E-text prepared by Al Haines
ARMY BOYS ON THE FIRING LINE
Holding Back the German Drive
Author of "Army Boys in France," "Army Boys in the French Trenches," etc.
[Frontispiece: "America!" answered Frank, and hurled his revolver full in the sentry's face.]
The World Syndicate Publishing Co. Cleveland, O. ——— New York, N. Y.
Copyright, 1919, by George Sully & Company
ARMY BOYS ON THE FIRING LINE
I FIGHTING AGAINST ODDS II A PERILOUS JOURNEY III AMONG THE MISSING IV CAPTURED OR DEAD? V NICK RABIG TURNS UP VI THE COMING DRIVE VII IN THE HANDS OF THE HUNS VIII FRYING-PAN TO FIRE IX THE CONFESSION X A MIDNIGHT SWIM XI GALLANT WORK XII THE DRUGGED DETACHMENT XIII A DEEPENING MYSTERY XIV THE STORM OF WAR XV FURRY RESCUERS XVI CLOSING THE GAP XVII THE MINED BRIDGE XVIII A DESPERATE VENTURE XIX THE JAWS OF DEATH XX A TRAITOR UNMASKED XXI CROSSING THE LINE XXII A JOYOUS REUNION XXIII CUTTING THEIR WAY OUT XXIV WOUNDS AND TORTURE XXV DRIVEN BACK
ARMY BOYS ON THE FIRING LINE
FIGHTING AGAINST ODDS
"The Huns are coming!" exclaimed Frank Sheldon, as from the American front line his keen, gray eyes searched a broad belt of woodland three hundred yards away.
"Bad habit they have," drawled his special chum and comrade, Bart Raymond, running his finger along the edge of his bayonet. "We'll have to try to cure them of it."
"I think they're getting over it to some extent," remarked Tom Bradford, who stood at Frank's left. "The last time they tried to rush us they went back in a bigger hurry than they came. What we did to them was a shame!"
"They certainly left a lot of dead men hanging on our wires," put in Billy Waldon. "But there are plenty of them ready to take their places, and the Kaiser's willing to fight to the last man, though you notice he keeps his own precious skin out of the line of fire."
"I think Frank's getting us on a string," chaffed Tom, when some minutes had passed in grim waiting. "I don't see any Heinies. Trot out your Huns, Frank, and let's have a look at them."
"You'll see them soon enough," retorted Frank. "I saw the flash of bayonets in that fringe of woods and I'm sure they're massing."
"Do you remember that little thrilly feeling that used to go up and down our spines when we were green at the war game?" grinned Bart. "I feel it now to some extent, but nothing to what I did at first."
"That's because we've tackled the boches and taken their measure," commented Frank. "We know now that man for man when conditions are equal we can lick them. The world had been so fed up with stories about Prussian discipline that it seemed as though the Germans must be supermen. But a bullet or a bayonet can get them just like any one else, and when it comes to close quarters, the American eagle can pick the pin feathers out of any Prussian bird."
"It isn't but what they're brave enough," remarked Bart. "When they're fighting in heavy masses they're a tough proposition. But they've got to feel somebody else's shoulder against theirs to be at their best. Turn a hundred of them loose in a ten-acre lot against the same number of Americans, where each man had to pick out his own opponent, and see what would happen to them."
"They wouldn't be in it," agreed Tom with conviction. "Put a Heinie in a strange position where he has to think quickly without an officer to help him, and he's up in the air. Take his map away from him and he's lost."
"Even when you talk of his mass fighting being so good, perhaps you're giving him too much credit," said Billy grudgingly. "He goes into battle with his officer's revolver trained on him, and he knows that if he flinches he'll be shot. He's got a chance if he goes ahead and no chance at all if he doesn't. And you remember at the battle of the Somme how the gun crews were chained to their cannon so that they couldn't run away. You'll notice that we don't use chains or revolvers for that purpose in the American army."
"I heard Captain Baker tell the colonel the other day that what he needed was a brake instead of a spur in handling his bunch of doughboys," chuckled Tom.
"Quit your chinning," commanded Frank suddenly. "Here they come! Now will you boobs tell me that my eyesight's no good?"
"You win," agreed Bart, as a sharp word of command came down the line. "They're coming for fair!"
From the thick woods beyond, a huge force of enemy troops were coming, marching shoulder to shoulder as stiffly and precisely as though they were on parade or were passing in review before the Kaiser himself.
Their artillery, which had been keeping up a steady fire, now redoubled in volume, and a protecting barrage was laid down, in the shelter of which they steadily advanced.
But now the American guns opened up with a roar that shook the ground. The guns were served with the precision that has made American gunnery the envy of the world, and great gaps were torn in the dense masses of the enemy troops. But the lanes filled up instantly, and with hardly a moment of faltering the advance continued.
As the troops drew nearer, it could be seen that all the men were clad in brand-new uniforms as though for a festive occasion.
"Getting ready to celebrate in advance," murmured Bart. "They must feel pretty sure of themselves."
"Just Prussian bluff," growled Tom. "They think it will brace up Fritz, and that we'll think it's all over but the shouting and lighting out for home."
"They'll have to take those uniforms to the tailors when we get through with them," muttered Billy, as he took a tighter grasp on the stock of his rifle.
"They'll do well enough for shrouds," added Frank grimly.
The advancing troops were now not more than a hundred yards away, and though their losses had been severe there were so many left that it was evident it would come to a hand-to-hand fight. The enemy cannon had torn big rents in the barbed wire entanglements that stretched before the American position so that it would be possible to get through.
Now the American machine guns began sputtering, and their shrill treble blended with the deep bass of the heavier field guns. A moment more, and from the rifles of the American infantry a withering blast of flame sprang out and the enemy went down in heaps.
There were signs of confusion in the German ranks and the American commander gave the signal to charge.
Out from their shallow trenches leaped the Army Boys, the light of battle in their eyes, and fell like an avalanche upon the advancing hosts.
In an instant there was a welter of fearful fighting. The force of the enemy had been largely spent by their march over that field of death, while the Americans were fresh and their vigor unimpaired.
For a brief space the Germans were pressed back, but they had concentrated their forces on that section of the line so that they outnumbered the Americans by two or three to one, and little by little, by sheer weight, they pressed their opponents back. And behind those immediately engaged, fresh forces could be seen emerging from the woods and coming to the help of their comrades.
But Americans never show to such advantage as when they are fighting against odds, and the battle line swayed back and forth, first one and then the other side seeming to have a temporary advantage.
Frank and his comrades were in the very thick of the fight, shooting, stabbing, using now the bayonet and again the butts of their rifles as the occasion demanded. There was a red mist before their eyes and their blood was pounding in their veins and drumming in their ears from their tremendous exertions.
Slowly but surely, the fierce determination of the Americans began to tell. The solid enemy front was broken up into groups, and the gaps grew wider and wider as their men were pushed back further and further over the ground that lay between the lines. In the center the Americans were winning.
But suddenly a new danger threatened. A fresh body of German troops had worked its way to a position where it could attack the American right flank, which was but thinly held because for the time being the bulk of the forces were engaged in pressing the advantage gained at the center. If the enemy could turn that flank and throw it back in confusion on the main body, it might lead to serious disaster.
At the point where Frank and his comrades were fighting, there was a nest of machine guns that commanded the space over which the new enemy forces were bearing down on the threatened flank. Several of the gun crews had fallen, and the guns were temporarily unserved.
There was no time to wait for orders. Another minute and the guns would be in the enemy's hands.
"Quick, Bart! Come along, Billy and Tom!" shouted Frank, as he rushed toward the guns.
His chums were on his heels in an instant. Quick as a flash, the guns were aimed, and streams of bullets cut the front ranks of the attacking force to ribbons. Volley after volley followed, until the guns were so hot that the hands of the young soldiers were blistered.
But the hardest part of their work was done, for now fresh guns had been brought into position and the flank was strengthened beyond the power of the enemy to break. Frank's quick thought and instant action had averted what might have been a calamity that would have decided the fortune of the day.
"Good work, old man!" panted Bart, when in a momentary lull he could gain breath enough to speak.
"Yours as well as mine!" gasped Frank, as he dashed the perspiration from his forehead. "If you fellows hadn't been right on the job, I couldn't have done anything worth while."
Regular crews had now been assigned to take their places, and resuming their positions in the ranks the young soldiers plunged once more into the hand-to-hand work at which they were masters.
The issue was no longer in doubt. The scale had turned against the Germans and they were retreating. But they went back stubbornly, giving ground only inch by inch, and in certain scattered groups the fighting was as furious as ever.
As far as might be, they kept together, but as the swirl of the battle tore them apart, Tom and Billy were lost sight of by Bart and Frank, who were laying about them right and left among the enemy.
A sharp exclamation from Bart caused Frank to turn his eyes toward him for a second.
"Hurt, Bart?" he queried anxiously.
"Bullet ridged my shoulder," responded Bart. "Doesn't amount to anything, though. Look out, Frank!" he yelled, his voice rising almost to a scream. Frank turned to see two burly Germans bearing down upon him with fixed bayonets.
Bart sought to engage one of them, but was caught up in a mass of combatants and Frank was left to meet the onset alone.
Quick as a cat, he sidestepped one of them, and putting out his foot tripped him as he plunged past. He went down with a crash, and his rifle flew from his hands.
