The Boy Allies On The Firing Line
Twelve Days Battle Along the Marne
By CLAIR W. HAYES
AUTHOR OF "The Boy Allies at Liege" "The Boy Allies With the Cossacks" "The Boy Allies In the Trenches"
A.L.BURT COMPANY NEW YORK
Copyright, 1915 BY A. L. BURT COMPANY
THE BOY ALLIES ON THE FIRING LINE
THE BOY ALLIES ON THE FIRING LINE.
"Feels pretty good to be back in harness, doesn't it, Hal?" asked Chester, as, accompanied by a small body of men, they rode slowly along.
"Great!" replied his friend enthusiastically. "And it looks as if we were to see action soon."
"Yes, it does look that way."
The little body of British troopers, only forty-eight of them all told, with Hal Paine and Chester Crawford as their guides, were reconnoitering ten miles in advance of the main army along the river Marne in the great war between Germany and the allied armies. For several hours they had been riding slowly without encountering the enemy, when, suddenly, as the little squad topped a small hill and the two boys gained an unobstructed view of the little plain below, Hal pulled up his horse with an exclamation.
Quickly he threw up his right hand and the little troop came to an abrupt halt.
"Germans!" he said laconically.
"And thousands of 'em," said Chester. "They haven't seen us yet. What is best to be done?"
The answer to this question came from the enemy. Several flashes of fire broke out along the German front, and the boys involuntarily ducked their heads as bullets sped whizzing past them.
"Well, they have seen us now," said Hal; then turning to the men: "To the woods," pointing with his sword to a dense forest on his right.
Rapidly the little body of men disappeared among the trees.
"Up in the trees," ordered Hal, "and pick them off as they come!"
Swiftly the troopers leaped from their horses and climbed up among the branches. Here all could easily command a view of the oncoming German horde.
Rapidly the enemy advanced, firing volley after volley as they approached; then, at a word from Hal, the British poured forth their answer. And such an answer! Before the aim of these few British troopers, accounted among the best marksmen in the world, the Teuton cavalry went down in heaps.
There was a perceptible slackening in the speed of the approaching horsemen. Then, as the English continued their work, firing with machine-like precision and deadly accuracy, the Germans came to a halt.
"What are they stopping for?" cried Chester. "There are enough of them to overwhelm us!"
"I believe they fear a trap," replied Hal. "They are afraid we are trying to ambush them with a larger force. We must keep up the delusion if we expect to get away."
So saying, he ordered the men to the ground, and the little force advanced to the extreme edge of the woods. So far not a man had been even wounded, for the Germans, unable to see that their foe had climbed into the trees, had aimed too low.
From the edge of the woods the British poured several volleys, and then, as the enemy finally began an advance, they retreated slowly, firing as they flitted from tree to tree.
Apparently, Hal had rightly guessed the cause of the enemy's indecision. They advanced slowly and warily; and when they finally gained the edge of the woods there was not a Briton in sight; but from further in among the trees the leaden messengers of death still struck the Germans, and man after man fell in his tracks.
Now the man nearest Chester threw up his arms and with a cry fell to the ground. The lad made as if to go to his assistance, but Hal stayed him with a word, and the little body of English continued their retreat, firing as they went.
Suddenly the pursued emerged from the woods into the open. A distance of half a mile lay between them and the next clump of trees. In this half a mile there was nothing that would afford shelter; and the Germans were approaching nearer every second.
Hal did not hesitate.
"We shall have to make a dash for it!" he cried. "One more volley, men, and then run!"
One more death-dealing volley was delivered at close range, and then the little troop of English turned and fled. But they had traversed scarcely half the distance when the Germans reached the edge of the woods, and poured a volley into them.
Hal groaned as men fell on all sides of him. But still those who were left ran on. At length they reached the friendly shelter of the trees, but half their number lay behind, either dead or dying.
Once more, screened from the enemy, Hal halted the men.
"We may as well fight it out here," he told them. "We will hold them off if we can, and if not we must retreat slowly, keeping behind whatever cover offers."
A faint cheer went up from the handful who were left, and they turned determinedly to face their foes. They did not waste their fire. As the Germans came again into view, the British rifles cracked. Their marksmanship was superb, and rather than face this deadly fire the enemy halted.
Then began a game of hide and seek, with death the penalty for all who were seen. The firing was only at intervals now. Wherever a German arm or leg showed itself, a British rifle sounded and a German was accounted for.
For almost half an hour the game continued; and it was kept up until darkness fell. Fearing that it was the intent of the British to lure them into the hands of a strong force, the Germans did not attempt a charge, but contented themselves with trying to pick off their foes as they flitted from one tree to another.
But if the Germans had suffered, so had the English. Of the little troop of fifty, there now remained, besides Hal and Chester, but ten men. The two boys seemed to bear charmed lives, for neither had been struck once. They had exposed themselves to all dangers as well as had the troopers, but fortunately no German bullets had reached them.
And still the few English fought on. Now that darkness had fallen and two more men had dropped, Hal ordered those who were left to make a last dash for life. He sprang from behind the tree which had sheltered him, and Chester and the few remaining troopers joined him. Then they turned and sped as rapidly as the darkness would permit in the direction of their own lines.
Now that the fire of the English had ceased entirely, the Germans halted, puzzled. It was impossible for their officers to tell whether the enemy had all been killed, or whether the silence heralded the approach of a larger force. Their indecision undoubtedly saved the lives of Hal and Chester and the eight troopers, for had the Germans advanced they would have experienced little difficulty in killing or capturing them.
Silently but swiftly the ten forms dashed through the woods, and when at length they once more emerged into the open country they were completely exhausted.
"Well, I guess we are safe, what is left of us, at any rate," said Chester as they halted to take a much needed rest. "It's terrible to think of those poor fellows we left behind."
"It is, indeed," replied Hal; "but I don't think they would complain. The British soldier is not that kind."
"You are right," agreed Chester. "And each accounted for more than one of his country's foes before he went down. Were you hit, Hal?"
"No. Were you?"
"No. But come, we had better be pushing on again."
With the loss of their comrades still preying upon their minds, the little troop continued on its way; and while they are hurrying onward we shall take time to introduce Hal and Chester more fully to those who have not met them before, and to relate how it came about that they were serving in such an important capacity with the British army in France.
TWO YOUNG LIEUTENANTS.
Sturdy American lads, young though they were, Hal Paine and Chester Crawford had, when this story opens, already seen considerable military service. Each had received his baptism of fire during the heroic defense of the Belgian city of Liege, which had held out for days against the overwhelming horde of Teutons.
In Berlin with Hal's mother when the war broke out, they had been separated from her and left behind. With Captain Raoul Derevaux, a gallant French officer, and Lieutenant Harry Anderson of the British army, they finally succeeded in making their way, after many desperate experiences and daring adventures, over the Belgian frontier, as told in the first book of this series, entitled "The Boy Allies at Liege." They had reached Liege in time to take an active part in the defense of that city.
In escaping from Germany, each had done his full share of fighting and each had been wounded. They had finally reached Brussels, where they remained some time, while Hal's wound healed sufficiently to continue his homeward journey. As the result of their heroic actions, the Belgian commander at Liege had mentioned them so favorably in his report to King Albert, that he had bestowed upon them commissions as lieutenants in the Belgian army as a mark of distinction for their bravery.
It was while waiting in Brussels that they again encountered Lieutenant Anderson, from whom they had been separated, and it was through his inducement that they now found themselves attached to the staff of Field Marshal Sir John French, commander of the British forces on the continent, engaged in scout duty.
At the time when this story opens they had been sent in advance of the main army on a reconnaissance.
The German advance through Belgium into France, up to this time, had been steady, although the Allies had contested every foot of the ground. Day after day and night after night the hard pressed British troops, to which Hal and Chester were attached, had borne the brunt of the fighting. But for the heroism of these comparatively few English, slightly more than one hundred thousand men, the Germans probably would have marched to the very gates of Paris.
But the arrival of the British troops had been timely, and under the gallant command of Sir John French, they had checked the overwhelming numbers of Germans time after time. The bravery of these English troops under a galling fire and against fearful odds is one of the greatest military achievements of the world's history.
Slowly, but standing up to the enemy like the true sons of Great Britain always have done, they were forced back. They stood for hours, without sight of the enemy, men dropping on all sides under the fearful fire of the great German guns miles away. While the French, farther south, gave way more rapidly, these few English stood their ground.
Time after time they came to hand grips with the enemy, and at the point of the bayonet drove them back with terrible losses. These bayonet charges were things of wonder to Hal and Chester, in spite of the fact that they had been in the midst of similar actions before Liege.
As the French and Belgians advanced in a wild whirlwind of fury, the English went about the business of a charge more deliberately, though with the same savage determination. They charged swiftly, but more coolly; gallantly, but more seriously, and the effect of their charges was terrible. The Germans who came on in the face of the fierce rifle and artillery fire, could not face the British bayonets, and time after time were driven back in disorder.
And as the British charged, always the words of their battle-song, fated for some unfathomed reason to become historic, rose above the sounds of battle:
"It's a long way to Tipperary. It's a long way to go; It's a long way to Tipperary, To the sweetest girl I know. Good-by, Piccadilly, Farewell, Leicester square. It's a long, long way to Tipperary, But my heart's right there!"
