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   Chapter 20 ON A GERMAN PRISONER TRAIN

Uncle Sam's Boys with Pershing's Troops Dick Prescott at Grips with the Boche By H. Irving Hancock Characters: 11936

Updated: 2017-12-06 00:03


At last he fell asleep. When he awoke the sun was shining in his face. He was alone, for his bed-fellows of the night were already astir. They had tucked him in as warmly as possible before leaving him.

Closing his eyes, Dick slumbered again. When he next opened his eyes he sat up.

"Good morning, comrade!" called one of the two between whom he had slept.

"Ah, good morning," Prescott answered in French, and stood up.

"My, but the mattress in this bed is a beastly one."

The officer who addressed him, a young man of twenty-five or so, laughed good-humoredly.

"What time is breakfast to be had here?" Dick asked.

"I fear, comrade, that we shall not have any this morning, for the news is that we are to be entrained to-day and sent away."

"To Germany?"

"It must be. And on embarkation mornings no food is served."

"They start us away hungry?" Dick asked.

"Always, so I have been told. But you are not missing much, comrade, for you are not yet accustomed to the food the Germans feed their prisoners, and no one eats much of it until he has been hungry for a few days. Then something like an appetite for the stuff comes to one."

Finding himself somewhat chilled and cramped Prescott began to go briskly through some of the Army setting-up exercises.

"That is a fine thing to warm the blood," said one of the French officers, "but I warn you that it will make you hungry."

The other French officers now came forward to make themselves known to the only American officer in this prison camp.

"We are moving to-day," said one. "Will it be better in the new prison than here, do you think?" Prescott asked.

"In some ways at least. We shall undoubtedly be housed in a wooden building, and that should be warmer at night. Besides, I hear we are permitted straw mattresses when in Germany."

"That begins to sound like luxury," laughed Dick.

"And there our friends can send us food through neutral agencies."

"Do you suppose, if they do, we shall be allowed to have some of the food?" Dick asked.

"Some of it, at least, or our friends would quickly stop sending it to us when they heard from us that we did not get it."

"It will be a dog's life," broke in another, "even with such better treatment as may be accorded to officers."

Dick Prescott's heart was as stout as any American's heart could be, but as he listened to the talk of his French brothers in arms he could not help feeling glum.

For one thing, it was hardly for this that he had sailed from America to be taken at the outset and to be shut off from all service with the men of his own country!

A German under-officer who spoke French came to the wire to call out:

"You officers will march from here soon. Begin to get your packs ready. There must be no delay."

"It won't take me long," Dick told his new friends. "When captured

I had only my uniform and my pistol. The latter was taken."

He turned to, however, to help his French brothers who possessed blankets, water bottles and other small belongings, for some of them appeared almost too weak to prepare for the march.

The same order had been given to the enlisted men in the next enclosure. For a few minutes there was some bustle over getting petty belongings together and marshaling them into a pack that could be slung over the back.

"Officers ready!" ordered the under-officer, returning. "Fall in by twos and march after me to the office."

He marched the little detachment through the larger enclosure, and in through the rear of the office building. Here there was a roll-call. Then the officers, again in twos, were marched outside, where a corporal and four soldiers fell in with them as guard.

Down the road the captured officers were marched for something like a quarter of a mile.

"Halt, but keep your places in the ranks," ordered the corporal.

"Any prisoner disobeying will be shot."

"There is something that promises!" cried Captain Lescault, pointing to the sky.

Southward, over the lines, appeared a squadron of swift French airplanes, coming over the German lines. Almost instantly German aircraft began to rise from the ground, going to meet the invaders of the air.

Over the purring of the engines sounded the sharp, continuous rapping of machine guns as the opposing craft fought each other.

Two German planes came crashing down to earth. More appeared in the air, until the French flyers, outnumbered, turned and flew back over the French lines.

"I believe our flyers got what they wanted," whispered the same

French officer to Prescott.

Five minutes later the Frenchman whispered exultingly:

"Ah, I was sure of it! Our airmen were spying for the artillery.

Now you shall see things happen."

In the air sounded a screech. Then, less than three hundred yards further down the road a French shell exploded, overturning a motor truck and killing both Germans on its seat. The truck itself was a wreck.

Crash! Another shell landed in the road, bowling over two officers at the head of a body of oncoming soldiers. The next shell landed in a mass of marching German infantry, killing and wounding several. Then, for five minutes a hurricane of shells descended on that road, wrecking trucks, killing and wounding more than a hundred men in German marching detachments, and chasing all troops from the road.

"That does not win the war!" growled the German corporal in charge of the officer-prisoners. "It is only French mischief!"

Hardly had the shell hurricane ceased when some hundred men, under guard, came marching down from the prison camp. These were halted, at the edge of the field, just behind the officers.

An hour passed before another detachment of prisoners was marched down the road and halted. Later more came. Noon had passed before the final detachment arrived.

