"Oh! what is that up there, and heading this way?" Tubby suddenly exclaimed.
No sooner had Rob turned his gaze aloft than he was able to give the desired information.
"That is one of the famous German Zeppelins, hovering over the battlefield," he told Tubby.
THE BATTLE FOR THE TRENCHES.
By this time everyone was gazing in mixed wonder and awe at the strange dirigible balloon, speeding in great circles far up toward the clouds.
Rob and his comrades had read more or less about these monster airships which the German Count had invented, and which were expected to play a prominent part in this world war. They had even hoped that before they left Belgium they might be given an opportunity to see one of the fleet monsters, which were said to be able to carry dozens of men, as well as tons of explosives, incredible distances.
In Antwerp there had been considerable talk concerning the possibility of these Zeppelins making a concerted attack on the city, and forcing its surrender. All manner of fearful stories were going the rounds, and many timid people had even left the city on the Scheldt for the more hospitable shores of England, just on account of the threatening peril from the clouds.
"So, that's a real Zeppelin, is it?" Tubby remarked, as they stood there with their eyes riveted on the flittering monster of the air.
"No question about it," Merritt told him, "because the poor Belgians don't own such an expensive airship, though they have some aeroplanes, I was told."
"But what do you reckon they're doing up there?" asked Tubby, still seeking to increase his limited stock of knowledge.
"Why," Rob replied, "don't you see there's a battle going on below, and from that height men with glasses can see every little thing that's happening. They are able to tell how the Belgian forces are intrenched; and by means of signals let their gunners know where to drop shells so as to do the most harm."
"Whee! what won't they do next in modern, up-to-date fighting?" exclaimed Tubby.
"There have been lots of remarkable surprises sprung in this war already," Merritt observed thoughtfully, "but I'm thinking the worst is yet to come. There never was such a war before in the history of the world, and it's to be hoped this one ends in a peace that will last forever."
"Yes," added Rob, greatly impressed by what he was seeing, "war's going to cost so much after this that the nations will have to fix up some other way to settle their differences. About that Zeppelin, Tubby; don't you see how they might be able to drop a few bombs on the enemy's trenches; or where the Belgians have fixed barbed-wire entanglements to stop the rush of the charging German troops? Just to think that here we are really watching a battle that isn't like one of the sham rights they have every summer at home. It's hard to believe, boys!"
They were all agreed as to this, and every little while one of them might be detected actually rubbing his eyes, as though suspecting he were asleep and all this were but a feverish dream.
The cannonading grew more and more furious as the morning advanced. Huge billows of smoke covered sections of the country, some of it not more than a mile away from the village where Rob and his chums had stopped.
"And just to think," said Tubby, with a touch of sorrow in his voice. "While all this sounds like a Fourth of July celebration to us, safe as we are, it spells lots of terrible wounds for the poor fellows who are in the fight. Why, with all those big shells bursting, and the shrapnel too, that you spoke about, Rob, right now I reckon there are just hundreds of them wanting to be attended to."
"That's true enough, Tubby, the more the pity," replied Rob.
"What's this coming up behind us?" called out Merritt, as loud cheers, together with the rattle of wheels and the pounding of many horses' hoofs, were heard on the road they had used on the previous night.
"Oh! they're going to bombard the village; and now we'll get it!" gasped Tubby.
"It looks like a battery coming from the direction of Antwerp, and hurrying to get in action!" Rob ventured to say, as he discovered that those who were seated on the horses and on the gun caissons wore the Belgian uniforms.
"Just what it is, Rob," added Merritt excitedly. "They hear the sound of the guns ahead, and are crazy to get there. Look at them whip the horses, would you! And how the animals run! They smell the smoke of burnt powder, and it's fairly set them all wild!"
It was indeed a stirring sight to see that battery come tearing along straight through the little village, and heading directly toward the place where the flashing and roaring of battle seemed fiercest.
The men were all keyed up to a pitch of excitement that made them forget they were about to face danger and death. They shouted as they swept past, and the poor villagers, filled with a momentary enthusiasm, sent back answering cries.
Such enthusiasm is always contagious. Why, even peace-loving Tubby seemed to be infected with some of it. His eyes glowed, and his breath came in short puffs, as he watched the guns and caissons go whirling along until men, horses and all had vanished down the road in a cloud of dust.
"Some of those brave fellows will never come back again, I'm afraid," said Tubby sadly.
"It begins to look as if the artillery arm was going to be everything in this war," Rob remarked, as though the sight of those bursting shells impressed him.
"But what do you suppose all that bombardment means?" Merritt asked.
"I can only give a guess," the patrol leader replied. "From all I've read I get the idea that before the Germans order a charge of their infantry they pour in a heavy bombardment from every big gun they can get in line. That makes it so hot in the trenches that the enemy has to keep under cover. Then the infantry manages to get a good start before they are fired on."
"Nothing new about that, I guess," replied Merritt. "It was done in the battle of Gettysburg, where Lee used more than a hundred cannon to bombard, before starting to carry Little Round-top and Cemetery Hill by assault. I was just reading about it a few weeks ago in a magazine article at home. But if those are their tactics, Rob, we ought to be seeing some movement of troops pretty soon."
"Yes," the patrol leader admitted, "the gun fire is slackening right now; and if we had glasses I expect we could see the infantry starting forward. Those up in the Zeppelin can watch every move that takes place."
"All the same I'd rather take my chances down here," Tubby announced.
"What's that moving away over there, Rob?" demanded Merritt. "Seems like a gray looking snake creeping out from the shelter of the woods. I declare if I don't believe it is a mass of men charging straight at the Belgian trenches!"
"The Germans all wear a sort of grayish green uniform, you know," Tubby declared, "which is so like the dirt that lots of times you can't tell the soldiers from the earth half a mile away."
"Look sharp, fellows," said Rob, "because that is where they're going to shoot their bolt. What we see is a battalion of infantry charging. Now watch how they begin to gather momentum. Yes, and when the gun fire lets up we'll hear the voices of thousands of men singing as they rush forward, ready to die for the Fatherland."
They stood there with trembling limbs, and continued to watch what was developing right before their eyes. It seemed as though that gray mass would never cease coming into view. The whole open space was covered with lines upon lines of soldiers all pushing in one direction, and that where the intrenchments of the Belgians must lie.
"Oh! look! look! they're opening on them with quick-fire guns, and all sorts of things!" Tubby exclaimed, in absolute horror. "Why, I can see lanes cut in the lines of the Germans; but they always close up, and keep right on! Isn't it terrible?"
"It is sublime!" said Rob; and that tribute to the unflinching bravery of the German advance was about the limit of a boy's vocabulary.
"But the plucky little Belgians won't yield an inch of ground, you see!" cried Merritt. "They keep pouring in that terrible fire, and mowing the Germans down, just like they were cutting wheat on a Minnesota farm."
"How will it all end, I wonder?" said Rob, fascinated, more than he would have believed possible, by the panorama that was being unfolded before his eyes.
"If the ammunition of the Belgian batteries and Maxims holds out," ventured Merritt, "there won't be any German army left in this part of the country. Their best troops are said to be down in France now, fighting the Allies; but if these are only second or third class reserves, I wonder what the really top-notch ones can do in a battle."
"They're weakening, let me tell you!" Rob startled the others by saying. "Watch and you'll see that they don't advance as fast as before. Perhaps the general in charge has found that the trenches can't be taken by a direct charge. They're going to fall back, and let the artillery start in again! The first part of the terrible battle is over, for there the Germans begin to scatter, and run, to get out of range of the Maxims!"
"And the plucky Belgians have won again!" Merritt declared as though almost tempted to join in the cries of satisfaction that were beginning to rise from those of the villagers who were clustered close by, intensely interested spectators of the thrilling spectacle just enacted.
"And there's that old Zeppelin still swinging around up in the sky," remarked Tubby. "For all the information they were able to signal down, the Germans couldn't take the Belgian trenches. When they got the wire entanglements they were blocked."
"But unless I miss my guess," exclaimed Merritt, "the Zeppelin will have to get on the run pretty quick or it'll find there's a little war brewing in the sky, because I can see a couple of aeroplanes rising from back of the Belgian lines!"
THE BADGE OF COURAGE AND MERCY.
"It seems like we were to be treated to about everything there is going in the way of up-to-date fighting!" said Tubby, who was having some difficulty in craning his fat neck, to look toward where the wonderful airship was still making enormous circles above the battle lines.
"Are you sure they are Belgian aeroplanes?" asked Merritt, who had been attentively observing the ascending fliers.
"They came up from behind the line of trenches," replied Rob, "and that makes it look as if they couldn't be German machines. Besides, the invaders all use a model that is called a Taube, which is different from these."
