The Boy Allies In The Trenches
Midst Shot and Shell along the Aisne
By CLAIR W. HAYES
AUTHOR OF "The Boy Allies At Liege" "The Boy Allies On the Firing Line" "The Boy Allies With the Cossacks"
WITH THE ARMY.
"Well! Well! Well! If it isn't Lieutenant Paine and Lieutenant Crawford!"
The speaker, none other than Field Marshal Sir John French, commander-in-chief of the British forces sent to help France hurl back the legions of the German invader, was greatly surprised by the appearance of the two lads before him.
"I thought surely you had been killed," continued General French.
"We are not to be killed so easily, sir," replied Hal Paine.
"And where have you been?" demanded the General.
"In Russia, sir," replied Chester Crawford, "where we were attached to a Cossack regiment, and where we saw considerable fighting."
General French uttered an exclamation of astonishment.
"How did you get there?" he asked. "And how did you return?"
"Airship," was Hal's brief response, and he related their adventures since they had last seen their commander.
Hal then tendered the General a despatch he carried from the Grand Duke Nicholas, commander-in-chief of all the Russian armies operating against the Germans in the eastern theater of war.
"You shall serve on my staff," said General French finally.
He summoned another officer and ordered that quarters be prepared for the two lads immediately.
And while the two boys are getting themselves comfortably fixed it will be a good time to introduce the lads to such readers as have not made their acquaintance before.
Hal Paine and Chester Crawford, two American lads, their ages being about 18 and 19, had seen considerable service in the great European war—the greatest war of all time. They had been in Berlin when Germany had declared war upon Russia and France and with Hal's mother had attempted to make their way from that country. The mother had been successful; but Hal and Chester got into trouble and had been left behind.
Fortunately, however, two young officers, Major Raoul Derevaux, a Frenchman, and Captain Harry Anderson, an Englishman, had come to their assistance—reciprocating a good turn done them by the two lads a day before—and together, after some difficulties, they succeeded in reaching Liege, Belgium, just in time to take part in its heroic defense against the first German hordes that violated the neutrality of the little buffer country.
Both had distinguished themselves by their coolness and bravery under fire, and had found favor in the eyes of the Belgian commander, as related in "The Boy Allies at Liege." Later they had rendered themselves invaluable in carrying dispatches.
Following their adventures in this campaign they saw service with the British forces on the continent, as told in "The Boy Allies on the Firing Line." In this campaign they had been instrumental in foiling a well-planned German coup, which would have resulted in a severe blow to the British had it been put through.
Also, while scouting in the enemy's domain, Hal and Chester had unearthed a conspiracy that threatened the destruction of a whole French army corps. By prompt action the lads prevented this and won the congratulations of General Joffre, the French commander-in-chief.
It was through information gleaned by the lads that the British army was finally able to surprise the enemy and advance to the east shore of the River Marne, after a struggle that had lasted for two weeks.
In a battle following this decisive engagement—while returning from a successful raid—Captain Harry Anderson, who had accompanied them, was critically wounded and, together with Hal and Chester, taken prisoner. Hal and Chester, with a French army dog they had rescued from the wrath of a German officer, were taken almost immediately to Berlin.
There, while strolling about the street one day in company with the German officer in whose charge they had been placed, they were made, to their surprise, the bearer of an important communication to the Russian commander-in-chief. It happened in this wise:
An English prisoner, recognizing them, made a dash for liberty and succeeded in passing the document to Chester. The lad secreted it. Finally, through their resourcefulness, the lads managed to make their escape from the German capital and reached the Russian lines by means of an airship.
Here they put the document into the hands of Grand Duke Nicholas, who, at their request, assigned them to a regiment of Cossacks.
The lads immediately made a good friend of a huge Cossack, Alexis Verhoff, a man of immense prowess and great strength, and with him saw a world of fighting. In a battle with the enemy, Marquis, the dog who had accompanied them, was killed. Later, while they were making their way back to England by airship, Alexis, who accompanied them, was wounded on the coast of Sweden, where their machine, crippled by the fire of German aviators, had fallen.
While Alexis stood off the foe the lads repaired the damage to the machine, but when they finally succeeded in dragging the huge Cossack aboard and once more headed toward home, they found that their friend was wounded unto death. He died as the aeroplane sped over the North Sea.
In Russia both lads had been decorated with the Cross of St. George by the Czar of Russia himself—this for their bravery and daring.
Hal and Chester were both exponents of the manly art of self-defense, and more than once their skill in the fistic art had stood them to good advantage. They were also proficient in the use of the revolver and sword. They had returned from Russia with a dispatch for Sir John French from the Russian Grand Duke, a message so important that the Russian commander-in-chief would not flash it by wireless for fear that it might be intercepted by the Germans, and the code deciphered.
Hal and Chester went at once to the quarters assigned them, where they immediately threw themselves down to rest. They were tired out, as the journey had occupied days, and they had scarcely closed their eyes during that time. They had remained in England only long enough to have the body of Alexis buried with fitting honors, and had then set out for France immediately.
It was dark when the two lads were aroused by the sound of a bugle blowing the call to arms. Both were quickly on their feet and dashed through the darkness to where they could make out the form of their commander, surrounded by other members of his staff.
"Something up!" cried Hal as they hurried forward.
"Probably a night attack," said Chester. "General French may be planning to carry some of the enemy's trenches by assault."
"Guess you are right," replied Hal briefly.
They took their places among the others of the British leader's staff and were received with nods of welcome and some expressions of astonishment. They had friends among the British officers, many of whom, because of their long absence, had mourned them as dead.
The lads let their eyes roam about. Troops, troops, troops! Nothing but troops, as far as the eye could see. Cavalry, artillery and infantry in solid masses on every side; officers darting hither and thither delivering sharp orders. It was an impressive sight.
An officer on horseback dashed up to General French and the two held a short conversation. As the rider turned and was about to make off again the lads recognized him.
"Major Derevaux!" shouted Hal, taking a step forward.
The officer wheeled in his saddle. He recognized the two lads in an instant, and reined in.
"Hello, boys," he called back. "I heard you were dead. Glad to see you again."
Without further words, but with a wave of his hand, the French officer put spurs to his horse and dashed out of sight in the darkness.
"Wonder what he is doing here?" said Hal. "He was attached to General Joffre's staff when we left. Remember?"
"Yes," replied Chester. "Must be some momentous move under way."
Other officers now began to appear. They dashed up to the British commander, made their reports and immediately dashed away again.
"Lieutenant Paine! Lieutenant Crawford!"
It was General French summoning them and the boys approached and came to attention. Because of past experience, both lads realized instantly that the General had some ticklish work cut out and that he had selected them to carry it through.
"Take a troop of cavalry," came the command, "and make a reconnoissance of the northeast!"
Quickly two officers nearby sprang from their horses and offered them to the lads, for the latter had not yet had time to find steeds. The lads sprang into the saddle, saluted their commander, and dashed away. To the nearest cavalry force they hurried, where upon repeating General French's order to the commander, they soon had a troop at their disposal.
A troop of cavalry is composed of one hundred men. It is usually commanded by a captain.
Now it is very unusual for a commanding officer to have two lieutenants on his staff, as had General French in the persons of Hal and Chester; but the General had commissioned them as such on the spur of the moment, and when they took command of the troop they consequently, for the time, superseded the captain in command—for they were the personal representatives of the General himself.
The two lads placed themselves at the head of the troop and rode forward at a rapid trot. Past dense masses of infantry, battery after battery of heavy artillery and troop upon troop of cavalry they rode toward the northeast.
They were not yet at the front of the long battle line, for General French had his headquarters well back, but still close enough to be in constant danger from the enemy's artillery fire.
From a trot the troop broke into a gallop, and soon were beyond the farthest trenches. Skirting this at the extreme north—close to the sea—they progressed still further toward the enemy. It was the boys' duty, if possible, to find out the position of the German forces at this point and to determine their numbers; also the strategic positions that could be used by either army.
Now an order was given for the troop to spread out, and, leaving the road, the two lads led their men into the woods, where they could advance with less danger of being seen. They had not been ordered forward to give battle, and there would be no fighting unless it became necessary in order that their mission might be successful.
But, as in most missions upon which the lads had been dispatched, there was to be fighting; and these British were not the men to turn their backs upon the enemy without giving them a warm reception.
From the shelter of the sand dunes there came suddenly a fusillade. Two British troopers reeled in their saddles and tumbled to the ground.
A BIT OF HISTORY.
While Hal and Chester and their troop of British cavalry are preparing to meet this unexpected attack, it will be well to introduce here a few words relating to the positions of the gigantic armies battling in France and Belgium.
The war had now been in progress for five months. From the time that the Allies had braced and checked the Germans in their rapid advance upon Paris, and had assumed the offensive themselves, they had progressed consistently, if slowly.
