The smoke and spiteful crackle of the pickets’ fusilade had risen to one unbroken crash, solidly accented by the report of field guns.
Ambulances were everywhere driving to the rear at a gallop past the centre and left sections of McDunn’s Battery, which, unlimbered, was standing in a cotton field, the guns pointed southward across the smoke rising below.
Claymore’s staff, dismounted, stood near. The young general himself, jacket over one arm, was seated astride the trail of the sixth gun talking eagerly to McDunn, when across the rolling ground came a lancer at full speed, plunging and bucketing in his saddle, the scarlet rags of the lance pennon whipping the wind. The trooper reined in his excited horse beside Claymore, saluted, and handed him a message; and the youthful general, glancing at it, got onto his feet in a hurry, and tossed his yellow-edged jacket of a private to an orderly. Then he faced the lancer:
“Tell Colonel Craig to hold his position no matter what it costs!” he exclaimed sharply. “Tell Colonel Arran that I expect him to stand by the right section of the 10th battery until it is safely and properly brought off!” He swung around on Captain McDunn.
“Limber your battery to the rear, sir! Follow headquarters!” he snapped, and threw himself into his saddle, giving his mount rein and heel with a reckless nod to his staff.
McDunn, superbly mounted, scarcely raised his clear, penetrating voice: “Cannoneers mount gun-carriages; caissons follow; drivers, put spur and whip to horses—forward—march!” he said.
“Trot out!” rang the bugles; the horses broke into a swinging lope across the dry ridges of the cotton field, whips whistled, the cannoneers bounced about on the chests, guns, limbers and caissons thumped, leaped, jolted, rose up, all wheels in the air at once, swayed almost to overturning, and thundered on in a tornado of dust, leaders, swing team, wheel team straining into a frantic gallop.
The powerful horses bounded forward into a magnificent stride; general and staff tore on ahead toward the turnpike. Suddenly, right past them came a driving storm of stampeding cavalry, panic-stricken, riding like damned men, tearing off and hurling from them carbines, canteens, belts; and McDunn, white with rage, whipped out his revolver and fired into them as they rushed by in a torrent of red dust. From his distorted mouth vile epithets poured; he cursed and damned their cowardice, and, standing up in his stirrups, riding like a cossack at full speed, attempted to use his sabre on the fugitives from the front. But there was no stopping them, for the poor fellows had been sent into fire ignorant how to use the carbines issued the day before.
Into a sandy field all spouting with exploding shells and bullets the drivers galloped and steered the plunging guns. The driver of the lead team, fifth caisson, was shot clear out of his saddle, all the wheels going over him and grinding him to pulp; piece and limber whirled into a lane on a dead run, and Arthur Wye, driving the swing team, clinging to the harness and crawling out along the traces, gained the saddle of the lead-horse.