BIG PREPARATIONS

RAIN, rain, rain.

Not the puny patter of a slow and drizzling and short-lived storm, nor
the gusty petulance of an April shower, but a steady, sullen inundation
that had set in more than a week before.

For days and nights it had been nothing but a steady downpour, and from
all appearances and barometric indications for days more it would
continue to be nothing else.

It was as desolate a place and as gloomy a season as one could imagine,
and the abominable weather was but adding to the depression of the
thousands of sturdy American youths who for weeks had loitered in what
seemed to them a useless and nerve-racking inactivity in a vast
water-logged section of France, west of St. Mihiel, almost south of
battle-scarred Verdun.

Now and then as the hours wore on toward late afternoon and early
darkness, a rising wind seemed to whine something of an echo to the
mental misery of those in the khaki-clad armies thus held as on a leash.
Or was it more as a dismal-toned challenge to them as they wallowed
through the slippery mud, unloading and distributing food, supplies,
ammunition from the seemingly never-ending caravan of drab-colored motor
trucks which hour after hour and day after day like the rain itself
streamed in seemingly from nowhere to the veritable swamp in which the
cream of American young manhood waded—and waited.

Tom Walton, despite himself, was thinking of Brighton and the pleasant
school-days there, as, just relieved from a monotonous sentry duty, he
headed toward the company kitchen where he knew his good friend Harper
would hand him out a cup of steaming coffee to warm his blood and loosen
his stiffened bones.

Often with Harper, and with Ollie Ogden, too, Tom Walton had played
football on a sometimes soggy field at Brighton, but never, he was
repeating to himself bitterly, had it been anything like this.

But pessimism or drooping spirits cannot for long grip a lad in perfect
health and possessed of the knowledge that eventually, soon or late, and
probably at no far distant date, he has a great mission to perform. And
so, with the first thoughts of good old Brighton, the mood of Tom Walton
began to change, even the weather did not seem quite so dreary, the
outlook not so glum.

Like many of their pals from the famous school, these three had gone
into the same service together—fighting doughboys, if you please—and at
their own request had been directly associated in the same unit from the
first hour that they went into training. And it had at all times been a
happy trio, for in their days at school they had been inseparable pals.

Just at present Harper, by grace of his culinary capabilities, was doing
emergency duty in the kitchen because of the temporary illness of one of
the regular cooks, but this was more of an advantage than a hardship to
his two friends, as a fat sandwich or a couple of hot doughnuts between
meals often bore substantial testimony.

Tom Walton was thinking of these things when suddenly he was brought
back to the realities of life by a loudly shouted “Hi, there!”
accompanied by a clatter which sounded like a section of the German army
advancing at a tremendous pace.

It was all so sudden, the ground so treacherously slippery, that Tom
scarcely had attempted to turn when something of tremendous weight and
momentum struck him a glancing blow and he went sprawling face downward
in the muck, his mackinaw canopying out over him like a miniature
dog-tent.

Before he could rise and scrape enough of the mud from his eyes to see
what was going on, three or four men went galloping by him, one shouting
warnings and futile commands, another grunting under the stress of his
labors, a third laughing jerkily but uproariously.

In shocked surprise and disgusted recognition, Tom, rising monkey-like
to all-fours, took in the situation in a single sour glance.

He had been bowled over by Maud, the company mule!

Maud, evidently, was on another privately-conducted tour of the works—a
favorite diversion, by the way—and Maud was objecting strenuously to any
curtailment of her pastime, especially in the shape of human company. It
was the fourth time in three days that Maud had broken tether, and, so
to speak, pulled stakes for another part of Europe—and always somebody
got hurt.

Tom reflected with some satisfaction that at least he had come off
better than “Buck” Granger, who in a pursuit of the escaped Maud the
preceding day had attempted a flying flank attack just as Maud
perceptibly increased her speed and let fly with her heels. Buck’s
pained expression later, when the surgeon had finished plastering and
bandaging him up, was: “The ornery cuss caved two of my slats.”