The Germans contested every inch of the ground, and all along the great battle line, stretching out for almost four hundred miles, the fighting had been terrific. Day after day, week after week, month after month the terrible struggle had raged incessantly. The losses of all four armies, German, British, French and Belgian, had been enormous, although, up to date, it was admitted that the Germans had suffered the worst.
The conflict raged with advantage first to one side and then to the other. Assaults and counter-assaults were the order of the day. From Ostend, on the North Sea, now in the hands of the Germans, to the southern extremity of Alsace-Lorraine, the mighty hosts were locked in a death grapple; but, in spite of the fearful execution of the weapons of modern warfare, there had been no really decisive engagement. Neither side had suffered a severe blow.
In the North the Allies were being given powerful aid by a strong British fleet, which hurled its shells upon the Germans infesting that region, thus checking at the same time the threatened advance of the Kaiser's legions upon Nieuport and Dunkirk, which the Germans planned to use as naval bases for air raids on England.
The mighty siege and field guns of the Germans—which had been used with such telling effect upon Liege, Brussels, Antwerp and Ostend, battering the fortifications there to bits in practically no time at all—while immense in their power of destruction, were still not a match for the longer range guns mounted by the British battleships. Consequently, long-range artillery duels in the north had been all in favor of British arms.
Terrific charges of the British troops, of whom there were now less than half a million—Scotch, Irish, Canadians and Indians included—on the continent, had driven the Germans from Dixmude, Ypres and Armentieres, captured earlier in the war. Ostend had been shelled by the British fleet, and a show of force had been made in that vicinity, causing the Germans to believe that the Allies would attempt to reoccupy this important seaport.
Farther south the French also had met with some success. From within striking distance of Paris the invaders had been driven back to the Marne, and from the Marne to the northern and eastern shores of the Aisne.
But here the German line held.
The fighting along the Aisne, continuing without cessation, already had been the bloodiest in the history of wars; and here, the French on one side of the river, and the Germans on the other, the two great armies had proceeded to intrench, making themselves as comfortable as possible, and constructing huts and other substantial shelters against the icy hand of King Winter, who had come to rule over the battlefield.
The French cabinet, which had fled from Paris to Bordeaux when the German army drew close to Paris, had returned to the former capital, and affairs of state were being conducted as before. With several millions of fighting men at the front, France still had an additional two million to hurl into the thick of the fray at the psychological moment.
Recruiting in England, slow at first, was now beginning to be more satisfactory. Lord Kitchener had in the neighborhood of a million and a half men being trained and prepared for the rigors of war. These, also, would be hurled into the thick of the fight when the time was ripe.
It was plainly evident, however, that the Allies were content to hold their present lines. There was little doubt that it was their plan to let the real fighting be held off till spring, when, by hurling an additional three million men into the field, they believed they could settle German militarism once and for all.
Rumors of other countries joining in the great war grew more rife daily. Portugal already had given assurances that she would throw her army to the support of Great Britain should she be asked to do so. A great diplomatic coup—a great victory for British statesmanship—had cleared the way for the entrance of Rumania and Greece into the war on the side of the Allies. This coup had been to gain from Bulgaria assurances that Bulgaria would not go to the support of Germany should Rumania and Greece take up arms.
The Italian populace, also, was clamoring for war. In Rome demonstrations against Germany had become frequent and violent. It appeared to be only a question of time until Italy also would hurl her millions of trained fighting men into the field in support of the Allies.
From Ostend the great battle line extended due south to Noyen, where it branched off to the southeast. South of Noyen French soil had been almost cleared of the Germans. Alsace had in turn been invaded by the French, who had penetrated to within twelve miles of Strasbourg. The French troops also had progressed to within eight miles of Metz, in Lorraine.
The forward move by the southern army of France had been sudden, and the Germans had been forced to give way under the desperation and courage of the French troops.
Once before, in the earlier days of the war, the French had reached Metz and Strasbourg, but had been hurled back by overwhelming numbers of the enemy and forced to retreat well into France. Then the German line in Alsace and Lorraine had been weakened to hurl denser masses of Germans upon the British and Belgians in the north.
The French had not been slow to take advantage of this weakening of the southern army of the Kaiser, and, immediately bringing great pressure to bear, had cleared French territory of the invader in the south.
But the French commander did not stop with this. Alsace and Lorraine, French soil until after the Franco-Prussian war, when it had been awarded to Prussia as the spoils of war, must be recaptured. The French pressed on and the Germans gave way before them.
Meantime, in the Soissons region the French also had been making progress; but the Kaiser, evidently becoming alarmed by the great pressure being exercised by the French in Alsace-Lorraine—in order to relieve the pressure—immediately made a show of strength near Soissons, seeking thereby to cause the French to withdraw troops from Alsace-Lorraine to reenforce the army of the Soissons to stem the new German advance there.
Taken somewhat unawares by the suddenness of the German assault upon their lines near Soissons, the French were forced to give back. They braced immediately, however, and the succeeding day regained the ground lost in the first German assault.
Then the Germans made another show of strength at Verdun, southeast of Soissons. General Joffre immediately hurled a new force to the support of the French army at that point.
Meanwhile, as the result of the German assaults upon Soissons and Verdun, in an effort to lessen the pressure being brought to bear by the French in Alsace-Lorraine, there had been a lull in the fighting in the latter regions.
Word from the eastern theater of war brought the news that Russia had a new big army advancing upon the Germans in Poland from the east, threatening to outflank the army that had penetrated to within fifty miles of Warsaw, the capital and chief city of Poland. This, it was taken, would mean that Germany would either have to retreat within her own borders into East Prussia, or else that troops would have to be dispatched from the west to reenforce those in the east.
In this event there was little doubt that General French and General Joffre would immediately order another allied advance along the entire front.
News of the utter annihilation of three Turkish army corps in the Caucasus by the Russians also cheered the British, French and Belgian troops, as did news that the Russians had cleared the way for their long-deferred invasion of Hungary, and, ultimately, of Austria.
So far, from the Allies' point of view, the one big disappointment of the war had been the inaction of the British and French fleets. True, several engagements of minor importance had been fought, chief of which was the sinking of a German fleet of five ships by a British squadron in the waters of the Pacific Ocean, off the coast of Argentina.
But the fact that the German fleet, although blockaded, after five months of the war had not been destroyed, was causing considerable adverse criticism in England and France. Several German sea raids—by cruisers and submarines which had successfully run the blockade—had caused condemnation of Great Britain's naval policy.
In spite of the fact that only in one instance had such a raid resulted in any serious damage, the British Admiralty had been roundly censured. Germany's policy of "whittling down" the British fleet, so that the Germans could give battle on even terms, while by no means successful thus far, had nevertheless considerably reduced the size of the English navy. Some of her first-class cruisers, and one formidable dreadnought had been sunk.
The French fleet in the Adriatic and in the Mediterranean had been equally as inactive, although a squadron of British and French ships even now was attempting to destroy the Turkish fortifications along the Dardanelles, that a passage of the straits might be forced. So far this, too, had been unsuccessful.
The fighting in France and Belgium, Alsace and Lorraine had now become a series of battles for the possession of the various trenches that had been dug. True, long-range artillery duels raged almost incessantly, but the mass of both armies lay in the trenches, now attacking and capturing the enemy's trenches, now being attacked and being driven out again.
Besides the artillery duels there were, of course, occasional skirmishes between the cavalry, some growing to the proportions of real battles. But the results of these had never been decisive. The mighty armies were gripped in a deadlock, and indications pointed to this deadlock being maintained until spring, when, with the disappearance of fierce snowstorms and the breaking up of the terrific cold, a decisive battle might be fought.
This was the situation up to date, when Hal and Chester, with the troop of cavalry, set out on a reconnaissance of the enemy's position on the first day of January, 1915.
Surprised at the sudden fusillade, Hal and Chester drew taut the reins with their left hands, pulling their horses back on their haunches, while with their right hands they drew their revolvers. Behind them the troop came to an abrupt stop.
From the protection of the sand dunes then came a second volley, more deadly than the first, and four more British cavalrymen hit the ground.
Hal and Chester were inactive no longer.
"Forward!" cried Hal, and, setting spurs to his horse, he dashed forward, closely followed by Chester and his men.
As the British charged, the small body of Germans—only slightly larger than the British force—broke from their places of concealment and fled. The British rode rapidly after them with loud cries.
Before the enemy could scatter sufficiently to make good their escape, the British horsemen were upon them. Some turned to fight, and were shot down with revolver bullets, while others, who ran, were cut down by the heavy cavalry swords of the English.
To the right a score of Germans, in a body, turned to fight it out. Toward these dashed Hal and Chester, followed by twenty men. Hal, as he rode, emptied his automatic at this little body of the enemy and Chester did likewise. Then, their weapons empty, they were upon them with drawn swords.
