They finally made the barricade, looking continually behind them, in order to watch, in the shelter of the trees, the slow advance of the Uhlans. At the head of this heterogeneous troop was an official of the police, old and fat, with a revolver in his right hand, his moustache bristling with excitement, and a murderous glitter in his heavy-lidded blue eyes. The band was continuing its advance through the village, slipping over to the other side of the barricade of carts without paying much attention to their curious countryman, when suddenly sounded a loud detonation, making the horizon vibrate and the houses tremble.
“What is that?” asked the officer, looking at Desnoyers for the first time. He explained that it was the bridge which had just been blown up. The leader received the news with an oath, but his confused followers, brought together by chance, remained as indifferent as though they had lost all contact with reality.
“Might as well die here as anywhere,” continued the official. Many of the fugitives acknowledged this decision with prompt obedience, since it saved them the torture of continuing their march. They were almost rejoicing at the explosion which had cut off their progress. Instinctively they were gathering in the places most sheltered by the barricade. Some entered the abandoned houses whose doors the dragoons had forced in order to utilize the upper floors. All seemed satisfied to be able to rest, even though they might soon have to fight. The officer went from group to group giving his orders. They must not fire till he gave the word.
Don Marcelo watched these preparations with the immovability of surprise. So rapid and noiseless had been the apparition of the stragglers that he imagined he must still be dreaming. There could be no danger in this unreal situation; it was all a lie. And he remained in his place without understanding the deputy who was ordering his departure with roughest words. Obstinate civilian! . . .
The reverberation of the explosion had filled the highway with horsemen. They were coming from all directions, forming themselves into the advance group. The Uhlans were galloping around under the impression that the village was abandoned.
Desnoyers was enveloped in a rain of crackling noises, as though the trunks of all the trees had split before his eyes.
The impetuous band halted suddenly. Some of their men were rolling on the ground. Some were bending themselves double, trying to get across the road without being seen. Others remained stretched out on their backs or face downward with their arms in front. The riderless horses were racing wildly across the fields with reins dragging, urged on by the loose stirrups.
And after this rude shock which had brought them surprise and death, the band disappeared, instantly swallowed up by the trees.