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9. Under Fire
Jim picked up the receiver of the telephone and spoke into it, holding the earpiece pressed close to his head. “Hello,” he shouted above the din of the artillery fire. “Cavalry unit, Lieutenant Mercer speaking.”

Somewhat faintly the answer came to him over the wire. “Mercer, this is Stillman calling. What in the world is happening? Why did they resume their firing?”

“That’s all right, Stillman,” returned Jim, thinking the new officer did not fully understand. “That was the major’s orders, two bombardments, and after that you are to call me and tell me when to join the infantry.”

“But don’t you understand, man?” called Stillman, frantically. “I sent a man over the hill when the fire stopped!”

“What!” roared Jim.

“Certainly. Lieutenant Thompson told me the day before yesterday that a man was to be sent over the hill the minute the firing ceased. I sent Cadet Vench over the hill and he must be right in the thick of it now!”

For a moment Jim’s mind reeled. In a flash the whole tragic situation came to him. Stillman had the old orders, and Thompson had not given him the changed orders, probably because he had not even seen the second Lieutenant. The major had made but a casual inquiry as to whether Stillman knew his orders correctly, and because of the carelessness a cadet had been sent over that hill, perhaps to his death. Jim found his mouth dry and everything seemed to fade from before his eyes. He snapped an order over the telephone line.

“Get word to the artillery to cease firing!” he cried. And with that he jumped to his feet and clutched at the bridle of his horse, turning to his own second lieutenant.

“Townley,” he ordered, “you are in charge until I get back. Foster, ride back to the artillery base and tell them to cease firing at once! Ride like mad, for Cadet Vench is on that hill that they are bombarding!”

Foster launched forward like a shot and thundered out onto the road. With a single leap Jim was in his saddle and had jerked his horse’s head around in the direction of Hill 31. Before anyone could stop him he was off in a mad gallop toward the shell-torn mound.

The shells were still falling raggedly on the top of the hill when his horse began to climb, and he hoped fervently that the bombardment would cease any moment. He could not see why it should not, for Stillman was to call the artillery on the phone at once, and Jim had even taken the precaution to send a cavalryman back in the remote case that the telephone line would not work. He realized, as his horse flew with sure feet up the sloping sides of the heap of earth, that he was risking his life and that of his horse, but he meant to go through with it. The firing would cease any minute, and the cadet might be injured, in which case he would have to be rushed to the emergency sick bay just back of the infantry base. In the flurry of the last few moments he had forgotten that it was Vench who was out there, but now he remembered it perfectly.

Jim felt the sweat break out on his forehead as they approached the territory in which the shells were falling. Hope suggested that Vench might have been on the edge of the hill when the firing began and that he might have rolled down and out of danger. He might even be back with the other wing of cavalry at the time, and under the circumstances it was not probable that Stillman would call a halt on the artillery fire. A new thought raced through Jim’s mind. If Vench had indeed returned uninjured and Stillman had withheld the order to cease firing, he was simply running his own head into grave danger which would do no one any good and which would bring down the major’s wrath upon him. But Jim felt that he had done the right thing and he kept on.

A shell bursting a few yards before him threw dirt up in his face and caused his horse to snort and rear, and Jim realized then that he was actually under fire. It was with an instinctive roll that he threw himself from the animal and looked dazedly around. The hill, now pit-marked from the fire, was otherwise bare, except for one growth of dead trees and bushes toward the middle, and it was there that Jim sighted Vench. The cadet was lying face downward, with one hand held over his head, motionless, and Jim, forgetting his own peril, ran forward, calling his name. The terrified horse rushed madly down the other side of the hill.

Vench did not answer Jim’s call and the cadet lieutenant ran toward him. Just as he reached the inert figure a shell exploded back of him, and a short thick piece of wood flew through the air, striking Jim on the head. He pitched to the ground, over Vench’s outstretched legs.

Although Jim did not know it, that was the last shot. The artillery fire died away abruptly. The telephone message had not gotten through to the a............
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