A German revolver bullet struck Hal's horse and the animal fell; but by a quick leap Hal avoided being pinned under it, and hurled himself upon the enemy afoot. Quickly Chester checked his horse and springing to the ground dashed to his chum's side. The men behind them also dismounted and prepared to give battle afoot.
The two lads hurled themselves at the enemy without stopping to think. Hal's sword struck up the weapon of a German officer, and before the latter could recover his poise, the lad had run him through. Chester disposed of a second officer equally as rapidly.
From pursuit of the others, the rest of the troop had now returned and completely surrounded the little band of Germans. Hal lowered his sword, and, stepping back a pace, called upon the enemy to surrender.
"Never!" came the reply, followed by the German battle-cry: "Deutschland ueber alles!"
A revolver bullet tore a ragged hole through Hal's cap, and a second one passed just under his left arm.
But now the revolvers of the Germans were all empty, and the fighting continued with swords alone.
Into the very midst of the German squad the two lads hurled themselves. Cutting, slashing, parrying and thrusting, the Germans fought on doggedly. Now a man fell, then another, and still another, but still they would not yield until at last there were left but three. From these, at Hal's command, the British drew back to give them one more chance for life; but they would not take it, and the British closed in again.
"Well," said Chester, a few moments later, "it's all over."
"But they fought well and bravely," said Hal, returning his sword to its scabbard.
He looked around and took an account of his losses. Twelve British soldiers lay dead upon the ground, and a score of others were nursing their wounds—some serious, some only scratches. But there was no time to dress these wounds now. There was other work to do.
"Mount!" cried Hal.
The troop obeyed, and Hal sprang into the saddle of a riderless horse.
His sword flashed forth once more.
"Forward!" he cried.
The little troop set off at a gallop.
To the north could be caught occasional glimpses of the North Sea, as the sand dunes now and then permitted an unobstructed view. The party was at the extreme north of the long battle line that stretched away to the south, clear through Belgium and France.
For perhaps half an hour the troop rode rapidly on, but finally Hal called a halt. He listened attentively. There was no sound to break the stillness, other than the faint boom of heavy guns in the distance, telling that the long-range artillery duel, farther south, was still in progress.
But, as Hal was about to give the word for a further advance, from almost directly ahead, though still some distance away, came the sound of a single pistol shot. Just one shot; that was all. In vain did the lads strain their ears to catch a possible reply to the shot. None came.
Hal ordered his men to advance at a slow trot, and the troop moved forward once more.
Now they came to a woods. They advanced rapidly and the woods became less dense, and the darkness caused by the heavy overhanging trees gave way to more light. Hal again called a halt, and himself rode forward to investigate. Twenty yards ahead he came to a clearing in the woods, stretching out for a possible quarter of a mile.
In the very center of this clearing the lad made out a strange sight. His eyes fell upon a detachment of German troops—about fifty all told—dancing about what Hal finally made out to be a barn.
As Hal looked a sheet of flame sprang up. It was plain to the lad in an instant that the enemy had set the wooden structure afire.
"But why?" he muttered to himself.
The answer was not long coming.
From the barn, through a crack between the boards, issued a cloud of smoke, and even above the yells of the dancing Germans Hal made out the report of a revolver. One of the Germans stopped his antics and toppled to the ground to rise no more.
"Great Scott!" cried Hal aloud. "They are burning him up!"
Jerking his horse about, he dashed back to his men and again placed himself at their head. Chester ranged himself alongside.
In a few brief words Hal explained what he had seen, and then cried to his men:
At a gallop the British covered the distance to the clearing, and then dashed toward the enemy as fast as their horses could go. As the sound of galloping hoofs was borne to the ears of the enemy, they stopped their dancing about the barn and fell into line to beat back the British.
The first line threw themselves to the ground. The second line fell to their knees, their rifles pointing over their prostrate comrades, while above them protruded the weapons of the third line, standing erect.
At a shouted word of command from Hal the British cavalry scattered, and bore down on the enemy from three directions. Here and there a rider dropped to the ground as a German bullet found its mark; but in spite of these losses and the withering German fire, the rest dashed on.
Right up to the muzzles of the German rifles the British charged, and leaning over their horses did terrible havoc among the enemy with downward sweeps of their heavy swords. They rode their horses right in among them, the hoofs of the chargers trampling the foe to death. Some sprang to their feet and darted toward the rear, only to encounter the British troopers who had ridden around behind them.
The engagement was short and decisive. Soon the majority of the Germans lay dead upon the ground, and at a cry of "Surrender!" from Chester, the rest now threw down their arms.
But the British had not escaped without great loss. Exposed to the fire of the enemy as they had charged upon the solid triple line of rifles, many had fallen. Less than half the original troop now remained, and of these at least half were wounded, though none seriously.
During the fight the flames that had enveloped the barn had gained great headway and were now raging fiercely. Hal looked quickly about for some sign of the man whom he knew had been within. He believed that the man must have come forth, when he was aware that assistance was at hand, for he realized that to remain in the burning structure would have probably meant death.
But in the troop he saw no sign of a stranger; nor had Chester nor any of the men seen anyone leave the barn.
"Great Scott! He'll burn to death in there!" Hal cried.
"Well, why didn't the big chump come out?" said Chester.
"Maybe he was hit by a bullet and killed," said Hal.
"Yes; or perhaps he is wounded, and unable to drag himself out," said Chester.
"By Jove!" said Hal. "I never thought of that!"
Quickly he unstrapped his sword belt and drew off his coat.
"What are you going to do?" cried Chester in alarm.
"I'm going in after him," replied Hal grimly.
"But you'll be killed!" expostulated Chester. "You couldn't live in that seething mass of flame!"
"Nevertheless, I am going to try and bring him out," said Hal quietly.
He drew his handkerchief from his pocket, and quickly wetting it from his canteen, tied it over his mouth and nose. Then, brushing aside the protests of Chester and the men, he plunged through the door of the burning building.
Inside he could dimly make out his surroundings. Quickly he scanned the floor for a sight of the occupant, but saw no sign of him. Then, at one side of the barn he made out a ladder, leading to a loft. He ran to it quickly, and as quickly mounted it to the floor above. Once more he turned his eyes upon the floor and peered about.
The heat was intense, and the lad now got his breath with difficulty, so dense was the smoke. He likewise realized that the floor, already blazing, must give way in a few moments, in which event he would be buried in the fiery ruins.
Glancing quickly about he saw there was no window nor opening from which he could jump. He must go out by the way he had come in.
Suddenly his eye lighted upon an object on the floor at the far end of the barn. Quickly he ran toward it and stooped over. The object was a figure of a man, lying upon his face, apparently unconscious. The lad wasted no time in thought. Exerting his utmost strength, he succeeded in hoisting the limp body across his shoulder.
Carrying his human burden he staggered to the ladder and began his descent. It was slow work, for the lad was near exhaustion. He realized that a slip would probably mean death, and in spite of the fact that he realized the necessity for haste, descended slowly.
At last his feet touched the bottom, and turning toward the open door he staggered on.
As he reached the open door the barn behind him collapsed with a terrible crash; but before he lapsed into unconsciousness he saw the face of the man he carried.
"Anderson!" he cried, and tumbled over in a dead faint.
CAPTAIN HARRY ANDERSON.
When Hal returned to consciousness he lay upon the hard ground and Chester was bending over him. Shifting his position slightly the lad saw what was left of his troop standing idly about. At the same moment he felt a hand grasp his and heard a well-known voice exclaim:
"I owe my life to you, Hal. It seems that you bob up wherever you are needed most."
Hal turned and gazed at the speaker. He was Captain Harry Anderson, of His British Majesty's Royal Dragoons, whom the lad had last seen in the hands of the Germans. Then the fight, the burning barn, and his recognition of Anderson just before he had lost consciousness, all came back to him in a flash, and he pressed the hand that grasped his.
"Lieutenant—I mean Captain Anderson!" he exclaimed. "I thought you were safe in the hands of the Germans."
The lad arose slowly to his feet, supported by the captain's arm. He staggered a trifle; but, after inhaling a few breaths of the cold, invigorating air, was soon himself again.
"And I," said Captain Anderson, answering Hal's exclamation, "thought you also were safe in the hands of the Germans."
"Well," said Hal, with a faint smile, "it seems that the enemy did wrong to believe they had any of us safely."
"It does, indeed," the captain smiled back; "but come, tell me how you escaped. I have asked Chester, but he has been so worried about you that he has failed to do so."
"We haven't time now," replied Hal. "We are on a reconnaissance, and must proceed immediately."
"It will be unnecessary," replied Anderson dryly. "I have just come from that way and am in a position to tell you, or General French, either, for that matter, all you desire to know."
"Are you sure?" asked Hal.
"Positive," replied the captain briefly.
"In that event," said Hal, "we may as well return, for we shall be wasting time and possibly sacrificing men, to linger here longer."
