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The Moving Picture Boys on the War Front, a novel by Victor Appleton

Chapter 22. Captured

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Not without a rather creepy feeling did the three boys start on their mission, the outcome of which could only be guessed. They were taking great risks, and they knew it. But it was not the first time. They had gone into the jungle to get films of wild beasts at the water hole. They had ventured into Earthquake Land where the forces of nature, if not of mankind, were arrayed against them. And they had dared the perils of the deep in getting pictures under the sea.

But these were as nothing compared to the mission on which they were now engaged, for, at any moment, there might go up from the German lines, not half a mile away, a string of lights that would reveal their presence to the ever-watchful snipers and sharp-shooters.

And, more than that, the whole area might suddenly be swept by a hail of bullets from a battery of machine guns. Both sides had these deadly weapons in readiness, and it was well known that Fritz was exceedingly nervous and apt, at times, to let burst a salvo of fire without any real reason.

The fluttering of some armless sleeve on the body of a dead man, the rattle of a loose strand of barbed wire, the movement of a sorely wounded soldier lying out in the open, might draw the German fire. And if the moving picture boys were caught in that they would be hard put to it to escape.

"The only thing to do, when you see a flash of fire, is to drop to the ground and lie as still as you can," Blake had said to his chums before they started out. "Duck your heads down on your arms and don't move. The lampblack will kill any glare from the lights and they may not see us. So remember, don't move if you see anything like a light. It may be a glare from a discharged rifle, or it may be a rocket or star cluster. Just lie low, that's the way!"

And so, as they crawled on, in crouching attitudes, over the desolate stretch that lay between them and the place they sought, they made no noise, and kept a sharp watch.

Blake led the way, his hand ready on his pistol, and the other two boys followed his example. Their gas masks were ready at their belts, but these were mainly an added precaution, as it was not likely, unless a general attack was contemplated, that the Germans would produce the chlorine.

Blake had gone a little way down the slope, Joe and Charlie following as closely as was safe, when the leader came to a halt. Watching his dim form, his chums did the same.

"What is it?" whispered Joe, in the softest of voices.

"A figure," answered Blake likewise. "I'm not sure whether it's a dead man or some one like us--trying to discover something. Do you see it?"

Joe looked. He saw a huddled heap which might, some day, have been a man. Now it was but a--heap. As the boys strained their eyes through the darkness they became aware that it was the body of a man--a French soldier who had fallen in the engagement of a few days before, and who had not yet been buried. There were many such--too many on both sides for the health and comfort of the living.

"Pass to one side," advised Joe. "We can't do him any good."

"Poor fellow!" murmured Charlie. "Ouch!" he suddenly exclaimed, in louder tones than any they had heretofore used.

"Quiet!" hissed Blake. "What's the matter?"

"A big rat ran right over my legs," answered Macaroni.

"Well, if he didn't bite you what are you yelling about?" demanded Joe. The trenches were full of rats--great, gray fellows--for there was much carrion food for them.

Once more, making a little detour, Blake started forward, but hardly had he again taken up his progress when there came the sound of a slight explosion over toward the German lines, and almost instantly the dreary stretch of No Man's Land was brightly illuminated.

"Down! Down!" hoarsely called Blake, and he and his chums dropped full length on the ground, never heeding puddles of water, the rats or the dead, for they became aware that more bodies were all about them.

Up from the German lines went a series of rockets and star clusters. They made the battle ground between the two forces almost as bright as day, so that should any of the unfortunate wounded men be seen to move they might be killed.

Perhaps some keen-eyed Hun, watching for just this chance, had detected a slight movement near the dead man beside whom Blake and his chums first stopped. And, knowing from a previous observation that the body was cold and stark, the sniper must have reasoned that the living had joined it.

Or perhaps the incautious exclamation made by Charlie when he felt the big rat may have been carried to the ever-listening ears. However that was, the glaring lights were set off, and at once hundreds of rifles, aimed over the tops of the German trenches, began to send a hail of lead across No Man's Land.

Fortunately the line of fire was either to one side of where the boys had fallen, or it was too high or too low. They did not stop to consider which it was, but were thankful that they felt none of the leaden missiles, though some sang uncomfortably close.

For perhaps five minutes the glaring lights illuminated the blood-stained ground, and the firing was kept up at intervals. It was replied to from the American and French lines, but with what effect could only be guessed.

And then, once more, darkness settled down, and the boys began to breathe more easily. They had had a narrow escape, and their journey was not half over, to say nothing of the return trip--if they lived to make it.

"Come on!" Blake cautiously whispered again. "And bear off to the right. The fire wasn't so heavy from there. Maybe we can find a gap to get through."

His companions followed him as he crawled along, actually crawling this time, for it was not safe to rise high enough to walk even in a stooping position. No one could tell when the glaring lights might be sent up again.