The remaining German made a savage lunge, but Frank deftly caught the blade upon his own, and the next instant they were engaged in a deadly bayonet duel.
It was fierce but also brief. A thrust, a parry, and Frank drove his weapon through the shoulder of his opponent. The latter reeled and fell. Frank strove to pull out his weapon, but it stuck fast, and just then a pair of sinewy hands fastened on his throat and he looked into the reddened eyes of the antagonist whom he had tripped.
With a quick wrench Frank tore himself away, and the next instant he had grappled with his opponent and they swayed back and forth, each putting forth every ounce of his strength in the effort to master the other.
Panting, straining, gasping, neither one of them saw that the struggle had brought them to the edge of a deep shell crater. A moment more and they fell with a crash to the bottom of the hole.
A PERILOUS JOURNEY
The shock was a heavy one. For an instant both combatants were stunned. The flying arms and legs straightened out and lay quiet. Then Frank staggered painfully up to his hands and knees.
Luckily he had fallen on top, and the breath had been knocked out of his opponent's body. But even as Frank looked down upon him, his foe showed signs of reviving. His eyes opened, and a glare of rage came in them as they rested on Frank.
He put his hand to his belt, but Frank was the quicker and in an instant his knife was out and pointed at the German's throat.
"Say 'Kamerad,'" he commanded.
The German hesitated, but a tiny prick of the knife decided him.
"Kamerad," he growled sullenly.
"That's right," said Frank, "but just to make sure that you won't stick your knife into me when I'm not looking, I guess I'll take care of it. No, you needn't take the trouble of handing it to me," he continued, as he saw a vicious expression in his captive's eyes. "You just keep your hands stretched above your head and I'll find your knife myself. And don't let those hands come down until I tell you, or something awkward is likely to happen."
If the prisoner did not understand all that was said to him, there was enough in Frank's gestures to indicate his meaning, and the hands went up and stayed up, while Frank searched his prisoner and removed his knife, which he put in his own belt. Then he bound the fellow's hands.
The attack had been made late in the afternoon, and dusk had fallen while the fight was still going on. Now it was quite dark, and Frank rose to his feet, intending to clamber out of the shell hole, taking his prisoner with him.
But what was his consternation, on lifting his head to the level rim of the crater, to hear about him commands shouted in hoarse guttural accents. The sounds of battle had died down and it was evident that the fight for that day was over. And that part of the field had been left in German hands!
Reinforcements coming up in the nick of time had halted a retreat that was threatening to become a rout. The battle would probably be resumed on the morrow, but for the present both forces were resting on their arms.
The tables were turned with a vengeance. A moment before he had been holding a prisoner and getting ready to take him into the American lines. Now he was himself in the enemy lines, liable at any moment to be discovered and dragged out roughly, to be questioned by German captors.
All this passed through Frank's mind in a twinkling. But then another thought came to him. He must silence his prisoner.
The thought came not a moment too soon, for as Frank dropped down beside him a shout arose from the German's lips. He too had heard and understood the sounds about him.
In an instant Frank had thrust his handkerchief into the prisoner's mouth. The man squirmed and struggled, but his bound hands made him powerless, and Frank soon made a gag that, while allowing the man a chance to breathe comfortably, would keep him silent.
Then he settled back and tried to think. And his thoughts were not pleasant ones.
He had had a brief taste of German imprisonment, and he was not anxious to repeat the experience. Yet nothing seemed more probable. Little short of a miracle would prevent his capture if he stayed there much longer. In the morning, discovery would be certain. He must escape that night, if at all. But how could he make his way through that swarm of enemies?
And while he is cudgeling his brain to find an answer to the question, it may be well, for the sake of those who have not read the preceding volumes of this series, to tell briefly who Frank and his chums were and what they had done up to the time this story opens.
Frank Sheldon had been born and brought up in the town of Camport, a thriving American city of about twenty-five thousand people. His father was American but his mother was French. Mr. Sheldon had met and married his wife in her native province of Auvergne, where her parents owned considerable property. They had died since their daughter's marriage, and in the natural course of things she would have inherited the estate. But legal difficulties had developed in regard to the will, and Frank's parents were contemplating a trip to France to straighten matters out, when the war broke out and made it impossible. Mr. Sheldon had died shortly afterward, leaving but a slender income for his widow. Frank had become her chief support. She was a charming, lovable woman, and she and her son were very fond of each other.
Frank had secured a good position with the firm of Moore & Thomas, a prosperous hardware house in Camport, and his prospects for the future were bright when the war broke out. But he was intensely patriotic, and wanted to volunteer as soon as it became certain that America would enter the conflict. For a time he held back on account of his mother, but an insult to the flag by a German, whom Frank promptly knocked down and compelled to apologize, decided his mother to put no obstacles in the way of his enlisting.
But Frank was not the only ardent patriot in the employ of Moore & Thomas. Almost all of the force wanted to go, including even Reddy the office boy, who although too young, was full of ardor for Uncle Sam. Chief among the volunteers were Bart Raymond, Frank's special chum and a fine type of young American, and Tom Bradford, loyal to the core. Poor Tom, however, was rejected on account of his teeth, but was afterward accepted in the draft, and by a stroke of luck rejoined Frank and Bart at Camp Boone, where they had been sent for training. Another friend of all three was Billy Waldon, who had been a member of the Thirty-seventh regiment before the boys had joined it. The four were the closest kind of friends and stuck by each other through thick and thin.
There had been one notable exception to the loyalty of the office force. This was Nick Rabig, a surly, bullying sort of fellow, who had been foreman of the shipping department. He was a special enemy of Frank, whom he cordially hated, and the two had been more than once at the point of blows. Rabig was of German descent, although born in this country, and before the war began he had been loud in his praise of Germany and in "knocks" at America. His chagrin may be imagined when he found himself caught in the draft net and sent to Camp Boone with the rest of the Camport contingent.
How the Army Boys were trained to be soldiers both at home and later in France; their adventures with submarines on the way over; how Rabig got what he deserved at the hands of Frank; what adventures they met with and how they showed the stuff they were made of when they came in conflict with the Huns—all this and more is told in the first volume of this series, entitled: "Army Boys in France; Or, From Training Camp to Trenches."
From the time they reached the trenches the Army Boys were in hourly peril of their lives. They took part in many night raids in No Man's Land and brought back prisoners. Frank met a Colonel Pavet whose life he saved under heavy fire and learned from the French officer encouraging news about his mother's property. The four friends had a thrilling experience when they were chased by Uhlan cavalry, plunged into a river from a broken bridge only to find when they reached the other side that the bank was held by German troops. How an airplane rescued them from German captivity is only one of stirring incidents narrated in the second volume of the series, entitled: "Army Boys at the Front; Or, Hand-to-Hand Fights with the Enemy."
Frank had been in many tight places since he had been in France. In fact, danger had been so constant that he had come to expect it. To have a feeling of perfect comfort and security would hardly have seemed natural. But now he freely owned to himself as he sat crouching low in the shell hole that his liberty if not his life was scarcely worth a moment's purchase.
Something of what was passing in his mind must have been evident to the German who shared the hole with him. Frank could not see his face clearly but he could hear the man shaking as if with inward laughter.
"Laugh ahead, Heinie," remarked Frank, though he knew the man could probably not understand him. "I'd do the same if the tables were turned. It'll be a mighty good joke to tell your cronies at mess tomorrow how the Yankee schweinhund thought he had you and then got nabbed himself. But they haven't got me yet. Those laugh best who laugh last, and perhaps I've got a laugh coming to me."
But just then the laugh seemed a good ways off. At any instant some one of the many passing to and fro might stumble into the hole and the game would be up. Or a flare from a star-shell might reveal him crouching beside his prisoner. His prisoner! What irony there was in the word under those circumstances.
Yet not all irony, for at the moment the thought passed through his mind, another thought told him how he might exercise the power that the fortune of war had given him over the German and by so doing effect his escape.
It was certain that in his American uniform he could not get through the Germans who surrounded him. His only chance would be to make a dash, and although he was a swift runner the bullets that would be sent after him would be swifter.
But in a German uniform—
And here was one in the hole right beside him!
The plan came to him like a flash of light and he started at once to put it into execution. But just then a sober second thought made him pause.
If he were captured wearing his own uniform it would be just as an ordinary prisoner, entitled to be treated as such by the laws of war.
But if they took him wearing a German uniform he would be regarded as a spy and would be shot or hanged offhand, perhaps even without the form of a court-martial.
He weighed the question carefully, for he knew that life or death might result from the way he answered it.
To help him decide, he raised his head with infinite caution to the rim of the shell hole and looked about him. In the faint light that came from lanterns disposed at various places he could see men moving here and there and catch the murmur of conversation where some of them were sitting in groups.
Occasionally a man would rise from one of these gatherings and move away, apparently without attracting notice or arousing question. Why could he not do the same?
Of course there was the chance of a word being addressed to him and he could not answer without revealing his ignorance of German. But perhaps he could pretend not to hear or respond with a grunt that would pass muster.
One thing was certain. If it were done at all it must be done at once while there were many about. If he waited until things were quiet his solitary figure would be sure to attract attention.
His choice was made. Between the certainty of capture and the chance of being shot he would take the chance. If worse came to worst he had his knife and his revolver and he would sell his life dearly.
