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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesAunt Jane's Nieces In The Red Cross - Chapter 7. On The Firing Line
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Aunt Jane's Nieces In The Red Cross - Chapter 7. On The Firing Line Post by :Dusty13 Category :Long Stories Author :L. Frank Baum Date :May 2012 Read :742

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Aunt Jane's Nieces In The Red Cross - Chapter 7. On The Firing Line

CHAPTER VII. ON THE FIRING LINE

Next morning they were all wakened at an early hour by the roar of artillery, dimly heard in the distance. The party aboard the _Arabella quickly assembled on deck, where little Maurie was found leaning over the rail.

"They're at it," he remarked, wagging his head. "The Germans are at Nieuport, now, and some of them are over against Pervyse. I hear sounds from Dixmude, too; the rattle of machine guns. It will be a grand battle, this! I wonder if our Albert is there."

"Who is he?" asked Patsy.

"The king. They told me yesterday he had escaped."

"We must get the ambulances out at once," said Beth.

"I'll attend to that," replied Uncle John, partaking of the general excitement. "Warp up to the dock, Captain Carg, and I'll get some of those men to help us swing the cars over the side."

"How about a chauffeur?" asked Dr. Gys, who was already bringing out bandages and supplies for the ambulances.

"If we can't find a man, I'll drive you myself," declared Ajo.

"But you don't know the country."

Gys turned to the little Belgian.

"Can't you find us a driver?" he asked. "We want a steady, competent man to run our ambulance."

"Where are you going?" asked Maurie.

"To the firing line."

"Good. I will drive you myself."

"You? Do you understand a car?"

"I am an expert, monsieur."

"A waiter in a restaurant?"

"Pah! That was five years ago. I will show you. I can drive any car ever made--and I know every inch of the way."

"Then you're our man," exclaimed Mr. Merrick, much relieved.

As the yacht swung slowly alongside the dock the Belgian said:

"While you get ready, I will go ashore for news. When I come back--very quick--then I will know everything."

Before he ran down the ladder Patsy clasped around his arm a band bearing the insignia of the Red Cross. He watched her approvingly, with little amused chuckles, and then quickly disappeared in the direction of the town.

"He doesn't seem injured in the least by his accident," said the girl, looking after him as he darted along.

"No," returned Gys; "he is one of those fellows who must be ripped to pieces before they can feel anything. But let us thank heaven he can drive a car."

Mr. Merrick had no difficulty in getting all the assistance required to lower the two ambulances to the dock. They had already been set up and put in order, so the moment they were landed they were ready for use.

A few surgical supplies were added by Dr. Gys and then they looked around for the Belgian. Although scarce an hour had elapsed since he departed, he came running back just as he was needed, puffing a little through haste, his eyes shining with enthusiasm.

"Albert is there!" he cried. "The king and his army are at Nieuport. They will open the dykes and flood all the country but the main road, and then we can hold the enemy in check. They will fight, those Germans, but they cannot advance, for we will defend the road and the sand dunes."

"Aren't they fighting now?" asked Jones.

"Oh, yes, some of the big guns are spitting, but what is that? A few will fall, but we have yet thousands to face the German horde."

"Let us start at once," pleaded Maud.

Maurie began to examine the big ambulance. He was spry as a cat. In ten minutes he knew all that was under the hood, had tested the levers, looked at the oil and gasoline supply and started the motor.

"I'll sit beside you to help in case of emergency," said Ajo, taking his place. Dr. Gys, Dr. Kelsey and the three girls sat inside. Patsy had implored Uncle John not to go on this preliminary expedition and he had hesitated until the last moment; but the temptation was too strong to resist and even as the wheels started to revolve he sprang in and closed the door behind him.

"You are my girls," he said, "and wherever you go, I'll tag along."

Maurie drove straight into the city and to the north gate, Jones clanging the bell as they swept along. Every vehicle gave them the right of way and now and then a cheer greeted the glittering new Red Cross ambulance, which bore above its radiator a tiny, fluttering American flag.

They were not stopped at the gate, for although strict orders had been issued to allow no one to leave Dunkirk, the officer in charge realized the sacred mission of the Americans and merely doffed his cap in salutation as the car flashed by.

The road to Furnes was fairly clear, but as they entered that town they found the streets cluttered with troops, military automobiles, supply wagons, artillery, ammunition trucks and bicycles. The boy clanged his bell continuously and as if by magic the way opened before the Red Cross and cheers followed them on their way.

