Read CHAPTER IV of Army Boys on the Firing Line / Holding Back the German Drive, free online book, by Homer Randall, on ReadCentral.com.

CAPTURED OR DEAD?

There was very little sleep for the three Army Boys that night, in spite of the exhausting labors of the day. They rolled and tossed restlessly in their bunks, tortured by conjectures as to the fate of their missing comrade.

Good old Tom! He had been so close to all of them, loyal to his heart’s core, brave as a lion, ready to stand by them to his last breath. He had been beside them in many a tight scrape and had always held up his end. It seemed as though part of themselves had been torn from them.

Still, while there was life there was hope, and they drew some comfort from the fact that he had not yet been found among the dead. If he were a prisoner he might escape. They had all been in a German prison camp before and had gotten away. Perhaps Tom might have the same luck again.

They fell asleep at last, but the thought clung to them and assumed all sorts of fantastic attitudes in their dreams so that they awoke tired and depressed.

But there was little time on that morning to indulge in private griefs. The fight was on, and shortly after dawn the battle was resumed.

All the forenoon it raged with great ferocity. But American grit and steadfastness never wavered and the enemy was forced to retire with heavy loss. Not only had they failed to drive the Americans from their positions, but they had been driven back and forced to surrender a large portion of their own, including the place where Frank had crouched in the shell hole the night before.

Shortly after noon there came a lull while the Americans reorganized the captured positions. Infantry actions ceased, though the big guns, like belligerent mastiffs, still kept up their growling at each other.

“Hot work,” remarked Frank, as, after their work was done, the three friends found themselves together in the shade of a great tree.

“A corking scrap,” agreed Bart, as he sprawled at his ease with his hands under his head.

“The Heinies certainly put up a stiff fight,” observed Billy, as he tied up his little finger from which blood was trickling.

“They felt so sure that they were going to make mincemeat out of us that it was hard to wake out of their dream,” chuckled Frank. “I wonder if they’re still kidding themselves in Berlin that the Yankees can’t fight.”

“In Berlin perhaps but not here,” returned Bart. “They’ve had too much evidence to the contrary.”

“I wonder if this is really the beginning of the big drive that the Huns have been boasting about?” hazarded Billy.

“I hardly think so,” replied Frank. “There’s no doubt that that’s coming before long, but the fighting yesterday and today was probably to pinch us out of the salient we’re holding. That would straighten out their line and then they’d be all ready for the big push. When that comes there will be some doings.”

“The longer they wait the harder the job will be,” said Billy. “They say that our boys are coming over so fast that they’re fairly blocking the roads.”

“They can’t come too many or too fast,” replied Bart. “And they’ll sure be some busy bees after they get here.”

“Well, we’re not worrying,” observed Billy. “We’re getting along pretty well, thank you. By the way, Frank,” he went on with a grin, “are you feeling any different on this ground today than you felt last night?”

“Bet your life,” laughed Frank. “It’s just about here that I was calling a Heinie a jackass. And at that same minute I was thinking that my life wasn’t worth a plugged nickel.”

“Wonder how the fellow made out that you left in the shell hole,” chuckled Billy.

“Oh, he was all right,” replied Frank. “I shouldn’t wonder if he was rather chilly during the night, but no doubt they hauled him out in the morning.”

“He got off lucky, though,” put in Bart. “It’s the sentry who got the hot end of the poker. I wonder what he thought when he heard that watchword.”

“He didn’t have much time to think,” guessed Billy, “and to tell the truth, I don’t think he’s done much thinking since. That revolver must have hit him a fearful crack.”

“It’s safe to say that it gave him a headache anyway,” remarked Bart drily.

“Speaking of the revolver,” said Frank, rising to his feet, “I’m going to take a look for it. It was just over near that tree that I plugged the sentry and it’s probably there yet.”

He searched industriously among the welter of debris and after a few minutes arose with a shout.

“Here’s it is,” he said, as he held up his recovered treasure, which had his initials scratched upon the butt. “Same old trusty and as good as ever. It’s saved my life many a time through the muzzle, but last night was the first time it saved it through the butt.”

He fondled the weapon lovingly for a moment, carefully cleaned and reloaded it, and thrust it in his belt.

Just then a French colonel passed by, accompanied by two orderlies. The French had been holding a section of the line at the right of the Americans and their uniform was a familiar sight, so that the boys only gave the group a passing glance. But Frank’s eyes lighted with pleasure when the colonel detached himself from the others and came over with extended hand.

