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Action Front Boyd Cable

A Night Patrol

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Suddenly his heart jumped and his flesh went cold. Unmistakingly he heard the scuffle and swish of footsteps on the wet ground, the murmur of voices apparently within a yard or two of his head. There were men in the mine-crater, and, from the sound of their movements, they were creeping out on a patrol similar to his own, perhaps, and, as near as he could judge, on a line that would bring them directly on top of him. The scuffing passed slowly in front of him and for a few yards along the inside of the crater. The sound of the murmuring voices passed suddenly from confused dullness to a sharp clearer-edged speech, telling Ainsley, as plainly as if he could see, that the speaker had risen from behind the sound-deadening ridge of earth and was looking clear over its top, Ainsley lay as still as one of the clods of earth about him, lay scarcely daring to breathe, and with his skin pringling. There was a pause that may have been seconds, but that felt like hours. He did not dare move his head to look; he could only wait in an agony of apprehension with his flesh shrinking from the blow of a bullet that he knew would be the first announcement of his discovery. But the stillness was unbroken, and presently, to his infinite relief, he heard again the guttural voices and the sliding footsteps pass back across his front, and gradually diminish. But he would not let his impatience risk the success of his enterprise; he lay without moving a muscle for many long and nervous minutes. At last he began to hitch himself slowly, an inch at a time, along the edge of the crater away from the point to which the German lookout had moved. He halted and lay still again when his ear caught a fresh murmur of guttural voices, the trampling of many footsteps, and once or twice the low but clear clink of an iron tool in the crater beneath him.

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It seemed fairly certain that the Germans were occupying the crater, were either making it the starting-point of a mine tunnel, or were fortifying it as a defensive point. But it was not enough to surmise these things; he must make sure, and, if possible, bomb the working party or the entrance to the mine tunnel. He continued to work his way along the rim of the crater's edge. Arrived at a position where he expected to be able to see the likeliest point of the crater for a mine working to commence, he took the final and greatest chance. Moving only in the intervals of darkness between the lights, he dragged the mackintosh up on his shoulders until the edge of its deep collar came above the top of his head, opened the throat and spread it wide to disguise any outline of his head and neck, found a suitable hollow on the edge of the ridge, and boldly thrust his head over to look downwards into the hole.

When the next light flared, he found that he could see the opposite wall and perhaps a third of the bottom of the hole, with the head and shoulders of two or three men moving about it. When the light died, he hitched forward and again lay still. This time the light showed him what he had come to seek: the black opening of a tunnel mouth in the wall of the crater nearest the British line, a dozen men busily engaged dragging sacks-full of earth from the opening, and emptying them outside the shaft. He waited while several lights burned, marking as carefully as possible the outline of the ridge immediately above the mine shaft, endeavoring to pick a mark that would locate its position from above it. It had begun to rain in a thin drizzling mist, and although this obscured the outline of the crater to some extent, its edge stood out well against the glow of such lights as were thrown up from the British side.

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Action Front
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