He knelt down close by his captive and began to strip off his clothes. The man was inclined to resist, but a sharp prick of Frank's knife told him that his captor was in no mind to stand any nonsense and he lay quiet. It was hard work because the man was heavy and the quarters were cramped. The coat had to be cut off in places because Frank did not dare to untie his prisoner's hands. But at last the clothes were off, and Frank slipped them on over his own.
It was with a shudder of repulsion that he saw himself clad in the detested uniform that stood for all that was hateful and brutal in warfare. It made him feel soiled. But he comforted himself with the thought that the clothes were only external and that good United States khaki lay between that abhorred uniform and his skin.
He saw that the gag was still securely in position and that his captive's bonds had not relaxed. Then as a last reminder he laid the back of his knife on the prisoner's neck and felt him shiver beneath the cold steel.
"I guess he'll make no attempt to give me away," he said to himself. "He knows that he'll be all right in the morning anyway."
Slowly and with the infinite precaution that had been taught him in his scout training, Frank lifted himself out of the hole and lay flat on the ground near the edge. There he waited until he was sure that he had attracted no attention.
Then having carefully taken his bearings and fixed upon the direction of the American lines, he yawned, stretched and rising slowly to his feet strolled carelessly toward the outskirts of the camp.
AMONG THE MISSING
Frank's heart was beating like a triphammer and his nerves were at a fearful tension. The next five minutes would probably determine whether he was to live or die.
But he kept himself well in hand and to all appearances he was only a tired German soldier going to his bunk.
As far as he could without attracting attention, he kept carefully away from the low fires around which some of the Germans were sitting. But at one point he was forced to pass within the zone of light, and one of a group threw a laughing remark at him, occasioned probably by the cuts in his coat which he had been compelled to make when he had stripped his prisoner.
"Asel!" Frank flung back at him and passed on, thankful that he at least knew the German term for jackass.
Nearer and nearer he drew to the confines of the camp. Here the great danger lay, for he knew that it would be closely guarded after the day's fighting.
If he were challenged what should he say? To the sentinel's "Wer da?" he could answer "Freund." But when he was told to advance and give the countersign what would be his answer?
He had it ready. But it would not suit the Germans.
At the point that he had selected for his attempt, there was an opening in the wire that had been hastily strung to guard against a possible night attack by the American forces.
Up and down in front of this a stalwart sentry was pacing. He stopped and looked sharply at Frank, as the latter approached. When he was ten feet distant the sentry presented his bayonet and called:
"Halt! Wer da?"
"Ein freund," responded Frank.
"Losung," demanded the sentinel, asking for the countersign.
"America!" answered Frank, and hurled his revolver full in the sentry's face.
The heavy butt of the weapon landed plumb in the middle of the German's forehead. He had opened his mouth to shout, but no sound came forth. The rifle fell from his hands and he went down like a log.
With a leap Frank got through the gap in the wire and started running like a deer toward the American lines.
There were startled shouts behind him, hoarse commands, a rushing of feet and a crackling volley of shots. The bullets whizzed and zipped close to him and he felt a sharp sting as one of them grazed the lower part of his left arm. Once he stumbled and fell headlong, but he scrambled hastily to his feet and ran on.
But now a new peril was added. Behind him a star-shell shot up, followed by another and another, together with strings of "blazing onions," until the broken field over which he was making his way became almost as bright as day. In that greenish radiance his flying figure stood out sharply, and the firing which had been wild now became more accurate. At the same time, a look behind him showed that a troop of men had been hastily organized and was rushing after him.
This, however, gave him little concern. A bullet might catch him, but these heavy Germans, never!
But just as he was comforting himself with this thought he tripped and went down with a shock that jarred every bit of breath out of his body.
He struggled to get up but could not move. His lungs labored as though they would burst. His legs refused to obey his will. He felt as if he were in the clutches of a nightmare.
And all the time he could hear the pounding of his pursuers' feet drawing closer and closer. Would he never be able to breathe again?
Little by little, during seconds that seemed ages, his breath came back to him, in short gasps at first but gradually becoming longer, until at last he rose weakly to his feet.
He started out again, slowly at first, but, as his wind came back to him, gathering speed at every stride. But now his pursuers were perilously near. Those precious seconds lost perhaps had been fatal.
His fingers gripped the handle of his knife. He would not be taken. Capture in that uniform meant certain death. No German should gloat over his execution. If brought to bay he would die fighting then and there, using his knife so savagely that his enemies would have to shoot him to save themselves.
Commands to halt came from behind him accompanied by bullets, but he only ran the swifter.
But just then a tumult rose from another quarter. The lines in front of him seemed to awake. Lights flashed here and there, a mass of figures detached themselves from the gloom, and in the light of a star-shell Frank saw a detachment of American troops coming on the run!
His pursuers saw them too and the chase slackened. There was a hurried gathering for consultation, a volley of shots, and then the Germans beat a hasty retreat, hotly pursued by a band of the Americans while another group of them rushed up and surrounded Frank.
"Why, it's a Hun!" exclaimed one of them disgustedly, as his eyes fell on the uniform. "Only a deserter, and we thought they were chasing one of our own men."
"That's one on us," remarked another. "The rest of the boys will have the laugh on us for sure."
"Do I look like a Heinie?" demanded Frank with a grin. "I can lick the fellow that calls me one."
A shout of amazement rose from the crowd as they gathered close to him.
"Sheldon! Sheldon! Old scout! Bully boy!"
They mauled and pounded him until he was sore, for he was the idol of the regiment. There was a rush, and Bart and Billy had their arms around him and fairly hugged the breath out of him.
"Frank! Frank!" they exclaimed delightedly. "We thought you were gone. The last we saw of you, you were fighting like a tiger, but then the enemy reinforcements came and we were swept away from you. We didn't know whether you were dead or a prisoner. Thank God you're neither one nor the other."
"Pretty close squeak," smiled Frank happily. "But a bit of luck, and these two legs of mine carried me through, and I'm worth a dozen dead men yet. But I'm hungry as a wolf, and if you fellows don't feed me up you'll have me dead on your hands."
"Trust us," laughed Bart. "You can have the whole shooting match. The whole mess will go hungry if necessary to fill you up. Come along now and tell us the story."
It was a happy crowd that bore Frank back in triumph to his old quarters. There the rest of the boys flocked about him in welcome and jubilee.
"Not a word, fellows," protested Frank laughingly, "until I get these rags off of me. It's the first time I ever wore a German uniform and I hope it will be the last. I feel as if I needed to be fumigated before I'm fit to talk to decent fellows again."
It was a long time before the hubbub quieted down, and he had to tell his story again and again before the other soldiers left him alone with his own particular chums.
"Where's Tom?" asked Frank. "Our bunch doesn't seem complete without him. On special duty somewhere, I suppose?"
Bart and Billy looked at each other with misery in their eyes.
"What's the matter?" asked Frank in quick alarm, as he intercepted the glance. "Great Scott!" he added, springing to his feet. "You don't mean to say that anything's happened to him?"
Bart shook his head soberly.
"We don't know," he answered. "The last any of the boys saw of him he was hacking right and left in a crowd of the boches. But he didn't come back with the rest of us."
"You don't mean to say he's dead?" cried Frank. "You're not stalling to let me down easy?"
"Not that," protested Billy quickly. "Honor bright, Frank. The burial parties haven't come across him at last reports, and he hasn't been picked up as wounded. That's all we know. The chances are that he's been taken prisoner."
"Prisoner!" repeated Frank in blank despair. "Tom a prisoner of the Huns! Heaven help him!"
CAPTURED OR DEAD?
There was very little sleep for the three Army Boys that night, in spite of the exhausting labors of the day. They rolled and tossed restlessly in their bunks, tortured by conjectures as to the fate of their missing comrade.
Good old Tom! He had been so close to all of them, loyal to his heart's core, brave as a lion, ready to stand by them to his last breath. He had been beside them in many a tight scrape and had always held up his end. It seemed as though part of themselves had been torn from them.
Still, while there was life there was hope, and they drew some comfort from the fact that he had not yet been found among the dead. If he were a prisoner he might escape. They had all been in a German prison camp before and had gotten away. Perhaps Tom might have the same luck again.
They fell asleep at last, but the thought clung to them and assumed all sorts of fantastic attitudes in their dreams so that they awoke tired and depressed.
But there was little time on that morning to indulge in private griefs. The fight was on, and shortly after dawn the battle was resumed.
All the forenoon it raged with great ferocity. But American grit and steadfastness never wavered and the enemy was forced to retire with heavy loss. Not only had they failed to drive the Americans from their positions, but they had been driven back and forced to surrender a large portion of their own, including the place where Frank had crouched in the shell hole the night before.
Shortly after noon there came a lull while the Americans reorganized the captured positions. Infantry actions ceased, though the big guns, like belligerent mastiffs, still kept up their growling at each other.
"Hot work," remarked Frank, as, after their work was done, the three friends found themselves together in the shade of a great tree.
"A corking scrap," agreed Bart, as he sprawled at his ease with his hands under his head.
"The Heinies certainly put up a stiff fight," observed Billy, as he tied up his little finger from which blood was trickling.
"They felt so sure that they were going to make mincemeat out of us that it was hard to wake out of their dream," chuckled Frank. "I wonder if they're still kidding themselves in Berlin that the Yankees can't fight."
"In Berlin perhaps but not here," returned Bart. "They've had too much evidence to the contrary."
