CSM Harrington watched with satisfaction and no small degree of relief as the screw gun shell exploded on the brow of the hill. Shrapnel and fragments of rock flew everywhere, knocking down some of the slavers. The brisk rifle fire from the main force kicked up more splinters of stone and found a mark or two in human flesh. The slavers began to waver then stream back over the hill and away from the galling musketry.
Harrington nodded. "Right lads, forwards with me." The men stepped out, sparing sorrowful glances at their two fallen comrades. Harrington silently thanked the steady discipline of the British soldier, for they'd lost men but stayed at their posts, firing steadily at the enemy. They reached the slope to the top of the hill, and found the going tougher than it looked.
|"When you're first under fire and wishful to duck, don't look nor pay heed to the man that is struck. Be thankful you're living and trust to your luck, and march to your front like a soldier."|
In the valley Captain Pike turned his attention to the left flank. To his pleasure the askaris were holding firm, kneeling amidst the scrub and trading shot for shot with the slavers on the hill. Soon the steady crash of Martini-Henry volleys added their din to the firing, punctuated by the regular thump of the screw gun.
Over at the town gate the fleeing slavers pushed through their tribal allies and into the town, causing confusion in their wake. Chief Ngutyana watched them go, sneered in derision and considered his options.
The regular beat of gunfire and rising clouds of rifle smoke down the valley decided him. Instead of going to meet the Red Soldiers head-on, he would lead his men on a flanking march around the hills and fall upon the intruders before they could react. His mind made up, Ngutyana led his men across the stream, the waters feeling pleasantly cool on their legs as they waded.
Down the valley the hand of death touched many and spared others. Ra'id Hakim, leader of the slaver warband, staggered and fell as a shard of stone thrown up by a shell burst hit him in the chest. He rolled to his side and knelt on all fours, watching with bemusement as blood seeped through the breast of his robe to drip upon the dusty ground. Groggily he looked around and saw how many of his brothers had fallen to the infidel weapons. The survivors were starting to draw back, to find shelter from the musketry. As more men fell the backward motion turned into a rout. Hakim got to his feet and followed, holding his side and wincing at the pain lancing through him from his broken ribs.
Having disposed of the first slaver threats encountered, Captain Pike ordered Bugler Bates to sound the advance. On the hill to the right, Harrington led his men warily through the bodies and rocky ground. Movement on the next hill caught his eye. "Look sharp, lads," he called. "Enemy front."
Marksman Lewis drew a bead on the movement then lowered his rifle with an incredulous laugh. "Bloody 'ell, Sarge! It's a vulture." He squinted. "Crikey! I've seen smaller ostriches."
The alarm soon went up as excitable askaris shouted to Rutledge and pointed down the hill to the massed natives sweeping by below. Rutledge swore, formed his men as best he could in the press of the moment and opened fire. A man fell from the warband but it deigned not to notice, instead storming on toward the unsuspecting British column.
As his men manhandled the screw gun to keep pace with the main body, Havildar Shukla glanced over toward the hill where renewed firing had broken out. A few moments later he gaped at the mass of men bursting out from behind the cover of the hill, and knew in an instant he was in a pretty pickle. There was only one viable option to chose. "Leave the gun! Cross the river, juldi, jao!"
His men took to their heels, Shukla leading the way, splashing through the stream toward the front of the British column and safety.
Captain Pike saw the threat in time. "Well, dash it," he said mildly. "Column, halt! Left face! Make ready, preee-sent, fire!"
Martini-Henry bullets slashed into the advancing warband, the slaughter added to by Remington rifle fire from the askaris' Remington on the hill. The warband staggered, convulsed, then fell back.
The immediate threat dispersed, Bugler Bates once again blew the advance and the column continued up the valley, flanked by the covering force.
The column passed the ford and drew closer to the tower frowning upon its height. Suddenly every embrasure spouted dun-colored smoke!
Bullets from muskets and a few obsolete rifles rained down upon the Men of Barsetshire, causing them to stagger in shock. Over on the hill the askaris were subjected to a similar deadly fire...
* * * *
I'll post the third and final installment of Action in the Jam'aah Valley sometime this weekend.