"But why d'ye suppose they didn't climb up before now, and tackle that monster Zeppelin, so as to put it out of business, or chase it off?" inquired Tubby.
"They had their reasons, I suppose," he was told by the patrol leader. "No matter what they may have been, we're not interested. It's enough for us to watch what's going to happen from now on."
"I'll be jiggered if the Zeppelin isn't going to have it out with them!" exclaimed Merritt. "Did you see that little puff of what looked like smoke? They've got some sort of gun aboard, and mean to try and riddle the aeroplanes with it!"
"Whew! talk to me about excitement, this has got everything I ever knew beaten by a mile!" admitted Tubby.
"You notice that both the monoplanes manage to keep pretty far away from the dirigible," Rob told them. "And see how they bore up in circles all the while, too, getting higher right along."
"What's the idea of that?" asked Merritt.
"For one thing it'll put them on equal terms with the Zeppelin so that they can send back shot for shot," explained the other. "But unless I miss my guess they mean to try a bigger scheme than that, if once they can get above the airship."
"You mean drop a bomb down on it, don't you, Rob?" Merritt asked.
"Yes. You know these Zeppelins are made in many sections. They say one could keep afloat even if a dozen of these were smashed. They're along similar lines as the watertight compartments of steamships. Some auto tires are made the same way too. But if a bomb was dropped on top of the gas bag, I reckon the explosion would play hob with the whole business."
They stood there and watched the strange duel in the heavens. The thrill of that occasion would never be forgotten by any one of the three scouts. And all the while the guns over beyond the low-lying hills were beating a terrible tattoo that was like the music of the orchestra when a play is being performed. That tragedy was there above them, the stage being the limitless expanse of the heavens.
The Zeppelin maneuvered again and again in order to get in touch with the wasp-like enemies that constantly darted out of reach. There was more or less firing going on, the boys could see, even though the distance and the growl of the German artillery prevented them from hearing any reports.
"There, I believe they've done it!" shouted Merritt suddenly.
"The Zeppelin is running away, that's sure!" echoed Tubby, "and one of the aeroplanes seems to be further up, too!"
"Something has happened, because the rear of the dirigible looks as if it had collapsed," Rob announced. "I wonder how they manage to steer, with the rudder useless. But they're coming down fast now, you notice!"
"And aiming so as to bring the monoplanes over the German lines," added Merritt. "If the little fellows know what's good for them, they'll keep a good distance off, because there are guns made that can shoot straight up for a mile, and send a shell or shrapnel to burst, and fetch an aviator every time."
While they watched, the disabled Zeppelin dropped out of sight back of the woods, and it was easily possible for the boys to hear the wild shouts of derision that ascended from the trenches where the Belgians lay concealed.
The two aeroplanes then started to have a little scout of their own, and doubtless those daring air pilots picked up more or less information that would prove of value to the defenders of the trenches.
"Is the battle over, do you think?" asked Tubby, when this exciting panorama in the upper air currents had come to an end.
"Some of the guns are still muttering," Rob told him, "but they seem to be further away. Perhaps the Germans are bombarding some fortified place off in the distance, or it may be an English army has shown up, and is giving battle to the Kaiser. You know the poor Belgians are hoping for that to happen right along."
"But just think what is over there!" continued Tubby, with a shudder as he pointed a chubby finger toward the scene of the late charge and repulse. "Why, I can see hundreds of men lying around, just like the corn when they go to cutting so it can be stacked. Ugh! it's awful to think of all those poor Germans!"
"They're not all Germans, either," corrected Merritt; "because I saw one place where the Belgians rushed out of their trenches, and fought hand to hand. Lots of them must have been knocked over, too. They just couldn't hold back, I guess, with the fighting spirit in them."
"And this is what's going on all through Belgium, Northern France, and over along the border of Russia," said Rob, powerfully impressed with the tragic scene he had looked upon.
"Here's another battery coming along the road, too late to get in the fight!" they heard Tubby saying.
"That's where you're barking up the wrong tree, Tubby," Merritt assured him, "because what's coming now is just the opposite of a battery. One cuts down the ranks of the enemy, this one helps to bind up their wounds, and carry them off the battlefield! In action the fighting men become like fiends; but I guess you could call these angels of mercy!"
"Why, sure enough, I can see the Red Cross on the wagon!" cried Tubby, evidently pleased by the discovery. "Then that must be an ambulance, and they're going on the battlefield to help the poor wounded fellows! Oh! how much I admire them right now. I wish I was worth a continental as a surgeon, and I'd like to volunteer to help take care of some of the wounded."
"There are three more ambulances, and they seem to have several nurses aboard each one," Rob observed, as the procession advanced closer to where they were located.
"There's a man driving, and I reckon now that may be the surgeon," Merritt was saying, as though deeply interested. "How about this, Rob? I thought nurses only worked in the hospitals back of the lines; but these seem heading right for the battlefield."
"As a rule they let men bring in the wounded," said Rob. "But sometimes a nurse is allowed to go about trying to help the poor fellows as best she can until such time as a stretcher can reach them. Most of them are parched with thirst, and what they ask for first of all is a drink of water."
"I might do that much, anyway," Tubby was heard to mutter to himself, "if only I thought I could stand the terrible sights. You know, seeing blood always used to make me feel faint-like. But then a scout ought to overcome that weakness."
Possibly it may have been something in what Tubby said that gave Merritt his brilliant idea, for he immediately whirled upon the patrol leader, and exclaimed:
"Rob, why couldn't we ask them to take us along, and let us do what we can to help? As scouts we know something about taking care of wounds, you remember. Why, didn't that officer compliment us on the way we looked after his men, and the German spy they'd captured? Rob, see if we could do it, won't you? It might be a terrible experience for us; but I feel like I'd be better satisfied if I could lend a helping hand here."
The first of the three army ambulances had by this time come close to the boys. Attracted by their khaki uniforms, and possibly their bright eager faces, the man who was driving held up his team. A woman of middle-age, garbed as a nurse, jumped to the ground, and approached the boys. They saw that undoubtedly she must be the one in charge of the Red Cross detachment.
At sight of the little American flag which Tubby wore on the lapel of his coat her eyes glistened.
"That is a glorious sight to my eyes in this foreign land," she told them, "for I, too, am American-born. My profession is that of a trained nurse. A wealthy patient I brought abroad died in Antwerp; and as the war had broken out I determined to offer my services to the Government, so that I was immediately given a position of trust and responsibility. We are short-handed with men, you can see. I happen to know what Boy Scouts over in America have to learn about taking care of wounded persons. It is a terrible thing to ask, but this is a case of necessity. Would you be willing to help us out; and do you think you could stand the awful sights and sounds of the battlefield?"
Rob and Merritt exchanged glances; while their flushed faces told the nurse what their answer would be, even before they spoke a single word.
"We were just wondering whether you would let us join you," Rob said quickly, "for we want to do something to help those poor fellows over there. Yes, if you can make room for us aboard your ambulance we'll gladly go along."
Poor Tubby had lost all his color. He was as white as a ghost; but with tightly shut teeth he pushed up, to allow the nurse to fasten a bit of muslin, stamped with a vivid red cross, upon his left arm, and then he climbed into the ambulance.
AFTER THE FIGHTING WAS OVER.
The horses had been urged on at considerable speed, in order to arrive upon the scene of action, for the animals began to show evidences of exhaustion long before they reached a position back of the Belgian trenches. That may have been one of the reasons why they were halted temporarily, at the time the head nurse talked with the three Boy Scouts.
As they approached the battle line Rob and his friends became intensely interested. They saw the heads of the defenders of the trenches thrust up to observe their coming, and heard the hearty ringing cheers with which the Red Cross nurses were greeted.
Men sprang out to assist them, so that apparently it would be no hard task to find plenty of recruits to handle the stretchers upon which the wounded could be carried to the hastily constructed field hospital in the rear, where the surgeons would soon be busily employed.
Tubby was still looking very white, but he had made up his mind that he would go through with this wonderful experience even if he fainted dead away. All that was stubborn in his nature had come to the surface; and Rob, after noticing this, made up his mind Tubby was going to take a long step forward before another sun had set.
Now they were on the other side of the trenches. There was considerable bustle. Nurses commenced to spread out over the field, on which some men lay groaning and others very still.
The assistants with the stretchers, upon whose arms had been fastened badges bearing the sacred red cross, began to carry off such of the wounded as they found needed urgent attention.
"Come on, boys, let's see where we can help out!" said Rob, trying to appear perfectly cool and collected, but at the same time knowing that his knees were inclined to knock together, so that he could not blame poor Tubby for feeling as he did.
They started out. At first all of them stuck together, for the sights they soon saw filled them with a sense of horror, as well as compassion.
Never were Boy Scouts placed in a position where they had more reason to be thankful for what little knowledge of surgery they had attained.