“That mule will get killed some day,” Tom muttered to himself, still
scraping mud from face and garments. “Fellow won’t stand for this sort
of stuff all the time. I believe she’s a German spy anyway, trying to
kill off decent Americans the way she does.”

And he wended his way sorely toward Harper and the kitchen, while afar
off he could hear the continued cry of the hunt as Maud, the
incorrigible, cavorted around in the mud, defying sentries, dodging
pursuers, having generally what Maud seemed to regard as an all-round
good time.

“Any news?” he asked, as Harper handed him the cup of hot coffee for
which he had come.

Harper looked off to the northward for a moment before he answered. Not
that he could see anything but hundreds upon hundreds of men of all
branches of the American arms, but he seemed to be conjuring a dismal
picture in his imagination as he stood there in silence, seeming not to
have heard the question.

“Well, are you in a trance?” Tom demanded impatiently.

“No,” Harper answered in a peculiar tone, “but I’m wondering just how
much longer we’re going to be kept here this way. Of course, we
shouldn’t complain or question, but I guess we all feel the same way
about it. We’re all anxious to ‘go in,’ and I don’t think it ought to be
much longer now.”

“What do you mean? What have you heard?” Tom asked, excitedly.

“It’s not what I have heard, for that hasn’t been very much. It’s what I
have seen, what you have seen, what every man here has seen that makes
me feel that the big clash of the war is soon to come, and that we will
have a chance to be in it. The concentration of the entire First
American Army in this sector isn’t for the purpose of giving us a
vacation, and after all I guess we can best show our patriotism and
loyalty right now by being ready for any emergency, rather than
grumbling because Foch and Pershing haven’t asked us out to lunch to get
our opinion on their plans.”

“Righto!” exclaimed Tom, with just that emphasis upon the word which the
English Tommies had taught the Yanks.

“Yes,” continued Harper, “I’m satisfied that we are down for a big part
on the program. Look what our men have been doing further north since
June 11th, when they captured Belleau Wood and took three hundred
prisoners.

“And just review all of that and last month. On June 19th our men
crossed the Marne, near Château-Thierry. On June 29th it was a raid on
Montdidier. July 2nd they captured Vaux. On the glorious 4th word came
of American success in the Vosges. A month later Fismes was taken, and
now—look at this.”

Harper liked nothing better than to spring a surprise—a happy
surprise—on his friends. He pulled from under his blouse a late copy of
“Stars and Stripes,” the official newspaper of the American
Expeditionary forces. It was dated September 3rd, and across the first
page, under bold, inspiring headlines, was the stirring story of the
capture of the plain of Juvigny, north of Soissons.

With nothing of boastfulness about it, it told in vigorous language of
the heroic valor of the American troops; how, behind a creep-barrage,
they had steadily advanced until, with a final lifting of the artillery
screen, the men, singing, shouting, cheering, advanced into open battle
with the Hun hosts.

It was a story to stir the blood of any patriotic American, particularly
one who was himself under arms and only awaiting the opportunity to
perform like service in behalf of his country and humanity.

Tom Walton read it to the last word before he spoke.

“I think you’re right,” he said, “it won’t be long now until we, also,
will be ‘going in’.”

“What else could all this mean?” was Harper’s way of reply. His arm
swept the whole horizon, north, westward, south, and then up toward the
east. “Haven’t you noticed the immense numbers of the Engineering Corps
that are being brought up? Thousands upon thousands of them.”

“And the truck trains,” Tom supplemented. “Buck Granger told me last
night that he heard a captain and a lieutenant talking, and how many of
those trucks do you think they said already are here?”

“Don’t know. Couldn’t even guess. How many?”

“More than three thousand, and they’re still coming in by scores every
hour.”

“It means business,” Harper assented, nodding his head vigorously. “It
means business, and on a tremendous scale. Why, just this morning—”

But just at that moment their conversation was interrupted. Their school
chum and army pal, Ollie Ogden, burst in upon them, wrathful to the
point of pitched battle, and at the time too breathless to speak.

“Have you seen—,” he demanded, and then gasped for another breath. “Have
you seen—.”