He turned to his men. "Mount!" he ordered.
The troop sprang to the saddle. Ordering them to face about, the lad commanded:
The troop set off at a quick trot, Captain Anderson on a spare horse riding between Hal and Chester at their head.
"Now," said the captain, "you can tell me about yourselves as we ride along."
The two lads did so, and when he learned that the lads had seen active service in the eastern theater of war, the captain was greatly surprised.
"And still I shouldn't be surprised at anything you do or may do," he said. "You see I know you well."
"Come now, captain," said Chester, "tell us something of your own experiences."
"Well," said Anderson, "I have had about as strenuous a time as you can imagine, and I have been at the threshold of death more than once."
"Let's hear about it!" exclaimed Hal.
"You remember, of course," began the captain, "how we were captured, and how badly I was wounded? You remember, also, that we were separated in the German camp?"
The lads signified that they did, and the captain continued:
"All right, then. It seems that my wounds were more serious than was at first supposed. A fever set in, and my German physician told me that I was a dead man. I laughed at him. I told him I had too much work to do to die yet awhile. He wanted to know what that work was and I told him it was killing Germans. This made him angry, and—"
"I don't wonder," said Hal dryly.
"It's a wonder he didn't administer a dose of poison right then," said Chester.
"Yes," continued the captain, "it made him mad, and he informed me that I might as well die, because if I didn't I would be shot anyhow."
"Shot!" ejaculated Chester. "What for?"
"That's what I asked him. He replied that I had been declared a spy, and that I was to be put to death as soon as I was well enough to face a firing squad. He said they didn't want to do it while I was so ill."
"Very considerate of them," commented Hal.
"Just what I told the surgeon. Well, naturally, with this sentence hanging over my head I didn't get well any quicker than I had to. Every day I could feel myself getting better, but I pretended to get worse. I contracted all the ailments you ever heard of, and I was a sore puzzle to the surgeon. He had several others look me over, but they couldn't agree on what was the matter with me, although they did agree I was a very sick man and had only a few days to linger on this earth. Yet all this time, mind you, I was shamming and getting better every day."
"You must be a pretty good actor," said Chester.
"Well, I'm not so bad," replied Captain Anderson modestly. "But to continue. I finally became afflicted with St. Vitus' dance, and later with a queer ailment that wouldn't allow me to keep still. I'd hop out of bed and wander about, with the surgeons or nurses on my heels, and then I'd fall down in a fit. This continued for several days, and finally they became tired of following me about, figuring, I suppose, that a man in my condition couldn't go very far, anyhow."
"This was what I had been waiting for, but I didn't put the plan I had decided upon into execution at once. I waited for a good chance. At last, it came. The surgeon was a young chap and smooth shaven, which was lucky for me. Also he was about my build, and there was some slight resemblance between us. This day he was with me alone. Not a soul was present save us two. As he turned his back to look into his medicine case, I struck him heavily in the back of the neck.
"He toppled over without a sound. Quickly I exchanged clothes with him and put his body in my bed, after which I picked up his case and walked boldly out of the hospital."
"Great Scott!" cried Chester. "You had plenty of nerve!"
"Well," continued the captain, "no one interfered with me and I walked about at will. I kept edging closer and closer to the firing line, figuring that I would make a break for liberty at the first opportunity. It came sooner than I expected.
"There had been a big battle, and all surgeons and nurses were rushed to the front to look after the wounded. I went along. The battle was over, and we immediately went forth to attend to the wounded. Again I went along, only this time I didn't stop going. When I figured I was far enough ahead I broke into a run.
"But I wasn't to get away so easily. A surgeon who had been near me saw me take to my heels, and instead of attending to the wounded as he should have done, he raised an alarm. Immediately a troop of horsemen dashed after me. I managed to reach a little woods directly ahead of me in safety and climbed up a tree. The Germans were unable to find me, so when night came I descended from my perch and continued my journey.
"Soon after daylight I came upon a house, where I asked for food. I still wore the German surgeon's uniform, and here this worked to my disadvantage."
"How was that?" asked Chester.
"It seems that the family were Belgians, and I hadn't thought of that. They gave me food and drink all right, but they spilled a little drug of some kind in the drink. The next thing I knew I was bound and gagged and was looking down the muzzle of a revolver held by a ferocious-looking Belgian peasant. He informed me my time had come. I told him I was English, and explained my capture and escape. He listened patiently, but when I finished he informed me that he wasn't going to take any chances. I had just five minutes to live, he said."
"Great Scott!" cried Hal. "That was pretty close. How did you escape?"
"More by good luck than anything else," was the reply. "There was some kind of a noise behind the peasant and he turned to investigate. At that moment I kicked out with my foot and the toe of my boot caught him squarely under the chin. He went down with a thump. I don't know whether I killed him or not."
"But how did you free your hands?" asked Hal.
"Well, I had quite a little trouble, but I managed to drag my chair over to the fire, and held my hands over the blaze until the cord was burned."
"And didn't you burn your hands?"
"A little," was the quiet response; "but it had to be done. Then I untied my legs and removed the gag, after which I took to my heels as fast as I could. I didn't care for any more Belgian hospitality to one who wore a German uniform.
"In the road I came upon a dead British soldier. I took his uniform and discarded that of the German surgeon. I now began to feel that I was reasonably safe, and I lay down at night and slept like a log, in spite of the cold.
"I was awakened a little before daylight by the sounds of approaching footsteps. I saw the marchers before they saw me, but still not quite quick enough. They were the same men from whose hands you rescued me only a short while ago.
"I had been confined in that hospital so long that I was still somewhat weak and I couldn't run fast enough to get away from them. I tried, but it was no use. Then I took a couple of shots at them, and got two or three, I think. I'm not sure, though. Anyhow, I saw this barn ahead, and dashed into it, figuring that I might possibly hold them off.
"When they set fire to the barn, and I realized I couldn't get out, I gave up. I did shoot one through a crack, but a moment later a shot came through and caught me in the side. That's the last I remember until I returned to consciousness and learned that you had saved me."
"Well," said Chester, "you certainly have had an eventful time."
"There is no question about that," Hal agreed. "But how do you feel now, captain?"
"Tip top. And you?"
The troop continued at a trot, and Hal now believed that they were out of danger—that there was no likelihood of encountering a force of the enemy—and turned to his friends, remarking:
"Well, we might as well—Hello!"
He broke off suddenly and checked the pace of his horse.
"What's up?" demanded Chester, doing likewise.
For answer Hal pointed down the road. A man was approaching them at a dead run.
ANTHONY STUBBS, WAR CORRESPONDENT.
"Now, what in the name of all that's wonderful do you suppose is the matter with him?" ejaculated Chester.
Hal shrugged his shoulders expressively.
"You've got me," he admitted; "but by the look of him he's not running for fun."
"Right," agreed Captain Anderson; "but whatever is on his trail will have to travel pretty lively to catch him. Look at him come!"
As the stranger dashed toward them, head hanging and arms working like pistons, the three friends suddenly broke into a loud laugh. A more comical-looking specimen of humanity would be hard to imagine. The friends looked him over carefully as he came on.
Large he was, there could be no mistake about that, but he seemed to be about as wide as he was long. Hal and Chester took in his dimensions with an appraising eye. Stout and chubby, he must have weighed all of 200 pounds, and his height, the lads saw, could not be more than five feet four.
As he tore down the road as fast as his peculiar build would permit, he did not once raise his head, and therefore did not perceive the British troops in his path. The lads could see that his face was red, and that he was puffing and snorting from lack of breath. Not perceiving the men who barred his path, he would have dashed right in among them had not Hal brought him to a sudden stop with a word of command.
"Halt!" he cried.
With a gasp of amazement the man halted and gazed at the British as though bewildered. One look he gave them and then exclaimed in a shrill piping voice, in English:
"You are surrounded! Run, Anthony, run!"
He suited the action to the word, and, turning in his tracks, ran, puffing and blowing, in the direction from which he had come.
In spite of his merriment at this comical sight, Hal put spurs to his horse and dashed after him. The others did likewise. Hearing the sounds of pursuit, the little stout man redoubled his efforts and puffed on like an engine.
Hal ranged his horse alongside of him, and, restraining his laughter, shouted in a stern tone:
"Halt! or you are a dead man!"
The little man needed no further warning. He stopped so quickly that Hal rode on beyond him, while those behind were able to check their horses barely in time to keep from riding over him.
Hal leaped to the ground, and stood over the stranger, who lay panting on the earth where he had fallen the moment he stopped running.
"Who are you?" demanded Hal. "What are you doing here?"
The little man struggled in vain to reply; but he gasped so wildly for breath that for a moment he was unable to utter a word. Then, as he still panted, his eye fell upon the uniforms of the British troopers. He was on his feet in a moment.
