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Action Front by Boyd Cable (Ernest Andrew Ewart)

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ACTION FRONT

BY

BOYD CABLE

1916

TO

MR. J. A. SPENDER

_to whose recognition and appreciation of my work, and to whose instant
and eager hospitality in the "Westminster Gazette" so much of these war
writings is due, this book is very gratefully dedicated by_

THE AUTHOR

FOREWORD

I make no apology for having followed in this book the same plan as in
my other one, "Between the Lines," of taking extracts from the official
despatches as "texts" and endeavoring to show something of what these
brief messages cover, because so many of my own friends, and so many
more unknown friends amongst the reviewers, expressed themselves so
pleased with the plan that I feel its repetition is justified.

There were some who complained that my last book was in parts too grim
and too terrible, and no doubt the same complaint may lie against this
one. To that I can only reply that I have found it impossible to write
with any truth of the Front without the writing being grim, and in
writing my other book I felt it would be no bad thing if Home realized
the grimness a little better.

But now there are so many at Home whose nearest and dearest are in the
trenches, and who require no telling of the horrors of the war, that I
have tried here to show there is a lighter side to war, to let them
know that we have our relaxations, and even find occasion for jests, in
the course of our business.

I believe, or at least hope, that in showing both sides of the picture
I am doing what the Front would wish me to do. And I don't ask for any
greater satisfaction than that.

BOYD CABLE.

_May_, 1916.

CONTENTS

IN ENEMY HANDS
A BENEVOLENT NEUTRAL
DRILL
A NIGHT PATROL
AS OTHERS SEE
THE FEAR OF FEAR
ANTI-AIRCRAFT
A FRAGMENT
AN OPEN TOWN
THE SIGNALERS
CONSCRIPT COURAGE
SMASHING THE COUNTER-ATTACK
A GENERAL ACTION
AT LAST

IN ENEMY HANDS

The last conscious thought in the mind of Private Jock Macalister as he
reached the German trench was to get down into it; his next conscious
thought to get out of it. Up there on the level there were
uncomfortably many bullets, and even as he leaped on the low parapet
one of these struck the top of his forehead, ran deflecting over the
crown of his head, and away. He dropped limp as a pole-axed bullock,
slid and rolled helplessly down into the trench.

When he came to his senses he found himself huddled in a corner against
the traverse, his head smarting and a bruised elbow aching abominably.
He lifted his head and groaned, and as the mists cleared from his dazed
eyes he found himself looking into a fat and very dirty face and the
ring of a rifle muzzle about a foot from his head. The German said
something which Macalister could not understand, but which he rightly
interpreted as a command not to move. But he could hear no sound of
Scottish voices or of the uproar of hand-to-hand fighting in the
trench. When he saw the Germans duck down hastily and squeeze close up
against the wall of the trench, while overhead a string of shells
crashed angrily and the shrapnel beat down in gusts across the trench,
he diagnosed correctly that the assault had failed, and that the
British gunners were again searching the German trench with shrapnel.
His German guard said something to the other men, and while one of them
remained at the loophole and fired an occasional shot, the others drew
close to their prisoner. The first thing they did was to search him, to
turn each pocket outside-in, and when they had emptied these, carefully
feel all over his body for any concealed article. Macalister bore it
all with great philosophy, mildly satisfied that he had no money to
lose and no personal property of any value.

Their search concluded, the Germans held a short consultation, then one
of them slipped round the corner of the traverse, and, returning a
moment later, pointed the direction to Macalister and signed to him to
go.

The trench was boxed into small compartments by the traverses, and in
the next section Macalister found three Germans waiting for him. One of
them asked him something in German, and on Macalister shaking his head
to show that he did not understand, he was signaled to approach, and a
German ran deftly through his pockets, fingering his waist, and,
searching for a money-belt, made a short exclamation of disgust, and
signed to the prisoner to move on round the next traverse, at the same
time shouting to the Germans there, and passing Macalister on at the
bayonet point. This performance was repeated exactly in all its details
through the next half-dozen traverses, the only exception being that in
one an excitable German, making violent motions with a bayonet as he
appeared round the corner, insisted on his holding his hands over his
head.

At about the sixth traverse a German spoke to him in fairly good,
although strongly accented, English. He asked Macalister his rank and
regiment, and Macalister, knowing that the name on his shoulder-straps
would expose any attempt at deceit, gave these. Another man asked
something in German, which apparently he requested the English speaker
to translate.

"He say," interpreted the other, "Why you English war have made?"
Macalister stared at him. "I'm no English," he returned composedly.
"I'm a Scot."

"That the worse is," said the interpreter angrily. "Why have it your
business of the Scot?"

Macalister knitted his brows over this. "You mean, I suppose, what
business is it of ours! Well, it's just Scotland's a bit of Britain, so
when Britain's at war, we are at war."

A demand for an interpretation of this delayed the proceedings a
little, and then the English speaker returned to the attack.

"For why haf Britain this war made!" he demanded.

"We didna' make it," returned Macalister. "Germany began it." Excited
comment on the translation.

"If you'll just listen to me a minute," said Macalister deliberately,
"I can prove I am right. Sir Edward Grey----" Bursts of exclamation
greeted the name, and Macalister grinned slightly.

"You'll no be likin' him," he said. "An' I can weel understan' it."

The questioner went off on a different line. "Haf your soldiers know,"
he asked, "that the German fleet every day a town of England bombard?"

Macalister stared at him. "Havers!" he said abruptly.

The German went on to impart a great deal of astonishing
information--of the German advance on Petrograd, the invasion of Egypt,
the extermination of the Balkan Expedition, the complete blockade of
England, the decimation of the British fleet by submarines.

After some vain attempts to argue the matter and disprove the
statements, Macalister resigned himself to contemptuous silence, only
rousing when the German spoke of England and English, to correct him to
Britain and British.

When at last their interest flagged, the Germans ordered him to move
on. Macalister asked where he was going and what was to be done with
him, and received the scant comfort that he was being sent along to an
officer who would send him back as a prisoner, if he did not have him
killed--as German prisoners were killed by the English.

"British, you mean," Macalister corrected again. "And, besides that,
it's a lie."

He was told to go on; but as he moved be saw a foot-long piece of
barbed wire lying in the trench bottom. He asked gravely whether he
would be allowed to take it, and, receiving a somewhat puzzled and
grudging assent, picked it up, carefully rolled it in a small coil, and
placed it in a side jacket pocket. He derived immense gratification and
enjoyment at the ensuing searches he had to undergo, and the explosive
German that followed the diving of a hand into the barbed-wire pocket.

He arrived at last at an officer and at a point where a communication
trench entered the firing trench. The officer in very mangled English
was attempting to extract some information, when he was interrupted by
the arrival from the communication trench of a small party led by an
officer, a person evidently of some importance, since the other officer
sprang to attention, clicked his heels, saluted stiffly, and spoke in a
tone of respectful humility. The new arrival was a young man in a
surprisingly clean and beautifully fitting uniform, and wearing a
helmet instead of the cloth cap commonly worn in the trenches. His face
was not a particularly pleasant one, the eyes close set, hard, and
cruel, the jaw thin and sharp, the mouth thin-lipped and shrewish. He
spoke to Macalister in the most perfect English.

"Well, swine-hound," he said, "have you any reason to give why I should
not shoot you?" Macalister made no reply. He disliked exceedingly the
look of the new-comer, and had no wish to give an excuse for the
punishment he suspected would result from the officer's displeasure.
But his silence did not save him.

"Sulky, eh, my swine-hound!" said the officer. "But I think we can
improve those manners."

He gave an order in German, and a couple of men stepped forward and
placed their bayonets with the points touching Macalister's chest.

"If you do not answer next time I speak," he said smoothly, "I will
give one word that will pin you to the trench wall and leave you there.
Do you understand!" he snapped suddenly and savagely. "You English
dog."

"I understand," said Macalister. "But I'm no English. I'm a Scot"

The crashing of a shell and the whistling of the bullets overhead moved
the officer, as it had the others, to a more sheltered place. He seated
himself upon an ammunition-box, and pointed to the wall of the trench
opposite him.

"You," he said to Macalister, "will stand there, where you can get the
benefit of any bullets that come over. I suppose you would just as soon
be killed by an English bullet as by a German one."

Macalister moved to the place indicated.

"I'm no anxious," he said calmly, "to be killed by either a _British_
or a German bullet."

"Say 'sir' when you speak to me," roared the officer. "Say 'sir.'"

Macalister looked at him and said "Sir"--no more and no less.

"Have you no discipline in your English army?" he demanded, and
Macalister's lips silently formed the words "British Army." "Are you
not taught to say 'sir' to an officer?"

"Yes--sir; we say 'sir' to any officer and any gentleman."

"So," said the officer, an evil smile upon his thin lips. "You hint, I
suppose, that I am not a gentleman? We shall see. But first, as you
appear to be an insubordinate dog, we had better tie your hands up."

He gave an order, and after some little trouble to find a cord,
Macalister's hands were lashed behind his back with the bandage from a
field-dressing. The officer inspected the tying when it was completed,
spoke angrily to the cringing men, and made them unfasten and re-tie
the lashing as tightly as they could draw it.

"And now," said the officer, "we shall continue our little
conversation; but first you shall beg my pardon for that hint about a
gentleman. Do you hear me--beg," he snarled, as Macalister made no
reply.

"If I've said anything you're no likin' and that I'm sorry for masel',
I apologize," he said.

The officer glared at him with narrowed eyes. "That'll not do," he said
coldly. "When I say 'beg' you'll beg, and you will go on your knees to
beg. Do you hear? Kneel!"

Macalister stood rigid. At a word, two of the soldiers placed
themselves in position again, with their bayonets at the prisoner's
breast. The officer spoke to the men, and then to Macalister.

"Now," he said, "you will kneel, or they will thrust you through."

Macalister stood without a sign of movement; but behind his back his
hands were straining furiously at the lashings upon his wrist. They
stretched and gave ever so little, and he worked on at them with a
desperate hope dawning in his heart.

"Still obstinate," sneered the officer. "Well, it is rather early to
kill you yet, so we must find some other way."

At a sentence from him one of the men threw his weight on the
prisoner's shoulders, while the other struck him savagely across the
tendons behind the knees. Whether he would or no, his knees had to
give, and Macalister dropped to them. But he was not beaten yet. He
simply allowed himself to collapse, and fell over on his side. The
officer cursed angrily, commanding him to rise to his knees again; the
men kicked him and pricked him with their bayonet points, hauled him at
last to his knees, and held him there by main force.

"And now you will beg my pardon," the officer continued. Macalister
said nothing, but continued to stretch at his bonds and twist gently
with his hands and wrists.

The officer spent the next ten minutes trying to force his prisoner to
beg his pardon. They were long and humiliating and painful minutes for
Macalister, but he endured them doggedly and in silence. The officer's
temper rose minute by minute. The forward wall of the firing trench was
built up with wicker-work facings and the officer drew out a thick
switch.