But, for a time, Fritz seemed satisfied with the demonstration he had made. Perhaps he had killed some of the wounded, for not all of them had been brought in. Perhaps he had only further mutilated bodies that had long since ceased to be capable of movement.

And so, over the dark and bloody ground, Blake and his chums made their way. In a little while they would be in comparative safety, for their friend the sentry had told them there were no regular trenches near the little hollow where once had stood a machine-gun emplacement and where the boys now hoped to find their precious war films.

But their journey was not destined to be peaceful. Once more the flaring lights went up, and again came the heavy firing. Again the boys crouched to get below the storm of bullets, and again they escaped. But a groan and a cry of anguish, from somewhere on their left, told them some poor unfortunate had been put out of his misery.

They waited a little while, and then again took up the perilous journey. Presently Blake, taking a cautious observation, announced that they were in comparative safety, and might walk upright.

"Where's the hut--or whatever it is?" asked Joe.

"Down in that little hollow, I take it," said Blake. "We can't see it until we round that little hill. Maybe we can't see it at all, for it may not be there," he added. "But we'd better go slow, for it may be there, and there may be some one in it."

"Secor and Labenstein, perhaps," murmured Charlie.

"Perhaps," agreed Blake. "If they are----"

He did not finish, but his chums knew he meant there might be a desperate fight.

A little later, having proceeded cautiously, the boys made the turn around the little hill that had hitherto hidden from view the hollow of which the American sentry had spoken, and then they saw in the light of the stars what seemed to be a tumbled-down hut. As a matter of fact, it had once been a concrete dugout, where a machine gun had been placed in order to fire at the French and American lines. But in the heavy fighting of the past few days this place had been captured by an American contingent. They had destroyed the gun and killed most of the crew, and the place had been blown up by a bomb. But the fierce waves of Germans had surged back over the place, driving out the Americans who, in turn, captured it again.

Just now the place was supposed to be deserted, being of no strategic value, and in a location that made it dangerous for either side to hold it.

"We'll take a look in there," said Blake, when they had drawn near and had discovered that the ruins of the concrete dugout had been covered with brush, to "camouflage" it from spying airmen.

They approached cautiously, and, as they did so, they became aware of a faint light coming from the ruins. So faint was it that at first it seemed no more than the reflection of the stars, but a long look showed that it was a light from within, but carefully screened.

"We've got to have a look in!" whispered Blake. "Maybe the films are there, and maybe not; but some person is."

"Probably Germans," said Joe.

"Very likely. But it may be that Frenchman. If we could only capture him!"

"I'd like a chance at him!" exclaimed Charlie.

"Hush!" cautioned Blake. The boys were now close to the hut, for that was all it was since the bombardment. They tried on three sides of the place to look in, but without success. Then, as they moved around to the side which faced the German lines, they saw a crack through which the light streamed in greater volume.

"Take a look, Blake," advised Joe.

His chum did so, and, with an exclamation of surprise and satisfaction, turned away from the slot, motioning to the others to look for themselves. And as Joe and Charlie looked they saw, seated on the ruins of a machine gun and other things that had been in the place, Secor and Labenstein. The two plotters had between them boxes which the boys had no difficulty in recognizing as their missing war films.

Joe was about to utter an exclamation of delight when Blake softly put his hand over his chum's mouth.

"Not a sound!" breathed Blake.

For a moment the boys stood looking in at the plotters and wondering how they could capture them, or at least get back the stolen films.

And then a door, or what had been a door, to the dugout swung open with a creak of its rusty hinges.

"What's that?" cried Secor, in French, starting to his feet.

"Only the wind," replied the German, in the tongue of his fellow-conspirator. "Only the wind."

"Ah! I thought maybe it was----"

"You thought perhaps it was the boys who own these films, but who will never see them again. I know not how valuable they may be--these films--but I was told to get them, and I have. Let the ones higher up decide on their value. But we must get our price for them--you and I. We must get a good price. We have run a great risk."

"Yes, a great risk," murmured the Frenchman.

Blake motioned to his chums to follow him into the dugout. They could see his gestures in the light of a lantern which formed the illumination of the ruins.

Cautiously the three went inside, the noise they made being covered by the rattling of the wind which had sprung up.

"We have them! We have them!" exulted Joe, in a whisper.

They were silently considering how best to surprise and capture the two men, who were still unaware of the presence of the boys, when a sudden noise came from outside. Blake and his chums, as well as the two men, started.

"That was not the wind!" exclaimed Secor.

"No, my friend. It was not. I think there is some one here besides ourselves. We must look. I----"

And then came a guttural command in German:

"Surrender--all of you! You are surrounded and are prisoners! Surrender!" _

Read next: Chapter 23. The Airship Raid

Read previous: Chapter 21. Across No Man's Land

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