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CHAPTER VI ON THE ROAD TO LIèGE
They were now less than six miles from the Meuse, the country was growing rough, and the hills, on the banks of the little stream which flowed to the north, were rugged, like all this section bordering on the river.

They must either avoid the town by going to the right, or cross the river, the latter a hazardous undertaking in daytime, if there were any Germans in that section. They well knew that if the enveloping movement had extended up as far as Tilff, the town, in all probability, would be occupied by the enemy.

Gascon, the tall companion, would not consider the attempt to cross the river. "Let us go to the left, and attempt to cross on the other side of the town."

Their other companion took up the duty of scout, walking along the ridge of the hill, above the stream, while the others followed in the little valley below. In the next hour they were west of the town, and approached the road which led from Huy.

The morning light plainly showed that this road60–61 was also patrolled by the Uhlans, but to cross it was their only hope. Otherwise, it would mean an entire day lurking in some hiding-place.

It was a painful experience, to crawl along the low hedge that ran up to the highway, for it was now early morn, and light enough so that cavalry could be seen in the screen formed by the trees along the road.

Gascon knew what scouting meant, and he gave them a word of caution. "We must not go along the hedge together. We should be separated at least ten meters apart" (a little over 30 feet), "and the movement must be made without any noise."

He then threw himself on the ground and showed them how to crawl. "Just watch me for a moment and you will learn an easy way to do it."

Gascon stretched himself full length on his face, lying partly on his left side. "Now," he said, "draw up the right leg, and stretch the right arm upward past your head. If you will now turn your body over to the right, or, in other words, roll yourself over on the right arm and leg, the left foot can be used to propel yourself forward, without appreciably raising the body."

The boys remembered the terribly trying act of crawling on the first day of their experience, and this exhibition was a most gratifying thing to them, now that there was more of it to do.

"Where did you learn how to do this?" asked Ralph.
Gun
German 42-Centimetre Gun.

"This is part of the drill in the army. This62 creeping movement is characteristic of the North American Indian, and is also practised by some of the African tribes."

Gascon now started on his peculiar movement along the fence followed by Joseph, their other companion, and then Ralph, observing the proper interval, followed and after him came Alfred.

Early as it was there were sounds of activity that did not arise from the ordinary farming operations. The roads here, as everywhere throughout Belgium, were found at frequent intervals in their pathway, and while they must avoid them, it was also necessary that they should cross them.

Another characteristic of Belgian roads is, that they are, usually, lined with trees, and the hedges afforded ample protection for lurking enemies, while, at the same time, it served to hide their movements.

As the first streaks of the morning sun began to show over the landscape, the party came to a halt for the purpose of considering their further movements. Suddenly, it seemed as though the ground moved upwardly, as a terrific crash burst on their ears.

Not a word was spoken by anyone for a minute, and Ralph's voice, when he spoke, was gruff and unnatural. "What can that be?" he asked, as he turned to their leader.

"That is a heavy field piece—there, you can see the smoke. It is mounted on the hill directly in front of us. Lucky for us that we did not cross the field," answered Gascon.

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"We are in a trap," said Alfred.

Gascon smiled. "Yes, if they have advanced beyond the battery we shall have to wait until night, because it would be unsafe to cross the Meuse in their rear."

A boom from the east, followed by another, and still another, was sufficient notice to them that the great forts at Liège were answering the challenge. They burrowed into the hedge, and made enclosures with bushes and leaves. Meantime, the battery on the hill opened fire with its three guns, and soon the surrounding atmosphere grew misty, and they could smell an unmistakable odor of burning powder.

Soon another battery, farther to their right, began to fire. "How fortunate we did not get any further than this," said Gascon.

"Why?" asked Alfred, in astonishment.

"Because we should have run into another battery and encampment to the rear of this."

They were hardly settled in the temporary shelter, when they heard a peculiar hissing sound, and immediately felt, a peculiar shock as of a falling body, followed by an explosion of a huge shell which threw dirt and sand over them. This was really more terrifying to the boys than their experience at the mouth of the mine on the first day of their wanderings.

