"Are we all here?" yelled Jimmy, above the horrid din of battle, as he tried to see if Bob, Roger and the others were near him.
"I guess we're here--yet," snapped back Franz, grimly. "No telling how long we shall be, though!"
"Come on now--sharp's the word!" yelled the commanding officer.
"Separate there, you!" he cried to Jimmy and the other four, for they were too close together. "Spread out! You're too good a target for a machine-gun as you stand!"
They knew the advice was good, and they took it. But they did not separate too far, for they wanted to be together as they went into this fight. It might be the last for all or any one of them.
The din was terrific. It seemed as if all the guns of the world were letting go together, and as Jimmy rushed forward, firing at a foe he could not see, he reflected that this same terrific havoc and riot of sound was taking place for miles along the front held by the Americans, and also along the sectors where the gallant French and British were disputing with the Huns the right to rule the world.
"Forward! Forward! No lagging!" cried the young lieutenant, leading his men. It was getting lighter now, as the sun arose, but the orb itself could not be seen because of the smoke and mist.
But he need not have concerned himself about the laggards. There were none in the 509th Infantry. Too often had they had their mettle proved.
A sh.e.l.l rushed screechingly over Jimmy's head seemingly within a few feet of him, and instinctively he ducked. Then he almost laughed at himself, for he realized that if he heard the noise he was safe.
"We're getting closer," mused Jimmy as he leaped forward, firing as he went, now crouching down, and again standing partly upright, as he hurried on. He and his chums were pa.s.sing through an orchard, now, on their way to come to grips with the Germans. That is, it had been an orchard, but all that was left of it now were a few broken stumps of trees. The firing of heavy guns, and the bursting of big sh.e.l.ls had wiped out the work of nature.
There came an explosion on Jimmy's left--an explosion from a small German sh.e.l.l that blew up a section of the orchard, tossing the blackened and gnarled stumps high in the air. And with the stumps were mingled poor, twisted human bodies.
For one terrible moment Jimmy feared for Franz and Iggy, whom he had last noted almost at the very spot where the sh.e.l.l exploded. His heart turned faint within him. But it was no time to falter. One must not halt nor turn back even though one's own brother were torn to pieces.
Forward was the word in that grim and terrible fighting. Forward to your own death, perhaps, to the death of those you held most dear!
Forward to insure life and happiness for those who would come after!
Such was the sacred duty!
And then, to his great relief, Jimmy heard a voice he knew well exclaim:
"Ach! Him was one big whizz-bang, yes!"
"You said it, Iggy!" shouted Franz, and Jimmy saw his two comrades emerge from the smoke and dust cloud, and rush forward. They had just escaped death by the sh.e.l.l, which sent into eternity six beloved bunkies of the 509th.
"Well, they're alive yet!" grimly mused Jimmy, as he fired and crouched down. A look to the right showed him Roger and Bob doing the same thing. So far the five Brothers had suffered no harm.
But the battle was only beginning. The German big guns had not yet opened in force to reply to the challenge of the American heavy artillery. So far the barrage had, in a great measure, protected our lads. Now they were to move forward again. The guns at the rear were elevated, to send the bursting shrapnel further into the German ranks--to prevent them from rushing at the advancing American troops.
And now was a critical time, for even in spite of the barrage some parties of Huns, in bomb-proofs, might suddenly arise and confront the Americans. There was a chance for close fighting.
But it did not come. That part of No Man's Land over which Jimmy and his chums were advancing, leaping from sh.e.l.l crater to mud hole, and from one slimy pool to another, seemed to have been cleared of Huns.
Once again came the explosion of a comparatively large sh.e.l.l, and again, hurled aloft in a shower of stones and dirt, went the bodies of a half score of Americans. The Germans were taking frightful toll.
"This way! This way!" suddenly ordered the lieutenant. "Into the woods!"
Jimmy saw a large grove of trees on his left. He turned toward them, and he noted that Franz and Iggy were ahead of him, while Bob and Roger came in the rear.
And, just as they reached the somewhat sheltering woods, there sounded from the air above them several explosions, and with them was an undercurrent of humming and droning as if from a million swarms of bees.
"The Boche aeroplanes! They're right over us--a whole flock of 'em!"
cried Roger. "And they're dropping bombs on us!"
A BATTLE OF THE AIR
What Roger had said was only too true. The advance of the American army had been halted, at least temporarily, by a sudden attack from a large number of German aeroplanes. The Fokkers had arisen from far enough back of the place where the American sh.e.l.ls were falling to escape them. And then they had sailed directly over the advancing Americans, the center formation of the Huns' ships of the air being almost directly over where our five heroes were now stationed in the woods.
"Bombs! I should say so!" cried Jimmy, as one landed on the other edge of the woods, and blew a great hole in the ground. "This is getting too close for comfort!"
The German machines, having flown from the direction of their own lines across the American front, dropping bombs that did great execution, were now coming back again, to repeat the performance, it was very evident.
"Why didn't we bring up some anti-aircraft guns?" demanded Bob, as though some officer, immediately over him, had neglected this precaution.
"Guess no one expected the Huns would try this trick," said Roger.
"It's a daring move, all right."
"And it's a dangerous one for us, too!" added Jimmy, grimly. "These woods are a pretty good protection against shrapnel and machine-gun fire, but they're absolutely useless when it comes to screening us from aeroplane bombs. Of course we can hide from the sight of the flying Huns, but they must know this wood is full of Americans, and a bomb dropped anywhere among the trees will get some of us. It's fierce!"
"You said it!" cried Franz. "Wow! That was a bad one!"
A bomb--one of the winged affairs that wrought such deadly havoc in Paris and London--had fallen not one hundred feet from where the five Brothers were crouching in the underbrush. The concussion jarred them, and the force of the explosion uprooted several large trees that injured a number of the command, while the bomb itself killed three in dreadful fashion.
"Why don't our flying lads get after 'em?" demanded Franz. "Surely we have some planes over here now--in fact, I know we have; though not nearly enough. Where are they?"
Well might he ask that, for the Germans were circling around, now over the woods and again over the open country, dropping their bombs, which exploded, doing terrible damage, killing and wounding many.
Suddenly Bob, who was gazing skyward in despair, clutched Jimmy's arm and cried:
"Look! Look! There they are! There come our boys! American machines!
See the Indian head! Now we'll see Mr. Hun on the run! Oh, boy!"
Jimmy gazed for a moment in the direction indicated by his excited churn. Then he exclaimed:
"You're right! The American aviators are here at last, and I'll wager it wasn't their fault that they didn't get here sooner! Now for a fight in the air!"
And up just beneath the clouds, sometimes out of sight in the mist, the American flying men attacked the enemy. Now there was no time for the Huns to loose their bombs. They must look to their own safety. No longer did they have all the odds on their side.
"Look! Look! See our man engage those two!" shouted Roger.
They all saw what he meant. One intrepid American airman had headed for two Fokkers which were flying directly toward him, close together.
But in another instant one of the German planes was seen to swerve to one side, and then it darted downward, and in a manner to indicate that its pilot had been killed or wounded, for the machine was out of control. Like a dead leaf it descended, crashing into a shapeless ma.s.s in a field some distance from the woods.
"Now he's after the other!" cried Bob. "Oh, they're going to collide!"
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