“Yes,” ventured Tom, in friendly mockery, winking at Harper, “We’ve seen
a lot. But just what do you refer to?”

“MAUD!” almost shrieked the angered Ollie. “Have you seen that gol
darned mule?”

George Harper and Tom Walton went into gales of uncontrollable laughter.
Had they seen Maud? They sure had. Harper saw her on her way—whither it
led she refused to say—and Tom had encountered her on the journey.

“Well, what are you two standing there guffawing about?” Ollie demanded,
his rage in no way abated by the evident amusement of his friends. “You
hee-haw like that beast itself.”

This was too much for Harper, and with his arms folded across his
stomach he doubled up like a jack knife in his mirth. But his position
was rather unfortunate. He had his back to, and was directly in front
of, the outraged Ollie, who hauled off and gave Harper his boot with a
force that straightway brought him upright.

“Look here,” he ejaculated in pained surprise.

“Look here!” repeated Ollie. “I’ve looked here, I’ve looked there, I’ve
looked all over this blamed camp for that ornery offspring of Satan. I
guess you fellow’s would like to see me get a couple of days in the
guard for letting her get away.”

“Could anybody ever keep her when she made up her mind to go?” Tom
asked, now laughing as well at Harper as at Ogden.

“Well, I couldn’t, anyway, and it’s not my fault,” Ollie asserted. “Just
because a fellow’s doing stable police he can’t be personal valet to a
beast like that all day. She—he—say, what is a mule, anyway? A he or a
she?”

“A mule is what America was before Germany tested her too far,” Harper
advised him.

“What do you mean?” asked Ollie, with a blank look.

“Neutral.”

“Oh, no. You’ve got Maud wrong. She’s never neutral. She’s belligerent
all the time.”

Just then there was a wild whoop of mixed masculine voices, punctuated
with a loud hee-haw, and Ollie dashed off to join a growing group of
khaki-clad runners in pursuit of the elusive Maud.

But the mule’s present freedom was destined for an early and ignominious
end. She hadn’t counted upon the slipperiness of the soggy mud. She was
fanning the air with her two hind legs when the two in front went from
under. She came down suddenly upon her side, and with a heavy grunt.

In that instant two of the leaders of the chase were upon her. The
struggle that ensued was spectacular in the extreme. The next two men to
arrive grabbed the two fore feet.

“A rope, a rope!” they cried in unison, but none dared go near, or even
approach, Maud’s rapid-fire hind legs which were kicking out frantically
in every direction.

But the men hung on—two at her fore legs and half a dozen across the
body—and in a few minutes more another breathless doughboy arrived with
the needed rope.

The struggle continued, but finally Maud’s capture was made complete. A
slip-noose was made upon her neck; half a dozen huskies took death grips
upon the other end; the signal was given, and all at once those who were
grappling with her jumped to a safe distance.

Maud gave one disgusted glance around, and then with a mighty effort
rose to her four feet and her full dignity. The six men gave a quick tug
at the rope around her neck.

Wow! The response was immediate and expressive. Maud’s heels cut the air
and she made a bee-line for her captors. They wildly scrambled to escape
the onslaught, but bravely held to the rope. The mule went crashing by,
and the slack line began to be taken up. With a sudden jerk it became
taut, and the six men, feet outspread before them, but unable to take a
grip upon the slippery mud, began a wild and involuntary ride in the
rear of the cavorting Maud.

Across camp they took their undignified way, as hundreds of onlookers
shouted in laughter, or made pretentious but ineffective efforts by the
vigorous waving of arms and hats to stop the mule and the
mud-bespattered retinue that went flying in her wake. But even Maud
could not for long endure the strangulation that the dead weight of six
men placed upon her windpipe, and so, after having traversed fully half
a mile, she came to a halt that was as abrupt as had been the original
beginning of her flight.

A strategist at all times, Maud knew by long experience how to accept
defeat and capture. It was with a lamb-like docility that unfailingly
won her immunity from the punishment which she so richly deserved.