"I wonder if this is really the beginning of the big drive that the Huns have been boasting about?" hazarded Billy.
"I hardly think so," replied Frank. "There's no doubt that that's coming before long, but the fighting yesterday and today was probably to pinch us out of the salient we're holding. That would straighten out their line and then they'd be all ready for the big push. When that comes there will be some doings."
"The longer they wait the harder the job will be," said Billy. "They say that our boys are coming over so fast that they're fairly blocking the roads."
"They can't come too many or too fast," replied Bart. "And they'll sure be some busy bees after they get here."
"Well, we're not worrying," observed Billy. "We're getting along pretty well, thank you. By the way, Frank," he went on with a grin, "are you feeling any different on this ground today than you felt last night?"
"Bet your life," laughed Frank. "It's just about here that I was calling a Heinie a jackass. And at that same minute I was thinking that my life wasn't worth a plugged nickel."
"Wonder how the fellow made out that you left in the shell hole," chuckled Billy.
"Oh, he was all right," replied Frank. "I shouldn't wonder if he was rather chilly during the night, but no doubt they hauled him out in the morning."
"He got off lucky, though," put in Bart. "It's the sentry who got the hot end of the poker. I wonder what he thought when he heard that watchword."
"He didn't have much time to think," guessed Billy, "and to tell the truth, I don't think he's done much thinking since. That revolver must have hit him a fearful crack."
"It's safe to say that it gave him a headache anyway," remarked Bart drily.
"Speaking of the revolver," said Frank, rising to his feet, "I'm going to take a look for it. It was just over near that tree that I plugged the sentry and it's probably there yet."
He searched industriously among the welter of debris and after a few minutes arose with a shout.
"Here's it is," he said, as he held up his recovered treasure, which had his initials scratched upon the butt. "Same old trusty and as good as ever. It's saved my life many a time through the muzzle, but last night was the first time it saved it through the butt."
He fondled the weapon lovingly for a moment, carefully cleaned and reloaded it, and thrust it in his belt.
Just then a French colonel passed by, accompanied by two orderlies. The French had been holding a section of the line at the right of the Americans and their uniform was a familiar sight, so that the boys only gave the group a passing glance. But Frank's eyes lighted with pleasure when the colonel detached himself from the others and came over with extended hand.
Frank wrung the hand heartily.
"Why, Colonel Pavet!" he exclaimed. "This is a great pleasure! I didn't know that you were in this locality."
"My regiment is only two miles from here," replied the colonel, his face beaming. "I need not say how glad I always am to see the brave young soldier who saved my life."
"What I did any one else would have done," responded Frank lightly.
"But no one else did," laughed the colonel. "And from what I hear from your commander you've been doing similar things ever since. I just heard of your daring escape last night. It was gallantly done, mon ami."
"Luck was with me," replied Frank.
"It usually is in such exploits," was the visitor's reply. "You know the old saying that 'fortune favors the brave.' But I'll spare your blushes and come down to something that will probably interest you more. Did you get that letter from Andre, my brother, about your mother's property?"
"Why, no, I didn't," answered Frank. "When was it written?"
"That's strange," said the colonel, a puzzled look coming over his face. "I received a letter from Andre day before yesterday and he said that he had written to you by the same mail."
"Well, you know the mail is rather irregular just now," replied Frank. "No doubt it will get to me before long. Perhaps your brother told you something of what was in the letter he wrote to me."
"Not in detail. He just mentioned that he was very anxious to get hold of a former butler in your grandfather's family who is now in the ranks. They had his testimony in part before he was called into service, but he had not been cross-examined. Andre seems to feel sure that he can extract information from him that will aid your mother to come into possession of the estate. Andre's judgment is good, and as you know, he is one of the leading lawyers of Paris."
"He is too good, and you also, to take all this trouble in our behalf," said Frank warmly. "My mother and I can never thank you enough."
"The debt will be always on our side," responded the colonel with a wave of the hand. "By the way, how is your mother? I hope she is well."
"She was well when I last heard from her," replied Frank, "and happy—that is as happy as she can be while we are separated from each other."
"She is a true daughter of France," said the colonel, "and she should be happy to have so brave a son. Please remember me to her when you write. Au revoir," and with a friendly smile he passed on.
"Still hobnobbing with the swells, I see," remarked Billy, as Frank rejoined his chums.
"He was telling me of a letter that his brother had written me about my mother's property," explained Frank. "Queer that it hasn't reached me. Did any of you fellows get any mail yesterday?"
"I got a couple of letters," replied Billy. "Tom handed them to me just before we went into action yesterday morning."
"Come to think of it, Tom was asking for you at the same time," said Bart. "He'd brought down the mail for the bunch. He said he had a letter for you. But you weren't around at the time and he stuck it into his pocket. Then the boches came swinging at us, and in the excitement I suppose he forgot all about it. Likely enough he has it with him now—that is if the Huns have let him keep it."
"That must be the explanation," said Frank. "Well, all I can do is write to the colonel's brother and ask him to send me a duplicate of the letter. Poor Tom! I'd give all the letters in the world to have him safe with us just now."
"Same here," said Billy and Bart in chorus.
"I guess the Huns have got him," said Frank gloomily. "He isn't among the dead or wounded as far as we've been able to find. But I'll bet they thought they had hold of a wildcat when they nabbed him."
"Trust Tom for that," said Bart. "He was a terror when he had his blood up. He must have got knocked on the head, or they wouldn't have taken him alive."
"Perhaps he'd have been luckier if he had been killed," said Billy sadly. "From all I hear there are plenty of prisoners in German camps who would welcome death."
"It makes me grit my teeth to think of the humane way we treat the men we capture, and then compare it with the way the Huns treat our soldiers," said Frank bitterly. "Look at the German prisoners we saw working on the roads that time we went away on furlough. Plenty of food, kind treatment, good beds. Why, lots of those fellows are living better than they ever did in their own country. They're getting fat with good living."
"Nothing like that in German prison camps," growled Bart. "Horrible food, mouldy crusts, rotten meat, and not enough of that to keep body and soul together. In a few months the men are little more than skeletons. They work them sixteen or eighteen hours a day in all kinds of weather. They set dogs on them and prod them with bayonets. Did you read of the forty they tortured to death by swinging them by their bound arms for hours at a time in freezing weather?"
"It's no mistake to call the Germans Huns," snapped Billy, clenching his fists.
"No," agreed Frank, "but it's rough on the Huns."
NICK RABIG TURNS UP
"Guess who's here," said Billy a few mornings later, as he came up to Bart and Frank. "Give you three guesses."
"That's generous," remarked Frank. "Well, I'll bite. Who is it? The Kaiser?"
"The Crown Prince?"
"Quit your kidding."
"I know," said Bart. "Hindenburg."
"Blathering boobs, both of you," pronounced Billy. "But with your limited intellects one ought to be patient. I'll give you one more chance. Think of the fellow you like the least in all the world."
"Nick Rabig!" the others exclaimed in one breath.
"Right," grinned Billy. "I knew that would get you. Nick seems to be as popular with you as poison ivy at a church picnic."
"What cat dragged it in?" groaned Bart.
"Our unlucky day," growled Frank. "I knew something would happen when I picked up the wrong shoe this morning."
"But how did he get back?" asked Bart, his curiosity overcoming his repugnance.
"Came in on his own feet," replied Billy. "Escaped, so he says, after performing prodigies of valor. To hear Nick talk you'd think he'd wiped out half the German army."
His comrades laughed.
"I suppose we ought to kill the fatted calf," said Frank sarcastically.
"Where's the calf?" asked Bart. "Unless we take Billy here," he added as an afterthought.
He dodged the pass that Billy made at him, and just then Fred Anderson, another young soldier, strolled up.
"Heard the news?" he inquired.
"About Nick Rabig? Yes," replied Frank. "Billy's just been telling us about it."
"Bad news travels fast," growled Bart.
"Nick doesn't seem to cut much ice with you fellows," commented Fred. "I never thought much of him myself, but you seem to have it in for him especially. I suppose it's because he tried to play that dirty trick on Frank in the boxing bout."
"No, it isn't that," replied Frank. "I got satisfaction for that then and there, and I don't hold grudges. It's something altogether outside of personal matters. Have you heard any details about how Nick made his escape?"
"Only a bit here and there," answered Fred. "I suppose it will all come out later on. But it seems that he has a lot of information about the German plans and he's now at headquarters being questioned by the officers."
Frank turned the conversation into other channels, because although he had the gravest reasons for believing Rabig to be a traitor, he did not want to do the fellow an injustice or voice his suspicions until he was able to confirm them by absolute proof.
Fred passed on after a few minutes and the boys looked at each other.
"Did you hear what Fred said about Nick's 'important information'?" asked Frank.
"Important misinformation," growled Bart.
"Bunk," declared Billy.
"Of course, Nick has an advantage in understanding German," said Frank cautiously, "and a loyal fellow in his situation might have picked up something that would be of advantage to our people, though it isn't likely, for the Germans guard their secrets pretty well."
"What's the use of talking?" burst out Bart. "We fellows are all onto Rabig. We know at this minute that he'd like nothing better than to see the United States licked by Germany. Don't we know that he let that German prisoner escape? Don't you know that he was talking in the woods at night with that German spy that you shot? I tell you straight, Frank, that if Rabig escaped it was because the Germans let him escape. If he has information, it is because the Germans filled him up with just the kind of information they wanted our officers to believe."