Liege had fallen before the invading German hosts, though several of the forts still held out; Louvain had been captured and its beautiful buildings burned to the ground. Brussels had been invested by the Teutons. In Alsace-Lorraine the French had been forced to relinquish the spoils won in the first days of the war. General Pau, after a stubborn resistance, had fallen back, and General Joffre, commander-in-chief of the French army, also had been forced to retire.
So close to Paris were the Germans now that the seat of government, the day before this story opens, had been removed to Bordeaux. Homes and other buildings in the French capital were being razed, so that the great French guns in the city could sweep the approach to the town unobstructed. Paris, the most strongly fortified city in the world, was being prepared to withstand a siege.
And still the Germans came on. Several of the enemy's war aviators flew over Paris and dropped bombs in the streets. This occurred upon several days, and then the French airmen put an end to these daring sky fighters. After this, no more bombs were dropped on Paris.
But as the Allies fell back, it was always the few British troops that time and again checked the Germans. The morale of the English was excellent.
In a final desperate charge, a small body of British cavalry had succeeded in driving back the German vanguard, while the main body of English retired still further. Then this little body of men returned, their number much smaller than when they had charged.
For some time now there had been no sign of the enemy, and Hal and Chester, with a small squad, had been sent toward the enemy's line to reconnoiter. It was while on this reconnaissance that they had been attacked by the Germans in force.
Slowly the two lads and the eight men, all that was left of the fifty who had gone forth, continued their retreat. They had gone forth on horses; they were returning afoot. Their mounts were in the hands of the enemy. From the rear, in the darkness, still came the sounds of firing.
"Evidently they have not given up the pursuit," said Hal.
"No; and they are probably mounted. Let's turn off into this little woods," replied Chester.
They did so, and followed by the remaining eight troopers continued on their way.
As they came to the edge of the woods, Hal, who was slightly in advance, stopped suddenly, and raised a warning hand. The little party halted.
"What's the matter?" asked Chester in a whisper.
"Germans!" replied Hal briefly.
Chester approached closer and peered over his friend's shoulder. Less than three hundred yards ahead he could dimly make out moving forms.
"Perhaps they are not Germans," said Chester hopefully. "How did they manage to get behind us?"
"I don't know," replied Hal. "But I am sure they are Germans. Some way, I can feel it."
"Well, what are we going to do?"
"We shall have to try and go round them without letting them hear us. Otherwise we are likely to be killed or captured."
Making a wide detour, the little party continued on their way. For an hour they walked along unmolested, and then, suddenly, from almost directly before them, came a cry, in German:
WITH THE ARMY AGAIN.
In the dimness of the little woods in which they stood, the boys, at first, could not see the man who had accosted them.
At a word from Hal the little party came to a halt.
"Who goes there?" came the question from the darkness.
"Friends!" replied Hal in German, which he spoke like a native.
"Advance!" came the reply, and the shadow of a German soldier, with his rifle raised, ready to fire, suddenly appeared before them.
It was too dark for the German soldier to make out their uniforms until the English were upon him. Then he started back with a cry.
"English!" he exclaimed in surprise.
His amazement, slight though it was, proved his undoing. For as he staggered back Hal sprang forward, and the butt of his upraised rifle fell with stunning force upon the German's head. The soldier dropped to the ground with a slight moan.
"We'll have to get away from here quick!" exclaimed Chester. "Come on, men, follow us!"
Silently the little party, bearing off slightly to the right, went forward. Suddenly Chester stopped and clutched Hal by the arm.
"Great Scott!" he whispered. "Look! We are right in the middle of them!"
It was true. Ahead of them, in a long line running in each direction, the boys could see figures sprawled on the ground. It was a German force sleeping. There was not the sign of a light, a tent, or a hut. Here and there the boys could make out the dim form of a sentry flitting about.
"We have certainly got into a mess," whispered Hal.
"We have that," replied Chester. "Shall we make another detour?"
Hal thought for a few moments.
"I believe the best way is to try and go right through them without being seen," he replied at length. "There is no telling how far this line stretches out, and if we didn't get around them by daylight it would be all off with us."
"But the sentries?" asked Chester.
"Well, we shall have to dispose of anyone who sees us without being heard. That's all there is about it."
"All right, then," said Chester. "We might as well move at once."
The plan was outlined to the men and they went forward. A moment and they were in the midst of the sleeping Germans. It was plain now that the line of sleepers stretched out for some distance, but that it was not very deep. Three minutes undiscovered and they would be through safely.
Silently they crept between the sleeping soldiers. There was a certain amount of safety in the very boldness of the plan, for it was unlikely, should a sentry see them moving about, he would take them for English; and even if he did now, they would be able to make a dash with some hope of success. The German soldiers, tired and completely exhausted, slept heavily, and not one so much as moved in his sleep.
The little party was now at the last line of sleepers, and just as Hal, believing they had accomplished their difficult task, drew a breath of relief, a form suddenly appeared from the darkness before them. It was a German sentry.
Before he could make an outcry Chester and Hal both leaped forward. The former's hands grasped the German by the throat, stifling the sound of his voice, and Hal quickly delivered two hard blows to the man's face. The German fell limply into Chester's arms, and the boy laid him quietly on the ground.
Then they moved forward again. The sounds of the scuffle had aroused no one. But suddenly there was the sound of a fall behind. Turning his head quickly, Hal perceived the cause of this commotion which caused such a racket in the stillness of the night.
One of the English soldiers had tripped over the body of a sleeping German and had fallen across him. He was up in a moment, but so was the German, sleepily hurling imprecations at the disturber of his slumber.
Before the German soldier was able to arouse himself, the Englishman dealt him a heavy blow over the head with his rifle butt. But the noise had brought another to the scene. There was the sharp crack of a rifle, and the English soldier who had caused all the trouble pitched to the ground. To the right Hal and Chester saw another sentry, a smoking rifle in his hands.
At the sound of the shot the whole German camp sprang to life as if by magic; and at the same instant Hal shouted:
At full speed the little party, only nine now, dashed forward. The other man lay dead in the German camp. There was a hoarse German cry of command, and a hail of bullets followed the fugitives into the woods. No man fell, though two groaned, and one dropped his rifle. The darkness made accurate shooting by the Germans impossible.
Not pausing to return the fire of the enemy, the fugitives stumbled on through the woods. Another and another volley came from the pursuing Germans, but they were firing at random now, and the fact that Hal and Chester had led the way well to the right augured well for their chance of safety.
But as the darkness made accurate shooting by the Germans impossible, so it made speed by the fugitives impossible also. They stumbled along as well as they could, now and then tripping over a fallen limb or tumbling into a hole. Tired and almost exhausted, they at length emerged into the open, and broke into a weary run.
"We have got to get under cover of some kind before they reach the edge of the woods, or we are gone goslings," panted Hal.
Suddenly, in the darkness, they came upon another clump of trees, and as they stumbled into their shelter another volley rang out. One man groaned and stumbled. A comrade lent a supporting hand and dragged him into the woods.
"We'll stop here a moment and pick off a few of 'em," said Hal grimly.
The Germans were now advancing across the open space. Lying upon the ground, the nine opened fire. They aimed carefully and not a shot was wasted, and so rapid was their fire that the Germans halted.
"They don't know how many of us there are," said Hal, "and they are afraid to take a chance. One more volley, men, and then up and run for it again."
A final volley was delivered with telling effect, and the English sprang to their feet and darted through the woods. The Germans gave them a parting shot, but there was no pursuit.
"That was pretty close," said Chester.
"It was, indeed," replied Hal, "and there is one more of our men gone. Was anyone wounded?" he asked, turning to the others.
"Shot in the shoulder, sir," replied a man named Brown.
"They got me in the arm," said another.
"Anyone else?" questioned Hal.
There was no reply, and Hal asked:
"Are you two men able to go on without assistance?"
"Yes," was the reply.
"Good! Then come on."
All night long the little party continued on their march, and it was not until the first gray streak of dawn showed them, in the distance, the first British line that the boys felt entirely safe.
Their report made, they were returning, later in the day, to their quarters to seek a much needed rest, when a well known voice exclaimed:
"Well, boys, how are you?"
The lads turned quickly about; then each gave a cry of delight and grabbed the man who had accosted them by the hand.
"Captain Derevaux!" they exclaimed in a single voice.
"No," replied the gallant Frenchman, with a smile. "Major Derevaux, if you please!"
THE GERMAN RETREAT BEGUN.
Hal and Chester stood for some minutes grasping their friend by the hand.
"Major, eh," ejaculated Hal. "I'm glad to hear that!"
"So am I," declared Chester. "I am sure no one deserved promotion more than you."
"Thanks," laughed the major.
"Tell us," said Hal, "what are you doing here? I thought you were with the Southern army."
"I am; but I carried dispatches to General French, and if I mistake not, they are important ones. I believe that plans have been brought to a head and that we shall take the offensive soon."
"Good!" cried Chester. "We have been retreating long enough."
"But," Hal protested, "we can hardly advance in the face of such odds; we must have reinforcements."
"Well," said Major Derevaux, "strong reinforcements already are arriving, and I believe that the advance will be general along our whole line."
"That will mean severe fighting," said Chester.
"Indeed it will," replied the major. "It will mean fighting such as the world has never heard of before. It will mean death for thousands upon thousands. But the Germans must be pushed back."
"And the Kaiser will find that he is not to have things all his own way," said Hal.
