Death to the French (aka Rifleman Dodd)

BOOK: Death to the French (aka Rifleman Dodd)
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C.S. Forester

Death To The French

Also published as "Rifleman Dodd"

Chapter I

HALF A DOZEN horsemen were picking their way up a breakneck path. The leader of them was most conspicuous by the excellence of his mount, for his saddle fittings were severely plain and he wore a plain blue cape and coat and an unglazed cocked hat in sharp contrast with the scarlet coats and plumes of several of his followers. But when he pulled up at the brow of the hill and peered keenly forward across the tangled countryside some hint might be gained of the qualities which constituted him the leader. He had an air of authority and of composed self-reliance, and his blue eyes swept across the valley in a glance which noted its features instantly. The big, arrogant nose told the reason why the men in the ranks called him 'Conky' and 'The long-nosed beggar that beats the French,' just as the hauteur of his expression explained why his subordinates alluded to him half ruefully, half deferentially, as 'The Peer.'Drawn up below him was a column of scarlet-coated infantry, standing at ease; right ahead keen sight could discern little clusters and groups of men in green, mere dots on the landscape, sheltering behind trees and in dips in the ground. An occasional puff of smoke told that beyond the skirmishing line was the enemy. Lieutenant-General Lord Wellington hitched his sabretache on to his saddlebow, opened a notebook on it, and scribbled a few words on one of its pages, which he tore out. A scarlet-coated dragoon officer walked up his horse alongside as he did so, and took the folded sheet.

'For General Craufurd,' was all that was said to him. The dragoon mechanically repeated 'For General Craufurd' and set his horse at the steep slope before them.

'Time for Craufurd to get back, Murray,' said Wellington.

'Now I want to see the columns across the river.' He wheeled his horse and set spurs to him, and next moment they were clattering down the stony path again, sparks flying and accoutrements clashing as the rest of the staff tried to maintain the breakneck speed and headlong carelessness of danger which characterized the movements across country of the Commander-in-Chief. The dragoon officer would have a busy time trying to find his way back to his post of duty after delivering the order which sets this tale in motion. A bugle was sounding out to the left.

'Fire and retire,' said a lieutenant to himself, listening to the high long-drawn notes. 'And not too soon, either. Where's that picket?' He strode away along the top of the little hill to look for it, with his crooked sword trailing at his side. To the conservative military eye his uniform was a ludicrous mixture. It was dark green instead of the scarlet which had won honour for itself on fifty battlefields; the black braid on it, the busby, the pelisse hung across the shoulders, all indicated, absurdly in an infantryman, an aping of Hussar equipment accentuated by the crooked sword. Yet it was only natural, because the Ninety Fifth Foot were supposed to inherit some of the traditions set up by the Hussars when they were the most irregular of irregular horse. On the other hand the colour of the tunic, and the bugle horn badge, were no legacy from the Hussars-they recalled to the memory the fact that the first rifle regiments employed by the British Government had been recruited from the huntsmen of German princelings. Nevertheless no one now dreamed of sneering at this fantastic attire; the Ninety Fifth Foot- the Rifle Brigade-had in the short ten years of its existence won itself a reputation worthy of the envy of any older unit.

'Fire and retire,' repeated the lieutenant to himself, as the bugle called again more insistently. There was a scattering rifle fire out to the left now, to endorse the urgency of the call. The dozen riflemen standing awaiting the lieutenant's decision on the top of the hill showed no signs of agitation. They knew their officer and trusted him, despite the fact that he was not yet nineteen years old. They had twice followed him across Spain, to Corunna and Talavera-to say nothing of the dreary marshes of Walcheren-and they knew they could rely on him. The lieutenant shaded his eyes with his hand, but as he did so there was a clatter of equipment down in the valley and the missing picket came running up the hill.

'You're late, sergeant,' snapped the lieutenant.

'Yes sir. We was nearly cut off and had to get round them,' explained the sergeant, and then, apologetically, 'Dodd's missing, sir.'

'Dodd's missing?'

'Yessir. I sent him forward and-'

'Do you know what happened to him?'

'No, sir. Didn't hear any shots fired out his way.'

The bugle rang out again amid a spatter of musketry.

'We can't wait for him,' said the lieutenant, with a decision acquired in a hundred rearguard actions. 'Sorry for him, but I expect he'll find his way back to us. Fall in, there. Left in file. Quick march.' And the half company moved off, their rifles at the trail.

The Ninety Fifth were part of Craufurd's famous Light Division, whose boast was that they were always first into action and last out. Now they were covering the last stages of Wellington's retreat to the lines of Torres Vedras-the retreat during which they captured more prisoners than they left behind. But to-day they would have to report at least one 'missing'-Rifleman Matthew Dodd, cut off from his unit by the fortune of war.

Chapter II

RIFLEMAN MATTHEW DODD was already aware that he was cut off, although at the moment he was too occupied in saving his life to consider the consequences. He had been making his way back through the olive groves to his picket when he had heard strange voices ahead and had glimpsed strange uniforms. Bent double, and sweating under his pack, he had scurried through the undergrowth in the valley trying to make his way round the enemies who had interposed across his line of retreat. Half an hour of violent exertion had, he thought, brought him clear, when at that very moment a shout told him that he was observed by some other detachment. A musket rang out not far away from him and a bullet smacked into a tree-trunk a dozen yards away. He turned and ran again, uphill this time, in a direction which he knew took him away from his friends but which alone, as far as his skirmisher's instinct told him, was still not barred by the French advance guard. There were more shouts behind him and a crashing among the undergrowth which told him that he was closely pursued by a dozen men. He dashed along up the steep slope, his pack leaping on his back, and his ammunition pouches pounding on his ribs. Soon he emerged from the olive grove on to an open, heather-covered hillside. There was nothing for it but to continue his flight without the protection of the friendly trees-either that, at least, or to turn back and surrender, and Dodd was not of the type which surrenders too easily.

