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ABANDONING A REGIMENT
In wide-eyed amazement Jimmie stared for a moment at von Liebknecht, not knowing what answer to make to the sudden question. He disliked very much telling the officer the truth concerning the packet he had been to so much trouble to rescue, yet felt that nothing else but the exact truth would serve in the present instance.
For a full minute he glanced about from one to another of the group in the tent. The glances that met his in return were anything but friendly. Some were indifferent, while others scowled fiercely as their resentment against the lad mounted. Evidently all firmly believed that the boy was what he had been accused of being--a spy.
At length resolved to adhere to the truth at whatever cost, Jimmie raised his head to direct his gaze straight into the Captain's eyes.
"That packet," he began in a low tone, "is my own private property. I don't know just what it contains, but it is not contraband."
A faint smile lighted von Liebknecht's usually immobile countenance.
"How, then," he asked, endeavoring to make his voice convey the spirit of friendship he tried to feel for the lad, "can you say that it is not contraband or infer that the packet does not contain information that would be of value to our enemy if you do not know its contents?"
"Because I received it from a man who was dying and who wanted badly to make restitution for some things he had done that were wrong. He had no interest in the dispute between your country and your enemies except to make whatever money he might from the matter."
"You speak in riddles. Please explain more fully."
"Well," Jimmie continued, "there was a man in the United States who brought over a ship load of ammunition. He stole a lot of money intended for the relief of the suffering people of Poland. He kidnapped and shanghaied me and generally proved himself a bad sort. When he got over to Riga he was forced to enlist in the Russian Cossack regiment, the same as I was, and when the Russian Cossacks attacked the German troop train he was wounded badly. I tried to assist him, and did what I could. When he found he was dying he asked me to take this packet, which I understand contains the keys to a safe deposit box in New York City, and when I get back there he wanted me to see what I could do toward setting right some of his wrongdoings."
"A very fine tale, indeed," was the comment of von Liebknecht, "but you will scarcely expect us to believe that in the face of all the circumstances. We don't mean to imply that you, necessarily, know different, but the man's story as you have told it is improbable."
"I am telling the exact truth as I understand it!" declared Jimmie earnestly. "If he was lying to me, I do not know it. I believe he told the truth, for he understood that he could not live much longer."
"Nevertheless, we will be obliged to examine the contents of the packet," stated von Liebknecht positively. "Is it not so?" he asked, turning to the group of officers for confirmation of his decision.
Vigorous nods from the ones addressed indicated their approval.
Unwilling to submit to the proposed action, Jimmie took a step backward. His action was misinterpreted by the soldier who had captured the boy. With a quick motion the man again seized the red-headed lad in the same manner as previously, and deftly slid his hand to the pocket where the packet reposed. Before Jimmie could offer any resistance the object sought was brought forth and tossed upon the table.
"Please make a note of the fact," stated von Liebknecht, addressing an orderly seated nearby with a memorandum book, "that the packet is to be opened with the full consent of Herr McGraw."
Jimmie gasped. He began to understand that the records of his presence in the German regiment of Uhlans would be made to show favorably for the officer in command in case anything serious happened. And that something very serious would shortly happen to him the boy did not for a single moment doubt. He felt vaguely uneasy.
With a knife tendered by one of his associates von Liebknecht deftly ripped the stitches that held the wrapping of the tiny packet.
In another moment the oiled silk covering had been removed and an inner wrapping opened. Jimmie leaned forward to gaze upon the contents with as much interest as was displayed by the others.
Presently, when the wrappings had been removed, he saw a key and a folded paper. The key was of the peculiar construction adopted generally by safe deposit vaults for the use of their patrons. The paper had been prepared evidently for use in case of just the emergency that had overtaken the man who had given it to Jimmie. It was covered with memoranda and figures in very fine waiting.
Von Liebknecht scowled as he pored over the document. The memorandum had been made in a fragmentary way, and evidently referred to other documents that would be found in the safe deposit box.
The Captain puzzled over the document for a time, then passed it to the officer nearest him. He then gave his attention to the key.
"What do you make of if?" he asked Jimmie presently, tapping in a nervous manner upon the table with the key. "What does it mean?"
"Just what I told you, I think," Jimmie replied.
"It appears different to me," the Captain objected. "I am of the opinion that it has to do with information concerning the dispute in progress between my country and the enemies. I am sorry, but I shall have to retain the packet for forwarding to headquarters. You will receive it again if it is found to be what you claim. Otherwise--"
He left the sentence unfinished, and Jimmie waited for a time, expecting him to complete the statement.
"Well, otherwise?" asked the boy half breathlessly.
"Otherwise, we shall see," stated von Liebknecht with a smile.
"And in the meantime?" went on the lad anxiously.
"In the meantime we are preparing to leave for the western theater of war, where we are needed far more than here. You will accompany us with the best grace possible under the circumstances."
