"But not Mock," Riley objected. "He's a bad egg."
"I don't say he isn't," Kelly rejoined. "What I'm advising you is not to conclude that a man is worthless just because he talks. For that matter, Riley, I believe that the men we have most to fear are spies who manage to get in the Army, talk straight and do their work well, and all the time they're plotting all kinds of mischief. Like the fellow or the chaps who put that powdered glass in the chow of F company not long ago."
"Here's hoping I live to see Mock hanged!" grumbled Private Riley, as Sergeant Kelly moved away.
Kelly, who had served as sergeant with Dick in other regiments, had followed him into the Ninety-ninth. Prescott rejoiced that he had this excellent fellow with him, as capable first sergeants are always looked upon in the light of prizes.
Yet, in a—-to him—-new man Greg Holmes had an almost equally good top in Lund, a Swede who had put in ten years in the Army.
When Greg dropped into the company office that forenoon, Lund handed him a list of men who had put in application for pass that afternoon. It was to be a visitors' afternoon, and there would be no drills.
"Nineteen, and all good conduct men, Sergeant Lund," commented Greg, glancing over the list and reaching for a pencil with which to O.K. the list.
"And two more put in application, but I didn't put their names down, sir," Lund explained, as he stood at the side of the young captain at the desk.
"Who were they?"
"Mock and Wilhelm."
"Have they behaved themselves since they got out of arrest?"
"Oh, yes, sir."
"Then we'll let them off this afternoon," proposed Holmes amiably, as he wrote time two names down on the list. "Perhaps they'll turn out better for a bit of considerate treatment."
Though Lund frowned as he received the list back in his own hand he made no comment.
Immediately after the noon meal Mock and Wilhelm exhibited their passes to the guard and walked briskly out of camp.
"Look at that now—-the pair of traitors!" muttered Private Riley, as he spat vengefully on the ground. "Me, I knew better than to ask for it, and me so lately out of the pen. But those bir-rds with dir-rty feathers get their chance to go off the reservation and plot more mischief."
Had Private Riley been able to follow the pair unseen he would have been even angrier. Mock and Wilhelm, stepping briskly along the road over which Dick had ridden that eventful evening, kept on for some three miles, then turned abruptly off into the forest.
For another half mile they kept on, going further and further from the road.
"Here's the spot," said Mock, after some hunting under the trees. "It must be the place, for it has the nail driven into the tree trunk."
"Sure, it's the place all right," Wilhelm agreed.
Mock emitted a shrill whistle that would not, however, carry very far. Instantly there came an answering whistle.
"And here we are!" spoke up the stoop-shouldered stranger, coming out of a. jungle of bushes. "I'm glad to see that you're on time. And to-day I hope you've more sand than you had that night."
"Forget it," said Mock shortly.
"You're ready now?"
"To do anything," Mock agreed.
"Sure! He's all right!" Private Wilhelm nodded. "I've attended to that."
"Come here, Carl!" called the stoop-shouldered one, in a low voice.
From another clump of bushes came another man, bearded and bespectacled. If there's anything in a face, Carl was unmistakably German.
"Carl will tell you what to do," said time stoop-shouldered one.
"You men are in two different companies?" asked the man behind spectacles.
"I'm in B company," nodded Mock. "Wilhelm is in E company."
"Then you can take care of two companies of men," Carl went on. "Do to-morrow morning what I'm going to tell you. See these?"
The bespectacled one held up two vials that he had taken from a pocket.
"Each one of you takes one of these," he went on. "Hide them to-night where you please. In the morning, when the men in your barracks hang their bedding out of the windows and go down to breakfast, stay behind. Uncork a vial, each of you, and sprinkle the liquid in here on the bedding of at least half a dozen soldiers. You understand? Then slip down to your breakfasts."
"What's in these vials?" asked Mock, taking the one offered him and curiously inspecting the liquid in it.
"Germs!" said the bespectacled one. "Measles. Do as I tell you, and in a few days measles will begin to run through the two companies like wildfire. In a few days more it ought to be well through the regiment. Tomorrow night slip out of camp and come here. Under those bushes over there you'll find civilian clothing. Understand? Yes? In the pockets of each suit you'll find the money to pay for your work. Take off your uniforms and put on the other clothes. Then go where you please, but be sure to keep out of time Army after this, for American soldiers are going to die fast! The money you'll find will take care of you. Yes?"
"Yes!" nodded Mock. "Sure!"
Then, suddenly, Mock turned and whistled.
"You two men will throw up your hands!" came in the sharp tones of Captain Dick Prescott, as he, Sergeant Kelly and four privates stepped into view.
"You sneak!" yelled the stoop-shouldered one, making a rush at Mock and trying to seize the vial. But Mock dodged. In the same instant the bespectacled German tried to snatch the other vial away from Wilhelm, but that soldier, too, dodged and saved the vial.
"On the ground is a good place for you!" growled Sergeant Kelly, knocking the stoop-shouldered stranger flat. Then, before the fellow could rise Kelly had snapped handcuffs his wrists.
Two of the soldiers seized the bespectacled German just as he started to run. He, too, felt the clasp of steel around his wrists. Though Kelly and the four privates were armed with automatic pistols no weapon had been drawn.
"Twice you've played the sneak, you!" hissed the stoop-shouldered one, glaring at Private Mock.
"Twice more I'll do it to help Uncle Sam," retorted Mock, with a short laugh. "I owed it to you to see you caught!"
"But you're a German!" hissed the bespectacled one at Wilhelm. "Why did you turn on us, who are also German?"
"My father was a German; he's an American now," said Wilhelm, coolly. "Me, I've always been an American, and I'm one now, and will be as long as I live."
"Let me have those vials," Dick ordered. "Sergeant, take these, and mark them as soon as you get back to company office. Then we'll turn them over to the medical department. Sergeant, march your prisoners."
Heading toward the road Sergeant Kelly and his four soldiers led the German captives away.
Captain Dick, with Mock and Wilhelm, followed, but did not attempt to keep up with the sergeant's party,
When Kelly showed up in camp again he did not have his prisoners with him. He had taken them elsewhere, and they were soon on their way to an internment camp, where, like "good" Germans in America, they would live until the close of the war, cut off from all further chance to plot against Uncle Sam's soldiers.
Halting at a farm-house on the way, Dick telephoned to regimental headquarters. Two minutes after his message had been received Private Brown, white-faced and haggard, was placed under arrest. Under grilling, he confessed what Secret Service men had already learned—-that his name was really spelled B-r-a-u-n; that both he and his father were German subjects, and that the young man had enlisted for the sole purpose of playing the spy and the plotter in the Army.
It had been Mock's talk of deserting in France that had caused Braun to talk to Mock, who had been told by Captain Prescott to talk in that vein while in the bull-pen. Braun had fallen into the trap.
As for Wilhelm—-which wasn't the young an's real name—-he was the son of a German-born father, but a young man of known loyalty to the United States. He wasn't a soldier, but a War Department agent who had donned the uniform for a purpose, and had come to Camp Berry with a draft of real soldiers.
And this was the plan that Dick had worked out following his pretended arrest of Mock that night up the road. Mock, resolved to become a good soldier again, had undergone his humiliation in the bull-pen, and the scorn of his fellow-prisoners, in order to trap the stoop-shouldered German, a pretended carpenter, but really August Biederfeld, a German spy. The bespectacled one, Dr. Carl Ebers, was another spy. The two had delivered their messages in camp through Braun.
While the pair Ebers and Biederfeld were interned, Braun, as one who had enlisted in the Army and had taken the oath of service, was court-martialed on a charge of high treason, and shot for his crimes. Before his death he confessed that it was he who had shaken the powdered glass in the food of F company, the stuff having been supplied by Dr. Ebers. It was Braun, also, who had damaged the machine gun and worked havoc with infantry rifles, he, too, had forged and placed the pretended Prescott note about "Cooking Cartwright's goose."
"Wilhelm" soon vanished, undoubtedly to do other work as an alleged German sympathizer elsewhere. As for Mock:
"Private James Mock, B company, having suffered humiliation and scorn that he might better fulfil his oath and serve his country, is hereby restored to his former rank of sergeant in B company, and with full honor, he will be obeyed and respected accordingly."
So ran the official order published to the regiment.
The liquid in the two vials was found to be swarming with measles germs that would have started a veritable epidemic at Camp Berry.
Captain Dick Prescott's quick thinking and steady action had resulted in the capture of the German spies who were seeking to destroy the Ninety-ninth.
No quiet days, however, were in store for the regiment.
