Chapter 33 | At Bay | !Tention

Chapter Thirty Three.

The King’s party remained perfectly still during the first few shots, and then, unable to contain themselves, they seemed to the lads to be preparing for immediate action. The tall, stern-looking Spaniard who had seemed to be their leader the previous night, and who had given the orders which resulted in the boys being dragged down into the priest’s room, now with a due show of deference approached the King, who remained seated, and seemed to be begging his Sovereign to go in the direction he pointed, where a dark passage evidently led onward right into the inner portions of the cavern or deserted mine.

The conversation, which was carried on in Spanish, would not have been comprehended by the two lads even if they had understood that tongue; but in spite of the Spaniard going even so far as to follow up his request and persuasion by catching at the King’s arm and trying to draw him in the direction he indicated, that refugee shook his head violently, wrested his wrist away, drew his sword, placed himself in front of his followers, and signed to them to advance towards the entrance.

“Well done!” whispered Punch. “He is something like a king after all. He means fighting, he does!”

“Hush,” whispered back Pen, “or you will be heard.”

“Not us,” replied Punch, who began busying himself most unnecessarily with his musket, placing the butt between his feet, pulling out the ramrod and running it down the barrel to tap the end of the cartridge as if to make sure that it was well driven home.

Satisfied with this, he drew the iron rod again, thrust it into the loops, threw the piece muzzle forward, opened the pan to see that it was full of powder, shut it down again, and made a careful examination of the flint. For these were the days long prior to the birth of the copper percussion-cap, and plenty of preliminaries had to be gone through before the musket could be fired.

Satisfied now that everything possible had been done, he whispered a suggestion to his companion that he too should make an examination.

“I did,” replied Pen, “a few minutes ago.”

“But hadn’t you better look again?” whispered Punch.

“No, no,” cried his companion impatiently. “Look at them; they are all advancing to the entrance, and we oughtn’t to be left behind.”

“We ain’t a-going to be,” said the boy through his set teeth. “Come on.”

“No,” replied Pen.

“Come on, I say,” cried the boy again. “We have only got muskets, but we are riflemen all the same, and our dooty is to go right in front skirmishing to clear the way.”

“Our orders were,” said Pen, “to wait here till our captain fetched us to the front and did what he told us.”

“But he ain’t come,” protested Punch.

“Not yet,” replied Pen. “Do you want him to come and find that we have broken faith with him and are not here?”

“Course I don’t,” cried the boy, speaking now excitedly. “But suppose he ain’t coming? How do we know that he aren’t got a bullet in him and has gone down? He can’t come then.” Pen was silent.

“And look here,” continued Punch; “when he gave us those orders he told that other lot—the Spaniel reserve, you may call them—to stop yonder till he come. Well, that’s the King, ain’t it? He’s ordered an advance, and he’s leading it hisself. Where’s his cloud of riflemen feeling the way for him? Are we to stop in the rear? I thought you did know better than that, comrade. I do. This comes of you only being a year in the regiment and me going on learning for years and years. I say our place is in the front; so come on.”

“Yes, Punch; you must be right,” said Pen unwillingly, “Forwards then. Double!”

“That’s your sort!” And falling into step and carrying their muskets at the trail, the two lads ran forward, their steps drowned for the moment by the heavy firing going on away beyond the entrance; and they were nearly close up to the little Spanish party before their advance was observed, and then one of the Spaniards shouted a command which resulted in his fellows of the King’s bodyguard of friends turning suddenly upon them to form a chevaux-de-frise of sword-blades for the protection of their Sovereign.

For the moment, in the excitement, the two lads’ lives were in peril; but Pen did not flinch, and, though suffering acute pain from his wound, ran on, his left arm almost brushing the little hedge of sword-points, and only slackening his speed when he was a dozen yards in front and came right upon the smuggler-leader, pistol in one hand, long Spanish knife in the other.

Instead of angrily denouncing them for their disobedience to his order, he signed to them to stop, and ran on to meet the King’s party, holding up his hand; and then, taking the lead, he turned off a little way to his left toward a huge pile of stones and mine-refuse, where he placed them, as it were, behind a bank which would act as a defence if a rush upon them were made from the front.

The two lads watched him, panting the while with excitement, listening as they watched to the fierce burst of firing that was now being sustained.

The King gave way at once to the smuggler’s orders, planting himself with his followers ready for an anticipated assault; and, apparently satisfied, the smuggler waved the hand that grasped his knife and ran forward again with the two young Englishmen.

This time it was the pistol that he waved to them as if bidding them follow, and he ran on some forty or fifty yards to where the entrance widened out and another heap of mine-rubbish offered itself upon the other side as a rough earthwork for defence, and where the two lads could find a temporary parapet which commanded the entry for nearly a hundred yards.

Here he bade the two lads kneel where, perfectly safe themselves, they could do something to protect their Spanish friends behind on their left.