"I thought you were Germans!" he exclaimed. "Great Caesar's ghost! I didn't think I could run another step, but I did; and here I was running from you fellows. What do you mean by chasing an American citizen down the road?"
He paused and glared at Hal wrathfully. The latter could control his merriment no longer, and burst into a hearty laugh. The others did likewise.
The little man drew himself up indignantly.
"I say!" he exclaimed, "what are you fellows laughing at me for?"
Hal ceased laughing, and his face took on a stern expression.
"Who are you?" he asked briefly. "A spy, eh?"
"A spy! Me a spy?" exclaimed the man. "Great Caesar's ghost, no; I'm no spy."
"Who are you, then?" demanded Hal.
The stranger drew himself up to his full height—and he was still almost as broad as he was long, folded his arms and said proudly:
"I am Anthony Stubbs, sir, war correspondent of the New York Gazette, sir; and I am here in search of news."
"News, eh?" said Hal. "It is my belief that you are in search of information to turn over to the Germans."
"You are mistaken, sir," replied Anthony, somewhat uncomfortably, the lads could see. "I assure you on the honor of a Stubbs that I am what I represent myself to he."
Hal could keep a straight face no longer. So comical was the little man in his ruffled dignity that the boy was forced to laugh.
"All right, Mr. Stubbs," he said at last, "I believe you; but tell me, what were you running from when you bumped into us?"
"I wasn't running, sir," was the reply. "I heard a large force of the enemy in a field just out of the woods, and I was merely hurrying to a place where I could get a look at them."
"Well, you were hurrying at a pretty good gait," said Hal. "But tell me, is the enemy in force?"
"I didn't see any of them," said Stubbs, "but by the sounds of their horses' hoofs, I should say they were in force, sir."
"Where?" demanded Hal, somewhat anxiously.
"Straight ahead, sir," replied Stubbs, pointing down the road.
"We thank you, Mr. Stubbs," said Hal, "and we shall now leave you to gather your news while we proceed to reconnoiter."
"And leave me here?" cried Stubbs.
"Why, certainly. You are paid to get the news for your paper, are you not?"
"But I'm not paid to be shot by the Germans," replied Stubbs vehemently. "Take me with you."
How much truth there was in Stubbs' account of a large force of the enemy approaching, Hal, of course, did not know. But the little man appeared so greatly worried that Hal was moved to motion him to one of the spare horses, which had followed the troop.
Stubbs clambered into the saddle with difficulty, and, once astride the animal, he maneuvered so as to get right in among the British cavalrymen, who smiled tolerantly as they surrounded him. Then, at a word from Hal, the troop moved forward at a slow trot.
They rode for perhaps fifteen minutes, and so far Hal had seen no signs of an enemy, nor was there any evidence that a large force had passed that way recently. He turned to Stubbs.
"I see no sign of the enemy," he said. "Where were they?"
Stubbs motioned to the left.
"Beyond the woods, there, in an open field," he replied. "I didn't see them, but I heard 'em, all right. They are probably lying in ambush, and we shall all be killed."
Hal halted his men, and, dismounting, plunged into the woods to investigate. At the edge of the woods he came upon a field, and there he saw the "enemy" or at least what had caused Stubbs' fright. He broke into a loud laugh, and hurried back.
"I have found the enemy," he said quietly. "Come, men, I shall show them to you."
All dismounted, and Hal led the way, Stubbs following protestingly. At the edge of the woods Hal stopped, and, taking Stubbs by the arm, led him forward.
"There," he said, pointing, "is the enemy; and I don't believe they chased you very far."
Stubbs looked and gasped, then mumbled:
"I wonder, I wonder—"
For the objects upon which his eyes rested, the movements of which had sent him scurrying down the road in fear for his life, were nothing more than a drove of about a dozen sheep, which, thrashing about in the field, had led Stubbs to suspect the presence of the Germans.
Stubbs, after the one look, turned and strode majestically to where the horses had been left. The laughter of the troopers rankled in his ears and his face was a dull red. He was mounted when Hal, Chester and the others returned.
"Stubbs," said Hal, as they rode forward again, "you could have whipped all those fellows yourself."
"Well," replied Stubbs, "they might have been Germans."
He lapsed into silence.
Night was fast falling when the British came in sight of a little house, and Hal decided that they would stop there and commandeer something to eat. Accordingly they rode up to the door, where Hal, before dismounting, hailed those within with a shout.
A woman appeared in the door, and learning what the British required, invited them to dismount and enter. This they did, and soon sat down to a substantial repast, Stubbs with them. The war correspondent now became talkative, and entertained with an account of his adventures.
Upon learning that Hal and Chester were American lads, the little man's pleasure knew no bounds.
"I knew it!" he exclaimed. "I knew it the minute I set eyes on you."
"Perhaps that is why you were in such a hurry to get back down the road," said Chester.
"No, no," was the reply. "I knew you were Americans, but I feared, for the moment, that you might be fighting with the Germans."
"Well," said Chester shortly, "I don't imagine you will find many Americans in the German ranks."
"I want to tell you boys," said Stubbs, "that I appreciate your saving me from falling into the hands of the enemy, where I might have been kept a prisoner for years."
"We didn't save you from anything," said Hal.
"I know, I know," said Stubbs, "but you might have done so. I want to tell you that I appreciate it and that Anthony Stubbs is your friend for life; and the friendship of such a man is not to be laughed at."
The little man's face was so serious that the lads even forbore to smile.
"We thank you for your friendship," said Hal quietly, "and I assure you that it will not be laughed at. Friendships are not to be treated lightly."
"I knew you would see it that way," was the response. "If at any time I can be of service to you, command me."
He arose and made them the bow of a cavalier.
The meal finished, Hal pushed back his chair and arose.
"We might as well be on our way," he said. "Come."
They left the room and made their way to the place where they had tied their horses. Hal started back with a cry of surprise.
The horses were not there, but upon the ground, a bullet wound in his forehead, lay the man whom Hal had left to guard them.
Hal bent over the dead British soldier; then, arising, turned to Chester.
"He was shot from ambush," he said quietly. "He didn't even have time to draw his revolver. See, it is still in its holster."
"And, if we don't get away from here immediately, we are likely to be shot, too," replied Chester.
"Chester is right," agreed Captain Anderson. "Come, Hal, we had better be moving."
Hal nodded, and gave a brief word of command. Immediately the little troop of cavalrymen, afoot now, moved slowly down the road in the darkness. They went forward briskly and the hand of every man rested on his weapon, for the mysterious death of their companion had been a warning they could not but heed. There was no telling what foes might lurk in the blackness of the bushes that lined either side of the highway.
Anthony Stubbs, war correspondent, had been unable to force himself into the center of the British troops, and was now bringing up the rear. Now and then he tried to insert himself between the men in front of him, but all such attempts had proved futile. The British did not intend to lose their formation in order to allow him to reach a place of comparative safety.
As Stubbs stumbled along in the darkness, he cast furtive glances over his shoulder and peered intently into the bushes, first on one side and then on the other; and as he plodded on he mumbled continually to himself.
Came a sudden shrill cry from the left—a wild screech that, for the moment, the lads were unable to identify.
Hal immediately called a halt and all stopped to listen. It came again, a shrill, piercing cry; and with it Anthony Stubbs hurled himself violently upon the men ahead of him and dashed through the center of the troop. Beside the two lads he stopped, panting. He felt more secure there.
"What was that?" he cried in a shrill voice.
The lads did not reply, but still stood listening. A third time the cry rang out from the woods. Then Chester laughed aloud.
"It's a cat!" he exclaimed.
"A cat!" echoed Stubbs.
"Yes, cats are plentiful in the war zone. Necessity has taken the edge off their skin-deep docility, and many of them resemble hyenas more than the domestic pets they used to be."
"Then there is nothing to fear," said Stubbs, drawing a breath of relief.
"No," replied Chester, "there is nothing to fear so long as we are many, but two or three of them would not hesitate to attack a single man. In fact, they have done so before now."
"What! pet cats attack a man?" exclaimed Stubbs.
"Yes, and from what I have heard, they are pretty tough customers. I heard that one man, in an encounter with four of the animals, had one of his eyes scratched out and was otherwise badly clawed before he could shoot them. Half starved, they are perfectly wild."
"Let's get away from here, then," he exclaimed.
At a command from Hal, the troop moved off again and Stubbs stuck closely between the two lads.
They had progressed perhaps half a mile further when Stubbs felt his hat suddenly lifted from his head, and at the same moment the sharp crack of a rifle shattered the stillness of the night.
With a shout of terror the war correspondent threw himself to the ground and, like an ostrich, seemed to try to bury his head in the hard road.
Hal turned quickly and, taking quick aim with his revolver, fired into the bushes, a little below the spot where the rifle had flashed fire. A scream of pain rewarded this shot.