"You will speak," he said, "or I shall flay you in strips and then
shoot you."

Macalister said nothing, and was slashed so heavily across the face
that the stick broke in the striker's hands. The blood rose to his
head, and deep in his heart he prayed, prayed only for ten seconds with
his hands loose; but still he did not speak.

At the end of ten minutes the officer's patience was exhausted.
Macalister was thrust back against the trench wall, and the officer
drew out a pistol.

"In five minutes from now," he gritted, "I'm going to shoot you. I give
you the five minutes that you may enjoy some pleasant thoughts in the
interval."

Macalister made no answer, but worked industriously at the lashings on
his wrists. The bandage stretched and loosened, and at last, at long
last, he succeeded in slipping one turn off his hand. He had no hope
now for anything but death, and the only wish left to him in life was
to get his hands free to wreak vengeance on the dapper little monster
opposite him, to die with his hands free and fighting.

The minutes slipped one by one, and one by one the loosened turns of
the bandage were uncoiled. The trenches at this point were apparently
very close, for Macalister could hear the crack of the British rifles,
the clack-clack-clack of a machine gun at close range, and the thought
flitted through his mind that over there in his own trenches his own
fellows would hear presently the crack of the officer's pistol with no
understanding of what it meant. But with luck and his loosened hands he
would give them a squeal or two to listen to as well.

Then the officer spoke. "One minute," he said, "and then I fire." He
lifted his pistol and pointed it straight at Macalister's face. "I am
not bandaging your eyes," went on the officer, "because I want you to
look into this little round, round hole, and wait to see the fire spout
out of it at you. Your minute is almost up ... you can watch my finger
pressing on the trigger."

The last coil slipped off Macalister's wrist; he was free, but with a
curse he knew it to be too late. A movement of his hands from behind
his back would finish the pressure of that finger, and finish him.
Desperately he sought for a fighting chance.

"I would like to ask," he muttered hoarsely, licking his dry lips,
"will ye no kill me if I say what ye wanted?"

Keenly he watched that finger about the trigger, breathed silent relief
as he saw it slacken, and watched the muzzle drop slowly from level of
his eyes. But it was still held pointed at him, and that barely gave
him the chance he longed for. Only let the muzzle leave him for an
instant, and he would ask no more. The officer was a small and slightly
made man, Macalister, tall and broadly built, big almost to hugeness
and strong as a Highland bull.

"So," said the officer softly, "your Scottish courage flinches then,
from dying?"

While he spoke, and in the interval before answering him, Macalister's
mind was running feverishly over the quickest and surest plan of
action. If he could get one hand on the officer's wrist, and the other
on his pistol, he could finish the officer and perhaps get off another
round or two before he was done himself. But the pistol hand might
evade his grasp, and there would be brief time to struggle for it with
those bayonets within arm's length. A straight blow from the shoulder
would stun, but it might not kill. Plan after plan flashed through his
mind, and was in turn set aside in search of a better. But he had to
speak.

"It's no just that I'm afraid," he said very slowly. "But it was just
somethin' I thought I might tell ye."

The pistol muzzle dropped another inch or two, with Macalister's eye
watching its every quiver. His words brought to the officer's mind
something that in his rage he had quite overlooked.

"If there is anything you can tell me," he said, "any useful
information you can give of where your regiment's headquarters are in
the trenches, or where there are any batteries placed, I might still
spare your life. But you must be quick," he added "for it sounds as if
another attack is coming."

It was true that the fire of the British artillery had increased
heavily during the last few minutes. It was booming and bellowing now
in a deep, thunderous roar, the shells were streaming and rushing
overhead, and shrapnel was crashing and hailing and pattering down
along the parapet of the forward trench; the heavy boom of big shells
bursting somewhere behind the forward line and the roaring explosion of
trench mortar bombs about the forward trench set the ground quivering
and shaking. A shell burst close overhead, and involuntarily Macalister
glanced up, only to curse himself next moment for missing a chance that
his captor offered by a similar momentary lifting of his eyes.
Macalister set his eyes on the other, determined that no such chance
should be missed again.

But now, above the thunder of the artillery and of the bursting shells,
they could hear the sound of rising rifle-fire. The officer must have
glimpsed the hope in Macalister's face, and, with an oath, he brought
the pistol up level again.

"Do not cheat yourself," he said. "You cannot escape. If a charge comes
I shall shoot you first."

With a sinking heart Macalister saw that his last slender hope was
gone. He could only pray that for the moment no attack was to be
launched; but then, just when it seemed that the tide of hope was at
its lowest ebb, the fates flung him another chance--a chance that for
the moment looked like no chance; looked, indeed, like a certainty of
sudden death. A soft, whistling hiss sounded in the air above them, a
note different from the shrill whine and buzz of bullets, the harsh
rush and shriek of the shells. The next instant a dark object fell with
a swoosh and thump in the bottom of the trench, rolled a little and lay
still, spitting a jet of fizzing sparks and wreathing smoke.

When a live bomb falls in a narrow trench it is almost certain that
everyone in that immediate section will at the worst die suddenly, at
the best be badly wounded. Sometimes a bomb may be picked up and thrown
clear before it can burst, but the man who picks it up is throwing away
such chance as he has of being only wounded for the smaller chance of
having time to pitch the bomb clear. The first instinct of every man is
to remove himself from that particular traverse; the teaching of
experience ought to make him throw himself flat on the ground, since by
far the greater part of the force and fragments from the explosion
clear the ground by a foot or two. Of the Germans in this particular
section of trench some followed one plan, some the other. Of the two
men guarding the prisoner the one who was near the corner of the
traverse leapt round it, the other whirled himself round behind
Macalister and crouched sheltering behind his body. Two men near the
corner of the other traverse disappeared round it, two more flung
themselves violently on their faces, and another leapt into the opening
of the communication trench. The officer, without hesitation, dropped
on his face, his head pressed close behind the sandbag on which he had
been sitting.

The whole of these movements happened, of course, in the twinkling of
an eye. Macalister's thoughts had been so full of his plans for the
destruction of the officer that the advent of the bomb merely switched
these plans in a new direction. His first realized thought was of the
man crouching beside and clinging to him, the quick following instinct
to free himself of this check to his movements. He was still on his
knees, with the man on his left side; without attempting to rise he
twisted round and backwards, and drove his fist full force in the
other's face; the man's head crashed back against the trench wall, and
his limp body collapsed and rolled sideways. His mind still running in
the groove of his set purpose, before his captor's relaxed fingers had
well loosed their grip, Macalister hurled himself across the trench and
fastened his ferocious grip on the body of the officer. He rose to his
feet, lifting the man with a jerking wrench, and swung him round. The
swift idea had come to him that by hurling the officer's body on top of
the bomb, and holding him there, he would at least make sure of his
vengeance, might even escape himself the fragments and full force of
the shock. Even in the midst of the swing he checked, glanced once at
the spitting fuse, and with a stoop and a heave flung the officer out
over the front parapet, leaped on the firing step, and hurled himself
over after him.

It must be remembered that the burning fuse of a bomb gives no
indication of the length that remains to burn before it explodes the
charge. The fuse looks like a short length of thin black rope, its
outer cover does not burn and the same stream of sparks and smoke pours
from its end in the burning of the first inch and of the last. There
was nothing, then, to show Macalister whether the explosion would come
before his quick muscles could complete their movement, or whether long
seconds would elapse before the bomb burst. It was an even chance
either way, so he took the one that gave him most. Fortune favored him,
and the roar of the explosion followed his flying heels over the
parapet.

The officer, dazed, shaken, and not yet realizing what had happened,
had gathered neither his wits nor his limbs to rise when Macalister
leaped down almost on top of him. The officer's hand still clung to the
pistol he had held, but Macalister's grasp swooped and clutched and
wrenched the weapon away.

"Get up, my man," he said grimly. "Get up, or I'll blow a hole in ye as
ye lie."

He added emphasis with the point of the pistol in the other's ribs, and
the officer staggered to his feet.

"Now," said Macalister, "you'll quick mairch--that way." He waved the
pistol towards the British trench.

The officer hesitated.

"It is no good," he said sullenly. "I should be killed a dozen times
before I got across."

"That's as may be," said Macalister coolly.

"But if you don't go you'll get your first killing here, and say
naething o' the rest o' the dizen."

A shell cracked overhead, and the shrapnel ripped down along the trench
behind them with a storm of bullets thudding into the ground about
their feet.

"I will make you an offer," said the officer hurriedly. "You can go
your way and leave me to go mine."

"You'll mak' an offer!" said Macalister contemptuously. "Here"--and he
waved the pistol across the open again. "Get along there."

"I will give you--" the officer began, when Macalister broke in
abruptly.

"This is no a debatin' society," he said. "But ye'll no walk ye maun
just drive."

Without further words he thrust the pistol in his pocket, grabbed and
took one handful of coat at the back of the officer's neck and another
at the skirt, and commenced to thrust him before him across the open
ground. But the officer refused to walk, and would have thrown himself
down if Macalister's grasp had not prevented it.

"Ye would, would ye?" growled the Scot, and seized his captive by the
shoulders and shook him till his teeth rattled. "Now," he said angrily,
"ye'll come wi' me or--" he broke off to fling a gigantic arm about the
officer's neck--"or I'll pull the heid aff ye."

So it was that the occupants of the British trench viewed presently the
figure of a huge Highlander appearing through the drifting haze and
smoke at a trot, a head clutched close to his side by a circling arm, a
struggling German half-running, half-dragging behind his captor.

Arrived at the parapet, "Here," shouted Macalister. "Catch, some o'
ye." He jerked his prisoner forward and thrust him over and into the
trench, and leaped in after him.

It was purely on impulse that Private Macalister flung his prisoner out
of the German trench, but it was a set and reasoned purpose that made
him drag his struggling captive back over the open to the British
trench. He knew that the British line would not shoot at an obvious
kilted Highlander, and he supposed that the Germans would hesitate to
fire on one dragging an equally obvious German officer behind him.
Either his reasoning or his blind luck held true, and both he and his
captive tumbled over into the British trench unhurt. An officer
appeared, and Macalister explained briefly to him what had happened.

"You'd better take him back with you," said the officer when he had
finished, and glanced at the German. "He's not likely to make trouble,
I suppose, but there are plenty of spare rifles, and you had better
take one. What's left of your battalion has withdrawn to the support
trench."

"I am an officer," said the German suddenly to the British subaltern?
"I surrender myself to you, and demand to be treated as an honorable
prisoner of war. I do not wish to be left in this man's hands."

"Wish this and wish that," said Macalister, "and much good may your
wishing do. Ye've heard what this officer said, so rise and mairch,
unless ye wad raither I took ye further like I brocht ye here." And he
moved as if to scoop the German's head under his arm again.

