While the action was in progress, another fleet of equal size had started out. This had been designed to reinforce the first party if it had succeeded in gaining a footing. But the utter collapse of the first effort had taught the enemy that the bank was too strongly held and they stopped in midstream and rowed back.
"Even a Heinie can see through a milestone when there's a hole in it," commented Billy, as he watched the enemy retreating.
"It's a pity they don't keep on," said Bart. "I'm just getting my blood up."
"First bit of marine fighting we've done yet," laughed Frank. "We can say now that we belong to both branches of the service."
"All we need now is a fight in the air to make the thing complete," said Bart, "and we came pretty near to that, too, when we were with Dick that time in his bombing machine."
With their boat plan thwarted, the German commanders now centered all their attention on the bridge. One or two surprise attacks at night were detected and driven back, but the enemy did not give up.
At dusk on the day following the fight in the stream they made the great attack. True to their tactics, they apparently took no account of the lives of their men. The taking of the bridge was bound to result in tremendous slaughter. Every foot of it was swept by the American guns. But the enemy leaders had determined that the bridge must be taken, no matter how high a price they paid for the taking. It was easier for the leaders to reach this conclusion since it was the men who would pay the price rather than themselves.
A tremendous artillery fire paved the way for the operation. Then, just as twilight was gathering, a strong body of enemy troops, marching in heavy columns, attempted to storm the bridge.
Beyond the first ranks could be seen other columns standing in reserve. The great climax was approaching. The German command at that point had determined to stake everything on one throw.
On they came to the death awaiting them. The American artillery and machine guns swept the bridge with a withering fire. The front ranks melted away like mist.
But their places were filled with others and still others, despite the frightful slaughter. The American machine guns got too hot to handle from their unceasing fire.
And still the German horde kept crowding forward as though their reserves were inexhaustible. It was known that they had been heavily reinforced of late and that they largely outnumbered the American troops opposed to them. Over the dead bodies of their comrades which strewed the bridge they were creeping nearer, urged by the irresistible pressure from behind. Considering the disparity of forces, it was sound tactics to destroy the bridge before the foremost ranks could get a footing on the side where their overwhelming numbers would begin to tell.
The American commander gave the order to blow up the bridge. But when the button was pressed that should have sent the electric current into the powder mine there was no response.
Several times the pressure was repeated and still no explosion followed. A hasty consultation ensued between the leaders who were standing close by the place where the Army Boys were fighting.
"The electric wires must have been cut by the enemy's fire," Frank heard one of them say.
Cut! Then all the elaborate plans for blowing up the bridge had come to naught. And that apparently inexhaustible gray force was getting nearer and nearer!
THE JAWS OF DEATH
"There's just one possible chance," said Frank's colonel.
"What is that?" asked the general in command.
"An explosive bullet sent into the mine might explode it," replied the colonel. "But it would have to be fired from a boat. We can't do it from here."
"It would be certain death to whoever tried it," replied the general, looking at the shell-swept stream.
"Not certain, perhaps, but probable," said the colonel. "It's the only chance, though, to explode the mine. It can only be reached from underneath."
"We'll try it," said the general with decision. "But I won't assign any one to it. It's a matter for volunteers."
When the call came for volunteers, Frank sprang forward and saluted. Bart and Billy followed close behind him.
The officer's eye swept the three and rested on Frank.
"You volunteer?" he asked. "You know the danger?"
"Yes, sir," they responded.
A gleam of pride and admiration came in the general's eyes.
"Very well," he said. "I'm proud to be your commander."
Orders were hurriedly given, explosive bullets were furnished; and a few minutes later a small boat carrying the three Army Boys shot out from the shore.
The dusk had thickened now, and Bart and Billy, who were rowing, hugged the bridge as closely as they could, so as to profit by its shadow.
None of this bombardment had been directed at them as yet, because their little boat had not been seen. But when they were forced to move a little way from the shadow of the bridge, so that Frank could get the proper angle from which to fire, they were detected, and a perfect tempest of fire opened up not only from the batteries on the further shore, but from the soldiers who were on the bridge.
Frank knew exactly where the powder charges had been located. His rifle was loaded and he had sufficient confidence in his marksmanship to believe that only one shot would be needed.
All he dreaded was that a bullet might strike him before he had done his work. After that it did not so much matter. He knew that he had taken his life in his hand and he had already counted it as lost.
Bart and Billy were rowing like fiends. At last they reached the point that Frank had indicated. He peered through the dusk and could see the outlines of the mine.
The bridge now was black with Germans. They had covered two-thirds of the distance over it, and they were packed so closely, crowding on each other's heels, that the rails of the bridge bulged outward with the pressure.
Frank raised his rifle to his shoulder, took steady aim and fired.
There was a hideous roar, and then the shattered timbers of the bridge went hurtling toward the sky. Hundreds of bodies were mingled with the debris, and the water surged up in great waves as the mass fell back into the river.
Where the bridge had been there was a yawning gap of two hundred feet. At either end there was a remnant of the bridge still standing, and on these the survivors were rushing frenziedly toward the land before the remaining timbers should give way.
Those Germans who were left on the American side, severed from the help of their comrades, were surrounded and disarmed as soon as they reached the shore. The attempt at capture had ended in a terrible disaster to the German forces.
The instant Frank fired. Billy and Bart plunged their oars in the water and started rowing with all their might away from the bridge.
But despite their efforts they could not get out of the danger zone in time. A heavy piece of timber struck the side of the boat, crushing it in and throwing the occupants into the water.
Frank and Billy came to the surface a moment later and shook the water from their eyes. They looked about for Bart, but he was not to be seen.
Instantly Frank dived, searching frantically for his chum. His arm came in contact with someone's hair. He grasped it and drew the body to the surface.