The American nurse may have felt considerable doubt as to whether she had done a wise thing in affording these boys a chance to assist the Red Cross upon the battlefield. Rob saw that she hovered near them, as though keeping an eye on what they did.
It was a dreadful experience for those boys, to be thus brought in close contact with the dead and the dying; they could never forget what they saw there that day.
Even Tubby braced up when he found that he could be useful in helping the others. He had secured a bucket of water, and when he heard some poor fellow cry out, or saw him make frantic gestures, it was his business to hurry over and supply his wants. No matter what uniform the wounded man wore, it did not make a bit of difference; since the Red Cross recognizes neither friend nor foe, but treats all alike.
It is possible to get accustomed to almost anything in this world. Not one of those boys would have imagined a short time before this that they could find courage and nerve enough to walk in the midst of such carnage; and yet they were actually doing it now.
As Rob and Merritt finished binding up the leg of a poor fellow who would soon have bled to death but for their coming, the nurse who had meanwhile come up behind them commended their work.
"It was excellently done, I want you to know," she told them, "and I can plainly see that I need have no further fears concerning your ability to be of much assistance here. Do all you can, my brave boys, but remember not to go too far. You are not accustomed to such sights, and it may affect you in the end."
She hurried away to take up her own labors, leaving the boys with a proud sense of having done their duty as genuine scouts should, trying to be of use to others in sore need.
For an hour, yes two of them, they continued to work there, while the stretcher bearers and the ambulances bore the victims of the late conflict back in apparently an unending procession. Those poor fellows who had no further need of attention were of course allowed to remain just as they had fallen; and by degrees the wounded were weeded out, to be taken care of back of the desperately defended lines, where the Red Cross floated from the canvas field hospital.
Tubby had about reached the end of his endurance. They could see that he was certainly getting very wabbly on his feet, for often he stumbled as he moved around with his bucket and dipper, seeking a stray wounded soldier who might have been overlooked, so as to supply water to quench his raging thirst.
The sun looked down from a cloudless September sky, and it was very hot for the advanced season of the year. Far off in the distance those never-ceasing German guns still kept up their muttering as they sent shells into some fortified place. The battle in this particular field was apparently not going to be renewed; for already some of the Belgian batteries were being taken away, to face a new quarter where, according to their air scouts, the enemy meant to next try a forward movement.
Terrible though the experience may have been to all the boys, none of them had any regrets. The grateful looks and words they had received repaid them tenfold for all the nerve-racking ordeals through which they had gone.
"I think it's queer, though," Merritt was saying to Rob, as they walked around in search of any wretched victim whom they might assist, "that not a single German has been out on the battlefield to render first aid. I don't understand it at all. They've got as fine surgeons as any in the world, and the Red Cross works with their armies the same as with all the rest."
"I was bothering my head about that, too, since you mention it," Rob announced.
"What did you make up your mind was the cause of it?" continued Merritt, who had considerable respect for the opinions and decisions of the Eagle Patrol leader.
"It means either one of two things," he was told. "It may be the settled policy of the Germans in their rush to push through Belgium and Northern France to leave their wounded to be taken care of by the enemy, whenever the battle has gone against them; or else a quick change of front compels them to abandon the field."
"Still," argued Merritt, who secretly was much in favor of the Allies, "you'd think there would be some parties out with stretchers, looking up their wounded. I never will understand it."
"Well, they must have a good reason for acting that way," Rob told him. "You know the Germans are great sticklers for sacrificing everything to the good of the cause of the Fatherland. If necessary even the wounded must be temporarily neglected until the end aimed at is attained. You remember what we heard in Antwerp about those three British cruisers that were just torpedoed in the North Sea by German submarines?"
"I can see what you mean, Rob. One was struck, and began to sink. The other two hurried up to render assistance, and while their engines were still they were hit by torpedoes and went down. If, instead of trying to help their distressed comrades in the English way, they had let them look out for themselves, and first of all smashed the conning towers of the submarines, they would have saved themselves. I guess in war times the German style counts best, though it seems cruel to me."
"I think we had better pull out of this before long," remarked Rob.
"Well, if you asked me I'd say I've had enough to last the rest of my life," Merritt told his chum. "If ever I had any idea I'd like to be a soldier I give you my word that's gone glimmering now. What I've looked on this day has cured me."
"I was thinking more of poor Tubby than either of us," the patrol leader remarked. "You can see he's pretty near the end of his rope. Twice now I've seen him trip and fall flat, over some of the war material that's scattered around so thick. And he could hardly get on his feet again, he's that played out."
"But, Rob, Tubby has certainly shown up splendidly in this terrible trial!"
"He's done a heap more than we have," Rob asserted, "because he always has been a timid sort of chap with regard to seeing blood when any of us got hurt. I remember how ghastly white Tubby grew that time one of the scouts in the Owl Patrol cut his foot with the ax. I thought for a while we'd have two patients on our hands. He had to sit down so as to get over it."
"Yes, and see what he's stood to-day," said Merritt. "Many a boy who boasts of having lots of nerve would have shrunk from doing what he has. Tubby's all right, and that's a fact. But it's high noon, and I warrant you he's feeling mighty hungry."
"He would, under ordinary conditions," said Rob, "but just now I don't believe any of us could eat a mouthful. I know the very thought of it makes me feel queer."
"That's because we're not used to such sights and sounds," Merritt explained. "I expect to wake up many a night with a groan and a shiver, dreaming I'm on a battlefield again, after those awful Maxims have been doing their murderous work."
"Well, we might take one last turn around," suggested Rob, "and if we fail to find any more wounded men, we'll call it a day's work, and quit."
"For one thing, I'm glad I don't mean to follow this up as a profession," his comrade continued. "I think I've had enough experience of fighting to last me a lifetime, and yet, on second thought, if it should happen again that they needed what little help I could give, why I'd have to pitch in."
AN IMPORTANT CLUE.
"There was one thing I meant to mention to you, Merritt," said Rob, as they once more started to zigzag across the field where so many windrows of fallen Germans lay, just as they had dropped when making that daring charge.
It was perhaps a little strange how the boys could come to converse as they did while surrounded by such gruesome sights; but after several hours' familiarity with such scenes these begin to lose some of their harrowing features. And while Rob and his chum were still shocked by frequent sights, they did not feel the same weakness that had, in the beginning, almost overpowered them.
"Then, tell it now," urged Merritt.
"It was about Anthony," continued the other.
"Well, as we know only one Anthony just now," pursued Merritt, "I reckon you must be referring to our late guide, the same who gave us the slip like a coward. What about Anthony, Rob?"
"I guessed right about him," replied the patrol leader. "It was not fear that tempted him to leave us in the lurch, but a craze to get in action. I think Anthony, while too old a man to be on the active list of the Belgian army, must have been a reservist."
"Yes, he told me so," said Tubby, coming up and catching what was being said by his chums.
"Well," Rob continued, "apparently he knew where to go to get a suit, for there he was as big as life, and he even had the audacity to wave his hand at me, and grin."
"Where was this, Rob?" demanded Merritt, surprised, as well he might be.
"Where but sitting on one of those ammunition caissons that went whirling past us into action. Anthony must have been with the artillery corps. He felt the longing come over him when he thought of the enemies of his country—those raiding Uhlans. So what did he do but take French leave on his horse, and get to where this battery was waiting for orders to proceed to the front."
"Oh! well, if you're dead sure it was Anthony," Merritt observed, as if mollified by the information, "of course we'll have to forgive him. I was only mad because I thought the fellow'd gone and gotten cold feet, after taking our advance pay, too. If he's that kind of a patriot, I've got no quarrel with Anthony."
"And perhaps he even had a share in mowing down some of these Germans who had invaded his country," suggested Tubby. "Anthony seemed to be pretty bitter against the Kaiser and his people for trying to cross Belgium in order to strike France in the back, as he called it. Whee! I'm tired; but I didn't give up, did I, fellows? You never thought Tubby would be able to come through with what he has, and I know it."
"You deserve a medal, Tubby; and we were just saying what a change there's been in you," Rob told him, causing a wan smile to flit across the wearied face of the fat scout.
"Yes," added Merritt readily, "to see the tender way you handled that German, hardly more than a boy himself, and who may never live to see his people again, anyone would have thought you had it in you to be a surgeon. Tubby, if I were you I'd pay more attention to such things. I honestly believe there's a streak of it in your blood."
"Well," Tubby remarked complacently, "we've had eminent doctors in our family; and my folks always said they hoped I'd take a fancy that way; but when I found how weak I was every time I saw a little blood, I gave up the idea. Now I've had my baptism on the battlefield, so mebbe I will change my mind. Even a soft-hearted fellow might make a good doctor, if he couldn't be a surgeon."
"Listen, there's someone calling to us!" exclaimed Merritt.