WITH THE CONSCIENTIOUS OBJECTORS
"No other business, Sergeant?" asked Dick, one October morning, as he looked up from the desk in company office at his "top."
"Among the nineteen National Army men drafted into this regiment, sir, are three conscientious objectors who ask to be transferred to some non-fighting branch of the service."
"Send for them," ordered Dick briefly, a frown settling on his brow.
Privates Ellis, Rindle and Pitson speedily reported in the office, saluting, then standing at attention.
"You men are all conscientious objectors?" Prescott asked coldly.
"Yes, sir," said the three together.
"You all have conscientious objections to being hurt?" Prescott went on.
"I have conscientious scruples against killing a human being, sir," replied Private Ellis.
"And you also have scruples against giving him a chance to kill you," Dick went on mercilessly. "You believe in a police force for preserving order in a community, do you?"
"If you found a burglar in your home, and had an opportunity, you would send for a policeman?"
"Yes, sir," Ellis admitted.
"Even though you knew the policeman might find it necessary to kill the burglar in attempting to arrest him?" Prescott quizzed.
"Then, while you presumably would not kill a burglar yourself you would not object to calling a policeman who might do it?"
Private Ellis began to suspect the trap into which he was falling.
"I could not bear to kill the burglar myself, sir," he replied.
"And you would not want the burglar to kill you, so you would summon a policeman to do whatever killing might be necessary. In that case, are you a moral objector to killing, or are you merely a coward who relies on another to do the killing for you?"
Private Ellis appeared much confused.
"Answer me," Dick commanded.
"The case doesn't seem the same to me, sir, as serving as a fighting man in the war."
"The case is exactly the same, except in the matter of magnitude," Prescott retorted. "Germany is the burglar, trying to break into the house of the world. You haven't time necessary courage to fight a German yourself, but you will be glad to see a braver man serve on the firing line in your stead. And you are a conscientious objector, too, are you, Rindle?"
"I—-I thought I was, sir," confessed the soldier. "Your questions, sir, and your way of putting the case confuse me."
"And you, Pitson?" Dick demanded, eyeing the third man. "Knowing that, if you are sent to some non-combatant work, some other man will have to be sent to this company to do your killing work for you, you wish to dodge fighting duty?"
"Yes, sir; I do," Pitson answered unhesitatingly.
"Pitson, consider the matter seriously and try to decide whether you're a moral hero or a physical coward!"
"Sir, I am no mor——-"
Here the man hesitated, growing red in the face.
"Out with it," Dick smiled coolly.
"I am a conscientious objector, sir," Pitson rejoined. "No matter what punishment may await me for refusing, I must decline to accept any duty that may call upon me to kill another human being."
"Yet you would call a policeman, in the case of finding a burglar in your house?"
"Not if I thought the policeman would have to kill the burglar, sir," Pitson protested.
"I'll wager the fellow is lying, at that," Prescott reflected, as he rose. "Take off your hat, Pitson."
The soldier obeyed. His forehead sloped up and back. The back of his head sloped up and forward, so that the top of his head was pointshaped.
"I've been interested in seeing what the head of a real conscientious objector looked like," Dick remarked slowly. "I've seen your head and from its shape I believe you to be a real conscientious objector. I am going to approve your transfer to a non-combatant branch, Pitson. You may step outside until you are sent for again."
After Pitson had gone Dick ordered the two remaining men to remove their campaign hats. He studied the shapes of their heads so attentively that both young men winced plainly under the inspection.
"Your heads are shaped differently from Pitson's," Prescott went on. "The top of his head goes up to a point. If a mule had a head shaped like that our veterinary surgeons would call it a fool mule and reject it. But you men have heads expressing more intelligence.
"What is the matter with you two? Have you been listening to socialistic or other freak talk? Do you realize that the German Kaiser and his nation threaten the freedom of the world? Do you realize that the Germans want to rule this world, and do you know how they would rule it, and what a miserable, impossible world it would be for free men to live in?
"Do you realize that the only way we can stop the Germans from ruling the world in their own brutal way is for the free men of all good nations to fight? Do you fully understand that we cannot fight such a beastly enemy in any other way than by killing him? Do you so thoroughly object to fighting that you would see a free world ground under the heel of the despotic Kaiser sooner than help kill his soldiers and thus prevent such a world-wide tragedy? Are you men, or are you dish-rags? Are your consciences so important that you would put the world in cruel bondage rather than violate your own little personal ideas of what is moral? Are you men so sure you're right that you'd dodge a slight wrong—-if wrong it be—-and allow the greatest wrong ever attempted to triumph? Do your moral principles tell you that it is better to let Shame rule the world instead of Justice?"
Ellis and Rindle were plainly non-plussed by Dick's passionate appeal to their broader sense of right and truth.
"I'm afraid you two have been patting yourselves on the back in the idea that you stood out for a great moral principle," Captain Prescott resumed. "Don't you begin to see that the fact is that, instead, you're really moral slackers who'd let the world go into the devil's keeping provided you didn't have to be made to do something that you don't want to do? I won't say you're physical cowards, for honestly I hardly think you are, but aren't you at least moral slackers?"
Private Ellis swallowed hard before he replied:
"No, sir; I'm not a moral slacker, for I've changed my mind. I'm going to fight if I'm told to. I'm going to do whatever Uncle Sam wants me to do. You've put the matter in a different light to me, Captain Prescott."
"And you, Rindle?"
"I'm going to do myself the honor of asking permission to remain in your company, sir," replied the second man, his mouth twitching. "I'm a bit of a fool, sir. But I don't believe that I'm a fool all the way through. I believe that I can see at least part of a truth when it's put to me fairly, and now I believe that it's right to fight for truth and justice as against black tyranny—-and I'm ready to do it."
"Good enough!" cried Dick, his face lighting up, as he held out his hand. "If you have any further doubts, later, come to me. I don't know everything, but we can get together and perhaps between us we can get close to the truth."
Shaking hands with the soldiers who had found themselves, and dismissing them, Dick added:
"Sergeant Kelly, find out what non-combatant branch that fellow Pitson would prefer to serve in, see what unit will have him, and then bring the transfer papers to me to sign."
Passing into the corridor, and hearing the piano's notes in the mess-room he glanced inside. It was a rest period between drills, and a soldier seated at the instrument strummed his way through the air of a mournful ditty. It's an odd thing that when the average soldier is wholly cheerful he prefers the "sobful" melodies.
At one of the long mess tables near the piano sat four young men, paying no heed to the music, nor, in fact, doing anything in particular.
"How many of you men have mothers?" Prescott asked with a smile.
All admitted that they had.
"How many of you have written that mother to-day?"
"How many wrote her yesterday?" None.
"Think hard," Dick went on. "Has any of you written his mother a letter within five days?"
One soldier asserted that he had written his mother four days before.
"I wish you men would do me a favor," Dick went on. "Each one of you write his mother at least a four-page letter and mail it before supper. There is going to be time enough between drills to-day. How about it?"
Each of the four soldiers standing at attention promised promptly.
"All right, then," Prescott nodded. "Rest!" Whereupon they resumed their seats on the bench. "Remember that a promise is a promise. And I've seen enough of soldiers to know that they're likely to be careless where it hurts most."
"I'd do anything Captain Prescott asked me to do," remarked one of the soldiers when Dick had passed on out of barracks.
"If I knew anything he wanted me to do I'd do it before he asked me," declared another.
When a captain's men feel that way about him it's a cinch that he commands a real fighting unit.
ORDERS FOR "OVER THERE"
During the next drill period Sergeant Kelly, hearing an angry voice, glanced out through the window.
In the last draft to the company some green recruits had come in, men who had been drafted to the National Army and sent to the Regulars to fill up. Among them were Privates Ellis and Rindle.
"About face!" rapped out the crisp tones of Corporal Barrow, as he glared at eight men in double rank.
Badly enough most of them turned. "You poor mutt-heads!" rasped the corporal. "Do you think you'll ever make soldiers?"
In a jiffy Kelly reached for his campaign hat, put it on, and stepped out into the corridor, passing out and heading for the drill ground.
"Right dress!" called out Corporal Barrow. "Front! Rotten! I wonder if you fellows think you'll ever be soldiers?"
Plainly the recruits were chafing under the lash of the corporal's tongue. But Barrow, a young man of twenty-two, who had received his chevrons after only four months of service, was in no mind to be easily pleased to-day.
"You're the most stupid squad in the regiment!" the young non-com went on. "Your place is in the bullpen, not in the ranks."