It was Bart, but he was unconscious. The timber that had smashed the boat had caught him a glancing blow on the head and stunned him.
Frank held his comrade's face above the water and shouted to Billy, who also had been searching and had just come up. He swam to Frank's side and helped him in bearing up Bart.
They found a floating plank, over which they placed Bart's arms and then with Frank holding on to Bart's body and Billy guiding the plank they struck out for the nearer shore.
They had been nearer the American than the German side when the explosion took place. But the current was bearing strongly toward the German side and they had been carried some distance by it while they were taking care of Bart. The consequence was that, while they thought that the nearer bank was that held by their own troops, it was the German side towards which they were moving with their unconscious burden.
They were within a few feet of the shore at some distance below where the bridge had stood, when Frank's quick ear heard the sound of voices speaking in German. At first he thought it was probably some of the prisoners whom the American troops had captured. But a moment later he recognized a dilapidated fishing pier that he had often gazed at from his own side of the river, and the truth burst upon him.
They were on the wrong side of the river! If Bart had been in the same condition as Billy and himself, their situation, though dangerous, would not have been desperate. They were all strong swimmers and although fearfully tired from their exertions would have been able to swim across to comrades and safety.
But it was another matter with Bart unconscious. Frank did not know what had caused his friend's injury. Perhaps he had been shot. At this very moment, for all Frank knew, his chum might be bleeding to death. Above all things he wanted to find dry land, where he could examine his chum and render him first aid if necessary.
He communicated with Billy in whispers.
"We've gone and done it, old scout," he whispered. "We're on the German side."
"That's good news—I don't think," returned Billy.
"Let's swim in under this old pier," suggested Frank, "We'll be out of sight then and we may strike a bit of beach up toward the head of it."
They followed the suggestion and were relieved to find that there was a little stretch of dry sand beyond the water line. They took Bart from the plank and bore him out on the sand. Here they rubbed his wrists and tried as far as they could in the darkness to ascertain the extent of his injuries. Frank did not dare to use his flashlight for fear of betraying their presence to the enemy.
To their immense relief Bart soon showed signs of returning animation. He opened his eyes and was about to speak, when Frank put his hand gently on his lips.
"Don't speak, old man," he whispered. "You're all right. It's Frank speaking. Billy's here. Just whisper to me and tell where you're hurt. But be careful, for the Germans are all around us."
"Guess I'm not hurt much," whispered Bart. "Got a clip on the head when that beam struck the boat."
"Sure you didn't get a bullet?" asked Frank anxiously.
"I don't think so," replied Bart. "Head's dizzy from that crack, but I feel all right everywhere else."
"Bully!" said Frank. "Now you just lie there till you get your strength back, and then we'll figure out what's to be done."
It was a hard problem, and it became none the easier a few minutes later when a boat came along under oars and was tied up at the end of the pier. It was a big boat and similar to those in which the Germans had made their unsuccessful attempt to cross the river a few days before.
It had evidently been out in the river picking up the wounded who had been thrown into the stream by the explosion. The rickety planks creaked as the soldiers carried the wounded survivors over the pier to the bank beyond. It would have been an exceedingly bad time for the Army Boys to be discovered and they crowded back as far as they could to escape detection.
The Germans were in a terrible rage over the body blow that had been dealt them in the destruction of the bridge. Apart from the heavy losses in men their entire plan of campaign would have to be reconstructed.
"That one bullet of yours was a mighty effective one, Frank," whispered Billy.
"It was classy shooting," said Bart. "From a rocking boat with shells bursting all around and so much depending on it, there'd have been lots of excuse for missing."
"Maybe the old Thirty-seventh isn't feeling good over the way the thing went through," chuckled Billy.
"And maybe we won't get the glad hand when we get over there," murmured Bart.
"We've got to get there first," whispered Frank, "and we've got a mighty slim chance of doing that as long as this boat stays here."
Every instant was fraught with peril. They had no weapons and even if they had they would have stood no chance against the throng of enemies surrounding them. Their only hope of safety lay in not being discovered.
But at last, to their great relief, the German rowers resumed their places at the oars and the boat pulled out into the darkness.
"Thank heaven, they're gone at last!" breathed Billy.
"Do you feel equal to the swim over, Bart?" asked Frank.
"Sure thing," replied Bart. "My head's dizzy yet, but with you and Billy to give me a hand, if necessary, I'll get through all right."
As silently as so many otters they slipped into the water and struck out for the other side.
The current was strong and the work was arduous, especially with the care they had to exercise lest any splash should be heard by the enemy. There was also the chance that one of the boats that were abroad might come in their direction. But aided by the pitch darkness that prevailed, they made the trip in safety and Bart had no need of calling on the aid of his comrades.
As they drew near the other side a sentry hailed them.
"Halt!" he cried. "Who goes there?"
"That's Fred Anderson," murmured Billy, as he recognized the voice.
"Friends!" called Frank. "Hello, Fred. It's Raymond, Waldon and Sheldon."
There was a shout of delight, and Fred, accompanied by several other sentries, came running to the water's edge.
"Glory, hallelujah!" shouted Fred, as eager hands pulled the Army Boys up on the bank. "So you pulled through after all. The whole regiment had given you up. Say, if they'd known you were coming every mother's son of them would have been down here to meet you and they'd have brought the band with them. Come along now, but I warn you in advance that all the fellows will shake your hands off."
They still had their hands when their mates got through with them, but Fred had not over-estimated the royal welcome that awaited them. They had always been prime favorites with the boys of the old Thirty-seventh, and that afternoon's exploit made them more popular than ever. Their officers, too, were jubilant at their return.
They were taken to headquarters, where the general thanked them and shook hands with each in turn.
