They told her that Berkley had gone up the hill toward the firing line.
On the windy hill-top, hub deep in dry, dead grass, a section of a battery was in action, the violent light from the discharges lashing out through the rushing vapours which the wind flattened and drove, back into the hollow below so that the cannoneers seemed to be wading waist deep in fog.
The sick and wounded on their cots and stretchers were coughing and gasping in the hot mist; the partly erected tents had become full of it. And now the air in the hollow grew more suffocating as fragments of burning powder and wadding set the dead grass afire, and the thick, strangling blue smoke spread over everything.
Surgeons and assistants were working like beavers to house their patients; every now and then a bullet darted into the vale with an evil buzz, rewounding, sometimes killing, the crippled. To add to the complication and confusion, more wounded arrived from the firing line above and beyond to the westward; horses began to fall where they stood harnessed to the caissons; a fine, powerful gun-team galloping back to refill its chests suddenly reared straight up into annihilation, enveloped in the volcanic horror of a shell, so near that Ailsa, standing below in a clump of willows, saw the flash and smoke of the cataclysm and the flying disintegration of dark objects scattering through the smoke.
Far away on the hillside an artilleryman, making a funnel of his hands, shouted for stretchers; and Ailsa, repeating the call, managed to gather together half a dozen overworked bearers and start with them up through the smoke.
Deafened, blinded, her senses almost reeling under the nerve-shattering crash of the guns, she toiled on through the dry grass, pausing at the edge of charred spaces to beat out the low flames that leaped toward her skirts.
There was a leafy hollow ahead, filled with slender, willow-trees, many of them broken off, shot, torn, twisted, and splintered. Dead soldiers lay about under the smoke, their dirty shirts or naked skin visible between jacket and belt; to the left on a sparsely wooded elevation, the slope of which was scarred, showing dry red sand and gravel, a gun stood, firing obliquely across the gully into the woods. Long, wavering, irregular rings of smoke shot out, remaining intact and floating like the rings from a smoker’s pipe, until another rush and blast of flame scattered them.
The other gun had been dismounted and lay on its side, one wheel in the air, helpless, like some monster sprawling with limbs stiffened in death. Behind it, crouched close, squatted some infantry soldiers, firing from the cover of the wreckage. Behind every tree, every stump, every inequality, lay infantry, dead, wounded, or alive and cautiously firing. Several took advantage of the fallen battery horses for shelter. Only one horse of that gun-team remained alive, and the gunners had lashed the prolonge to the trail of the overturned cannon and to the poor horse’s collar, and were trying to drag the piece away with the hope of righting it.