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- Army Boys on German Soil - 5/29 -


The road led at first along the bank of the river and was fairly level. After two miles had been traversed the line of march swerved sharply toward the right and the men began to climb.

The weather was biting cold, and a stinging-wind whipped their cheeks and searched their clothing. But they were warmly clad and the pace at which they marched kept them comfortable enough. Their sturdy frames were inured to hardships, and they joked and laughed as they went along.

Soon they had passed through the little suburban villages that hung on the flank of Coblenz, and the way was interspersed with farmhouses at longer and longer intervals. The country became wilder, and as the path wound upward, they soon found themselves in the midst of mountains, on the other side of which lay the town for which they were bound.

The leafless branches of great trees waved creakily over their heads as the wind whistled through them. There was no sign of human life or habitation to, be seen. For all that appeared to the contrary, they might have been in the depths of a primeval forest.

"The jumping off place," muttered Tom, as at the command of the lieutenant the detachment paused for a short rest.

"The little end of nowhere, I'll tell the world," returned Billy, gazing about him. "Gee, what a place to be lost in!"

There was only a brief time permitted for rest, as the lieutenant was anxious to get his men over the ridge and at their destination before the short winter afternoon came to an end. The men fell in and the march went on.

The sky had now become a steely gray, and flakes of snow began to fall. They came down slowly at first and then more rapidly, and the ground was soon covered. The wind too had increased in intensity, and the boys soon found themselves in what promised to develop into a genuine blizzard.

The road had dwindled now to a mere mountain path, and even this was soon obliterated by the snow that was becoming deeper every minute.

Suddenly Bart tripped over a root and fell full-length on the snow. He tried to rise, but could not bear his weight upon his foot, which gave way under him. His comrades, who had laughed at first, sprang to help him. They drew him to one side, while Wilson came to see what the matter was.

"It's nothing," explained Bart, as he stood with an arm flung over the shoulders of Tom and Billy, while Frank, on his knees, vigorously rubbed and manipulated his ankle. "I'll be all right in a minute. It was a boob stunt for me to do."

"Nothing broken?" inquired Wilson anxiously.

"No," answered Frank, looking up but keeping on with his rubbing. "I can feel that the foot's all right. He's just strained it a little, that's all."

"Good," said Wilson. "You fellows come on after us then as soon as you can," and he hurried back to his place.

Two or three minutes more and Bart was able to walk, although he limped a trifle. They picked up their rifles and hurried after their comrades.

In the gathering dusk they did not notice that a trail diverged from the main one that they had been traveling, and they turned into this side trail, straining their eyes through the whirling snow to catch a glimpse of their comrades.

They had gone on for about ten minutes, not talking in order to save their breath, when Frank put into words the growing uneasiness of all of them.

"Queer that we haven't caught up to them yet!" he exclaimed, peering ahead, although he could not see more than twenty paces through the blinding snow.

"We certainly are traveling a good deal faster than they were when we saw them last," declared Bart.

"They must have got hold of some seven-league boots," grumbled Tom.

"Put on a little more speed," advised Billy. "Make it snappy now, and we're bound to catch up with them."

They quickened their pace, but without result. There were no footprints to be seen, but that meant nothing, for the snow covered up all tracks almost as soon as they were made.

For twenty minutes more they hurried along as well as they could through the snow that clogged and clung to their feet, and at last the truth forced itself upon their unwilling minds.

"No use, fellows," said Frank, as he stopped and the others gathered around him. "There's no use kidding ourselves any longer. We might as well own up to it that we've taken the wrong trail."

"Guess you're right, old man," said Tom disconsolately. "It simply wouldn't be possible for us not to have caught up to them at the rate we've been going. We're up against it for fair, and the question is, how we're going to get out of it. Getting snowbound in this wilderness doesn't make any hit with me."

"There's only one thing to do," said Frank decidedly, "and that is to right about face and try to find the place where we turned off."

"Swell chance," muttered Tom. "It's getting dark now by the minute, and it'll be as black as pitch in a little while."

"I know it's a forlorn hope," admitted Frank, "but it's the only thing to do just the same, and even forlorn hopes have a way of winning out sometimes. We can't stand here and be frozen to death. Perhaps we'll find some of the fellows sent back to look for us. Get a hustle on now."

He set the pace, and they followed with a speed that under other conditions they would not have thought possible.

But fast as they went, the snow and the darkness came faster, and despite all their efforts they were not able to find where the paths diverged. Everywhere was one bleak wilderness of snow. Soon they had all lost the path they were following and found themselves floundering through the woods among the tree trunks. There was no use in going further, for in the dense darkness they were quite as likely to be going away from their comrades as toward them, and at last Frank called a halt.

"The storm's got us, fellows," he declared, with a forced laugh that had little mirth in it.

"All my fault," remarked Bart gloomily. "I guess I'm a Jonah, I picked out the wrong moment to take a tumble. Now we're in a fine mess."

"We've been in worse," said Billy cheerily, "and pulled through them just the same."

"That's the way to talk!" exclaimed Frank heartily, giving Billy a slap on the back. "We'll get out of this scrape as we have out of a lot of others. At the worst, it's only a matter of having to wait till daylight. We're worth a dozen dead men yet. At any rate we've got grub with us, so that there's no danger of our starving."

"How about freezing to death?" said Tom, who was always inclined to see the dark side of things.

"We won't do that either," replied Frank. "That is, if we keep moving, and that's what we've got to do. It may not get us anywhere, but at least it will keep the blood circulating. Then too, there's the odd chance of our stumbling upon some hut or other where we can find some kind of shelter."

"Better let me go first, then," put in Bart. "I'm good at stumbling. In fact it's my long suit."

They all laughed and felt better.

"We don't know where we're going, but we're on the way," sang out Billy, as they began to trudge forward.

They had plenty of rations with them, and they munched some food as they went along. It was cold comfort, but it was comfort just the same.

"Oh, you hot coffee!" murmured Billy, and at the picture that he conjured up the others groaned.

The snow was now knee deep and showed no signs of letting up, though the wind had abated somewhat in violence.

They plodded on through the heavy drifts that clutched at their tired legs like so many nightmare hands trying to hold them back to their destruction. They were young and hardy, but their physical strength was sorely tested by the battle with the elements. Their hearts were thumping as though they would burst through their ribs, and their breath came in gasps.

Suddenly Frank's keen eyes caught sight of a dark mass that seemed to stand out even blacker than the darkness which was everywhere around them. He rubbed his eyes clear of the snow that clung to the lashes and looked again. Then he gave a shout.

"We've found it, boys!" he yelled. "There's a building of some kind just ahead of us. See it? See it?"

They looked and saw, and with a joyful shout make a break for shelter.

CHAPTER IV

THE RUINED CASTLE


Army Boys on German Soil - 5/29

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