"And in German, too," added Rob. "Look all around, and see if you can find him. He must have recovered his senses after we passed by before."
"There's something moving under that pile of bodies," remarked Tubby with a shudder; "yes, and now you can see a hand waving to us. Oh! let's hurry and get the poor fellow out!"
The others were just as willing, and soon they had dragged a man out from the weight that had almost smothered him.
"He's pretty badly hurt, I reckon," remarked Rob, as he immediately stooped down over the Bavarian soldier, "but not fatally, I think. We'll do what we can for him here, and the next time men come along with a stretcher, we'll send him over to the field hospital."
The wounded German soldier had listened to them speaking.
"Are you American boys, then?" he asked, in excellent English.
"Well, now, he must have guessed that when you said you 'reckoned,' Rob," declared Merritt, "but how comes it you talk English, my friend?"
"Oh! I'm from Hoboken," said the man, smiling in spite of the terrible pain he must have been enduring.
Rob was already busily engaged stanching the bleeding from his wounds, which seemed to be numerous, though not apt to prove fatal, if they had proper attention.
"Do you mean Hoboken, New Jersey?" he asked, in surprise.
"Sure. I have lived there for many years now, and have a large brewing interest. Krauss is my name, Philip Krauss. I went across from Munich, in Bavaria, and was on a visit to my old home when the war came about. Although I have long been an American citizen I still love my native land, and they soon found a place for me in the ranks. But now if I ever get over this I think I will have had enough of fighting, and expect to return to my wife and children in Hoboken. But what are you doing here on this terrible field? It is not the place for boys."
"We are Boy Scouts," Tubby informed him proudly. "By accident we were where we could watch the battle being fought. Then along came the Red Cross ambulances, and the nurses. They asked us to assist, and as scouts all learn something about first aid, why we thought we'd help out. I guess you're about our last case, Herr Krauss."
Meanwhile Rob and Merritt busied themselves. The way they went about temporarily relieving his suffering, as well as stopping the loss of blood, quite won the admiration of the Hoboken patriot, even as it had done in the case of numerous other wounded men whom the boys attended previously.
It chanced that once again the boys became immersed in their own affairs, which were beginning to weigh heavily on their minds.
"I was making inquiries of one of the men with the stretchers," Rob told his comrades, "and he assured me that this little place by the name of Sempst is only a matter of six miles or so from where we are right now."
"Then," said Merritt, brightening up, "if only we stand a chance to get around without being gobbled by the Germans, we might strike in there to-morrow, and see if Steven Meredith is still at his post. The agent sent word to my grandfather that he had accepted a position there in charge of some manufacturing plant owned by a German firm in Brussels. I think myself there may have been some truth in that story about his being in the pay of the German Government, both over in America and here!"
The wounded man was listening eagerly to what they said.
"Excuse me," he now broke in. "But that is not a common name; and I once met a Steven Meredith, who pretended to be an American citizen, but who I knew was an agent of the German Government. It may be the same man. I entertained him, together with the German consul in New York City, at my home in Hoboken. Do you happen to know any peculiarity about his looks or manner that would identify him?"
"The man we are trying to find was tall," said Merritt quickly, "and has a slight cast in his left eye. He talks with something of a twang, as though he might be a Down-East Yankee."
"It must be the same!" declared Philip Krauss, as though convinced. "That accent, I believe, was cleverly assumed for a purpose. Promise me that you will not think it your duty to betray him to the enemy, and I will tell you still more of him."
Merritt and Rob exchanged significant looks.
"We have no fight against either Germany or the Allies," Merritt observed, "for Americans are neutral, and there would be no need of our betraying him, even if we had the chance. So we can easily give you that promise. He has something in his possession that belongs to my family; and we have come a long way to get it; that is all we want of Steven Meredith. Now, what can you tell us about him?"
"Only this," replied the wounded Hoboken brewer. "You have perhaps saved my life, and I feel I am under heavy obligations for the favor. It is worth something to my wife and family that I should live to see Hoboken again. The man you are looking for is in the suburbs of Brussels. You spoke of Sempst. He was there two days ago when my troop passed through. That may ease your minds, my brave boys."
"Would you mind telling us how you know this?" asked Rob.
"I saw him, and talked with him," came the convincing response. "He remembered me, though he put his finger on his lips, and looked around him as though he were suspicious. He is, as you said, in charge of a manufacturing plant, or appears to be, though he may have been sent there to spy upon the people, and learn valuable facts for the service. But I am glad to be able to do even a little in return for your kindness."
As two soldiers wearing the Red Cross on their sleeves came along just then with a stretcher, the boys beckoned to them, and had Philip Krauss carried off to the field hospital. They did not see him again after that. If, however, they should ever reach home again, they determined some day to look the Hoboken man up, and learn of his further adventures.
THE CAMP FIRES OF AN ARMY.
"Here, it's getting well along into the afternoon," remarked Tubby with a forlorn look on his face, "and I'm so knocked out that if you told me you meant to make a start for the little Belgian town right away I'd faint, sure I would."
"Don't think of doing it, then, Tubby," Rob told him, "because the rest of your chums are feeling in pretty much the same box themselves."
"We've had a terribly hard day of it, for a fact," agreed Merritt, as he looked around upon the scene, and shuddered in spite of his well known nerve.
"Then please tell me what's the program?" pleaded the fat scout. "That munch of black bread was good enough to keep a fellow from starving to death; but I certainly do hope there's a better prospect ahead of us for supper."
"Rob, you've got a scheme!" asserted Merritt.
"What makes you think so?" asked the other, smiling languidly; for he was very nearly exhausted from the hard work he had done acting as an assistant field surgeon in the service of the Red Cross corps, doing temporary work in binding up wounds, and giving stimulants to those who were weak through loss of blood.
"Oh! I can tell it from the way you act," replied Merritt. "I haven't been your closest chum all this time without getting to know what different things mean. Now give us a pointer; what about getting some supper, and finding a place to sleep to-night?"
"Well, do you think you could stand for another night in the hay?" demanded Rob.
"Just try me, that's all!" whimpered Tubby. "And, say, if you're thinking of going back to that village again, I only hope they'll be good to us, and feed us like they did this morning."
"That's what I had in mind," the patrol leader told them. "So the sooner we make a start that way the sooner we can rest up."
It was weary work tramping all the way back to the little village where they had first met the ambulances of the Red Cross corps, and joined hands with the workers. Rob would have liked to say good-by to the American nurse who had taken so much interest in their welfare. He knew, though, that it would be too much for Tubby to approach that terrible field hospital, where undoubtedly the nurses were still busily engaged helping the surgeons in their labors.
Whenever Tubby groaned and gave signs of dropping, they called a temporary halt and, in this way, made it as easy for the fat scout as possible.
Somehow the very thought of that sweet-scented hay appealed to Tubby very nearly as much as a good feed might; and that was saying a great deal.
"I don't wonder at hoboes liking haystacks when they're wandering around the country, if only they're as nice as that mow we struck," he told the others more than once. "Why, things couldn't be better. Now I understand what they mean when they say 'hitting the hay.' It means a sweet sleep. But we're really getting there, ain't we, Rob?"
"We're right on top of the village now, Tubby," Merritt told him.
"Yes," added Rob, "there you can see the elevation we stood on when we watched the terrible battle. The village is here on our left. One more tug, and we'll arrive, so brace up, Tubby."
"Oh! I'm getting along quite decent, thank you, Rob. But I'll be glad when we're sitting on that bench under the shade of the tree."
As they entered the village they found that it was quite a different place from the time of their previous visit. Streams of wounded men had been brought in, and every other cottage was turned into a temporary hospital.
Of course the injured Belgians were given the first choice, as was perfectly natural; but Rob was pleased to see that after all these humble villagers had human traits in their make-up. Misery makes the whole world akin, and although they had no reason to love any German invader, the sight of stalwart young Teutons suffering agonies touched many a mother's heart; their own sons might any day be in need of the same attention from strangers, and they could not refuse to aid these wounded foes.
So into many a Belgian home a sorely stricken German was carried, to be cared for until the time came when he could be removed, either to his own lines, or to Antwerp.
The boys first of all sought that shady spot where the bench mentioned by Tubby offered an inviting seat. Here they sat down, and observed the many stirring sights that were taking place all around them.
"I've seen two men taken to the barn," remarked Merritt, half an hour later, "and so I reckon we'll have neighbors in our hay-mow to-night."
Tubby made a grimace, and then seemed to be ashamed of his selfishness.
"Well, if we do have to play nurse," he observed with the air of a philosopher, "I suppose we can stand it. What are all our troubles, I'd like to know, compared to those these poor people are suffering?"
"That's right, Tubby," said Merritt, "and we'll manage to pick up plenty of sleep, I should think."