"I don't need any report from you," he smiled. "I heard that when the bridge went up. It was a brave deed, most gallantly done. I thank you in the name of the army. Your names will be cited to-morrow in the orders of the day and I shall personally bring the matter to the attention of General Pershing."
A TRAITOR UNMASKED
When Tom Bradford found himself racing toward the woods, the only thought in his mind was to put as great a distance as possible between himself and his would-be executioners.
At every step he expected to hear a shout raised and see a crowd of pursuers rush from the house like a pack of wolves after their prey.
The thought lent wings to his feet and he covered the distance in record time. And not until he was safe in the shelter of the friendly trees did he pause to draw breath and cast a glance toward the house.
If his escape had been noticed, there was absolutely no sign of it. The landscape lay in serene and smiling beauty. Not a trace of life was to be seen about the house. It seemed scarcely possible that so much tragedy and so much peace could exist side by side.
But he had no time for musing, and after a moment's glance he turned and burrowed deeper into the woods. There alone for the moment lay safety. In those leafy coverts he could lie concealed, while he took breath and thought out the situation.
He had no idea of where the American lines lay. Bound hand and foot as he had been during that terrible journey, and tortured by the thoughts that had assailed him, he had taken little note of the way he was traveling. And even if he had, he could not have told with certainty what was the dividing line between the hostile armies.
All that he could do was to exercise the utmost caution, get as deeply into the recesses of the wood as he could, and let his future course be guided by circumstances. In a battle area that was so full of soldiers it would not be long before he would catch sight of some of them. The great thing was to see them before they saw him. If they wore German helmets he would keep his distance. If, on the contrary, he should see the old familiar khaki uniform of his American comrades, his troubles would be over.
But if the most important thing was concealment, another problem almost as important was the question of food. He had had only the scantiest kind of nourishment since his escape from the prison yard. The last crumb had been eaten that morning. He had no weapon of any kind with which to shoot squirrels or rabbits or birds. And he did not dare to approach a cottage for fear that he might again be placed in the power of his enemies.
But he was not yet starving, though exceedingly hungry, and he kept on in the woods, intent upon putting as many miles behind him as possible before he stopped for rest.
Far up in the wooded hills he came in sight of a little cabin. It was a dilapidated little shack that perhaps had been used by hunting parties in happier days. It seemed to be entirely deserted, but he was wary and lay in the bushes for an hour or more, watching it closely for any sign of life. Only when he felt perfectly sure that there was no one about, did he creep up to the door and look in.
He drew a sigh of relief when he saw that it was indeed uninhabited. Not only that, but there was no evidence that any one had visited it of late. There was no sign of a path and the bushes had grown up close to the door. One of the hinges of the door had rusted away and the door sagged heavily upon the other.
There was absolutely nothing in the hut except a rough board table and a three-legged stool. Tom searched about eagerly in the hope that he might find some food left by its last occupants. He was not particular, and even mouldy crusts would have been eagerly welcomed. But even in this he was doomed to be disappointed.
Still it was something to be under a roof. Human beings once had been there, and the fact seemed to bring him in contact with his kind. And even this rough shelter was better than being compelled to sleep in the woods. If he had only had something to still the terrible gnawing at his stomach he would have been content—at least as far as he could be contented while a fugitive, with his life and liberty in constant danger.
After he had rested a while he went outside, with the double purpose of watching for enemies and trying to find something to eat. He fashioned a club from a stout branch and made several attempts to get a squirrel or a bird by hurling it at them. But the weapon was too clumsy and they were too quick, and this forlorn hope came to nothing. So that when night at last dropped down upon him he was more hungry than ever and had to go to sleep supperless.
The next morning he was more fortunate, for he came upon a stream that abounded in fish. He improvised a hook and line and landed several fair-sized ones. He had some matches in an oilskin pouch, and he made a little fire in a deep depression, so as to hide the smoke, and roasted fish over it. He had no salt, but never had a meal tasted more delicious in his life.
Now a burden was lifted from his mind. At least he would not starve. Fish, no doubt, would grow wearisome as a diet if it were varied with nothing else. But at least it would sustain life and give him strength for the tasks that lay before him.
He listened for the booming of the guns and tried to figure out from the sound just where the contending armies were facing each other. Sometimes they grew louder and fiercer, and at other times seemed to recede, as the tide of battle ebbed and flowed. But there was rarely any lull in the ominous thunder, and Tom knew that the fiercest kind of fighting was going on. He thought of Frank and Bart and Billy, who he felt sure were in the very thick of it, and he grew desperate at the thought that he was not at their side, facing the same dangers, and, as he hoped, sharing in the same victories.
Gradually he worked his way down the mountain, taking the utmost care to avoid detection, until he felt sure from the increasing din that he was not far from one or the other of the hostile armies. But it was of the utmost importance to him to know whether he was within the German or the American lines.
The question was solved for him when, some days later, he caught sight of a file of German soldiers passing through a ravine a little way below him. These were followed by others. He sought shelter instantly upon catching his first glimpse of them, but the bushes were thin at that point, and a huge tree seemed to offer a more secure refuge. He climbed it quickly, and, peering through the leaves, tried to figure out the situation. Rank after rank passed, and seemed to be taking up a position with the view of making an attack. Batteries were drawn up, and their guns pointed in a direction away from where Tom was hiding. This was a valuable, but at the same time a painful, bit of information, because it showed Tom that he was behind the German lines instead of in front of them. If he had been in front, it would be simply a matter of making his way in all haste to where the American armies lay. Now he knew that in order to reach his own lines he would have to cross through the German positions. And without weapons this could only be a forlorn hope. Even had he been armed it would have been a desperate chance.
