation in some perplexity.
"What do you suppose we ought to do?" asked Bart.
"We ought to go hotfoot to the captain and tell him what we've seen," declared Tom with emphasis.
"I hardly like to do that," objected Billy. "At least not at this stage of the game. After all, we haven't any positive proof against Nick. His handkerchief might have dropped accidentally. And the knocking of the butt of his gun against the door could have happened without his meaning anything by it. He could explain his going around the hut by saying he wanted to be especially vigilant in guarding the prisoner."
"Yes," agreed Frank, "we haven't proof enough against Rabig to hang a yellow dog. And I wouldn't want to get him in bad with his officers on mere suspicion."
"That note might be proof if we could only get hold of it," suggested Tom.
"Swell chance!" returned Bart. "You can bet that note is chewed up and swallowed by this time. The first thing the Hun thought of, when he was tipped off that some one was coming, was to get rid of the evidence that might queer his chance of escape."
"I'll tell you what we'll do," said Frank. "We'll just go down and see Rabig and ask him casually about the prisoner. That may make him think that we're on to something, and if he's planning to do anything crooked it may scare him off. It won't do any harm anyway, and we'll take a chance."
They left the clump of trees and strolled down carelessly in the direction of the hut.
Rabig saw them coming, and the surly look that was habitual with him became more pronounced than usual. There was no love lost between him and any of them. He had been thoroughly unpopular in Camport because of his bullying nature even before the outbreak of the war, and his evident leaning toward Germany had deepened this feeling.
Since he had been drafted, he had of course kept his pro-German views to himself, for he valued his skin and had no desire to face a firing squad. But his work had been done grudgingly, and his disposition to shirk had more than once gained him short terms in the guardhouse.
Of all the group approaching him he most heartily disliked Frank. In the first place, Frank had never permitted him to bully him when they were with Moore & Thomas, and the two had been more than once on the brink of a fight. And since the boxing bout in the camp, when he had tried foul tactics and Frank had thrashed him thoroughly, his venom toward his conqueror had been more bitter than ever.
The boys stopped when they reached the front of the hut.
"Hello, Rabig!" they greeted him.
"Hello!" responded Rabig, still keeping up his pacing.
"Right on the job, I see," remarked Bart, pleasantly enough.
"Your eyesight's mighty good," replied Nick sullenly.
"Yes," Bart came back at him, "I can see a bit of white paper from quite a distance."
Rabig gave a sudden start.
"What do you mean by that?" he demanded.
"Nothing special," replied Bart carelessly. "What should I mean?"
"By the way," put in Tom, "you'd better tuck your handkerchief in a little more tightly or you'll lose it. It looks as though it were almost ready to drop out."
"What if it does?" snarled Rabig. "I could pick it up again, couldn't I?"
"Of course you could," said Tom, "but you might pick up something else with it. Dust, or a bit of paper, or something like that."
"Say, what's the matter with you guys anyway?" demanded Rabig, glowering at them.
"That looks like quite a solid door," remarked Frank, inspecting it critically.
"Oh, I don't know," responded Billy. "It's got dents in it. Here's one that looks as though it were made by a rifle butt."
Rabig looked at them angrily, and yet furtively, evidently seeking to find out how much their remarks meant.
"You fellows had better get along," he snapped. "You're interfering with discipline by talking to a sentry on guard."
Rabig's newborn reverence for discipline amused the boys so that they had hard work to repress a laugh.
"You're right," responded Frank. "We'll mosey along."
"Ta-ta, Rabig," said Bart. "Keep your eye peeled for any Hun trick. That fellow nearly got me yesterday with his knife, and he might try to play the same game on you."
"Don't you worry," growled Rabig. "I can take care of myself."
The chums passed on, laughing and talking about indifferent things, until they were out of ear shot.
"We've got him guessing," remarked Billy with a grin.
"We managed to put a flea in his ear," agreed Tom.
"Did you see how red he got?" questioned Bart.
"He sure is wondering how much we know," summed up Frank. "Whether it will make him go straight or not is another question. What we fellows ought to do is to take turns keeping tab on him, so that he can't act crooked even if he wants to." "It's a pity there should be any men in the American army whom we have to watch," said Tom bitterly.
"Yes, but that's to be expected," returned Frank. "There's never been an army in the history of the world that hasn't been infected with traitors more or less."
"Look at Benedict Arnold," remarked Billy.
"To my mind, it's surprising that there aren't more," said Frank. "That's what the Kaiser was counting on. He thought that the German element in America was so strong that we wouldn't dare to go to war with him. Do you remember what he told Gerard? That 'there were five hundred thousand Germans in America who would revolt'?"
"Yes," grinned Billy, "and I remember how Gerard came back at him with the 'five hundred thousand lamp-posts on which we'd hang them if they did.'"
They were out on the main road by this time, and they stepped to one side and saluted, as an officer in French uniform, accompanied by an orderly, came galloping along.