But even Maud’s caprice, painful as it had been to a few, with the
amusement it had provided all the others, was forgotten a few moments
later in a rumor that ran the gamut of the square miles of armed camp
with greater speed than the fastest mule ever could hope to attain.

“Buck” Granger, who was just wandering from a remote spot where he had
dropped off in the pursuit, first brought the news to Tom Walton, Ollie
Ogden and Harper.

“Listen!” he said, gathering them about him as though it was some secret
not yet told to another soul. “Pershing is due to arrive here tomorrow
morning.”

Pershing coming! The supreme commander of all the American forces in
Europe! “Black Jack” Pershing, adored alike by the men under him and
those at home! Coming into the American sector at that point! It could
mean but one thing. Their time to show their mettle was near at hand.

The rumor ran back and forth through the vast area that the advance
might be made within the next twenty-four hours. None could confirm it,
of course. None wanted to deny it. All were on the tip-toe of
expectancy.

No longer were there lingering doubts. It was perfectly clear and
assured now that for a vast project, indeed, had all of these great
preparations been made.

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ALTHOUGH there was scarcely an officer who long ago had not realized the
full import and significance of the gigantic movement which had
concentrated so many hundred thousand Americans in and around that
section opposite the German-held St. Mihiel salient, comparatively few
of the lads in the line had looked quite so deeply into the situation.

Now it was perfectly clear.

Hundreds of the biggest guns, together with the famous French “75’s” had
been concentrated in position a few miles back. Aeroplane squadrons had
been constantly patrolling the skies. Every branch of the Engineers had
been brought up, and now those brave and intrepid men, the Pioneers,
were adding the final touches to the preparations for their hazardous,
self-sacrificing task.

For the Pioneers, if you did not know it before, go first of all when it
is a concentrated attack upon a well fortified and entrenched position.

It is the Pioneers who pave the way, doing what previous artillery
bombardment may have failed to do in cutting wire entanglements, etc.;
theirs is the necessary preliminary work, in which, much of the time,
they are open targets for the enemy fire.

And then come the engineers, bridging streams, cutting and blasting away
earthen and concrete obstructions, filling in shell holes, levelling
roads—making ready for the great attack in which every branch of the
service on land will participate; infantry, cavalry, light artillery,
tanks, trucks, ambulances, field hospitals, everything.

These were the things for which everyone was making ready at ten o’clock
the following morning when the first actual order was received. It was
an order which in no way affected the men and lesser officers directly,
and yet it was one which marked the first step in the tremendous
program.

Brigade, regimental and even battalion commanders, which is to say
brigadier-generals, colonels, lieutenant-colonels and majors, were
summoned to Division Headquarters.

There, as it soon became known, they met not only the major-general in
command, but General Pershing himself. Unheralded, he had arrived by
fast auto with the break of dawn, and since that time, as hundreds of
maps spread out before them testified, he and the major-general had been
in most important conference.

To Corporal Tom Walton fell the never-to-be-forgotten privilege of
witnessing this historic sight.

His colonel’s aide arrived back from the conference a few moments after
it had begun, to get some maps from the colonel’s quarters. He needed
someone to help carry them over.

“Corporal Walton,” his direct commander’s voice called, “you will
accompany and assist Lieutenant Behring.”

And that was how Tom Walton got his first glimpse of the great American
commander, General Pershing. It was a close view, too, for he had to
deposit the maps and photographs upon a table only a few feet away from
where the generals sat.

In that instant, while Tom was furtively staring at him, General
Pershing looked up. It may have been that he did not give a thought to
the youth who thus was overcome by a sudden confusion, but Tom believed
otherwise, for the eyes seemed to twinkle kindly for just the fraction
of a second, the square jaws relaxed just a little, and the line of the
mouth relaxed.

Perhaps, on the other hand, with the biggest job of his big career
before him, General Pershing was not unmindful of the fact that he had
behind him a whole army—thousands upon thousands—of just such clean-cut,
courageous, never-say-die Americans as this young man from Brighton.