He was pondering this fact with a sinking of the heart, when suddenly he saw approaching a man in American uniform. What could it mean? The man was not a prisoner, or he would have been under guard. Yet what other explanation was there for the appearance of the uniform in the midst of the Germans, who swarmed all about?
The man came nearer, until he paused beneath the tree. He looked about as though expecting to see some one. Then he glanced at the watch on his wrist, and uttered an exclamation of impatience. It was evident that he had made an appointment, and that the other party to the tryst was slow in coming.
The day was warm, and the upward climb through the woods had been arduous. The man took his hat from his head and wiped his forehead with his handkerchief. As he did so, Tom caught his first glimpse of the newcomer's face, and his heart gave a leap of surprise as well as repulsion when he recognized Nick Rabig.
The last news that Tom had had of Rabig was that he had been taken prisoner in the preceding Fall. He had not known, of course, of Nick's alleged escape from German captivity, and of his return to the American lines, but his quick mind readily reached the correct conclusion. He had always distrusted Rabig and had felt sure that the fellow was at heart a traitor. He was morally certain that the German corporal, whom Nick had been assigned to guard, had escaped with Rabig's connivance, and he remembered what Frank had told him about hearing Rabig's voice in the woods the night the German spy was shot. But Rabig's cunning, or perhaps his luck, had prevented his treachery being proved.
Whatever errand had brought Rabig to this spot, Tom felt sure that it boded no good to the American cause, and even in the precarious position in which he found himself he rejoiced at the thought that he might be instrumental in unmasking a traitor.
While these thoughts were passing through his mind, a German officer approached from another direction. He saw Rabig, and hastened toward him. He greeted Nick coldly, and with an air that scarcely concealed the contempt he felt for the man whose services he was using.
An animated colloquy began at once. But unluckily for Tom it was in German. He hated the language, but just then he would have given anything if he could have understood what was passing between the two men.
The conversation continued for some time. Rabig handed over some papers which the German officer carefully looked over, using a pencil to follow some lines that seemed to be the tracing of a map or plan. Then he folded them up and put them carefully in his pocket, and after a few more sentences had been exchanged Tom heard the clink of money and saw Rabig tuck something away in his belt. Then the officer stood up and with a curt nod went away toward the bottom of the hill.
For some minutes more Rabig remained sitting at the foot of the tree. Then he took money from his belt and counted it carefully. Tom couldn't help wondering whether it consisted of thirty pieces of silver!
In Tom's mind a plan was rapidly forming. He looked through the trees in every direction. No one was in sight. From the slope below came the hum of the camp, but no helmets were visible.
If Rabig had come through the German lines he had done so by means of a pass. That pass would take him back just as it had brought him through. He must have it in his pocket now.
Tom measured the distance between himself and the figure sitting beneath him. Then with the litheness of a panther he dropped plump on Rabig's shoulders.
The shock was terrific and knocked the breath from the traitor's body. He rolled over and over. Tom himself was thrown forward on his hands and knees, but the next moment he had risen and his hands fastened like a vise around Rabig's throat.
CROSSING THE LINE
Nick Rabig was a young man of powerful build, and under ordinary conditions Tom would have had his work cut out for him. But the surprise and the shock had taken all the fight out of the traitor, and Tom's sinewy hands never relaxed until Rabig's face was purple and he lay limp and gasping. Then Tom improvised a gag and thrust it into the rascal's mouth and rapidly bound his hands and feet.
When he had the miscreant helpless, Tom rose panting to his feet and looked about him. There was no sign that the struggle had attracted attention. Rabig himself had had no time to utter a cry for help.
The renegade had revived sufficiently now to understand what had happened, and his face was a study of conflicting emotions. Rage and hate and fear showed in his features. He recognized Tom, and he knew that his treachery stood discovered. He knew that with the evidence against him he was doomed to stand before a firing squad if he should be taken into the American lines.
Tom looked at him as one might look at a leper.
"You low-down traitor!" he said bitterly. "You vile scoundrel! I've caught you at last and caught you dead to rights. You're the most contemptible thing that breathes. You're a disgrace to your uniform. You ought to be wearing a wooden overcoat and you will when Uncle Sam lays his hands on you. I ought to kill you myself this minute."
His hand clenched the pistol which he had taken from Rabig's pocket, and a look of craven fear came into the traitor's eyes.
"Oh, don't be afraid," said Tom scornfully. "I'm not going to do it. Perhaps you'll suffer more if I let you live than if I killed you. You're a marked and branded man. You're a man without a country. The very men you've sold yourself to look upon you as a yellow dog.
"Now, Rabig, listen to me," Tom went on with deadly earnestness. "I'm going to strip you of the uniform you've disgraced. I'll have to untie your hands for a minute to get the coat over your arms, but I've got the drop on you and if you make the slightest move except to do what I tell you to you're a dead man."
Rabig was too cowed to do anything but obey, and in a few minutes Tom had stripped him of coat and trousers and put them on himself. He re-bound Rabig's hands tightly. Then he went through the pockets of the coat.
As he had expected he found the pass that had admitted Rabig to the German lines. Opposite the word "Losung," which Tom knew meant "countersign," was scribbled the word "Potsdam."
"I guess this thing that brought you over will take me back," Tom remarked. "Now, Rabig, I'm going to leave you here with your German friends. They'll pick you up after a while, though I don't care whether they do or not. I'm going back to the boys of the old Thirty-seventh and tell them just what has happened to Nick Rabig, the traitor. So long, Benedict Arnold."
With a parting glance of contempt Tom left the traitor and went down the hill with a confidence that he was very far from feeling.
He had the pass and the countersign, but he was not sure that these would be sufficient. Perhaps an officer would be called by the sentry to make sure that everything was all right. Perhaps the sentry at the point where he should try to pass the line might be the same one who had let Rabig through, and he might notice the difference in personal appearance. Any one of a dozen things might happen to arouse suspicion.
