Tom Slade Motorcycle Dispatch Bearer
Author: Percy Keese Fitzhugh Illustrator: R. Emmett Owen. Release Date: October 8, 2006 [EBook #19495]
"FOR SERVICE AS REQUIRED"
"Swiftly and silently along the moonlit road sped the dispatch-rider. Out of the East he had come, where the battle line runs between blue mountains and the country is quiet and peaceful, and the boys in khaki long for action and think wistfully of Picardy and Flanders. He was a lucky young fellow, this dispatch-rider, and all the boys had told him so.
"We'll miss you, Thatchy," they had said.
And "Thatchy" had answered characteristically, "I'm sorry, too, kind of, in a way."
His name was not Thatchy, but they had called him so because his thick shock of light hair, which persisted in falling down over his forehead and ears, had not a little the appearance of the2 thatched roofs on the French peasant's cottages. He, with a loquacious young companion, had blown into the Toul sector from no one seemed to know exactly where, more than that he had originally been a ship's boy, had been in a German prison camp, and had escaped through Alsace and reached the American forces after a perilous journey.
Lately he had been running back and forth on his motorcycle between the lines and points south in a region which had not been defiled by the invader, but now he was going far into the West "for service as required."
That was what the slip of paper from headquarters had said, and he did not speculate as to what those services would be, but he knew that they would not be exactly holding Sunday-School picnics in the neighborhood of Montdidier. Billy Brownway, machine gunner, had assured Thatchy that undoubtedly he was wanted to represent the messenger service on the War Council at Versailles. But Thatchy did not mind that kind of talk.
West of Revigny, he crossed the old trench line, and came into the area which the Blond Beast had crossed and devastated in the first year3 of the war. Planks lay across the empty trenches and as he rode over first the French and then the enemy ditches, he looked down and could see in the moonlight some of the ghastly trophies of war. Somehow they affected him more than had the fresher results of combat which he had seen even in the quiet sector he had left.
Silently he sped along the thirty-mile stretch from Revigny to Châlons, where a little group of French children pressed about him when he paused for gasoline.
"Yankee!" they called, chattering at him and meddling with his machine.
"Le cheveu!" one brazen youngster shouted, running his hand through his own hair by way of demonstrating Thatchy's most conspicuous characteristic.
Thatchy poked him good-humoredly. "La route, est-belle bonne?" he asked.
The child nodded enthusiastically, while the others broke out laughing at Thatchy's queer French, and poured a verbal torrent at him by way of explaining that the road to the South would take him through Vertus and Montmirail, while the one to the north led to Epernay.
"I'll bump my nose into the salient if I take4 that one," he said more to himself than to them, but one little fellow, catching the word salient took a chance on nose and jumped up and down in joyous abandon, calling, "Bump le nez—le salient!" apparently in keen appreciation of the absurdity of the rider's phrase.
He rode away with a clamoring chorus behind him and he heard one brazen youngster boldly mimicking his manner of asking if the roads were good. These children lived in tumble-down houses which were all but ruins, and played in shell holes as if these cruel, ragged gaps in the earth had been made by the kind Boche for their especial entertainment.
A mile or two west of Châlons the rider crossed the historic Marne on a makeshift bridge built from the materials of a ruined house and the remnants of the former span.
On he sped, along the quiet, moonlit road, through the little village of Thibie, past many a quaint old heavily-roofed brick cottage, over the stream at Chaintrix and into Vertus, and along the straight, even stretch of road for Montmirail. Not so long ago he might have gone from Châlons in a bee-line from Montdidier, but the big, ugly salient stuck out like a huge snout now, as if5 it were sniffing in longing anticipation at that tempting morsel, Paris; so he must circle around it and then turn almost straight north.
At La Ferte, among the hills, he paused at a crossroads and, alighting from his machine, stood watching as a long, silent procession of wagons passed by in the quiet night, moving southward. He knew now what it meant to go into the West. One after another they passed in deathlike stillness, the Red Cross upon the side of each plainly visible in the moonlight. As he paused, the rider could hear the thunder of great guns in the north. Many stretchers, borne by men afoot, followed the wagons and he could hear the groans of those who tossed restlessly upon them.
"Look out for shell holes," he heard someone say. So there were Americans in the fighting, he thought.
He ran along the edge of the hills now on the fifteen-mile stretch to Meaux, where he intended to follow the road northward through Senlis and across the old trenches near Clermont. He could hear the booming all the while, but it seemed weary and spent, like a runner who has slackened his pace and begun to pant.
At Meaux he crossed the path of another silent6 cavalcade of stretchers and ambulances and wounded soldiers who were being supported as they limped along. They spoke in French and one voice came out of an ambulance, seeming hollow and far off, as though from a grave. Then came a lot of German prisoners tramping along, some sullen and some with a fine air of bravado sneering at their guards.
The rider knew where he was going and how to get there and he did not venture any inquiries either as to his way or what had been going on.
Happenings in Flanders and Picardy are known in America before they are known to the boys in Alsace. He knew there was fighting in the West and that Fritz had poked a big bulge into the French line, for his superiors had given him a road map with the bulge pencilled upon it so that he might go around it and not bump his nose into it, as he had said. But he had not expected to see such obvious signs of fighting and it made him realize that at last he was getting into the war with a vengeance.
Instead of following the road leading northwest out of Meaux, he took the one leading northeast up through Villers-Cotterets, intending to run along the edge of the forest to Campiegne7 and then verge westward to the billet villages northwest of Montdidier, where he was to report.
This route brought him within ten miles of the west arm of the salient, but the way was quiet and there was no sign of the fighting as he rode along in the woody solitude. It reminded him of his home far back in America and of the woods where he and his scout companions had camped and hiked and followed the peaceful pursuits of stalking and trailing.
He was thinking of home as he rode leisurely along the winding forest road, when suddenly he was startled by a rustling sound among the trees.
"Who goes there?" he demanded in pursuance of his general instructions for such an emergency, at the same time drawing his pistol. "Halt!"
He was the scout again now, keen, observant. But there was no answer to his challenge and he narrowed his eyes to mere slits, peering into the tree-studded solitude, waiting.
Then suddenly, close by him he heard that unmistakable sound, the clanking of a chain, and accompanying it a voice saying, "Kamerad."