And then, suddenly, there came a crashing, splintering sound. There was an exclamation from the officer, and, as he leaped back he cried:
"There she goes, boys! The way is as clear as I can make it! Come on out, and lively, too!"
The Khaki Boys lost no time in obeying. Leaping and scrambling as best they could over the heaps of brick, stone and splintered wood, they emerged through the hole cut for them by the officer. He had chopped through the one beam that held all the others, or most of the others in place, and the crisscross structure had collapsed, allowing the boys to escape.
"Come on! Come on!" cried Jimmy. "Everybody out!"
And they leaped out only just in time, for as Bob, the last to make his way to safety, cleared the jagged barrier, a burst of flames and smoke swept into what had been the boys' prison.
Now they stood on the green gra.s.s, in the open, with the burning ruins of the mill at their backs. And confronting them, still holding the axe, and panting from his terrific exertions, was the strange officer.
And as the young soldiers looked at him they wondered, more than ever, who he was.
A PERILOUS JOURNEY
Almost at once there set in a reaction, as was natural under the circ.u.mstances. The Khaki Boys had been keyed up to such a high pitch through the battle, the attack on the hill, the subsequent sh.e.l.ling of it, and their own dangerous position after the collapse of the building, that now their rescue hardly seemed real.
"Say, I'm about all in!" exclaimed Bob, as he sank down on the gra.s.s.
"Same here," agreed Jimmy, staggering to a seat.
"Take it easy, boys, take it easy," counseled their rescuer. "And better come a bit farther away from the fire. The whole place is going, and the wind's blowing strongly this way. We're too much in line with it."
He spoke the truth. The boys were enveloped, part of the time, in a haze of smoke and a swirl of burning brands. Tired, and physically and mentally exhausted as they were, they scrambled to their feet--for they had all stretched out on the gra.s.s--and made their way to a spot where they could breathe with freedom. The mill ruins were now burning fiercely.
"Any more left in there!" asked the officer, pointing with his axe towards the fiery structure.
"None alive," answered Jimmy, as he thought of their brave comrades in arms who had perished in wiping out the German machine-gun nest. It was, perhaps, a fitting funeral pyre for them.
"Stay here and I'll get you some water," offered the blue-shirted officer. "That will fetch you around quicker than anything else. I can get you a little food, too, I think--emergency rations, if you need them."
"We aren't exactly hungry, sir," said Jimmy, tacking on the "sir" in an almost certain opinion that the man was an officer. "We had some of our own rations, and we were eating when the Huns sent a big sh.e.l.l over that spilled the beans."
"I see. Well, then, rest here until I can get you some water.
Fortunately the Boches can't blow up a stream. The water is sure to remain somewhere. It won't take long to get it, I'll be back in a moment."
He hurried off between two little hillocks, away from the burning mill and in the direction of the stream.
"Who in the world is he?" asked Bob.
"It's a puzzle," said Jimmy. "We'll ask when we thank him for saving our lives."
"Here you are, boys," said the officer, as he came up the slope with a canteen which gurgled most musically with water. "Drink this and then we'll discuss what's best to be done."
"Are we safe here?" asked Jimmy. "Safe from the Germans, I mean?
They're all about here, you know."
"Yes, I know," said the officer, and there seemed to be more in his remark than the mere words indicated. "But you're safe for the time being. They have destroyed the mill, so it is no longer a menace, they fancy. Their guns are directed elsewhere now."
The sound of distant firing could be plainly heard, but the boys could no longer observe the gray ranks of the Huns on the distant hill. One reason for this was because of the smoke from the burning mill, which swirled about in all directions, and the other reason was that there was a lot of smoke caused by the guns of the Germans, and this, or perhaps a smoke screen which they started, concealed them.
"Feel better?" asked the officer, when the lads had emptied the canteen.
"Much," answered Jimmy. "And now, sir, may we have the pleasure of knowing to whom we owe our escape? We're from the 509th Infantry," he went on. "We were in the battle, and got cut off. Our lieutenant had ordered us to take the mill where some Germans had two machine-guns.
We five are all that are left of the sixteen that started. And we wouldn't be alive but for you. So if we could know whom to thank--"
The officer stopped him with an imperious gesture. He looked rather stern, and then, as though conscious that this was not the att.i.tude to take, he smiled.
"I'm glad I was able to serve you," he said. "I happened to be in the neighborhood. I heard your cries after the mill collapsed and began to burn, and I hastened up. I had no time to summon help--in fact, your friends are rather distant from here now. The Germans are all about."
"We know it--to our sorrow," replied Bob. "How we are going to get back to our company is what's worrying me."
"It _is_ going to be a problem," a.s.sented the officer.
"Are you coming with us?" asked Jimmy. It was a perfectly natural question. Here was one--by most appearances an American officer--marooned with some American doughboys in the midst of the Germans. Why should he not cast his lot with them, and lead them to the best of his ability to the safest place? He was an officer--there was no question of that--and it was his right to lead. But he seemed disturbed at Jimmy's question. He looked searchingly at the boys, and then toward the distant hills where the Germans were ma.s.sed, though not then in sight.
"No, I--I can't come with you," the unknown said. "I'm sorry, but you will have to shift for yourselves. I'll give you the best directions I can to enable you to reach your own lines, but you'll have to go alone."
"We'll try," said Bob. "But we wish to thank you, and we don't know--"
"Oh, it was all in the day's work," interrupted the officer, "Any one who came along would have done just as I did to help you."
"Not anyone, sir," a.s.serted Franz, in a low voice. "A German wouldn't have chopped us out."
"Well--er--perhaps not," said the officer. "But it was in my line of duty and I did it. I don't want to be thanked for doing my duty."
"But we insist on thanking you, sir!" exclaimed Jimmy with a smile. "If it hadn't been for you we'd be dead in there now--it was impossible for us to free ourselves!"
"Well, you may call me Captain Frank d.i.c.kerson," said the officer slowly. And he appeared to hesitate over the words.
"Then allow me, in the names of my companions, to thank you from the bottoms of our hearts!" exclaimed Jimmy, rising and saluting. The captain returned the salute. He stood for a minute looking Jimmy straight in the eyes, and the lad said afterward that the officer seemed to be searching out the sergeant's very soul. Then Captain d.i.c.kerson said:
"I must leave you now. You will find a little package of food at the end of the mill flume. I'll leave you this canteen so you may carry water with you on your journey toward your own lines. Your way lies there," and he pointed to the south. "Good-bye--and good luck! I hope you may get through, but--"
Then, turning abruptly he strode off between two high gra.s.sy hummocks, and was soon lost to sight in the smoke and haze.
For a moment the khaki boys stood, motionless, and then Jimmy, looking around on the circle of his companions, exclaimed:
"Well, if that isn't mysterious!"
"I should say so!" agreed Bob. "Talk about the man in the iron mask--this beats it!"
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