Luckily it was growing dark and Tom had pulled Rabig's hat well down over his face, yet not so far as to make it appear that he was trying to evade scrutiny. He walked on briskly to a point where a sentry on duty before an opening in the wire fence was standing.
"Halt! Wer da?" hailed the sentry.
"Ein Freund," replied Tom.
At the same time Tom carelessly extended the pass which the sentry glanced at and returned to him with a curt gesture, in which Tom thought he saw contempt. But it meant that he was free to pass, and he did so with an air of indifference.
His heart was beating so fast that it seemed as if he would suffocate. At every step he feared to hear a shout behind him that would tell him that the ruse was discovered. But the fortune that had frowned upon him so many times of late this time was friendly. Behind him were the usual camp noises and nothing more.
In a few minutes he had gotten out of sight of the lines and was in the woods at a point where the trees grew thickly and only a half-beaten trail led through the underbrush. Then he quickened his pace and soon found himself running.
If he were pursued, he had fully made up his mind what he would do. He would never again see the inside of a German prison. He had the revolver and he would fight to the last breath. He might go down, probably would, considering the odds that there would be against him, but he would die fighting, and would take one or more of his enemies with him.
He was racing along now at top speed and he only slackened his gait when he knew that he had put miles behind him. By that time it had grown wholly dark, and in the woods it was as black as pitch. He was safe for that night at least. His enemies could not have seen him if they had been within ten feet of him.
And the darkness brought with it a word of warning. While in one sense it was a protection, on the other it had in it an element of danger. He could no longer know the direction in which he was traveling. He knew the danger there was of traveling in a circle. If he kept on he might swing around in the direction of the German lines. And it would be a sorry ending to his flight to have it finish at the very point from which he had started.
He made up his mind that he would curl himself up in some thicket and snatch a few hours of sleep. At the first glimmer of dawn he would resume his journey. Then he could see, no doubt, the American lines, from which he knew he could not be very far away. The big guns, too, that had now settled down to their nightly muttering, would be in full cry at dawn, and sound as well as sight would help him.
He found a heavy clump of bushes into which he crawled. He had no fear of oversleeping. He knew that his burdened mind would keep watch while his body slept, and that he would surely wake at the first streak of dawn.
Some distance ahead of where the old Thirty-seventh was posted on the far-flung battle line, the Army Boys were on sentry duty. It was the turn of Corporal Wilson's squad to perform this irksome task, and they were glad that it was nearly over and that soon they would be relieved.
Their beats adjoined each other and there were times when they met and could exchange a few words to break the monotony of the long grind.
"This sentry stuff doesn't make a hit with me," grumbled Bart. "I'm getting blisters on my feet from walking."
"Where do you expect to get them, on your head?" laughed Frank. "Cheer up, old man. The sun will be up in a few minutes and then the relief will be along."
"It can't come too soon," chimed in Billy. "Gee, but I'm hungry! This early morning air does sure give you an appetite."
"If only something would happen," complained Bart. "It's the deadly monotony of the thing that gets my goat. Now if a Hun patrol should come along and stir things up, it would be worth while."
A sharp exclamation came from Frank.
"Look out, fellows!" he warned. "I saw those bushes moving over on the slope of that hill just now and there isn't a bit of wind."
In an instant they had their rifles ready.
The bushes parted and a figure stepped forth into the open.
"Why, it's one of our fellows!" said Bart, as he saw the American uniform.
"Been out on scout duty, I suppose," remarked Billy.
Frank said nothing. His keen eyes noted the newcomer and his heart began to thump strangely.
As the soldier came nearer he took off his hat and waved it at them.
A yell of delight broke from the startled group.
"It's Tom! It's Tom! It's Tom!"
A JOYOUS REUNION
Shouting like so many maniacs, they rushed toward him. At the same instant Tom, too, began to run, and in a moment they had their arms around him, and were hugging him, pounding him, mauling him, exclaiming, questioning, laughing, rejoicing, all in one breath.
Tom was back with them again, good old Tom, their chum, their comrade, Tom, over whose fate they had spent so many sleepless hours, Tom, for whom any one of them would have risked his life, Tom who they knew was captured, and who they feared might be dead.
There he was, the same old Tom, with face and body thin, with hair unkempt and matted, with traces showing everywhere of the anxiety and suffering he had undergone, and yet with the same indomitable spirit that neither captivity nor threatened death had broken, and the same smile upon his lips and twinkle in his eyes.
"Easy, easy there, fellows," he protested laughing. "Let me come up for air. And before anything else, lead me to some grub. I haven't eaten for so long that there's only a vacuum where my stomach ought to be."
"You bet we'll lead you to it," cried Bart.
"An anaconda will have nothing on you when we get through filling you up," promised Billy.
"What did I tell you, fellows," cried Frank delightedly. "Didn't I say the old boy'd be coming in some morning and asking us if breakfast was ready?"
Tom was giving Frank the long-lost letter he had been carrying when Corporal Wilson came up with the relief and their greeting was almost as boisterous and hilarious as that of his own particular chums had been, for Tom was a universal favorite in the regiment, and they had all mourned his loss.
They would have overwhelmed him with questions, but Frank interposed.
"Nothing doing, fellows," he said. "This boy isn't going to say another word until we've taken him to mess and filled him up till he can't move. After that there'll be plenty of time for a talk and we'll keep him talking till the cows come home."
It was a rejoicing crowd that took Tom back to the main body of the regiment, where he almost had his hands wrung from him. They piled his plate and filled his coffee cup again and again and watched him while he ate like a famished wolf.
"Tom's running true to form," joked Frank, as they saw the food vanish before his onslaught.