The eyes of the little Belgian were sparkling like jewels; his hands on the steering wheel were steady as a rock; he drove with skill and judgment. Just now the road demanded skill, for a stream of refugees was coming toward them from Nieuport and a stream of military motors, bicycles and wagons, with now and then a horseman, flowed toward the front. A mile or two beyond Furnes they came upon a wounded soldier, one leg bandaged and stained with blood while he hobbled along leaning upon the shoulder of a comrade whose left arm hung helpless.

Maurie drew up sharply and Beth sprang out and approached the soldiers.

"Get inside," she said in French.

"No," replied one, smiling; "we are doing nicely, thank you. Hurry forward, for they need you there."

"Who dressed your wounds?" she inquired.

"The Red Cross. There are many there, hard at work; but more are needed. Hurry forward, for some of our boys did not get off as lightly as we."

She jumped into the ambulance and away it dashed, but progress became slower presently. The road was broad and high; great hillocks of sand--the Dunes--lay between it and the ocean; on the other side the water from the opened dykes was already turning the fields into an inland sea. In some places it lapped the edges of the embankment that formed the roadway.

Approaching Nieuport, they discovered the Dunes to be full of soldiers, who had dug pits behind the sandy hillocks for protection, and in them planted the dog-artillery and one or two large machine guns. These were trained on the distant line of Germans, who were also entrenching themselves. All along the edge of the village the big guns were in action and there was a constant interchange of shot and shell from both sides.

As Maurie dodged among the houses with the big car a shell descended some two hundred yards to the left of them, exploded with a crash and sent a shower of brick and splinters high into the air. A little way farther on the ruins of a house completely blocked the street and they were obliged to turn back and seek another passage. Thus partially skirting the town they at last left the houses behind them and approached the firing line, halting scarcely a quarter of a mile distant from the actual conflict.

As far as the eye could reach, from Nieuport to the sea at the left, and on toward Ypres at the right of them, the line of Belgians, French and British steadily faced the foe. Close to where they halted the ambulance stood a detachment that had lately retired from the line, their places having been taken by reserves. One of the officers told Mr. Merrick that they had been facing bullets since daybreak and the men seemed almost exhausted. Their faces were blackened by dust and powder and their uniforms torn and disordered; many stood without caps or coats despite the chill in the air. And yet these fellows were laughing together and chatting as pleasantly as children just released from school. Even those who had wounds made light of their hurts. Clouds of smoke hovered low in the air; the firing was incessant.

Our girls were thrilled by this spectacle as they had never been thrilled before--perhaps never might be again. While they still kept their seats, Maurie started with a sudden jerk, made a sharp turn and ran the ambulance across a ridge of solid earth that seemed to be the only one of such character amongst all that waste of sand. It brought them somewhat closer to the line but their driver drew up behind a great dune that afforded them considerable protection.

Fifty yards away was another ambulance with its wheels buried to the hubs in the loose sand. Red Cross nurses and men wearing the emblem on their arms and caps were passing here and there, assisting the injured with "first aid," temporarily bandaging heads, arms and legs or carrying to the rear upon a stretcher a more seriously injured man. Most of this corps were French; a few were English; some were Belgian. Our friends were the only Americans on the field.

Uncle John's face was very grave as he alighted in the wake of his girls, who paid no attention to the fighting but at once ran to assist some of the wounded who came staggering toward the ambulance, some even creeping painfully on hands and knees. In all Mr. Merrick's conceptions of the important mission they had undertaken, nothing like the nature of this desperate conflict had even dawned upon him. He had known that the Red Cross was respected by all belligerents, and that knowledge had led him to feel that his girls would be fairly safe; but never had he counted on spent bullets, stray shells or the mad rush of a charge.

"Very good!" cried Maurie briskly. "Here we see what no one else can see. The Red Cross is a fine passport to the grand stand of war."

"Come with me--quick!" shouted Ajo, his voice sounding shrill through the din. "I saw a fellow knocked out--there--over yonder!"

As he spoke he grabbed a stretcher and ran forward, Maurie following at his heels. Uncle John saw the smoke swallow them up, saw Beth and Maud each busy with lint, plasters and bandages, saw Patsy supporting a tall, grizzled warrior who came limping toward the car. Then he turned and saw Doctor Gys, crouching low against the protecting sand, his disfigured face working convulsively and every limb trembling as with an ague.

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