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Action Front is a story about action on the front lines in war torn Europe. In the midst of World War I, writer Boyd Cable carved out a niche for himself by collecting factual nuggets from the front lines of the conflict and using them as the foundation for gritty, action-packed short stories. Cable does a masterful job of including authentic dispatches into his fictional accounts. In the forward Cable expresses his concern that many may find this book to grim and too graphic. The volume Action Front collects some of Cable's best efforts. Readers looking for blow-by-blow battlefield accounts won't be disappointed. He also says that this is necessary to portray the accuracy of the action on the front lines. Cable does manage to include incidents on the lighter side.
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Copyright © 2018 by Boyd Cable.
All rights reserved. Printed in the United States of America. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission except in the case of brief quotations em- bodied in critical articles or reviews.
This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, businesses, organiza- tions, places, events and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.
For information contact :
Sheba Blake Publishing
Book and Cover design by Sheba Blake Publishing
First Edition: April 2018
MR. J. A. SPENDER
to whose recognition and appreciation of my work, and to whose instant and eager hospitality in the "Westminster Gazette" so much of these war writings is due, this book is very gratefully dedicated by
TABLE OF CONTENTS
IN ENEMY HANDS
A BENEVOLENT NEUTRAL
A NIGHT PATROL
AS OTHERS SEE
THE FEAR OF FEAR
AN OPEN TOWN
SMASHING THE COUNTER-ATTACK
A GENERAL ACTION
I make no apology for having followed in this book the same plan as in my other one, "Between the Lines," of taking extracts from the official despatches as "texts" and endeavoring to show something of what these brief messages cover, because so many of my own friends, and so many more unknown friends amongst the reviewers, expressed themselves so pleased with the plan that I feel its repetition is justified.
There were some who complained that my last book was in parts too grim and too terrible, and no doubt the same complaint may lie against this one. To that I can only reply that I have found it impossible to write with any truth of the Front without the writing being grim, and in writing my other book I felt it would be no bad thing if Home realized the grimness a little better.
But now there are so many at Home whose nearest and dearest are in the trenches, and who require no telling of the horrors of the war, that I have tried here to show there is a lighter side to war, to let them know that we have our relaxations, and even find occasion for jests, in the course of our business.
I believe, or at least hope, that in showing both sides of the picture I am doing what the Front would wish me to do. And I don't ask for any greater satisfaction than that.
The last conscious thought in the mind of Private Jock Macalister as he reached the German trench was to get down into it; his next conscious thought to get out of it. Up there on the level there were uncomfortably many bullets, and even as he leaped on the low parapet one of these struck the top of his forehead, ran deflecting over the crown of his head, and away. He dropped limp as a pole-axed bullock, slid and rolled helplessly down into the trench.
When he came to his senses he found himself huddled in a corner against the traverse, his head smarting and a bruised elbow aching abominably. He lifted his head and groaned, and as the mists cleared from his dazed eyes he found himself looking into a fat and very dirty face and the ring of a rifle muzzle about a foot from his head. The German said something which Macalister could not understand, but which he rightly interpreted as a command not to move. But he could hear no sound of Scottish voices or of the uproar of hand-to-hand fighting in the trench. When he saw the Germans duck down hastily and squeeze close up against the wall of the trench, while overhead a string of shells crashed angrily and the shrapnel beat down in gusts across the trench, he diagnosed correctly that the assault had failed, and that the British gunners were again searching the German trench with shrapnel. His German guard said something to the other men, and while one of them remained at the loophole and fired an occasional shot, the others drew close to their prisoner. The first thing they did was to search him, to turn each pocket outside-in, and when they had emptied these, carefully feel all over his body for any concealed article. Macalister bore it all with great philosophy, mildly satisfied that he had no money to lose and no personal property of any value.
Their search concluded, the Germans held a short consultation, then one of them slipped round the corner of the traverse, and, returning a moment later, pointed the direction to Macalister and signed to him to go.
