Chapter 34 | Keeping the Bridge | !Tention

Chapter Thirty Four.

Slight as was the check—two shots only—the sight of a couple of their men going down was sufficient to stop the advance of the attacking party for a few minutes; but the firing continued in the blind, unreasoning way of excited soldiery until the leaders had forced it upon the notice of their eager men that they were firing down a wide gully-like spot where, consequent on the curve, none of those they sought to shoot down were in sight.

But this state of excitement lasted only a few minutes, and then, headed by an officer, about a dozen of the enemy dashed into view.

“Now then,” whispered Punch; but it was not necessary, for the two muskets the lads had laid ready went off almost as one, and a couple of the French chasseurs stumbled forward and fell headlong almost within touch of their dead or wounded comrades.

Once more that was enough to make the others turn tail and dash back, leaving their leader behind shaking his sword after them as they ran; and then, in contempt and rage, he stopped short and bent down over each of the poor fellows who had fallen.

Pen could see him lay his hand upon their breasts before coolly sheathing his sword and stopping in bravado to take out a cigarette, light it, and then, calmly smoking, turn his back upon his enemies and walk round the curve and disappear.

“There, Punch,” said Pen, finishing the loading of his musket; “don’t you tell me again that the French have no brave men amongst them.”

“Well,” said the boy slowly, “after that I won’t. Do you know, it made me feel queer.”

“It made me feel I don’t know how,” said Pen—“half-choking in the throat.”

“Oh, it didn’t make me feel like that,” said Punch thoughtfully. “I had finished reloading before he had felt all his fellows to see if they were dead, and I could have brought him down as easy as kiss my hand, but somehow I felt as if it would be a shame, like hitting a chap when he’s down, and so I didn’t fire. Then I looked at you, and I could see you hadn’t opened your pan through looking at him. You don’t think I ought to have fired, do you?”

“You know I don’t, Punch,” said Pen shortly. “It would have been cowardly to have fired at a man like that.”

“But I say,” said Punch, “wasn’t it cheek! It was as good as telling us that he didn’t care a button for us.”

“I don’t believe he does,” said Pen thoughtfully; “but, I say, Punch, I shouldn’t like to be one of his men.”

“What, them two as we brought down? Of course not!”

“No, no; I mean those who ran away and left him in the lurch. He’s just the sort of captain who would be ready to lay about him with the flat of his sword.”

“And serve the cowardly beggars right,” cried Punch. “Think they will come on again?”

“Come on again, with such a prize as the Spanish King to be made a prisoner? Yes, and before long too. There, be ready. There’ll be another rush directly.”

There was, and almost before the words were out of Pen’s lips. This time, though, another officer, as far as the lads could make out, was leading the little detachment, which was about twice as strong as the last, and the lads fired once more, with the result that two of the attacking party went down; but instead of the rest turning tail in panic and rushing back, they followed their officer a dozen yards farther. Then they began to waver, checked their pace, and stood hesitating; while, in spite of their officer excitedly shouting and waving his sword to make them advance, they came to a stand, with the brave fellow some distance in front, where the lads could hear him shout and rage before making a dash back at the leading files, evidently with the intention of flogging them into following him.

But, damped by the fate of their fellows, it only wanted the appearance of flight, as they judged the officer’s movement, to set them in motion, and they began to run back in panic, followed by the jeering yells of the contrabandistas, who hurried their pace by sending a scattered volley from their carbines, not a bullet from which took effect.

“Look at that, Punch; there’s another brave fellow!”

“Yes,” cried the boy, finishing loading. “There, go on, load away, I don’t want you to shoot him. Yes, he’s another plucky un. But, my word, look at him! He must be a-cussing and a-swearing like hooray. But I call that stupid. He needn’t have done that. My word, ain’t he in a jolly rage!”

Much to the surprise of Pen, the officer did not imitate his fellow who paused to light a cigarette, but took the point of his sword in his left hand, stooped down with his back to his enemies, broke the blade in half across his knee, dashed the pieces to the ground, and then slowly walked back.

“Poor fellow!” said Pen thoughtfully.

“Yes, and poor sword,” said Punch. “I suppose he will have to pay for that out of his own pocket, or have it stopped out of his pay. Oh no; he’s an officer, and finds his own swords. But he was a stupid. Won’t he be sorry for it when he cools down!”