"Exactly," returned the major. "But I must leave you now, boys. I must return to my own regiment at once. Good luck to you!"
"Good luck!" exclaimed the boys as the major turned on his heel and strode rapidly away.
The two lads returned to their own quarters and gave themselves up to rest. So completely were they worn out that it was dark when they again opened their eyes; and they probably would not have done so then had not the clear notes of a bugle awakened them.
Rushing into the open, the lads saw that on all sides the troops were ready to move—whether forward or backward they could not tell as yet. It was evident, however, that something was afoot.
Hal and Chester made their way to the side of General French and joined the members of his staff. The gallant British commander was sitting his horse quietly, his staff grouped about him. Occasionally one went dashing away with some order, as the general gave a laconic command.
The boys had hardly taken their places when General French said quietly:
"Order a general advance!"
A moment later and the small though mighty host of Britain was in motion, and a loud cheer rang out on the still night air as the troops perceived that they were going forward—that the retreat had ended.
Swiftly and silently the army advanced. Ahead could be heard the crack, crack of rifle fire, indicating that the outposts were engaged with the enemy. Also, from the distance, could be heard the booming of the great German guns, and as the English advanced still further men began to fall before the deadly German artillery fire.
But the British did not falter; they plodded on as steadily as before. Then, after two hours of rapid marching, came the sudden command to halt. A moment later and a squadron of British cavalry came into view, retreating before a large force of Germans.
Just in front of the infantry the cavalry halted, and turned their faces toward the enemy. The advance of the British so far had not been discovered; but as the pursuing Germans came into view, the command to fire rang out.
There was a deafening crash as the British infantry hurled their messengers of death into the compact ranks of the foe; and under this deadly fire the British cavalry dashed forward. Before the Germans could recover from their surprise the English horsemen were upon them, striking, cutting, slashing.
It was deadly and terrible work and the English did not go unscathed. But struggling thus, hand to hand, the Germans were no match for the English. Now there came from behind the Germans a large force of infantry on the run, and before these reinforcements the British cavalry was forced to retire.
All this was happening right before the eyes of Hal and Chester, in the very center of the British line. On the right and left the engagement was of the same fierce kind, and the deafening crashes of rifles and artillery on either side gave conclusive evidence that the British were engaged with the enemy all along their entire front.
Still the German cavalry pursued the British cavalry in the center. Then General French turned suddenly to Hal:
"Tell General Mayo to advance in force!" he commanded.
The general turned to Chester:
"Ask General Samson to bring his artillery into instant action!"
The two lads dashed away on their respective missions; and almost immediately the results of these two commands were apparent.
As the German infantry advanced in the wake of their cavalry, the British came to sudden life. Flame burst out from all along the center and the Germans recoiled. Volley after volley was poured into the wavering ranks of the enemy, and they turned to flee.
A supporting column was rushed hurriedly to their assistance, and as they advanced the British artillery opened fire. Great holes were cut in the advancing German line, but their advance was unchecked. From their rear reinforcements were coming continually.
The fire of the British artillery and infantry was deadly. Men fell by the hundreds, were mowed down like chaff before the wind by the accuracy of the British fire. In the English ranks men also were dropping on all sides, but the gaps were filled up immediately and the British, singing and cheering, continued their advance.
The roar of battle could be heard for miles around, but the men engaged in the conflict were unconscious of it. They had but one sense left—that of sight—and their rifles continued to deal out death.
At length the German advance was checked, and then they began to fall back.
There was a rousing cheer from the English, and the advance was more rapid than before. The retreating Germans halted, turned to face the English, made a last desperate stand, then fled in disorder.
But as the English broke into a run to pursue their advantage still closer, they were met with a hail of bullets from a large force of the enemy's infantry which at that moment advanced, in support of their comrades, close enough to come into action.
The English reeled for a moment under this terrible fire, but they did not waver. Support was hurried to them. It was time for prompt action.
General French took in the situation at a glance and gave a quick command. A moment later the voices of the different officers rang out along the British line:
"With the bayonet! Charge!"
For the smallest fraction of a second there was an awesome silence, and then the British swept forward with a rush. Neither the bullets from the thousands of rifles nor the steady fire from the great guns of the German field batteries checked them.
The infantry covered the open space at a quick trot, and in almost less time than it takes to tell, it was at hand grips with the enemy, who stood braced to receive the shock of the charge.
The impact was terrific. The Germans stood gallantly to their work, encouraged by the shouts of their officers, but they were no match for the British troops in hand-to-hand fighting.
As the British closed upon them, the Germans poured in one fierce volley; but they had no time for more. Down went Teutons and English in struggling heaps, but the British poured over them and continued their deadly work.
All along the line the Germans gave ground slowly, their enemies pursuing them relentlessly and cutting them down as they retreated. The engagement became a slaughter.
Now Hal and Chester found themselves in the midst of the battle, in the fiercest of the fighting. Sent forward with orders, they found themselves in the center of the sudden charge. Neither was minded to turn back, but they managed to single each other out and soon were fighting side by side. Blood streamed from a wound in Hal's cheek, where a German bayonet had pricked him slightly. Chester was unwounded.
Suddenly Hal found himself engaged with a German officer. With a swift move he swept aside his opponent's blade and felled him to the earth. At the same moment a tall German soldier, thinking to deprive the lad of his weapon, brought his rifle down upon Hal's sword.
But the boy's grip was firm and the sword snapped off near the hilt. Quickly Hal sprang forward, and before the German soldier could recover himself, the lad cut him down with his broken sword. Then, stooping, he picked up the sword which had fallen from the hands of the German officer, and sprang to the aid of Chester, who was fiercely engaged with two of the enemy, one an officer, the other a trooper.
One swift stroke of the boy's sword and the soldier was laid low. At the same instant Chester's sword slipped through his opponent's guard and the latter went to the ground, a deep wound in his side.
"Good work!" Chester found time to pant to Hal, and a second later both lads were once more too busy for speech.
Now Chester found himself engaged with a foeman worthy of his steel. The latter, a German lieutenant, was pressing the lad severely. At sword play the lad was clearly no match for him. Nevertheless Chester was giving a good account of himself.
Suddenly his sword was sent spinning from his hand, and as the weapon came down the point struck a German soldier squarely in the face. Chester's opponent sprang forward, his blade raised for a death thrust. But even as he thrust Chester dodged and the sword passed harmlessly over his head.
From his stooping position Chester seized the German officer by the knees before he could recover his balance and aim another thrust at him, and, with a quick heave, sent the officer spinning over his head. The German hit the ground with a thud, and as he was about to pick himself up an English trooper ended his fighting days with a thrust of his bayonet.
Chester seized the officer's sword and sprang forward into the thick of the conflict again. Side by side, Hal and Chester advanced with the victorious British troops, striking, cutting and slashing their way through the dense bodies of the enemy.
Suddenly Chester fell to the ground beneath the feet of the struggling men. A descending rifle butt had struck him a glancing blow on the head. Hal, engaged at that moment with another German officer, saw his friend's plight, and jumped back.
With his sword he swept aside a German bayonet which at that instant would have been buried in Chester's prostrate form, but as he did so a heavy blow fell upon the lad's head and he was sent to his knees. Above him, with poised bayonet, stood a German soldier.
Death stared him in the face and the boy realized it. It was impossible for him to regain his feet in time to ward off the thrust. Quickly he threw himself to one side, and as he did so the German toppled on top of him, lifeless.
Hal scrambled to his feet and saw that the man who had thus saved his life was none other than Lieutenant Harry Anderson.
"Just in time," said Hal briefly, and turned to where Chester was now struggling to his feet; and as the battle raged fiercely about them, unmindful of his own danger, he gave his entire attention to his friend.
Chester, shaking his head several times, announced that he was not seriously hurt, and with Lieutenant Anderson by their side they again plunged into the conflict.
But now the German retreat became more rapid. The enemy was unable to stand under the fierce charge of the British and they were giving way on all sides. The British pursued the foe rapidly and hundreds upon hundreds of the enemy were cut down in their flight.
Unable to keep back the English and retreat orderly, the Germans broke and fled. The retreat had become a rout. For some distance the British pursued them, and then a halt was called.
The losses of the British troops had been extremely heavy, but not so great as that of the enemy, who had suffered tremendously.
Now a thunderous roar broke out. The British artillery, unable to be used while the hand to hand fighting was in progress, was in action again, shelling the fleeing Germans.
The dead strewed the battlefield, and as Hal, Chester and Lieutenant Anderson made their way toward the rear, they were forced to climb over the dead and wounded, many with shattered limbs and maimed for life. But the Red Cross was at work, and the wounded were being cared for with the greatest possible haste and gentleness.
"That was some fight, if you ask me," said Hal to Chester, as they continued their way to the part of the field where they could see General French and his staff, Lieutenant Anderson having left them to rejoin his own men, from whom he had become separated.
"It was all of that," replied Chester, "and I can't imagine how we escaped with our lives."
"Nor I. It doesn't seem possible that anyone in the midst of such terrible carnage could live, to say nothing of being only slightly wounded. By the way, are you hurt much, Hal?"
"No; just a scratch on the face and a bump on the head. And you?"
"I was luckier than that, although a German did crack me with his rifle butt."
"Look at the dead and wounded lying about," said Hal. "It is a terrible thing—this modern warfare."
"It is, indeed," returned Chester, and the two continued on their way in silence.