The trench was boxed into small compartments by the traverses, and in the next section Macalister found three Germans waiting for him. One of them asked him something in German, and on Macalister shaking his head to show that he did not understand, he was signaled to approach, and a German ran deftly through his pockets, fingering his waist, and, searching for a money-belt, made a short exclamation of disgust, and signed to the prisoner to move on round the next traverse, at the same time shouting to the Germans there, and passing Macalister on at the bayonet point. This performance was repeated exactly in all its details through the next half-dozen traverses, the only exception being that in one an excitable German, making violent motions with a bayonet as he appeared round the corner, insisted on his holding his hands over his head.
At about the sixth traverse a German spoke to him in fairly good, although strongly accented, English. He asked Macalister his rank and regiment, and Macalister, knowing that the name on his shoulder-straps would expose any attempt at deceit, gave these. Another man asked something in German, which apparently he requested the English speaker to translate.
"He say," interpreted the other, "Why you English war have made?" Macalister stared at him. "I'm no English," he returned composedly. "I'm a Scot."
"That the worse is," said the interpreter angrily. "Why have it your business of the Scot?"
Macalister knitted his brows over this. "You mean, I suppose, what business is it of ours! Well, it's just Scotland's a bit of Britain, so when Britain's at war, we are at war."
A demand for an interpretation of this delayed the proceedings a little, and then the English speaker returned to the attack.
"For why haf Britain this war made!" he demanded.
"We didna' make it," returned Macalister. "Germany began it." Excited comment on the translation.
"If you'll just listen to me a minute," said Macalister deliberately, "I can prove I am right. Sir Edward Grey----" Bursts of exclamation greeted the name, and Macalister grinned slightly.
"You'll no be likin' him," he said. "An' I can weel understan' it."
The questioner went off on a different line. "Haf your soldiers know," he asked, "that the German fleet every day a town of England bombard?"
Macalister stared at him. "Havers!" he said abruptly.
The German went on to impart a great deal of astonishing information--of the German advance on Petrograd, the invasion of Egypt, the extermination of the Balkan Expedition, the complete blockade of England, the decimation of the British fleet by submarines.
After some vain attempts to argue the matter and disprove the statements, Macalister resigned himself to contemptuous silence, only rousing when the German spoke of England and English, to correct him to Britain and British.
When at last their interest flagged, the Germans ordered him to move on. Macalister asked where he was going and what was to be done with him, and received the scant comfort that he was being sent along to an officer who would send him back as a prisoner, if he did not have him killed--as German prisoners were killed by the English.
"British, you mean," Macalister corrected again. "And, besides that, it's a lie."
He was told to go on; but as he moved be saw a foot-long piece of barbed wire lying in the trench bottom. He asked gravely whether he would be allowed to take it, and, receiving a somewhat puzzled and grudging assent, picked it up, carefully rolled it in a small coil, and placed it in a side jacket pocket. He derived immense gratification and enjoyment at the ensuing searches he had to undergo, and the explosive German that followed the diving of a hand into the barbed-wire pocket.
He arrived at last at an officer and at a point where a communication trench entered the firing trench. The officer in very mangled English was attempting to extract some information, when he was interrupted by the arrival from the communication trench of a small party led by an officer, a person evidently of some importance, since the other officer sprang to attention, clicked his heels, saluted stiffly, and spoke in a tone of respectful humility. The new arrival was a young man in a surprisingly clean and beautifully fitting uniform, and wearing a helmet instead of the cloth cap commonly worn in the trenches. His face was not a particularly pleasant one, the eyes close set, hard, and cruel, the jaw thin and sharp, the mouth thin-lipped and shrewish. He spoke to Macalister in the most perfect English.
"Well, swine-hound," he said, "have you any reason to give why I should not shoot you?" Macalister made no reply. He disliked exceedingly the look of the new-comer, and had no wish to give an excuse for the punishment he suspected would result from the officer's displeasure. But his silence did not save him.