"I will not," said the German furiously, and turned again to the
subaltern. "I tell you I surrender----"

"There's no need for you to surrender," said the subaltern quietly. "I
might remind you that you are already a prisoner; and I am not here to
look after prisoners."

The German yielded with a very bad grace, and moved ahead of Macalister
and his threatening bayonet, along the line and down the communication
trench to the support trench. Here the Scot found his fellows, and
introduced his prisoner, made his report to an officer, and asked and
received permission to remain on guard over his captive. Then he
returned to the corner of the trench where the remains of his own
company were. He told them how he had fallen into the German trench and
what had happened up to the moment the German officer came into the
proceedings.

"This is the man," he said, nodding his head towards the officer, "and
I wad just like to tell you carefully and exactly what happened between
him an' me. Ye'll understaun' better if a' show ye as weel as tell ye.
Weel, now, he made twa men tie ma' hands behind ma' back first--if ony
o' ye will lend me a first field dressing I'll show ye how they did
it."

A field dressing was promptly forthcoming, and Macalister bound the
German's hands behind his back, overcoming a slight attempt at
resistance by a warning word and an accompanying sharp twist on his
arms.

"It's maybe no just as tight as mine was," said Macalister when he had
finished, and stood the prisoner back against the wall. "But it'll dae.
Then he made twa men stand wi' fixed bayonets against ma' breast, and
when I hinted what was true, that he was no gentleman, he said I was to
kneel and beg his pardon. And now you," he said, nodding to the
prisoner, "will go down on your marrow-bones and beg mine."

"That is sufficient of this fooling," said the officer, with an attempt
at bravado. "It's your turn, I'll admit; but I will pay you well--"

Macalister interrupted him-"Ye'll maybe think it's a bit mair than
fooling ere I'm done wi' ye," he said. "But speakin' o' pay... and
thank ye for reminding me. Ower there they riped ma pooches, an' took
a'thing I had."

He stepped over to the prisoner, went expeditiously through his
pockets, removed the contents, and transferred them to his own.

"I'm no saying but what I've got mair than I lost," he admitted to the
others, who stood round gravely watching and thoroughly enjoying the
proceedings. "But then they took all I had, an' I'm only taking all he
has."

He pulled a couple of sandbags off the parapet and seated himself on
them.

"To go on wi' this begging pardon business," he said, "If a couple o'
ye will just stand ower him wi' your fixed bayonets.... Thank ye. I
wouldna' kneel," he continued, "so one o' them put his weight on my
shoulders----" He looked at one of the guards, who, entering promptly
into the spirit of the play, put his massive weight on the German's
shoulders, and looked to Macalister for further instructions.

"Then," said Macalister, "the ither guard gave me a swipe across the
back o' the knees."

The "swipe" followed quickly and neatly, and the German went down with
a jerk.

"That's it exactly," said Macalister, with a pleasantly reminiscent
smile. The German's temper broke, and he spat forth a torrent of abuse
in mixed English and German.

Macalister listened a moment. "I said nothing; so I think he shouldna'
be allowed to say anything," he remarked judicially. His comment met
with emphatic approval from his listeners.

"I think I could gag him," said one of his guards; "or if ye preferred
it I could just throttle his windpipe a wee bit, just enough to stop
his tongue and no to hurt him much."

With an effort the German regained his control. "There is no need," he
said sullenly; "I shall be silent."

"Weel," resumed Macalister, "there was a bit o' chaff back and forrit
between us, and next thing he did was to slap me across the face wi'
his hand. Do ye think," he appealed to his audience, "it would brak'
his jaw if I gave him a bit lick across it?"

He advanced a huge hand for inspection, and listened to the free advice
given to try it, and the earnest assurances that it did not matter much
if the jaw did break.

"Ye'll feenish him off presently onyway, I suppose?" said one, and
winked at Macalister.

"Just bide a wee," answered Macalister, "I'm coming to that. I think
maybe I'll no brak his jaw, for fair's fair, and I want to give as near
as I can to what I got."

He leant forward and dealt a mild but tingling slap on the German's
cheek.

"I think," he went on, "the next thing I got was a slash wi' a bit
switch he pulled out from the trench wall. We've no sticks like it
here, so I maun just do the best I can instead."

He leant forward and fastened a huge hand on the prisoner's
coat-collar, jerked him to him, and, despite his frantic struggles and
raging tongue, placed him face down across his knees and administered
punishment.

"I think that's about enough," he said, and returned the choking and
spluttering prisoner to his place between the guards.

"He kept me," he said, "on my knees, so I think he ought ... thank ye,"
as the German went down again none too gently. "After that he went on
saying some things it would be waste o' time to repeat. Swine dog was
about the prettiest name he had any use for. But there was another
thing he did; ye'll see some muck on my face and on my jacket. It came
there like this; he took hold o' me by the hair--this way." And
Macalister proceeded to demonstrate as he explained.

"Then--my hands being tied behind my back you will remember, like
this--it was easy enough for him to pull me over on my face--like
this... and rub my face in the mud.... The bottom o' this trench is in
no such a state a' filth as theirs, but it'll just have to do." He
hoisted the German back to his knees. "Then I think it was after that
the pistol and the killing bit came in." And Macalister put his hand to
his pocket and drew out the officer's pistol which he had thrust there.

"He gave me five minutes, so I'll give him the same. Has ony o' ye a
watch?"

A timekeeper stepped forward out of the little knot of spectators that
crowded the trench, and Macalister requested him to notify them when
only one minute of the five was left.

"My manny here was good enough," said Macalister, "to tell me he
wouldna' bandage my eyes, because he wanted me to look down the muzzle
of his pistol; so now," turning to the prisoner, "you can watch my
finger pulling the trigger."

As the four minutes ebbed, the German's courage ran out with them. The
jokes and laughter about him had ceased. Macalister's face was set and
savage, and there was a cold, hard look in his eye, a stern ferocity on
his mud and bloodstained face that convinced the German the end of the
five minutes would also surely see his end.

"One minute to go," said the timekeeper. A sigh of indrawn breaths ran
round the circle, and then tense silence. Outside the trench they were
in the roar of the guns boomed unceasingly, the shells whooped and
screwed overhead, and from oat in front came the crackle and roar of
rifle-fire; and yet, despite the noise, the trench appeared still and
silent. Macalister noted that, as he had noted it over there in the
German trench.

"Time's up," said the man with the watch. The German, looking straight
at the pistol muzzle and the cold eye behind the sights, gasped and
closed his eyes. The silence held, and after a dragging minute the
German opened his eyes, to find the pistol lowered but still pointing
at him.

"To make it right and fair," said Macalister, "his hands should be
loose, because I had managed to loose mine. Will one o' ye ... thank
ye. It's no easy," continued Macalister, "to just fit the rest o' the
program in, seeing that it was here a bomb fell in the trench, an' his
men bein' weel occupied gettin' oot o' its way, I threw him ower the
parapet and dragged him across to oor lines. Maybe ye'd like to try and
throw me out the same way."

The German was perhaps a brave enough man, but the ordeal of those last
five minutes especially had brought his nerve to near its breaking
strain. His lips twitched and quivered, his jaw hung slack, and at
Macalister's invitation he tittered hysterically. There was a stir and
a movement at the back of the spectators that by now thronged the
trench, and an officer pushed his way through.

"What's this?" he said. "Oh, yes! the prisoner. Well, you fellows might
have more sense than heap yourselves up in a crowd like this. One
solitary Krupp dropping in here, and we'd have a pretty-looking mess.
Open out along the trench there, and keep low down. You can be ready to
move in a few minutes now; we are being relieved here and are going
further back. Now what about this prisoner? Who is looking after him?"

"I am, sir," said Macalister. "The Captain said I was to take him
back."

"Right," said the subaltern. "You can take him with you when you go.
They've got some more prisoners up the line, and you can join them."

It was here that the episode ended so far as Macalister was concerned,
and his relations with the German officer thereafter were of the purely
official nature of a prisoner's guard. There were some other
indignities, but in these Macalister had no hand. They were probably
due to the circulation of the tale Macalister had told and
demonstrated, and were altogether above and beyond anything that
usually happens to a German prisoner. They need not be detailed, but
apparently the most serious of them was the removal of a portion of the
black mud which masked the German's face, so as to leave a
diamond-shaped patch, of staring cleanness over one eye, after the
style of a music-hall star known to fame as the White-eyed Kaffir;
the ripping of a small portion of that garment which permitted of the
extraction of a dangling shirt into a ridiculous wagging tail about a
foot and a half long, and a pressing invitation, accompanied by a hint
from the bayonet point, to give an exposition of the goose-step at the
head of the other prisoners whenever they and their escort were passing
a sufficient number of troops to form a properly appreciative audience.
Probably a Cockney-born Highlander was responsible for these
pleasantries, as he certainly was for the explanation he gave to
curious inquirers.

"He's mad," he explained. "Mad as a coot; thinks he's the devil, and
insists on wagging his little tail. I have to keep him marching with
his hands up this way, because he might try to grab my rifle. Now, it's
no use you gritting your teeth and mumbling German swear words,
cherrybim. Keep your 'ands well up, and proceed with the goose-step."

But with all this Macalister had nothing to do. When he had returned as
nearly as he could the exact sufferings he had endured, he was quite
satisfied to let the matter drop. "I suppose," he said reflectively,
when the officer had gone, after giving him orders to see the prisoner
back, "as that finishes this play, we'll just need to treat ma lad here
like an ordinary preesoner. Has ony o' ye got a wee bit biscuit an'
bully beef an' a mouthful o' water t' gie the puir shiverin' crater!"

A BENEVOLENT NEUTRAL

" ... _the enemy temporarily gained a footing in a portion of our
trench, but in our counter-attack we retook this and a part of enemy
trench beyond_."--EXTRACT FROM OFFICIAL DESPATCH.

A wet night, a greasy road, and a side-slipping motor-bike provided the
means of an introduction between Second Lieutenant Courtenay of the 1st
Footsloggers and Sergeant Willard K. Rawbon of the Mechanical Transport
branch of the A.S.C. The Mechanical Transport as a rule extend a bland
contempt to motor-cycles running on the road, ignoring all their
frantic toots of entreaty for room to pass, and leaving them to scrape
as best they may along the narrow margin between a deep and muddy ditch
and the undeviating wheels of a Juggernaut Mechanical Transport lorry.
But a broken-down motor-cycle meets with a very different reception. It
invariably excites some feeling compounded apparently of compassion and
professional interest to the cycle, and an unlimited hospitality to the
stranded cyclist.