"Let the squad rest a minute or two, Corporal, and come with me," Sergeant Kelly called placidly. "I've a message far you."
Giving the required order, and lull of curiosity, Corporal Barrow stepped quickly over to Kelly, who, placing a hand on the young man's shoulder, walked him some distance away. Suddenly the top sergeant, his back turned to the squad, grilled Barrow with a blazing gaze.
"You poor boob in uniform!" rapped the sergeant. "Whatever made you think of taking up soldiering. And what made you think yourself fit to be in a regiment of Regulars? Do you know your left foot from your right? You know as much about the manual of arms as I do about Hebrew verbs. When you salute an officer you're a standing disgrace to the service! Do you know what you ought to be doing in life?"
His face growing violently red, Barrow soon forgot to be indignant in the excess of his wonder.
"Meaning—-what?" he demanded, thickly, his lower jaw sagging in bewilderment.
"How do you like the way I'm talking to you?" asked Sergeant Kelly, his own strong jaw thrust out as though he were seeking to provoke a quarrel.
"Why do you ask?" demanded the corporal, with some show of spirit. "Does any man enjoy being spoken to like a thieving dog?"
Instantly Kelly dropped back into a placid tone.
"How do you think the men of that squad like hearing you talk to them as I've just talked to you?"
"But they're such numbskulls!" declared Barrow.
"You won't improve their intelligence by turning the hot water on them all the time," Sergeant Kelly continued. "Could I make a better corporal of you by scorching you every time I saw you?"
"You know you couldn't."
"No more can you turn those rookies into soldiers by raging at them every time you speak. Take it from me, Corporal Barrow, the wise drill-master doesn't use any rough talk once a week, and not even then unless nothing else will answer. Talk to the men right along as I heard you doing, and they won't have a particle of respect for you. That being the case, you cannot teach them anything that it will be worth their while to know. If the captain had heard what I heard you saying to those men he'd put you back in the awkward squad yourself. Patience is the first thing a drill-master needs. Whom do you call the smartest corporal in the company?"
"Corporal Smedley," Barrow answered, without hesitation.
"Right, and he's going to be the next new sergeant. But Smedley is the most patient drill-master in the company. Shall I send him over to show you how to handle a green squad?"
"All right, then; I won't—-unless you give me new reason to think it necessary," smiled Kelly. Then his hand, still resting on the younger man's shoulder, he walked back to where the squad waited.
"I'll tell you more about it any time you want to know," was Kelly's last statement before he turned away.
"Attention!" called Corporal Barrow briskly. "Saluting is one of the things a new soldier is likely to do badly at first. I'm going to put you through a few minutes of it."
This time Barrow patiently singled out the soldier giving the poorest salute.
"You don't bring your hand up smartly enough," Barrow explained patiently. "Try it again. No; don't bring it up with a jerk. Do it like this—-smartly, without jerk. No; that's not right, either. Hold your hand horizontally when it touches your hat-brim. Hold it the way I am doing. Don't be in a hurry to let hand fall, either. When saluting an officer, keep the hand at the hat-brim until he has returned the salute, or you've passed him. There, you have it right now, Rindle. Do it three times more, dropping your hand when I see you and return the salute. That's it. Good work. Try it again, all together. Squad, salute!"
"Well done, Corporal," chimed in the voice of Captain Prescott, who had come up behind the instructor, "Be sure that the squad has drill enough in the salute, for a man is never a really good soldier until he can render a salute smartly. Let the men break ranks, Corporal, and have each man pass me in turn, saluting the best he knows how."
As Captain Dick stood there, receiving and returning the salute of each rookie as he passed, the young company commander noted each man's performance with keen eyes.
"First rate for recruits, Corporal," Prescott said, as he turned away. "Give them daily drill at it, however."
Corporal Barrow gave his own most precise salute as he received his captain's orders. Then he called:
"In double rank, fall in! Mark time, march! Step more smartly, Pelham. Hip, hip, hip! Squad halt! One, two!"
From the corner of the building Dick had paused an instant to glance back. Then he went into the company office.
"I've just been watching Corporal Barrow and his new recruit squad, Sergeant," Dick announced. "The men are doing first-rate for new men. Corporal Barrow is a patient and competent drill-master."
"Yes, sir," Kelly replied, without trace of a smile.
"The patient instructor is the only one who can teach a recruit, Sergeant. If you ever see a non-com in this company losing his temper set him straight at the first chance."
"But don't make the correction in hearing of the squad unless the case is a flagrant one."
"No, sir," Sergeant Kelly promised, his eyes smileless.
"How near is the company to full strength this morning?"
"Only twelve men short, sir. A new draft, coining in on the 4.10 train this afternoon is expected to fill all companies to strength, sir."
Dick Prescott felt a sudden thrill. Filling up the companies of the Ninety-ninth appeared to promise that the regiment would soon be on its way overseas!
"If we get our full strength this afternoon, Sergeant, be sure to have the clothing requisitions for them all in shape by this evening. Then we'll try to draw to-morrow morning."
"I'm mighty glad that you applied for transfer to this regiment when I was ordered to it. I don't know what I'd do without you."
"Thank you, sir!"
Kelly had sprung to his feet. He now stood at salute as Prescott left the office.
The train due at 4.10 arrived after 8.30 that evening. Twelve new men, assigned to A company, were marched to barracks after ten. No man in the detachment had eaten since early morning. The mess sergeant had coffee and sandwiches ready.
It was midnight when Kelly, with the aid of other non-coms, had the measurements of the new men on paper and his clothing requisition ready. Dick Prescott was on hand to sign as company commander.
At six in the morning first call to reveille sounded from the bugles.
Like the other companies in the regiment A company tumbled out of its cots. Men dressed, seized soap, towels, brushes and combs, and hurried to the wash-room at the rear of barracks. Then back again, the final touches being administered. Outside a bugle blew, calling the men to first formation. Then mess-call caused two hundred and fifty hungry soldiers to file into the mess-room, kits in hand, and line up at the further end for food and hot drink.
At 7.46 Dick Prescott stepped briskly into the company office.
"Sergeant Kelly, have each man carry out his mattress to the incinerator and empty out the straw. Detail men to burn the straw. Have the cots piled at the end of each squad room. At 8.25 turn the company out with barracks bags and dismiss after the bags have been placed. At 8.40 turn out the company in full marching order, with arms and pack, for inspection. As soon as practicable thereafter the men will be turned out again for issue of razors."
"Yes, sir," Kelly replied with a quiver. "Of course you know what it means, Sergeant?"
"The regiment is moving, sir."
"Moving by rail to the point of embarkation, Sergeant. We're—-at last we're going over!"
There must have been an eavesdropper outside the office door, for instantly, so it seemed, the news flashed through the building.
"Orders have come!"
"We're going over!"
"Stop that cheering, men!" boomed Dick Prescott's voice, as he stepped into the corridor. "This is Georgia, and you'll wake all the sleeping babies in North Carolina."
ON BOARD THE TROOPSHIP
North to an embarkation camp, not to a pier. There passed several days of restlessness and unreality of life.
Final issues of all lacking equipment were made at last. Then, one evening, after dark, the Ninety-ninth once more fell in and marched away, the bandsmen, carrying their silent instruments, marching in headquarters company.
No send-off, no cheering, not even the playing of "The Girl I Left Behind Me."
No relatives or friends to say good-bye! Nothing but secrecy, expectancy, an indescribable eagerness clothed in stealth.
"How do you feel, Sergeant?" Captain Prescott asked, as he and his top stood at the head of A company awaiting the final order that was to set the nearly four thousand officers and men of the Ninety-ninth in motion on the road.
"Like a burglar, sneaking out of a house he didn't realize he was in, sir," Kelly answered.
First Lieutenant Noll Terry shivered; it was impatient uncertainty—-nothing else.
Then the order came. The dense column reached the railway, where the sections of the troop train waited. By platoons the men marched into dimly lighted cars. When all were aboard the lights were turned off, leaving Uncle Sam's men in complete darkness, save where a pipe or cigarette glowed.
Despite the eagerness the newness and uncertainty of it all, many of the soldiers dozed unconscious of the talk and laughter of others. Singing was forbidden and non-coms had orders to be alert to stop any unnecessarily loud noises.
Forth into the night fared the sections of the train. How long it was on the rail none of the men had any clear idea. It was still dark, however, when a stop was made and the order ran monotonously along:
Again dim lights were turned on, that men might find all their belongings. Adjusting their packs the platoons of the Ninety-ninth found their way to the ground below.