General French noticed their approach. The British commander was standing as he had stood through the last part of the battle, exposed to the fire of the enemy, calmly smoking a cigarette!
THE BRIDGE IS HELD.
At a sign from General French Hal and Chester approached and saluted.
"Where have you been, sirs?" demanded the British commander.
Hal stepped forward and explained their absence.
"And you were in the midst of the charge?" questioned General French, when the lad concluded.
"And are not even badly wounded?"
"Wonderful!" exclaimed the general. Then, after a few moments' silence: "You seem to bear charmed lives. I believe you are the two for my mission."
"Yes, sir!" exclaimed Hal eagerly.
"Both of you report to me in an hour," ordered General French.
The two lads saluted again and moved away.
"Wonder what he wants?" said Chester.
"Too deep for me," was Hal's reply.
"He said something about a mission. I guess that means more excitement for us."
"I guess you are right. However, I am sure we can go through with it, no matter what it may be."
"We can try, anyhow. That's the best anyone can do."
At the appointed time the two boys made their way to General French's headquarters.
"I have an important piece of work that must be done, and which will be attended with grave danger; are you willing to undertake it?" asked the British commander, coming to the point without preliminaries.
"We shall do our best, sir," replied Hal.
"Good! The enemy has retreated beyond Meaux. To-morrow I shall try and drive him farther. It is absolutely necessary that our movements be not anticipated. As you see we have lost many officers. I want you to lead one hundred men to a position just this side of the bridge. The enemy must not be allowed to cross. One hundred men can hold the bridge as well as ten thousand. The men to go with you have been selected. They have volunteered for this duty. Captain Lee will show you where to find them. Hold the bridge! That is all!"
The two lads saluted and took their departure. They found Captain Lee, and with him were soon at the head of the little band of men who had volunteered to hold the bridge at Meaux against the whole German army, if necessary.
It was still dark, and it was a quiet little band that advanced through the British lines to take up their positions at the extreme front. A long range artillery duel was still in progress in spite of the darkness, but little damage was being done by either side.
Having retreated beyond Meaux, the Germans had unlimbered their artillery again and the British were replying. The little band of English, with Hal and Chester in lead, advanced to the edge of the bridge described by General French, and there took up their positions.
The bridge was very narrow, hardly wide enough for five men to walk abreast. On the British end the approach curved, making it impossible for one coming from the other direction to see what was at the other end. It was indeed a strategic point for defense. The river was high and thus precluded any attempt to ford it.
All night long the little band of men lay at the bridge, ready for battle on a moment's notice. All night long the shells of both the Germans and British flew screaming overhead; but none dropped near them.
With the first faint glow of the approaching day the little band of British were awake. At Hal's suggestion they cut down trees, and dragged them to the end of the bridge, forming a barricade. Behind this they lay down.
It was almost noon before the man stationed to watch the approach to the bridge dropped quickly over the barricade and reported:
"They are coming!"
"All right," replied Hal. "We're ready for 'em!"
Under Hal's direction, a single line of rifles, twenty-five in all, appeared through the cracks of the barricade. The others had been divided into three bodies—each containing twenty-five men—each body directly behind the others. These were instructed to fill up the gaps made by the German fire. Thus, as each man in the front rank fell, his place would immediately be filled by another, the second by the third, the third by the fourth, so providing twenty-five men fell the front line would be still intact, although the fourth line would have disappeared.
Hal and Chester took their places just in the rear of the first line, where they could see what was going on and direct the fighting.
"Do not fire until they come into sight around the turn," Capt. Lee instructed his men. "Then mow them down, and make every shot count!"
Joking and humming to themselves, the men prepared for action. The first line poked their rifles through the barricade and lay down behind them. All was in readiness to repulse the attack.
Suddenly the first Germans appeared around the turn in the bridge, marching five abreast.
"Fire!" cried the captain, and the British rifles broke into flame.
Five Germans tumbled to the bridge.
A sudden idea struck Hal.
"There's no use wasting five bullets on each German," he told his men. "Let the five men on the left each pick out a man. The rest reserve your fire unless one of our men go down, then the one nearest him take his man, and so on!"
The second five Germans were too close behind their comrades, who had just fallen, to arrest their steps in time to avoid the British fire.
Five shots rang out as they came into view, and again five Germans fell. So far not a shot had been fired by the Germans. But now five more came around the turn with a rush, followed by five more, and still another five.
The first five dropped in a heap, but from the second five came a burst of flame and the crack of rifles. Two men behind the barricade dropped, one of whom was Capt. Lee. But the Germans paid dearly for their rash attack.
In less time than it takes to tell it, ten more Germans had bitten the dust. Then they drew off.
"Good work, men!" cried Chester. "We can hold them off indefinitely," he added to Hal.
"Looks like it," was Hal's reply. "But if they make a concerted rush we shall have our hands full. How is Capt. Lee?"
"Very bad," answered one of the men. "I am afraid he's done for."
And now the Germans came on again. The first five met the same fate that had overtaken their comrades, but behind them came more, and still more.
As each German rounded the turn in the bridge his rifle cracked, and continued to crack until he fell. Men inside the barricade also were beginning to fall fast now, and the reserve lines were being drawn upon more rapidly each minute.
Hal and Chester, crouching down, directed the defense. In spite of the fearful havoc wrought by the British fire, the Germans came on. The bridge was piled high with dead and wounded, but the enemy did not hesitate.
Their officers urged them on without regard for life, and bravely went to death with them. Rifles cracked in a steady roar and men on both sides fell rapidly. But each Englishman, sheltered as he was behind the barricade, accounted for at least several of the enemy before he himself went to his death.
Now the defenders had dwindled to fifty, and still there was no cessation of the German assault. The heaped up bodies of dead now formed a barricade for the Germans, and they advanced and fell behind them, using their dead companions as shields. Ten or fifteen rows deep they stood behind their dead, and poured volley after volley into the defenders.
The British reserved their fire as much as possible, but whenever a German head showed above the barricade of bodies a rifle cracked and almost every time a German fell.
All afternoon the fighting continued, the Germans, because of the fierce fire of the remaining English and hampered by their own dead, being unable to rush the defenders.
There were less than twenty-five of the British unwounded. Hal and Chester had both been struck, Hal on the arm and Chester on the shoulder. But neither was badly hurt.
"Hadn't we better retreat, sir?" asked one soldier of Hal, when there was a let up in the firing.
"What chance would we have?" demanded Hal. "The minute we broke and ran we would be shot down like dogs."
"Then we might surrender."
"Surrender! Never! We were ordered to hold the bridge and we will hold it as long as we can."
The man subsided, and Hal turned his face toward the foe again. There was a sudden silence. The Germans drew off.
"Wonder what that means?" demanded Hal of Chester. "They certainly are not going to give up. I wonder what they are up to now?"
"I can't imagine," replied Chester. "But they have something up their sleeves."
"Well, we'll soon see," said Hal.
But he was mistaken; for just as the first German again appeared around the turn, to be struck down by a British bullet, there was a sudden deafening roar from the rear, and turning suddenly Hal and Chester and the few brave soldiers who were left raised a feeble cheer.
Coming forward at a rapid trot were several squadrons of British cavalry, and far behind could be seen columns upon columns of infantry, advancing swiftly.
"Hurrah!" shouted Hal. "Saved! Hurrah!"
"Hurrah!" repeated Chester, and completely worn out, he tumbled over in a heap.
HAL MAKES AN ENEMY.
Hal bent over his friend and shook him gently.
"Chester! Chester!" he exclaimed anxiously. "Are you wounded?"
There was no reply from the unconscious boy, and Hal became greatly alarmed. He turned to the few troopers who remained.
"Here, lend a hand some of you," he commanded. "One of you fetch some water!"
Two of the men bent over the unconscious lad and one raised his head gently to his knee. A third dashed for the river, and a moment later returned with his cap filled with water.
Hal sprinkled a few drops of water on his friend's face, and soon noticed signs of returning consciousness. Finally Chester opened his eyes and smiled feebly.
"Are you much hurt, old fellow?" asked Hal anxiously.
"No," came the feeble response. "I don't think so. A bullet just grazed my side. I don't know how I came to topple over like that."
Quickly Hal unloosened his friend's coat, tore open his shirt and examined his wound.
"It's only a scratch," he said, straightening up at last. "Here," pulling out his handkerchief, "I'll fix it up until we can have a surgeon look at it. You will be able to walk in a few minutes."
"I'm able right now," said Chester, struggling to his feet.
Leaning heavily on Hal's arm, Chester turned his eyes toward the river bank, which now was lined with British troops, who were firing steadily at forms disappearing on the opposite side of the stream. The approach of the English in force had caused the Germans to beat a rapid retreat. From the opposite shore, however, still came puffs of smoke, and bullets continued to fall among the English troops, and here and there men fell to the ground.
"They arrived just in time, didn't they, Hal?" said Chester.
"You bet they did," was the reply. "But come, we will try to make our way back to our station."
With Chester still leaning on his shoulder, Hal led the way, going very slowly because of his burden. Making his friend comfortable under an army wagon, Hal went at once to Gen. French to make his report.
"You have done well," was the general's only comment when Hal had concluded his recital.
Hal saluted and left.
"Guess I'll go back and keep Chester company," he said to himself.
