Dick Hamilton's Cadet Days/Chapter 26
THE SHAM BATTLE
Forward marched the cadets, keeping step to the lively air of the fifes, and the accompanying rattle and boom of the drums. But regular formation and step were not maintained for long, only until the young soldiers were on the main road, when they were allowed to break step, and proceed as they pleased, the companies, however, keeping together.
It was an all day's tramp to camp, and they stopped midway on the road for lunch, the baggage wagons having been halted while the regular cooks of the academy, who had been taken along, prepared the meal.
"Wait until we get the tents up." said Dick, "then we'll have some fun. Nothing like life under canvas in the summer."
"Right, Captain Dick." replied Paul, trying to talk with part of a chicken sandwich in his mouth. Dick had not yet assumed his new command, but would as soon as camp was pitched.
They got to the place about five o'clock, and found that the tents had been unloaded from the wagons, and that the cooks had their white shelter already set up, and were preparing supper.
"Now, boys," said Major Webster, "I want to see how soldierly you can do things. You have had considerable practice in putting up tents, at least you older cadets have; now let's see how you have profited by your instruction."
In a short time the scene was one of great activity. Cadets were straightening out folds of canvas, laying out ropes, driving in tent pegs and, in less than half an hour, where there had been a green field, it was now dotted with spotless white peaked-roof houses of canvas.
"Very well done," complimented Colonel Masterly, who came out of the headquarters tent to look at the sight. "Very fine, indeed, major."
"Yes, I think they did well."
The next work was to dig a trench about each tent so that rain water could not settle about it, and this was quickly accomplished. This done the camp had a fine appearance, the tents being arranged in rows or company "streets."
By this time supper was announced, and the way the cadets put away the good things which the cooks had provided made those servants open their eyes. They were used to hungry boys eating, but they almost forgot to allow for the extra appetites created by work in the open air. It was some time since a general camp had been held at the academy.
After guard mount, sentinels were posted and orders given that no cadet would be allowed to leave camp. In spite of this some of Dutton's crowd, including himself, ran the guard that night and were nearly caught. However, this was to be expected, and it was considered no great crime.
The next day Dick was given charge of forty freshmen, and he took great delight in starting their instruction. There were drills to attend, lessons in tactics to learn, the best method to observe on a march, and illustrations given in artillery firing, for several field pieces had been brought along to use in the battle.
Cavalry exercises occupied a part of every day, and though the cadets had plenty of leisure they found that their time was pretty fully occupied, for Colonel Masterly and his staff wanted practical benefit to be derived from the camp life. Target practice in the open proved to many a cadet who had done well on the ranges that he had plenty yet to learn.
"I wish they'd hurry up and have that sham battle," remarked Paul to Dick one night. "Heard anything about it?"
"It takes place to-morrow," replied our hero. "Blank ammunition will be served out the first thing in the morning, and final instructions given. My company is to form part of the attacking party."
"That's good. I wonder where my bunch will be stationed? I wish I was an officer."
"It will come in time. You're to be on the defense, I believe. So is the company of freshmen that Foraker has charge of."
"Well, it won't make much difference. I'll not fire on you, if I can help it."
The plan for the sham battle was announced the next morning, after each cadet had been supplied with many rounds of blank cartridges. The young soldiers were divided into two equal commands. Somewhat to Dick's disgust Major Dutton was given charge of the attacking party, of which the millionaire's son and his young lads formed a part. Harry Hale, the football coach, who had also been elected a major, was to be on the defensive. The latter army was to occupy a wooded hill, back of the camp. At the foot of it ran a small stream, and to get at the defenders of the mound the attacking party would have to build a temporary bridge, which work was included in the instruction imparted at the academy.
To cover this operation, the artillery of the attacking party would be brought up, but, at the same time, the field pieces of the defenders might pour a devastating fire on the bridge builders from above.
The holders of the hill were to be stationed at the rear limits of it, while the attackers were to start their march about two miles from the foot of the slope. It was figured out that if the defenders could bring up their artillery, and other forces, and attack the enemy before a bridge could be built across the stream, the holders of the hill would win the battle. On the other hand, if the attackers could succeed in getting a body of cadets across the stream before a heavy artillery or rifle fire could be poured into them, they would win. The promptness of firing, the number of shots and general quickness were to count.
At the appointed time, Major Hale and his force took possession of the hill, and Major Dutton led his army two miles back, on the plain in front of it.
Dutton issued his orders.