For once there was no attempt at good military formation. At route step and in irregular columns, the regiment moved forward by platoons. Unknown officers stood along the way to direct, for the regiment's platoon leaders had no knowledge of the way.
Thus a mile or more was covered by a regiment that looked disorganized and spectral in the darkness. Then the aspect changed somewhat. Whiffs of salt air prepared the soldiers. Army trucks were moving on parallel roads or trails. Ahead of them appeared high fences of barbed wire. It looked as though the travelers had come upon a huge bull-pen. There were gates, guarded by military sentries not of the Ninety-ninth.
Through these gates and past the barbed wire filed the marching men.
Further ahead loomed the sheds of a great pier.
With the help of officers who knew the ground the Ninety-ninth found room to fall in for roll call.
"All present or accounted for!"
Then battalion by battalion, a company at a time, the regiment passed on through the dimly lighted pier sheds. On the further side towered the bulwarks of a great ship, with gangways reaching down to the pier.
In some mysterious way order reigned and speed was observed. Line after line of uniformed men passed up the gangways and vanished. Lights were on the ship, yet dim enough to be in keeping with the night's mystery.
Last of all the almost muffled noises of gangways being drawn down on to the piers. Hawsers were cast off. Stealthy tugs hauled the ocean monster out into the stream.
"Off at last!" was felt more than spoken. Then the tugs let go and the ship, outwardly darkened save for the few necessary running lights, moved slowly down stream.
Some venturesome soldiers found their way up on deck.
Above them, on a still higher deck, the shadowy forms of officers were discernible.
The strangeness of the dark sea lay over all. It seemed uncanny, this dark departure from one's native land—-the land for which these men were going to fight, to bleed and die!
Yet there was no sense of fear. It was the strangeness that gripped all minds.
Up forward on the spar deck a few enlisted men opened their mouths to sing. The chorus grew in volume and the words rolled up:
"And I don't know where I'm going, but I'm on my way!"
"For I belong to the Regulars. I'm proud to say."
"And I'll do my dooty-ooty, Night or day."
"I don't know where I'm going, But I'm on my way!" Breaking through the words the ship's deep-throated whistle boomed its own notes.
IN THE WATERS OF THE SEA WOLVES
Some days later the same ship steamed steadily through the waters on the further side of the Atlantic.
Nor was the Ninety-ninth alone. Seven other transports were keeping her company, together with a busy, bustling escort of British and American destroyers.
For these American adventurers of to-day were nearing the coast of Ireland.
Whether these transports were to unload their cargoes of human beings and munitions at any port in Great Britain or Ireland few on the transports knew, nor did those few tell others.
Ever since the first morning out there had been daily drills, on every transport, in abandoning ship. A few night drills, too, had been held. Not an officer or man was there but knew his station and his lifeboat in case of disastrous meeting with a submarine.
These had not been the only drills, however. From morning to night platoons had been drawn up on the decks and military drills had been all but incessant while daylight lasted. Especially had the newest recruits been drilled. By this time the latest of them to join the regiment had gained considerable of the appearance of the soldier.
Dick and Greg, sharing the same cabin, had been much together, for on shipboard they had found much leisure. It had been the lieutenants who had drilled the platoons. Captains were but little occupied on shipboard.
On the morning that it became known that the fleet had entered the Danger Zone, Dick and Greg stood on deck to the port of the pilot house. Leaning over the rail they idly scanned the surface of the sea to northward.
"Almost in France, my boy!" Prescott cried eagerly. "Or England!"
"Near enough, yet we may never see either country," returned Captain Holmes, suppressing a yawn, for the sea air, even after a night's rest, made him drowsy.
"Croaker!" laughed Dick.
"I'm not," Greg denied, "and I don't want to croak, either, but who can tell? We are now in the waters where the sea wolves have been busy enough in finding prey."
"So far they haven't proved that they could do much to troopships," Dick declared warmly.
"There always has to be a first time," Holmes retorted.
"All right, then," smiled Prescott. "We're going to be torpedoed. Now, I hope that satisfies you."
"You know it doesn't," Holmes rejoined. "This sea air makes me so sleepy, all the time, that I don't feel as though I could stand any real excitement."
"Being torpedoed would be something to look back upon in later years," Dick observed thoughtfully.
"Yes, if we had any later years on earth in which to look back," Captain Holmes responded.
"Who's this strange-looking creature coming?" Dick suddenly demanded, as he stared aft.
"Captain Craig, the adjutant, of course," Greg answered. "He has his life belt on, and he's stopping to talk to others."
"After he speaks they hurry away," Dick went on. "I understand. All hands are ordered to put on life belts."
And that, indeed, proved to be the message that Captain Craig brought forward with him. Dick and Greg did not have far to go to reach their cabin. In five minutes they reappeared on deck in the bulky contrivances intended to buoy them up in the water should they have the bad fortune to find themselves tossing on the waves.
"This makes the danger seem real," Prescott observed.
"Too blamed real!" grumbled Greg. "We're ordered not to take these belts off, either, until the order is passed, and are told that the order won't be passed to-day, either. Imagine our trying to get close to the dining table to eat in comfort!"
"It may be in the plans that we're not to eat to-day," Captain Dick laughed.
Ahead, on either flank and at the rear, the torpedo-boat destroyers were scouting vigilantly, with gunners standing by ready to fire promptly at any periscope or conning tower of an enemy craft that might be sighted.
"I don't suppose there'll be any band concert this afternoon," said Greg Holmes suddenly and ruefully. "And we have a mighty good band, too. And probably no band concert to-morrow forenoon, either."
"We may not be at sea to-morrow forenoon," Dick suggested.
"Have you been able to figure out at all where we are?" Captain Holmes asked.
"I haven't. I don't know either our course or the speed at which we are traveling. All I am sure of is that we are still out of sight of land. I was told that we are nearing the coast of Ireland, but Ireland is a town of some size, so the information isn't very explicit."
"Say," ejaculated Greg, suddenly looking over at the water, "we have begun to hit up a faster speed. So have the other transports. And look at the destroyers off yonder. They are moving faster, too. I wonder if any submarine signs have been seen."
There could be no doubt that the fleet was moving faster.
"I take it," Prescott guessed, "that we've reached the part of the ocean, where greater speed is considered much more healthful."
"The leading transport is signaling, and so are the destroyers in the lead," Greg announced, peering ahead.
In their path, and coming nearer four columns of dense smoke could be observed ascending as though coming up out of the water.
"More destroyers, or some cruisers, coming out to meet us," Dick conjectured. "As yet they're too far away to be seen from this deck. Yes, I must be right. Look at the watch officers on the bridge. They are using their marine glasses and looking forward."
"More craft coming to help us?" Greg called up, after having walked nearly under the bridge end on the port side.
"Yes, sir," replied one of the watch officers. "Four American destroyers coming up to strengthen the escort."
Then he named the oncoming craft, whereat Dick Prescott started with pleasure.
"The first two are the craft commanded by Darry and Danny Grin," Dick murmured to his chum.
"That's right," Greg nodded. "I wonder if they know we're here."
"Probably not. And they wouldn't recognize us, even if they saw us at a distance. The uniform tends to make all men look alike at a very little distance. It will seem tough, though, to be so near Darry and Danny Grin and not have even a wave of the hand from them."
"What part of the ocean are we in?" Greg called up to the obliging bridge officer.
"On the surface, sir," came the dry reply. "On the surface—-just where, in latitude and longitude?" Holmes insisted.
But the ship's officer smiled and shook his head.
"I'm not permitted to tell that, sir. Wish I could."
Going at the speed now employed the transport fleet and the oncoming destroyers were not long in getting to close quarters.
Dick named the two destroyers commanded by Lieutenant-Commander Dave Darrin and Lieutenant-Commander Dan Dalzell and asked the bridge officer if he could point them out. That the man above was able and very glad to do.
"We'll keep our eyes open in the hope of being close enough to signal Darry and Danny Grin," Captain Holmes suggested.
"We——-" Dick began, but he stopped right there, for of a sudden three of the destroyers let go with their three-inch guns with a great deal of energy.
Two periscopes had been sighted off to northward. After a few rounds had been served from the destroyers' guns the firing ceased, for half a dozen of the escort craft had gone racing northward and there was danger of hitting them.
Not that any periscopes were now visible, however, for these had been instantly withdrawn under the surface. The destroyers, however, went alertly in search of their enemy prey, even to dropping a few depth bombs on the chance of destroying the enemy sub-sea craft.
"A good warning, at least," commented Captain Prescott. "We don't feel quite as foolish, now, in our life belts."