"It'll have to be in the early part of the night, then," Rob told them, "because we want to get out of this a couple of hours before daylight."
"You mean to start then for Sempst, do you?" asked Tubby, with a sigh.
"Yes, because it might turn out to be dangerous work walking in broad daylight, until we've managed to get around the Germans," Rob explained. "I've already picked up considerable information about the country, and the lay of the land. Between now and the time we turn in I hope to learn still more, so that I can take you on a road by starlight that will make a circuit around the German camps."
Apparently both his mates had the utmost confidence in Rob's ability to do this, for there was no word of protest raised. Merritt asked a few questions, and then they fell back upon their old occupation of watching the movements of the villagers, mostly women, as they bustled to and fro.
Pretty soon Rob sauntered over to the inn, and had a long talk with the old man who ran the public house. They could see him doing considerable pointing, and from this fact judged that Rob was keeping his word about picking up all the information possible.
When he came back it was getting near sundown; and of course the first thing Tubby asked was:
"Did he say we could have it, Rob?"
As both of the other scouts were so well acquainted with Tubby's weak points they did not need a dictionary in order to understand what was on his mind.
"I'm glad to tell you, Tubby," replied the other, "that the innkeeper says we deserve the best supper he can get ready. It seems that they've been talking about us here. Some of the nurses must have told how we worked on the battlefield; or it may be the wounded soldiers mentioned the fact that we did something to help them bear up till the stretchers arrived. No matter what happened, the innkeeper thinks a heap of us all, and we'll not go to our hay shake-downs hungry this night!"
"Hurray!" cried Tubby joyfully, "he's certainly a good fellow, Rob, I tell you; and I'm never going to forget him. The man who keeps my body and soul together has my eternal gratitude."
Later on they were called in, and found that a substantial meal had been prepared for them. Tubby was fairly ravenous, and his chums found it necessary to warn him not to founder.
"Remember, we've got to be up and doing by three in the morning at the latest," Rob observed, "and if you make yourself sick the whole plan will be knocked galley-west. We might have to leave you behind, after all."
That last threat brought Tubby to his senses.
"Why, you see," he explained, as he pushed himself away from the table and its temptations, "I was trying to fix it so that in case we had to go without our breakfast to-morrow I'd be in shape to stand it."
"Sometimes," mused Merritt, "I think you're trying to fix it so that you could do without eating for a week."
When they made their way outside again it was to find that night had fallen. In the western sky a young moon looked down pityingly on the field which had so lately been marked by the desperate charge of the German hosts, only to fail in their effort to break through the Belgian intrenchments with their barbed wire defenses.
"Look, over there are hundreds of little fires flickering!" exclaimed Tubby.
"Those are the camp fires of the Germans," Rob told him. "I want to fix them in my mind, because we will have to make a wide detour, so as to avoid running across any patrol on the outskirts of their camp. I hope by the time daylight comes we can be far enough around to get off without being seen. The worst thing is this khaki uniform business. If only we had on ordinary clothes we might be taken for Belgian boys. But, as it is, they'll think we're soldiers, or at the least Belgian scouts, and they treat them as if they were regular enlisted men."
Shortly afterward they again sought the barn. The lantern once more hung on its accustomed hook, and by its friendly gleam Rob and his two chums were enabled to find the place where on the preceding night they had slept so well. The wounded men happened to be removed from them by some little distance. They could be heard occasionally groaning, or talking in low tones; but, as the boys were too tired to remain awake long, they soon lost all consciousness of what was passing around them.
Perhaps the crowing of a rooster nearby may have told Rob that it was in the neighborhood of three o'clock, for he aroused his chums close to that time.
THE HANGING BRIDGE.
"Do we have to get out at this terribly early hour?" asked Tubby, as he dug his knuckles into his eyes, still heavy with sleep.
"Yes," said Rob. "I've taken a look at the stars, and it must be half-past two, or near it. You know I've made it a practice to be able to tell the hour of night in that way, and can hit it every time. Come, get a move on you, Tubby, unless you'd prefer staying here in the hay and waiting till we come back."
"Well, you don't shake me that way if I know it," muttered Tubby, hastening to crawl out of his snug nest.
The night air was rather chilly, when once they found themselves outside. All of them were glad to button up their coats.
Looking in the direction where the myriad of fires had been burning earlier in the night and seeming like innumerable giant fireflies which they were accustomed to seeing summer evenings at home, they found that most of them had died out.
"I expected that would happen," said Rob, when Merritt called his attention to the altered conditions in the camp of the Germans, "and it's lucky I made my plans without depending on seeing those fires again. I've got other landmarks to go by."
"I expected you'd have," said Merritt, filled with the utmost confidence in the leader of the Eagle Patrol, which faith was founded on a long list of past performances worth remembering.
As there was nothing to hinder them, they made an immediate start. Tubby was observed to cast a last longing look back toward the humble village inn. No doubt he was deploring the necessity that compelled them to leave such hospitable quarters without waiting for breakfast-time to come along.
It was not exactly dark, once their eyes became accustomed to conditions. The stars shone brilliantly in the clear heavens overhead, and in open country it is possible to steer one's way fairly well by starlight.
For some time the boys went on. Tubby, of course, often stumbled, for it would not have been Tubby otherwise; but, as he had not so far actually spread himself face downward on the road, he thought he was doing very well.
Merritt could see how Rob had laid out their course, by the assistance of the friendly innkeeper, who had been told of their desire to reach the little place called Sempst. He had really drawn Rob a rude but correct chart of the roads covering the territory between, and informed him as to what his best plan of campaign would be.
A number of times they had slight scares. Once a dog ran out from a yard and commenced barking wildly at them, even threatening to nip Tubby in the leg. It was only natural for the threatened one to shout angrily and kick desperately at the offending canine. By great good luck he managed to land the toe of his shoe against the vicious animal's nose, as a loud howl announced.
"There, that serves you right, for bothering me, you silly thing!" grumbled Tubby.
The others knew he must be very proud of that shot, and would often refer to it when complaints were made afterward to the effect that he was "slow." Any one who could manage to get his foot in contact with a snapping dog must not be reckoned out of the running.
Just what they would do should they finally reach the small town where Steven Meredith was supposed to be in charge of a large German manufacturing plant, they had not as yet determined. It was Rob's plan to secure possession of that field-glass case by hook or crook, for, if it proved impossible to obtain by fair means, then he meant to try strategy.
For this purpose he had even bought an empty case while in Antwerp which had been carried through all their adventures. It was a new one, for, in making up his plans, Rob may have had in mind the old Arabian story of the magical lamp, and how the cunning schemer managed to get possession of it by going around and offering housewives to exchange new lamps for old ones.
He meant to exchange with Steven, and give him a brand new case for his worn one, should the opportunity arise for such a transfer.
"And once we get our hands on that bit of paper," he had told the others, "we'll shake the dust of this country off our shoes in the biggest hurry ever."
It must have been fully an hour after they left the stable of the village inn when Rob imparted some information to his chums that caused Tubby, at least, more or less apprehension.
"It's about time we were coming to it now," Rob started to say.
"What, already?" remarked Tubby, evidently delighted, for, of course, he foolishly thought it must be the little town they were heading for that Rob meant.
The other quickly undeceived him.
"Oh! we're a long, long way off from Sempst yet, Tubby," he said. "I was referring to a bridge the inn-keeper told me about, that's all."
"What's there about a bridge to worry us, I'd like to know?" muttered the fat scout suspiciously, feeling terribly depressed, because he had been so like a drowning man grasping at a straw.
"Unless it happens to be guarded by the Germans," suggested Merritt softly, "and then we'd have a dickens of a time getting across."
"The trouble about this particular bridge isn't so much that it's apt to be guarded," Rob went on to inform them, "but the inn-keeper was afraid we'd find it gone!"
"Blown up, do you mean, Rob?" Tubby demanded.
"It's been reported that way," he was informed. "Fact is, there doesn't seem to be much doubt about it. From all accounts, the Belgians destroyed it, as they have done many other costly bridges, so as to impede the advance of the German heavy guns. It takes lots of time and trouble to rebuild a bridge and make it strong enough to let a monster siege gun rumble over."
"But, Rob, shall we have to swim across, or is there a sort of ford handy that we might use?" Merritt inquired.
"I certainly hope we don't have to swim, anyway," Tubby declared, "for, if there's one thing I hate to do, it's to get soaking wet. It's so uncomfortable afterward, and especially when you can't change your clothes. But, of course, if it's got to be done, we'll all have to just grin and bear it."
"It may not be necessary in this case," added Rob, no doubt purposely delaying his information, because he liked to hear Tubby drumming up his courage in this way.
"Then mebbe you've gone and got some wings hidden away, which we can use to fly across?" suggested Tubby quickly, "or it might be an aeroplane is kept handy so's to ferry folks over dry-shod."