Without waiting to ascertain whether there was more than one of the enemy, Hal shouted a command, and the British cavalrymen poured a volley into the woods, aiming low and scattering their fire. Loud guttural exclamations and shouts were the answer to the fusillade.
Immediately Hal shouted:
"To the ground, men! Down quick!"
He suited the action to the word, as did Chester, Captain Anderson and all of the troop. They did not fall a moment too soon, for there now came from the bushes a scattering and withering volley that would have done terrible execution among the little troop of British, but for the fact that they were beneath the line of fire.
"Up and into the bushes!" cried Hal.
A moment and the British were screened from the fire of the enemy on the opposite side of the road, while from their shelter they poured a fire in the direction of rifle flashes across the highway.
Peering from behind the small tree where he had taken shelter, Chester saw a prostrate form in the middle of the road. He thought he recognized it but was not sure. He turned and called to Hal:
"Is Stubbs with you?"
"No," was the reply. "Where is he?"
"I'll have him in a minute," was Chester's brief response.
Throwing himself to the ground, he crawled from behind his shelter and wormed his way along the ground toward the prostrate form in the road, the figure of Stubbs.
The war correspondent lay as though dead, making no move. The lad, keeping as close to the ground as possible, so as to avoid the German bullets flying overhead, drew closer; and, while the lad did not know it, three other forms also were approaching closely in spite of the hail of lead.
But these latter were making their way through the tree-tops, jumping lightly from bough to bough. Silent as shadows they were, but their eyes glared a fiery red and their tails switched angrily.
They were cats.
Half-starved as they were, they had trailed the troop. They had been in the war zone long enough for their feline intelligence to tell them that where men rode there was likely to be food. More than one dead man, left dead upon the field, had fallen a victim to their claws and teeth.
So now, as Chester crept toward the inert form of the war correspondent, the cats, not perceiving this new enemy—so intent were they upon the body of Stubbs—also approached quietly. Two of the animals were now directly above the body of Stubbs, and stood switching their tails on the limb of a large tree that overhung the roadway. The third was close behind.
Snarling, with bared claws and outstretched legs, the first cat leaped. In a moment the others followed.
Stubbs had been lying upon his face, and all three of the hungry animals lighted squarely upon his back. Instantly the war correspondent lost all resemblance to a dead man, and the man and cats became a panting, struggling, rolling heap.
As Stubbs cried out in alarm, Chester—still some distance away—raised his head and quickly realized the struggle that was taking place. Throwing caution to the winds, he sprang to his feet and with a shout charged the feline foes.
The war correspondent was fighting off his biting, clawing assailants as best he could; but the very fact that the cats clung to his back was a point in their favor. One buried its sharp teeth in the back of Stubbs's neck and the war correspondent raised a howl of anguish.
As if by magic now the firing from the Germans' side of the road ceased. Hal was unaware of the reason for this, but, suspecting a ruse, he ordered his men to cease firing also until he could determine the cause of the enemy's unexpected silence.
On the German side of the road dark faces peered from between the trees and hoarse guttural exclamations issued from these faces as they watched Stubbs struggle with the cats. While the Germans would not go to Stubbs' assistance, nevertheless they would not shoot him down as he struggled with his four-footed enemies.
The British also advanced to their side of the road and watched the struggle.
Thus, by mutual consent, a truce had been declared.
It was at this moment that Chester came to Stubbs' rescue; but before he could take a hand in the fray the figure of a large German, with leveled revolver, accosted the lad.
"Back," he exclaimed in a deep voice. "Let the little man fight it out. This is rare sport. We will declare a truce until the struggle is over. Do you agree?"
Chester considered quickly. He knew that the German officer would be as good as his word, and he knew also that Stubbs, if given time, would dispose of his three enemies.
"I agree," he said, and made his way back to Hal, where he told him of the strange request and his answer.
As the little war correspondent still struggled with his feline assailants the Germans, from their side of the woods, gradually came out from among the trees to get a closer view of the struggle. Unconsciously also the British left their shelter and crowded about to get a better view.
With his right hand Stubbs succeeded in grasping the cat that had bitten him by the back of the neck, and in spite of the animal's frantic clawing and scratching he raised it in the air and brought its head against the ground violently. The cat lay still.
But while Stubbs was thus engaged with one of the enemy, the other two were busy. Stubbs had now jumped to his feet, and one of the animals had succeeded in crawling to his shoulder, where it was making desperate efforts to reach the war correspondent's eyes with its claws. Stubbs protected his eyes with one upraised arm, and groped blindly for the cat.
At last he grasped it securely by the neck and raised it aloft; the other now was biting so fiercely at the back of his neck that he did not take time to dash the first one to the ground, but still holding it aloft with his left hand sought to pluck the other away with his right.
He was unsuccessful in this, for he could not obtain a good hold on the last cat. With a cry of rage he suddenly dashed the cat he held aloft to the ground, and then threw himself to the ground backward, pinioning the cat beneath him.
The cat screamed angrily, and succeeded in squirming from beneath Stubbs; but instead of running away it launched itself directly at Stubbs' face. Stubbs threw up his arm just in time and caught the animal by the neck. Then he walked over to a tree, the Germans allowing him to pass, and dashed the animal's head against the trunk.
The fight was over. The truce was ended.
Quickly the British and German soldiers returned to their shelter on opposite sides of the road. Five minutes passed. Then a British soldier who had exposed himself tumbled over, struck by a stray German bullet.
The battle in the dark was on again.
THE FIGHT IN THE WOODS.
Chester had drawn Stubbs to shelter behind a large tree, and now, bending over the little war correspondent, sought to stop the flow of blood from his wounds. Stubbs was not seriously injured, although he had been badly scratched and bitten in the back of the neck.
"You are a fine bunch, you are!" exploded Stubbs when Chester announced that he had dressed the wounds as well as he could. "Wanted to see those cats chew me up, didn't you?"
"You are a brave man, Mr. Stubbs," replied Chester. "You have accomplished a feat you may well be proud of the rest of your life. It isn't every man who has the chance of distinguishing himself by slaying three wild cats single handed."
"Were they wild cats?" asked Stubbs in surprise.
"Well, they were cats and they certainly were wild," replied Chester. "Yes, sir, you are a brave man."
"I know that," said Stubbs, "but just the same you fellows should have pitched in and helped me out."
"Had we not been struck motionless by your great display of courage, we might have done so," replied Chester, smiling to himself. "But surely you would not have had us rob you of the glory?"
"Well, no, I wouldn't have wished that," answered Stubbs. "But just the same when a man is attacked by a bunch of wild cats, the first thing he thinks of is help."
"But tell me, Mr. Stubbs," said Chester, "what were you doing in the road in the first place?"
"Why," muttered the little man, somewhat confused, "I was seeking to make out the number of the enemy so that I might tell you whether we were strong enough to defeat them."
"That's all right; I just wanted to know."
Mr. Stubbs peered out from behind the tree, and as he did so a German bullet went whizzing by. Mr. Stubbs hurriedly threw himself upon the ground.
"What's the matter?" demanded Chester, although he knew well enough.
"A slight illness," replied Mr. Stubbs. "I am somewhat faint. I fear I overexerted myself in my struggle with the wild cats."
He lay there behind the tree, stretched out at full length. Nor could he be induced to get to his feet.
Slowly the last half of a moon arose, giving a little light but making the shadows deeper.
Bullets whistled through the trees at regular intervals now, and wherever a man exposed himself the German sharpshooters ran him quickly back to cover or shot him down.
But the British, excellent marksmen that they were, in spite of their losses were having the better of the encounter. Wherever a German arm or leg was exposed, there a British bullet struck. Consequently the firing soon became desultory and then ceased altogether.
Taking advantage of this lull, Chester made a dash, and succeeded in reaching a tree behind which Hal and Captain Anderson had taken shelter.
"What are we going to do?" he demanded. "Surely we can't stay here much longer."
"Well, what shall we do?" demanded Hal. "At the first break the Germans will shoot us down."
"We must do something," replied Chester. "Wait a moment"—as Hal turned away—"I have an idea."
"What is it?" demanded Hal.
"Yes, let's have it," said Captain Anderson.
"Well, why can't a few of us—say ten men—crawl toward the rear, and, when out of sight, make a detour and catch the Germans from the rear? Those who are left here will fire only at intervals, so that when we open from the rear the enemy will believe that the major part of our men are there. Naturally they will present their strongest front there. Then you can take them by surprise from this side."
"By Jove!" ejaculated Captain Anderson. "That's not a half-bad idea."
"It's a good idea," said Hal. "It shall be acted upon at once. Now, who shall go and who shall stay here?"
"Well," said Chester, "as it was I who suggested the plan, I guess I am the one to head those who go. Detail ten men, Hal, and I'll start at once."
The men placed at his disposal Chester made ready to go; but, before he left, he called to Hal:
"By the way, when you leave here don't forget Stubbs. He's lying behind a tree over there," pointing.