This being well known to Second Lieutenant Courtenay, he, after
collecting himself, his cycle, and his scattered wits from the ditch
and conscientiously cursing the road, the dark, and the wet, duly
turned to bless the luck that had brought about an accident right at
the doorstep of a section of the Motor Transport. There were about ten
massive lorries drawn up close to the side of the road under the
poplars, and Courtenay made a direct line for one from which a chink of
light showed under the tarpaulin and sounds of revelry issued from a
melodeon and a rasping file. Courtenay pulled aside the flap, poked his
head in and found himself blinking in the bright glare of an acetylene
lamp suspended in the middle of a Mechanical Transport traveling
workshop. The walls--tarpaulin over a wooden frame--were closely packed
with an array of tools, and the floor was still more closely packed
with a work-bench, vice and lathe, spare motor parts, boxes, and half a
dozen men. The men were reading newspapers and magazines; one was
manipulating the melodeon, and another at the vice was busy with the
file. The various occupations ceased abruptly as Courtenay poked his
head in and explained briefly who he was and what his troubles were.

"Thought you might be able to do something for me," he concluded, and
before he had finished speaking the man at the vice had laid down his
file and was reaching down a mackintosh from its hook. Courtenay
noticed a sergeant's stripes on his sleeve, and a thick and most
unsoldierly crop of hair on his head plastered back from the brow.

"Why sure," the sergeant said. "If she's anyways fixable, you reckon
her as fixed. Whereabouts is she ditched?"

Ten minutes later Courtenay was listening disconsolately to the list of
damages discovered by the glare of an electric torch and the sergeant's
searching examination.

"It'll take 'most a couple of hours to make any sort of a job," said
the sergeant. "That bust up fork alone--but we'll put her to rights for
you. Let's yank 'er over to the shop."

Courtenay was a good deal put out by this announcement.

"I suppose there's no help for it," he said resignedly, "but it's
dashed awkward. I'm due back at the billets now really, and another two
or three hours late--whew!"

"Carryin' a message, I s'pose," said the sergeant, as together they
seized the cycle and pushed it towards the repair lorry.

"No," said Courtenay, "I was over seeing another officer out this way."
He had an idea from the sergeant's free and easy style of address that
the mackintosh, without any visible badges and with a very visible
spattering of mud, had concealed the fact that he was an officer, and
when he reached the light he casually opened his coat to show his belts
and tunic. But the sergeant made not the slightest difference in his
manner.

"Guess you'd better pull that wet coat right off," he said casually,
"and set down while I get busy. You boys, pike out, hit it for the
downy, an' get any sleep you all can snatch. That break-down will be
ambling along in about three hours an' shoutin' for quick repairs, so
you'll have to hustle some. That three hours is about all the sleep
comin' to you to-night; so, beat it."

The damaged cycle was lifted into the lorry and propped up on its stand
and before the men had donned their mackintoshes and "beat it," the
sergeant was busy dismembering the damaged fork. Courtenay pulled off
his wet coat and settled himself comfortably on a box after offering
his assistance and being assured it was not required. The sergeant
conversed affably as he worked.

At first he addressed Courtenay as "mister," but suddenly--"Say," he
remarked, "what ought I to be calling you? I never can remember just
what those different stars-an'-stripes fixin's mean."

"My name is Courtenay and I'm second lieutenant," said the other. He
was a good deal surprised, for naturally, a man does not usually reach
the rank of sergeant without learning the meaning of the badges of rank
on an officer's sleeve.

"My name's Rawbon--Willard K. Rawbon," said the sergeant easily. "So
now we know where we are. Will you have a cigar, Loo-tenant?" he went
on, slipping a case from his pocket and extending it. Courtenay noticed
the solidly expensive get-up and the gold initials on the leather and
was still more puzzled. He reassured himself by another look at the
sergeant's stripes and the regulation soldier's khaki jacket. "No,
thanks," he said politely, and struggling with an inclination to laugh,
"I'll smoke a cigarette," and took one from his own case and lighted
it. He was a good deal interested and probed gently.

"You're Canadian, I suppose?" he said. "But this isn't Canadian
Transport, is it?"

"Not," said the sergeant "Neither it nor me. No Canuck in mine,
Loo-tenant. I'm good United States."

"I see," said Courtenay. "Just joined up to get a finger in the
fighting?"

"Yes an' no," said the sergeant, going on with his work in a manner
that showed plainly he was a thoroughly competent workman. "It was a
matter of business in the first place, a private business deal that--"

"I beg your pardon," said Courtenay hastily, reddening to his ear-tips.
"Please don't think I meant to question you. I say, are you sure I
can't help with that? It's too bad my sitting here watching you do all
the work."

The sergeant straightened himself slowly from the bench and looked at
Courtenay, a quizzical smile dawning on his thin lips. "Why now,
Loo-tenant," he said, "there's no need to get het up none. I know you
Britishers hate to be thought inquisitive--'bad form,' ain't it!--but I
didn't figure it thataway, not any. I'd forgot for a minute the
difference 'tween--" He broke off and looked down at his sleeve,
nodding to the stripes and then to the lieutenant's star. "An' if you
don't mind I'll keep on forgetting it meantime. 'Twon't hurt
discipline, seeing nobody's here anyway. Y' see," he went on, stooping
to his work again, "I'm not used to military manners an' customs. A
year ago if you'd told me I'd be a soldier, _and_ in the British Army,
I'd ha' thought you clean loco."

Courtenay laughed. "There's a good many in the same British Army can
say the same as you," he said.

"I was in London when the flare-up came, an' bein' interested in
business I didn't ball up my intellect with politics an' newspaper war
talk. So a cable I had from the firm hit me wallop, an' plumb dazed me.
It said, 'Try secure war contract. One hundred full-powered available
now. Two hundred delivery within month.' Then I began to sit up an'
take notice. Y' see, I'm in with a big firm of auto builders--mebbe you
know 'em--Rawbon an' Spedding, the Rawbon bein' my dad? No? Well,
anyhow, I got the contract, got it so quick it made my head swim. Gee,
that fellow in the War Office was buyin' up autos like I'd buy
pipe-lights. The hundred lorries was shipped over, an' I saw 'em safe
through the specified tests an' handed 'em over. Same with the next two
hundred, an' this"--tapping his toe on the floor--"is one of 'em right
here."

"I see how the lorry got here," said Courtenay, hugely interested, "but
I don't see how you've managed to be aboard. You and a suit of khaki
and a sergeant's stripes weren't all in the contract, I suppose?"

"Nope," said the sergeant, "not in the written one, mebbe. But I took a
fancy to seein' how the engines made out under war conditions, an'
figured I might get some useful notes on it for the firm, so I fixed it
to come right along."

"But how?" asked Courtenay--"if that's not a secret."

"Why, that guy in the testin' sheds was plump tickled when I told him
my notion. He fixed it all, and me suddenly discoverin' I was mistook
for a Canadian I just said 'M-m-m' when anybody asked me. I had to
enlist though, to put the deal through, an' after that there wasn't
trouble enough to clog the works of a lady's watch. But there was
trouble enough at the other end. My dad fair riz up an' screeched
cablegrams at me when I hinted at goin' to the Front. He made out it
was on the business side he was kickin', with the attitude of the
U-nited States toward the squabble thrown in as extra. Neutrals, he
said we was, benevolent neutrals, an' he wasn't goin' to have a son o'
his steppin' outside the ring-fence o' the U-nited States Constitution,
to say nothing of mebbe losin' good business we'd been do in' with the
Hoggheimers, an' Schmidt Brothers, an' Fritz Schneckluk, an' a heap
more buyers o' his that would rear up an' rip-snort an' refuse to do
another cent's worth of dealing with a firm that was sellin' 'em autos
wi' one hand an' shootin' holes in their brothers and cousins and
Kaisers wi' the other. I soothed the old man down by pointing out I was
to go working these lorries, and the British Army don't shoot Germans
with motor-lorries; and I'd be able to keep him posted in any weak
points, if, and as, and when they developed, so he could keep ahead o'
the crowd in improvements and hooking in more fat contracts; and
lastly, that the Schmidt customer crowd didn't need to know a thing
about me being here unless he was dub enough to tell 'em. So I signed
on to serve King George an' his missus an' kids for ever an' ever, or
duration of war, Amen, with a mental footnote, which last was the only
part I mentioned in mailing my dad, that I was a Benevolent Neutral.
An' here I am."

"Good egg," laughed Courtenay. "Hope you're liking the job."

"Waal, I'll amit I'm some disappointed, Loo-tenant," drawled the
sergeant. "Y' see I did expect I'd have a look in at some of the
fightin'. I'm no ragin' blood-drinker an' bone-buster by profession,
up-bringin', or liking. But it does seem sorter poor play that a man
should be plumb center of the biggest war in history an' never see a
single solitary corpse. An' that's me. I been trailin' around with this
convoy for months, and never got near enough to a shell burst to tell
it from a kid's firework. It ain't in the program of this trench
warfare to have motor transport under fire, and the program is bein'
strictly attended to. It's some sight too, they tell me, when a good
mix-up is goin' on up front. I've got a camera here that I bought
special, thinking it would be fun later to show round my album in the
States an' point out this man being skewered on a bayonet an' that one
being disrupted by a bomb an' the next lot charging a trench. But will
you believe me, Loo-tenant, I haven't as much as set eye or foot on the
trenches. I did once take a run up on the captain's 'Douglas,' thinking
I'd just have a walk around an' see the sights and get some snaps. But
I might as well have tried to break into Heaven an' steal the choir's
harps. I was turned back about ten ways I tried, and wound up by being
arrested as a spy an' darn near gettin' shot. I got mad at last and I
told some fellows, stuck all over with red tabs and cap-bands and
armlets, that they could keep their old trenches, and I didn't believe
they were worth looking at anyway."

Courtenay was laughing again. "I fancy I see the faces of the staff,"
he choked.

"Oh, they ante-d up all right later on," admitted the sergeant, "when
they'd discovered this column and roped in my captain to identify me.
One old leather-face, 'specially--they told me after he was a
General--was as nice as pie, an' had me in an' fed me a fresh meat and
canned asparagus lunch and near chuckled himself into a choking fit
when I told him about dad, an' my being booked up as a Benevolent
Neutral. He was so mighty pleasant that I told him I'd like to have my
dad make him a present of as dandy an auto as rolls in France. I would
have, too, but he simply wouldn't listen to me; told me he'd send it
back freight if I did; and I had to believe him, though, it seemed
unnatural. But they wouldn't let me go look at their blame trenches. I
tried to get this General joker to pass me in, but he wouldn't fall for
it. 'No, no,' he gurgles and splutters. 'A Benevolent Neutral in the
trenches! Never do, never do. We'll have to put some new initials on
the Mechanical Transport,' he says, 'B.N.M.T. Benevolent Neutral! I
must tell Dallas of the Transport that.' And he shooed me off with
that."

The sergeant had worked busily as he talked, and now, as he commenced
to replace the repaired fork, he was thoughtfully silent a moment.

"I suppose there's some dandy sna-aps up in those trenches,
Loo-tenant?" he said at last.

"Oh, well, I dunno," said Courtenay. "Sort of thing you see in the
picture papers, of course."