"That must have been awful close," said Alfred, with a perceptible tremor in his voice.

"It was fully fifty metres (163 feet) beyond us. That was, probably, an eight-inch shell, and if it64 had come within ten meters, (about 32 feet), of the battery the latter would have been put out of action."

Within the next half-hour a dozen or more shells burst within five hundred feet, more or less, of their position. It was evident that the forts south of the river were trying to get the range of the battery which had thrown the challenge which the boys witnessed.

It was their first actual experience in war. They had seen the soldiers, and the trappings, but now the actual conflict was before them. It was fascinating, but it was also dangerous. Did they stop to talk over things connected with their homes and their friends? They doubtless thought of them, but they knew they must think of something more important than distant things. They must meet the actual realities at hand.

For two hours they lay thus, and watched the entrancing sight of the guns on the hill, firing at regular intervals, and noted the bursting of the great shells from the forts, speculating where the next one would strike. They became reckless now. The boys were both trembling when the first shells began to come, but now they had a different feeling. At first they had a vague idea that there was some safety in the bushes, and lay there concealed, but now very strangely each bursting shell made them less anxious and subdued their curiosity.

They crawled from the shelter, and moved into the opening. Gascon and his companion had been thus exposed for some time. They now had little65 fear of the troops. The air was filled with smoke, as a slight breeze blew toward them from the battery.

Gascon turned to the boys, noted their composure, and said: "We think it would be well for us to make a start."

This information was a welcome one, you may be sure, for it was better than waiting to be shot at.

Hardly had the boys turned toward the hedge, when a peculiar explosion was heard. It was like a combination of explosions, and Gascon ran out into the field, swinging his hat.

"What is the matter?" asked Ralph, excitedly.

Gascon waved his arms and smiled, but was silent for a time.

He pointed to the hill. "That will settle those fellows for some time," he said, turning toward them. The boys looked toward the hill and saw that it was giving up an immense cloud of the densest smoke.

"They have hit the battery," said Alfred, in intense excitement.

"But what makes all that smoke?" asked Ralph.

"Ah!" said Gascon, with a broad grin, "they have struck the caisson and exploded the ammunition."

Without waiting for more information, the party rapidly ran along the hedge to the north, but before they had crossed half-way to the hedge which formed the enclosure for the field along the roadway, a troop of horsemen appeared in the66 road to their left, and rode furiously toward the hill.

The atmosphere was a dusky gray but unlike a haze it was much more dense and heavy. The heavy shells from the fort came at regular intervals. The moment the horsemen passed, Gascon held up his hand as a signal to go forward, and they soon reached the road. He was the first through the brush, and crawling out across the road, gave a peculiar whistle to indicate safety, and the boys followed, crouching as low as possible, Ralph following Alfred, after an interval, as they had been instructed. Their companion was the last to cross.

When Alfred reached the other side, he saw Gascon fully a hundred feet away. The battery on the hill had ceased, but the one beyond was still keeping up its regular shots.

"I believe we are forward of the most advanced batteries," said Gascon, "and if such should turn out to be the case we will have little trouble in reaching our lines."

The misty condition of the atmosphere was most fortunate for the boys and their companions, but it also frequently brought them close up to the patrols, which were constantly in their path. Thus by careful man?uvring they found themselves approaching an elevation which Gascon estimated to be ten miles west of Liège.

The ascent was slow, as they crept most of the way, to avoid any sentries who might be in that locality. Up to this time they had found the inevitable67 Uhlans in their way wherever they went.

Gascon, who was in the lead, held up a warning hand as they reached the summit, where, spread before them, was a great panorama. To the east, and less than a mile away, was a much higher hill, that dominated the position in which they found themselves, and there they discovered a battery, also in action.

Directly before them was the winding Meuse. A little to the right, and probably a mile and a quarter away, was a little town, and to the left, four miles distant, was Huy, a town of about 4,000 inhabitants, also on the northern bank of the stream.