"I'll get him," Hal called back, "if I have to carry him on my shoulder."
Dropping to all fours Chester and his ten men soon disappeared in the distance.
Feeling sure that he was out of sight in the thick underbrush, Chester jumped to his feet. The ten men did likewise, and turning to the left all dashed off through the brambles as fast and as quietly as possible. Among the bushes it was very dark, and for this reason the little party was unable to make much speed; but, nevertheless, they pushed on as rapidly as possible.
Finally, feeling that he had gone far enough, Chester turned once more sharply to the left, and pushed on in the way he had come.
At length they came again to the road, and, making sure that there was no German in sight, Chester silently led his men across the highway to the German side. Here they pushed straight on for a considerable distance, until the lad felt certain that they had penetrated to the rear of the German line. He then led his men sharply to the left again.
If his calculations were correct he must now be behind the enemy.
The little band of British crept forward silently now and more slowly. It was ticklish work, and not a soldier but recognized the fact as, very cautiously, they pressed on.
Chester halted abruptly. Directly ahead, perhaps fifty yards, he made out the form of a single figure. Silently the lad crept closer. It was as he had expected. The man was a German, and undoubtedly one of the force which had so recently attacked them.
Chester threw his men out in a thin line, the distance between each man being perhaps twenty yards.
"Fire when I give the word, and not until then," he ordered. "And make every shot count. If the enemy rushes us give way as slowly as possible; but if they try a hide-and-seek game, keep your positions behind shelter as much as you can."
The men repeated this order to show that they understood, and all crept forward. Three minutes of silent crawling and they came within full view of the German line. It was still facing the road, across which were the British. In the faint moonlight the entire force was clearly exposed to Chester's party.
When Chester believed that he had approached near enough, he raised his hand for a halt. Quickly each man concealed himself behind the largest tree he could find.
So far they had not been discovered.
Chester glanced quickly around. Everything was ready.
Drawing a bead upon the German soldier who was nearest, Chester at last gave the command his men had been eagerly awaiting:
The eleven British rifles cracked out as one, and as many of the enemy toppled over, for the British, unseen, had approached so close that a miss was practically an impossibility.
Immediately confusion reigned among the enemy. Taken completely by surprise, as Chester had intended they should be, the Germans lost all signs of formation. Before they could recover their scattered wits and turn upon their new foes, or even seek new shelter, the British had poured in a second volley.
But the German officers, displaying great skill and bravery, soon had their men under control, and turned upon the little party of British in the rear.
Chester perceived what was about to happen and cried out to his men:
"They are going to rush us! Pick 'em off as they come!"
The Germans, at a command, sprang forward, and the British fired full in their faces.
The Germans reeled, and for a moment it seemed they would seek shelter once more; but they rallied and came on.
But, as they came, a volley was poured into them from the rear. Hal's men, on the opposite side of the road, had advanced quickly, and again the Germans had been surprised.
Caught thus between two fires, and unable to tell the number of their foe, the Germans were at a great disadvantage. Nevertheless, outnumbering the British as they did, they fought bravely, jumping quickly behind the nearest trees, determined to sell their lives as dearly as possible.
When Hal heard the first sounds of firing, and realized that Chester and his men had come into position and opened on the enemy, he quickly ordered his men forward. He himself stopped for a moment to seek out Stubbs, for fear that the little American might be left behind and fall into the hands of the enemy.
"Quick, Stubbs!" he cried. "Get up, man, and come on!"
Stubbs scrambled to his feet.
"Where are you going?" he demanded in some anxiety.
"After the Germans," replied Hal. "We are attacking them from two sides. Come on!"
Stubbs drew back.
"We'll all be killed!" he exclaimed.
"Never mind that," said Hal impatiently. "Are you coming with me or are you going to stay here?"
"Oh, I'll go," said Stubbs mournfully, "but I know I'll never get back to America alive. The New York Gazette is about to lose its best man."
Still mumbling to himself he followed Hal.
The British under Hal and Captain Anderson broke from their shelter and crossed the road to the enemy's side on a dead run, their smoking rifles dealing out death on every hand as they advanced.
When Hal's men had attacked, Chester found it unnecessary to retreat, as he had figured upon doing, and the rain of hail continued to pour upon the enemy from all sides.
The British gradually closed on the enemy, fewer now by half than they had been a few moments ago, until the circle had narrowed to within a few yards of the enemy.
In spite of the semi-darkness the aim of the British cavalrymen had been remarkable, and wherever and whenever a German showed himself, in nine cases out of ten he fell to rise no more. The losses of the British had been heavy, but not so great as those of the foe.
Now, at a command from Hal, the fire of the British ceased. Then the lad, raising his voice to its highest pitch, shouted:
THE MISSION SUCCESSFUL.
"Never!" came back the reply of the German officer in command.
Hal, who had stepped slightly from the shelter of a big tree, jumped back quickly as a bullet lifted his cap from his head.
"Too bad," he said quietly. "I would have avoided further loss of life. However, if they will have it, give it to them, men."
The fight had raged, at intervals, all during the night. Now the first faint signs of dawn appeared and a little while later it became light.
From his shelter Hal took in the situation about him. Here and there dead bodies strewed the woods, Germans and British alike. Wounded men also lay upon the ground.
Hal now decided that the battle had lasted long enough. With a cry to his men he dashed suddenly forward, the troopers following close behind. Chester, at his end of the field, perceiving this movement, also led his handful of men forward.
Some fell, as they dashed into the very face of the German fire, but the bulk of the British reached their goal, where, outnumbering the Germans now, they soon disposed of them. When all were down but a mere handful, a German lieutenant, the sole surviving officer, threw down his revolver and raised his hands in token of surrender.
Hal drew a great breath of pure relief and advanced. He was within ten feet of the German officer, when the latter suddenly sprang forward. His sword again leaped forth, and he made a furious thrust at the lad.
Although surprised at this attack, Hal was not caught completely off his guard. With a single movement his own sword leaped from its scabbard and parried the thrust of the German officer.
Chester took a sudden step forward to interfere, but Hal, perceiving his friend's move out of the corner of his eye, cried out:
"Stand back, Chester. I'll dispose of this cowardly dog alone."
But the German was an accomplished swordsman, which Hal was not. True, the lad had had some experience with the sword and had already fought one successful duel; but, in spite of this, he was no match for the more experienced German officer.
The German pressed the lad hard and, secure in the knowledge that he would not be interfered with, he tried his best to run the lad through. Fortunately, however, the lad's blade met his at every thrust. Tiring of this, the German took a step backward, and, raising his sword, grasped it by the point and hurled it at Hal.
The lad escaped being impaled only by a quick spring aside. The German turned to flee, and as he did so, bumped squarely into Anthony Stubbs, who accidentally barred his path at that moment. The two collided with a crash, and were soon rolling about on the ground.
To attack the German officer had been farthest from Stubbs's mind; but the German officer, believing that the little American had barred his path purposely, struck out at him heavily. More by good fortune than anything else, Stubbs evaded the blow by rolling quickly over, and as he did so his right hand accidentally descended upon the German's face.
Stubbs was as greatly surprised as was his opponent, but the latter became furiously angry.
"Hit me, will you!" he cried.
"I didn't do it on purpose!" exclaimed Stubbs, greatly alarmed by the anger of the German.
Quickly he rolled over again, once more escaping by a hair's breadth a heavy blow of the German's fist. Then he arose quickly and started to run; but the German was close behind him.
Realizing that he could not possibly outrun his opponent, Stubbs turned suddenly and dived at the German's legs, crying out as he did so:
"Help! Help! Anthony, you will be killed."
His sudden maneuver had taken the German by surprise, and again the two rolled over and over upon the ground in a tangled heap.
In some unaccountable manner Stubbs was the first to extricate himself, and, absolutely certain that his adversary meant to kill him, he rolled over quickly and sat upon his enemy's breast.
In vain did the German attempt to shake himself free. Stubbs, still crying for help and moaning to himself, was as immovable as the Rock of Gibraltar.
Hal, Chester, Captain Anderson and the British cavalrymen had derived great amusement from this scene, and, as Hal had realized that the German, now unarmed, could not do much harm to the war correspondent, he had let the two fight it out alone.
Now that Stubbs had been returned the victor, greatly to the surprise of all, Hal advanced and induced the little American to relinquish his seat. This the latter did, though not without some trepidation—fearing that the German would attack him again as soon as he could arise—and, when he finally did get upon his feet, he put a respectable distance between himself and his late opponent.
"You fellows are bent on getting me killed," he said, turning to Chester with a frown. "You always help each other, but whenever I am in trouble you leave me to fight it out alone."
"And you always acquit yourself admirably," said Chester, forbearing to smile.
"Well, I'll admit that," returned Stubbs; "but some time I am bound to get the worst of it. Then I suppose you'll laugh."
