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   Chapter 16 THE TRIP THROUGH A GERMAN TRENCH

Uncle Sam's Boys with Pershing's Troops Dick Prescott at Grips with the Boche By H. Irving Hancock Characters: 10678

Updated: 2017-12-06 00:03


It was the sergeant who led the way. He and his detail moved, except at special times, in a fan-shaped formation with the noncommissioned officer ahead, three men on either side of him formed lines obliquely back.

In the center, within these oblique flanks were the French lieutenant and Captain Prescott.

It was a compact formation, useful in keeping all hands together and in instant touch, yet likely to prove highly dangerous should the enemy open on them with rifle or machine-gun fire.

In the center of No Man's Land was a wide, deep shell crater, caused by the explosion at that point of one of the largest shells used by the Germans.

Crawling down between friendly and hostile lines, the sergeant made for this shell-hole. When still several feet away he held up a hand, whereupon Lieutenant De Verne gripped Prescott's leg. Leaving the others behind the noncommissioned officer moved silently forward. It was his task to make sure that an enemy party had not been first to reach the crater.

Only eyes trained to see in that darkness could make out the fact that the sergeant had held up a hand once more. This was the signal to advance. Now, as the men moved forward, the formation was not kept. Each for himself reached the crater in his own way and time. Down in this basin men could crouch without fear of being seen should the night become lighted up.

When the others had entered, Prescott, being further from the rim, signed to the French lieutenant to precede him. De Verne had just gained the hole when--Click! Not far away something was shot up into the air; then it broke, throwing down a beam of light. Other clicks could be heard, until the land within two hundred feet of the crater became at least half as bright as daylight would have made it.

Dick Prescott was outside the crater! At the instant of hearing the first click he found himself in a shallow furrow in the dirt. To have sprung into the crater would have been to betray the presence of the party to the enemy. While German machine-gun fire could not reach the French men below him Dick knew that a shell could reach them readily enough.

So he flattened himself in the furrow, his heart beating faster than usual. There followed moments of tight suspense. Would this flattened figure be espied by any enemy observer?

Even when the flares died down Dick did not move. He knew that more flares might be sent up instantly.

A quarter of a mile down the line he could hear a machine gun rouse itself into sudden fury, though none of the missiles came his way.

"I've a chance yet," Dick thought grimly. Yet when blackness came down over the scene again he did not move. No matter what happened to himself he did not intend that harm should come to his French comrades through any act of his.

As Dick still lay there a pebble touched the dirt lightly just before his face. Raising his head a couple of inches he saw a hand, dimly outlined at the edge of the crater, beckoning.

"That means that I'm to go ahead," Dick told himself. "I'll follow instructions."

He took considerable time about it, moving an inch or two at a time. This, however, soon brought him to the edge of the basin-like depression. In going down the inside he moved a bit more rapidly, but did not rise until he found himself among the others. Then he rose to his knees in the middle of the group.

"You are wonderful!" whispered the French lieutenant, placing his lips at Prescott's ear. "You Americans must have learned your stealth from your own Indians. We are clumsy when we try to equal you in moving without noise."

One of the soldiers had taken station at the edge of the crater nearest the German line. Here, with helmet off, and showing not a fraction of an inch more of his head above ground than was necessary, this sentry watched in the dark.

Again De Verne's lips sought Dick's ear as he whispered:

"What we would like most to do is to find out what is going on in the Hun trenches. Next to that, the thing we like best is to ambush a German patrol, capture or kill the men, and get back with our prisoners."

"French patrols must often be captured, also," Dick whispered cautiously.

"But yes!" replied the French lieutenant, with a shrug of his shoulders. "It is a game of give-and-take, and all the luck cannot be ours."

Still nearer the enemy's wire defenses lay a smaller shell-hole. By creeping up beside the sentry Prescott was able to see it. He remained where he was while a soldier of the French party, holding a bomb in his right hand, crept out of the crater, moving noiselessly ahead.

Arrived at the edge of the smaller shell-hole the soldier sent back a hand signal, then crept down into concealment.

Up out of the crater started the sergeant without delay. As he passed Prescott the noncommissioned officer gripped him, pointing backward. There knelt De Verne, signaling to the American to accompany the sergeant. Side by side the pair made the smaller shell-hole, which proved of just sufficient size to screen three men.

For three or four minutes the trio crouched here, listening intently, though no sounds came from the nearby German trench.