Everlastingly and splendidly alert the naval craft had chased off the sea wolves ere the latter had had time to bare their teeth!
Still more the speed was increased. An hour passed in which there was no alarm. Then the enlisted men, forward, filed below decks to have their early noon meal. The first lieutenants of each company went below, too, to inspect the food served to their men.
Half an hour later the Ninety-ninth's officers descended to their own mess in the cabin dining-room.
"This trip through the danger zone isn't as exciting as I had supposed and expected it would be," announced Major Wells.
"Yet, sir, one attempt was made against us this forenoon," said Dick.
"True, but the destroyers showed how promptly the attackers could be driven off," the major argued.
"Yet suppose the destroyers had been half a minute longer in sighting the tell-tale periscopes?" Prescott suggested.
"But they weren't tardy, and it wouldn't be like the Navy to be slow," rejoined Major Wells. "I still contend that there is nothing very exciting in passing through the danger zone on a troopship."
"And I hope, sir," Greg put in, "that nothing will happen to change your mind about the danger. For my part, I have been eating in momentary expectation of feeling a big smash against the side of the ship."
"What is happening now?" demanded Lieutenant Noll Terry, half-rising from his chair.
All could feel that the big ship had suddenly changed her course to a violent oblique movement to starboard. Yet, as no alarm had been sounded no officer cared to rise and hurry to deck. It might make him look timid or nervous.
"There we go again, in the opposite direction. We're zig-zagging. What do you make of that, Captain?" Lieutenant Terry asked.
"The enemy craft must be around and sending torpedoes our way," Dick guessed, dropping a lump of sugar in his coffee and stirring it slowly.
"In a merry throng like this the suspicion that you're being dogged by a hostile submarine doesn't strike one as very terrifying, does it?" Greg inquired as he took a piece of cake from the plate held out to him.
At this moment the adjutant, Captain Craig, who had been eating with Colonel Cleaves in the latter's quarters above, entered the dining-room briskly, stepping to a nearby table and rapping for attention.
"Gentlemen," he announced, "the sea appears to be infested, at this point, with unseen enemy craft. Ours, among other transports, has narrowly dodged two torpedoes. It is quite within the limits of possibility that we may be struck at any moment. The commanding officer therefore requests me to ask that company officers, especially second lieutenants, finish their meal as quickly as possible and station themselves near their men. This is not to be done hurriedly, or with any sign of excitement, but merely in order that, if we should be struck, discipline may be preserved effectively."
There was no excitement. Second lieutenants finished the morsels on which they were engaged, some of them washing down the food with a final gulp of coffee. Then, without undue haste, they left the dining-room by twos or threes.
Adjutant Craig watched them with nods of satisfaction.
"That was the right way for them to leave," he told Dick. "We do not want to throw any extra excitement in among the enlisted men, but we want them to feel that their officers are standing by, and that, at need, there will be disciplined rescue work."
Soon after the last of the platoon leaders had vanished the captains and first lieutenants made their way to the decks above.
Contrary to German reports that American soldiers are kept mostly between decks while transports are in the danger zone, the decks fore and aft were crowded with men of the Ninety-ninth. Those who stood nearest to the rails felt that they had the best vantage points from which to see what was going on. It was with eager interest, not fear, that the soldiers took in all that was visible of the fleet's progress and the work of the destroyers to protect the troopships from disaster.
From northward and slightly ahead of the course of the troopship of the Ninety-ninth a swift destroyer could be seen darting over the waves. As she came closer it seemed to the Army beholders that she traveled with the speed of an express train.
"Worth watching, and every officer and man visible on her looks and acts like a piece of the machinery," commented Major Wells, passing Prescott an extended field glass. "Want to take a look at her?"
"Why, I'd know that tall officer on her bridge anywhere in the world if I had as good a view of him as I have now," uttered Dick delightedly.
"Old Darry?" inquired Greg Holmes.
"No one else. Take a look at him. Next to the last officer on the port side of the bridge."
The instant that the glass gave him a sight of the familiar face Captain Holmes uttered a whoop.
"Darry himself, and sure enough!" Greg exclaimed. "Wonder what he's heading in so close for?"
"He knows what he's doing," Prescott returned. "Don't worry about that."
"I don't," Greg retorted cheerfully. With a rounding sweep the destroyer commanded by Dave Darrin turned out of the way of the troopship, then came up close, on the same course, scooting by.
"Good old Darry!" Prescott yelled through a megaphone that Greg thrust into his unoccupied hand.
For a wonder Dave heard, just as the destroyer darted in at her closest point to the transport.
For just an instant Darrin turned to wave his hand. Then, between both hands, placed over his mouth, he shouted:
"Hullo, Dick! 'Lo, Greg!"
Dave waved his hand, then turned to give an order to his watch officer. A brief greeting, but it meant a world to the three chums who had had a part in it.
"Now, if Danny Grin's craft would only come in that close!" sighed Greg happily.
But it didn't. Once in a while Prescott and Holmes could make out the craft commanded by Dan Dalzell, but it didn't come in close enough for a hail.
Bang! sounded a destroyer's gun, far ahead.
Bang! came as if in answer from the bowgun of the leading transport.
"There are the Huns, and here is the scrap coming!" yelled a corporal perched up in the bow of the ship.
"Hurrah! Hurrah!" Cheers went up in such volume as to be deafening.
"Tell the men to stop that cheering," shouted Major Wells, in order to make Dick and Greg hear him. "And tell them that no more men are to crowd the rail on either side. No noise, and nothing to make the ship list!"
Going down three steps at a time, Dick and Greg descended the companionway forward of the pilot house.
"No cheering!" shouted Prescott, pushing his way through the throng. "Quiet!"
With Dick moving through the masses of soldiers on the port side of the deck, and Greg performing a similar office on the starboard side, quiet was soon restored. Then Captain Prescott's voice was heard announcing:
"You men must remain quiet, or how can the ship's officers make their orders heard? Remember, not a cheer after this. And no more men are to crowd to the rails."
"It's a pity that the rest of us cannot see what is going on!" half-grumbled a soldier, so close that Prescott heard him.
"I know just how you feel about that," the young captain admitted, wheeling and regarding the soldier. "But this is war, not sport. Absolute, uncomplaining discipline is the surest means of bringing this ship and its human cargo through safely."
Another captain and Lieutenants Terry and Overton had joined the first two officers on the deck, and order was maintained without a flaw.
Bang! bang! bang! bang!
"This sounds like a full-fledged naval battle!" Greg Holmes called to his chum, his eyes dancing.
"And we cannot see a bit of it!" sighed a soldier complainingly.
"You're in a position to see as much of it as I'm seeing, my man," Prescott retorted, with an indulgent smile. "You and I are both obeying orders instead of pleasing ourselves."
Watching some of the officers at the rail on the deck above, Captain Prescott was able to discover that the fight was being brought close to his own ship.
Then there came another sign. From up forward the port bow gun of the troopship turned itself loose with a sharp report.
"Did you note how that gun's muzzle is depressed?" Greg asked Dick, in a low voice.
"I did," Dick answered with a nod.
Bang! The port gun had been turned loose again. Up on the saloon deck the officers at the port rail were waving their campaign hats as though what they saw filled them with liveliest interest.
"I'd like to be up there!" murmured Greg in his chum's ear.
"And I'm glad I'm down here," Prescott retorted. "It shows our men that captains of the regiment are shut out from the view as much as they are. I'd like to see what is going on, but so would I like to have all these men who cannot be near the rails see what is happening."
Bang! went the starboard bow gun of the transport, her nose pointing straight ahead.
"Only one thing is plain to me," Holmes declared. "We're in the midst of a pack of the sea wolves, and they're doing their best to hit us with torpedoes!"
THE BEST OF DETAILS
Boom! It was a dull sound, off to port. Then even the men who stood in the middle of the spar deck were able to see the top of a broad column of water that rose out of the ocean.
Major Wells so far forgot himself as to give vent to a yell of joy, then suddenly clapped a restraining hand over his own mouth.
"Sorry you men couldn't have seen that," the major called, leaning over the rail above and addressing the men on the spar deck. "A destroyer let go a depth charge, which exploded under water and threw up a geyser that would make hot water feel tired."
"Look at that now, Major," urged Captain Cartwright, pulling at his superior's sleeve. Major Wells walked to the side rail, looked out over the water, and had all he could do to keep back another yell of glee.
"There's something out there that's worth seeing, men, and it's visible," the major called down. "A great blot of oil on the water, and it's spreading. That shows that a submarine was knocked to flinders by that depth charge!"