He ran heavily up the hill. Twenty seconds later the first of his pursuers reached the edge of the grove, and had him in clear view. They raised their muskets and fired at him, one after the other as they came up, but Dodd was a hundred yards away by now, and no one could hope to hit a man a hundred yards away with a musket, especially when panting from heavy exertion. Dodd heard the shots, but hardly one of the bullets came near enough for him to hear it. He climbed on up the steep slope until, when the last shot had been fired, he deemed it safe to spare a moment to glance back. Half a dozen Frenchmen were reloading their muskets; half a dozen more were starting up the hill after him. Dodd plunged forward again through the clinging heather.

The hill, like all the hills in Portugal, was steep and rocky and seemingly interminable, rising bleakly up from between two wooded valleys. He laboured up it, his steps growing slower and slower as the slope increased. Half-way up he stopped and looked back again.

The Frenchmen had ceased their pursuit and had drawn together to go back down to the road. Dodd's jaws clenched hard together. He threw himself down among the heather and pushed his, rifle forward; an outcrop of rock provided a convenient rest. He cocked the rifle, saw to it that the priming was still in place, and then looked along the barrel.

Although a musket might miss a house at a hundred yards, the rifle could be relied on to hit a group of men at twice that distance. He pressed the trigger, and the flint fell. The priming took fire-in dry weather not more than one shot in ten missed fire-and the rifle went off. Through the smoke lie saw one of the Frenchmen down the slope lurch forward and fall, rolling down the incline a little way before he lay still.

A yell of rage went up from the Frenchmen and they turned to pursue him again, but Dodd leaped to his feet and ran once more up the slope. One or two ineffectual shots were fired after him, but they went wide. And after a hundred yards or so more the Frenchmen abandoned the pursuit again, and went back to where some of them were still stooping over the wounded man. Dodd had taken his revenge for being chased off his best line of retreat. It was annoyance at this fact which had caused him to fire that parting shot, for in the Peninsular War casual shootings were not encouraged by high authority: the general commanding in chief had confidence in the persistence of the 'offensive spirit' among his men without any additional stimulus.

Chapter III

A DOZEN French soldiers were marching down a Portuguese by-road. They were a shabby enough group in appearance, for their blue uniforms had been badly dyed originally and now, after months of exposure to the weather, had changed colour in patches, greenish and whitish and reddish, here and there, and every coat was torn and darned in sundry places. Their shakos were dented and shapeless, and the cheap brass finery which adorned tunics and shakos was dull and dirty. Up to the knees their legs were white with dust, and their faces were grimed and bearded. Every man marched bent beneath a mountainous pack, round which was looped his greatcoat, and from which depended all sorts of curious bundles, varying with each individual save as regards one bundle, the most curious of them all. Each man carried one of these-eight hard flat cakes, irregularly square, strung on a cord, through holes in the middle, for all the world like monstrous Chinese coins. The likeness had been noted in the French army, and these cakes were always alluded to as 'cash.' Each weighed one pound, and represented one day's rations.

A French general considered he had done his duty by his men if he issued one pound of this flinty bread per head per day-anything else they needed he expected them to gain from the countryside. When the advance was resumed after the defeat at Busaco every man was given fourteen of these one-pound biscuits, and told to expect no further issue of rations until Lisbon was reached; from which it can be deduced that these men had been six days on the march from Busaco. Six days ahead of them lay the Lines of Torres Vedras, barring them eternally from Lisbon, but they did not know that. No one in the French army as yet knew of the existence of the Lines.

Sergeant Godinot was in command of the party, and the six men behind him were his particular friends, Boyel, Dubois, little Godron, and the others. Two hundred yards ahead marched the 'advance guard' of two men; two hundred yards behind came the 'rear guard,' for although the detachment was marching in the midst of the French army precautions had to be taken against ambush, for in Portugal every man's hand was against them. Even when Godinot called a halt, and the exhausted men lay down to rest at the side of the road in the shade, one man was detailed to patrol round them.

'How much farther before we find this uncle of yours, sergeant?' asked Boyel. Godinot had an uncle who was a general in Soult's army in the south; for eight hundred miles of marching the sergeant had been encouraging his section with descriptions of the golden times he and his friends would enjoy when they came under his command. Godinot shrugged his shoulders.

'Patience,' he said. 'We'll find him sooner or later, never fear. Have I not brought you safely so far?'

'You can call it safe, I suppose,' said little Godron. He was lying on his back with his legs in the air to relieve his aching feet. 'Marching, for six months. One good meal a week when we've been lucky. A battle once a month and a siege every Sunday.'

'There's gratitude,' said Godinot, grinning so that his white teeth flashed brilliantly in contrast with his sunburned face and black moustache. 'Who was it found that jeweller's shop when we took Astorga? Why, there are three gold watches ticking in your pack this very minute, you-you ungrateful viper. How you've kept them I don't know. That little Spanish girl at Rodrigo took all my loot from me. But we'll get some more before long. Just wait till we find my uncle. He's the chap for me.'

BOOK: Death to the French (aka Rifleman Dodd)
12.15Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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