He was walking slowly along with bowed head, musing, when he came suddenly into contact with another figure. The man with whom he had collided mumbled an imprecation and violently pushed the lad away, at the same time exclaiming:
"What do you mean by bumping into me like that? Can't you see where you are going? I have a notion to teach you better manners."
Hal's face flushed, and he turned a steady gaze on the other, who proved to be a French lieutenant.
"I wouldn't try it if I were you," the lad advised him.
"What!" exclaimed the Frenchman. "You dare to talk to me like that?"
"Of course I dare," was the lad's heated response.
The Frenchman took a quick step forward and slapped Hal smartly across the face.
Hal promptly sent his right fist crashing into the other's face and knocked him down.
The Frenchman rose slowly to his feet, and with blood streaming from his nose, approached Hal.
"I am Lieutenant Dupree," he said. "My friend shall call on you this evening."
"I am Hal Paine, attached to the staff of General French," Hal said calmly, "and your friend may call any time he so desires."
The Frenchman bowed stiffly, and continued on his way. Hal returned to Chester.
"Back so soon?" said Chester.
"Yes," was Hal's reply; "and back with more trouble."
"What's the matter?" demanded Chester in some consternation.
"Well, I am afraid I have a duel on my hands."
"Yes; on my way here I accidentally bumped into some fiery French lieutenant. He slapped me across the face and I knocked him down. He then informed me his friend would call on me this evening. That sounds like a duel to me."
"Yes," said Chester, "unless it can be patched up."
"I am afraid it can't. You know these Frenchmen. As far as I am concerned, there is nothing to fight about, but I am afraid the Frenchman feels he has a grievance. He'll probably demand a fight or an apology."
"I have nothing to apologize for; therefore I am afraid it means a duel."
"Not if I can prevent it," exclaimed Chester, jumping to his feet.
"But you can't," replied Hal grimly. "And you had better lie down again. You are liable to strain your wound."
"Oh, I am not worrying about the wound," exclaimed Chester. "The doctor said there was no danger. It's you I am worrying about. Why, you are likely to be killed."
"Oh, I guess I can give a good account of myself," returned Hal. "I've been pretty fortunate thus far. I don't figure I am going to fall before any Frenchman's sword or pistol. I'll probably be saved for a German bullet some of these days."
Chester became silent. He knew that an argument was useless. Besides, he knew that in Hal's position his own actions would be the same.
It was shortly after 6 o'clock that evening when two French officers made their way to the quarters to which the boys had been assigned.
"Choose swords," said Hal laconically, as Chester rose to greet the callers.
"Mr. Paine," queried one of the Frenchmen politely.
"No," replied Chester; "but I shall act for him."
"Good," returned the Frenchman. "I am Lieutenant Mercer, and this," indicating his companion, "is Lieutenant Lamont."
"I am Chester Crawford," said the lad briefly.
"Then, to get down to business," said Lieutenant Mercer. "Mr. Paine has insulted my friend, Lieutenant Dupree. My friend demands an apology."
"There'll be no apology," said Chester shortly.
"Ah! In that case my friend, Lieutenant Dupree, demands satisfaction from Mr. Paine."
"It seems to me he has had satisfaction," said Chester.
"Ah!" replied the Frenchman cheerfully. "You no doubt refer to the blow passed by Mr. Paine? It is for that my friend demands satisfaction."
"He had that coming to him," declared Chester.
"So you may believe. Lieutenant Dupree thinks otherwise. Now, as to the arrangements——"
"Look here," said Chester, interrupting. "With the whole German army lined up in front of us, it seems to me that our friend should be able to find all the fighting he wants. This fighting among ourselves is all nonsense."
"But my friend's honor——" began the Frenchman.
"Bosh!" declared Chester. "It wasn't your friend's honor that was hurt. It was his face."
"Then am I to understand that your friend refuses to fight?"
"No!" shouted Chester. "He doesn't refuse to fight. He just doesn't see the necessity of fighting. That's all. But if you insist, he will give your friend all the satisfaction he wants."
"I must insist," replied Lieutenant Mercer.
"All right, then," said Chester. "I am not familiar with dueling etiquette, but as the challenged party I believe the choice of weapons lies with us."
The Frenchman bowed in assent.
"Then let it be swords!"
"Good! And the time and place?"
"I'll leave that to you."
"In the morning at half-past five—provided we are all alive—in the little woods half a mile in the rear. Are these convenient for you?"
"Perfectly. We shall be there on time. Will you please bring weapons?"
"I shall be delighted," replied the Frenchman. "Until the morning, then," and the two French officers bowed themselves out.
"Well, you are into it now," said Chester to Hal, after their visitors had gone. "Looks to me as though you had a fair chance of seeing the Happy Hunting Grounds before six o'clock to-morrow."
Before Hal could reply another visitor poked his head through the door of the tent.
"Am I intruding?" he asked.
"Lieutenant Anderson!" exclaimed Chester. "Just the man I wanted to see."
"What's the matter now?" demanded the lieutenant.
"Matter is that Hal's mixed up in a duel, to be pulled off in the morning."
"What!" exclaimed Lieutenant Anderson in surprise.
"Fact," said Hal. "I bumped into some little whipper-snapper of a French lieutenant a couple of hours ago. He slapped me and I knocked him down. Now he demands satisfaction, and I am going to give it to him in the morning, at half-past five."
The lieutenant sat down heavily.
"Well, you are the limit," he said. "You are always in a scrape of some kind. I suppose it's up to me to prevent the duel."
"No chance," said Hal briefly.
"No," agreed Chester, "and it's up to you to make the third party on our side. I suppose the other crowd will bring a surgeon."
"Do you know what will happen if you are found out?" demanded the lieutenant.
"No," said Hal.
"Well, it probably will mean strict confinement, at least. The regulations in regard to dueling are very stringent."
"I can't help that," said Hal. "I can't back out now."
"Well, if that's the way you feel about it," replied the lieutenant, "I'll help you as best I can. I'll stay here to-night and go along to see that you get fair play."
It was hardly light when Chester, who had been unable to close his eyes, aroused Lieutenant Anderson. The two finished dressing before rousing Hal, thinking to give him all the rest possible before waking him up. Finally Chester shook him by the shoulder.
"What's the matter," muttered Hal drowsily. "Time to get up already? I just went to sleep. What's up? Oh, yes, I remember now. I'm to fight a duel this morning. All right, I'll be ready in a jiffy."
"How did you sleep?" demanded Chester, as Hal was dressing.
"Fine. Never slept better in my life."
Lieutenant Anderson approached and laid his finger on Hal's pulse.
"You'll do," he said quietly.
"I haven't any nerves, if that is what you mean," said Hal with a smile.
Lieutenant Anderson smiled back at him.
"I believe it," he replied. "But come, we had better be on our way."
Quietly the three left the tent. There was a penetrating chill in the early morning air. It was light now, but the sun had not yet appeared above the horizon. Dense clouds obscured the sky.
"Not a very cheerful morning to die," commented Hal lightly, as they made their way quietly along.
"You are not afraid, are you?" asked Chester anxiously.
"What, after yesterday? Not a little bit."
"I don't believe you know what fear is," declared Lieutenant Anderson.
Lieutenant Dupree, his two friends and a surgeon were already on the ground when Hal, Chester and Lieutenant Anderson arrived. All raised their caps as they came together. The seconds drew apart to discuss the details of the duel, Hal and Lieutenant Dupree in the meantime discarding their coats and rolling up their sleeves.
The details completed, Hal and the French lieutenant were at last face to face.
"On guard!" came the command, given by Lieutenant Anderson.
The swords flashed aloft.
A moment later and they were at it. For a few moments both combatants were wary, each feeling the other out. A few passes and Hal realized that he was no match for the more experienced Frenchman.
"I must be very careful," he told himself. "Perhaps I can wear him down a bit, and slip over a light thrust. I certainly don't want to kill him. And I don't want to be killed myself."
The French lieutenant was pressing him sorely now. His sword darted in and out with dazzling rapidity, and Hal thanked his stars that he had been fortunate enough to have had some schooling in the use of the foil.
Hal contented himself with remaining on the defensive, and not an attempt did he make to touch the Frenchman, although the latter left several openings, only, Hal knew, to draw him on. The lieutenant at last began to grow impatient, and with impatience came carelessness.
He had realized, as had Hal, with the first few passes, that the lad was not an accomplished swordsman. And the fact now that he could not penetrate the other's guard angered him.
Suddenly he aimed a fierce thrust at Hal, and the latter only escaped being impaled on the other's sword by a quick leap aside. Before the Frenchman could recover his balance, Hal stepped nimbly forward again, his sword darted out, and the lieutenant dropped his weapon with a muttered imprecation. Hal's point had pierced his arm just below the shoulder.
The Frenchman's seconds immediately leaped forward, and Hal stepped over to Chester and Lieutenant Anderson.
"I guess that ends it," he said. "I suppose his honor is appeased now."
"Don't be too sure," replied Lieutenant Anderson. "He is likely to be more furious than ever, and demand that the fight continue until one of you fall. He must realize that you are no match for him, and he counts on that to give him victory. However, I must say that you have handled yourself well, and, if you keep your head, you may succeed in dropping him."
The lieutenant's predictions proved correct. Lieutenant Dupree had had his wound bandaged, and now demanded that the fight be resumed. Hal was not the lad to protest, so the two were soon at swords' points again.