"I think Bart's right," remarked Billy. "It'll be the best day this regiment ever saw when Rabig's stood up before a firing squad."
"In my heart I believe the same," assented Frank. "But the tantalizing thing is that we haven't a bit of legal proof. Rabig had that cut on his hand to explain the escape of the prisoner. He seemed to be sleeping in his bunk that night I got back from the woods. So far he has an alibi for everything. We can't prove that he let himself be captured. We can't prove that the Germans let him escape. As for the information he claims to have, our suspicions are based only on what we know of the man's character."
"That legal stuff doesn't make a hit with me," growled Bart. "Some day I'll break loose and take it out of him myself. My fingers itch every time I see him. I'd hoped I'd never have to see him again."
"You're doomed to be disappointed, then," grinned Billy, "for here he comes now."
They looked in the direction he indicated and saw Rabig coming along the company street.
His step was swaggering and he looked immensely satisfied with himself.
Bart's fist clenched.
"Nothing doing, Bart," Frank counseled in a low tone. "Hold your horses. I know just how you feel. I had to lick him once and maybe you'll have your turn. But not now. I want to find out whether he knows anything about Tom."
"All right," said Bart, "but it comes hard."
Nick saw them standing there, and for a fraction of a second seemed to be of two minds about keeping on. He hated them all cordially and he had no doubt of the feeling with which they regarded him. But his hesitation was only momentary, and he came on with just a little additional swagger in his gait.
He would have passed without stopping but Frank spoke to him pleasantly enough.
"Hello, Nick!" he said. "See you've got back."
"That's plain enough to see," responded Nick surlily.
"Papa's little sunshine," murmured Billy under his breath.
"Huns seem to have fed you pretty well," remarked Frank.
Rabig only grunted and looked at Frank suspiciously.
"Did you see anything of Tom Bradford over there?" asked Frank.
A look of surprise came into Rabig's little eyes.
"No," he answered. "Was he captured?"
"We're afraid so," answered Frank.
"I didn't see him," declared Rabig. "Perhaps he's killed," he added, almost smacking his lips with satisfaction.
They longed to kick him, but restrained themselves, and Rabig passed on.
"Isn't he a sweet specimen?" asked Bart in disgust, as he looked at Rabig's receding figure.
"Did you see how his eyes lighted up when he heard that Tom was gone?" put in Billy. "The only thing that would give him more satisfaction would be to have the same thing happen to Frank."
"I guess he hates us all alike," said Frank. "Down in his heart he knows that we believe him to be a traitor. His only comfort is that we haven't been able to catch him with the goods. But that will come in time. A little more rope and he can be depended on to hang himself. But that can wait. What I'm more interested in is that he didn't have any news of Tom."
"Perhaps he was lying," suggested Bart. "He may have seen Tom over there, but wouldn't give us the satisfaction of telling us."
"No, I don't think it was that," commented Billy. "I was watching him closely while Frank was talking to him, and I could see that he was really surprised as well as pleased to learn that Tom was gone."
"But even if he didn't see him, that doesn't prove that Tom isn't there," suggested Bart. "He may have been captured by some other division. Besides, to tell the truth, I don't believe that Rabig was in a prison camp at all. Did you notice how fat and well fed he looked? I'll bet that he's been living high on the best the Huns could give him."
"He didn't look like most escaped prisoners for a fact," assented Frank. "We'll let his failure to see Tom go for what it's worth. But there's one thing that's been growing in my mind right along. We're sure that Tom isn't dead, for the burial parties cleared up the field and didn't find him. We know too that he isn't on the hospital list. I got a squint at that no later than yesterday, and Tom's name isn't there. That seems to cut out everything except capture by the Huns, doesn't it?"
"What else is there?" asked Bart gloomily.
"Just one thing," replied Frank, "and that is that Tom has got away from the Huns but hasn't yet got back to us. I know what that boy is. He isn't the kind to settle down and tell himself that he's a prisoner and that's all there is to it. There isn't a bone in his head, and he's been busy every minute thinking up some plan to get away. You know what the boches are doing now. They're getting so short of men that they're using prisoners right behind the lines in cutting brush and hauling guns and that sort of thing. Of course it's dead against all the rules of war, but a little thing like that doesn't bother the Germans. Now if that's going on there are lots of chances to escape that the prisoners wouldn't have if they were all huddled together in a prison camp under the rifles of their guards. Get me? Picture Tom out in the thick woods going meekly ahead doing as he is told without making a break for freedom. Not on your life! Some way or other he'll slip off, and some fine day you'll see the old scout come walking in and asking us if breakfast's ready."
"It sounds good," said Bart unconvinced, "but I'm afraid it's a dream."
"All guess work," chimed in Billy. "We don't know anything."
"No," admitted Frank, "but we know Tom."
THE COMING DRIVE
"That big German drive seems to have slipped a cog somewhere," Bart remarked to his comrades, a few days later, as they were resting after a hard morning's work at organizing the position that their division was holding.
"I suppose the Crown Prince is making up a new time-table," grinned Billy. "He seems to have a passion for that. He ought to have been a railroad man."
"The trouble is that they always go wrong," laughed Frank. "I'll bet he's cross-eyed."
"Yet the Heinies fall for them every time," said Billy. "I suppose they figure that just by the law of chance one of them will have to be right some time."
"I thought that the drive had started the other morning, when the Germans came down like wolves on a fold," said Bart. "But it seems that things were quiet on other parts of the line, so that this must have been just a local operation."
"Local operation!" snorted Billy. "In other days it would have been counted a big battle. Why, if Waterloo were pulled off now do you know how the papers would describe it? They'd say that there was 'considerable activity on a section of the line over near Hougomont Farm yesterday, where certain units under Napoleon and Wellington came in contact. The artillery fire was fairly strong, and there were clashes between a few infantry regiments and the French were repulsed. Apart from this there is nothing to report.'"
The boys laughed.
"Everything's topsy-turvy nowadays," said Frank. "It used to be armies that did the fighting. Now it's whole nations. But look at that scrap going on overhead. Its a dandy."
They looked in the direction he indicated and their pulses quickened, for they themselves had once been engaged in a battle in the sky, and an aerial combat had a personal interest to them.
Far up in the sky, which just then was as clear as crystal, a duel was in progress between two planes. It was evident at a glance that both of the rival aviators were masters of their profession. They circled deftly about each other like giant falcons, jockeying for position, each trying to get the weather gauge on the other where he could rake his opponent with his machine gun without exposing himself to his enemy's fire in return.
Swooping, climbing, diving, the planes pursued their deadly purpose, while exclamations of admiration came from the lips of the fascinated onlookers as some specially daring manoeuvre promised to give the advantage first to one and then to the other of the antagonists.
"Classy work!" exclaimed Frank.
"They're both dandies," declared Billy. "It's a toss up as to which will win."
"They're so far up that it's hard to tell which is which," said Bart, "but I've got a nickel that says the Hun will be downed."
"Great Scott," cried Frank. "One of them was hit that time. See it swerve."
"And look at the smoke!" Billy shouted. "It's on fire! A bullet must have hit the petrol tank."
A burst of smoke and flame shot out from the doomed plane, and it began to fall, fire streaming out in its wake like the tail of a meteor. Down it came like a plummet.
"It's coming right in our lines!" exclaimed Bart. "Scatter, fellows, or it will be right on top of us!"
The wrecked plane had fallen about two hundred feet, when a figure shot from the burning mass, whirling over and over as it descended. The aviator, knowing that his only choice lay between being burned or crushed, had chosen the less painful form of death.
The body fell some distance off, but the plane itself came down within a few rods of the boys. It was blazing so fiercely that they could not approach very close to it, but they could easily detect the marking which indicated that it was a French plane.
The Army Boys looked at each other regretfully.
"Score one for the Huns," remarked Frank. "You'd have lost your nickel, Bart."
"It's too bad," said Billy, as he straightened up and shook, his fist at the victorious plane.
But to the boys' amazement, the conqueror, instead of flying off toward his own lines, was coming down toward them in long sweeping spirals.
"Why, it looks as if he were going to land here!" exclaimed Billy in wonder.
"If he does, we'll have the satisfaction of taking him prisoner anyway," observed Bart.
"It must be that his own plane is injured and he has to descend," suggested Frank.
But there was no sign of injury to the descending plane and it seemed to be in perfect control. Swiftly and steadily it came down, and a cry of astonishment broke from the boys as they saw that it bore American markings.
"How's that?" exclaimed Frank. "There's been a fearful mistake somewhere. This fellow has downed a French plane thinking that it was German."
"He'll be court-martialed for that or I miss my guess," said Bart with a frown.
"It's bad enough to have the Huns after us without trying to kill our own people," growled Billy.
There was a level place nearby that made an ideal place for a landing, and the American machine came down there with scarcely a jar.
The boys rushed toward it with reproaches on their lips, but their wrath was lost in astonishment when they recognized, in the aviator who stepped forth, Dick Lever, one of the most daring of the American "aces" and a warm personal friend of theirs.
The reproaches died when they saw him, for only a little while before he had saved them from a German prison by swooping down with his machine and carrying them off from their captors. It was with mixed feelings that they greeted him, as he came gaily forward, a smile upon his handsome bronzed face. But Dick seemed to feel a certain stiffness in their welcome that was unusual.
"Hello, fellows," he greeted. "What's the grouch?"