"Them!" said the sergeant contemptuously. "I could make better sna-aps
posin' some of the transport crowd in these emergency trenches dug
twenty miles back from the front. I mean real pictures of the real
thing--fellows knee-deep in mud, and a shell lobbing in, and such
like--real dandy snaps. It makes my mouth water to think of 'em. But I
suppose I'll go through this darn war and never see enough to let me
hold up my head when I get back home and they ask me what was the war
really like and to tell 'em about the trenches. I could have made out
if I'd even seen those blame trenches and got some good snaps of 'em."

Courtenay was moved to a rash compassion and a still more rash promise.

"Look here, sergeant," he said, "I'm dashed if I don't have a try to
get you a look at the trenches. We go in again in two days and it might
be managed."

* * * * *

Three days later Sergeant Rawbon, mounted on the motor-cycle which he
had repaired and which had been sent over to him, found all his
obstacles to the trenches melt and vanish before a couple of passes
with which he was provided--one readily granted by his captain on
hearing the reason for its request, and one signed by Second Lieutenant
Courtenay to pass the bearer, Sergeant Rawbon, on his way to the
headquarters of the 1st Footsloggers with motor-cycle belonging to that
battalion. The last quarter mile of the run to the headquarters
introduced Sergeant Rawbon to the sensation of being under fire, and,
as he afterwards informed Courtenay, he did not find the sensation in
any way pleasant.

"Loo-tenant," he said gravely, "I've had some of this under fire
performance already, and I tell you I finds it no ways nice. Coming
along that last bit of road I heard something whistling every now an'
then like the top note of a tin whistle, and something else goin'
_whisk_ like a cane switched past your ear, and another lot saying
_smack_ like a whip-lash snapping. I was riding slow and careful,
because that road ain't exactly--well, it would take a lot of
sandpapering to make it really smooth. But when I realized that those
sounds spelt bullets with a capital B, I decided that road wasn't as
bad as I'd thought, and that anything up to thirty knots wasn't outside
its limits."

"Oh, you were all right," said Courtenay carelessly, "bullets can't
touch you there, except a few long-distance ones that fall in enfilade
over the village. From the front they go over your head, or hit that
parapet along the side of the road."

"Which is comforting, so far," said the sergeant, "though, personally,
I've just about as much objection to be hit by a bullet that comes over
a village as any other kind."

They were outside the remains of a house in the cellar of which was
headquarters, Courtenay having timed the sergeant to arrive at an hour
when he, Courtenay, could arrange to be waiting at headquarters.

"Now we'll shove along down and round the trenches. I spoke to the O.C.
and explained the situation--partly. He didn't raise any trouble so
just follow me, and leave me to do any talking there is to do. You must
keep your eyes open and ask any questions about things after. It would
look a bit odd and raise remarks if the men saw me showing you round
and doing the Cook's Tour guide business. And if you've brought that
camera, keep it out of sight till I give you the word. When we get
along to my own company's bit of trench I'll tell you, and you can take
some snaps--when I'm not looking at you. Just tip the wink to any men
about and they'll be quite pleased to pose or anything you like."

"Loo-tenant," said Sergeant Rawbon earnestly, "you're doin' this thing
real handsome, and I won't forget it. If ever you hit the U-nited
States----"

"Oh, that's all right," said Courtenay, "come along now."

"When we find your bunch," said Rawbon as they moved off, "if you could
make some sort of excuse out loud, and fade from the scene a minute and
leave me there with the men, I'll sure get some of the dandiest snaps
I'd wish. I reckon it'll satisfy the crowd if I promise to send 'em
copies. It will if they're anything like my lot in the Mechanical
Transport."

They slid down into a deep and narrow and very muddy ditch that ran
twistingly through the wrecked village. Courtenay explained that
usually they could walk this part above ground, sheltered from bullets
by the broken-down houses and walls, but that a good few shells had
been coming over all day, and that in the communication trench they
were safe from all shells but those which burst directly over or in the
part they were in.

"You want to run across this bit," he said presently. "A high explosive
broke that in this morning, and it can't be repaired properly till
dark. You go first and wait the other side for me. Now--jump lively!"

Rawbon took one quick jumping stride to the middle of the gap, and
another and very much quicker one beyond it, as a bullet smacked
venomously into the broken side of the trench. Another threw a spurt of
mud at Courtenay's heels as he made the rush. "A sniper watches the gap
and pots at anyone passing," he explained to Rawbon. "It's fairly safe,
because at the range he's firing a bullet takes just a shade longer to
reach here than you take to run across. But it doesn't do to walk."

"No," said Rawbon, "and going back somehow I don't think I will walk. I
can see without any more explainin' that it's no spot for a pleasant,
easy little saunter." He stopped suddenly as a succession of whooping
rushes passed overhead. "Gee! What's that?"

"Shells from our own guns," said Courtenay, and took the lead again. In
his turn he stopped and crouched, calling to Rawbon to keek down. They
heard a long screaming whistle rising to a tempestuous roar and
breaking off in a crash which made the ground shake. Next moment a
shower of mud and earth and stones fell rattling and thumping about and
into the trench.

"Coal-box," said Courtenay hurriedly. "Come on. They're apt to drop
some more about the same spot."

"I'm with you," said Rawbon. "The same spot is a good one to quit, I
reckon."

They hurried, slipping and floundering, along the wet trench, and
turned at last into another zig-zag one where a step ran along one
side, and men muffled in wet coats stood behind a loopholed parapet.
Along the trench was a series of tiny shelters scooped out of the bank,
built up with sand-bags, covered ineffectually with wet, shiny,
waterproof ground-sheets. In these, men were crouched over scantily
filled braziers, or huddled, curled up like homeless dogs on a
doorstep. At intervals along the parapet men watched through periscopes
hoisted over the top edge, and every now and then one fired through a
loophole. The trench bottom where they walked was anything from ankle- to
knee-deep in evil-looking watery mud of the consistency of very thin
porridge. The whole scene, the picture of wet misery, the dirt and
squalor and discomfort made Rawbon shiver as much from disgust as from
the raw cold that clung about the oozing clay walls and began to bite
through to his soaking feet and legs. Courtenay stopped near a group of
men, and telling the sergeant to wait there a moment, moved on and left
him. A puff of cold wet wind blew over the parapet, and the sergeant
wrinkled his nose disgustedly. "Some odorous," he commented to a
mud-caked private hunkered down on his heels on the fire-step with his
back against the trench wall. "Does, the Boche run a glue factory or a
fertilizer works around here?"

"The last about fits it," said the private grimly. "They made an attack
here about a week back, and there's a tidy few fertilizin' out there
now--to say nothin' of some of ours we can't get in."

Rawbon squirmed uneasily to think he should, however unwittingly, have
jested about their dead, but nobody there seemed in any way shocked or
resentful. The sergeant suddenly remembered his camera, and had thrust
his hand under his coat to his pocket when the warning screech of an
approaching shell and the example of the other men in the traverse sent
him crouching low in the trench bottom. The trench there was almost
knee-deep in thin mud, but everyone apparently took that as a matter of
course. The shell burst well behind them, but it was followed
immediately by about a dozen rounds from a light gun. They came
uncomfortably close, crashing overhead and just in front of the
parapet. A splinter from one lifted a man's cap from his head and sent
it flying. The splinter's whirr and the man's sharp exclamation brought
all eyes in his direction. His look of comical surprise and the
half-dazed fashion of his lifting a hand to fumble cautiously at his
head raised some laughter and a good deal of chaff.

"Orright," he said angrily. "Orright, go on; laugh, dash yer. Fat lot
t' laugh at, seein' a man's good cap pitched in the mud."

"No use you feelin' that 'ead o' yours," said his neighbor, grinning.
"You can't even raise a sick 'eadache out o' that squeak. 'Arf an inch
lower now an' you might 'ave 'ad a nice little trip 'ome in an
'orspital ship."

"You're wrong there, Jack," said another solemnly. "That splinter hit
fair on top of his nut, an' glanced off. You don't think a pifflin'
little Pip-Squeak shell could go through _his_ head?" He stepped up on
the firing-step as he spoke, and on the instant, with a rush and crash,
another "Pip-Squeak" struck the parapet immediately in front of him,
blowing the top edge off it, filling the air with a volcano of mud,
dirt, smoke, and shrieking splinters, and, either from the shock of the
explosion or in an attempt to escape it, throwing the man off his
balance on the ledge of the firing-step to sprawl full length in the
mud. In the swirl of noise and smoke and flying earth Rawbon just
glimpsed the plunging fall of a man's body, and felt a curious sickly
feeling at the pit of his stomach. He was relieved beyond words to see
the figure rise to his knees and stagger to his feet, dripping mud and
filth, and swearing at the pitch of his voice. He paid no attention to
the stutter of laughter round him as he retrieved his mud-encrusted
rifle, and looked about him for his cap. The laughter rose as he groped
in the thin mud for it, still cursing wildly; and then the sergeant
noticed that the man who had lost his cap a minute before had quietly
snatched up the other one from the firing-step, clapped it on his own
head and pretended to help the loser to search.

"It was blame funny, I suppose," Rawbon told the lieutenant a few
minutes after, as they moved from the spot. "Him chasin' round in the
mud cussin' all blue about his 'blarsted cap'; and t'other fellow wi'
the cap on his head and pretending to hunt for it, and callin' the rest
to come help. I dessay I'll laugh some myself, if I remember it when
I'm safe back about ten mile from here. Just at the moment my funny
bone hasn't got goin' right after me expectin' to see that feller
blowed to ribbons an' remnants. But them others--say, I've seen men
sittin' comfortable in an armchair seat at a roof-garden vaudeville
that couldn't raise as hearty a laugh at the prize antics of the
thousand dollar star comedian, as them fellers riz on that cap
episode."

"Well, it was rather funny, you know," said Courtenay, grinning a
little himself.

"Mebbe, mebbe," said Rawbon. "But me--well, if you'll excuse it, I'll
keep that laugh in pickle till I feel more like usin' it."

"You wanted to come, you know," said Courtenay. "But I won't blame you
if you say you've had enough and head for home. As I told you before,
this 'joy-riding' game is rather silly. It's bad enough us taking risks
we have to, but----"

"Yes, you spoke that piece, Loo-tenant," said Rawbon, "but I want to
see all there is on show now I'm here. Only don't expect me to shriek
with hilarious mirth every time a shell busts six inches off my nose."

They had halted for a moment, and now another crackling string of light
shells burst along the trench.

"There's another bunch o' humor arriving," said Rawbon. "But I don't
feel yet like encoring the turn any;"

They moved on to a steady accompaniment of shell bursts and Courtenay
looked round uneasily.

"I don't half like this," he said. "They don't usually shell us so at
this time of day. Hope there's no attack coming."

"I agree with all you say, Loo-tenant, and then some. Especially about
not liking it."