In spite of orders a low, surging cheer started.
"Shade off on that noise, men!" Dick ordered briskly, holding up his hand and moving again through the crowd. "Remember that we cannot have any racket except what the guns make."
A few more guns were fired, and the racket died down.
"The show's over!" shouted Major Wells. "Evidently we got out of that meeting with less damage than the enemy sustained. We lost no craft, while Fritz has one pirate boat less. Our destroyers of the escort are now moving along straight courses once more."
On the saloon deck many of the officers turned and stepped inside. That set the fashion, for hundreds of enlisted men left their own decks and went below, either to sleep, read or write letters.
Then, a minute later, Major Wells once more appeared at the rail forward, calling down:
"For the benefit of those who like exact statistics I will say that the commanding officer has just received a signaled message to the effect that the navies of two countries got an enemy submarine apiece. You may omit the cheers!"
Those who remained on deck saw, a couple of hours later, several specks off on the water which, they were told, were British and American patrol boats out to give aid to victims of submarine sinkings.
Then night came on, dark, hazy, a bit chilling, so that officers and men alike were glad enough to seek their berths and get in under olive drab blankets.
"The haze and mist will hinder submarines anyway, so the weather is in our favor," was the word passed around.
Save for the guard, and those on other active duty, the passengers on the troopship slept soundly. They might be sunk in the night, but American fighting men do not always dwell on danger.
When first call sounded in the morning the men rubbed their eyes, then realized that the ship was proceeding at very slow speed.
"Get up, you lubbers!" called a man going down to one of the berth decks. "Do you realize that the ship is at the entrance of a French harbor?"
Then a cheer went up that no officer could have stopped until it had spent its first force.
At last! France! "Over there!"
Never had men dressed faster. How the soldiers piled up the companionways! Yet a few bethought themselves to kick their now discarded life belts with a show of resentment and contempt.
However, the first glimpses had from the decks were bound to be disappointing. It was just after daylight. The mist of the night had thickened instead of vanishing. Here and there patchy bits of land could be seen through the haze, but for the most part France was invisible behind a curtain of early winter fog.
One at a time, under the guidance of local pilots, transports moved slowly into the harbor, moved slowly some more, then docked.
Here at last, made fast to a French pier constructed by American engineer troops! But where were the cheering crowds of French? Absent, for two reasons. The French had already seen many regiments of American troops arrive in former months, and the novelty of such a sight had worn off. Besides, most of the French who lived in this same port were now just about quitting their own beds.
"Who'll be first ashore from this regiment?" demanded a laughing soldier as he witnessed the work of bringing the first gangway aboard from the pier.
"The guard!" tersely replied Captain Cartwright, as he appeared with a sergeant and a detachment from the guard. As soon as the gangway had been made fast sentries were thrown out, two of them being stationed at the foot of the gangway itself.
Then came a call the soldier never ignores. The buglers sounded the first mess-call of the day.
After the meal came inspection, after which, a company at a time, the men were sent over the side to the pier. A short distance up a street the men were halted, forming in two ranks at the side of the street. The reasons for all that followed were not clear to the newer men in the ranks.
While the men had been eating between decks the officers of the regiment had gone to their last ship's meal in the dining saloon. Before the meal was half over the adjutant had entered to call out:
"At the conclusion of the meal Major Wells, Captains Prescott and Holmes and First Lieutenant Terry will report at my office for instructions from the colonel."
"That's more interesting than clear," declared Greg, as soon as he had swallowed the food in his mouth. "I wonder why we four are wanted? What have we been doing and why are we the goats?"
"Probably," smiled Dick, "it is something to do with either praise or promotion—-the two things that come most regularly to a soldier, you know."
Captain Holmes's curiosity reached such a high point that he would have bolted his food in order to get more quickly to the adjutant's office, but he noted that the battalion commander was not hurrying at all.
"Confound Wells!" the irrepressible Greg whispered to his chum. "I believe he knows what it's all about, and he knows that we cannot report before he's ready to do the same, so he's tormenting us by taking twice his usual amount of time to finish breakfast!"
"Keep cool," Dick returned dryly.
At last Major Wells finished his meal. He waited until he saw that the other three officers concerned with him in the orders had done the same. Then he inquired:
"Are you ready, gentlemen?"
Rising, Major Wells led the way above. When they entered the adjutant's office they found Colonel Cleaves standing there, chatting with a French major and two captains. Colonel Cleaves introduced his own officers, then added:
"Gentlemen, it is intended that as many as possible of the officers of this regiment shall go to the fighting front and spend some time there studying the actual war conditions. You four have been chosen for the first detail. Captain Ribaut is going to take you there. He will act as your guide and your mentor for the length of your visit to the front trenches."
Even the steady, unexcitable Major Wells showed his delight very plainly. To a soldier this was unexpected good luck, to start immediately, with the surety of finding himself speedily in the thick of things in the greatest war in the world's history!
"I have informed Captain Ribaut," Colonel Cleaves continued, "that you will be ready to leave the ship in an hour."
OFF TO SEE FRITZ IN HIS WILD STATE
By the time that Dick and his brother officers left the ship in the wake of Captain Ribaut, the infantrymen massed along the nearby street had been gladdened by the sight of a few score of French women and children who came to the water front to look on.
Half of the regiment was now ashore and the rest were going over the side slowly.
At the head of the pier Captain Cartwright saluted Major Wells and Captain Ribaut, and found chance to say to Prescott in a low tone:
"You're always one of the lucky ones! How do you manage it?"
"I don't know that there is any system possible in inviting luck," Dick smiled.
"You're going right up to the actual front. You'll see Fritz in his wild state. I envy you!"
"Your turn will come, Cartwright."
"It can't come too soon then. For to-day, and the next few days, I can't see anything ahead of me but drudgery."
Ever since that quarrel at Camp Berry, Cartwright had kept mostly away from Prescott and Holmes. Dick, who knew the captain for an indolent chap, didn't know whether, in other respects, he liked him. To most of the officers of the Ninety-ninth Cartwright appeared to be more unfortunate than worthless.
"Gentlemen," said Captain Ribaut, when they had passed the head of the pier, "I think that I can obtain a car if you wish it. What is your pleasure?"
"Thank you, but we've been on shipboard for so many days that we'll enjoy the chance to stretch our legs," replied Major Wells. "A walk of a few miles would do us a lot of good this morning."
"It is not that far," replied the French captain, who spoke excellent English. "The distance is, I should say, about two kilometers."
As that meant a little more than a mile the party walked off briskly.
"Why, this doesn't look really like a French town," declared Major Wells.
"You Americans have been coming here for so many months that you have made the city American," explained Captain Ribaut. "See, even the shops display signs in English, and very few in French. It is on American money that these shops thrive. Here comes one of our own poilus, a sight you will not see many times in this American town on French soil."
Poilus is a French word meaning "shaggy," and is commonly applied to the French enlisted man. As this French soldier drew close he brought up his hand in smart salute to his own officer and the Americans. Greg turned to look back, but the French soldier was no longer looking their way.
Up the street, away from where the Ninety-ninth American sentries were posted, soldiers of the American military police patrolled.
"You see how American this city has become," said Captain Ribaut. "Here French law runs only for citizens of France. Your American military authorities look after your own men."
French shopkeepers, speaking a quaint, broken English, came to their shop doors to greet the Americans, even to urge the newcomers to enter and buy, but Captain Ribaut waved all such aside with a simple gesture.
Further on they passed through a public square. By this time many French people were about, but Dick noted that they betrayed no curiosity over the appearance of newly arrived American officers. The sight had become an old story to these people who, however, bowed courteously as they passed.
Down other streets Ribaut led the way, and so they arrived at last at a railway station.
"We are about in time," remarked the Frenchman, after glancing at his wrist watch. "We shall get our seats in the train, and then we shall not wait long."
Past French guards and saluting railway employees the little party went. As the train was already made up the Frenchman led them to a first-class coach, a train guard throwing open the door. They entered and seated themselves.
"You will see that none others are shown into this compartment," said Captain Ribaut to the guard in French. The door was closed.
"After we leave the station there will be something to see," explained their guide. "Yet France is not very attractive in such weather. Up at the front, though, there is nothing at all of France left. There is nothing but bare ground, full of shell-holes. The whole face of nature has been denuded and blackened by the atrocious enemy."
When the train had been under way a couple of minutes Captain Ribaut leaned forward.
"Look over there," he said, "and you will see where your regiment will he housed for the next two or three days. After that the regiment will entrain and will go to one of the regular training camps, where you will find it on your return from the front."
