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

FURRY RESCUERS

The satisfaction that Tom felt at having in his pocket the confession of Martel helped to make his imprisonment much more bearable in the week that followed. His heart warmed at the thought of the delight Frank would feel in clearing up the matter that had long laid heavy upon his mother’s mind.

For the conviction never left him that some time he was going to put that confession in his friend’s hand. He had escaped before from German captivity, not once but twice. What he had done then he would do again. And every minute of his waking hours found that active brain of his working hard at the problem.

He confessed to himself that the solution would not be easy. The guards were many and were changed frequently. The windows of the old barracks where he slept were fortified with steel bars, and the open camp where the prisoners were employed in outside work was surrounded with wires through which a strong electric current ran. To touch them would mean instant death, and they were so close together that it would be impossible to squeeze through without touching.

He fell to studying the routine of the various conveyances that were constantly arriving and departing. Some of them brought bales of goods, others barrels. The latter were especially common. They were in a part of the country that abounded in vineyards, and great hogsheads of wine were being constantly brought in to supply the demands of the division stationed there.

They did not stay full long. The German officers were notoriously heavy drinkers, and there were days when there were great drayloads of empty hogsheads ready to be taken away to be refilled.

Tom developed a great interest in these hogsheads. The work of loading them on the drays was performed by prisoners, and he managed to be in the vicinity as often as possible to help. He was stronger than most of the prisoners and he worked with such good will at loading the bulky hogsheads that little by little it became a habit with the guards to assign him to this work whenever it was to be done.

A day came when the rain poured down in torrents. Tom had waited and prayed for just such a day. The air was full of fog and a cloud of steam rose from the horses’ backs. Everything in the prison yard was dim and gray and spectral. The guards were enveloped in heavy raincoats and the flaps of oilskin on their caps fell halfway over their faces.

Tom had managed to get on one of the trucks and was tugging at one of the hogsheads to make room for others further back. Other prisoners were lifting on the last hogsheads. Tom leaned over one of the hogsheads and suddenly let himself go into it headfirst. It was all over in a flash.

There was an awful moment of suspense. Had anyone seen him? He listened intently. No shout was raised. Nothing happened out of the usual.

The driver climbed up to his seat and the horses started. There was a momentary delay as the gates were opened to let him pass. Then the horses started on a jog trot and the truck was bumping its way over an uneven country road. A thrill of exultation shot through Tom, crouching at the bottom of the hogshead. He had made the first step on the road to freedom.

He was still in the most imminent danger. At any moment he might hear the clattering of horsemen in pursuit. And he knew the kind of treatment he would get if he were recaptured.

How to get out of the hogshead without detection was another problem. But this worried him least of all. He felt sure that the driver would stop at the first tavern he came across to refresh himself. Then he would make his break.

His faith was justified, for before long the truck came to a halt and the driver got down. The weather had driven all the tavern idlers indoors and the streets of the little hamlet were deserted. Like an eel, Tom squirmed over the edge of the hogshead, dropped into the roadway on the side of the truck away from the tavern, and, with assumed carelessness, went on down the road.

A few rods brought him into the open country. He had not the least idea where he was. In the gloom he could not tell which was north or south or east or west. But for the moment he was free.

He made his way across some fields in the direction of a dark fringe of woods. There he would find shelter for the present. It would be a poor kind of shelter, but just then Tom asked nothing better. The day would bring counsel.

For some days past he had been stowing away fragments from his scanty meals in his pockets. They were only dry and mouldy crusts, but they would at least sustain life.

Up in the streaming woods he hollowed out a place under a fallen tree. He was drenched to the skin, but he was so exhausted with the strain he had undergone that no bodily discomfort could prevent his falling asleep.

When he awoke the rain had ceased and the sun was striking through the branches of the trees. With the morning came new courage. He would yet win through.

He studied the sun and got a general idea of the direction in which he must go. He knew that the American lines lay to the south and west. He could hear the distant thunder of the guns.