"No grouch at all, Dick," answered Frank. "We owe you too much for that. We're only sorry that you happened to make a mistake and down a French plane thinking it was German."
Dick's eyes twinkled.
"Come out of your trance," he chuckled. "I don't make that kind of mistakes."
For answer Frank led the way to the wrecked and partly burned plane and pointed out the markings.
But despite the evidence, Dick still seemed unabashed and his chuckle broke into a laugh.
"That's one on you fellows," he snorted. "Those markings are pure camouflage. Just another cute little German trick that went wrong. That fellow set out to take photographs over our lines and he didn't want to be disturbed, so he painted out his own markings, and put the French in their place. If you'll come a little closer you can see the Hun marks under their coat of white."
The boys did so and, now that their attention had been called to it, they could readily see the tracings that had been almost obliterated.
"That's evidence enough," remarked Dick, "but to make assurance doubly sure we'll go over to where the aviator fell and you'll see that he was a German all right."
The body had been decently covered up before the boys reached there, but the clothing and the effects found proved beyond a doubt that the aviator had been one of their foes.
"Take it all back, Dick," said Frank. "You knew what you were about. And I'm glad that you came out of the scrap safe and sound. But it certainly was some scrap while it lasted."
"It sure was," replied Dick. "That fellow was as skilful and plucky as they make them. He kept my hands full, and there was one time when he came within an ace of raking me. But luck was with me. Poor fellow! I'm sorry for him, but I'd have been still more sorry if it had been myself."
"What beats me is the way you tumbled to him," puzzled Billy. "You surely couldn't have read the German markings under their coat of paint. How did you know he was a German?"
"Simple enough," he answered. "We Allied aviators have a secret system of signals, something like Freemasonry. When we come near another plane that seems to be one of our own, we make a certain dip of our plane. That's like asking for the countersign. If the other fellow's all right he makes a certain signal in return. If he doesn't do it the first time, we try again, because there's always a chance that he hasn't noticed our signal, or is too busy in handling his plane to give the reply. But if after two or three times we don't get the countersign, we know the fellow's a Hun and we open up on him."
"Good stuff!" approved Billy.
"That's what happened this morning," continued Dick. "This fellow came sailing along as calm and cheeky as you please, and was having a bully time taking pictures of our positions. At least I suppose that is what he was doing, as he evidently wasn't out looking for fight. I thought it wouldn't do any harm to take a look at him, although I saw the machine had French markings. I gave the signal, but of course he couldn't give the countersign. I repeated it three times without getting an answer, and then I pitched into him. That makes the thirteenth that I've brought down."
"Thirteen was an unlucky number for him, all right," remarked Billy.
"How are you fellows getting along?" asked Dick, stretching himself out on the ground for a brief resting spell. "I notice that you've been right up to your neck in fighting lately."
"Its been pretty hot along this sector," Frank admitted, "though I suppose it's nothing to what it will be after the big German drive gets started. That is if it ever does start. I sometimes think they've given up the idea."
"Don't kid yourself," replied the aviator grimly. "It's coming, all right. If you fellows had been up in the air with me you wouldn't have any doubt about it. The roads back of the German lines are just black with troops. It's like an endless swarm of ants. The trains move along in endless procession and they're packed. Big guns, too, till you can't count them. It seems as if all Germany was on the move. It's the old invasion of the Huns over again."
"Where do they get them all, I wonder," remarked Billy.
"That's easy," replied Frank bitterly. "They're coming from the Russian front. The breakdown of Russia means a cool million at the very least added to the German troops on the western front."
"That accounts for most of them," agreed Dick. "Then in addition Germany's combing out her empire to put every available man into service. She's enslaving the Belgians to work in her factories so that German workmen can be sent into the ranks. She's calling up mere boys who ought to be at their schoolbooks. I tell you, boys, Germany's desperate. She's beginning to realize what a fool she was to bring America into the war, and she's going to try to get a decision before we get a big army over here."
"She'll have to get busy mighty soon, then," said Bart, "for Uncle Sam's boys are coming into France by the hundreds of thousands. And those hundreds of thousands will be millions before long."
"Right you are," agreed Dick. "The jig's up with Germany and she's the only one that doesn't see it. It's fun to see the way she tries to belittle America to her own people. Almost every week she has to change the story. At first she said that America wouldn't fight at all. We were a nation of money grabbers. Then even if we wanted to fight the U-boats would keep us from getting over; Then even if we got over, our troops would be green and run like hares as soon as they caught sight of the veteran Prussian regiments."
The boys looked at each other with a grin.
"We've run, all right," chuckled Billy, "but we've run toward them instead of away from them."
"They thought our marines would run too," laughed Frank, "but do you see what they're calling them now? Teufelhunden. They're devil-hounds, all right, and the dachshund yelps when he sees them coming."
"What do you think the Germans will aim for when they do begin their drive?" queried Bart.
"The Allied commanders would give a good deal to know that," smiled Dick. "Of course the thing the Huns want to do above everything else is to separate and crush the Allied armies. Everything would be easy after that. But if they can't do that, they'll probably make a break for Paris. They figure that if they once got that in their hands the French would be ready to sue for peace. Or they may try to take the Channel Ports, where they'd be in good position to take a hack at England. The only thing that's certain is that the drive is coming and when it does come it's going to be the biggest fight in the history of the world."
"Let Heinie do his worst," said Bart.
"Yes," agreed Frank. "And no matter what he does, he'll have to reckon with Uncle Sam."
IN THE HANDS OF THE HUNS
The last thing that Tom Bradford remembered in the fight that separated him from his comrades was the sight of Frank in a bayonet duel with two Germans. He was trying desperately to get to his friend's side and help him in the unequal combat, when a great blackness seemed to sweep down upon him and he knew nothing more.
When he came to consciousness, he felt himself dragged roughly to his feet and thrust into a group of other prisoners who were being sent to the rear under guard of a squad of German soldiers. He reeled and would have fallen had he not been supported by some of his other companions in misfortune. Then the line was set in motion and he stumbled along dazedly, abused verbally by his guards and prodded with bayonets if he lagged or faltered.
Gradually his head stopped whirling and his brain grew clearer. His face felt wet and sticky, and putting his hand to it he drew his fingers away covered with blood.
He felt his head and found a ragged gash running almost the length of the scalp. It must have bled freely, judging from the weakness he felt and the way his hair was matted and his face smeared. But the blood had congealed now and stopped flowing. He figured from the character of the wound that it had been made by a glancing blow from a rifle.
It was fully dark when the gloomy procession halted at a big barn where the prisoners were counted and passed in to stay for the night.
A little later some food was passed in to the prisoners, but Tom had no appetite and even if he had been hungry it would have been hard to stomach the piece of dry bread and watery soup that was given him as his portion. So he gave it to others, and sat over in a corner immersed in the gloomy thoughts that came trooping in upon him.
He was a prisoner. And what he had heard of Hun methods, to say nothing of a former brief experience, had left him under no delusion as to what that meant.
What were his comrades Frank, Bart and Billy doing now? Had they come safely through the fight? He was glad at any rate that they were not with him now. Better dead on the field of battle, he thought bitterly, than to be in the hands of the Huns.
But Tom was too young and his vitality too great to give himself up long to despair. He was a prisoner, but what of it? He had been a prisoner before and escaped. To be sure, it was too much to expect to escape by way of the sky as he had before. Lightning seldom strikes twice in the same place. But there might be other ways—there should be other ways. While breath remained in his body he would never cease his efforts to escape. And sustained and inspired by this resolve, he at last fell asleep.
When he awoke in the morning, his strength had in large measure returned to him. His head was still a little giddy but his appetite was returning. Still he looked askance at the meagre and unpalatable breakfast brought in by the guards.
"Don't be too squeamish, kid," a fellow prisoner advised him, as he saw the look on the young soldier's face. "Take what's given you, even if it isn't fit for Christians. You'll get weak soon enough. Keep strong as long as you can."
There was sound sense in this even with the woeful prophecy and Tom, though with many inward protests, followed the well-meant advice.
Bad as it was, the food did him good, and he was feeling in fairly good condition when, a little later, he was summoned before a German lieutenant to be examined.
That worthy was seated before a table spread with papers, and as Tom entered or rather was pushed into his presence he compressed his beetling black brows and turned upon the prisoner with the face of a thundercloud.
But if he expected Tom to wilt before his frowning glance he was disappointed. There was no trace of swagger or bravado when Tom faced his inquisitor. But there was self-respect and quiet resolution that refused to quail before anyone to whom fate for the moment had given the upper hand.
The officer spoke English in a stiff and precise way so that an interpreter was dispensed with, and the examination proceeded.
"What is your name?" the lieutenant asked.
Tom told him.
The officer snorted.
"There is no such thing as American," he said contemptuously. "You are just a jumble of different races."
Tom said nothing.
"What is your regiment?" the officer continued.
There was no answer.
"Did you hear me?" repeated the lieutenant impatiently. "What is your regiment?"
"I cannot tell," answered Tom.
"You mean you will not?"
"I refuse to tell."
"Refuse," exclaimed the officer, growing red in the face. "That is not a safe word to say to me."
Tom kept quiet.
The officer after a moment of inward debate shifted to another line.
"What are your commanders' plans, as far as you know?"
"To beat the Germans," returned Tom promptly.
The officer's face became apoplectic.
