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- Army Boys on German Soil - 6/29 -
As the Army Boys drew closer, the building seemed to grow in size. Wing after wing detached itself from the mass that seemed to cover fully an acre of ground. There were no fences to hinder their approach, but there were great masses of broken blocks and masonry through which they had to wind their way before they found themselves before a frowning tower, whose peak rose above the top of a quadrangular group of buildings surrounding it.
"Why, it's an old castle of some kind!" exclaimed Frank, as they paused at the foot of the tower, spent and breathless.
"I don't care what it is," replied Bart. "It's shelter of some kind, and that's enough for me."
"Wonder if there's any one living here," remarked Billy Waldon, his eyes sweeping the great mass for some sign of life. "Even the bark of a dog would be welcome to-night."
"Not a light anywhere," commented Tom. "If there's anybody living here I guess they're dead."
"There's not even a door to knock at," said Frank Sheldon, looking into the yawning space of what had evidently been an entrance to the tower. "I guess we'll have to go on a little exploring expedition. Come along, fellows, and get out of the wind. Lucky that I have my flashlight along."
They crowded in on their leader's heels, first, as a precaution, seeing that their weapons were ready, though there did not seem to be the faintest chance of their being required.
Frank drew his flashlight, and the streaming rays illuminated a long passageway whose end they could not see. There were open spaces in the roof and walls through which the snow had drifted in spots, but there were other parts that were clear and dry, and these were welcomed by the boys with immense relief after their long battle with the snow.
At a turning of the corridor they came upon a large room that, although mildewed and dilapidated and wholly bereft of furniture, was intact as far as the walls and ceiling were concerned. But what especially caught their eyes was a huge stone fireplace, and at once they decided to end their explorations for the present right there.
"Perhaps that hot coffee wasn't such a dream after all," chuckled Billy. "We've got plenty of the stuff in our kits, and all we need is some hot water."
"There's no end of broken branches about here," said Frank. "Let's get a pile of them in here, and we'll have a fire started in less than no time."
Though Tom said that the wood would probably be too wet to burn, he turned in heartily with the others, and in a few minutes they had a bigger pile of wood ready than probably the old room had ever seen before. Then by careful nursing of some chips and twigs a blaze was started that soon developed into a roaring fire, before which the boys stood and dried out their wet clothes and toasted themselves until they were in a glow.
The coffee problem was now a simple one, as all they had to do was to melt snow enough to furnish the hot water, and they used the cooking utensils that they had in their kits, for they had started out that afternoon in full marching order. Savory odors soon announced that the fragrant brew was ready, and they almost scalded their throats in the eagerness to partake of it.
"Yum-yum!" murmured Tom after his second cup. "Nectar has nothing on this."
"I'll say so," agreed Billy, with a blissful expression on his face.
"We never knew how good it was until we thought we couldn't get it," grinned Bart.
"Maybe this isn't a contrast to things as they were an hour ago, eh, fellows?" laughed Frank. "Listen to the wind screaming round this building, mad because it can't get at us."
"I wonder what the rest of the bunch are thinking about us just now," remarked Billy.
"I suppose they're worried to death, because we didn't turn up," replied Frank. "They've probably got squads out hunting for us at this minute. They've probably guessed what happened when we failed to catch up with them."
"Well, there isn't a chance in a thousand of their striking this place," said Tom, yawning. "In the meantime, I'm all tired out and vote that we hit the hay."
"There isn't any hay to hit, worse luck," said Bart, looking about him ruefully. "It's the stone floor for us to-night, all right. But it's warm and dry, and we'll make out with our blankets. It'll beat traveling around in the snow all night, any way."
"Let's get some more wood so that we'll have enough to last all night," suggested Frank, and followed by the others he suited the action to the word.
"How about some of us standing watch?" remarked Bart, when the huge pile of branches had been heaped within easy distance of the fire.
"Don't see any need of it," remarked Tom, rubbing his eyes. "We're probably miles away from any living thing and there's nothing to watch for except ghosts. There ought to be plenty of those around in a place so old as this. But who wants to watch for ghosts? I'd rather be asleep than awake if any of those old codgers come perambulating around."
"Quit your kidding," replied Frank with a laugh. "But I think we ought to stand watch, turn and turn about. There's a bare chance that some of the detachment may come this way, though I don't think it's likely. Then again we're really in an enemy's country, and it wouldn't be good soldiering for all of us to go to sleep. Besides, the fire has got to be kept up."
They felt the force of this and agreed.
"Let's see," remarked Frank, as he consulted his radio watch, "I figure it will be about eight hours till daylight. That'll be two hours for each of us."
"You fellows go to sleep," broke in Bart, "and I'll stand watch all night. That's only right, for I'm the fellow who got you into this fix."
"Nonsense!" said Frank. "That doesn't go with this bunch. We'll share and share alike, or else there's nothing doing."
Bart still persisted, but the others overruled him and he had to give in.
Frank drew a memorandum book from his pocket, tore out a page and made four strips of different lengths. The one that drew the shortest was to stand the first watch and the others were to take their turn according to the length of their strips. Bart drew the shortest, and Billy, Tom, and Frank followed, the latter having the longest slip remaining in his hand.
"If you go to sleep, Bart, you'll be shot at sunrise," joked Billy.
"I'm all right then," retorted Bart, "for I never get up that early."
Frank, Billy, and Tom spread their blankets as near the fire as was safe, and rolled themselves in them. The bed was hard, but this bothered them little, and they were so tired that they were asleep almost as soon as they stretched themselves out.
Bart, too, was more exhausted than he ever remembered being in all his life before, and from time to time he looked enviously at the forms of his sleeping comrades. The two hours that stretched before him would be very long ones.
At times he would pace slowly about the room, stopping now and then to replenish the fire. His foot still hurt him a little, and he frequently sat down in a corner to rest himself. He found, however, that this was dangerous, for an almost uncontrollable drowsiness would steal over him, despite all his efforts to keep awake. The only way he could feel sure of staying awake was to keep on his feet.
An hour passed and half of another.
He was counting the minutes now before he would be relieved, when suddenly, as he was passing the entrance that opened on the corridor, he heard a sound that startled him.
He stood stock still, every trace of sleepiness gone in an instant and all his faculties keenly on the alert. But nothing happened and he relaxed.
"Pshaw!" he said to himself impatiently. "What's the matter with me? Am I letting what Tom said about ghosts get on my nerves?"
Then the sound came again, and this time Bart knew that he was not mistaken.
What Bart heard was the sound of human voices.
At first the thought flashed across him that they might be those of some of his comrades, sent back by Lieutenant Winter to look for the missing men.
But he dismissed this thought almost as soon as it was formed.
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