By this time Hal had the German officer securely bound, and at his command the rest of the enemy still upon their feet also were tied up. Then, with their prisoners in the center, the British once more set out upon their march to the British lines, Stubbs trailing along behind.
Before noon they came within sight of the first British outposts, and soon had passed to safety. Here they procured horses, and made all haste back toward their own division, where they arrived several hours later.
When those of the British troop who had gone forth with the two lads returned to their own regiment, and the lads, with Captain Anderson, took their departure, they raised three lusty cheers for each of the officers in farewell.
The three, accompanied by Stubbs, immediately made their way to the headquarters of General French. Here Hal, Chester and Captain Anderson were at once admitted, but Stubbs was forced to remain without, being told that Sir John French had no time to waste upon war correspondents.
"Well, what do you think of that?" Stubbs ejaculated. "A newspaper man refused admittance! I never heard of such a thing before."
Nevertheless he was forced to cool his heels on the outside until his newly found friends should come out, and this is what he proceeded to do.
General French greeted the two lads with a smile.
"Back so soon?" he exclaimed. "I hardly expected you before to-morrow. And was your mission a success?"
"Well, General," replied Hal, "we didn't go as far as we could have gone. We were fortunate enough to come upon Captain Anderson, who had just escaped from the Germans, and knows more of the situation there than we could possibly have learned. We figured that it was not necessary to sacrifice lives foolishly."
"You did exactly right," replied General French.
He turned to Captain Anderson. "Are the Germans contemplating any new move in the north that you know of?" he asked.
"They are not, sir," was the reply. "I can say that positively. I heard plans while I was in the hospital. The German forces in the west have been drawn upon somewhat heavily to reenforce their troops in the eastern theater of war."
"Do you believe that a new offensive would drive them back?"
"That's a hard question, sir. They are strongly intrenched all along the line, and I should say that unless the offensive were to be pushed to the limit, with some object in view besides merely advancing a mile or two, it would be a needless sacrifice."
General French looked Captain Anderson full in the eye.
"That, sir," he said gravely, "is my idea exactly, which is the reason we have not assumed the offensive long before this. I have been censured for my policy more than once; but I would not sacrifice lives needlessly, and would wait until Lord Kitchener has furnished me with sufficient men before ordering a concerted advance."
Captain Anderson did not reply to this statement, for he knew that no answer was expected. He was, nevertheless, honored by the general's confidence, and pleased to know that his ideas found favor with his commander.
"You gentlemen had all better get a little rest," said General French.
He turned to his desk, littered with maps and papers, signifying that the interview was ended. The three officers drew themselves up to attention, saluted, and left the tent.
Outside they were joined by Anthony Stubbs, who poured into their ears his tale of woe at being refused admission to the general's quarters.
"And where am I to go, now?" he asked.
"Where do you want to go?" asked Hal.
"Why," was the reply, "I want to go where I can get some news for my paper. I want big news—something that the other papers will not get."
"But," said Hal, "you know that, even if you got it, you could not send it to your paper. The censor would see to that."
"Oh, I know that," replied Stubbs, "but if I can get it I'll get it out. You leave that to me."
"Well, Mr. Stubbs," said Hal, "I don't know where you can get it right now, but for to-night I ask you to share our tent. You may fare forth on your quest in the morning."
Mr. Stubbs made a profound bow.
"I thank you," he replied, "and I shall do myself that honor."
Hal turned to Captain Anderson.
"And you, too, Captain," he said, "I hope you will stay the night with us. You can look up your regiment in the morning."
Captain Anderson replied that he would be happy to accept this invitation, and the four immediately went to the quarters provided for the two lads when they had returned to the army from the air flight from Russia.
Here, tired out and almost exhausted, they turned in immediately—in spite of the fact that the sun had not yet sunk below the horizon—and soon all lay snug and comfortable in the arms of Morpheus.
OFF TO THE SOUTH.
The following morning Captain Anderson bade the boys good-by and set out to find his own regiment. Stubbs also said good-by, announcing that he must be moving in his search for news. He had been given credentials days before and, representing as he did one of the greatest newspapers in the world, was one of the few correspondents to have the freedom of the allied lines.
Hal and Chester idled about the greater part of the day. There had been a lull in the fighting, and, although they had reported to General French, no duties had been assigned them; but along in the afternoon they were again summoned to headquarters.
"I have here," said General French, placing a document in Hal's hand, "a communication that must be placed in the hands of General Joffre with all possible dispatch. I have selected you to deliver it. General Joffre has his headquarters near Soissons. You should have no difficulty in reaching him. Take an automobile and make haste."
The lads saluted and left the tent, actually disappointed that they had not been selected for some more strenuous work.
"Anybody could carry this," said Hal.
"There is certainly no danger," agreed Chester. "All we have to do is to stay within our own lines."
Half an hour later found them speeding southward, well in the rear of the great battle line. Hal himself was at the wheel and Chester sat in the tonneau of the machine. Through Ypres, Douai and many smaller towns the huge car sped without a stop. At Roy they halted for a fresh supply of petrol, and immediately resumed their journey.
But the lads were not entirely familiar with the lay of the land, and this fact resulted in throwing them into great danger once more.
Just south of Roy the long battle line—which had previously stretched straight southward—swerved suddenly to the east. The lads turned with it all right, but too soon. Instead of going straight south to the banks of the river Aisne, as they should have done, they turned eastward some distance north of this river, and were in trouble before they realized it.
Neither lad thought anything of the fact that they were pushing straight through the mass of French troops in this region, and it was not until they had come into an isolated region—an opening between the two great armies—that Chester surmised there was something wrong. The desolate appearance of the land spelled suspicion to him, and, leaning forward in his seat, he shouted to Hal:
"Slow down, quick!"
Hal obeyed without question and then turned to his chum to ascertain the reason for this abrupt command.
"We must have gone clear through our own lines," Chester explained. "If we hadn't, certainly there would be troops about. I believe we must be right between the two armies."
"I don't think so," replied Hal. "There are probably more French troops ahead of us."
"I am sure I'm right," persisted Chester.
"Well, it's not worth while taking a chance," said Hal. "We'll turn south here."
At a cross road he swerved toward the south again. But, although neither lad realized it then, they had penetrated right through the German lines where they had been thinnest and most greatly scattered. They were still north of the Aisne, and the main German line lay between them and the far shore, where the French were massed in strength. They could have turned west again at this point and probably have reached safety by the way they had come; but neither realized his danger, and so the big car sped south directly toward the enemy.
It was night now, and the machine was forced to travel more slowly, running along at a snail-like gait until the first signs of dawn appeared in the eastern sky. An hour later the lads made out in the distance a mass of troops. They were still too far away to make out plainly, but neither doubted that they were French.
But they were doomed to disappointment.
As the machine sped closer, Hal suddenly applied the brakes and uttered an exclamation of dismay.
"What's the matter?" demanded Chester.
"Matter!" echoed Hal. "Why, we have run right into a nest of Germans!"
It was only too true. The troops whom they were now approaching were the enemy, and both lads realized in an instant that they must be surrounded by Germans on all sides. In the darkness they had penetrated through the rear line, and now were in the very midst of their foes.
Hal thought quickly. So far they had not been perceived. Two men in civilian clothes were approaching afoot, and as they came up to them Hal crawled under the machine and began to tinker with it. The men came closer and stopped to watch.
Suddenly Hal crawled from under the car, and, as the men cried out in surprise at the sight of his British uniform, he covered both of them with a pair of revolvers.
"Silence!" he cried, "or you are dead men." He spoke to Chester over his shoulder. "We'll have to go straight though the line," he said, "and we can't do it with these uniforms. We'll have to exchange with these fellows."
In vain did their prisoners protest. Hal kept the two covered while Chester stripped himself of his own garments and climbed into those one of the prisoners passed to him. Then Chester covered the men while Hal made a change and transferred the document given him by General French to the pocket of his new coat. Then they bound and gagged the two men and tumbled them into the ditch at the side of the road.
"So far so good," said Hal. "Now, if we simply act unconcerned, we should have no difficulty in going through the lines. It's when we make a dash for the other side that the trouble is likely to come; but we must chance that."
"All right," said Chester, "let's move."
They started off slowly down the road and within the hour were in the town of Caronne, held by the Germans, but a few miles from the northern bank of the river Aisne. Here they left the machine to avoid attracting unnecessary attention.
They lost no time, and made their way through the town as swiftly as possible. They walked along boldly, and near the outskirts, coming upon a little restaurant Chester suggested a cup of coffee and a sandwich. Hal assented and they entered the door.
They took seats at an improvised counter and soon were engaged in the pleasant occupation of satisfying their appetites. A German officer, who had been eating in the rear of the restaurant, passed them on his way out, and, as he did so, he cast a quick look at Chester, and turned back toward him.