"Sulky, eh, my swine-hound!" said the officer. "But I think we can improve those manners."
He gave an order in German, and a couple of men stepped forward and placed their bayonets with the points touching Macalister's chest.
"If you do not answer next time I speak," he said smoothly, "I will give one word that will pin you to the trench wall and leave you there. Do you understand!" he snapped suddenly and savagely. "You English dog."
"I understand," said Macalister. "But I'm no English. I'm a Scot"
The crashing of a shell and the whistling of the bullets overhead moved the officer, as it had the others, to a more sheltered place. He seated himself upon an ammunition-box, and pointed to the wall of the trench opposite him.
"You," he said to Macalister, "will stand there, where you can get the benefit of any bullets that come over. I suppose you would just as soon be killed by an English bullet as by a German one."
Macalister moved to the place indicated.
"I'm no anxious," he said calmly, "to be killed by either a British or a German bullet."
"Say 'sir' when you speak to me," roared the officer. "Say 'sir.'"
Macalister looked at him and said "Sir"--no more and no less.
"Have you no discipline in your English army?" he demanded, and Macalister's lips silently formed the words "British Army." "Are you not taught to say 'sir' to an officer?"
"Yes--sir; we say 'sir' to any officer and any gentleman."
"So," said the officer, an evil smile upon his thin lips. "You hint, I suppose, that I am not a gentleman? We shall see. But first, as you appear to be an insubordinate dog, we had better tie your hands up."
He gave an order, and after some little trouble to find a cord, Macalister's hands were lashed behind his back with the bandage from a field-dressing. The officer inspected the tying when it was completed, spoke angrily to the cringing men, and made them unfasten and re-tie the lashing as tightly as they could draw it.
"And now," said the officer, "we shall continue our little conversation; but first you shall beg my pardon for that hint about a gentleman. Do you hear me--beg," he snarled, as Macalister made no reply.
"If I've said anything you're no likin' and that I'm sorry for masel', I apologize," he said.
The officer glared at him with narrowed eyes. "That'll not do," he said coldly. "When I say 'beg' you'll beg, and you will go on your knees to beg. Do you hear? Kneel!"
Macalister stood rigid. At a word, two of the soldiers placed themselves in position again, with their bayonets at the prisoner's breast. The officer spoke to the men, and then to Macalister.
"Now," he said, "you will kneel, or they will thrust you through."
Macalister stood without a sign of movement; but behind his back his hands were straining furiously at the lashings upon his wrist. They stretched and gave ever so little, and he worked on at them with a desperate hope dawning in his heart.
"Still obstinate," sneered the officer. "Well, it is rather early to kill you yet, so we must find some other way."
At a sentence from him one of the men threw his weight on the prisoner's shoulders, while the other struck him savagely across the tendons behind the knees. Whether he would or no, his knees had to give, and Macalister dropped to them. But he was not beaten yet. He simply allowed himself to collapse, and fell over on his side. The officer cursed angrily, commanding him to rise to his knees again; the men kicked him and pricked him with their bayonet points, hauled him at last to his knees, and held him there by main force.
"And now you will beg my pardon," the officer continued. Macalister said nothing, but continued to stretch at his bonds and twist gently with his hands and wrists.
The officer spent the next ten minutes trying to force his prisoner to beg his pardon. They were long and humiliating and painful minutes for Macalister, but he endured them doggedly and in silence. The officer's temper rose minute by minute. The forward wall of the firing trench was built up with wicker-work facings and the officer drew out a thick switch.
"You will speak," he said, "or I shall flay you in strips and then shoot you."
Macalister said nothing, and was slashed so heavily across the face that the stick broke in the striker's hands. The blood rose to his head, and deep in his heart he prayed, prayed only for ten seconds with his hands loose; but still he did not speak.
At the end of ten minutes the officer's patience was exhausted. Macalister was thrust back against the trench wall, and the officer drew out a pistol.