“Do your best,” he said hoarsely. “They are driving my men back fast; but if you can keep up a steady fire, little as it will be, it will act as a surprise and maybe check their advance. But take care and mind not to injure any of my men.”

He said no more, but ran forward again along the still unoccupied way, till a curve of the great rift hid him from their sight.

“What did he say?” whispered Punch excitedly, as Pen now looked round and diagonally across the way to the great chamber, and could see the other rough stonework, above which appeared a little line of swords.

“Said we were to be careful not to hurt him and his friends if they were beaten back.”

“No fear,” said Punch; “we can tell them by their red handkerchiefs round their heads and their little footy guns. We’ve got nothing to do, then, yet.”

“For a while, Punch; but they are coming on fast. Hark at them!” For the firing grew louder and louder, and was evidently coming nearer.

“And only two of us as a covering-party!” muttered Punch. “Oh, don’t I wish all our chaps were here!”

“Or half of them,” said Pen.

“Yes, or half of them, comrade. Why, I’d say thank ye if it was only old O’Grady, me boy. He can load and fire faster than any chap in our company. Here, look at that!” For the sunlight shone plainly upon the red silk handkerchief of a Spaniard who suddenly ran into sight, stopped short, and turned to discharge his carbine as if at some invisible pursuers, and then dropped his piece, threw up his hands, and fell heavily across the way, which was now tenanted by a Spanish defender of the King.

“Only wounded perhaps,” panted Punch; and Pen watched the fallen man hopefully in the expectation of seeing him make an effort to crawl out of the line of fire; but the two lads now became fully conscious of the fact that bullets were pattering faster and faster right into the gully-like passage and striking the walls, some to bury themselves, others to flatten and fall down, bringing with them fragments of stone and dust.

The musketry of the attacking party and the replies of pistol and carbine blended now in a regular roll, but it was evident that the defenders were stubbornly holding their own; while the muskets that rested on the stones in front of the two lads remained silent, and Punch uttered an impatient ejaculation as he looked sharply round at Pen.

“Oh, do give us a chance,” he cried. “Here, comrade, oughtn’t we two to run to cover a little way in advance?”

“No,” said Pen excitedly. “Now then, look out! Here they come!”

As the words left his lips, first one and then another, and directly after three more, of the contrabandistas ran round the curve well into sight and divided, some to one side, some to the other, seeking the shelter of the rocky wall, and fired back apparently at their pursuing enemy before beginning to reload.

They were nearly a hundred yards from the two boys, who crouched, trembling with excitement, waiting impatiently to afford the little help they could by bringing their muskets to bear. Then, as the firing went on, there was another little rush of retiring men, half-a-dozen coming one by one into sight, to turn, seek the cover of the wall, and fire back as if in the hope of checking pursuit. But a couple of these went down, and it soon became evident from the firing that the advance was steadily continued.

Another ten minutes of wild excitement followed, and then there was a rush of the Spaniards, who continued their predecessors’ tactics, firing back and sheltering themselves; but the enemy were still hidden from the two lads.

“Let’s—oh, do let’s cross over to the other side,” cried Punch. “There’s two places there where we could get shelter;” and he pointed to a couple of heaps of stone that diagonally were about forty yards in advance.

But as he spoke there was another rush of their friends round the curve, with the same tactics, while those who had come before now dashed across the great passage and occupied the two rough stoneworks themselves.

“Too late!” muttered Punch amidst the roar of musketry which now seemed to have increased in a vast degree, multiplied as the shots were by echoing repetitions as they crossed and recrossed from wall to wall.

“No!” shouted Pen. “Fire!” For half-a-dozen French chasseurs suddenly came running into sight in pursuit of the last little party of the Spaniards, dropped upon one knee, and, rapidly taking aim, fired at and brought down a couple more of the retreating men.

There was a sharp flash from Punch’s piece, and a report from Pen’s which sounded like an echo from the first, and two of the half-dozen chasseurs rolled over in the dust, while their comrades turned on the instant and ran back out of sight, followed by a tremendous yell of triumph from the Spaniards, who had now manned the two heaps of stones on the other side.

There was another yell, and another which seemed to fill the entry to the old mine with a hundred echoes, while as the boys were busily reloading a figure they did not recognise came running towards their coign of vantage at the top of his speed.

“Quick, Punch! An enemy! Bayonets!” cried Pen.

“Tain’t,” grumbled Punch. “Nearly ready. It’s Contrabando.”

The next minute the Spaniard was behind them, slapping each on the back.

“Bravo! Bravissimo!” he shouted, making his voice heard above the enemy’s firing, for his men now were making no reply. “Continuez! Continuez!” he cried, and then dashed off forward again and, heedless of the flying bullets, crossed to where his men were lying down behind the two farther heaps of stones, evidently encouraging some of them to occupy better places ready for the enemy when they made their attack in force.