In a second, however, he was concentrated again upon the problems before
him, and Tom, his job completed, was on his way back to his comrades, to
tell them over and over again just how General Pershing looked, spoke,
acted, and a dozen other details of information which Tom did his best
to give.

What actually was going on at that conference was American and world
history in the making. It was, as it became known later, the beginning
of the end for the Boche and for Germany.

Thousands of maps and photographs were distributed. Every foot of ground
to be traversed by every separate unit was marked off, timed and
scheduled to the whole program. Each colonel knew to the exact moment
the time when his regiment was to go forward from a given point of
concentration; every major knew how his battalion was to be divided and
thrust eastward under instructions which he was to convey to his
respective captains.

No war strategy ever was worked out to finer detail. None ever attained
its objective so quickly and successfully.

That afternoon, as the captains were summoned to receive their detailed
orders, the greatest excitement prevailed everywhere. Orders are not
revealed to the men and non-commissioned officers until the time has
arrived to carry them into effect. But there was no longer any
concealing the fact that activities of tremendous import were imminent,
and all down the lines, as men examined their accoutrements, the word
passed and was repeated, “We’re going in.”

And finally some bright mind hit upon a recollection, and thenceforth
there was no further doubt as to the day of the advance; only the hour
was in doubt.

On September 12, 1914, the Germans, at tremendous sacrifice in their
first drive toward Paris, had established the St. Mihiel salient. It had
been held steadily ever since, and on this September 10, 1918, it was
within two days of that fourth anniversary. It would be fitting
punishment that the Huns should begin to suffer retribution on the very
day when they might be expected to be feeling as boastful as only a
German can.

Yes, there was no doubt about it in any man’s mind. They were going to
attack on September 12th.

And so, with this almost definite assurance in mind, the preparations
went forward with even renewed vigor and anticipation. No need to urge
the men. They worked as boys would for a holiday. The rain, which
continued with only slight and infrequent abatement, was no annoyance,
was hardly even noticed now.

The big work for which they had prepared for months—first in America,
then in England, and finally behind the lines in France—was now at hand.
Their mettle was to be tested against the Boche. Their numbers, their
ability, their courage were to be thrown into the world contest of
Liberty against Autocracy.

“Do you remember how you used to feel just before we went into a game
against an eleven that we knew to be at least our own weight?” Ollie
breathed to Tom and George, as the three of them were completing the
last essentials to a critical inspection.

“Sure do,” replied Tom, the biggest and heaviest of the three, “and I
never put on a head-piece with greater anticipation than I do this,” and
he clamped his heavy helmet on as though the battle already were under
way.

In a muffled voice Harper wanted to know how his gas mask became him,
and if really, after all, he wasn’t the long-sought missing link.

There is a cheerfulness about men about to go into battle that only
those who have been through it can understand—a thrilling of every nerve
that makes one jest, even though death may be stalking only a few yards
or a few hours ahead—a forgetfulness of all else but the determined will
to fight to the last, and to win.

Suddenly from far to the east there came the muffled thunder of heavy
cannonading which brought all three men upright. For a moment they
thought that real hostilities were on; but the illusion was not for
long. The sporadic reply of their own batteries told them as clearly as
words could that it was just “one of those messages from Fritz and
Heinie” which of course required a reply, but did not after all amount
to very much. It was a sort of exchange of compliments, the lads in the
trenches termed it.

Nevertheless every man was on edge, and when a simultaneous shout of
warning and expectancy went up from two or three alert fellows who had
been gazing skyward, a thousand heads went up, to witness one of those
most daring and spectacular exhibitions of the entire war—a battle in
the air.

The three Brighton boys—for as such they were known to all their
companions—rushed for an elevation already occupied by half a dozen
others, and from which a wider sweep of the skyline was to be had.

Even as they did so the real preliminaries to the battle began. The
American pilot, who it was now plain had been merely playing the role of
the pursued to lead the enemy beyond the aid of any of his own machines,
suddenly swerved for the attack.

The Boche pilot was in a small and speedy Albatross, but in maneuvres
and tactics he was outmatched by the American, who came at him with such
speed and directness that the witnesses, a thousand feet below, held
their breath in expectation of a crash that would bring both machines
and their pilots to the ground a battered, mangled mass.