"Whatever else the Huns took away from him, they left him his appetite," chuckled Billy.
"Left it?" grinned Tom, as he attacked another helping. "They added to it. I never knew what hunger was before. Bring on anything you've got, and I'll tackle it. All except fish. I'm ashamed now to look a fish in the face."
It was a long time before he had had enough. Then with a look of seraphic contentment on his face he sat back, loosened his belt a notch, and sighed with perfect happiness.
"Now fellows, fire away," he grinned, "and I'll tell you the sad story of my life."
They needed no second invitation, for they had been fairly bursting with eagerness and curiosity. Questions rained on him thick and fast. Their fists clenched when he told them of the cruelties to which he had been subjected. They were loud in admiration of the way in which he had met and overcome his difficulties. They roared with laughter when he told them of the alarm clock, and Tom himself, to whom it had been no joke at the time, laughed now as heartily as the rest.
"So that's the way you got those ropes gnawed through when you were at the farmhouse," exclaimed Frank, when Tom told them of the aid that had come to him from the rats. "We figured out everything else but that. We thought that you must have frayed them against a piece of glass."
"I used to hate rats," said Tom, "but I don't now. I'll never have a trap set in any house of mine as long as I live."
"If you'd only known how safe it would have been to walk downstairs that day!" mourned Frank.
"Wouldn't it have been bully?" agreed Tom. "Think of the satisfaction it would have been to have had the bulge on that lieutenant who was going to hang me. I wouldn't have done a thing to him!"
"Well, we got him anyway and that's one comfort," remarked Bart.
"To think that you were legging it away from the house just as we were coming toward it," said Billy.
"It was the toughest kind of luck," admitted Tom. "Yet perhaps it was all for the best, for then I might not have had the chance to get the best of Rabig."
"Rabig?" exclaimed Frank, for the traitor had not yet been mentioned in Tom's narrative.
"What about him?" questioned Billy eagerly.
"Hold your horses," grinned Tom. "I'll get to him in good time. If it hadn't been for Rabig I wouldn't be here. I owe that much to the skunk, anyway."
It was hard for them to wait, but they were fully rewarded when Tom described the way in which he had trapped and stripped the renegade, and left him lying in the woods.
"Bully boy!" exclaimed Frank. "That was the very best day's work you ever did."
"Got the goods on him at last," exulted Bart.
"The only man in the old Thirty-seventh that has played the yellow dog," commented Billy. "The regiment's well rid of him. He'll never dare to show his face again."
"He can fight for Germany now," said Frank, "and if he does, I only hope that some day I'll run across him in the fighting."
"You won't if he sees you first," grinned Billy. "He doesn't want any of your game."
Tom had left one thing till the last.
"By the way, Frank," he remarked casually, "I ran across a fellow in the German prison camp who came from Auvergne, the same province where you've told me your mother lived when she was a girl. He said he knew her family well."
"Is that so?" asked Frank with quick interest. "What was his name?"
"Martel," replied Tom.
"Why that's the name of the butler who used to be in my mother's family!" cried Frank. "Colonel Pavet was telling me that he had been captured, and had died in prison. I was hoping that he was mistaken in that, for the colonel said he had information that might help my mother to get her property."
"The colonel is right about the man's dying," replied Tom, "for I was with him when he died."
"It's too bad," said Frank dejectedly.
"I shouldn't wonder if he did not know something," said Tom, "for he seemed to have something on his mind. He told me one time that his imprisonment and sickness happened as a judgment on him."
"If we could only have had his testimony before he died," mourned Frank.
"I got it," declared Tom triumphantly.
CUTTING THEIR WAY OUT
Frank sprang to his feet.
"What do you mean?" he cried.
"Just this," replied Tom, taking the confession from his pocket. "He told me the whole story and there it is in black and white, names of witnesses and all."
Frank read the confession with growing excitement, while his comrades clustered closely around him.
"Tom, old scout!" Frank exclaimed, as the whole significance of the confession dawned upon him, "you've done me a service that I'll never forget. Now we can see our way clear, and my mother will come into her rights."
"I'm mighty glad, old boy," replied Tom with a happy smile. "I've held on to that paper through thick and thin, because I knew what it would mean to you and your mother. But now," he went on, "I've been answering the questions of all this bunch and turn about is fair play. Tell me how our boys are doing. How is the big drive going on? Have we stopped the Germans yet?"
"They're slowing up," said Bart.
"We're whipping them," declared Billy.
"I wouldn't quite say that," objected Frank. "We haven't whipped them yet except in spots. Of course we're going to lick them. The whole world knows that now except the Germans themselves, and I shouldn't wonder if they were beginning to believe it in their hearts. But they'll stand a whole lot of beating yet, and we don't want to kid ourselves that it's going to be an easy job. But we're holding them back, and pretty soon we'll be driving them back."
"I'll bet the old Thirty-seventh has been doing its full share," said Tom proudly.
"You bet it has," crowed Billy. "Tom, old man, you've missed some lovely fighting."
"You fellows have had all the luck," refilled Tom wistfully.
"Don't grouch, Tom," laughed Frank. "There's plenty of it yet to come. And I'll bet you'll fight harder than ever now, when you think of all you've been through. You've got a personal score to settle with the Huns now, as well as to get in licks for Uncle Sam."
"You're right there," replied Tom, as his eyes blazed. "I can't wait to get at them. My fingers fairly itch to get hold of a rifle."
"But you ought to have a little rest and get your strength back before you get in the ranks again," suggested Bart.
"None of that rest stuff for me," declared Tom. "When you boys get in I'm going to be right alongside of you."
His wish was not to be gratified that day, however, for there was a lull in the fighting just then while the hostile armies manoeuvred for position. But the pause was only temporary, and the next day the storm broke in all its fury.