"In five minutes from now," he gritted, "I'm going to shoot you. I give you the five minutes that you may enjoy some pleasant thoughts in the interval."
Macalister made no answer, but worked industriously at the lashings on his wrists. The bandage stretched and loosened, and at last, at long last, he succeeded in slipping one turn off his hand. He had no hope now for anything but death, and the only wish left to him in life was to get his hands free to wreak vengeance on the dapper little monster opposite him, to die with his hands free and fighting.
The minutes slipped one by one, and one by one the loosened turns of the bandage were uncoiled. The trenches at this point were apparently very close, for Macalister could hear the crack of the British rifles, the clack-clack-clack of a machine gun at close range, and the thought flitted through his mind that over there in his own trenches his own fellows would hear presently the crack of the officer's pistol with no understanding of what it meant. But with luck and his loosened hands he would give them a squeal or two to listen to as well.
Then the officer spoke. "One minute," he said, "and then I fire." He lifted his pistol and pointed it straight at Macalister's face. "I am not bandaging your eyes," went on the officer, "because I want you to look into this little round, round hole, and wait to see the fire spout out of it at you. Your minute is almost up ... you can watch my finger pressing on the trigger."
The last coil slipped off Macalister's wrist; he was free, but with a curse he knew it to be too late. A movement of his hands from behind his back would finish the pressure of that finger, and finish him. Desperately he sought for a fighting chance.
"I would like to ask," he muttered hoarsely, licking his dry lips, "will ye no kill me if I say what ye wanted?"
Keenly he watched that finger about the trigger, breathed silent relief as he saw it slacken, and watched the muzzle drop slowly from level of his eyes. But it was still held pointed at him, and that barely gave him the chance he longed for. Only let the muzzle leave him for an instant, and he would ask no more. The officer was a small and slightly made man, Macalister, tall and broadly built, big almost to hugeness and strong as a Highland bull.
"So," said the officer softly, "your Scottish courage flinches then, from dying?"
While he spoke, and in the interval before answering him, Macalister's mind was running feverishly over the quickest and surest plan of action. If he could get one hand on the officer's wrist, and the other on his pistol, he could finish the officer and perhaps get off another round or two before he was done himself. But the pistol hand might evade his grasp, and there would be brief time to struggle for it with those bayonets within arm's length. A straight blow from the shoulder would stun, but it might not kill. Plan after plan flashed through his mind, and was in turn set aside in search of a better. But he had to speak.
"It's no just that I'm afraid," he said very slowly. "But it was just somethin' I thought I might tell ye."
The pistol muzzle dropped another inch or two, with Macalister's eye watching its every quiver. His words brought to the officer's mind something that in his rage he had quite overlooked.
"If there is anything you can tell me," he said, "any useful information you can give of where your regiment's headquarters are in the trenches, or where there are any batteries placed, I might still spare your life. But you must be quick," he added "for it sounds as if another attack is coming."
It was true that the fire of the British artillery had increased heavily during the last few minutes. It was booming and bellowing now in a deep, thunderous roar, the shells were streaming and rushing overhead, and shrapnel was crashing and hailing and pattering down along the parapet of the forward trench; the heavy boom of big shells bursting somewhere behind the forward line and the roaring explosion of trench mortar bombs about the forward trench set the ground quivering and shaking. A shell burst close overhead, and involuntarily Macalister glanced up, only to curse himself next moment for missing a chance that his captor offered by a similar momentary lifting of his eyes. Macalister set his eyes on the other, determined that no such chance should be missed again.
But now, above the thunder of the artillery and of the bursting shells, they could hear the sound of rising rifle-fire. The officer must have glimpsed the hope in Macalister's face, and, with an oath, he brought the pistol up level again.
"Do not cheat yourself," he said. "You cannot escape. If a charge comes I shall shoot you first."