Frank wrung the hand heartily.

“Why, Colonel Pavet!” he exclaimed. “This is a great pleasure! I didn’t know that you were in this locality.”

“My regiment is only two miles from here,” replied the colonel, his face beaming. “I need not say how glad I always am to see the brave young soldier who saved my life.”

“What I did any one else would have done,” responded Frank lightly.

“But no one else did,” laughed the colonel. “And from what I hear from your commander you’ve been doing similar things ever since. I just heard of your daring escape last night. It was gallantly done, mon ami.”

“Luck was with me,” replied Frank.

“It usually is in such exploits,” was the visitor’s reply. “You know the old saying that ‘fortune favors the brave.’ But I’ll spare your blushes and come down to something that will probably interest you more. Did you get that letter from Andre, my brother, about your mother’s property?”

“Why, no, I didn’t,” answered Frank. “When was it written?”

“That’s strange,” said the colonel, a puzzled look coming over his face. “I received a letter from Andre day before yesterday and he said that he had written to you by the same mail.”

“Well, you know the mail is rather irregular just now,” replied Frank. “No doubt it will get to me before long. Perhaps your brother told you something of what was in the letter he wrote to me.”

“Not in detail. He just mentioned that he was very anxious to get hold of a former butler in your grandfather’s family who is now in the ranks. They had his testimony in part before he was called into service, but he had not been cross-examined. Andre seems to feel sure that he can extract information from him that will aid your mother to come into possession of the estate. Andre’s judgment is good, and as you know, he is one of the leading lawyers of Paris.”

“He is too good, and you also, to take all this trouble in our behalf,” said Frank warmly. “My mother and I can never thank you enough.”

“The debt will be always on our side,” responded the colonel with a wave of the hand. “By the way, how is your mother? I hope she is well.”

“She was well when I last heard from her,” replied Frank, “and happy that is as happy as she can be while we are separated from each other.”

“She is a true daughter of France,” said the colonel, “and she should be happy to have so brave a son. Please remember me to her when you write. Au revoir,” and with a friendly smile he passed on.

“Still hobnobbing with the swells, I see,” remarked Billy, as Frank rejoined his chums.

“He was telling me of a letter that his brother had written me about my mother’s property,” explained Frank. “Queer that it hasn’t reached me. Did any of you fellows get any mail yesterday?”

“I got a couple of letters,” replied Billy. “Tom handed them to me just before we went into action yesterday morning.”

“Come to think of it, Tom was asking for you at the same time,” said Bart. “He’d brought down the mail for the bunch. He said he had a letter for you. But you weren’t around at the time and he stuck it into his pocket. Then the boches came swinging at us, and in the excitement I suppose he forgot all about it. Likely enough he has it with him now that is if the Huns have let him keep it.”

“That must be the explanation,” said Frank. “Well, all I can do is write to the colonel’s brother and ask him to send me a duplicate of the letter. Poor Tom! I’d give all the letters in the world to have him safe with us just now.”

“Same here,” said Billy and Bart in chorus.

“I guess the Huns have got him,” said Frank gloomily. “He isn’t among the dead or wounded as far as we’ve been able to find. But I’ll bet they thought they had hold of a wildcat when they nabbed him.”

“Trust Tom for that,” said Bart. “He was a terror when he had his blood up. He must have got knocked on the head, or they wouldn’t have taken him alive.”

“Perhaps he’d have been luckier if he had been killed,” said Billy sadly. “From all I hear there are plenty of prisoners in German camps who would welcome death.”

“It makes me grit my teeth to think of the humane way we treat the men we capture, and then compare it with the way the Huns treat our soldiers,” said Frank bitterly. “Look at the German prisoners we saw working on the roads that time we went away on furlough. Plenty of food, kind treatment, good beds. Why, lots of those fellows are living better than they ever did in their own country. They’re getting fat with good living.”

“Nothing like that in German prison camps,” growled Bart. “Horrible food, mouldy crusts, rotten meat, and not enough of that to keep body and soul together. In a few months the men are little more than skeletons. They work them sixteen or eighteen hours a day in all kinds of weather. They set dogs on them and prod them with bayonets. Did you read of the forty they tortured to death by swinging them by their bound arms for hours at a time in freezing weather?”

“It’s no mistake to call the Germans Huns,” snapped Billy, clenching his fists.

“No,” agreed Frank, “but it’s rough on the Huns.”