It was wearisome, but Dick Prescott did not feel that he had wasted his time. Full of the hope of escaping, some

day, he had watched covertly everything that he could see of German army life and movements behind the fighting line. Also, from several incidents that he witnessed, he gained a new idea of German military brutality.

One scene that made his blood boil was when a French officer, a wounded man, and suffering also from hunger, let himself slide to a sitting posture on the ground.

"Here, you!" ordered the German corporal advancing threateningly.

"You have been told that you must stand in line."

"But our comrade is weak from loss of blood," interposed another

French officer who spoke German.

"Take that for your meddling," retorted the corporal, landing the back of his hand stingingly on his informant's face. It was a humiliating blow, that a prisoner could not resent in kind.

"Get up," ordered the corporal, "or I shall aid you with my bayonet."

Though the words were not understood by the sufferer, the gesture was. He tried to obey, but did not rise fast enough to suit the corporal.

"Here," mocked the fellow. "That will help you!"

His bayonet point passed through the seat of the victim's trousers, more than pricking the flesh inside.

"Coward!" hissed Prescott and three of four of the French officers.

"If you don't like it, and are not civil," raged the corporal hoarsely, "I shall beat some of you with the butt of my gun."

Subsequently a French officer who had stepped a foot further than he was supposed to stand was rebuked by the corporal's gun-butt striking him on the knee-cap. After that the prisoner limped.

"These brutes ought to be killed--every one of them!" Dick muttered disgustedly to a French officer near him.

"Most of them will be, before this long war is over," nodded the

Frenchman, "but a soldier's death is too fine for such beasts."

Finally a German officer arrived. Under his crisp orders the now long column of prisoners moved out into the road, forming compactly and guarded by at least forty infantrymen. The order to march was given. With only two halts the prisoners were marched some eight miles, arriving late in the afternoon at a railway yard.

Here the column was halted again for an hour, while the German officer was absent, presumably, in search of his orders. When the march was taken up again its course led across a network of tracks to a long train.

"Why, these are cattle cars," uttered Prescott, disgustedly, when the column had been halted along the length of the foremost part of the train. "And, judging by the odor, these cars haven't been cleaned."

"They won't be until we are through riding in them," returned the French officer at his side. "This is what comes to soldiers who surrender to the German dogs!"

Only one car was given over to the officer-prisoners, who were forced to climb into the unsavory car through a side door. No seats had been provided, but there was not more than room to stand up in the stuffy car. Fortunately the spaces between the timbers of the car sides gave abundant ventilation.

Into cars to the rear the enlisted prisoners were packed. To stomachs that had been empty of food all day the odors were especially distressing.

As the officer in charge of the prisoners came to the side door of the first car Dick made bold to prefer a request.

"We have had no water all day. May we have a bucket of it in here before the train starts?"

"There will not be time," replied the German officer coldly, and moved away. Yet two hours passed, and the train did not start.

Suddenly German guns behind the front, along a stretch of miles, opened a heavy bombardment. Dick and his French friends gazed out at a sky made violently lurid by the reflection of the flashes of these great pieces. Then the French guns answered furiously, nor did all the French shells fall upon the German trenches or batteries. The French knew the location of this railway yard. Within twenty minutes five hundred large caliber shells had fallen in or near this yard. Freight and passenger coaches were struck and splintered.

Into the forward cattle car bounded the corporal who had tormented them that day. Behind him, in the doorway, appeared the German officer.

"Count the prisoners," ordered the latter, "and make sure that all are there. We are going to pull out of here before those crazy French yonder destroy all our rolling stock."

Fifteen minutes later, though the French shell-fire had ceased coming this way, the train crawled out of the yard. It ran along slowly, though sometime in the night it increased its speed.

Dick Prescott will never forget the misery of that night. When the train was under way the cold was intense in these half-open cattle cars. No appeal for water to drink was heeded.

Despite their discomforts, most of the prisoners managed to sleep some, though standing up.

In the middle of the night Prescott awoke, stiff, nauseated, hungry and parched with tormenting thirst. Though he did not know it at that moment, the train had halted because of a breakdown in a train ahead.

Along the track came that tormenting corporal. While a soldier held up a dim lantern the corporal unlocked the padlock, sliding the side door back.

At that moment an order was bawled lustily in German.

"Will you be good enough to repeat, Herr Lieutenant?" called the corporal, glancing backward down the length of train.

Heavy footsteps were heard approaching. Corporal and private turned to take a few steps back to meet their officer. Dick, standing in the open doorway, saw that a fog had settled down over the night.

Acting on a sudden impulse, without an instant's hesitation, he leaped down, striking softly on the balls of his feet. Without even turning sideways to see if German eyes had observed him, Prescott stole across another track, and down to the foot of an embankment.

"They'll shoot me for this!" he muttered. "Let them! Death is better than being a German prisoner!"

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