In this excerpt from Chapter 30 of Book II the Foreign Rifles are attacking for the second time the walled city of Sungkiang (Songjiang) and are trapped like “turtles in a pot 壺中之龜” in the courtyard between the inner and outer east gates and have just set blackpowder charges against the inner gate.
“All the way out,” Hannibal shouted, “out the other gate.” This will not be just firecrackers, you fools.
The 1st Platoon ran on down the length of the passage and through the outer gate, taking shelter at the foot of the wall on either side, protected by the rifles of platoons across the moat. Only Fletcher, Hannibal, and Vincente remained, just inside the archway, anxiously watching over the sizzling fuses. The smell of the burning black powder drifted into the archway and up the walls. A shout in Chinese echoed around the courtyard. Rebels disappeared off the walls. After a few moments, a rope dropped down from the barbican and a soldier climbed down, followed by another, and started for the explosives. Fletcher’s Colt Navy dropped the first before he took six steps, and the second as he touched the ground.
“Damned fuses’re as slow as a woman!” Hannibal hissed. “How long’re you gonna stand here?”
Inside the inner gate, there were sounds like fumbling with the wood bar that served as a latch.
“This is going to be close,” Fletcher said. “You and Vincente go on.”
“Au revoir, mon amie,” Hannibal said, shaking his head. He turned and withdrew back into the passage. Macanaya stayed.
“Vincente, get the hell out of here,” Fletcher whispered. “It’s about to blow!”
Fletcher watched for the door to open a crack, ready to shoot the first rebel who came through, and guessed at the time left on the shortest fuse. He put from his mind the vision of a fuse burning unevenly and sputtering up the last couple of inches in a single flash.
“I go when you go, koronel,” Vincente said, craning his neck around Fletcher to see the fuses.
“Hell, you just want to pick up the pieces.”
“Not so many pieces, maybe.”
They both leapt for the opposite side of the passageway and dashed toward the other end. The rest of the platoon was no longer anywhere under the wall. Fletcher and Vincente just made it over the scorched remnants of the outer gate when the charges went off, not all at quite the same time. The deafening explosions sent flames and debris high into the air, kindled the towers above both inner and outer gates, and incinerated the walls inside the passage. Flames belched out through the outer gate like dragon’s breath.
“Good lord!” Falconer muttered. Looking on from across the moat, he might have sworn that the entire structure – wall, gate, and towers – was lifted off the ground by the finger of God.
Fletcher and Vincente lay next to the moat, where the concussion of the blast had thrown them. Fletcher felt as if he had been struck down by a runaway wagon, several times. He could not find any place on his body that did not hurt, and the cathedral bells were ringing again inside his head. With great effort, he rolled over. Vincente was on his back staring into the night sky.
“Humihinga pa, Vincente?”
Vincente’s chest heaved. “Si, señor, it would seem so.”
After a moment, Vincente added: “This very hard way make living, koronel.”
“Ha! Would you talk like a woman? C’mon, that was just the sideshow – now the circus really starts.”
Fletcher slowly struggled onto his knees.
“See how…easy it is?” he said.
Fletcher lifted one knee and put the foot flat on the ground, pressed both palms on the raised knee, and pushed with the other foot, letting out a long groan as he slowly rose to his feet. He looked around groggily, then reached down for Vincente.
“This way,” he said, starting for the wall. Vincente looked in the other direction.
“Shanghai, that way, señor.” Fletcher looked back over Vincente’s shoulder for a moment. Going back to Shanghai now would lose everything.
“C’mon – this way,” he said ruefully, starting for the wall, lurching. Vincente followed.
Hannibal watched them as they climbed over the broken outer gate and reentered the passage. That explosion was a helluva of stage trick, he thought, a coup de théâtre, of which I had not thought our colonel capable.
“First Platoon, follow me!” Hannibal shouted, and the Manilamen formed up behind their officer as he entered the gate behind Fletcher and Vincente. The walls of the corridor were blackened as if with chimney soot and were smoking hot. They stank of exploded black powder. At the entrance to the courtyard, they found their colonel and sergeant staring at the inner gate in dumb disbelief.
The doors were undamaged – seemingly untouched but for a huge blast scar and a lot of scoring. The courtyard was thick with ash and smoke, and the smell of burnt powder, and was as hot as a kiln. The formerly gray stone walls were as black as boiler clinkers, and fragments of debris and tufts of grass were on fire, but the door was like some monument impervious to the machinations of men.
“Lord,” Hannibal said with a sigh, “tell me for what sins I am being punished.” From coup de théâtre, he thought, to Grand Guignol, from melodrama to the macabre.
Black smoke, drifting white ash, and floating red sparks settled at the foot of the inner gate. Archers and pikemen appeared on the wall, peered timidly over the parapets and, seeing the gate was unhurt, jeered at the foreigners. The entire gate was not visible from inside the archway, so Fletcher stepped out into the courtyard. An arrow whizzed past his collar, and he returned the courtesy with his .38 and sent a round whining off the stone of a parapet. Manilamen stepped out from under the archway and ringed him round, rifles pointed up at the walls. Each time a head poked up far enough over a parapet, and a weapon showed, the rebel got a lead ball for his trouble. Fletcher figured they could not stand out in the open for very long before the rebel hordes got past their befuddlement over the explosion and came at them again. He started to turn away, but then caught sight of something curious.
