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"Hello! Where are you fellows from?"
It was rather a sharp challenge, yet not unfriendly, that greeted Blake, Joe and Charlie, as they were walking from the house where they had been billeted, through the quaint street of the still more quaint French village. "Where are you from?"
"New York," answered Blake, as he turned to observe a tall, good-natured-looking United States infantryman regarding him and his two chums.
"New York, eh? I thought so! I'm from that burg myself, when I'm at home. Shake, boys! You're a sight for sore eyes. Not that I've got 'em, but some of the fellows have—and worse. From New York! That's mighty good! Shake again!"
And they did shake hands all around once more.
"My name's Drew—Sam Drew," announced the private. "I'm one of the doughboys that came over first with Pershing. Are you newspaper fellows?"
"No. Moving picture," answered Blake.
"You don't say so! That's great! Shake again. When are you going to give a show?"
"Oh, we're not that kind," explained Joe. "We're here to take army films."
"Oh, shucks!" cried Private Drew. "I thought we were to see something new. The boys here are just aching for something new. There's a picture show here, but the machine's busted and nobody can fix it. We had a few reels run off, but that's all. Say, we're 'most dead from what these French fellows call ong we, though o-n-g-w-e ain't the way you spell it. If we could go to one show——"
"You say there's a projector here?" interrupted Joe eagerly.
"Well, I don't know what you call it, but there's a machine here that showed some pictures until it went on the blink."
"Maybe I can fix it," went on Joe, still eagerly. "Let's have a look at it. But where do you get current from? This town hasn't electric lights."
"No, but we've got a gasolene engine and a dynamo. The officers' quarters and some of the practice trenches are lighted by electricity. Oh, we have some parts of civilization here, even if we are near the trenches!"
"If you've got current and that projection machine isn't too badly broken, maybe I can fix her up," said Joe. "Let's have a look at it."
"Oh, I'll lead you to it, all right, Buddy!" cried Private Drew. "We'll just eat up some pictures if we can get 'em! Come along! This way for the main show!" and he laughed like a boy.
Among the outfits sent with the troops quartered in this particular sector was a moving picture machine and many reels of film. But, as Sam Drew had said, the machine was broken.
After Blake and his chums had reported to the officer to whom they had letters of introduction and had been formally given their official designation as takers of army war films, they went to the old barn which had been turned into a moving picture theater.
There was a white cloth screen and a little gallery, made in what had been the hay mow, for the projector machine. Joe Duncan, as the expert mechanician of the trio, at once examined this, and said it could soon be put in readiness for service.
"Whoop!" yelled Private Drew, who seemed to have constituted himself the particular guide and friend of the moving picture boys. "Whoop! that's as good as getting a letter from home! Go to it, Buddy!"
And that first night of the boys' stay at that particular part of France was the occasion of a moving picture show. All who could crowded into the barn, and the reels were run over and over again as different relays of officers and men attended. For the officers were as eager as the privates, and the moving picture boys were welcomed with open arms.
"You sure did make a hit!" laughed Private Drew. "Yes, a sure-fire hit! Now let Fritz bang away. We should worry!"
But all was not moving pictures for Blake, Joe and their assistant, nor for the soldier boys, either. There was hard and grim work to do in order to be prepared for the harder and grimmer work to come. The United States troops were going through a period of intensive trench training to be ready to take their share of the fighting with the French and British forces.
The village where Blake and his chums were quartered was a few miles from the front, but so few that day and night, save when there was a lull, the booming of guns could be heard.
"There hasn't been much real fighting, of late," Private Drew informed the boys the day after their arrival. "It's mostly artillery stuff, and our boys are in that. Now and then a party of us goes over the top or on night listening-patrol. Fritz does the same, but, as yet, we haven't had what you could call a good fight. And we're just aching for it, too."
"That's what we want to get pictures of," said Blake. "Real fighting at the front trenches!"