With a sinking heart Macalister saw that his last slender hope was gone. He could only pray that for the moment no attack was to be launched; but then, just when it seemed that the tide of hope was at its lowest ebb, the fates flung him another chance--a chance that for the moment looked like no chance; looked, indeed, like a certainty of sudden death. A soft, whistling hiss sounded in the air above them, a note different from the shrill whine and buzz of bullets, the harsh rush and shriek of the shells. The next instant a dark object fell with a swoosh and thump in the bottom of the trench, rolled a little and lay still, spitting a jet of fizzing sparks and wreathing smoke.
When a live bomb falls in a narrow trench it is almost certain that everyone in that immediate section will at the worst die suddenly, at the best be badly wounded. Sometimes a bomb may be picked up and thrown clear before it can burst, but the man who picks it up is throwing away such chance as he has of being only wounded for the smaller chance of having time to pitch the bomb clear. The first instinct of every man is to remove himself from that particular traverse; the teaching of experience ought to make him throw himself flat on the ground, since by far the greater part of the force and fragments from the explosion clear the ground by a foot or two. Of the Germans in this particular section of trench some followed one plan, some the other. Of the two men guarding the prisoner the one who was near the corner of the traverse leapt round it, the other whirled himself round behind Macalister and crouched sheltering behind his body. Two men near the corner of the other traverse disappeared round it, two more flung themselves violently on their faces, and another leapt into the opening of the communication trench. The officer, without hesitation, dropped on his face, his head pressed close behind the sandbag on which he had been sitting.
The whole of these movements happened, of course, in the twinkling of an eye. Macalister's thoughts had been so full of his plans for the destruction of the officer that the advent of the bomb merely switched these plans in a new direction. His first realized thought was of the man crouching beside and clinging to him, the quick following instinct to free himself of this check to his movements. He was still on his knees, with the man on his left side; without attempting to rise he twisted round and backwards, and drove his fist full force in the other's face; the man's head crashed back against the trench wall, and his limp body collapsed and rolled sideways. His mind still running in the groove of his set purpose, before his captor's relaxed fingers had well loosed their grip, Macalister hurled himself across the trench and fastened his ferocious grip on the body of the officer. He rose to his feet, lifting the man with a jerking wrench, and swung him round. The swift idea had come to him that by hurling the officer's body on top of the bomb, and holding him there, he would at least make sure of his vengeance, might even escape himself the fragments and full force of the shock. Even in the midst of the swing he checked, glanced once at the spitting fuse, and with a stoop and a heave flung the officer out over the front parapet, leaped on the firing step, and hurled himself over after him.
It must be remembered that the burning fuse of a bomb gives no indication of the length that remains to burn before it explodes the charge. The fuse looks like a short length of thin black rope, its outer cover does not burn and the same stream of sparks and smoke pours from its end in the burning of the first inch and of the last. There was nothing, then, to show Macalister whether the explosion would come before his quick muscles could complete their movement, or whether long seconds would elapse before the bomb burst. It was an even chance either way, so he took the one that gave him most. Fortune favored him, and the roar of the explosion followed his flying heels over the parapet.
The officer, dazed, shaken, and not yet realizing what had happened, had gathered neither his wits nor his limbs to rise when Macalister leaped down almost on top of him. The officer's hand still clung to the pistol he had held, but Macalister's grasp swooped and clutched and wrenched the weapon away.
"Get up, my man," he said grimly. "Get up, or I'll blow a hole in ye as ye lie."
He added emphasis with the point of the pistol in the other's ribs, and the officer staggered to his feet.
"Now," said Macalister, "you'll quick mairch--that way." He waved the pistol towards the British trench.
The officer hesitated.
"It is no good," he said sullenly. "I should be killed a dozen times before I got across."
"That's as may be," said Macalister coolly.
"But if you don't go you'll get your first killing here, and say naething o' the rest o' the dizen."
A shell cracked overhead, and the shrapnel ripped down along the trench behind them with a storm of bullets thudding into the ground about their feet.