After waiting, as he thought, long enough, the French sergeant made an expressive gesture or two before the face of the soldier with him, who, aft

er examining his bombs, crept out and forward, toward the barbed wire defenses of the enemy.

Short though the distance was, the man was gone more than five minutes. Prescott, who at first could see the soldier as he moved, was not so sure of it later. It was strange how that sky-blue uniform of the poilu merged into the dark shades of the night.

At last the soldier came back, reporting to his sergeant, though using only the language of hand signs.

With a nudge for Prescott the sergeant crept out of the hole, Dick following. There was no thought of haste, yet at last they reached the first of the wire obstructions. Now Dick was able to guess the meaning of the soldier's recent hand signs. He had discovered that the Huns had left narrow passages through their own wires, presumably for the use of German patrols.

This time it was the sergeant who went forward first. Dick thrilled with admiration when he saw the French non-com pass the last of the barbed wire and creep up to the top of the German parapet, flattening himself and peering over and down.

Following closely Dick and the French soldier at his side saw the sergeant kick up slightly with one foot, a signal that caused the soldier to move to the top of the parapet; Prescott, therefore did the same thing.

It was his first look down into a German trench! Not that there was much to be seen. On the contrary there was nothing to be seen save the trench itself. Dick had heard that often the German first-line trenches are deserted during parts of quiet nights on the front.

A slight sense of motion caused Prescott to look around. He was in time to see the French private wriggling backward. The sergeant withdrew his head to a point below the outer edge of the parapet, seeing which the American captain followed suit.

Minutes passed before the departed soldier returned with Lieutenant

De Verne and the remainder of the patrol. Only a glance did the

French lieutenant take down into the trench. Next he quietly

let himself down into the enemy ditch, followed by the others.

Moving softly the patrol examined that length of trench, also the traverses at either end. Still no German had been encountered.

"We will go further," announced Lieutenant De Verne. "Sergeant, you will take three men and go west until you come in contact with the enemy. Then return with your report. The rest of us will go east."

Carrying a bomb in his right hand, a pistol in his left the young French officer led the way. Just behind him was one of his own infantrymen, Prescott coming third and carrying his automatic pistol ready for instant use.

Counting the number of trench sections and traverses through which they passed Dick estimated that they moved east fully two hundred yards. In all that distance they did not encounter a German soldier.

"The Huns who sent up the flares," De Verne paused to whisper to Dick, "must have been the last of the enemy in these trenches. It made them appear to be on guard, and vigilantly so, and right after sending up the flares they withdrew to lines at the rear. It is, I suspect, an old trick of theirs when they wish to leave the front to rest or feed. I shall so report it."

At last the lieutenant halted his men. He had penetrated as far as he deemed necessary.

"We will go back and pick up the sergeant," he said. "But first I shall send a man down one of the communication trenches to learn if the enemy are numerous in the second-line trenches."

"How long will that take?" Dick whispered.

"At least ten minutes."

"Then may I try to penetrate a little further east along this line?"

"Why not?"

"I will try to be back soon," Dick promised. Even in the darkness these Allied officers exchanged salutes smartly. Then, gripping his automatic tightly, and realizing that he was now "on his own," as the British Tommies put it, he disappeared into the nearest traverse.

Prescott did not hurry. He had nothing to expect from his own little prowl, and his purpose in going alone had been to develop his knowledge of this new kind of soldier's work.

Sixty or seventy yards Dick had progressed when, in a traverse, he thought he heard low voices ahead.

"The enemy, if any one!" he thought, with a start, halting quickly. Straining his ears, he listened. Undoubtedly there were voices somewhere ahead, though he could distinguish no word that was spoken.

"As I haven't seen an enemy yet, I'm going to do so if I can," the young captain instantly resolved.

Stepping to the end of the traverse, he peered around the jog. That next length of trench appeared to be deserted, yet certainly the voices sounded nearer.

"I've got to have that look!" Dick told himself, exulting in the chance.

Softly he strode forward, then halted all in a flash. And no wonder! For he found himself standing close to the entrance to a frontline dug-out that sloped down into the earth. And the voices came from this dug-out.

Inside, as Dick peered down, he made out two figures. Yet he pinched himself with his unoccupied hand, so certain did it seem that he must be dreaming.

Of the pair below, while the older man wore the uniform of a German colonel of infantry, the younger man wore the garb of a French sub-lieutenant of the same arm. What could this infernal mystery mean?

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