A voice spoke suddenly behind him in a tone of absolute amazement, and he turned toward the lieutenant who had been screaming an instant before.
A cannonball came skipping across the ground like a stone across a pond, struck a buried rock, hopped high, and smashed through the lieutenant’s head, removing it.
Blood fountained from the still-standing body, spraying several feet into the air. Ropes of blood lashed Grey’s face and chest, blinding him, shocking hot through his wet clothes. Gasping, he dashed a sleeve across his eyes, clearing them in time to see the lieutenant’s body fall, arms thrown wide in boneless grace. The sword he had been holding rolled from his grasp, silver in the grass.
Grey seized it in reflex, and whirled on the gun-crew, who had begun to edge away from the smoking cannon. The bombardier was nearest; he fetched the man a blow across the side of the head with the flat of his blade that sent him reeling back across the gun’s barrel, then bounded at the rammer, who stared at him as though seeing Satan sprung from hell, eyes white and terrified in a sooty face.
“Pick it up!” Grey roared, stabbing the sword at the ramrod that lay fallen on the grass. “Do it, damn your eyes! You–back to your duty, God damn you–go back, I say!” One of the loaders had tried to slip past him. The man stopped, frozen, eyes rolling to and fro in panic, seeking escape.
Grey grabbed the man by the shoulder, pushed him half-round and kneed him in the buttocks, shouting. There was blood in his mouth, he choked and spat, kicked at the loader, who was fumbling half-heartedly at the pile of cartridges beneath a canvas sheet. The other loader had already fled; he could see the man’s blue shirt bobbing up and down as he ran.
Grey lunged in that direction by instinct, but realized that he could not pursue the deserter and turned instead ferociously on the remnant crew.
“Load!” he barked, and snatched the linstock from the bombardier, motioning the soldier to replace the man who had fled. Sponger and rammer fell to their work at once, with no more than a hasty glance at Grey, blood-soaked and vicious. The bombardier was clumsy, but willing. He barked them through the maneuver, once, again, forcing them, guiding them, and then felt them begin to drop back into the accustomed rhythm of the work and pick up speed, gradually losing their terror in the encompassing labor of serving the gun.
His throat was raw. The wind whipped away half his words and what was left was barely intelligible–but he saw the crew respond to the lash of his voice, and kept shouting.
Cannon were firing close at hand but he couldn’t tell whether they were friend or foe; clouds of black powder smoke rolled over them, obscuring everything.
His soaked clothes had gone cold again, and it was raining. He had taken the coil of smoking slow-match from the bombardier and tied it in its bag to his own belt. His fingers were stiff, clumsy; he had difficulty forcing the lighted fuse into the linstock, but forced himself to keep the rhythm, shouting orders in a voice that cracked like broken iron. Sponge. Load cartridge. Ram. Load wadding. Ram. Powder. Fall back! And the hissing small flame at the end of the linstock coming down toward the touchhole, sure and graceful, with no sense at all that his own hand guided it.
That moment of suspended animation and the crash and buck of the gun. The first one left him deafened; he knew he was still shouting only because his throat hurt. He snatched a lump of damp wadding from the ground and hastily crammed some of it into his ears. It didn’t help much.
The rain grew momentarily heavier, cutting through the smoke and taste of blood with a freshness that eased his aching chest. The powder, was it covered? Yes, yes, the powder monkey was still at his post, a scorched-looking boy wide-eyed with fright, but holding the canvas tight over the powder kegs, against the pull of the wind.
“Sponge!” he shouted, and heard the word muffled inside his skull as though it came from some vast distance, far away. “Load cartridge! Ram!”
He spared a moment to look before touching off the next shot–so far, he had been firing with not the slightest thought for attitude or effect–and forced himself not to blink as the gun went off with a jump like a live thing and the thunder that made you feel as though the ground shook, though in fact it was your own flesh shaking.
The shot soared high, came down a dozen yards short of a patch of French artillery–smoke sucked suddenly away by the wind, he saw the white of their uniforms and the belch of black smoke from the French gun’s barrel–the shot came wide of his own position and he made a hasty calculation of wind, already shouting orders to adjust the trunnions, lower the barrel…one degree? two?
Now he saw the milling blur of white and blue, infantry massing behind the French cannon.
Dare he try for that interesting maneuver whereby a cannonball was fired deliberately low, with the intent of bouncing repeatedly through an enemy phalanx? There was a seething mass of blue uniforms beyond the gun, perfect…he would think the ground too soft with damp, save that he’d just seen the same technique employed successfully upon it. He gritted his teeth, but could not help but glance at the fallen lieutenant, noticing only now that the body had fallen at the foot of one of the stones marking the Stations of the Cross. IX, it said, but he had no time to try to make out the picture on it.
“Five!” he shouted, an eye on the moving French line, “and one degree west!” The rammer at once jammed his rod in the barrel and the powder monkey ran to lend his strength, as the loaders jerked out the trunnions and put them in again, then threw themselves against the cannon’s limber, turning the barrel just enough…
The rain came and went in gusty squalls; it had stopped for a moment and he wiped his face again on his sleeve, feeling some liquid–water, sweat, blood–drip down inside his coat from his queued hair.
By God, it worked, and a cheer went up from his crew as they saw the ball hop murderously across the field, knocking Frenchmen down like ninepins as it went.
“Again, again!” he bellowed, striking his fist on the breech. The rammer was sponging like a maniac, not waiting for the order, and the loaders were already passing the next cartridge to the mouth.
“Down!” he shouted, and fell flat along with the crew as a shot in reply thudded into the ground six feet away. They rose up again yelling like demons and shaking their fists. The French gun-crew was hopping up and down like fleas, gleeful at the effect of their shot. Grey was obliged to bellow and slap one man across the back with the flat of his sword again to bring his own crew to their senses.
“Swivel! Swivel to bear on them! Hurry, damn you!”
Suddenly realizing their precarious position of opportunity and peril, his crew fell to like maniacs, swinging the barrel to bear directly upon the French cannon. The French abruptly stopped cheering and began hastily to serve their own gun.
The French had the range already, were sure to beat them–Grey snatched the useless pistol from his belt and charged the French position, shrieking like a madman and waving both pistol and sword. The ground seemed to pitch and sway beneath his feet, a blur of grass and mud.
It was perhaps two hundred yards between the English and the French cannons. He was close enough to see the Frenchmen’s mouths hanging open, when their officer suddenly realized what Grey was about and groped madly for his own pistol. Grey promptly turned and ran like a hare back toward his own crew, leaping low bushes and zig-zagging, seeking cover in the drifting rags of powder smoke. He couldn’t tell whether the Frenchman was firing at him or no; the air cracked with random fire and the sound of bugles. God-damned cavalry, he thought. Always in the bloody way–
“Duck!” came a faint cry, and he threw himself headlong in the sopping grass just as his own gun spoke near at hand. Without looking to see the possible effect of the shot, he scrambled up into a crouch and scuttled the rest of the way, arriving winded and wheezing to the cheers of his men.
“Once more,” he panted. “Give it them again!”
The men were already at it; the linstock was thrust into his hand and he fumbled for the fuse, but his hand was shaking too badly to manage. The powder-monkey seized the wobbling end of the slow-match and thrust it through the hole, slashing off the bit of fuse so hastily that the knife-tip scratched Grey’s hand, though he didn’t feel it.
“Fall back!” he gasped, and lowered the hissing match to the touchhole.
There was an instant of breathless expectancy, and then the world disappeared in a blast of fire and darkness.