“Hello!” he said. “A bunghole!” At the corner of the left door, teakwood planks had separated from the lowest iron hinge.
Hannibal peered out. “An oily rabbit couldn’t get through there,” he fussed.
“Major, get some more men out here to cover us.”
On the major’s order, the rest of the men streamed out into the courtyard and took up positions under the walls. With covering fire, Fletcher felt safe enough to genuflect before the gate and peer through the opening.
On the other side of the inner gate was another passageway, shorter than that under the outer wall , lit by torches under the archway at the far end. The archway faced south and Fletcher could see the outline of the stone embankments of the creek, where it emerged from the water gate. The shadow of a small bridge crossed over the creek, and sallowish lanterns lit the facades of shops and restaurants along the far side of a large, dark empty space. Beyond the buildings, rising high into the night above, was the darker silhouette – the distinctive shape of the pagoda visible above the wall earlier in the day. The passageway was empty – the explosion would have frightened everyone away and, anyway, all the rebel soldiers were above on the walls. Beyond the creek, where a short stretch of wall became visible, lay wounded men and piles of dead, and he could see wounded under lanterns on the creek bridge. Fletcher leaned back against the wall and dismantled his Colt to replace the cylinder.
“Major Benedict,” Fletcher said loudly, standing up, “send a messenger to bring over the other platoons. Leave Falconer and the 2nd Platoon in their present position, to deny the enemy the use of the outer gate, and suppress activity on the battlements.”
“We go in?” Vincente asked, wide-eyed.
“Of course we go in. Come on, men. Tayo na, let’s go!”
Fletcher knelt again at the opening, pushed his shoulders under the bent iron of the lowest hinge, turned sideways and flattened between the door and the wall, scraped at the gravel with his boots, and wriggled through.
Roughly thirty-eight men of the 1st Platoon, those still standing, watched dumbstruck as the koronel himself crawled through the tiny hole under the charred gate, ahead of everyone else, into a town full of raging rebels. They all crowded forward, jostling to be next after him.
Fletcher stood up, alone and unseen by the enemy, and examined the damage to the heavy bar securing the gate. The force of the explosion, which evidently went mostly straight up, pushed hard against the two great doors – enough to put a crack the teakwood bar. With effort, a detachment of his men might get the door open and let through the rest of the platoons. He walked slowly forward along the west wall to the archway, removed the torch from its niche and extinguished it against the stone wall. Behind him, he could hear Vincente scraping through the hole under the gate.
Fletcher stepped to his right around the archway. The creek, on his left, continued west into the town; there was another bridge over the creek about two hundred feet away. On the west side of the large empty square were more lantern-lit shops and restaurants and past them another black silhouette with three roofs stood out dark against the backdrop of the night sky. He turned around and, atop the wall, counted six rebel howitzers. He fancied that he could hear rifle fire from Falconer’s 2nd Platoon, pinning down rebels on the outside of the wall.
“Yang-kuei-tzu, foreign devil!”
A high-pitched cry came from the bridge opposite the archway. Wounded men sat up and stared in silent astonishment at the lone devil in black standing under the archway in dim torchlight. A wounded bowman loosed a shaft that nicked the arm of the black devil’s coat and, as he nocked another arrow, the devil shot the archer. A musket flashed on the bridge, a ball whizzed past the devil’s ear, and the devil shot that man before he could reload. Three more on the bridge, wounded officers, shook off their stupefaction, drew their swords, and limped toward the enemy.
The two shots of Fletcher’s revolver seemed extraordinarily loud and rang in his ears. The rapid gunshots called the attention of every rebel within hearing to the solitary black devil. Musket balls and arrows thunked into the face of the archway or ricocheted whining into the passage.
The wounded rebels on the bridge saw the ugly face of another devil appear beside the first, a darker devil, holding a western-style rifle. Behind the two devils, in the dim light at the far end of the passageway, another devil was appearing – from under the door of the inner gate! The door of the inner gate was foaling devils!
“You make them very mad, páre,” Vincente said, chuckling as he chambered a paper cartridge.
Fletcher looked around at the Manilaman and heaved a sigh of relief.
“Vincente, I am very glad to see you.”
“Nice to be here, páre.”
“Yang-kuei-tzu, Yang-kuei-tzu!” The cry was taken up on the bridge and then on the wall above the archway. Rebel soldiers came lumbering along the top of the wall, firing wildly at the archway. Several stopped immediately above and knelt to take careful aim. Vincente and Fletcher quickly stepped back into the shelter of the archway. Vincente put out the other torch.
A rebel officer yelled a command. The rebels around him rushed for the summit of a wide ramp that came down from the wall over the creek and ended twenty feet from the archway. Fifty angry, screaming rebels lunged down the ramp to kill the intruders.
[To be continued]