"Yankee pig!" he roared. "You know that is not what I meant. Tell me if you know anything of their tactics, whether they intend to attack or stand on the defensive."
"I don't know," replied Tom truthfully.
"Have you plenty of ammunition?"
"More than we can use," replied Tom promptly, glad to tell what could do no harm and would only increase the chagrin of his enemy.
"How many troops have the Americans got in France?"
"A good many hundreds of thousands," answered Tom, "and they're coming over at the rate of two hundred thousand a month."
"Yankee lies," sneered the officer. "You are very ready to give me more information than I ask for when it will suit your purpose."
Tom kept discreetly silent, but he chuckled inwardly at the discomfort shown by his enemy.
The officer pondered a moment, and evidently decided that there was not much to be got out of this young American who faced him so undauntedly. Perhaps other prisoners would prove more amenable. But his dignity had been too much ruffled to let Tom get off without punishment.
"You think that you have baffled me," he said, "but you will find that it is not wise to try to thwart the will of a German officer. We have ways to break such spirits as yours."
He called to the guard, who had been standing stolidly at the door.
"Take him out in the woods and put him to work where the enemy's shell fire is heaviest," he commanded. "It doesn't matter what happens to him. If his own people kill him so much the better. It will only be one less Yankee pig for us to feed."
The guard seized Tom and thrust him roughly out of the door. Then he took him back to the barn and a whispered conversation ensued, with many black glances shot at Tom.
A short time afterward he was placed with some others in the custody of a squad of soldiers, and taken into the woods close behind the German lines. Of course this was a flagrant breach of all the laws of war. But there was no use in protesting. That would only arouse the amusement of the German guards.
As a matter of fact, when Tom came to think it over, he did not want to protest. His captors could have taken no course that would have suited him better. At first his heart had sunk, for he realized that the officer's purpose was to sign his death warrant. The chances of being killed by the American shells was very great. And then the significant word of the lieutenant that it didn't matter what happened to him, was a hint to the guards that they could murder him if they liked, and there would be no questions asked.
But after all, to be in the open was infinitely better than to be eating his heart out in a squalid prison camp. His health stood less chance of being undermined. As to the shells, he had grown so used to that form of danger that it hardly disturbed him at all.
But the one thing that stood out above all others was that in the woods he would have a chance of escape, while in the camp he would have practically none at all. His limbs would have to be free in order to do the work demanded of him. And he was willing to match his keen American wits against the heavy and slow-thinking guards who might stand watch over him.
He soon reached the section where he was to work, and was set to felling trees to make corduroy roads over which guns and supplies could be brought up from the enemy's rear to the advanced lines.
He had never done that kind of work, and at first the tremendous efforts demanded of him amounted to sheer physical torture. He was hounded on unceasingly under the jibes and threats of his brutal guards. Not half enough food was supplied, and he was forced to work for sixteen and eighteen hours on a stretch.
But he had great reserves of youth and vitality to draw on, and he kept on doggedly, his brain alert, his eyes wide open, his heart courageous, looking for his opportunity.
On the third night his opportunity came.
FRYING-PAN TO FIRE
The third day of Tom's captivity had been more trying than the two that preceded it.
A new piece of woodland had been ordered to be cleared and, as there was a scarcity of labor, Tom had been taxed to even a greater degree than usual. By the time night came, he was feeling utterly exhausted and ready to drop.
But dusk brought him little relief, for he was told that he must keep on by lantern light until ten o'clock, before he would be permitted to stop.
His troubles were aggravated by the fact that this afternoon a change of guards had brought him under the control of an especially brutal one who made his life a burden by abuse.
His guard had ordered him into a thick part of the woods where the high underbrush cut them off from the sight of other working parties a hundred yards away. Here the German had seated himself comfortably on a fallen tree while he watched his prisoner toil, occasionally hurling a threat or epithet at him.
The guard's watch was out of order, and he had borrowed a small clock from the mess room in order to know when the time came to report with his prisoner at quarters. He had placed the clock in the light of the lantern and kept looking at it frequently and yawning. It was plain that he would welcome the hour that released him from his monotonous duty.
The night was warm and the guard's gun was heavy. He stood it against the tree, but within instant reach, and unbuckled his belt.
In working around the tree, Tom's foot as though by accident knocked against the clock and it fell over on its face. The guard thundered a curse against his awkwardness, and stooped down to pick it up.
Quick as thought Tom picked up the heavy lantern and brought it crashing down on the German's head. The next instant his hands were on the German's throat.
The struggle was brief, for the German at his best would have been no match for the young American. Tom had soon choked him into unconsciousness, and when he felt the man become limp beneath him he relaxed his hold.
He tied the German's hands with his belt and gagged him securely. The lantern had gone out with the blow and he did not dare to relight it. Darkness was now his best friend.
His eyes fell on the clock. It had done him good service, but now was of no further use to him. But a second thought made him pick it up and put it in his blouse.
He had no compass, but the clock would do in a pinch. His woodcraft had taught him how the hands of a clock could find for him the cardinal points. More than once his watch in more peaceful times had done him a similar service.
The first thing necessary was to put as wide a distance as possible between himself and the place where he now was. Afterwards he could figure out how to regain his own lines. By ten o'clock at latest his attack on the guard would be discovered. He must be miles away before then, or his life would not be worth a cent.
His impulse was to take the German's gun, but he discarded the thought at once. His only salvation lay in hiding. The gun would count for nothing among the innumerable foes that surrounded him. It was heavy and cumbrous, and would only retard his progress through the woods. He must travel light if he would travel fast.
He gathered up some fragments of food left from the lunch that the guard had been munching and tucked them in his pocket. Then like a shadow he slipped away through the woods.
From what he had seen and bits of information that he had picked up from other prisoners, some of whom were Frenchmen and knew the country well, Tom had a pretty good idea of the lay of the land. He knew that the country was rolling, with here and there a range of hills that rose almost to the dignity of mountains. Here there ought to be plenty of hiding places where he could stay while he planned a way to get across the lines.
Of course his route would be within the German lines for miles. But the inhabitants were in sympathy with the Allied cause, prisoners in almost as great a degree as he himself had been, and he might find among them aid and comfort, though such assistance if discovered would be sure to be visited with hard punishment by the German oppressors.
The way was full of difficulties and almost every step would be attended by danger. But for the present at least he was free. Free! The word had never appealed to him so strongly before. He drew in great draughts of the mountain air. They seemed in a way to cleanse his lungs from the prison taint.
For what seemed to him hours he never slackened his pace. Many times he stumbled in the darkness and his body was full of bruises, but in the joy of his recovered freedom, he scarcely felt the pain. On he went and on until he felt certain he had placed a safe distance between himself and the scene of his recent captivity.
To be sure, the German command had other things to rely on than mere physical pursuit. There were the long arms of the telegraph and telephone, through which every division on the sector might be warned to be on the lookout for him. But it was wholly unlikely that this would be done. On the eve of the great drive, the authorities were too busy to expend their energies on the recapture of an escaped prisoner. Even if he should fall into the hands of another body of his enemies, it was unlikely that they would know anything of his recent exploit.
So with body tired after his strenuous exertions, but with his mind as much at rest as it could be under the circumstances, Tom threw himself down at last to take a brief rest under the shadow of a giant beech.
The sun streaming through the branches woke him a little later. For a moment he did not know where he was and lay trying to get his thoughts in order. Then it all came back to him with a rush and he sprang to his feet and looked about him.
There was nothing in sight to alarm him. The place seemed to be wild and unvisited. A squirrel sat in the boughs over his head chattering his surprise and perhaps his displeasure at the sight of the intruder. A chipmunk slipped along a grassy ridge and vanished in the undergrowth. Birds sang their welcome to a new day. Everything about him spoke of peace and serenity. It seemed as though there were no such thing as war in the world.
Yet even while this thought lingered with him there came a discordant note in the booming of a distant gun. But it seemed far off and though other guns soon swelled the menacing chorus there seemed to be no immediate cause for alarm.
A little way off from where he had slept, a small brook wound its way through the sedge grass. Tom welcomed it with a grin, for he had not had a bath since he had been captured.
In a moment he had undressed and plunged into the brook. The water was scarcely deeper than his waist, but its coolness was like balm to Tom's bruised and heated body. When he resumed his clothing he felt infinitely strengthened and refreshed.
The young soldier worked his way into a dense thicket as a measure of precaution, before he ate the remnants of food that he had carried away with him the night before. It was a meager breakfast and he could have eaten four times as much if he had had it. But even crumbs were grateful to him in his famished condition.
He had just finished when an ominous sound fell on his ears. Voices mingled with the tread of feet and the clank of weapons. He looked through the bushes and saw a squad of soldiers wearing helmets coming over a little rise of ground beyond where he lay concealed.
He counted them as they came into view. There were at least forty Germans going along in loose marching order. They might have been a patrol out for scout duty or, what was more likely, a foraging party.
He had scarcely established their numbers when on the other side of the thicket and not more than fifty feet away another squad of Germans came into view. They apparently belonged to the same party, but had separated somewhat from the others, probably for more ease in marching.
They seemed to have come from some distance for they were warm and perspiring. The sight of the brook was refreshing, and after a brief conference between the lieutenant in command and a sergeant, the order was given to break ranks, and the men threw themselves down in sprawling attitudes for a rest under the trees.
