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A FRIEND APPEARS
Harry and Jack hastened to cross the room strewn with wreckage left by the exploding shell. Ned was already kneeling in the corner.
"What is it, Ned?" cried Jack excitedly. "Have you got a gun?"
"No, not a gun," replied Ned in suppressed excitement, "but it may prove more useful than a gun at this time."
"Oh, I see what it is!" was Harry's exclamation. "Hurrah! We may be able to beat them out after all. Hurry!"
"Huh!" scornfully put in Jack. "Nothing but a trap door into the cellar! I wouldn't give much for that!"
Ned, without replying to either lad, was busily scraping away the refuse from the corner. Almost concealed by the litter, he had seen a huge ring in the floor and, naturally concluding that it was fitted into a trap door, had begun an investigation for the purpose of discovering if the door led to a passage that might afford a means of escape for the lads. The proximity of the approaching soldiers made their need of some haven of refuge an imperative one.
Presently Ned discovered the outlines of the trap door, which he had correctly surmised to be in that spot. The location of the debris favored the quick plan that had formulated in Ned's fertile brain. He rose to his feet and gave a quick glance about the room.
Without wasting time or effort in conversation, the lad quickly pointed toward a table that lay upturned not far from the trap door. Signalling to his comrades for assistance, he darted toward the object and began dragging it to a position directly over the trap door.
Jack and Harry, divining his intention, hastened to assist Ned. Their united efforts soon placed the table in position. It was the work of but a moment to raise the trap door and prop it up with a short piece of wood from the wreckage strewn about. Making the well-known signal used by railroad men in the United States as a sign for a fireman to shovel more coal into the firebox, Ned urged the others to descend into the darkness that yawned mysteriously at their feet.
Jack was first through the opening. He clung to the rim for a moment with his hands. Then he released his hold and dropped.
Harry and Ned, impatiently waiting for Jack to pass through the door, heard him drop to a floor below and give a startled cry. Then they prepared to follow just as the tramp of many feet resounded through the passage outside the room. Harry slipped into the opening and in turn dropped out of sight. Ned followed feet first and for an instant hung from the sill.
Grasping the stick that had been used as a prop, Ned gave a mighty wrench backward and fell. He said afterward that it seemed as if he had taken a full week to drop from his position to the floor below. In reality the drop was not a great one. The distance was, however, greater than the height of any of the three boys, and explained their inability to gain a foothold before releasing their hold upon the floor above. For a moment Ned was unable to regain his breath.
Presently he sat upright and began to search for his comrades.
"Jack, Harry!" he called softly. "Where are you?"
"Here we are, Ned," came a whisper from the darkness that shut the boys in on every hand. "Can you see us?"
"Can't see a thing!" declared Ned. "Where are you, anyway?"
"Stay right where you are and we'll be there in a moment," was Harry's answer. "This is one horrible place or I'm a Dutchman!"
"Come on, then, and be quick about it," urged Ned. "I wonder if we have dropped out of the frying pan into the fire," he added.
"Impossible," chuckled Jack, in spite of the seriousness of their predicament. "Where there's fire there's light, and I can't see a single ray of light in this miserable place!"
"Hush, Jack!" cautioned Harry. "Not so loud or they'll find us. Can't you hear them tramping about in the room above?"
Harry's question brought Ned and Jack to a realization of the fact that the room they had so recently quitted was occupied by the soldiers from whom they had tried to escape. Footsteps echoed along the stout floor, and the boys could hear sounds indicating that pieces of furniture were being hurriedly overturned.
"Uh!" grunted Jack as he suddenly bumped into Ned. "Wonder you wouldn't blow signals when you're going to cross ahead of a fellow."
"Hush!" whispered Ned. "They may hear us! Let's wait a bit!"
All three boys drew close together. They instinctively clasped hands in the darkness, looking for some degree of comfort in the act.
The noises above them gradually lessened. Presently they ceased altogether, and the boys could hear footsteps clattering along the floor in the direction they assumed the door to be. Directly quiet reigned in the place.
"They've gone, I guess," Ned said after a moment's wait. "Now what shall we do? Shall we climb back into the house?"
"I move that we explore this apartment first," said Jack.
"Oh, no!" urged Harry. "This isn't a nice place to go poking around in. We have troubles enough already without hunting more."
"What's your objection to looking the place over?" asked Ned.
"Rats!" was Harry's brief but expressive explanation.
"Rats?" queried Ned. "What do you mean? Are there rats here?"
"There certainly are, and lots of them," was the positive answer. "When I dropped into this place I think I dropped onto one, and must have crushed him before he had time to squeal. I heard others running."
"We really ought to make a light," returned Ned. "We can't tell what the place is like without some way of seeing it."
"There's a light!" was Jack's sudden exclamation. "See it over there to the right. Why," he added, "there are two lights!"
"And I see others!" cried Harry. "I believe it's the eyes of the rats. Perhaps they were frightened away and are coming back."
"Have you any matches?" asked Ned. "I haven't a one with me. It's careless, I know, but not a match can I find in my pockets."