But now both Hal and Lieutenant Dupree fought more warily. Hal could read in his opponent's eyes that he had made up his mind to kill him. Touched once because of his carelessness, Hal knew that the Frenchman would be more wary.
In stepping back before a fierce thrust of his opponent's sword, Hal's foot slipped. He threw up his arm, and for a moment was off his guard. Before he could recover his balance, the Frenchman's sword flashed up under his guard and pierced him through the left shoulder.
The lad staggered back, and the Frenchman, unheeding the accident and the calls of Lieutenant Anderson and Chester, pressed his advantage. With a grim smile he started a thrust that would have ended Hal's days; but, with a sudden lurch, Hal staggered forward, threw up his sword, and, with a terrific stroke, swept the sword from the Frenchman's hand. Lieutenant Dupree was at his mercy.
The Frenchman stepped back and folded his arms, as Hal took a step forward.
"Kill me," he said quietly.
"Run him through!" shouted Lieutenant Anderson. "He tried to kill you unfairly."
Slowly Hal lowered his sword.
"No," he said, "I can't do it. Neither will I continue the fight." He turned to his late opponent. "I hope your honor is satisfied," he said.
The Frenchman turned, and, with bowed head, replaced his coat; then with his two friends he walked away.
The surgeon hurried to Hal's side and peered at his wound.
"Not serious," he said, after an examination. "I'll have it fixed all right in a moment."
The wound dressed, the surgeon offered Hal his hand.
"You are a gallant youngster," he said, "and I am proud to know you. Many a man in your place would have killed his opponent. Your coolness is a thing to be admired."
Hal shook hands with the surgeon, and the latter then took himself off.
Lieutenant Anderson approached Hal and grasped him by both arms.
"You are all right," he said, emphasizing each word. "I was afraid it was all up with you."
"And so was I," said Chester. "But, if you had fallen unfairly, I would have killed him myself."
The three made their way back to the boys' quarters, where they sat down and talked the duel over.
"The best thing you can do now," said Lieutenant Anderson to Hal finally, "is to get a little rest. Both of you are wounded, and will not have to report for duty. I shall tell General French that you will be all right in a day or two."
"Tell him we shall be all right in an hour or two, that will be much better," said Hal.
"Great Scott!" exclaimed the lieutenant. "Can't you even keep still for a day?"
"Well," said Hal, "there is likely to be some real fighting to-day, and we don't want to miss anything, do we Chester?"
"I should say not," was Chester's reply.
TO THE RESCUE.
"It looks rather awesome, doesn't it?" said Chester.
"It certainly does," was Hal's reply.
The object of the boys' conversation was a long armored train, which stood on a siding. It was late in the afternoon, and the two lads, after having taken a long rest, and being relieved from active duty by the express command of General French, had strolled up to the temporary siding, where the huge engine now stood puffing and snorting.
It was the first time either of the two boys had ever seen this rapidly moving vehicle of warfare. The open flat cars were protected by thick sheets of steel, behind which were mounted many small guns and rapid-firers.
These armored trains already had given good accounts of themselves in other parts of the long line of battle, particularly in Belgium, in the earlier days of the struggle, and were things of terror to the German troops.
The train beside which the two lads now stood was ready for instant action. The gunners were at their posts, ready to go forward at a moment's notice. The engineer and firemen stood beside the huge engine.
In the distance the sound of firing could be heard, and occasionally a shell burst close to where the boys were standing. But they had been through their baptism of fire, and paid little heed to these messengers of death.
"They say that these trains have proven immense factors in sudden raids on the enemy," said Chester.
"Yes," agreed Hal, "and it is easy to see that among light armed troops they could do great execution. It would even take very heavy artillery fire to make an impression on those steel sides. Besides——"
He broke off with a sudden exclamation.
"Look out," he cried, and leaped back, pulling Chester forcibly along.
A second later and there was a terrific explosion. A German shell had burst within a few feet of where the two lads had been standing.
A crowd of troopers, who had been idling about a few yards from the train, disappeared with the deafening report, and when the smoke had cleared away they were nowhere to be seen. They had been blown to atoms.
The boys rushed forward, but, even as they did so, they halted at the sound of a sudden cry, and, turning their faces up the track, they beheld a mounted officer galloping swiftly toward them. An officer dropped off one of the cars of the train, which, fortunately, had not been touched by the explosion, and hurried to meet the newcomer.
"Who is in charge of this train?" demanded the horseman, throwing himself from his mount without waiting for the animal to come to a stop.
"I am," was the officer's brief response.
"You are ordered to proceed forward at once under full speed," was the command. "The Tenth Royal Dragoons are hemmed in by at least 10,000 Germans two miles ahead, and unless you arrive in time they will all be slaughtered."
The officer in command of the train looked hurriedly about.
"Hicks!" he called loudly. "Hicks!"
There was no reply, and the officer shouted again. Then Hal stepped forward.
"If Hicks was your engineer," he said, "there is no use calling him. He is dead."
"Dead?" exclaimed the officer.
"Yes; that shell struck right beside him. The fireman also was killed."
"Great Scott!" exclaimed the officer. "Then what am I to do? Hicks was the only engineer with us right now. The others have gone to their quarters, and by the time I could get them here it would be too late."
"Well," said Hal quietly, "if you want a volunteer, I am willing to tackle it for you."
"Yes; I have made some slight study of a locomotive, and, while I have never run one any great distance, I have ridden many miles in the cab of an engine in lumber camps in the United States."
"And I can fire the engine," Chester broke in.
"Well," said the officer, "something has to be done at once; and, if you are willing to take a chance, so am I. Get aboard."
He turned and rushed hurriedly back to his car, while Hal and Chester leaped aboard the locomotive. In response to a signal, Hal released the brakes, gently opened the throttle, and the great engine began to forge slowly ahead.
Gradually the lad opened the throttle wider, and the huge locomotive commenced to gain momentum, until at last it was rushing along like some mad thing. Chester, in the meantime, was busy with a shovel.
A moment, it seemed to the two lads, and the sound of firing rose above the roar of the locomotive, and the spat spat of bullets against the armored sides could be heard. But Hal did not falter. Rather, the engine seemed to leap ahead with even greater speed.
From the rear came the signal to slow down, and, under Hal's firm hand, the terrific speed of the train was checked. Then also from the rear there came the sound of firing. The rapid-firers on the train had been unloosed, and their leaden messengers were spelling death in the ranks of the Germans, of whom the train was now in the middle.
Chester poked his head out the window of the cab, only to withdraw it quickly, as a bullet struck a quarter of an inch from his ear. But in that one brief glance he had taken in the situation.
A short distance ahead he could make out a small knot of British, almost surrounded by Germans. The British had taken their stand directly on the railroad track, the most strategic point for miles. A clump of small trees screened them from the enemy on one side, but from the other three directions the Germans were pouring in their deadly fire.
The British troops stood gallantly to their work, and returned volley for volley. They fought on doggedly. Suddenly the armored train shot up the line which the British were holding, and Hal brought it to an abrupt stop.
Right and left the train poured in broadsides of machine-gun fire, mowing down the Germans at every yard. The Germans fell in heaps, and, as if by a miracle, both sides of the track were suddenly lined with high piles of the dead.
The little troop of British received this unexpected aid with a great cheer, broke from cover and dashed in pursuit of the great mass of Germans, who now were fleeing on all sides.
But the success of the British was destined to be short-lived. Hal and Chester, in the cab of the locomotive, had just raised a loud cheer when there was a terrific explosion, followed by a thundering crash, and both lads were hurled violently to the floor of the cab.
Chester, with blood flowing from a gash in his forehead, was the first to pick himself up. In falling his head had come in contact with a sharp projection of some kind. He was terribly dizzy, but his head was still clear.
He stooped over Hal, and at that moment the latter raised himself on his elbow and then got to his feet unsteadily.
"Great Scott! What was that?" he gasped.
Chester did not reply. Instead he swung out from the cab and glanced back over the train—or rather where the train had been. And what a sight met his gaze!
The train of armored cars was gone. Alongside the track lay pieces of wreckage, and many bodies and pieces of what had once been machine guns.
Hal peered over Chester's shoulder.
"Another shell," he said slowly. "But how does it happen we were not killed also?"
"I don't know," said Chester, "but I judge the shell must have struck in the middle of the train. Look, there is nothing left but the engine."
It was true. In some unaccountable manner the engine had escaped scot free. At that moment Hal, who had glanced out from the other side of the cab, made a startling discovery.
"Wow!" he shouted. "Here come the Germans again—thousands of 'em. We are goners, now, sure."
But, before Chester could reply, Hal jumped forward. With one hand he released the brakes and threw the throttle wide—and the huge locomotive leaped suddenly forward.
"It's our only chance," Hal shouted to Chester. "The track behind is covered with wreckage, and it is impossible to go that way."
That the Germans understood their ruse was soon apparent. There was a shout from the oncoming horde, and the sharp crack of rifles and bullets began to spatter against the side of the engine.
"Well, we'll give 'em a chase, anyhow," said Hal grimly.
He opened the throttle even wider.
A WILD RIDE.
The engine rocked crazily as it dashed along, and the boys hung on to whatever offered for dear life. Around curve after curve they shot with a lurch, the locomotive threatening at every turn to leave the rails.
"Where is the end of this road?" asked Chester of Hal, raising his voice to a shout to make himself heard above the roar of the speeding locomotive.
"I don't know," Hal shouted back.
