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Blake Stewart did not answer at once. He appeared to be considering what the soldier had told him. And then Blake looked across No Man's Land—that debatable ground between the two hostile forces—as though to pierce what lay beyond, back of the trenches which were held by the Germans, though, at this point, the enemy was not in sight.
"Could it, by any chance, have been Secor and Labenstein who got our films?" asked Joe.
"Very possible," agreed Blake. "Labenstein, of course, would be with the German forces, and since Secor is a traitor he would be there also. Of course it may not have been those fellows, but some other two men who had learned through their spies that we were here taking pictures and wanted them for their own purposes."
"The question is, can we get them back?" put in Charlie, scowling in the direction of the Germans.
"That's only one of the questions," observed Blake. "The main one is, where are the films now, and where did those fellows go with them?"
"Maybe I can help you out there," put in the soldier. "I saw those two fellows heading that way, down in that depression, and they certainly carried some sort of flat, square boxes under their arms."
"What's down in there?" asked Joe eagerly.
"Well, it was a machine-gun station, and old Fritz certainly played hob on our boys with it," answered the sentry. "But we wiped that out the other day, though I guess the dugout is there yet, or whatever is left of what they used to house their barker in. The two fellows I saw were heading for that spot."
"Is that between the lines?" asked Joe.
"Just about, yes, though there aren't any of our trenches, or theirs either, near there now. What trenches there were have been knocked into smithereens. That's No Man's Land down there. It belongs to whoever can keep it, but just now nobody seems to want it. I'm here to report if there's any movement on the part of Fritz to take up his station there again."
"As it is now, could we go down there?" asked Joe eagerly.
"Well, if you wanted to take a chance, I s'pose you could," answered the sentry slowly. "I wouldn't stop you. You don't belong to the army, anyhow, and we've been instructed that you're sort of privileged characters. All the same, it might be a bit dangerous. But don't let me stop you."
"Come on!" exclaimed Joe, starting down the slope that led across the bullet-scarred and shell-pitted ground.
"Where are you going?" asked Charles Anderson.
"Across No Man's Land," answered Joe grimly. "I'm going to see if we can get back those stolen army films. If they were ours, I wouldn't be so anxious about them. But they belong to Uncle Sam. He hired us to take them, and it was our fault they were lost."
"Not exactly our fault," put in Blake. "We couldn't help being gassed."
"No, but excuses in war don't go. We've got to get back those films!"
"That's right!" exclaimed Charlie. "I'm with you!"
"Oh, for the matter of fact, so am I," said Blake quickly. "I feel, as you do, Joe, that it's up to us to do all we can to get back those films. I'm only trying to think out the best plan for getting them."
"Go right down there and make that traitor Secor, and that submarine Dutchman, give 'em back!" cried Charlie.
"Yes, and perhaps make such a row that there'll be a general engagement," said Blake. "No; we've got to go at this a little differently from that. I'm in favor of getting the films away from those fellows, if they have them, but I think we'd better try to sneak up there first and see what the situation is. If we march down there in the open we'll probably be fired on—or gassed, and that's worse."
"Now you've said it, Buddy!" exclaimed the sentry. "I've had both happen to me, and getting shot, say in a soft place, ain't half as bad as the gas. Whew! I don't want any more! So, if I was you, I'd wait until after dark to make a trip across No Man's Land. You'll stand a better chance then of coming back alive."
"That's what I think," returned Blake, and though Joe and Charlie were eager for action, they admitted that their chum's plan was best.
"We'll have to make some preparations," Blake went on; "though I don't know that we need say anything to Captain Black about what we are going to do."
"He might stop us," said Charlie.
"Oh, no, he wouldn't do that," Joe assured their assistant.
"I'll tell you what to do," counseled the sentry: "I'm going to be on duty here until late this afternoon. I'll keep my eyes peeled for anything that may happen down there where that dugout used to be, and I'll let you know.
"Meanwhile, you can be getting ready to take a little excursion there after dark. You'd better take your gas masks with you, and also your automatics, for you may run into a party of Fritzes out to get the night air."