They were not long kept in suspense as to what would occur next, for just before he disappeared the lookers-on saw the officer suddenly turn aside to close up to the natural wail of the little ravine, giving place to the passage of the stronger party still who came on cheering and yelling as if to disconcert the sharpshooters who were committing such havoc in their little detachments. But their effort was in vain, for at a short interval the two young riflemen once more fired at the dense little party, which it was impossible to miss. Two men in the front went down, three or four of their fellows leaped over their prostrate forms, and then several of those who followed stumbled and fell, panic ensued, and once more the company was in full flight, followed slowly by a couple of despondent-looking officers, one of whom turned while the carbine bullets were flying around him to shake his sword at his enemies, his fellow taking his cue from this act to contemptuously raise his képi in a mocking salute.

“Here, I won’t say anything about the Frenchmen any more,” said Punch. “Why, those officers are splendid! They are just laughing at the contra-what-you-may-call-’ems, and telling them they can’t shoot a bit. It’s just what I thought,” he continued, finishing his loading; “those little dumpy blunderbuss things are no good at all. I suppose that will about sicken them, won’t it?”

Pen shook his head as he closed the pan of his musket with a sharp click.

“The officers will not be satisfied till they have put a stop to our shooting, Punch.”

“Oh, but they can’t,” said the boy, with a laugh. “But, I say, I never thought I could shoot so well as this. Ain’t it easy!”

“No,” said Pen quietly. “I think we shot well at first, but here with our muskets resting steady on the stones in front, and with so many men to shoot at, we can’t help hitting some of them. Hallo! Here comes our friend.”

For now that the little gorge before them lay open the contrabandista joined them, to begin addressing his words of eulogy to Pen.

“Tell your comrade too,” he continued, “how proud I am of the way in which you are holding the enemy in check. I have just come from the King, and he sends a message to you—a message, he says, to the two brave young Englishmen, and he wants to know how he can reward you for all that you have done.”

“Oh, we don’t want rewarding,” said Pen quietly. “But tell me, is there any way by which the enemy can take us in the rear?”

“No,” said the smuggler quietly. “But it would be bad for you—and us—if they could climb up to the top there and throw pieces of rock down. But they would want ladders to do that. I am afraid, though—no,” he added; “there’s nothing to be afraid of—that they will be coming on again, and you must keep up your firing till they are so sick of their losses that they will not be able to get any more of their men to advance.”

“And what then?” said Pen.

“Why, then,” said the smuggler, “we shall have to wait till it’s dark and see if we can’t steal by them and thread our way through the lower pass, leaving them to watch our empty cache.”

Quite a quarter of an hour passed now, and it seemed as if the spirits of the French chasseurs were too much damped for their officers to get them to advance again.

Then there was another rush, with much the same result as before, and again another and another, and this was kept up at intervals for hours, till Pen grew faint and heart-sick, his comrade dull and stubborn; and both were faint too, for the sun had been beating down with torrid violence so that the heated rocks grew too hot to touch, and the burning thirst caused by the want of air made the ravine seem to swim before Pen’s eyes.

But they kept on, and with terrible repetition the scenes of the morning followed, until, as the two lads reloaded, they rested the hot musket-barrels before them upon the heated rock and looked full in each other’s eyes.

“Well, Punch,” said Pen hoarsely, “what are you thinking?”

The boy was silent for a few moments, and then in the horrible stillness which was repeated between each attack he said slowly, “Just the same as you are, comrade.”

“That your old wound throbs and burns just the same as mine does?”

“Oh, it does,” said Punch, “and has for ever so long; but I wasn’t thinking that.”

“Then you were thinking, the same as I was, that you were glad that this horrible business was nearly over, and that these Spanish fellows, who have done nothing to help us, must now finish it themselves?”

“Well, not azackly,” replied the boy. “What I was thinking was that it’s all over now—as soon as we have had another shot apiece.”

“Yes,” said Pen; “one more shot apiece, and we have fired our last cartridges.”

“But look here,” said Punch, “couldn’t we manage with powder and shot from their blunderbusters?”

“I don’t know,” said Pen wearily. “I only know this, that I shall be too heart-sick and tired out to try.”