"Where's your searchlight?" inquired Jack. "Haven't you that?"
"No; the Germans took that away from me when they searched us."
"I have two matches," said Harry, "but I don't want to waste them. Perhaps it will be a long time before we get any more, and I feel that we ought to save them if possible."
"Maybe we can find some stuff here dry enough to make a fire with, and that'll give us light!" suggested Jack.
"Good idea!" responded Ned. "The place feels dry enough."
"Let's keep hold of hands and move slowly about," put in Harry. "In that way we won't be separated and may find just what we want."
Acting on this suggestion, the boys clasped hands and moved slowly about, feeling their way cautiously with their feet. They seemed to be in a cellar with a solid stone floor that had been made quite smooth.
"Here's something!" exclaimed Harry as his foot struck a small object. "This feels like a piece of wood."
"Here's my knife; let's whittle some shavings," offered Jack.
In a short time the boy had succeeded in producing the desired shavings from the board Harry had discovered. Gathering these carefully in his hands, he held them ready to receive the flame from Harry's match. All three lads eagerly gathered closer together as Harry prepared to strike the match that would give them the desired ability to see. Harry's hand trembled a trifle in spite of his effort at self-control. His first effort was unsuccessful.
"Careful, Harry," admonished Ned. "Better strike it on your shoe sole. That makes a better match scratcher than your trousers."
"Correct!" observed Jack. "And go easy," he added. "We have only two, you know. If anything should happen, you understand--"
"Yes, I know," answered Harry. "That's why I'm trying to be extra careful. I'm just as anxious for a light as you are."
"The rats are coming closer," observed Jack, a slight quaver perceptible in his voice. "I don't want them to start anything."
"All right now, Harry; lean on me a bit to balance yourself," urged Ned. "Make sure this time, and get it in your cupped hands."
"Here goes!" announced Harry, lifting one foot and striking the match upon the sole of his shoe. "Here comes the light!"
But, contrary to expectations, the light did not come, although the lad tried again and again.
"Try the other match, Harry; maybe this one got wet somehow and won't work," suggested Jack, stepping closer.
"I have tried them both," declared Harry in a faint voice.
"What's the matter, then?" demanded Jack excitedly.
"I guess they are those safety matches that will light only on the box," was Harry's explanation. "I haven't the box, either," he added in a voice scarcely above a whisper. "It's no go, boys!"
"Look through all your pockets," directed Ned, "and see if there isn't a scrap of box left by oversight. We must have a light!"
Frantically the three boys searched their pockets, but could discover no shred or vestige of a box on which to strike the impregnated safety matches held by Harry. At length they gave up the effort.
"That's peculiar!" declared Jack with emphasis. "Just think of all the matches used every day in the United States by thousands and thousands of people who never think of saving them. We have used a whole lot of matches ourselves needlessly, and now we want just one as badly as we ever wanted anything. It's fierce!"
"It surely is fierce," agreed Ned, "but we'll have to make the best of it. It seems peculiar, too," he went on, "that the rats haven't begun anything. They seem to be all about us."
"Yes, but they are not moving about very fast," observed Harry. "Maybe they 're afraid of us yet. Let's make a noise and scare them."
"How shall we do it?" asked Jack. "What will you make a noise with if you haven't anything to use? Tell me that!"
"Stamp on the floor good and hard; that'll scare them."
"All right; here goes!" agreed Jack, suiting the action to the word.
All three boys were startled at the result of Jack's stamping. A crackling sound was heard, followed by a tiny spurt of flame from the floor under his foot.
"Easy there, easy!" cried Harry, dropping to his knees. "That's just what we wanted. Don't move now, but give me those shavings!"
With trembling hands the lad took the shavings from Jack's hand. Carefully shielding the tiny flame from possible draughts of air, the boy held the point of one of the thin pieces of wood over the flare. In a moment it had caught fire. Licking up the curl, the flame gradually leaped from one piece of wood to another until the entire handful was ablaze. The dancing light played upon the three faces and sent a glow out into the surrounding blackness. Harry deposited the burning shavings upon the floor, where the fire was soon transmitted to the larger piece of wood Jack had used in whittling.
As the boys saw that the matter of fire was assured, they glanced first at each other, then let their gaze wander about the apartment.
"Goodness, the rats don't seem to be much afraid of fire!" exclaimed Jack, pointing toward a horde of rodents swarming about the place.
"What's that on them?" asked Harry wonderingly.
"I declare it's red!" exclaimed Ned. "It looks like blood!"
"Where'd they get blood from, I'd like to know!" protested Harry.
"There's only one answer to that just now, with all the dead and wounded soldiers about," answered Ned, shaking his head. "It's awful!"
"Let's get out of here as quick as we can," urged Jack. "Come on."
With one accord the lads turned from the swarm of rats.
"Where are you going?" demanded a strange voice from the darkness.
"Who are you?" asked Ned, startled by the sudden question.
"Maybe I'm a friend," was the answer. "Yes, I guess I am."
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