"Then you had better slow down. The tracks in front may be torn up and we would certainly be killed."
"You are right," shouted Hal.
Quickly he closed the throttle and applied the brakes. The huge mogul trembled violently and shook all over, but its speed was soon slackened.
Looking behind, the two lads saw that they had left their pursuers far in the rear, and both breathed more freely.
"How far are we going on this thing, anyhow?" Chester demanded. "Don't you think we had better get off and walk back?"
"What! and leave the engine in the hands of the enemy? Not much. Besides, I am certain the British must control this road at the other end or it would have been destroyed by this time. We'll just keep on going and see what happens."
"Well, something will happen, all right," said Chester. "I can feel it in my bones. However, you are the doctor. Forward it is, then."
The locomotive was going more slowly now, Hal always keeping a keen eye ahead. For perhaps five minutes they rode along without incident; then suddenly Hal, without even a word to Chester, "opened her up" again.
Once more the huge locomotive jumped forward.
"What's the matter now?" cried Chester, springing to Hal's side.
"Matter!" shouted Hal. "Look ahead."
Chester peered out, and drew his head back with an exclamation.
"More Germans, eh!" he muttered, and then shouted. "You do the driving and I'll keep her hot."
"Good!" Hal called back, never taking his eyes from the road ahead.
Apparently the Germans were unconscious of the approach of the locomotive, for they did not even glance in its direction. Troopers stood beside either side of the track, and several groups were standing between the rails.
Closer and closer the engine approached, and still they did not move. A moment later and the great steel monster was upon them. There was a sudden shout, but it was too late—for some, at any rate.
The great locomotive caught them as they attempted to jump from the track, and hurled them in all directions. Hal and Chester ducked low inside the cab, and it was well that they did so; for, as the engine shot past, hundreds of bullets sped through the cab, and hundreds more flattened themselves against the steel-protected sides. It was close work, and no mistake.
"Whew!" breathed Chester, after they had safely run the gauntlet of the German fire and Hal had once more reduced the speed of the locomotive. "That was close."
"Too close for comfort," Hal agreed.
"I wonder how many we killed back there," said Chester.
"I don't know, but I am sure it was enough. It seemed to be their lives or ours."
"It's only a few more gone to the Happy Hunting Ground in a mistaken cause," said Chester slowly. "But, as you say, it was either they or us. There was nothing else we could do."
"No," said Hal, "there wasn't; but, just the same, it gave me a cold chill as they went flying through the air. It was terrible."
Both lads were silent for a time, as the locomotive continued on its way. It was getting dusk now, and Hal was forced to reduce the speed of the engine even more. They went slowly along, both lads keeping a wary eye ahead for Germans.
Darkness came on, and still they rode along. Their speed was little better than a walk, and it was well that Hal had decided to discontinue his reckless driving.
From ahead, a sudden red glare went up to the sky, followed almost instantly by a report like that of a thousand cannons. The locomotive came to a stop with a jolt as Hal applied the brakes.
"What's up now?" demanded Chester.
"I don't know; but that explosion sounded to me as if there were something wrong ahead. I wouldn't be surprised if the Germans had dynamited the bridge."
"By George! I believe you are right," exclaimed Chester. "I wouldn't have thought of it, and if I had been in your place at the throttle the chances are we would have gone over if such is the case."
"Well," said Hal, "I'll climb down, take a walk ahead and investigate."
"I'll go with you," declared Chester.
"No, you won't. You stay here and watch the engine."
"You are right, as usual," said Chester. "But don't be any longer than you can help."
Hal agreed, and a moment later Chester lost sight of him in the darkness.
Slowly and cautiously Hal made his way along the track. As he moved stealthily around a curve in the road the cause of the explosion became apparent. It was even as he had feared. His quick wit had detected the meaning of the explosion and none too soon.
Just ahead, where a short time before had been a bridge spanning a deep chasm, there was now nothing but space. The bridge had been blown up. Had Hal applied the brakes to the engine one minute later, in spite of the fact that it was traveling very slowly, both boys probably would have been carried over the embankment to certain death; for it is doubtful that either, in the darkness, would have noticed the absence of the bridge in time to leap to safety.
And now Hal could make out a number of rapidly moving figures. To his dismay, he saw that they were moving in his direction. He turned quickly and ran back to the locomotive, where Chester was anxiously awaiting his return.
"Out here, quick!" he cried, and Chester, in response to his command, leaped to the ground.
Hal once more jumped aboard the locomotive, unheeding Chester's cry of wonder, released the brakes, and threw the throttle wide open. Then he dropped sprawling to the ground, while the engine dashed madly down the track.
Hal was not badly hurt and was quickly on his feet.
"What's the matter?" asked Chester in alarm.
"Matter is that the Germans are coming this way," answered Hal. "Come, let's get away from here while we have a chance. We may be able to escape in the darkness."
"But why did you start that engine down the track like that?"
"Well, I couldn't see that it was any use to us any longer, and it may dispose of a few more Germans. They are walking up the track in force."
This appealed to Chester.
"Good!" he cried, and both stopped in their tracks to listen.
A second and there came to their ears a sudden startled shout, followed by a fearful yell, a moment of silence, and then a crash.
"Good-by engine," said Hal. "That's a good job done. You perished nobly. Now," to Chester, "let's get away from this spot as fast as we can."
They turned their faces in the direction from which they had come, and set out at a brisk pace. They plodded along for an hour through the open country, finally coming to a dense woods.
"Guess we had better try and lose ourselves in here," said Chester.
"Right you are," agreed Hal.
They entered the friendly shelter of the trees. Here they were forced to travel more slowly. They made good progress, however, and at the end of another hour had covered considerable distance.
"I guess we are safe enough as long as we can stay in the woods," said Chester.
"Don't be too sure," declared Hal. "It's the unexpected that always happens."
The words were hardly out of his mouth when the truth of them was proved. As they emerged from where the trees were thickest into a little clearing a sudden, guttural command brought them to an abrupt stop.
"Halt!" came a voice. "Halt, or I fire!"
Caught thus unexpectedly Hal immediately threw his hands above his head; Chester followed his example. It was plain to both lads that there was not a chance in a thousand to escape, for the German soldier had his rifle pointed squarely at them.
Of course there was a possibility that by a sudden spring one of the lads might have succeeded in knocking the man down; but this probably would have meant the death of the other. Hal and Chester both realized that it was no time to take such a chance.
"We surrender," called Hal in German, and immediately the soldier lowered his weapon and approached them.
He passed his hands around their waists and then felt in the pockets of their coats and relieved them of their weapons. Then he ordered:
"Right about; forward, march!"
The lads obeyed this command, and the German stalked after them, keeping his rifle in readiness for a quick shot should his prisoners attempt to escape.
But the lads had no thought of taking to their heels, for they were fully aware that a bullet would stop one of them at least should they make even one false move.
They continued their walk, and presently came in view of what appeared to be a large German camp. Here their captor marched them directly to the tent of the commanding officer.
"What are you doing within our lines?" was the latter's first question after the soldier had related how he had made his capture.
"Well," said Hal, "we were accidentally carried through your lines by a locomotive which we happened to be running when the rest of the train was blown up. We couldn't get back, so we went ahead. We finally lost the engine, so we were making our way back to our own lines."
"Lost the engine? What do you mean?" asked the officer.
"Why," Chester broke in, "we sent it over a precipice that it might not fall into the hands of the Germans."
"You did, eh?" said the German officer. "Well, I shall attend to your case in the morning. Orderly! See that these prisoners are carefully guarded, and have them brought to me the first thing in the morning. Perhaps they may be induced to give me the information I require."
"You won't get any information out of us," said Chester angrily.
"Won't I?" replied the officer, with a sneer. "We shall see. Take them away."
The two lads were led to a small field tent and thrust inside, with a guard on the outside.
"Well, here we are again," said Chester, with a faint smile. "What do you suppose will be done with us if we refuse to divulge what the general wants to know?"
"I'm sure I don't know," was Hal's reply, "but I am afraid we are in for it this time. I have never taken much stock in the tales I have heard of the barbarous treatment of the Germans toward their prisoners, but one look at the general's face was enough to convince me that he would stop at nothing to gain his end."
"The same thought struck me, too," agreed Chester. "But, one thing is certain, he'll get no information out of me."
"Nor out of me, either," declared Hal.
Chester rose and started to walk around the tent. In the darkness he stumbled over something and fell to the ground. Arising he reached in his pocket and produced a match. A tiny flame lighted up the dark interior of the tent, and the lad stepped back with an ejaculation.
"Bicycles," he muttered.
"What?" demanded Hal.
"Bicycles. I wonder why they are here?"
"Probably dumped in here by a couple of men who have returned from a scouting expedition," said Hal.
"By George!" exclaimed Chester suddenly.
"What is it now?" demanded Hal.
Chester did not reply immediately. He appeared to be thinking deeply.
"Have you a knife?" he asked at length.
Hal produced one, and, taking it from his friend's hand, Chester stepped to the back of the tent. Quickly he opened the blade, and made a neat incision in the canvas, finally cutting out a little square. Then he put his eye to the hole and peered out.
There was no one in sight. The guard could be heard pacing to and fro in front of the tent, but apparently there was no guard at the rear.
Chester left his peep-hole and returned to Hal's side.
"If we can get two of these bicycles out here," he whispered, "we may be able to get away by a quick dash. Are you willing to take a chance?"