"I will make you an offer," said the officer hurriedly. "You can go your way and leave me to go mine."
"You'll mak' an offer!" said Macalister contemptuously. "Here"--and he waved the pistol across the open again. "Get along there."
"I will give you--" the officer began, when Macalister broke in abruptly.
"This is no a debatin' society," he said. "But ye'll no walk ye maun just drive."
Without further words he thrust the pistol in his pocket, grabbed and took one handful of coat at the back of the officer's neck and another at the skirt, and commenced to thrust him before him across the open ground. But the officer refused to walk, and would have thrown himself down if Macalister's grasp had not prevented it.
"Ye would, would ye?" growled the Scot, and seized his captive by the shoulders and shook him till his teeth rattled. "Now," he said angrily, "ye'll come wi' me or--" he broke off to fling a gigantic arm about the officer's neck--"or I'll pull the heid aff ye."
So it was that the occupants of the British trench viewed presently the figure of a huge Highlander appearing through the drifting haze and smoke at a trot, a head clutched close to his side by a circling arm, a struggling German half-running, half-dragging behind his captor.
Arrived at the parapet, "Here," shouted Macalister. "Catch, some o' ye." He jerked his prisoner forward and thrust him over and into the trench, and leaped in after him.
It was purely on impulse that Private Macalister flung his prisoner out of the German trench, but it was a set and reasoned purpose that made him drag his struggling captive back over the open to the British trench. He knew that the British line would not shoot at an obvious kilted Highlander, and he supposed that the Germans would hesitate to fire on one dragging an equally obvious German officer behind him. Either his reasoning or his blind luck held true, and both he and his captive tumbled over into the British trench unhurt. An officer appeared, and Macalister explained briefly to him what had happened.
"You'd better take him back with you," said the officer when he had finished, and glanced at the German. "He's not likely to make trouble, I suppose, but there are plenty of spare rifles, and you had better take one. What's left of your battalion has withdrawn to the support trench."
"I am an officer," said the German suddenly to the British subaltern? "I surrender myself to you, and demand to be treated as an honorable prisoner of war. I do not wish to be left in this man's hands."
"Wish this and wish that," said Macalister, "and much good may your wishing do. Ye've heard what this officer said, so rise and mairch, unless ye wad raither I took ye further like I brocht ye here." And he moved as if to scoop the German's head under his arm again.
"I will not," said the German furiously, and turned again to the subaltern. "I tell you I surrender----"
"There's no need for you to surrender," said the subaltern quietly. "I might remind you that you are already a prisoner; and I am not here to look after prisoners."
The German yielded with a very bad grace, and moved ahead of Macalister and his threatening bayonet, along the line and down the communication trench to the support trench. Here the Scot found his fellows, and introduced his prisoner, made his report to an officer, and asked and received permission to remain on guard over his captive. Then he returned to the corner of the trench where the remains of his own company were. He told them how he had fallen into the German trench and what had happened up to the moment the German officer came into the proceedings.
"This is the man," he said, nodding his head towards the officer, "and I wad just like to tell you carefully and exactly what happened between him an' me. Ye'll understaun' better if a' show ye as weel as tell ye. Weel, now, he made twa men tie ma' hands behind ma' back first--if ony o' ye will lend me a first field dressing I'll show ye how they did it."
A field dressing was promptly forthcoming, and Macalister bound the German's hands behind his back, overcoming a slight attempt at resistance by a warning word and an accompanying sharp twist on his arms.
"It's maybe no just as tight as mine was," said Macalister when he had finished, and stood the prisoner back against the wall. "But it'll dae. Then he made twa men stand wi' fixed bayonets against ma' breast, and when I hinted what was true, that he was no gentleman, he said I was to kneel and beg his pardon. And now you," he said, nodding to the prisoner, "will go down on your marrow-bones and beg mine."