"I'm beginning to think you'd be better off these premises," said
Courtenay. "I ought to be with my company if any trouble is coming off.
And it might lead to questions and unpleasantness if you were found
here--especially if you're a casualty, or I am."

"Nuff sed, Loo-tenant," said Rawbon promptly. "I don't want that sort
o' trouble for various reasons. I'd have an everlastin' job explaining
to my dad what I was doin' in the front seats o' the firing line. It
wouldn't just fit wi' my bein' a Benevolent Neutral, not anyhow."

"We're only about thirty or forty yards from the Germ trench in this
bit," said Courtenay. "Here, carry my periscope, and when I'm talking
to some of the men just take a look quietly."

But Rawbon was not able to see much when, a little later, he had a
chance to use the periscope. For one thing the short winter day was
fading and the light was already poor; for another any attempt to keep
the periscope above the parapet for more than a few seconds brought a
series of bullets hissing and zipping over, and periscope glasses in
those days were too precious to risk for mere curiosity's sake.

"We'll just have a look at the Frying Pan," said Courtenay, "and then
you'll have seen about the lot. We hold a bit of the trench running out
beyond the Pan and the Germs are holding the same trench a little
further along. We've both got the trench plugged up with sandbag
barricades."

They floundered along the twisting trench till it turned sharply to the
right and ran out into the shallow hollow of the Frying Pan. It was
swimming in greasy mud, and across the far side from where they stood
Rawbon could see a breastwork of sandbags.

"We call this entrance trench the Handle, and the trench that runs out
from behind that barricade the Leak. There's always more or less
bombing going on in the Leak, and I don't know if it's very wise of you
to go up there. We call this the Frying Pan because--well, 'into the
fire,' you know. Will you chance it?"

"Why, sure; if you don't mind, Loo-tenant," said Rawbon, "I might as
well see--" He was interrupted by a sudden crash and roar, running
bursts of flaring light, hoarse yells and shouts, and a few rifle shots
from somewhere beyond the barricade across the Leak. The work of the
next minute was too fast and furious for Rawbon to follow or
understand. The uproar beyond the barricade swelled and clamored, and
the earth shook to the roar of bursting bombs. In the Frying Pan there
was a sudden vision of confused figures, dimly seen through the
swirling smoke, swaying and struggling, threshing and splashing in the
liquid mud. He was just conscious of Courtenay shouting something about
"Get back," of his being thrust violently back into the wide trench, of
two or three figures crowding in after him, cursing and staggering and
shooting back into the Frying Pan, of Courtenay's voice shouting again
to "Stand clear," of a knot of men scrambling and heaving at something,
and then of a deafening "Rat-tat-tat-tat," and the streaming flashes of
a machine-gun. It stopped firing after a minute, and Rawbon, flattened
back against a corner of the trench wall, heard an explanation given by
a gasping private to Courtenay and another mud-bedaubed officer who
appeared mysteriously from somewhere.

"Flung a shower o' bombs an' rushed us, sir," said the private. "They
was over a-top o' us 'fore you could say 'knife.' Only two or three o'
us that wasn't downed and was able to get back out o' the Leak an'
across the Pan to here."

"We stopped them with the maxim," said Courtenay, "but I suppose
they'll rush again in a minute."

He and the other officer conferred hastily. Rawbon caught a few words
about "counterattack" and "quicker the better" and "all the men I can
find," and then the other officer moved hurriedly down the trench and
men came jostling and crowding to the end of the Handle, just clear of
the corner where it turned into the Pan. A few sandbags were pulled
down off the parapet and heaped across the end of the trench, the
machine-gun was run close up to them and a couple of men posted, one to
watch with a periscope, and the other to keep Verey pistol lights
flaring into the Frying Pan.

Two minutes later the other officer returned, spoke hastily to
Courtenay, and then calling to the men to follow, jumped the low
barricade and ran splashing out into the open hollow with the men
streaming after him. A burst of rifle fire and the shattering crash of
bombs met them, and continued fiercely for a few minutes after the last
of the counter-attacking party had swarmed out. But the attack broke
down, never reached the barricade beyond the Pan, was, in fact, cut
down almost as fast as it emerged into the open. A handful of men came
limping and floundering back, and Courtenay, waiting by the machine-gun
in case of another German rush, caught sight of the face of the last
man in.

"Rawbon!" he said sharply. "Good Lord, man! I'd forgotten--What took
you out there?"

"Say, Loo-tenant," said Rawbon, panting hard. "There's no crossin' that
mud puddle Fry-Pan. They're holding the barricade 'cross there; got
loopholes an' shootin' through 'em. Can't we climb out an' over the
open an' on top of 'em?"

"No good," said Courtenay. "They're sweeping it with maxims. Listen!"

Up to then Rawbon had heeded nothing above the level of the trench and
the hollow but now he could hear the steady roar of rifle and maxim
fire, and the constant whistle of bullets streaming overhead.

"I must rally another crowd and try'n' rush it," said Courtenay. "Stand
ready with that maxim there. I won't be long."

"I've got a box of bombs here, sir," said a man behind him.

Courtenay turned sharply. "Good," he said. "But no--it's too far to
throw them."

"I think I could just about fetch it, sir," said the man.

"All right," said Courtenay. "Try it while I get some men together."

"Here y' are, chum," said the man, "you light 'em an' I'll chuck 'em.
This way for the milky coco-nuts!"

Rawbon watched curiously. The bomb was round shaped and rather larger
than a cricket ball. A black tube affair an inch or two long projected
from it and emitted, when lit, a jet of hissing, spitting sparks. The
bomb-thrower seized the missile quickly, stepped clear of the
sheltering corner of the trench, threw the bomb, and jumped back under
cover. A couple of bullets slapped into the wall of the trench, and
next moment the bomb burst.

"Just short," said the thrower, who had peeped out at sound of the
report. "Let's 'ave another go."

This time a shower of bullets greeted him as he stepped out, but he
hurled his bomb and stepped back in safety. A third he threw, but this
time a bullet caught him and he reeled back with blood staining the
shoulder of his tunic.

"You'll 'ave to excuse me," he remarked gravely to the man with the
match. "Can't stay now. I 'ave an urgent appointment in
_Blighty_.[Footnote: England. A soldier's corruption of the Hindustani
word "Belati."] But I'll drink your 'ealth when I gets to Lunnon."

Rawbon had watched the throwing impatiently. "Look here," he said
suddenly. "Just lemme have a whale at this pitching. I'll show 'em some
curves that'll dazzle 'em."

The wounded man peered at him and then at his cap badge. "Now 'oo the
blank is this?" he demanded. "Blimey, Joe, if 'ere ain't a blooming
Universal Plum-an'-Apple Provider. 'Ere, 'oo stole the strawberry jam?"

"You let me in on this ball game," said Rawbon. "Light 'em and pass 'em
quick, and see me put the Indian sign on that bunch."

A minute later Courtenay came back and stared in amazement at the
scene. Two men were lighting and passing up bombs to the sergeant, who,
standing clear out in the opening, grabbed and hurled the balls with an
extraordinary prancing and dancing and arm-swinging series of
contortions, while the crowded trench laughed and applauded.

"Some pitchin', Loo-tenant," he panted beamingly, stepping back into
shelter. "Hark at 'em. And every darn one right over the plate. Say,
step out here an' watch this next lot."

"No time now," said Courtenay hurriedly.

"They're strengthening their defense every minute. Are you all ready
there, lads?"

"I don't know who this man is, sir," said a sergeant quickly. "But he's
doing great work. Every bomb has gone in behind the parado there. He
might try a few more to shake them before we advance."

"Behind the parakeet," snorted Rawbon. "I should smile. You watch! I'll
put some through the darn loopholes for you. Didn't know I was pitcher
to the Purple Socks, the year we whipped the League, did you? Gimme
thirty seconds, Loo-tenant, and I'll put thirty o' these balls right
where they live."

As he spoke he picked up two of the bombs from a fresh box and held
them to the lighter. As he plunged out a shower of bullets spattered
the trench wall about him, but without heeding these he began to throw.
As the roar of the bursting bombs began, the bullets slowed down and
ceased. "Keep the lights blazing," Rawbon paused to shout to the man
with the pistol flares. "You slide out for the home base, Loo-tenant,
and I'll keep 'em too busy to shoot their nasty little guns." He
commenced to hurl the bombs again. Courtenay stepped out and watched a
moment. Bomb after bomb whizzed true and hard across the hollow, just
skimmed the breastwork, struck on the trench wall that showed beyond
and a foot above it, and fell behind the barricade. Billowing
smoke-clouds and gusts of flame leaped and flashed above the parapet.
Courtenay saw the chance and took it. He plunged out into the lake of
mud and plowed through it towards the barricade, the men swarming
behind him, and the sergeant's bombs hurtling with trailing streams of
sparks over their heads.

"Come on, son," said the sergeant. "You carry that box and gimme the
slow match. I pitch better with a little run."

Courtenay reached the barricade and led his men over and round
it without a casualty. The space behind the barricade was
deserted--deserted, that is, except by the dead, and by some
unutterable things that would have been better dead.

The lost portion of trench was recaptured, and more, the defense,
demoralized by that tornado of explosions, was pushed a good fifty
yards further back before the counter-attack was stayed.

At daybreak next morning Courtenay and the sergeant stood together on
the road leading to the communication trench. Both were crusted to the
shoulders in thick mud; Rawbon's cap was gone, and his hair hung
plastered in a wet mop over his ears and forehead, and Courtenay showed
a red-stained bandage under his cap.

"Rawbon," he said, "I feel rotten over this business. Here you've done
some real good work--I don't believe we'd ever have got across without
your bombing--and you won't let me say a word about it. I'm dashed if I
like it. Dash it, you ought to get a V.C., or a D.C.M. at least, for
it."

"Now lookahere, Loo-tenant," said Rawbon soothingly. "There's no need
for you to feel peaked--not any. It was darn good of you to let me in
on these sacred no-admittance-'cept-on-business trenches, and I'm plumb
glad I landed in the mix-up. It would probably raise trouble for you if
your boss knew you'd slipped me in; and it sure would raise everlasting
trouble for me at home if my name was flourishin' in the papers gettin'
an A.B.C. or D.A.M.N. or whatever the fixin' is. And I'd sooner have
this"--slapping the German helmet that dangled at his belt--"than your
whole darn alphabet o' initials. Don't forget what I told you about the
dad an' those Schwartzeheimer friends o' his, the cousins o' which same
friends I've been blowin' off the earth with bomb base-balls. Let it go
at that, and never forget it, friend--I'm a Benevolent Neutral."

"I won't forget it," said Courtenay, laughing and shaking hands. He
watched the sergeant as he bestrode the motor-cycle, pushed off, and
swung off warily down the wet road into the morning mist.

"What was it that despatch said a while back!" he mused. "Something
about 'There are few who appreciate or even understand the value of the
varied work of the Army Service Corps.' Well, this lot was a bit more
varied than usual, and I fancy it might astonish even the fellow who
wrote that line."