"Sure," agreed Hal. "Anything is better than sitting here and waiting for I know not what. But do you think we can make it?"
"Well, we can at least try. There doesn't seem to be a guard in the rear. I am going to cut a big slit in the back. Then we'll slip the bicycles through it, mount and make a dash."
"Good!" said Hal.
Quietly Chester slit the canvas in the rear of the tent, making a hole large enough for a man to step through. Quietly the boys each selected a bicycle and pushed it cautiously through the opening.
Once on the outside they drew a breath of relief.
"We'll have to depend on our luck now," whispered Chester. "Come on!"
The lads leaped into the saddles, and a moment later were speeding through the heart of the German camp.
In the very boldness of their scheme lay a certain degree of safety, for the sentinels on guard certainly did not look for two youths of the allied armies to be riding through their midst.
They were not even challenged as they sped through the camp, turning this way and that, and they had passed beyond the last row of tents before a hubbub from the rear told them that their flight had been discovered.
"We must be careful," cried Hal, as he rode his wheel close beside Chester. "There is still the outpost to pass."
But they did not diminish their speed. Rather, if anything, they pedaled faster; and then the outpost came into sight—a long line of men, almost in front of them. Some were pacing to and fro, while others sat upon the ground.
The riders were upon them before they knew it, and two flying bicycles sped between the German troopers. A cry of "halt!" went unheeded, and the Germans, quickly bringing their rifles to their shoulders, sent a volley after the lads.
But neither was hit. In the darkness the Germans were unable to aim carefully. The boys heard the hum of bullets around them, but they did not falter. There was no second volley, for the lads had disappeared in the darkness, and the Germans were not minded to spend their ammunition foolishly.
The first streak of dawn appeared in the sky, and still the boys rode on swiftly. But at length Hal slowed down and Chester followed suit.
"I'm tired out," said Hal, as he jumped from his bicycle.
"And so am I," replied Chester, as he, too, jumped to the ground to stretch his legs.
Suddenly from the distance in which they had come came a faint "chug-chug."
Chester pricked up his ears.
"What's that?" he demanded anxiously.
For a brief moment Hal paused to listen. The sound became louder. Hal sprang toward his bicycle.
"Come on!" he cried, and leaped into the saddle. "Motorcycles! We are pursued!"
Chester was hardly a second behind him, and the two lads were again riding madly along the road. Fortunately there were many curves in the highway, and this fact prevented their pursuers from sighting them from any great distance.
Hal suddenly brought his bicycle to an abrupt stop and jumped to the ground. Although not knowing what plan Hal had in his mind, Chester immediately did likewise.
The spot where they had alighted was in the midst of a clump of trees, and quickly the lads drew their bicycles in among them, hiding them from sight of the road. Then Hal turned, and, with Chester close behind him, dashed back in the direction from which they had come, taking care to keep well within the shelter of the trees.
And now Chester made out the object of his friend's wild dash. It was a farmhouse, setting well back from the road. Chester had not detected it as they sped by, but Hal's keen eyes had singled it out as a possible refuge.
"We'll have to take a chance of the occupants being friendly," Hal told his friend, as they ran toward the house. "If they will allow us to hide here until night, we may be able to get back to our lines safely."
The boys ran around the house, and Hal rapped sharply upon the rear door. A moment later and a kindly-faced woman appeared in the doorway. She started back at the appearance of the two lads.
"Are the English coming?" she demanded, after a quick glance at the lads' uniforms, and then she clasped her hands and exclaimed: "At last! At last!"
"No, madam," Hal undeceived her, "the English are not coming—yet. We are trying to make our way back to our lines, but a German motorcycle squad is after us. We have come here to see if you will hide us until nightfall."
The woman was silent for one moment. Then she stepped aside and motioned them into the house.
"Come," she said quietly. "The Germans will not learn you are here through me."
The lads stepped inside the door, and not a moment too soon. For at that very instant a band of a dozen Germans flashed by on the road, their motorcycles kicking up a cloud of dust.
A TRAITOR APPEARS.
Hal turned to Chester.
"When they fail to find us," he said, "they'll come back, inquiring all along as they return. They are sure to ask for us here." He turned to the woman. "Have you a place where we can hide?"
"Yes," she replied, "there is a secret trap-door to the attic. You may go up there and no one will be the wiser."
"Then we had better get up there at once," said Chester, "for there is no telling how soon they may return."
A few moments later and they were safe in a little room at the very top of the house. After showing them to their retreat, the good woman departed, saying that she would return in a few minutes with water and food.
"You'll need it," she said, when Hal protested against putting her to so much trouble. "And, besides, I should be a poor Frenchwoman could I not aid the friends of my own country."
She was back in a few moments, and the lads ate hungrily of the food she brought them, for it had been long hours since food or water had passed their lips.
After their benefactress had departed, Hal said to Chester:
"This is bound to be a tedious day. I guess we had better try and put it in sleeping. Besides, we'll need all the rest we can get for our journey to-night."
"Just what I was thinking," said Chester, "and I'm ready to go to sleep right this instant."
He stretched himself out on the floor and in a few moments was fast asleep. A short time later and Hal also lay in the arms of Morpheus.
How long the lads had slept, they did not know, but they were awakened by the sound of voices directly below them.
"No, I have seen nothing of them," came the voice of the woman who had given them refuge.
"But we have searched every place else," came another voice, speaking in French, but with a heavy German accent. "They must be here. We found the bicycles a short distance from this house, and have scoured the woods. They must be here."
"I say they are not," came the woman's voice, raised in anger.
"Well, I must search the house, at any rate," said the German, "and, if I find that you have been aiding the enemies of Germany, it will go hard with you. Stand aside, please."
"I tell you there is no one here," cried the woman.
"Stand aside!" came the German's voice again, and there was the sound of a struggle, followed by the voice of the German: "Search the house, men."
Then came the sounds of heavy feet tramping through the house. Hal and Chester were both wide awake now and lay silent, listening. For an hour the heavy footsteps continued to ring through the house, and there was the sound of slamming doors and moving furniture.
And finally came the voice of the woman again: "I told you there was no one here."
But apparently the German officer in command was not yet satisfied.
"Have you searched the attic?" he demanded of his men; "and the cellar?"
"There is no one in the cellar," came a voice in reply, "and there is no attic."
"I'll have a look for myself," came the reply, and heavy footsteps ascended the stairs into the room directly beneath Hal and Chester. There came to the lads' ears the sounds of heavy blows against the floor on which they lay. Evidently the German officer was making sure that there was not an opening in the ceiling of the room below. But after a while he desisted. The boys heard him descend the stairs, and a few moments later the sound of his voice:
"There is no one up there."
Both lads drew a breath of relief. A moment more and a slamming door gave evidence that the Germans had departed.
"I was afraid he would locate the trap-door," said Hal to Chester, after they had gone.
"Same here," replied Chester. "But I wasn't going to let them take me without a fight. Only one man could get up here at a time, and we could certainly dispose of him."
"Yes, but they could starve us out, or set fire to the house or something, which would be worse than being captured. Besides, we couldn't let the woman who has aided us come to harm."
"No, that's so, too," agreed Chester. "I hadn't thought of that."
Further conversation was interrupted by a sound of some one at the trap-door. Chester and Hal both jumped to their feet, and stood ready above the opening in the floor to seize the intruder should it prove to be an enemy.
But when the trap-door came away the head of their benefactress appeared through the opening.
"You can come down now, if you want to," she said. "The Germans have been here and gone. I am sure they will not return."
Chester turned to Hal.
"What do you think?" he asked. "Shall we go down, or had we better stay up here?"
Hal considered for a moment.
"I guess we might as well go down," he replied at length. "I don't believe there is any likelihood of their coming back. Besides, it's too cramped and stuffy up here for comfort."
Accordingly both boys descended from their refuge, and a few moments later were sitting in the living room with their hostess.
"We can never thank you enough for what you have done for us," Chester told her, after she had related her experiences with the Germans.
"No, indeed; we can never thank you enough," agreed Hal. "Had it not been for your kindness we should have been in the hands of the Germans right now, and there is no telling what they might have done to us."
The good woman waved aside their thanks.
"Pooh! pooh!" she said. "And why shouldn't I help you? Surely no thanks are necessary because I did my duty."
"But women——" Hal began, when she interrupted him.
"I have a son of my own in the war," she said, her voice growing very low and tears dimming her eyes.
"And I hope," said Hal gently, "should he ever be in a situation similar to ours, that another good woman may be the means of saving his life, and that some day he may return to you."
"Just so he does his duty I shall be satisfied," said the woman, who now introduced herself as Mrs. Madeline Dersi. "He has been a very wild boy, but I am sure that his heart is true and that he will fight to the last for his country, as did his father before him."
"And I am sure of it, too," said Chester. "When we return to our lines we shall make it our business to hunt him up."
And at that moment there was a hasty step outside, the door to the room in which they were sitting was flung open, and a young man, in civilian garb, burst in.
Mrs. Dersi was across the room in a moment, her arms wrapped about the newcomer. Tears streamed down her face, as she repeatedly kissed the young man, who seemed to take no great interest in the procedure.
Finally Mrs. Dersi turned to Hal and Chester.
"My son," she said proudly, "of whom I was just talking to you."
Now the newcomer freed himself from her embrace and stepped forward.
"Who are these?" he demanded, pointing to the two lads.