"But my comrades?" asked Jimmie, with a slight tremble in his voice. "Will it not be possible to let all four of us return to America?"
"I am sorry," returned the Captain, "but what you ask is impossible."
"Well, then," persisted the lad, "can't we at least let them know where I am and where I am going, so that they won't worry?"
"They are, no doubt, well acquainted with you and your abilities," went on von Liebknecht. "If your capacity for taking care of yourself is equal to your ability to make a disturbance, they should experience no uneasiness on your behalf. Besides," he added, "it is impossible to communicate with them just now. We do not know where they are."
In spite of the seriousness of his own situation, Jimmie breathed a sigh of relief, for he felt that the information given him was correct, and he interpreted the Captain's statement to mean that the three boys had succeeded in making their escape from the soldiers.
He was, nevertheless, greatly perturbed over the prospect of leaving the immediate vicinity, for he felt that his chances of escape were greatly lessened. He knew that the boys would endeavor to assist him, but, owing to the interrupted code message, he could only guess at how this would be accomplished.
The map, still spread upon the table, gave him a hint. He remembered the fact that von Liebknecht's finger had pointed at Cracow. A firm resolve formed within the boy's breast. He determined that, if his suspicion proved correct and the regiment paused at Cracow, he would make an attempt to escape there. He also decided that if it were at all possible he would advise his chums of the fact.
While Jimmie was turning over these points in his mind a buzz of whispered conversation was going on between the officers around the table. At length a decision was reached, and von Liebknecht again turned his attention to his newest recruit.
"You may go in company with this man," he said. "He and Otto Freundlich will be given charge of you, and will be required to turn you over to the proper officer upon demand. They will have orders to insist upon your presence at all times, and in order to make sure that you do not attempt to escape they will be given orders to shoot if necessary. I would advise you for your own good not to try to leave the regiment at any time."
"If we are leaving this place and my chums are not here," Jimmie replied, feeling that further argument would accomplish no alteration of the Captain's decision, "I cannot see why I should attempt to escape. You are entirely wrong in supposing that I am trying to get information to the Russians concerning your army."
"Perhaps you are right," assented von Liebknecht, not unkindly. "That is a point that we shall ascertain in our own way. For the present every circumstance is unfavorable for you, and we must be careful. You understand, do you not?" he asked with a slight smile.
"I see how you understand it," the boy said. "Of course, if you choose to look at the facts as you do, I cannot help it. I don't want to get shot, so I think I'll not try to make a getaway."
"Good!" declared the Captain, apparently greatly relieved. "That makes it easier for us. Now, I shall ask you to assist in getting your equipment ready for the journey. Everybody will be required to work hard if we leave at the time desired."
"Very good, sir," stated the boy, saluting in the approved Boy Scout fashion. "I'll help all I can."
So saying, he turned on his heel and signified to the soldier detailed as his guard that he was ready to leave the place.
"So we are to be comrades for a while at least?" inquired Jimmie pleasantly as the pair left the tent. "We might as well get acquainted before we go farther. My named is Jimmie McGraw. What is yours?"
"Mine iss Frederich von Strassheim," answered the other, apparently feeling no resentment against Jimmie for his kicks and blows delivered during the process of capture. "We shall be well acquainted."
"That's interesting," declared Jimmie. "I thought that the word 'von' was used only for officers and persons of nobility, though."
"The designation 'von,'" answered the other, proudly drawing himself erect, "is used only by those entitled to it by royal decree. My ancestors distinguished themselves and were of the house of Hohenzollern. That is why I am allowed to use it."
"Oh, so that is it?" mused Jimmie. "All right, von Strassheim, I think that I'll call you Fritz, though, if you don't object."
"Goot; call me Fritz, then!" laughed the soldier. "Great friends we shall be as I can perceive. And may I call you Jimmie?"
"Call me Jimmie, Red-head, The Wolf, Freckles--oh, anything," stated Jimmie with a laugh, in response to the other's good nature, "but," he went on, "for pity's sake don't call me late for eats."
"Mess call iss not yet," responded the other, again resuming his accustomed gravity. "We shall have plenty of time to pack our kits."
"Then let's be about it," suggested the lad. "Where shall we go to make a start, and what shall we do first, and how shall we do it?"
"One at a time--one at a time," protested Fritz. "First we shall go past the place where I found you signalling. Then we shall proceed to the stables and look after our horses."
"And then?" inquired Jimmie interestedly, feeling that any information he might get from Fritz would be useful later on.
"We shall in full marching order break camp," was the reply. "To the train of cars we will ride, and there put our horses and baggage aboard. Then we start for the west. But here is the exact spot where you were standing when I interrupted your conversation."
"Yes, this is the place," acknowledged Jimmie. "And right over there is the aeroplane of my friends. Oh, look!" the boy cried. "See, they're starting out with it! Great frozen hot boxes! Those other fellows are shooting! Good night!"
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