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Action Front Boyd Cable

A Night Patrol

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It was necessary to move with the most extreme caution, because the slightest motion might eaten the attention of a look-out, and would certainly draw the fire of a score of rifles and probably of a machine-gun. The first part of the journey was the worst, because they had to cover a perfectly open piece of ground on their way to the slight depression which Ainsley knew ran curling across the neutral ground. Wide and shallow at the end nearest the British trench, this depression narrowed and deepened as it ran slantingly towards the German; halfway across, it turned abruptly and continued towards the German side on another slant, and at a point about halfway between the elbow and the German trench, came very close to an exploded mine-crater, which was the objective of this night's patrol.

It was supposed, or at least suspected, that the mine-crater was being made the starting-point of a tunnel to run under the British trench, and Ainsley had been told off to find out if possible whether this suspicion was correct, and if so to do what damage he could to the mine entrance and the miners by bombing.

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When his party reached the shallow depression, they moved cautiously along it, and to Ainsley's relief reached the elbow in safety. Here they were a good deal more protected from the German fire than they could be at any point, because from here the depression was fully a couple of feet deep and had its highest bank next the German trench. Ainsley led his men at a fairly rapid crawl along the ditch, until he had passed the point nearest to the mine-crater. Here he halted his men, and with infinite caution crawled out to reconnoiter. The men, who had been carefully instructed in the part they were to play, waited huddling in silence under the bank for his return, or for the fusillade of fire that would tell he was discovered. Immediately in front of the crater was a patch of open ground without a single body lying in it; and Ainsley knew that if he were seen lying there where no body had been a minute before, the German who saw him would unhesitatingly place a bullet in him. A bank of earth several feet high had been thrown up by the mine explosion in a ring round the crater, and although this covered him from the observation of the trench immediately behind the mine, he knew that he could be seen from very little distance out on the flank, and decided to abandon his crawling progress for once and risk a quick dash across the open. For long he waited what seemed a favorable moment, watched carefully in an endeavor to locate the nearer positions in the German trench from which lights were being thrown up, and to time the periods between them.

At last three lights were thrown and burned almost simultaneously within the area over which he calculated the illumination would expose him. The instant the last flicker of the third light died out, he leaped to his feet, and made a rush. The lights had shown him a scanty few rows of barbed wire between him and the crater; he had reckoned roughly the number of steps to it and counted as he ran, then more cautiously pushed on, feeling for the wire, found it, threw himself down, and began to wriggle desperately underneath. When he thought he was through the last, he rose; but he had miscalculated, and the first step brought his thighs in scratching contact with another wire. His heart was in his mouth, for some seconds had passed since the last light had died and he knew that another one must flare up at any instant. Sweeping his arm downward and forward, he could feel no wire higher than the one-which had pricked his legs. There was no time now to fiddle about avoiding tears and scratches. He swung over the wire, first one leg, then another, felt his mackintosh catch, dragged it free with a screech of ripping cloth that brought his heart to his mouth, turned and rushed again for the crater. As he ran, first one light, then another, soared upwards and broke out into balls of vivid white light that showed the crater within a dozen steps. It was no time for caution, and everything depended on the blind luck of whether a German lookout had his eyes on that spot at that moment. Without hesitation, he continued his rush to the foot of the mound on the crater's edge, hurled himself down on it and lay panting and straining his ears for the sounds of shots and whistling bullets that would tell him he was discovered. But the lights flared and burned out, leaped afresh and died out again, and there was no sign that he had been seen. For the moment he felt reasonably secure. The earth on the crater's rim was broken and irregular, the surface an eye-deceiving patchwork of broken light and black heavy shadow under the glare of the flying lights. The mackintosh he wore was caked and plastered with mud, and blended well with the background on which he lay. He took care to keep his arms in, to sink his head well into his rounded shoulders, to curl his feet and legs up under the skirt of his mackintosh, knowing well from his own experience that where the outline of a body is vague and easily escapes notice, a head or an arm, or especially and particularly a booted foot and leg, will stand out glaringly distinct. As he lay, he placed his ear to the muddy ground, but could hear no sound of mining operations beneath him. Foot by foot he hitched himself upward to the rim of the crater's edge, and again lay and listened for thrilling long-drawn minute after minute.

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Action Front
Boyd Cable

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