His American hearers looked out on a large village of unpainted pine barracks buildings.
"That is a rest camp for troops when first they come from the transport," explained Captain Ribaut. "Even the barracks are American, built in sections in your country, then shipped over here and set up. The village you are passing will shelter two regiments of American infantry."
Before long the Americans found themselves much more interested in the French officer's conversation than in the glimpses of his country that were obtainable. Captain Ribaut had served from the beginning of the war and was familiar with every trick of fighting practiced at the front. He had a wealth of information to give them—-so much, in fact, that before long Dick Prescott began to jot down information in a notebook.
Toward the end of the forenoon a soldier came aboard at one station with an outfit of dishes on two long trays. He was followed by two others bearing food and coffee. These were set out and the soldiers departed, the travelers falling to with a relish. At a station beyond, the dishes were removed by other soldiers. Then the train rolled slowly on its way.
"There is much in our travel facilities that I shall have to beg you to excuse," said Captain Ribaut rather wistfully. "France is not what it was, not even in the matter of its railways."
"France is not what she was," retorted Major Wells quickly, "because, glorious as she, was, she has gone up infinitely higher in the human scale. Could any other country in the world have stood the ravages of war so long and still live and contain so brave and resolute a people? Never mind your railways, Captain. It is the people, not the railways, who make a country. Your French people compel our constant and most willing admiration."
At another railway station, as the train halted, and the guard opened the door briefly, a low, sullen rumbling could be heard.
"Do you have thunderstorms at this time of the year, Captain?" asked Lieutenant Terry.
"Ah, but yes," replied the Frenchman. "It is a German thunderstorm that you hear in the distance—-artillery."
"I feel like a fool!" exclaimed Noll Terry flushing. "Of course I should have recognized the sound of distant cannon-fire."
"Don't feel badly about it, Mr. Terry," said Major Wells. "In all your career in the American Army you have never heard as much cannon-fire as you can hear in a single hour on the battle-front in France."
At the next station the rumbling was much louder. French soldiers were becoming more numerous. At times an entire French regiment could be seen marching along a road.
"At the next station," announced Captain Ribaut, "we shall find ourselves at the end of our rail journey. We are nearing the front. If you are interested, gentlemen, there goes one of our French airplane squadrons on its way to the front."
Instantly all four Americans were craning their necks at the windows. High in the air, the French aircraft in flight looked as graceful as swallows on the wing.
"They are battleplanes," explained Captain Ribaut further. "Some of the Hun flyers are almost sure of a tumble this afternoon."
When the American party alighted at the last station on the line, and looked back, they beheld long trains of freight cars coming slowly along. The train from which they had descended was hauled out and quickly shunted out of the way on a siding. The freight trains pulled in, going to various sidings before huge warehouses in which the food and fighting supplies were stored until wanted closer to the front. It was a scene of deafening noise and what looked like indescribable confusion. Yet everything moved according to a plan.
"Let us come where we can hear our own voices!" shouted Captain Ribaut in the major's ear, and led the way. Behind the station they found a limousine car awaiting them. As there were seats for five inside, the travelers soon found themselves vastly more comfortable than they had been on the train.
"We will drive slowly," said Captain Ribaut, after he had given his orders to a soldier chauffeur, "for one does not usually go into the trenches until after dark. There will be plenty to see on the way, and enough to talk about."
At one point Captain Ribaut directed the soldier-driver to turn the machine into a field. Here the Americans alighted to see seemingly endless streams of French "camions" go by. These are heavy motor trucks that carry supplies to the front.
"And here come some vehicles from the front that tell their own story," spoke Captain Ribaut rather sadly.
In another moment the first of a string of at least half a hundred small cars went by at rapid speed toward the rear. Each car bore the device of the Red Cross.
"There has been disagreeable work, and our wounded are going back," explained Captain Ribaut. "But my friends," he cried suddenly, "I congratulate you on what you are privileged to see. These are not our French ambulances, but some of your own cars, given to France, and young men from America are driving them."
That these were American ambulance sections in French service there could be no doubt, for as the drivers caught sight of the American uniforms they offered informal salutes in high glee. It was reserved for one gleeful young American, however, to call out, as his ambulance whizzed by:
"Hullo, buddies! Welcome to our city!"
"If that young man were in the American Army I would feel obliged to try to have him stopped," said Major Wells good-humoredly. "That was not the real American form of salutation to officers, but I know the youngster felt genuinely glad to see us so close to the front."
"They are a happy lot, perhaps sometimes a trifle too merry," said Captain Ribaut half-apologetically. "But they are splendid, these young Americans of yours who drive ambulances for us. They never know the meaning of fear, and after a great battle they are devotion itself to duty. They will drive as long as they can sit and hold the wheel. There would have been many more aching hearts in France to-day had it not been for the fine young Americans who came over here with American cars to help us look after our wounded!"
Presently the party entered the car again. Every mile that they covered took them closer to the Inferno of shell-fire. More ambulance cars whizzed by.
Then the visitors' car drew up before an unpretentious looking house just off the main road.
"If you will come inside," invited Captain Ribaut, "I know that our general of division will be delighted to meet you."
THE THRILL OF THE FIRE TRENCH
Passing the two sentries at the front door the officers found themselves in a small ante-room.
Excusing himself, Captain Ribaut left the Americans briefly, but was speedily back.
"General Bazain is most eager to meet you, and has the leisure at this moment," the Frenchman announced.
He led his guests through the adjoining room, where half a dozen younger French officers rose hastily, standing at salute. Then on into a third room, just over the sill of which Captain Ribaut halted, bringing his heels quickly together as he called out:
"General Bazain, I have the honor to present to you four American officers, Major——-"
And so on, through the list of names. The French divisional commander bowed courteously four separate times, taking each American officer by the hand with both his own, and finding something wholly courteous to say. He spoke in French, a tongue that only Major Wells and Captain Prescott understood well.
"My division is greatly honored, Messieurs les Officers," General Bazain continued when he had seen to the seating of his callers and had resumed his own chair behind a desk on which were spread many maps and documents.
"You have been having a smart fight this afternoon, sir?" inquired Major Wells.
"Ah, yes, for some reason, the Huns have been trying to break through my division this afternoon, but they have not yet succeeded, nor will they," General Bazain added, his eyes flashing grimly.
He was a little man, short and thin, his hair well sprinkled with gray. He looked like one whom more than three years of war had borne down with cares, yet his eyes were bright and his shoulders squared splendidly whenever he stood.
"Here is a map of the divisional front, gentlemen, if you care to draw your chairs closer and look it over," proposed the general. "This shows not only our lines, but as much as we know of the enemy lines facing us. And I believe," he added, with another flash of pride, "that we know all there is to know of their lines for a kilometer back, except whatever may have been added since dark yesterday. We——-"
He was interrupted by an explosion that shook the house. It sounded over their heads on the floor above.
"We have excellent air service at this point," General Bazain went on, his attention not wavering from the map. "And at this point, as you will see, we have five lines of trenches, one behind another, instead of three. It would take the Hun an uncommonly long time to drive my brave fellows back out of our five lines of trenches."
There followed a rapid description of the work of the division on that sector during the last four months. The two present first lines of trench had been taken from the Germans. Plans were now under way to stage a series of assaults which, it was hoped, would drive the Huns out of their three present first lines of trench and add them to the French system.
An officer wearing the emblem of the French medical service opened the door and glanced in.
"My general, you were not hurt by that bomb?" he cried anxiously.
"I had forgotten it," replied the French divisional commander. "What was it?"
"A Hun airman dropped a bomb on the roof. It blew a hole in the roof and worked some damage in your bedroom overhead."
"It does not matter," said General Bazain simply.
Bang! bang! smashed overhead.
"It must be the same rascal, returning in his flight!" cried the medical officer, darting out into the yard to look up at the sky. A moment later anti-aircraft guns began to bark. Two minutes after the medical officer again looked into the room.
"We are fortunate to-day, my general!" cried the doctor. "That scoundrel will not bother you again. One of our shots wrecked his plane and brought the Hun down—-dead."
Evidently, however, that airman of the enemy had given the location and range of division headquarters, for now a shell from a German battery struck and exploded in the yard outside, killing a sentry and wounding two orderlies. A second and a third shell followed. A fourth shell tore away the corner of the house without injuring any one.
"Your orders, my general, in case our observers can locate the Hun battery?" asked a staff officer, coming in from the next room and resting a hand on a telephone instrument.