"Neither of your guesses hits the mark, Tubby," he was informed. "The inn-keeper said one man told him that, while the bridge was wrecked, a few of the steel beams still hung in place, so that any one who was fairly spry might manage to make his way over from one side to the other. A number had done it, including the man who told him."
"If others can, we ought to be able to make it," Merritt said stoutly.
"Yes, I suppose that's so," admitted Tubby ruefully, "but then you mustn't forget that they had daylight to help out. That makes a heap of difference. I never did have the eyes of a cat so's to see in the dark."
"It's getting on toward the first peep of dawn," Rob told him; "and I expect there'll be some light for us when we reach the bridge."
"We can wait till she comes along, then," Tubby continued, as though even that assurance gave him more or less satisfaction.
From the formation of the country Rob judged they must soon arrive at the place of the bridge. He had already made the discovery that there was a stream on one side of them, which the road would have to cross before long.
"I think I see where it lies," Merritt announced a few minutes after they had stopped talking.
"Yes," admitted the leader, when he had followed the course of Merritt's outstretched finger as well as was possible in the semi-darkness, "that must be the anchorage of the bridge. We'll soon know what we're going to be up against."
"Well, all I hope is we don't have to swim, that's what!" Tubby muttered.
Rob, as they continued to advance, kept a careful lookout. He wondered whether any sort of patrol could have been stationed at the ruined bridge by one or the other of the hostile armies. It might make considerable difference with them in their intended crossing; and would turn out very awkward if, when they were in the middle of the span, they discovered they were being made targets by some reckless marksmen on the further shore.
Presently they drew up alongside the spot. As Rob had hinted the night was really at an end, and in the east the first peep of coming dawn could be seen in the brightening sky.
"It's a wreck, all right!" said Merritt, as they stood there, straining their eyes to try and follow the outlines of the torn steel girders that seemed to have been twisted into all manner of queer shapes by the force of the explosion.
"Gingersnaps and popguns!" ejaculated Tubby helplessly, "and do you really expect to crawl over that swinging thing? I've read about some awful hanging bridges in the mountains of South America and Africa, but I bet you they couldn't hold a candle alongside this mussed-up affair. Whee! you'd have to blindfold me, I'm afraid, boys, if you expected me to creep out there on that dizzy girder."
"We'll wait a bit till the light gets stronger," Rob counseled, knowing full well that when it came to it Tubby would summon the necessary resolution to cross over, especially if his comrades showed the way.
A quarter of an hour elapsed. By that time they could see across fairly well.
"First of all," Rob summed up, "there doesn't seem to be anybody over there to bother us, that I can notice."
"And the way across isn't so bad, that I can see," announced Merritt, principally to help buoy up the sinking heart of poor Tubby. "Why, all of us have done stunts worse than that. You know we have, Tubby, many a time."
"Well," Tubby answered him weakly, "just as you say, boys. I'm in your hands. I promise to do the best I can to get over; but, if I should slip, please get me out of the river as soon as you can. You know I'm not a cracking good hand at swimming."
Of course they promised, and cheered him up by every means possible; but it was with many doubts that in the end Tubby consented to start forth on the trip.
Rob led the way, and after him came the fat chum, with Merritt bringing up the rear. There was a method in this arrangement, for, while the pilot could test each girder, so as to pronounce it secure, the rear guard was able to keep an eye on luckless Tubby, and even give him an occasional word of advice.
Now that the morning had arrived they could see better with each passing minute; and Rob soon declared there was no necessity for any further delay.
It was always a principle with him to grapple with a difficulty, and carry out his plans, without letting anything like dismay seize hold of his heart.
Accordingly Rob now made a start.
"Why, this is dead easy," was the way he sung out, after he had passed along the swaying girder for a little distance. "All you have to make sure of is that your grip is sound. Then keep hunching along, foot by foot. And don't look down any more than you can help, because it might make you dizzy."
Tubby shut his teeth hard, and began to follow after the pilot. He made good progress until he had about reached the middle of the rocking span. Then Rob was really alarmed to hear a sudden loud cry, and feel his slender hold shaken violently.
Something had certainly happened to unfortunate Tubby!
Just as he feared, when Rob managed to turn around and look back, he found that Tubby had gone and done it again. Whether he had missed his footing, or something had given way under his additional weight, was a question that could not be decided.
Before Merritt, close in his rear, could thrust out a helping hand, poor Tubby had fallen. The river was all of thirty feet below, and just there the water looked unusually unpleasant, because it had considerable foam on the surface, there being a shallow rift above the wider stretch.
By the merest accident in the world, Tubby's clutching hands had succeeded in fastening upon a loose steel stay that hung downward for ten feet. It must have given the fat boy a considerable wrench when he gripped this, but he had clung with the tenacity of despair.
When Rob turned around, the first thing he saw was Merritt kneeling there on the violently agitated girder over which they were making their crossing. He was staring downward, and, of course, Rob instantly focused his gaze in the same quarter.
He had expected to see Tubby splashing about like a porpoise in the stream far down below; but, instead, was astonished to discover him clinging desperately to that loose piece of steel wreckage.
Tubby had his face turned up toward his chums. There was not a particle of the rosy color to be seen that as a rule dyed his ample face; in fact, he was as white as a ghost. A beseeching look was in his eyes. Tubby knew that swinging there he was in a serious predicament, from which there would be only one escape if he were left to his own devices. That would mean he must release his frantic clutch on the swaying steel rope, and drop down into the river, a possibility he shuddered to contemplate.
"Hey! get me up out of this, fellows, can't you?" he whined, for, after his recent gymnastic efforts, he no longer had sufficient breath to shout.
"Clasp your legs around the thing, can't you, Tubby?" said Rob, who saw that the strain on the other's arms must be tremendous, judging from the way he was hanging there.
The advice struck Tubby as well worth following; so he immediately began to work his short legs violently until he found that he could, as Rob suggested, twist them around his slender support.
When that had been accomplished it was much easier for him. He began to suck in some encouragement once more.
"But won't you try and get me up again, Rob?" he asked piteously. "I can't hang on here for very long, like a regular old pendulum to a clock. I'm not wound up for a seven-day-goer. And say, I'd hate to have to drop kerplunk into all that water down there. Think up some way to grab me out of this, won't you, Rob?"
"I'm trying to, Tubby. Keep still a bit, and let me think," he was told.
In one way, of course, it was a ridiculous sight, and that was why Rob winked his eye at Merritt when he thought he could detect a whimsical look on the other's face. Still, it was anything but a laughing matter to poor Tubby, who felt that he had a tremendous amount at stake. Every time he found himself compelled to let his horrified eyes turn downward that noisy stream seemed to be more and more formidable to him. He fairly hated it.
"Can't you climb up again, Tubby?" asked Merritt, who knew exactly what he would have quickly done had he found himself placed in the same predicament.
"I'd like to, the worst kind," the fat scout assured him, "but you know I'm feeling very queer and weak, so I don't believe I could do much that way, unless," he added quickly, "I had some assistance from above."
"And that's just what I'm going to try and give you, Tubby."
While Rob was saying this he had unbuttoned his coat. This he proceeded to take off, first making sure to transfer anything he had in the pockets, so that he might not suffer a loss.
"Now, by leaning down here, I think I can reach you with this coat," he proceeded to explain. "If I had a rope, it would be much easier, for with a loop I could make a sure thing of it. But half a loaf is better than no bread, they say."
"Of course it is, Rob," agreed Tubby, who was in no position to quarrel with any measures that were taken for his relief. "But what can I do with the coat when it comes down to me? I don't feel that cold, you know."
"I'm going to keep hold of one end, Tubby," Rob explained quietly, in a way to convince the imperiled scout that everything was working as arranged, and that he need not worry. "With just one hand you get a good grip of the end that's near you; then start in to try and climb, using your clasped legs the best you know how. And don't get discouraged if you only come up an inch or so at a time. When you're within reach Merritt will hang down and lend a hand, too."
All of which was undoubtedly very cheering to Tubby. This thing of having stanch comrades in times of distress was, he had always believed, one of the best parts of the scout brotherhood.
He immediately took a firm grip of the dangling coat-sleeve, and commenced to wriggle the best he knew how.
"I'm making it, Rob; sure I am!" he presently announced. "That time I slid up as much as six inches. It was a bully hunch, that coat racket of yours. Keep her going, Rob, and I'll get there yet. Never give up—that's my motto, you know. I may get in lots of scrapes, but somehow I always do manage to crawl out, don't I?"
"Save your breath, Tubby, for your work; don't chatter so much," Rob told him.
Merritt was ready to do his part. He had clasped a leg about the girder to help hold him, and was leaning as far down as possible. Presently the grunting fat chum reached a place where he could be taken hold of, and so Merritt fastened a hand in his coat back of his neck.
