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Action Front Boyd Cable

A Benevolent Neutral

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"No," said Rawbon, "and going back somehow I don't think I will walk. I can see without any more explainin' that it's no spot for a pleasant, easy little saunter." He stopped suddenly as a succession of whooping rushes passed overhead. "Gee! What's that?"

"Shells from our own guns," said Courtenay, and took the lead again. In his turn he stopped and crouched, calling to Rawbon to keek down. They heard a long screaming whistle rising to a tempestuous roar and breaking off in a crash which made the ground shake. Next moment a shower of mud and earth and stones fell rattling and thumping about and into the trench.

"Coal-box," said Courtenay hurriedly. "Come on. They're apt to drop some more about the same spot."

"I'm with you," said Rawbon. "The same spot is a good one to quit, I reckon."

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They hurried, slipping and floundering, along the wet trench, and turned at last into another zig-zag one where a step ran along one side, and men muffled in wet coats stood behind a loopholed parapet. Along the trench was a series of tiny shelters scooped out of the bank, built up with sand-bags, covered ineffectually with wet, shiny, waterproof ground-sheets. In these, men were crouched over scantily filled braziers, or huddled, curled up like homeless dogs on a doorstep. At intervals along the parapet men watched through periscopes hoisted over the top edge, and every now and then one fired through a loophole. The trench bottom where they walked was anything from ankle- to knee-deep in evil-looking watery mud of the consistency of very thin porridge. The whole scene, the picture of wet misery, the dirt and squalor and discomfort made Rawbon shiver as much from disgust as from the raw cold that clung about the oozing clay walls and began to bite through to his soaking feet and legs. Courtenay stopped near a group of men, and telling the sergeant to wait there a moment, moved on and left him. A puff of cold wet wind blew over the parapet, and the sergeant wrinkled his nose disgustedly. "Some odorous," he commented to a mud-caked private hunkered down on his heels on the fire-step with his back against the trench wall. "Does, the Boche run a glue factory or a fertilizer works around here?"

"The last about fits it," said the private grimly. "They made an attack here about a week back, and there's a tidy few fertilizin' out there now--to say nothin' of some of ours we can't get in."

Rawbon squirmed uneasily to think he should, however unwittingly, have jested about their dead, but nobody there seemed in any way shocked or resentful. The sergeant suddenly remembered his camera, and had thrust his hand under his coat to his pocket when the warning screech of an approaching shell and the example of the other men in the traverse sent him crouching low in the trench bottom. The trench there was almost knee-deep in thin mud, but everyone apparently took that as a matter of course. The shell burst well behind them, but it was followed immediately by about a dozen rounds from a light gun. They came uncomfortably close, crashing overhead and just in front of the parapet. A splinter from one lifted a man's cap from his head and sent it flying. The splinter's whirr and the man's sharp exclamation brought all eyes in his direction. His look of comical surprise and the half-dazed fashion of his lifting a hand to fumble cautiously at his head raised some laughter and a good deal of chaff.

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