"That's what we'll do," decided Blake, and his chums agreed with him. And then they began to make their preparations for the perilous trip across No Man's Land that night.
They were not asked to make any pictures that day, for which they were thankful, as they still felt some of the effects of the gas, though they were rapidly improving.
Following the fight in which the boys so nearly lost their lives and in which there were severe losses on both sides, though with a net gain of territory in favor of the Allies, there was a period of comparative calm in the American ranks. The soldiers took advantage of this to rest and repair their damaged uniforms, arms and equipment. And it was on one of these days, when discipline was somewhat relaxed, that the moving picture boys made their preparations.
As they were left pretty much to themselves when they were not called on to be making pictures, it was rather easy for them, without exciting any comment, to get ready. This consisted in seeing that their automatic pistols were in good working order. They also applied for new gas masks, with a fresh impregnation of chemicals. When they received these, and with a supply of lampblack, they were ready, waiting only for the fall of darkness.
The lampblack was to be put on their hands and faces so that their whiteness would not be revealed in case the Germans played their searchlights on the ground the boys hoped to cover, or sent up star clusters to give light for raiding parties sent out to kill the French and American wounded, such being one of the pleasant ways in which Fritz makes war.
Late in the afternoon they paid a visit to their friend the sentry, asking if he had seen anything of the two men that they suspected might have the films—Secor and Labenstein.
"I wouldn't know 'em by those names even if I saw 'em," said the soldier, "and, as a matter of fact, I didn't see the same two chaps I saw before. But I have seen figures moving about down in that hollow, where we wiped out the machine gun squad, and I wouldn't be surprised but what there was something doing there."
"I only hope our films are there," said Joe.
"Don't build too much on it, Buddy," advised the sentry. "As I say, I saw some figures I took to be Germans down in that valley, but they may be getting ready for a raid on our lines, and may have nothing to do with your pictures."
"Well, we'll take a chance," decided Blake.
"That's what!" chimed in Joe.
Being accredited representatives of a certain branch of the army, though non-combatants, the boys were allowed to pass through the sentry lines, except in certain restricted places. They were given the countersign each night in case they desired to leave their quarters and go about.
But there was a risk in starting on this journey. As non-combatants, if they carried arms and went into the enemy's territory, they were not entitled to be considered prisoners of war. Of course they could fight for their lives, but not with the same status as could a uniformed soldier. As a matter of fact, they did not wear the regulation uniform, having dark suits better suited to this night excursion than the khaki.
Waiting until it was dark enough for their purpose and taking with them electric flashlights to use in case they got into a hut or some such place where they could not see to search for their films, and having blackened their hands and faces and seen that their weapons were in order, they sallied forth from the home of the humble French couple, many good wishes going with them.
It was a walk of three or four miles from the little village to the place where the sentry had said the dugout lay, and during the first part of the trip the boys talked to each other.
"Do you suppose we'll really find the films there?" ventured Joe.
"It's a slim chance, but one worth taking," said Blake. "Though I can't imagine what Secor and Labenstein, if those two fellows are really here, could want of them."
"Maybe they just picked them up on the chance that they would give away some of the American army secrets," suggested Charlie. "And they would show our boys were drilling, fighting, and all that. Of course some of the things on the films were actually seen by the Germans, but others were not; and I fancy those would be of value to Fritz. That's why they took 'em."
"They couldn't have known we were here taking views," remarked Joe.
"Oh, yes they could!" declared Blake. "Germany's spy system is the best in the world, and lots that goes on in America is known in Germany before half of our own people hear about it. But we'll have to get there before we can find out what is in that dugout, if it's there yet."
"Well, some part of it—maybe a hut or a brush heap—must be there, or the sentry wouldn't have seen men about it," observed Joe. "And now we'd better keep quiet. We're getting too close to talk much."
A little later they passed a sentry—not their friend—gave the proper password, and then stood on the edge of No Man's Land.
What would be their fate as they crossed it and ventured on the other side—the side held by the Germans?
"Come on!" whispered Blake softly, and, crouching down to avoid as much as possible being detected in the starlight, the boys went cautiously into the debatable territory.
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