DRILL

"_Yesterday one of the enemy's heavy guns was put out of action by our
artillery._"--EXTRACT FROM DESPATCH.

"Stand fast!" the instructor bellowed, and while the detachment
stiffened to immobility he went on, without stopping to draw breath,
bellowing other and less printable remarks. After he had finished these
he ordered "Detachment rear!" and taking more time and adding even more
point to his remarks, he repeated some of them and added others,
addressing abruptly and virulently the "Number" whose bungling had
aroused his wrath.

"You've learnt your gun drill," he said, "learned it like a
sulphur-crested cockatoo learns to gabble 'Pretty Polly scratch a
poll'; why in the name of Moses you can't make your hands do what your
tongue says 'as me beat. You, Donovan, that's Number Three, let me hear
you repeat the drill for Action Front."

Donovan, standing strictly to attention, and with his eyes fixed
straight to his front, drew a deep breath and rattled off:

"At the order or signal from the battery leader or section commander,
'Halt action front!' One orders 'Halt action front!'--At the order from
One, the detachment dismounts, Three unkeys, and with Two lifts the
trail; when the trail is clear of the hook, Three orders 'Limber drive
on.'"

The instructor interrupted explosively.

"You see," he growled, "you know it. Three orders 'Limber drive on.'
You're Three! but did you order limber drive on, or limber drive off,
or drive anywhere at all? Did you expect drivers that would be sitting
up there on their horses, with their backs turned to you, to have eyes
in the backs of their heads to see when you had the trail lifted, or
did you be expectin' them to thought-read that you wanted them to drive
on!"

Three, goaded at last to a sufficiency of daring, ventured to mutter
something about "was going to order it."

The instructor caught up the phrase and flayed him again with it. "'Was
going to,'" he repeated, "'was going to order it.' Perhaps some day,
when a bullet comes along and drills a hole in your thick head, you
will want to tell it you 'was going to' get out of the way. You maybe
expect the detachment to halt and stand easy, and light a cigarette,
and have a chat while you wait to make up your mind what you're going
to say, and when you're going to say it! And if ever you get past
recruit drill in the barracks square, my lad, and smell powder burnt in
action, you'll learn that there's no such thing as 'going to' in your
gun drill. If you're slow at it, if you fumble your fingers, and tie
knots in your tongue, and stop to think about your 'going to,' you'll
find maybe that 'going to' has gone before you make up your mind, and
the only thing 'going to' will be you and your detachment; and its
Kingdom Come you'll be 'going to' at that. And now we'll try it again,
and if I find any more 'going to' about it this time it's an hour's
extra drill a day you'll be 'going to' for the next week."

He kept the detachment grilling and grinding for another hour before he
let them go, and at the end of it he spent another five minutes
pointing out the manifold faults and failings of each individual in the
detachment, reminding them that they belonged to the Royal Regiment of
Artillery that is "The right of the line, the terror of the world, and
the pride of the British Army," and that any man who wasn't a shining
credit to the Royal Regiment was no less than a black disgrace to it.

When the detachment dismissed, and for the most part gravitated to the
canteen, they passed some remarks upon their instructor almost pungent
enough to have been worthy of his utterance. "Him an' his everlastin'
'Cut the Time!'"

"I'm just about fed up with him," said Gunner Donovan bitterly, "and
I'd like to know where's all the sense doing this drill against a
stop-watch. You'd think from the way he talks that a man's life was
hanging on the whiskers of a half-second. Blanky rot, I call it."

"I wouldn't mind so much," said another gunner, "if ever he thought to
say we done it good, but not 'im. The better we does it and the faster,
the better and the faster he wants it done. It's my belief that if he
had a gun detachment picked from the angels above he'd tell 'em their
buttons and their gold crowns was a disgrace to Heaven, that they was
too slow to catch worms or catch a cold, and that they'd 'ave to cut
the time it took 'em to fly into column o' route from the right down
the Golden Stairs, or to bring their 'arps to the 'Alt action front."

These were the mildest of the remarks that passed between the smarting
Numbers of the gun detachment, but they would have been astonished
beyond words if they could have heard what their instructor Sergeant
"Cut-the-Time" was saying at that moment to a fellow-sergeant in the
sergeants' mess.

"They're good lads," he said, "and it's me, that in my time has seen
the making and the breaking and the handling and the hammering of gun
detachments enough to man every gun in the Army, that's saying it. I
had them on the 'Halt action front' this morning, and I tell you
they've come on amazing since I took 'em in hand. We cut three solid
seconds this morning off the time we have been taking to get the gun
into action, and a second a round off the firing of ten rounds. They'll
make gunners yet if they keep at it."

"Three seconds is good enough," said the other mildly.

"It isn't good enough," returned the instructor, "if they can make it
four, and four's not good enough if they can make it five. It's when
they can't cut the time down by another split fraction of a second that
I'll be calling them good enough. They won't be blessing me for it now,
but come the day maybe they will."

* * * * *

The battery was moving slowly down a muddy road that ran along the edge
of a thick wood. It had been marching most of the night, and, since the
night had been wet and dark, the battery was splashed and muddy to the
gun-muzzles and the tops of the drivers' caps. It was early morning,
and very cold. Gunners and drivers were muffled in coats and woolen
scarves, and sat half-asleep on their horses and wagons. A thick and
chilly mist had delayed the coming of light, but now the mist had
lifted suddenly, blown clear by a quickly risen chill wind. When the
mist had been swept away sufficiently for something to be seen of the
surrounding country, the Major, riding at the head of the battery,
passed the word to halt and dismount, and proceeded to "find himself on
the map." Glancing about him, he picked out a church steeple in the
distance, a wayside shrine, and a cross-road near at hand, a curve of
the wood beside the road, and by locating these on the squared map,
which he took from its mud-splashed leather case, he was enabled to
place his finger on the exact spot on the map where his battery stood
at that moment. Satisfied on this, he was just about to give the order
to mount when he heard the sound of breaking brushwood and saw an
infantry officer emerge from the trees close at hand.

The officer was a young man, and was evidently on an errand of haste.
He slithered down the steep bank at the edge of the wood, leaped the
roadside ditch, asked a question of the nearest man, and, getting an
answer from him, came at the double past the guns and teams towards the
Major. He saluted hastily, said "Mornin', sir," and went on
breathlessly: "My colonel sent me across to catch you. We are in a
ditch along the edge of the far side of this wood, and could just see
enough of you between the trees to make out your battery. From where we
are we can see a German gun, one of their big brutes, with a team of
about twenty horses pulling it, plain and fair out in the open. The
Colonel thinks you could knock 'em to glory before they could reach
cover."

"Where can I see them from!" said the Major quickly.

"I'll show you," said the subaltern, "if you'll leave your horse and
come with me through this wood. It's only a narrow belt of trees here."

The Major turned to one of his subalterns who was with him at the head
of the battery.

"Send back word to the captain to come up here and wait for me!" he
said rapidly. "Tell him what you have just heard this officer say, and
tell him to give the word, 'Prepare for action.' And now," he said,
turning to the infantryman, "go ahead."

The two of them jumped the ditch, scrambled up the bank, and
disappeared amongst the trees.

A message back to the captain who was at the rear of the battery
brought him up at a canter. The subaltern explained briefly what he had
heard, and the captain, after interrupting him to shout an order to
"Prepare for action," heard the finish of the story, pulled out his
map, and pointing out on it a road shown as running through the trees,
sent the subaltern off to reconnoiter it.

The men were stripping off their coats, rolling them and strapping them
to the saddles and the wagon seats; the Numbers One, the sergeants in
charge of each gun, bustling their gunners, and seeing everything about
the guns made ready: the gunners examining the mechanism and gears of
the gun, opening and closing the hinged flaps of the wagons, and
tearing the thin metal cover off the fuses.

It was all done smartly and handily, and one after another the
sergeants reported their subsections as ready. Immediately the captain
gave the order to mount, drivers swung themselves to their saddles, and
the gunners to their seats on the wagons, and all sat quietly waiting
for whatever order might come next.

The lifting of the mist had shown a target to the gunners on both sides
apparently, and the roar and boom of near and distant guns beat and
throbbed quicker and at closer intervals.

In three minutes the Major came running back through the wood, and the
captain moved to meet him.

"We've got a fair chance!" said the Major exultingly. "One of their big
guns clear in the open, and moving at a crawl. I want you to take the
battery along the road here, sharp to the right at the cross-road, and
through the wood. The Inf. tell me there is just a passable road
through. Take guns and firing battery wagons only; leave the others
here. When you get through the wood, turn to the right again, and along
its edge until you come to where I'll be waiting for you. I'll take the
range-taker with me. The order will be 'open sights'; it's the only
way--not time to hunt a covered position! Now, is all that clear?"

"Quite clear," said the captain tersely.

"Off you go, then," said the Major; "remember, it's quick work.
Trumpeter, come with me, and the range-taker. Sergeant-major, leave the
battery staff under cover with the first line."

He swung into the saddle, set his horse at the ditch, and with a leap
and scramble was over and up the bank and crashing into the
undergrowth, followed by his trumpeter and a man with the six-foot tube
of a range-finder strapped to the saddle.

Before he was well off the road the captain shouted the order to walk
march, and as the battery did so the subaltern who had been sent out to
reconnoiter the road came back at a canter.

"We can just do it," he reported; "it's greasy going, and the road is
narrow and rather twisty, but we can do it all right."

The captain sent back word to section commanders, and the other two
subalterns spurred forward and joined him.

"We go through the wood," he explained, "and come into action on the
other side. The order is 'open sights,' so I expect we'll be in an
exposed position. You know what that means. There's a gun to knock out,
and if we can do it and get back quick before they get our range we may
get off light. If we can't----" and he broke off significantly. "Get
back and tell your Numbers One, and be ready for quick moving."

Immediately they had fallen back the order was given to trot, and the
battery commenced to bump and rumble rapidly over the rough road. As
they neared the cross-roads they were halted a moment, and then the
guns and their attendant ammunition wagons only went on, turned into
the wood, and recommenced to trot.