"Here you come, Tubby," he said encouragingly.
"Don't let go with your hands or knees yet!" warned Rob; for, should Tubby be so foolish as to do this, the chances were that such a sudden weight might drag Merritt down, and both would take the plunge.
It required considerable effort to finally land Tubby on the horizontal girder, but in the end this was accomplished. Then all of them sat there to rest after their recent violent exertions.
"I don't see how I came to do it," Tubby finally remarked, as though he deemed it necessary that some sort of explanation were forthcoming. "I was moving along as nice as you please, when all of a sudden I felt myself going. I must have grabbed at the air, and happened to get a grip on that hanging steel rope. Well, it might have been a whole lot worse for me! I'm glad I didn't get soused in the river. And I'll never forget how nobly my chums came to the rescue."
"Oh! stow that sort of talk, Tubby," Merritt told him. "That's what we're here for. What's a scout wearing his khaki uniform for if it isn't to remind him what he owes to his chums? You'd do the same for us any old time."
"Just try me, that's all," declared the grateful Tubby; and then, changing his tune, he went on to say: "Here we are, out in the middle of the span, and it's just as hard to go back as it is to move forward. So when you're ready, Rob, start off again. I'll try not to slip any more. The next time you might see my finish."
"I'm sure it would see mine," remarked Merritt, rubbing the arm he had used in order to tug at Tubby's great weight.
Luckily nothing more happened, and they were able to reach the opposite shore in safety. Tubby sank down and panted, as soon as he crawled off the end of that fragment of the steel bridge.
"Thank goodness that job is over with!" he exclaimed fervently, "and all I hope is that we don't have to come back this way."
"Oh! you're getting to be an expert tight-rope walker by now, Tubby," Merritt said encouragingly. "A little more practice, and you could apply for a job with Barnum & Bailey's circus."
"Thank you, Merritt, but I have loftier aims than that calling," said Tubby disdainfully.
"Well, let's be getting on," suggested Rob. "We've spent enough time here already."
"Thank goodness I don't have to tramp along soaked to the skin," Tubby was heard to tell himself, with gratitude.
The road skirted the river bank on the side they were now on for some little distance at least. Rob continued to keep a watchful eye around as they progressed. He knew there was always a chance that they might meet some detachment of troops hurrying along; though the fact of the bridge being down must be known to the Germans, and would deter them from trying to make use of this road until a temporary structure could be thrown across the river by their engineers.
Most of the inhabitants had fled from that part of the country. Some may have drifted into Brussels before the capital fell into the hands of the invaders, when August was two-thirds gone; and they had remained there ever since. Others had fled in the direction of Ghent and Antwerp, in the hope that these cities might hold out against the German army.
Several times they saw old men at work in the fields, trying to save a part of their farm crops, though without horses they could do little. Every beast of burden had been drafted for one or the other army; what the Belgians missed the Germans had certainly commandeered to take the place of horses lost in the numerous fierce engagements thus far fought.
On consulting his little chart Rob soon found that it would be necessary for them to abandon this good road, and take to a smaller one that branched off from it, winding in through the trees, and past farms that had been thrifty before this blight fell on the land.
"Here's a wood ahead of us that looks as if it covered considerable territory, and you don't often see such a bunch of timber in Belgium," Merritt announced presently.
"Because, with seven million inhabitants to such a small area," added Rob, "it's always been necessary that they employ what is called intensive farming. That is, they get as much out of the soil as possible, even to several crops off of the same patch of ground during the year."
"Belgium is a busy manufacturing country, too, or has been up to now," Merritt continued, which information he may have remembered from his training at school, or else found in some guide-book purchased in New York City before their steamer sailed for England.
"I wonder what we'll strike on the other side of this wood?" Tubby questioned, always speculating on things to come; and possibly hoping then and there they might run across a hospitable farmer who would kindly offer to provide them with some sort of breakfast.
"That's yet to be seen," Merritt told him. "Here's where there seems to be a sort of swampy patch, with water and bogs. Listen to the frogs croaking, will you? And I can see more than a few whoppers, too. Chances are this is a frog farm that supplies the big hotels in Brussels and Antwerp. You know the French are keen on frogs' legs, and pay fancy prices for them by the pound."
"I've eaten them more than once," Rob informed them, "and I never had spring chicken that was more toothsome and tender."
Whereupon Tubby cast a wistful eye toward the border of the frogpond, where the big greenbacks could be seen, sitting partly in the water, and calling to one another socially.
The boys kept walking on, and finally came to where the trees began to get more scanty. About this time Rob made a discovery that was not at all pleasing.
"Hold up, fellows," he said in a hoarse whisper that thrilled Tubby in particular, "our road is blocked. There's a whole German army corps camped ahead of us; and it's either go back, or else hide here in the woods till they take a notion to break camp and clear out. Let's drop down in the brush and talk it over."
THE FROG HUNTERS.
"That settles me, I guess!" said Tubby sadly, as he followed Rob into the shelter of the brush nearby, from which haven of refuge they might watch to see what chances there were of the big camp, a mile and more away, being broken up.
"I know what you're thinking about, Tubby," Merritt told him; "that none of us has had any breakfast, and the outlook for dinner is about as tough as it could be."
"Yes," admitted the fat scout, "I feel just like kicking myself, because I didn't think of doing it when I had the chance."
"Doing what?" asked Merritt.
"Getting that good-natured old fellow at the inn to put us up some lunch," was the explanation Tubby offered. "I guess he'd have done it, too, because he thought we deserved being taken care of, after hearing what the wounded Belgian soldiers had to tell about us. Oh! it's a shame how all my great thoughts come afterward. What's the use of locking the stable door when the horse has been stolen?"
"Well, cheer up," said Rob, who, of course, had overheard what was being said; "it may not be a case of starving."
"See here, you don't happen to have a lot of stuff hidden away on your person, do you, Rob?" gasped Tubby hopefully; and, as the other shook his head, he continued in a mournful tone, "I thought that would be too good to be true. But please tell us what you mean by saying it mightn't be so very serious. Mebbe you know of a henroost nearby, where we might find a tough old Dominick fowl that had been overlooked by the raider squads from the camp?"
"If I did I'd tell you, Tubby; but wait a bit, while we watch the camp. If nothing happens inside of two hours, I've got a sort of scheme to propose to you both, and I hope it'll meet with your approbation."
"Two hours! Two long, weary hours! Gee!" And, as Tubby said this, he proceeded to take in some of the slack of his waistband, possibly meaning to show Rob how terribly he had fallen away of late.
They could see that myriads of men were moving about on the level stretch of country where the invaders were encamped. Fires were going, and doubtless those excellent camp ovens, of which so much had been written, were being used to bake fresh bread for the day. Those Germans omitted nothing that would provide for the comfort of the enlisted men.
"It looks as though they meant to stay there all day," remarked Rob, when they had been observing these things for at least a full hour.
"Oh! Rob!" protested Tubby helplessly, as though the information gave him a severe pain.
"Well, they believe in drilling right up to the minute they go into battle," was what Merritt remarked; "for there you can see a whole regiment of them marching in review past the commander, with others following behind."
"It's a wonderful sight," admitted Rob. "I never saw soldiers keep step, and seem to be such parts of a machine like that. You'd think they were moved by some network of wires, like a big automatic engine."
"Oh! look what funny steps that first line is practicing!" cried Tubby. "Why, they must be only boys, and just playing soldiers. See how they lift their feet, and go along like a high-stepper of a horse. Ain't that the limit, now?"
"I tell you what that must be," said Rob, quickly. "I've read about what they call the 'goose-step.' It's a flinging up of each leg, as the step is taken, bending the knee, instead of keeping it stiff, like most soldiers on parade do."
"The silly nonsense!" laughed Tubby. "What would I look like trying that fancy step? I thought the Kaiser had more sense than that."
"Hold on. Don't condemn a thing before you know what it's meant for," said Rob. "There's an object, and a mighty good one, about that step, even if it does make most people smile when they see it for the first time."
"Then let's hear what it is, please, Rob."
"As far as I know about it, the object is to strengthen the muscles of the leg, and give those that are tired from a set position a rest. Don't you see how that sort of a movement relieves the leg? Try it a few times, and you'll believe me."
"Have you ever seen the goose-step before, Rob?" asked Merritt.
"Only once, in a moving-picture play of the German maneuvers," he was told. "It struck me then as ridiculous; but I knew those German military men had long heads, and would not start a thing like that in a parade without something big back of it. So, when I got home I tried it a few times, and then I saw what a splendid relief that throwing forward of the foot was. There goes another line doing it."
They continued to crouch—there was small possibility of any one discovering them—and watched all that was going on in the busy camp beyond.