Of course Tom had to make a report at headquarters. There his story, especially as it related to Nick Rabig, was listened to with much interest.
When the fighting began again it was not trench work. That was already in the past. Of course the armies took advantage of whatever shelter was offered them, and there were times when shallow trenches were dug with feverish haste. But these were only to be used for minutes or for hours, not for weeks and months at a time. The great battle had become one of open warfare, and it ebbed and flowed over miles of meadow and woodland, of hill and valley.
It was just the style of fighting that suited the American troops. They wanted action, action every minute. They wanted to see their enemies, to get at grips with them, to pit their brawn and muscle, their wit and courage against the best the enemy could bring forth. It was the way their ancestors had fought, man to man, bayonet to bayonet, where sheer pluck and power would give the victory to the men who possessed them in largest measure.
"We'll be in it up to our necks in a few minutes now," muttered Bart, as they waited for the order to charge.
"It's going to be hot work," remarked Billy. "They've got a pile of men in that division over there, and they've been putting up a stiff fight so far this morning."
"They're in for a trimming," declared Frank. "Just wait till the old Thirty-seventh goes at them on the double quick."
"Why don't the orders come?" grumbled Tom.
They came at last and, with a rousing cheer, the regiment rushed forward. The enemy's guns opened up at them, and a deadly barrage sought to check the wild fury of their charge. Men went down as shot and shell tore through them, but the others never faltered. The old Thirty-seventh was out to win that morning, and a bad time was in store for whoever stood in the way of its headlong rush.
In the front ranks the Army Boys fought shoulder to shoulder, and when the regiment struck the enemy line, they plunged forward with the bayonet. There was a furious melee as they ploughed their way through.
So impetuous was their dash that it carried them too fast and too far. They found themselves fighting with a group of their comrades against a fresh body of enemy troops who had just been thrown in in a fierce counterattack. For the moment they were greatly outnumbered and as the enemy closed around the little band it seemed as though they were doomed to be cut off from the support of their comrades.
They must cut their way through and rejoin the main body. And not a moment must be lost, for the ring surrounding them was constantly being augmented by fresh reinforcements.
A shot tore Frank's rifle out of his hands. He looked around and saw an axe that had been left there by some one of an engineer corps.
He stooped and picked it up. He swung it high above his head. In his powerful hands it was a fearful weapon, and the enemy detachment hi front of him faltered and drew back.
With a shout of "Lusitania!" Frank leaped forward, his eyes flashing with the fury of the fight, his axe hewing right and left. Foot by foot he cut his way through the crowded ranks.
Then suddenly a great blackness came down upon him and he knew nothing more.
WOUNDS AND TORTURE
When long hours afterward Frank came to himself, he lay for a time wondering where he was and what had happened to him.
His brain was not clear, and he had the greatest difficulty in concentrating his thoughts. Little by little he pieced events together. He remembered the charge made by his regiment, the pocket in which he had found himself when he had gone too far in advance of his comrades, the axe with which he had started to cut his way through the ring of enemies that surrounded him. There his memory stopped.
He must have been wounded. He raised his head painfully and looked himself over. He did not seem to be bleeding. He put his hand to his head. There was a cut there and a great lump that was as big as a robin's egg. The movement set his brain whirling, and he fell back dizzy and confused.
How thirsty he was! His mouth felt as though it were stuffed with cotton. His veins felt as if fire instead of blood was in them. His tongue seemed to be double its normal size. He would have given all he possessed for one sip of cool water.
He seemed to be alone. There were bushes all about him. He remembered that he had been fighting on the edge of a wood where there was a great deal of underbrush. This no doubt accounted for his being alone. Out in the meadow beyond there were lying a number of dead and wounded, as he could see by peering through the bushes. There were some dead men in the bushes, too, but no wounded. It would have been a comfort at that moment to have had some wounded companions to whom he might speak, whom he might help, or by whom he might be helped. He felt as though he were the only living man in a world of the dead.
He tried to rise, but a horrible pain shot through his right leg as he bore his weight upon it, and it crumpled under him. He wondered if it were broken. He felt of it carefully. No bone seemed to be broken as far as he could tell, but the ankle was swelled to almost double its normal size. He must have strained or twisted it. The mere touch gave him agony and he was forced to desist.
His fever increased and he was afraid that he was getting delirious. Some way or other he must get back to his own lines before his senses left him. He got up on his hands and feet and began to crawl in what he thought was the right direction.
He had no idea of time. Things seemed dark around him, but he was not sure whether this was due to the sky being overcast or to the approach of twilight. Perhaps it was neither. It might be only that his eyes were dimmed by the fever that was raging in him.
His wounded leg dragged behind him as he slowly worked along and every moment was torture. Sometimes it caught in a bush, and the resulting wrench almost caused him to swoon. But he kept on doggedly.
He passed many dead men, and painfully worked his way around to avoid touching them. One of them, he noticed, had a sack full of hand grenades. But the stiffening hand of the owner would never hurl another of those messengers of death.
On and on Frank toiled. His head felt so light that it seemed to be detached from his shoulders. He caught himself talking aloud, speaking the names of Bart and Billy and Tom. Where were they? What were they doing? Why were they not there with him?
And what had happened to the regiment? Had it been driven back? He remembered the heavy reinforcements that the enemy had thrown into the fight. Perhaps the old Thirty-seventh was getting ready for another attack. But the effort to think was too painful and Frank gave it up.
Suddenly he heard the sound of voices a little way in front of him, and a thrill of joy shot through him. He was paid at that moment for all his suffering. How lucky that he had steeled himself to the task of crawling back to his comrades! Soon he would be with the boys again. They would give him water. They would bind up his leg. His head would stop aching. The hours of torture would be over.