"We'll try to surprise them," he said to his young officers. "We'll swing around in a half circle, and instead of building the bridge at the easiest place to cross the stream we'll try it farther down. They won't suspect that we'll come there, and we'll gain some time.
"But they'll have their pickets out," observed Russell Glen. "They'll see us."
"I'll send some of you to another point to pretend to build a bridge," decided Button. "That'll draw their fire, and they'll start their artillery toward that place. Before they find out that it's only a bluff we'll have the real bridge half done."
As the cadets had a record of building a thirty-foot bridge of the "A" style inside of four minutes, it seemed that Button's plan might be a good one.
"How are you going to carry the planks and spars for the bridge?" asked Glen. "On the field piece carriages?"
"No, we'll carry them ourselves. We can close up ranks so they won't see the boards."
This looked like a good plan, and the cadets made ready to carry it out.
"Hamilton," said Button sharply to our hero, "you'll take the rear guard, and stay there until you get orders to come up."
This was rather hard on Dick. It practically put him and his freshmen out of the battle, unless Dutton should order them to the front, and he was not very likely to do this. Still Dick could not object, and he made the best of it.
"Won't we see any of the fighting?" asked one of his command.
"Maybe so," replied the young millionaire. "They may need us for reinforcements."
Dick could not help but give Dutton credit for making his plans well. The young major led his men to the designated point, taking advantage of such inequalities of the ground as there were to conceal his movements. The ropes, beams and planks for the bridge were distributed among the cadets, several of them being required to carry the heavier pieces. The strongest lads were used for this work, and their rifles were taken in charge by their less-burdened comrades.
Then, when all was in readiness, Dutton gave the command to advance. He led the way, at the head of a company of infantry, while back of that came his cavalry force, and to the rear of that was massed his artillery, while Dick led the rear guard of freshmen.
Straight at the hill advanced the attacking army, while from convenient points Colonel Masterly and his staff of officers watched to decide who won.
"Skirmishers, advance!" ordered Dutton, and several cadets detached themselves from the cavalry and rode forward. As they approached there were puffs of white smoke from the slope of the hill, and the sharp crack of rifles announced that the pickets of Major Hale's force were on the alert. The skirmishers returned the fire, and then galloped back to report.
"They're waiting for us," Dutton was informed.
"So I see," he replied. "Now, then, we'll halt here a moment. You fellows that are to pretend to build the bridge, get ready to rush when I give the word. I'll send one field piece as if to cover your movements. Are you all ready there, Stiver?" for Lieutenant Stiver, with whom Dutton had again gotten on friendly terms, was to lead the fake movement.
"All ready," was the answer.
Out from the attacking force rushed a squad of cadets, bearing light planks. Of course, from the hill, it looked as if they were the advance guard of bridge builders. Particularly when there dashed out a field piece, drawn by galloping horses.
As the cadets approached the bank of the stream, and began to arrange their planks, the lads in charge of the cannon quickly wheeled it, unlimbered and fired the first shot. There was a white puff of smoke, a burst of flame, and a great bang went rattling and echoing among the hills. The battle had opened.
As Dutton had expected, his ruse deceived Hale. The latter quickly ordered up his entire artillery to shell the intrepid bridge builders. Dutton, watching through a field glass, saw the approach of the cannon.
"Forward march!" he cried to his main command. "Double quick!"
Quickness was everything now. Off they started, the real bridge builders and nearly his entire force, including Dick and his youngsters in the rear.
They circled around a turn in the stream, and, for a time, were out of sight of the small force left to bear the attack.
"Build the bridge here!" ordered Dutton. "Lively now, boys. See if you can't break the record."
The cadets needed no urging. Two of them quickly plunged into the stream, and, partly swimming, partly wading, carried over some ropes. By means of these they pulled over spars and planks, which, when several of their companions hurriedly joined them, they proceeded to lash together. The same operation was going on among the cadets on the other side of the brook.
Two long spars were laid down on the ground, at right angles to the stream. At the further extremity of these spars a cross piece was lashed, projecting on either side. Ropes were attached to the projections, and the unconnected ends of the long spars, being held down to the ground by several lads, the others quickly raised the connected ends, just as a painter hoists a long ladder. The same thing took place on the farther side of the brook, and, when both squads were ready, the two parts of the bridge that were to form the two slanting sides of a double letter "A" were allowed to incline toward each other, from either side of the water, cadets having hold of the ropes, regulating and guiding the long spars. The big sticks met in mid air, over the centre of the stream, and being well braced at the bottom, held. Then cadets climbed up on either side, and united them more firmly by lashing them.
