then in fact in command,
The arrangements were soon made. Eight men, four to each machinegun position, took their places, each man with one other to act as his loader and to pass him a refilled weapon. Corville placed Jenson, and Schwarzt with Smith and one other man, taking Brunner. Henriques, and a small, wiry Basque as his own team. Tensely they crouched behind the merlons, gauging distances and trying to forget that, even as they fired, they would be targets to the watching Arabs.
“Ready?” Corville rested his cheek against the stock of the Lebel, drawing a bead on an inch of turban showing from behind a rock. “Let the volunteers start as soon as we open fire. Now!”
Eight rifles spat as one and an Arab, his turban splotched with red, sprang from behind his cover, shrieked a prayer to Allah, and died with four bullets in his body. Again the rifles sent echoes across the surrounding hills, again, again, the swift reports sounding almost as if the men were using machineguns instead of bolt-action rifle. Corville aimed and fired, aimed and fired until his mental count told him that he was using his last cartridge. Swiftly he threw down the rifle, lifted the loaded weapon his attendant had placed in his hand, and was firing again without a second’s pause.
Splinters of rock and shattered stone flew from where the machineguns rested behind their barricades. One gun began to stutter its song of death then fell silent as lead whined towards the gunner. For a moment it seemed that the plan would succeed then, as the watching tribesmen saw what was happening, rifle fire echoed from the hills and leaden messengers of death whined through the burning heat towards the fort.
The Basque swore, stared stupidly at the sun, then toppled lifeless towards the sand below. Henriques twisted as if something had cut the nerves of his legs, screamed in a strange, high-pitched voice, then, his kepi falling from a head that was a red-stained ruin, fell towards the compound. Corville gritted his teeth as splinters of dried brick stung his cheek, fired at a turbaned head, swore as the rifle jerked almost out of his hands, and flung it down, its stock torn and his barrel bent by the heavy bullet from a Jezail. Quickly he re-aligned the new weapon handed to him, then swore with hopelessness as a machinegun began to spray the fort with lead.
“Down!” He snatched at Brunner’s arm. “Down, you fool!”
“I’ll get that gunner first.” Brunner, a study in cool detachment, aimed as if he were back on his own Yorkshire Moors shooting at nothing more harmful than a rabbit. Twice he fired then, as he grunted and took more careful aim, the hosing death from the machinegun swept towards him.
Corville shuddered as he turned away from the body. Brunner had been a handsome man but now? Now his head had been literally ripped from his body and blood spouted from the severed arteries.
Smith came crawling towards the officer, his face grim as he stared down into the compound. Corville followed his gaze, half-hoping that the volunteers had managed to win a little water. His heart sank as he saw two figures sprawled beside the well.
“Snipers,” explained Smith. “They were more clever than we thought. The machineguns were to keep us down and their own snipers covered the well.” He stared at the men who had died. “Eight men dead and not a cupful of water in return.”
“I shall be the next to try,” said Corville harshly. “We must have water, even a canteen would do. You can’t hope to cross the desert without it.”
“I’m not crossing the desert, sir, I told you that.” Smith snatched up a rifle and fired at a distant shape. A thin scream echoed from the surrounding hills and a blob of white sprawled across the rocks. The sergeant smiled with grim humour as he reloaded his Lebel.
“That’s one devil the less. I wish that they were all as easy to kill.”
“Someone must carry the news to Colonel Le Farge,” insisted