They jolted and swayed and slid over the rough, wet road, the gunners
clinging fiercely to the handrails, the drivers picking a way as best
they could over bowlders and between ruts. They emerged on the far side
of the wood, found themselves in an open field, turned sharply to the
right, and kept on at a fast trot. A line of infantry were entrenched
amongst the trees on the edge of the wood, but their shouted remarks
were drowned in the clatter and rattle and jingle of wheels and
harness. Out on their left the ground rose very gently, and far beyond
a low crest could be seen clumps of trees, patches of fields, and a few
scattered farm? houses. At several points on this distant slope the
White smoke-clouds of bursting shells were puffing and breaking, but so
far there was no sign to be seen of any man or of any gun. When they
came to where the Major was waiting he rode out from the trees, blew
sharply on a whistle, and made a rapid signal with hand and arm. The
guns and wagons had been moving along the edge of the wood in single
file, but now at the shouted order each team swung abruptly to its left
and commenced to move in a long line out from the wood towards the low
crest, the whole movement being performed neatly and cleanly and still
at a trot. The Major rode to his place in the center of the line, and
the battery, keeping its place close on his heels, steadily increased
its pace almost to a canter. The Major's whistle screamed again, and at
another signal and the shouted orders the battery dropped to a walk.
Every man could see now over the crest and into the shallow valley that
fell away from it and rose again in gentle folds and slopes. At first
they could see nothing of the gun against which they had expected to be
brought into action, but presently some one discovered a string of tiny
black dots that told of the long team and heavy gun it drew. Another
sharp whistle and the Major's signal brought the battery up with a
jerk.

"Halt! action front!" The shouted order rang hoarsely along the line.
For a moment there was wild commotion; a seething chaos, a swirl of
bobbing heads and plunging horses. But in the apparent chaos there was
nothing but the most smooth and ordered movement, the quick but most
exact following of a routine drill so well ground in that its motions
were almost mechanical. The gunners were off their seats before the
wheels had stopped turning, the key snatched clear, and the trail of
the gun lifted, the wheels seized, and the gun whirled round in a
half-circle and dropped pointing to the enemy. The ammunition wagon
pulled up into place beside the gun, the traces flung clear, and the
teams hauled round and trotted off. As Gunner Donovan's trail was
lifted clear his yell of "Limber, drive on," started the team forward
with a jerk, and a moment later, as he and the Number Two slipped into
their seats on the gun the Number Two grinned at him. "Sharp's the
word," he said: "d'you mind the time----" He was interrupted roughly by
the sergeant, who had just had the target pointed out to him, jerking
up the trail to throw the gun roughly into line.

"Shut yer head, and get on to it, Donovan. You see that target there,
don't you?"

"See it a fair treat!" said Donovan joyfully; "I'll bet I plunk a bull
in the first three shots."

Back in the wood the infantry colonel, from a vantage-point half-way up
a tall tree, watched the ensuing duel with the keenest excitement.

The battery's first two ranging shots dropped in a neat bracket, one
over and one short; in the next two the bracket closed, the shorter
shot being almost on top of the target. This evidently gave the range
closely enough, and the whole battery burst into a roar of fire, the
blazing flashes running up and down the line of guns like the reports
of a gigantic Chinese cracker. Over the long team of the German gun a
thick cloud of white smoke hung heavily, burst following upon burst and
hail after hail of shrapnel sweeping the men and horses below. Then
through the crashing reports of the guns and the whimpering rush of
their shells' passage, there came a long whistling scream that rose and
rose and broke off abruptly in a deep rolling cr-r-r-rump. A spout of
brown earth and thick black smoke showed where the enemy shell had
burst far out in front of the battery.

The infantry colonel watched anxiously. He knew that out there
somewhere another heavy German gun had come into action; he knew that
it was a good deal slower in its rate of fire, but that once it had
secured its line and range it could practically obliterate the light
field guns of the battery. The battery was fighting against time and
the German gunners to complete their task before they could be
silenced. The first team was crippled and destroyed, and another team,
rushed out from the cover of the trees, was fallen upon by the shrapnel
tornado, and likewise swept out of existence.

Then another shell from the German gun roared over, to burst this time
well in the rear of the battery.

The colonel knew what this meant. The German gun had got its bracket.
The battery had ceased to fire shrapnel, and was pouring high-explosive
about the derelict gun. The white bursts of shrapnel had given place to
a series of spouting volcanoes that leaped from the ground about the
gun itself. Another German shell fell in front of the battery and a
good 200 yards nearer to it. A movement below attracted the colonel's
attention, and he saw the huddled teams straighten out and canter hard
towards the guns. He turned his glasses on the German gun again, and
could not restrain a cry of delight as he saw it collapsed and lying on
its side, while high-explosive shells still pelted about it.

The teams came up at a gallop, swept round the guns, and halted.
Instantly they were hooked in, the buried spades of the guns wrenched
free, the wheels manned, the trails dropped clashing on the limber
hooks. And as they dropped, another heavy shell soared over burst
behind the battery, so close this time that the pieces shrieked and
spun about the guns, wounding three horses and a couple of men. The
Major, mounted and waiting, cast quick glances from gun to gun. The
instant he saw they were ready he signaled an order, the drivers' spurs
clapped home, and the whips rose and fell whistling and snapping. The
battery jerked forward at a walk that broke immediately into a trot,
and from that to a hard canter.

Even above the clatter and roll of the wheels and the hammering
hoof-beats the whistle and rush of another heavy shell could be heard.
Gunner Donovan, twisted sideways and clinging close to the jolting
seat, heard the sound growing louder and louder, until it sounded so
close that it seemed the shell was going to drop on top of them. But it
fell behind them, and exactly on the position where the battery had
stood. Donovan's eye caught the blinding flash of the burst, the
springing of a thick cloud of black smoke. A second later something
shrieked hurtling down and past his gun team, and struck with a vicious
thump into the ground.

"That was near enough," shouted Mick, on the seat beside him. Donovan
craned over as they passed, and saw, half-buried in the soft ground,
the battered brass of one of their own shell cartridges. The heavy
shell had landed fairly on top of the spot where their gun had stood,
where the empty cartridge cases had been flung in a heap from the
breech. If they had been ten or twenty seconds later in getting clear,
if they had taken a few seconds longer over the coming into action or
limbering up, a few seconds more to the firing of their rounds, the
whole gun and detachment ...

Gunner Donovan leaned across to Mick and shouted loudly.

But his remark was so apparently irrelevant that Mick failed to
understand. A sudden skidding swerve as the team wheeled nearly jerked
him off his seat, the crackling bursts of half a dozen light shells
over the plain behind him distracted his attention for a moment
further. Then he leaned in towards Donovan, "What was that?" he yelled.
"What didjer say?"

Donovan repeated his remark. "Gawd--bless--old 'Cut-the-Time.'"

The battery plunged in amongst the trees, and into safety.

A NIGHT PATROL

"_During the night, only patrol and reconnoitering engagements of small
consequence are reported."_--EXTRACT FROM DESPATCH.

"Straff the Germans and all their works, particularly their mine
works!" said Lieutenant Ainsley disgustedly.

"Seeing that's exactly what you're told off to do," said the other
occupant of the dug-out, "why grouse about it?"

Lieutenant Ainsley laughed. "That's true enough," he admitted;
"although I fancy going out on patrol in this weather and on this part
of the line would be enough to make Mark Tapley himself grouse.
However, it's all in the course of a lifetime, I suppose."

He completed the fastening of his mackintosh, felt that the revolver on
his belt moved freely from its holster, and that the wire nippers were
in place, pulled his soft cap well down on his head, grunted a
"Good-night," and dropped on his hands and knees to crawl out of the
dug-out.

He made his way along the forward firing trench to where his little
patrol party awaited his coming, and having seen that they were
properly equipped and fully laden with bombs, and securing a number of
these for his own use, he issued careful instructions to the men to
crawl over the parapet one at a time, being cautious to do so only in
the intervals of darkness between the flaring lights.

He was a little ahead of the appointed time; and because the trench
generally had been warned not to fire at anyone moving out in front at
a certain hour, it was necessary to wait until then exactly. He told
the men to wait, and spent the interval in smoking a cigarette. As he
lit it the thought came to him that perhaps it was the last cigarette
he would ever smoke. He tried to dismiss the thought, but it persisted
uncomfortably. He argued with himself and told himself that he mustn't
get jumpy, that the surest way to get shot was to be nervous about
being shot, that the job was bad enough but was only made worse by
worrying about it. As a relief and distraction to his own thoughts, he
listened to catch the low remarks that were passing between the men of
his party.

"When I get home after this job's done," one of them was saying, "I'm
going to look for a billet as stoker in the gas works, or sign on in
one o' them factories that roll red-hot steel plates and you 'ave to
wear an asbestos sack to keep yourself from firing. After this I want
something as hot and as dry as I can find it."

"I think," said another, "my job's going to be barman in a nice snug
little public with a fire in the bar parlor and red blinds on the
window."

"Why don't you pick a job that'll be easy to get?" said the third, with
deep sarcasm--"say Prime Minister, or King of England. You've about as
much chance of getting them as the other."

Lieutenant Ainsley grinned to himself in the darkness. At least, he
thought, these men have no doubts about their coming back in safety
from this patrol; but then of course it was easier for them because
they did not know the full detail of the risk they ran. But it was no
use thinking of that again, he told himself.

He took his place in readiness, waited until one flare had burned out
and there was no immediate sign of another being thrown up, slipped
over the parapet and dropped flat in the mud on the other side. One by
one the men crawled over and dropped beside him, and then slowly and
cautiously, with the officer leading, they began to wend their way out
under their own entanglements.

There may be some who will wonder that an officer should feel such
qualms as Ainsley had over the simple job of a night patrol over the
open ground in front of the German trench; but, then, there are patrols
and patrols, or as the inattentive recruit at the gunnery class said
when he was asked to describe the varieties of shells he had been told
of: "There are some sorts of one kind, and some of another."

There are plenty of parts on the Western Front where affairs at
intervals settled down into such a peaceful state that there was
nothing more than a fair sporting risk attaching to the performance of
a patrol which leaves the shelter of our own lines at night to crawl
out amongst the barbed wire entanglements in the darkness. There have
been times when you might listen at night by the hour together and
hardly hear a rifle-shot, and when the burst of artillery fire was a
thing to be commented on. But at other times, and in some parts of the
line especially, business was run on very different lines. Then every
man in the forward firing-trench had a certain number of rounds to fire
each night, even although he had no definite target to fire at.
Magnesium flares and pistol lights were kept going almost without
ceasing, while the artillery made a regular practice of loosing off a
stated number of rounds per night. The Germans worked on fairly similar
lines, and as a result it can easily be imagined that any patrol or
reconnoitering work between the lines was apt to be exceedingly
unhealthy. Actually there were parts on the line where no feet had
pressed the ground of No Man's Land for weeks on end, unless in open
attack or counter-attack, and of these feet there were a good many that
never returned to the trench, and a good many others that did return
only to walk straight to the nearest aid-post and hospital.

The neutral ground at this period of Ainsley's patrol was a sea of mud,
broken by heaped earth and yawning shell-craters; strung about with
barbed wire entanglements, littered with equipments and with packs
which had been cut from or slipped from the shoulders of the wounded;
dotted more or less thickly with the bodies of British or German who
had fallen there and could not be reached alive by any stretcher-bearer
parties. Unpleasant as was the coming in contact with these bodies,
Ainsley knew that their being there was of considerable service to him.
He and his men crawled in a scattered line, and whenever the upward
trail of sparks showed that a flare was about to burst into light, the

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