Something like a double letter "A," but without the cross piece, now spanned the brook. Or, perhaps, it would be more correct say that it was a double inverted "V". It was necessary to put on cross spars, and lay planks on these, or the artillery and cavalry could not get over. And, as there were no spars long enough to reach all the way across the stream, two sections had to be used on either side of the bridge. They were to be tied together, and supported at the centre, or place of joining, by long ropes, attached to the apex of the letter "A."
Though up to this time the main attacking party had not been fired on, they could not hope to escape much longer. Already puffs of white smoke from the hillside indicated that they had been seen by pickets. A minute later Dutton's trick was discovered, and Hale ordered his artillery to cease firing on the fake bridge builders, and to turn their attack on the others.
But Dutton was ready for this. He had his field pieces in position, and, as soon as he saw that his soldiers had the bridge well under way, he began shelling the defenders, who were rushing down the hill to the attack. The infantry also began to pour in a withering fire.
The ropes, by which the long spars had been lowered and inclined across the stream, now served as guys to hold them steady and in place, while the floor beams were being put in position.
"Lively!" cried Dutton. "They're making it too hot for us! We must cross soon, or we'll lose! They came at us quicker than I expected!"
Meanwhile the little force that had started to build the fake bridge had (theoretically) been killed.
Now the long floor timbers were in place, being supported at the centre by long ropes, hanging from the point of the "A," and the cadets were beginning to lay cross planks on them.
"Tell the cavalry to get ready to advance, to protect our crossing," ordered Dutton, to one of his captains, and the troop of lads on their restless steeds prepared to rush across the bridge at the first possible moment. It had only been a little over three minutes since the building of the structure was started, but a heavy artillery fire was being concentrated on the attackers, and, in accordance with instructions previously given, cadets began dropping out, being supposed to be killed.
Dutton's field pieces were pounding away, and there was a thick cloud of smoke, which partly concealed the movements of his cadets.
"Bridge is ready, major!" reported a smoke-begrimed lad, running up, and saluting. Then he hastened back to continue firing on Hale's soldiers.
"Advance, cavalry!" shouted Button. "Lively now! Charge!"
The horses, urged on by their shouting riders, thundered over the frail bridge. It trembled and swayed, but it supported them.
"Forward, the infantry!" cried the young major. "On the double quick! Here they come down the hill at you! Fire at will! Charge!"
Down the slope of the hill came rushing the defenders. Behind them thundered and rumbled their artillery, which was supporting their brave advance in the face of the enemy.
"Artillery, forward!" shouted Dutton, waving his sword, and hoping, by throwing his entire force suddenly upon Hale's army, to overpower it, and get in more shots than could his opponent. That meant he would win the battle.
"Shall I stay here?" cried Dick, for he had received no orders what to do with his force, and was still on the farther side of the bridge.
"Yes! Until I send for you, or you see that you are needed," called back Dutton. "I guess I can get along without you."
Louder roared the cannon; and the cracks of the rifles of the infantry, and the carbines of the cavalry, was like the explosion of pack after pack of giant firecrackers.
Then something happened. As the three field pieces rumbled across the bridge, there was an ominous cracking and splintering sound. Dutton heard it and turned back from his rush, which he had started on to be in readiness to lead the charge of his artillery. He saw the bridge swaying.
"Come on! Come on!" he cried, waving his sword. "Come on!"
But it was too late. The middle supporting ropes had slipped, and the bridge collapsed at the centre, letting horses, cannon and cadets down into the stream, which, fortunately, was not deep.
Dutton had, at one blow, lost all his artillery, while Hale's was advancing to annihilate him and his force. The boom of the defenders' field pieces sounded nearer and nearer, while their rifle fire became hotter than ever.
Dutton saw himself defeated by the inopportune collapse of the bridge, which had been insecurely lashed together. But he would not give up.
"Forward! Forward!" he cried. "Split up and attack 'em on both sides.
His cavalry and infantry rushed forward, firing as they ran. Dick Hamilton, left with his little body of troops on the other side of the stream, saw his opportunity.
"Quick!" he cried to his lads. "We'll go back and get the guns at the fake bridge. Then we'll pull it across and we'll see if we can execute a flank movement."
"That's the stuff!" cried some of the lads, who had begun to fear they would never get a chance to fire their rifles.
Dick led his men on the double quick to where the field piece, from which only a few shots had been fired, had been left. He saw a chance to turn defeat into victory.