Tom's heart was in his mouth. What kind of a trick was fate playing on him? Was this to be the end of his heartbreaking struggle, his wild flight through the woods? Was he to get just a tantalizing glimpse of liberty to have it immediately snatched from him? At that moment he tasted the bitterness of death.
How lucky it was, though, that he had sought refuge in that thicket before he commenced his breakfast. There was still a chance. The men were tired and would not be likely to wander about. They were only too glad of a chance to rest.
He burrowed deeper and deeper into the recesses of the thicket. He lay as close to the ground as possible. What would he have given for the friendly shelter of a trench!
The men conversed lazily together while the officer sat some distance apart. At times the Germans' eyes rested carelessly on Tom's shelter, but without any sign of suspicion.
At last the order came to resume the march, and Tom drew an immense sigh of relief. A few minutes more and they would be gone.
The men had formed in loose marching order and the lieutenant lifted his hand to give the signal.
Suddenly a loud ringing came from the center of the thicket, whirring, rattling, clanging.
The time-piece Tom was carrying was an alarm clock!
To poor Tom that ringing was the crack of doom.
The world seemed to end for him then and there. The first surprise had paralyzed him. Then he rolled upon the betraying clock, tried to crush it, strangle it, press it into the earth. But it kept on remorselessly until the alarm ran down.
The Germans had been almost as startled at first as Tom himself. But they hesitated only for a moment. There could be no mistaking where that insistent buzzing was coming from. There was a rush for the thicket, and the next moment Tom was hauled out and stood upon his feet among his captors.
It took only a glance to tell them that Tom was an American. His face as well as his uniform betrayed that fact. Amid a hubbub of excited exclamations he was taken before their leader.
But this time the officer was not able to talk English and there was no interpreter at hand, so that Tom for the present was spared the ordeal of questioning.
The fateful clock was passed around among the men with jest and laughter. It was a good joke to them, but Tom was in no mood to see the humor of the situation. To him it meant that all his strivings had come to naught.
Why had he not noticed that the clock was of the alarm variety and that the alarm had been set? He promised that he would never forgive himself for that.
A number of men were counted off to take Tom to the local prison camp, while the rest of the party went on with their expedition.
The journey was long, but it was not attended by the rough treatment that would ordinarily have been meted out to the prisoner. The men were glad, for one thing, that they were relieved from going on the special duty for which the party had been formed. Then, too, Tom's misadventure had given them a hearty laugh, and laughs were something to be prized in their arduous life.
After reaching the camp, Tom was taken before an officer for examination. But the officer was busy and preoccupied, and the questioning was largely a matter of form. Tom was vague or dense as the case demanded, and the impatient officer curtly ordered him to be thrust in with the other prisoners and promptly proceeded to forget him.
Tom passed through several stages of emotion when he was left to himself. First he moped, and then he raged. Then, as the comical side of the situation forced itself even upon his misery, he laughed.
A proverb says that "the man is not wholly lost who can laugh at his own misfortunes." Tom laughed and immediately felt better. His natural buoyancy reasserted itself. But he had imbibed a prejudice against alarm clocks that promised to last for the rest of his life.
The sector was a quiet one and Tom was not sent out to work under shell fire. For a few days he was left unmolested to the tedium of prison life, and he began with renewed zest to formulate plans for his escape.
He had a chance also to become more or less acquainted with his fellow-prisoners. There were not many and Tom reflected with satisfaction that the Americans held more German prisoners than the Huns had captured of his own countrymen.
There was a sprinkling of nationalities. There were a few American and British, but the majority were French and Belgians.
About the only French prisoner that Tom grew to know intimately was one who could speak English fairly well. This he explained was due to the fact that the man in whose employ he had been as a butler had a daughter who had married an American, and English had been much spoken in the household.
"What part of France do you come from?" asked Tom one day, when they were chatting together.
"From Auvergne," answered the Frenchman, whose name was Martel. "Ah," he continued wistfully, "what would I not give to see the gardens and vineyards of Auvergne again! But I never will."
"Sure you will," said Tom cheerily. "Brace up, Martel. You won't stay in this old hole forever."
Martel shook his head.
"I'm doomed," he said. "I was in the first stage of consumption when I came here, and the disease is gripping me more tightly every day. Perhaps it's a judgment on me."
"What do you mean by that?" asked Tom, but Martel did not reply except by a shrug of the shoulders.
"Speaking of Auvergne," remarked Tom after a pause, "reminds me that I have a special chum whose mother came from that province. She married an American, too."
"Vrai?" exclaimed Martel with quickened interest. "What was her name, mon ami?"
"Blest if I remember," answered Tom. "I've heard it, too, but I don't recall it. But I'll tell you how I can find out," he went on, rummaging in his pockets. "I've got a letter somewhere that was sent to my chum. I got it from the headquarters post-office the day I was captured and forgot to give it to him. The Huns tore the envelope off when they saw me, but when they saw that it was of no importance to them they tossed it back. I've kept it carefully ever since because it's from some lawyer fellow in Paris telling him about his mother's property, and I hope some time to be able to hand it to him. It's simply a business letter with nothing private or personal in it. Here it is," and Tom produced from his pocket a crumpled letter without an envelope. "Let's see, the name of Frank's mother is Delatour—why, what's the matter, Martel?" he added anxiously, as he saw the Frenchman turn white and start back at the mention of the name.
"Nothing," answered Martel, controlling himself with difficulty. "A little weakness—I'm not very strong, you know."
The conversation turned then in other channels, and Tom soon forgot it in his absorption of his one idea of escape.
A week had passed when a sudden hemorrhage that attacked Martel brought the prison doctor to his side. He shook his head after an examination. There was no hope. It was a matter of days only, perhaps of hours. He was heartless and perfunctory. What did it matter? The sufferer was only a prisoner.
A little while after, Martel called Tom to him.
"I told you, mon ami, that it would not be long," he said with the ghost of a smile. "And I also told you that perhaps it was a judgment on me. Do you remember?"
"Why, yes," answered Tom reluctantly. "But perhaps you'd better not excite yourself talking about it. I guess we've all done things we're sorry for afterwards."
"But I committed a crime," said Martel. "I perjured myself. And I did it for gain."
"There, there," soothed Tom, but Martel continued:
"No, I must speak. Le bon Dieu has sent you to me. Listen, mon brave, I was in the household of Monsieur Delatour. I had seen Mademoiselle Lucie grow up from childhood. She was charming. But she married and passed largely out of our life. Monsieur Delatour grew old. He had made his will leaving the property chiefly to his daughter. But there was a nephew, a spendthrift—what you call in English the black sheep—and after Monsieur Delatour died this mauvais sujet offered me money to swear that there was a later will. The object? To tie up the estate, to delay the settlement, to force a compromise with the daughter. I took the money. I perjured myself. There was no later will. The property belongs to Mademoiselle Lucie—pardon, Madame Sheldon."
He fell back exhausted on his pillow. Tom was shocked, but he was also greatly excited at the prospect of the wrong that had been done to Frank's mother being righted. At Martel's request the confession was reduced to writing with many details added, and then a number of the prisoners signed their names as witnesses.
Tom was not sure how far the confession would stand in law, but he felt reasonably certain that it would be regarded as good evidence and he was jubilant at the chance that had made him of such great service to his chum, Frank.
The confession was made none too soon, for that same night Martel died.
"Well, Frank, old scout," said Tom to himself the next day, as he carefully read and re-read the important document, "that alarm clock played me a lowdown trick, but it's sure been a good friend of yours, all provided I can get this confession to you!"
A MIDNIGHT SWIM
"A pretty tight place we're in," remarked Bart to Frank as the Army Boys stood side by side behind a barricade of logs where they had just repelled a German attack that had surged up close before it fell back in confusion.
"Tight is right," grunted Bart, as he reloaded his rifle which was getting hot from firing.
"We ought to be used to tight places by this time," put in Billy, stopping long enough to wipe the perspiration from his face. "It seems that when our division has a specially tough job to do they always call upon the old Thirty-seventh to do it."
There was no exaggeration in describing the position the soldiers were holding as a tight place. While the great drive had not yet begun, the enemy was carrying on a nibbling process in the attempt to improve his position before the start of the big offensive.
There was a piece of woodland surmounting a broad plateau that had considerable strategic importance. Its possession would enable the Germans to straighten their lines and permit their guns to dominate the valley beyond. They had made several attacks previously which had been driven back; but on the morning in question the assaults had been particularly ferocious and determined. It was evident that the Germans had received orders to carry it at all costs, and they had thrown their forces ahead again and again regardless of their heavy losses in men.
Their attacks on the direct front had remained without result, but they had been able to gain some advantages on the side that separated the detachment in the woods from their main divisions. It was necessary that American reinforcements should be sent at once, for the comparatively small force that held the position was rapidly thinning out, owing to the terrific shell fire of the enemy's guns.
Several couriers had been sent to notify the main command of the perilous position in which the defenders were placed, but these had evidently been killed or captured, and at last Major Blake, the officer in command, had to use his last resort.
There was a cage of carrier pigeons that the detachment had brought with them, beautiful, soft-eyed creatures that had been thoroughly trained. It seemed a pity that things so gentle should have to serve the harsh purposes of war. But human lives were at stake, and one of the birds was quickly selected, and a message tied on it securely. Then it was thrown up in the air. It circled about for a moment to get its direction, and then straight as an arrow to its mark made for division headquarters.