"That is sufficient of this fooling," said the officer, with an attempt at bravado. "It's your turn, I'll admit; but I will pay you well--"
Macalister interrupted him-"Ye'll maybe think it's a bit mair than fooling ere I'm done wi' ye," he said. "But speakin' o' pay... and thank ye for reminding me. Ower there they riped ma pooches, an' took a'thing I had."
He stepped over to the prisoner, went expeditiously through his pockets, removed the contents, and transferred them to his own.
"I'm no saying but what I've got mair than I lost," he admitted to the others, who stood round gravely watching and thoroughly enjoying the proceedings. "But then they took all I had, an' I'm only taking all he has."
He pulled a couple of sandbags off the parapet and seated himself on them.
"To go on wi' this begging pardon business," he said, "If a couple o' ye will just stand ower him wi' your fixed bayonets.... Thank ye. I wouldna' kneel," he continued, "so one o' them put his weight on my shoulders----" He looked at one of the guards, who, entering promptly into the spirit of the play, put his massive weight on the German's shoulders, and looked to Macalister for further instructions.
"Then," said Macalister, "the ither guard gave me a swipe across the back o' the knees."
The "swipe" followed quickly and neatly, and the German went down with a jerk.
"That's it exactly," said Macalister, with a pleasantly reminiscent smile. The German's temper broke, and he spat forth a torrent of abuse in mixed English and German.
Macalister listened a moment. "I said nothing; so I think he shouldna' be allowed to say anything," he remarked judicially. His comment met with emphatic approval from his listeners.
"I think I could gag him," said one of his guards; "or if ye preferred it I could just throttle his windpipe a wee bit, just enough to stop his tongue and no to hurt him much."
With an effort the German regained his control. "There is no need," he said sullenly; "I shall be silent."
"Weel," resumed Macalister, "there was a bit o' chaff back and forrit between us, and next thing he did was to slap me across the face wi' his hand. Do ye think," he appealed to his audience, "it would brak' his jaw if I gave him a bit lick across it?"
He advanced a huge hand for inspection, and listened to the free advice given to try it, and the earnest assurances that it did not matter much if the jaw did break.
"Ye'll feenish him off presently onyway, I suppose?" said one, and winked at Macalister.
"Just bide a wee," answered Macalister, "I'm coming to that. I think maybe I'll no brak his jaw, for fair's fair, and I want to give as near as I can to what I got."
He leant forward and dealt a mild but tingling slap on the German's cheek.
"I think," he went on, "the next thing I got was a slash wi' a bit switch he pulled out from the trench wall. We've no sticks like it here, so I maun just do the best I can instead."
He leant forward and fastened a huge hand on the prisoner's coat-collar, jerked him to him, and, despite his frantic struggles and raging tongue, placed him face down across his knees and administered punishment.
"I think that's about enough," he said, and returned the choking and spluttering prisoner to his place between the guards.
"He kept me," he said, "on my knees, so I think he ought ... thank ye," as the German went down again none too gently. "After that he went on saying some things it would be waste o' time to repeat. Swine dog was about the prettiest name he had any use for. But there was another thing he did; ye'll see some muck on my face and on my jacket. It came there like this; he took hold o' me by the hair--this way." And Macalister proceeded to demonstrate as he explained.
"Then--my hands being tied behind my back you will remember, like this--it was easy enough for him to pull me over on my face--like this... and rub my face in the mud.... The bottom o' this trench is in no such a state a' filth as theirs, but it'll just have to do." He hoisted the German back to his knees. "Then I think it was after that the pistol and the killing bit came in." And Macalister put his hand to his pocket and drew out the officer's pistol which he had thrust there.
"He gave me five minutes, so I'll give him the same. Has ony o' ye a watch?"
A timekeeper stepped forward out of the little knot of spectators that crowded the trench, and Macalister requested him to notify them when only one minute of the five was left.
"My manny here was good enough," said Macalister, "to tell me he wouldna' bandage my eyes, because he wanted me to look down the muzzle of his pistol; so now," turning to the prisoner, "you can watch my finger pulling the trigger."