"If the enemy battery can be located," replied General Bazain, "let it be destroyed."
Rapidly the staff officer sent his message to the artillery post of command.
"But surely you will go to a shelter?" asked the staff officer, laying down the instrument when he had finished.
"It will be inconvenient," sighed the division commander. "The light here is much better."
Yet General Bazain permitted himself to be persuaded to remove from this now highly dangerous spot. As he and his staff, accompanied by the visitors, stepped outside another shell exploded close at hand, fortunately without doing harm.
Descending to the cellar of a wrecked house near by, in the wake of their hosts, the Americans found the entrance to steps, cut in the earth, leading to a secure shelter on a level much below that of the cellar. Here were two rooms underground, both equipped with desks, lights, chairs, telephones and all that was needed for communicating with the ranking officers of the division at their posts in the trenches.
"It is stupid to have to work under candlelight in the daytime," sighed the division commander. "However, Major Wells, as I was explaining to you——-"
Here recourse was again had to the maps, which the officers of the staff had brought along.
Before dark supper was served at division headquarters in this dug-out reached through the cellar of a ruined house.
"If it were not that I expect an attack tonight, and must be at my post, it would give me delight to go with you and show you our trenches," said the division commander at parting.
Private Berger had been summoned to lead the party through the intricate system of communication trenches to the front. Berger, who was a short, squat fellow with a sallow face and uneasy black eyes, took his seat beside the soldier chauffeur.
For only a little more than a mile the Americans proceeded in the car, which then halted, and all hands stepped out into the dark night.
"From here on we must walk," announced Captain Ribaut. "Berger, be sure that you take us by the most direct route. Do not take us into the Hun trenches to-night."
"I know the way excellently, my captain," Berger replied briefly.
For some distance they walked over open country, made dangerous, however, by the presence of gaping shell-holes. Runners, soldiers and others passed them going to or from the trenches. The artillery duel, save for an occasional stray shot, had ceased on both sides.
"The road is steeper here," said Berger, halting after he had led his party half a mile through the darkness. "We now go up hill."
It was harder climbing, going up that incline. A quarter of a mile of this, and Lieutenant Terry suddenly found himself following the guide through a cut in between two walls of dirt higher than his head.
"We are in the communication trenches," said Berger in French. Noll gathered the meaning of the remark.
At every few yards there was a twist or a turn in the trench. At times they came to points where two trenches crossed each other. Had it been left to the Americans to find their own way they would have been hopelessly confused in this network and maze of intersecting ditches. Berger, however, proceeded with the certainty of one long familiar with the locality.
"Here is one of our defence trenches," said Captain Ribaut, halting at last and calling softly to Berger to stop. "This is our fifth line trench, formerly our third line. We have no men here, you will note, nor in the next line. In case of a heavy general attack men would be rushed up from the rear to occupy these two lines of trenches. We will proceed, Berger."
They were soon at the fourth line trench. At the third line trench they found sentries of the reserves on duty.
"The rest of the reserves are sleeping," Ribaut explained. "You will see their dug-out entrances as we pass along this trench, for I am taking you to the quarters of the battalion commander."
It was necessary to proceed along this third line trench for nearly a quarter of a mile before they came to a dug-out entrance before which a sentry and two runners crouched on the ground.
"Captain Ribaut and American officers present their compliments, and would see Major Ferrus," explained Ribaut.
A runner entered the underground shelter, speedily returning and signing to the visitors to descend the steps. Dick and his friends found themselves in an underground room of about eight by twelve. Around the walls were several bunks. At a table, which held a telephone instrument, sat Major Ferrus and two junior officers.
"It is quiet here, after the Hun assault of this afternoon," explained the French major when the Americans had been presented. "Captain Ribaut, you are taking our American comrades to the front line?"
"That is my instruction, Major."
"It is well, and I think you will find it quiet enough to-night for a study of the Hun line. Still one can never say."
A brief conversation, and the visitors returned to the outer air, where Private Berger awaited them. At the second line trench, which held the supporting troops for the first line, Ribaut took them to the captain of French infantry in command at that point.
"I will send Lieutenant De Verne with you," said the captain, and passed the word for that officer.
"Show our American comrades everything that can possibly interest them," was the captain's order.
"I shall do my best, my captain," replied the lieutenant. "But I do not know. The Huns are as quiet, to-night, as though they had tired themselves to death this afternoon."
Turning to Private Berger, Lieutenant De Verne added:
"You may find your way into one of the dugouts if you like, as you will hardly be needed for hours."
"But my orders, my lieutenant, were to remain with the American party," protested Private Berger mildly.
"Oh, very well, then," replied De Verne carelessly.
This time, instead of leading the way, Private Berger brought up the rear.
"You will do well to talk in low tones," the French lieutenant cautioned them in whispers, "for, when we enter the front line trench we shall be only about a quarter of a kilometer from the Huns' first line trench."
With that they started forward. A short stroll through a communication trench brought them to the first line ditch. As the ground was wet here duck-boards had been laid to walk on. The parapet was piled high with bags of sand through which loop-holes had been cunningly contrived for the French sentries who must watch through the night for signs of Hun activity. Over the rear wall of the trench was another built-up wall of sand-bags. This parados, as it was called, is intended to give protection against shrapnel, which often burst just after passing over a trench. Thus the parados prevents a back-fire of the bullets carried in the shrapnel shell, which otherwise might strike the trench's defenders.
"You may stand up here on the fire platform, if you wish," whispered Lieutenant De Verne to Dick in English. "If you do not think it too foolish to expose yourself, you will be able to look over the top of the parapet. First of all you will see our lines of barbed wire fencing and entanglements. Beyond the wire you will see open ground, much torn by shell-holes. Further still you will see the wire defenses of the German first trench, and then the parapet that screens the enemy from your gaze."
Hardly had the French lieutenant finished when Dick was up and peering with all his might and curiosity. Hardly an instant later the bark of a field-gun was heard to the northward. A whining thing whizzed through the air.
Then, into the trench in which the party stood something thudded, with, at the same instant, a sharp report, a bright flash, and the air was full of flying metal!
OUT IN NO MAN'S LAND
If there was a disgusted person present it was Captain Greg Holmes. That angry young man spat out a mouthful of dirt, and then tried to rid himself of more.
Major Wells felt more like standing on his head. A fragment of shell had torn away the top of his tunic in back, without scratching his skin, and at the same time had thrown a shower of sand down inside his O.D. woolen shirt. Terry had been knocked over by the concussion, but had sustained no wound and was quickly on his feet, unhurt.
As for Prescott, he had turned, for an astounded second, then, much disturbed over what he believed to have been his fault, he had stepped down from the fire step.
Captain Ribaut and Lieutenant De Verne, neither of whom had been touched, looked on and smiled.
As Prescott stepped down to the duck-boards he saw Private Berger come back into the trench from the adjoining traverse, the latter a jog in the trench line intended to prevent the enemy from raking any great length of trench during an attack.
"I hadn't an idea that just raising my head over the parapet would bring cannon fire so promptly," Dick murmured to Ribaut.
"Nor did that act of yours bring cannon fire," rejoined Captain Ribaut.
"Then what did?"
"It must have been that it just happened," replied the Frenchman.
Private Berger stood leaning with his right hand on top of the sand-bag parapet.
"Shall I get back on the fire step for another look?" Dick inquired.
"Why not?" inquired Captain Ribaut, shrugging his shoulders. "Why not, indeed, if there is anything you wish to see?"
Waiting for no more Dick again mounted to the fire step, raising his head over the top, this time with greater caution.
"There it is again!" he cried, in a voice scarcely above a whisper, his words causing his friends astonishment.
A moment later there came another sharp report, followed by the same whining sound. This time a shell struck just behind the parados. There was an avalanche of shell fragments, but none flew into the trench, the parados preventing.
"Captain Ribaut, a word with you," Dick urged, stepping down and laying a hand on the French officer's arm. They stepped further along the trench.
"Captain," Prescott whispered earnestly, "I do not want to arouse any unfair suspicions, but I have something to tell you. When I first looked over the parapet I noticed on the ground in front three small but distinct glows. Then came the report and the shell. Private Berger had stepped into the traverse at his right. Immediately after the shell burst he came back into this trench. When I looked over the top a second time I saw the same three tiny glows of light on the ground ahead. Then came the second shell. Each time, before the shell was started this way Berger stood with his right hand resting above his head on the parapet. Each time he stepped down and into the traverse. Each time, after the shell burst, he stepped back into this trench. I may be wrong to feel any suspicions, but is it possible——-"