Not once did any of the soldiers wander away. It was plainly evident that they were being given no liberties. Rob only hoped that the order would come for this corps to get on the move, and head to the southwest; for he did not doubt but they were meaning to go to Ghent, or to some other place toward the coast.
Several times Tubby was observed to crane his neck and look up toward the heavens anxiously. The others did not need to be told what those signs indicated. They knew very well that the fat chum had not become suddenly interested in astronomy, or expected an eclipse of the sun to happen. He was merely noting how far along his morning journey the sky king had traveled, because he could not forget how Rob had set a time limit on their remaining there.
Two hours he had mentioned as the sum total of their stay; when that boundary had been reached Rob was going to make some sort of pleasing proposition. Tubby hoped it would have to do with the procuring of a certain nourishment, of which all of them certainly stood in great need.
At last Rob gave signs of making a move.
"Now, if you fellows will come back along the road a little ways with me," he announced with a smile, "I've got something to propose. I only hope you fall in with my views, for then there's a chance that we'll have something to eat."
"Oh! you can count on me agreeing with you, Rob!" said Tubby cheerfully. "No matter whether it's fur, fin, or feather, I think I could do justice to nearly anything that grows."
"As it happens, it's something that doesn't fly or walk that I have in my mind," Rob declared rather mysteriously. "The fact is, it hops!"
"Now you have got me worse balled up than ever," protested Tubby, his brow wrinkled with his endeavor to guess the answer.
"I think I know," volunteered Merritt, grinning amicably.
"What does he mean, then? Please hurry and tell me," pleaded Tubby.
"Frogs, isn't it, Rob?" demanded the other.
"Oh! gingersnaps and popguns! Do I have to come down to choosing between eating jumpers and starving to death?" complained the fat boy, looking distressed.
"Well, wait till you get your first taste, that's all," Rob told him. "If you don't say it beats anything you ever took between your teeth, I'm mistaken, and that's all there is about it. Why, they're reckoned one of the fanciest dishes in all the high-class clubs in America, along with diamond-back terrapin, canvas-back duck, and such things. The only thing I'm afraid about is that after you get your first taste you'll want to hog the whole supply."
"But how shall we catch the frogs, and then cook them?" asked Merritt.
"The first ought to be easy," replied Rob, "seeing how plentiful they are, and how big and tame. I see a dandy piece of wood that would make a good bow with a piece of stout cord I've got in my pocket. Merritt, get some of those straight little canes, growing on the edge of the water. We can make them do for arrows, and, even without feathers, I think I can hit a big frog with one at ten paces away. It'll be fun as well as a profitable business. Frog-hunters, get busy now."
"Here's a long pole, Rob. Shall I take it and steal up close enough to whack a few of the jumpers on the head?" asked Tubby, now entering into the spirit of the game.
Being given permission, and warned not to make too big a noise, lest he frighten all the frogs into jumping, he set about his task. After several failures he finally brought one monstrous greenback frog to where the others were still working.
"I'll show you how to cut off the saddle, and skin the hind legs," said Rob.
Tubby did not altogether like this job. The slimy feeling of the frog rather went against his stomach. Still, after the large hind legs had been duly skinned, they presented so much the appearance of the white meat of a spring chicken that Tubby felt encouraged enough to set forth again.
He had four victims by the time Rob and Merritt pronounced the bow and arrow part of the business in readiness for work.
They kept at it steadily for an hour and more. Rob found considerable excitement and profit in his archery. His arrows could not be wholly depended on, for they were not properly balanced; but the distance was so short that he made numerous fatal shots.
Merritt, too, had secured another long pole, and joined Tubby in his share of the frog hunt. It was exciting enough, and with more or less delicious little thrills connected with it. No doubt the frogs must have enjoyed it immensely; but then, no one bothered asking what they thought of such tactics. A boy's hunger must be allayed, and, if there were only frogs handy, why so much the worse for the "hoppers."
"Whew! Don't you think we've got enough, Rob?" asked Tubby, unable to stand it any longer.
"What's the score?" asked the archer, as he tossed still another great big victim toward the spot where the fat scout had been counting the pile.
"Twenty-one, all told," replied Tubby. "That would mean seven for each. But how in the world can we cook them? I hope now you don't mean to tackle them raw? I love raw oysters, but I'd draw the line at frogs. I'm no cannibal."
"Well, let's find a place deeper in the woods, where we can make a fire out of selected dry wood that will make so little smoke it can't be noticed. That's an old Indian trick, you know. Hunters used to practice it away back in the time of Daniel Boone and Simon Kenton. When they were in a hostile country they had to be mighty careful about making a smoke. I've tried it before, and believe I can pick out the right kind of fuel to use."
While the others were finishing the not very pleasant work of skinning the numerous frog saddles, Rob busied himself with making the fire in a secluded neck of the woods. In the midst of jutting stones he soon had a blaze going. It could not be seen twenty feet away, on account of the obstructions; and, as the proper kind of wood had been selected, there was no smoke to mention.
The boys would have given something for their well-remembered frying pan, just at that time, and some pieces of salt pork with which to sweeten the dainty morsels which were to constitute their luncheon. They were true scouts, however, and could make the best of a bad bargain.
"All hunters do not have skillets when they're in the woods," said Rob, as he took a long splinter he had prepared, thrust it into one of the saddles, and then, poking the other end into the ground close to the fire, allowed the meat to get the benefit of the heat. "We must do what we can in this old-fashioned way. The best sauce, after all, is hunger; and, from the look on Tubby's face, I reckon he's fairly wild to set his teeth in the first of the feast."
Pretty soon it was a lively scene, with all those forks having to be attended to. A tempting odor also began to rise up that made Tubby's mouth fairly water. He heaved many a sigh, as he waited for Rob to tell him that the first of his allotment was sufficiently browned to be devoured.
"Now, let's begin," said Rob finally. "Only look out not to burn your lips. And, Tubby, take my word for it, you're going to get the treat of your life!"
THE ARMORED CAR.
"Honest, Rob, I never knew what I was missing when I said toasted frogs' legs would do for Frenchmen, but none for Merritt Crawford," and, while making this abject confession, the speaker allowed a look of sublime content to possess his features, such as would remove any lingering doubt concerning his sincerity.
"How about you, Tubby?" asked the master of ceremonies.
Tubby had been savagely tearing at his first helping. His eyes were glued on the various sticks under his charge, at the ends of which the rear portions of as many frogs were dangling, and turning a delicious brown under the influence of the heat.
Then Tubby was seen to heave a sigh.
"To think that there are only six more apiece!" he said in a most solemn tone. But the others laughed softly, because they knew any loud merriment, under such peculiar conditions, was hardly safe.
"That settles one thing," remarked Rob. "There's going to be a marked reduction in the profits of this particular frog-raiser this season, if Tubby has to stay here long."
Tubby was already commencing on his second batch. He could not waste time in talking when his appetite had been excited to a feverish pitch by the first bite of tender and succulent meat.
"Only thing I kick about," he presently mumbled, throwing away the slender bones which he had picked clean, "is that they go so quick. Why, you hardly get started before you're at the end."
"That's the way with nearly all good things," Merritt informed him. "Just as soon as they become so numerous that you can have all you want, somehow it seems as if the craving leaves you."
"Yes, I guess that's about it," admitted Tubby, talking only because the next batch of provender was not quite ready for disposal. "Anyhow, I've seen my mother just dote on a horrible little cucumber that dad brought home in January, paying about twenty cents for the same, and, when we have bushels of splendid ones in our own garden, why, nobody cares to eat them."
The little feast continued until everybody had cleaned up their mess. Tubby was disconsolate because the supply was so limited and the demand so great.
"How foolish we were not to double our catch," he said several times, "for there wouldn't have been any trouble about doing the same. One thing I've settled in my mind, I want to tell you."
"Well, go on, then, and explain," urged Merritt.
"I'll have one next summer, see if I don't," asserted Tubby.
"What—a feast of frogs' legs?" chuckled the other scout.
"Me? Only one show at the same? Well, when I like a thing, I rave over it. I want it every day. I mean to have a frog hatchery, and a pond where I can raise 'em by the million!"
"Listen to him, will you, Rob?" exclaimed Merritt, pretending to be horrified. "If ever there was a case where eyes were bigger than a stomach, it's right here. Millions of them, Tubby wants now; seven is only a flea-bite to him."
"Oh! shucks! don't make me out a hog!" remonstrated Tubby. "I didn't mean I expected to devour the whole lot. Why, can't you see there's good money in raising frogs? I'm going to get the figures, and find out just what the ratio of increase might reach. And my folks have got a dandy marsh on the old farm back near Huntington that we own. Rob, I thank you for opening my eyes to this grand opportunity. I expect it will be the turning point of my life yet."