"Oh, you'll get it," prophesied the private. "There's a rumor that we'll have some hot stuff soon. Some of our aircraft that have been strafing Fritz report that there's something doing back of the lines. Shouldn't wonder but they'll try to rush us some morning. That is, if we don't go over the top at 'em first."
"I hope we'll be there!" murmured Joe. "And I hope we get a good light so we can film the fighting."
"They'll be almost light enough from the star-shells, bombs and big guns," said Private Drew. "Say, you ought to see the illumination some nights when the Boches start to get busy! Coney Island is nothing to it, Buddy!"
Before the moving picture boys could get into real action on the front line trenches, there were certain formalities to go through, and they had to undergo a bit of training.
Captain Black, to whom they were responsible and to whom they had to report each day, wanted first some films of life in the small village where the troops were quartered when not in the trenches. This was to show the "boys at home" what sort of life was in prospect for them.
Aside from the danger ever present in war in any form, life in the quaint little town was pleasant. The boys in khaki were comfortably housed, they had the best of army food, and their pleasures were not few. With the advent of Blake and his chums and the putting in operation of the moving picture show, enthusiasm ran high, and nothing was too good for the new arrivals.
But they had their work to do, for they were official photographers and were entrusted with certain duties. Back of the firing line, of course, there was no danger, unless from air raids. But after the first week, during which they took a number of reels of drilling and recreation scenes, there came a period of preparation.
Blake, Joe and Charlie were given gas masks and shown how to use them. They were also each provided with an automatic pistol and were given uniforms. For they had to be on the firing line and on such occasions were not really of the non-combatant class, though they were not supposed to take part in the fighting unless it should be to protect themselves.
At the suggestion of Captain Black the boys had made sheet-iron cases for their cameras and reels of film.
"Of course, if a shell comes your way that case won't be much protection," said the United States officer. "But shrapnel won't go through it."
Steel helmets were also given the boys to wear when they went on duty in the firing trenches, and they were told under no circumstances to leave them off.
"For even if there isn't any shooting from across No Man's Land," explained Captain Black, "a hostile aircraft may drop a bomb that will scatter a lot of steel bullets around. So wear your helmets and keep the cases on your cameras."
It was a week after this, during which time there had been several false alarms of a big German attack, that one evening as they were about to turn in after having given a moving picture show an orderly came up to Blake.
"You and your two friends will report to Captain Black at four o'clock to-morrow morning," said the orderly.
"Why that hour?" asked Joe curiously.
"We're going over the top," was the answer. "You may get some pictures then."
Charles Anderson hastily consulted a small book he took from his pocket.
"What you doing?" asked Blake.
"Looking to see what time the sun rises. I want to see if there'll be light enough to make pictures. Yes," he went on, as he found what he wanted in the miniature almanac, "we ought to be able to get some shots."
The gray wreaths of a fog that had settled down in the night were being dispelled by the advance heralds of dawn in the shape of a few faint streaks of light when Blake and his chums, wearing their steel helmets and with the steel-protected cameras, started from the farmhouse where they were quartered to report to Captain Black.
"All ready, boys?" the captain called. "We're going over the top at five-seven—just as soon as the artillery puts down a barrage to clear the way for us. You're to get what pictures you can. I'll leave that part to you. But don't get ahead of the barrage fire—that is, if you want to come back," he added significantly.
"All right," answered Blake, in a low voice.
He and his chums took their places in one of the communicating trenches, waiting for the American and the French soldiers in the front ones to spring up and go "over the top."
Every minute seemed an hour, and there were frequent consultations of wrist watches. Suddenly, at five o'clock exactly, there was a roar that sounded like a hundred bursts of thunder. The artillery had opened the engagement, and the moving picture boys, at last on the firing line, grasped their cameras and reels of film as the soldiers grasped their guns and waited for the word to go.
The earth beneath them seemed to rock with the concussion of the big guns.
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