As the four minutes ebbed, the German's courage ran out with them. The jokes and laughter about him had ceased. Macalister's face was set and savage, and there was a cold, hard look in his eye, a stern ferocity on his mud and bloodstained face that convinced the German the end of the five minutes would also surely see his end.
"One minute to go," said the timekeeper. A sigh of indrawn breaths ran round the circle, and then tense silence. Outside the trench they were in the roar of the guns boomed unceasingly, the shells whooped and screwed overhead, and from oat in front came the crackle and roar of rifle-fire; and yet, despite the noise, the trench appeared still and silent. Macalister noted that, as he had noted it over there in the German trench.
"Time's up," said the man with the watch. The German, looking straight at the pistol muzzle and the cold eye behind the sights, gasped and closed his eyes. The silence held, and after a dragging minute the German opened his eyes, to find the pistol lowered but still pointing at him.
"To make it right and fair," said Macalister, "his hands should be loose, because I had managed to loose mine. Will one o' ye ... thank ye. It's no easy," continued Macalister, "to just fit the rest o' the program in, seeing that it was here a bomb fell in the trench, an' his men bein' weel occupied gettin' oot o' its way, I threw him ower the parapet and dragged him across to oor lines. Maybe ye'd like to try and throw me out the same way."
The German was perhaps a brave enough man, but the ordeal of those last five minutes especially had brought his nerve to near its breaking strain. His lips twitched and quivered, his jaw hung slack, and at Macalister's invitation he tittered hysterically. There was a stir and a movement at the back of the spectators that by now thronged the trench, and an officer pushed his way through.
"What's this?" he said. "Oh, yes! the prisoner. Well, you fellows might have more sense than heap yourselves up in a crowd like this. One solitary Krupp dropping in here, and we'd have a pretty-looking mess. Open out along the trench there, and keep low down. You can be ready to move in a few minutes now; we are being relieved here and are going further back. Now what about this prisoner? Who is looking after him?"
"I am, sir," said Macalister. "The Captain said I was to take him back."
"Right," said the subaltern. "You can take him with you when you go. They've got some more prisoners up the line, and you can join them."
It was here that the episode ended so far as Macalister was concerned, and his relations with the German officer thereafter were of the purely official nature of a prisoner's guard. There were some other indignities, but in these Macalister had no hand. They were probably due to the circulation of the tale Macalister had told and demonstrated, and were altogether above and beyond anything that usually happens to a German prisoner. They need not be detailed, but apparently the most serious of them was the removal of a portion of the black mud which masked the German's face, so as to leave a diamond-shaped patch, of staring cleanness over one eye, after the style of a music-hall star known to fame as the White-eyed Kaffir; the ripping of a small portion of that garment which permitted of the extraction of a dangling shirt into a ridiculous wagging tail about a foot and a half long, and a pressing invitation, accompanied by a hint from the bayonet point, to give an exposition of the goose-step at the head of the other prisoners whenever they and their escort were passing a sufficient number of troops to form a properly appreciative audience. Probably a Cockney-born Highlander was responsible for these pleasantries, as he certainly was for the explanation he gave to curious inquirers.
"He's mad," he explained. "Mad as a coot; thinks he's the devil, and insists on wagging his little tail. I have to keep him marching with his hands up this way, because he might try to grab my rifle. Now, it's no use you gritting your teeth and mumbling German swear words, cherrybim. Keep your 'ands well up, and proceed with the goose-step."
But with all this Macalister had nothing to do. When he had returned as nearly as he could the exact sufferings he had endured, he was quite satisfied to let the matter drop. "I suppose," he said reflectively, when the officer had gone, after giving him orders to see the prisoner back, "as that finishes this play, we'll just need to treat ma lad here like an ordinary preesoner. Has ony o' ye got a wee bit biscuit an' bully beef an' a mouthful o' water t' gie the puir shiverin' crater!"
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