All that day he traveled in the friendly shadow of the woods. He did not dare to approach a cottage or go to any of the peasants he could see working in the fields. Some of them, he felt sure, would befriend him, but at any moment he might come in contact with one of the oppressors who held the land in their grip. He would take no chances.

His food was almost gone now although he had husbanded it with the greatest care. But he tightened his belt and kept on.

On the morning of the second day he was crossing a small brook and was just stepping up on the other side when a wet stone rolled beneath his foot and threw him headlong. His head struck a jagged stump and he lay there stunned.

When he regained consciousness, he found himself looking into the face of a German officer who was amusing himself by kicking the youth.

“Awake, are you, Yankee pig?” the officer greeted him. “It’s time. I had half a mind to give you a bayonet thrust and put you to sleep forever. You needn’t tell me how you came here. I know. You’re the schweinhund that escaped two days ago. Here,” he called to some of his men, “tie this fellow and throw him over a horse. We’ll settle his case later on.”

The command was promptly obeyed and poor Tom found himself once more in the grasp of his foes. And from this captivity there seemed little promise of escape. The deadly purpose of the brute who held him in his power had been plainly written on his face.

After what seemed an endless journey, the party reached a farmhouse. The detachment took possession of the place and an orgy of pillage and destruction ensued. Tom was taken to an upper room and thrown roughly on the floor. Here he lay bound hand and foot. He could hear cries of terror and smashing of furniture going on below.

He had no companion but his own thoughts, except when some of the drunken roysterers invaded his room to remind him of the rope that hung over the tree near the well and to drive home the information with kicks of their heavy boots.

His thoughts were black and bitter. This, then, was the end. He was to be hung to furnish an occasion of laughter to a horde of drunken brutes. Well, there would be no whine from him. He would show them how an American could die.

His attention was attracted by a pattering of tiny feet. He looked in the direction from which the sound came.

A rat had emerged from a hole in the corner and was busy nibbling a lump of cheese that had been dropped by one of the soldiers who had just left. The nibbling ceased as Tom turned his head and the rat scurried back to the corner. There he stayed, his bright eyes looking longingly at the cheese.

A thought shot through Tom’s mind that set him tingling from head to foot. Was it possible? Of course it was only a forlorn hope. But he would try it. He would be no worse off if it failed.

He rolled himself over to the cheese and rubbed the rope that tied his hand in the soft substance until it was thoroughly smeared with it. Then he lay on his side with his hands outstretched and pretended to sleep.

Through his nearly closed lids he watched the rat. For some minutes it stayed motionless. Tom never moved a muscle. Then the rat crept stealthily forward, and, with many half retreats, at last started in to nibble at the rope to get the cheese. Soon another rat came and then another.

Tom conquered the sense of repulsion that their close proximity inspired in him. His life depended on his self-control. The least movement might send them scurrying back to their holes. And out in the yard there was that rope that hung from the tree near the well!

So he nerved himself and his reward came at last. He could feel the tension of the rope yielding as one strand after another was torn by the tiny teeth of his unknowing rescuers.

Finally they ceased and sat up on their haunches washing their faces, and the need for inaction had passed. With a mighty effort Tom strained at the rope and it snapped.

He could have shouted with exultation. He waved his arms in the air and the frightened rats vanished. He rubbed his hands and arms until the circulation came back. It was an easy matter then to untie the rope that bound his feet.

The noise on the floor beneath had ceased, He stole to the window and looked out. No one was stirring in the space around the house. He shuddered as he saw the dangling rope on the tree near the well.

There was the sound of a stealthy step below. Tom drew his head from the window. Standing in the shadow of the frame he could see a young girl emerge and run swiftly away.

Where were the others? Consulting perhaps as to how they could get the most enjoyment from the spectacle of his hanging.

There was only one way of exit that promised safety. He must escape by the window.

He measured with his eye the distance from the ground. It seemed to be about eighteen feet. He himself was six feet high. That would leave a clear drop of twelve feet. He could probably make it without injury. At any rate he had no choice.

He let himself down gently with his hands and dropped. The shock brought him to his knees, but he arose unhurt.

The next moment he was racing for the woods with the speed of the wind.