He was about to shout to them, when through a thick clump of bushes he saw the helmets of German soldiers. They were working feverishly to get some machine guns in position. It was evident that they were expecting an attack.
In that moment of terrible disappointment Frank tasted the bitterness of death. All that agony had been endured only to bring him into the hands of the Huns!
But this revulsion of feeling lasted only for an instant. The sight of his enemies had cleared his brain and awakened his indomitable fighting instinct. The Huns were working like mad at the machine-gun nest. That meant that the old Thirty-seventh was coming back! He must help them. These guns, cunningly placed, would do terrible execution if they were allowed to work their will.
But what could he do unaided and alone? He was wounded and weaponless.
Like a flash the thought came to him of the dead man whose sack was full of hand grenades.
His body quailed at the thought of the journey back to where the man lay. But his spirit mastered the flesh.
With his dragging leg one quivering pain, he crawled back. It seemed ages before he got there, but at last he had secured three of the grenades and started back for the machine-gun nest.
He had no more than time. Behind him, he heard the well-known cheer of his regiment. The boys were coming!
The gun crews heard it, too, and they gathered about their weapons, whose deadly muzzles pointed in the direction from which the rush was coming.
Supporting himself on one hand and knee, Frank hurled his grenades over the top of the bush in quick succession. They fell right in the midst of the startled Germans. There was a terrific explosion and the guns and crews were torn to pieces. Another instant and the old Thirty-seventh came smashing its way to victory.
Two weeks later and Frank had left the hospital and was back again with the Army Boys. The injury to his head was found to be not serious, and the leg although badly wrenched and strained had no bone broken. It yielded rapidly to treatment, and Frank's splendid strength and vitality aided greatly in his cure.
There was immense jubilation among the Army Boys when their idolized comrade resumed his place in the ranks.
"You can't keep a squirrel on the ground," exulted Tom, as he gave his friend a tremendous thump on the back.
"Or Frank Sheldon away from the firing line," grinned Bart, looking at his friend admiringly.
"You didn't think I was going to stay in that dinky hospital when there was so much doing, did you?" laughed Frank. "Say, fellows, if my leg had been broken instead of just sprained, I'd have died of a broken heart. I've got to get busy now and get even with the boches for that crack on the head they gave me. It's a good thing it's solid ivory, or it would have been split for fair."
"You don't need to worry about paying the Germans back," chuckled Billy. "You paid them in advance. You don't owe them a thing. Say, what George Washington did to the cherry tree with his little hatchet wasn't a circumstance to what you did to the Huns with that axe of yours. The axe is your weapon, Frank. A rifle doesn't run one, two, three, compared with it."
"I'll admit that the axe work was good as a curtain raiser," remarked Tom. "But the real show was when those machine guns and their crews were blown to pieces. That made the work of the regiment easy."
"It was classy work," agreed Will Stone, who came along just then and heard what they were talking about.
"How are the tanks?" asked Frank of the newcomer. "I suppose old Jumbo is just spoiling for a fight."
"I guess he is," replied Stone, with a touch of affection in his voice for the monster tank that he commanded, "and from all I hear he's going to get lots of it."
"I guess we all are," said Bart.
"All little pals together," hummed Billy.
"And it's going to be a different kind of fighting," went on Stone. "The tide is turning at last. The Hun has been doing the driving. Now he's going to be driven."
"Glory hallelujah!" cried Billy.
"Do you think that General Foch is going to take the offensive?" asked Bart eagerly.
"It looks that way," replied Stone. "Of course, I'm not in the secrets of the High Command, and only General Foch himself knows when and where he's going to strike. But by the way they're massing tanks here I think it will be soon. They're gathering them by the hundreds in the woods, so that the movement can't be seen by enemy aviators. When the blow comes it will be a heavy one. And do you notice the way the American divisions are being brought together here? That means that they'll take a big part in the offensive. Foch has been watching what our boys have been doing, and he's going to put us in the front ranks."
"Better and better," chortled Billy. "That boy's got good judgment. He's a born fighter himself and he knows fighters when he sees them."
"Well, you boys keep right on your toes," said Stone, as he prepared to leave them, "and I'll bet a dollar to a doughnut that within three days you'll see the Heinies on the run."
Two days passed and nothing special happened. Then at dawn on the third day, Foch struck like a thunderbolt!
He had gathered his forces. He had chosen the place. He had bided his time.
The German forces were taken utterly by surprise. Their General Staff was caught napping. They had underestimated their enemy's daring and resources. Their flank was exposed, and it crumpled up under the terrific and unexpected blow.
Thousands of prisoners and hundreds of guns were taken on the first day, and the success was continued for many days thereafter. The Allies were elated and the Germans correspondingly depressed. Their boasted drive had been held back, and now they themselves were the pursued, with the Allies, flushed with victory, close upon their heels.
The Army Boys were in their element, and they fought with a dash and spirit that they had never surpassed. Other volumes of this series will tell of the thrilling exploits, with the tanks and otherwise, by which they upheld the honor and glory of the Stars and Stripes.
"Well," said Frank one evening, after a day crowded with splendid fighting, "we've put a dent in the Kaiser's helmet."
"Yes," grinned Bart, as he wiped his glowing face. "Considering that we're green troops that were going to run like sheep before the Prussian Guards, we haven't done so badly."
"I guess the folks at home aren't kicking," remarked Tom. "They told us to come over here and clean up, and so far we've been obeying orders."
"We've held back the German drive," put in Billy, "but that's just the beginning. Now we've got to tackle another job. We've got to drive the Hun out of France——"
"And out of Belgium," added Tom.
"And back to the Rhine," chimed in Bart.
"Get it right, you boobs," laughed Frank. "Straight back to Berlin!"