The railway, from Liège to Huy, was at the foot of the hill, winding its way along, and below the great hill to the east, was discernible, a German encampment, which supported the battery on the hill.

The frowning forts around Liège were distinctly visible, because their great guns were now in action. The sounds which reached them were like the continual reverberations of thunder, only sharper and punctuated by the occasional heavy discharges. Above every fort floated a Belgian flag.

The boys looked at Gascon, whose countenance portrayed anxiety, which they noticed for the first time in his demeanor.

"Do you think we shall be able to cross the river?" asked Alfred.

"We can find means to do that, if we are able68 to reach it. The trouble will be to get there, and we cannot possibly do that during the day."

"Do you see any of the Germans near the stream?"

"No, but they have plenty of places to conceal themselves. It is clear that we must avoid the railroad."

"Why not move to the right?" said Alfred. "That is the most direct way to the city."

Gascon did not reply, but in a few minutes, he began to descend to the west, and all followed him at a distance. The valley was reached after passing by a dozen or more cottages, all of which were unoccupied.

"The empty houses make it look bad to me," was Gascon's observation, as they were moving from the last one. "The Germans have been here, that is——"

His remarks were cut short, as he dropped to the earth and made a signal. They were astounded to find that a company of horsemen occupied the orchard to the west of the house. This made a hurried retreat necessary and they passed to the east, skirting the hill formerly occupied.

They commenced to feel the pangs of hunger. Fruit had been the morning meal, and of this they had found plenty; but something else was needed. Gascon spoke to his companion, and after selecting a secluded spot, the latter moved forward, and crouching along the hedges was soon beyond their view.

"Joseph will forage for us," said Gascon. "It69 is better for one to do this than for all of us to join in the hunt."

They waited for more than a half-hour, without a sign of Joseph, and Gascon now made frequent trips to the nearby road, but returned each time without tidings.

The last time he came back with the cheerful intelligence that Joseph was returning. But alas! for their expectations! Two shots in the neighborhood of their returning friend, caused Gascon and the boys to leap to their feet. Beyond the second field they saw Joseph running from a half-dozen troopers who were leaping the fences in pursuit.

Joseph saw that escape was useless, and turned toward his pursuers. Evidently, he had not been hit by the shots. An officer galloped up to him, and he exposed the contents of his bundle.

"They will suspect that Joseph is getting food for companions and we will have to depend on our wits to escape capture," said Gascon.

They were evidently questioning the captive. Joseph was shrewd enough to endeavor to effect his escape by running to the east, instead of going to the south, where his companions were.

"Do you think that is why he ran in the direction he did?" asked Ralph.

"Undoubtedly," replied Gascon. "Now that they are trying to learn where we are, let us move to the north and east, as fast as we can."

"But," said Alfred, "that will take us right into the German lines."

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"Quite true, but that will be better than attempting to go forward."

It was but the work of a moment to crawl through the hedge, and move down the hill, making their way as fast as possible toward an orchard, through which they passed, emerging at a small vineyard which afforded them shelter. They hurriedly passed through the rows of vines, and soon approached a small farmhouse.

"I will investigate; stay here until you hear from me. If everything is clear I will appear at the side of the building to the right of the elm trees."

The boys nestled close to the bushy vines, occasionally standing up to see whether Gascon was in sight. Within fifteen minutes they were delighted to see the form of Gascon, and hearing the welcome signal, rejoined him.

The Germans had not disturbed this house, which was accounted for by the fact that the homestead was quite a distance from the main road. The owner of the place had, however, heard all the news up to the preceeding day, and this was what the boys were interested in.

"Liège is being surrounded," he said. "It would be almost impossible to make your way through, though it might be done by taking a route which would enable you to approach the city from the north."

"I must get back to my regiment," said Gascon. "So if you will permit me to remain here until night, I will attempt the journey."

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"We know it is the right thing for you to try to reach your command. We do not wish to hamper you, but we will follow you during the night. Never fear, we shall find a way to get home," said Ralph.


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