But the American pilot knew his game well. He swerved a little upward
and over, just as the Hun took a swift nose dive to avoid contact. There
was the rat-tat-tat of machine gun fire, that sounded from the distance
more like the popping of toy guns. Neither made a hit, apparently, but
the American plane had the position in which the Boche had to pass
under, over or around him in any attempt to reach his own lines.

The German had no heart for battle and headed straight south. Again the
American came at him like a streak of lightning, began to climb at the
same time, and the enemy tried a downward sweep and a turn northward at
the same time. The American turned, too, and those on the ground began
to applaud at the advantage he had gained. He was but a relatively short
distance behind, but at a much higher altitude.

As the Hun headed northeastward with all the speed he could get out of
his Albatross, the American came down the wind, dropping as he came, and
with momentum adding to the power of his propeller. When just within
range he opened up with a fusilade from his machine gun. The German
tried swiftly to change his course, but the effort was made too late.

His plane was seen to hover for a moment first on one wing and then the
other, as it seemed to come to a dead halt, and then, just as a little
tongue of flame shot outward there was a loud explosion, the Albatross
turned its nose downward and crashed to earth.

The American machine circled for a moment, as though the pilot were
seeking his exact bearings, and then began a long, slow, gliding
descent.

From all directions men by the score hurried over to where the machine
would land, learn the identity and get a glimpse of the pilot who had
furnished the entertainment.

As he came to the ground, the plane halted and the first of them
gathered around, there was a gasp of astonishment and sympathy, the
pilot lay back in his seat as white as a ghost, his left arm hung limp
at his side, blood trickled from a wound in his shoulder, and obviously
he would have fainted and fallen had the battle lasted a few moments
longer.

“A stretcher!” cried a lieutenant of the Aviation Corps, who had run to
the spot to congratulate his colleague.

A stretcher was brought, and an ambulance came hurrying up. The man was
unconscious when he was lifted in.

“Serious, but not fatal,” was the abrupt diagnosis of a surgeon after a
cursory examination. “Mostly weakness from loss of blood.”

“But why did he stay up after being hit?” asked one man, more of himself
than anyone else.

“The Hun would have been glad to get away at any time,” put in another.

The lieutenant who had called for the stretcher turned in no unfriendly
way toward them.

“He didn’t come down until he’d gotten his objective,” he said, “because
of the stuff that he’s got in him—the same stuff that you fellows have
got, too. You’ll be doing the same and just as good things on land, once
you get started—and that won’t be very long now.”

He added the last few words in more of an undertone, as though speaking
to himself, but everyone caught the significance of them.

“I believe it’s a good sign,” said Ollie Ogden, as the three friends
were slushing over the still slippery return journey, although the long
rain had ceased early that morning.

“Believe what’s a good sign?” demanded Harper, impatient that Ollie
should be so indirect.

“The way that pilot stayed up and won his fight.”

“Well, how’s that a sign? A sign of what?” Tom broke in.

“Why,” explained Ollie, “I believe it’s a sort of a forecast of this new
drive we’re going into, and for that matter the whole war. Some of us
may and will get hurt, but we’re going to stick at it until we win, and
we’re going to make the quickest possible job of it.”

“Bravo!” exclaimed Tom, “Only in our case we’re not going to invite the
enemy over our lines to do it. We’re going to carry the fight to him.”

“You’re right,” added Harper, “and this looks as if it’s not many hours
off.”

He pointed to a long string of motor trucks bearing pioneers, engineers,
snipers, wire-cutters—the forerunners of a battle in which preliminary
difficulties must be overcome.

Tom looked at his wrist watch. It was 6.16 and the sun was just setting.
Darkness would soon enclose that part of France in the cloak of
night—and it was upon the eve of the fourth anniversary of
German-established St. Mihiel saliant!

“Not long is right,” he said, reminiscently.

And Harper added, while Ollie nodded his head in assent:

“We’ll soon be ready to go.”

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