The train from Clapham to Farpoint wasn’t an impressive affair – mostly freight boxcars and a couple of open cars that would normally move lumber, but now were moving men. Standing on one of these was Major Miller, and as he held onto an upright post to keep his footing on the swaying platform, he watched the trees grow sparser beside the tracks.
Two hours from Terminus to Clapham – including a quick stop at Rossendale to pick up a Company of the South Saskatchewan Regiment – then a fast train change at Clapham Station, and another forty-five minutes on the rail. They were getting along quite quickly, so now the question was whether they’d reach Farpoint in time.
Most of the b’ys of ‘A’ and ‘B’ Companies were sitting on the car while their Skipper stood. Looking away from the trees, he turned his eyes to them and gave some approving nods to those who caught his gaze. There were many anxious men in ‘A’ and ‘B’ Companies. Unlike the b’ys of ‘C’ and ‘D’, who’d had the advantage of not knowing exactly what to expect the first time they’d been out to the grasslands, these men had read the stories, and knew what sort of horrors might await.
They were bearing their fear quietly, as good soldiers did, and Miller did his part by being the Skipper, as was expected. Even though he’d never seen a savage in his life, he wanted them to know he’d find a way for them to get through if things got tough. That he had no more clue than they did was irrelevant: they were his men, and he’d look after them as best as his old bones could manage.
It wouldn’t be long until they found out how difficult that would be, either; a very faint thunder began to sound in the distance – towards the western horizon.
At first not many noticed it, but as the train edged closer, making fifty miles per hour down the slope of the foothills, some began to stand on the open car, seeing what they could pick out with their eyes. Miller turned back and did the same, pulling out his field glasses and looking westward… but all he could see were trees.
As he lowered his glasses, Bill Sesk gingerly made his way up to the Major, “Seeing anything, Skipper?”
Miller shook his head, “Nothing yet. But I know that sound.”
“Me too,” Sesk spoke gruffly, and then pulled off his hat so the wind would cool him. “Think we’re too late?”
There was no way to know, and Miller admitted as much to his Captain, “I think it’ll depend on how well the Canadians can fight at Farpoint until we get there.”
Sesk took a deep breath and nodded. They’d have their answers soon enough.
The train’s leading car was a relatively comfortable passenger carrier, befitting a posh General. Unfortunately, posh was one word that couldn’t easily go into a sentence describing Sir Julian Byng, and now as he heard the thunder of guns in the distance, he stepped out onto the forward observation platform with his field glasses, to listen and to try to see.
There was still no clear line of sight as the train cut through the last clumps of trees on the shallow gradient. The foothills weren’t as high here as they were back at Terminus; he simply couldn’t see as far as he’d have liked.
He could hear the 18-pounders, though. Those were a battery from the 3rd New Brunswick Regiment, and they were firing as fast as the breach-loading monsters could – fast indeed.
That would be something new for the savages… something the Martians might have predicted after running across the Newfoundlanders’ mountain gun at Promised Town, but still something they hadn’t yet faced.
Good, long-ranged artillery… hot and hard-hitting.
Thrusting his hands back into his pockets, Byng looked to see who from his staff had followed him out onto the platform. It was Jimmy Devlin, looking more than a little out of place.
“Getting used to following me around yet, Captain Devlin?” Byng asked gruffly, and Devlin grinned.
“No sir, I certainly am not.”
That earned him a smile in reply, “Good man. I won’t steal you from your lads when we reunite you with Colonel Waller.”
Devlin appreciated both those messages – that Byng expected to see Waller and the b’ys again, and that Devlin wasn’t going to be a staff officer – but neither was able to completely pull his attention away from the thunder.
“I’ve never been on this spur before, sir,” the young Captain observed, then asked, “will we be able to see the town before we get close to it? Or are the trees too thick the whole way?”
Byng pulled his hands from his pocket and put them on his field glasses, which were suspended from his neck.
“We’ll see it soon, Captain. But maybe not soon enough.”
Devlin raised an eyebrow, but nodded. Whatever the General said.
Ed Colbert had made his way forward to join Sesk and Major Miller at the front of the open car when the train began taking a bend. The trees were thinning, and every man had his eyes skinned in hopes of catching a glimpse of the source of the thunder.
Still nothing, though. The wait was raising a great deal of tension, so much so that the Sergeants of ‘A’ and ‘B’ Companies had started creating distractions – tearing strips off a few b’ys about their equipment – to get everyone focused on something other than the noise.
Miller looked back at the car as they did this, and found that most of his men were looking to their rifles and their webbing, making sure they’d be ready when shooting began. Then he cast his eyes back east, along the seven-car train that they were aboard, and the six-car train that followed it. Thousands of men, chugging towards the sounds of the guns – companies from the Winnipeg Rifles, West Nova Scotia Regiment, and South Saskatchewan Regiment were aboard, along with the entire Calgary Rifle Regiment and half of Lord Strathcona’s Horse (without their horses, for there had been no time to load them).
Had all those battalions been present in their entirety, it would have been a mighty army indeed… but for now it was still strong.
Strong enough, though?
A hand tapped Miller on the shoulder, and he looked west again, just as the town of Farpoint came into view.
For all the things he had seen in his life, Herbert Miller couldn’t have been prepared for this sight.
“Colonel Sharp seems to be holding them…” Byng said as he stared through his glasses. “Looks like the Kents made it from Clapham in time, too. Their train is on one of the side tracks.”
He was muttering to himself more than he was narrating the scene for Devlin, but the young Captain appreciated hearing what was being seen anyway. Then he remembered that he had indeed brought his own field glasses, so he quickly pulled them from their case and lifted them to his eyes.
That was a horde alright, but it was by no means acting like any horde the b’ys had faced before. First of all, most noticeably, it was divided into what looked like five equally-sized blocks, and even at this distance – still several miles away – he could see the savages had space between them.
Open order. The Martians had spaced them out to reduce the effect-iveness of machine gun fire.
Three of the blocks of beasts were also being held back from the attack. Presumably the bastard Martians were simply probing the defenses with their first two companies, or whatever one could call a square of 2,000 savages.
And the 18-pounders of the 3rd New Brunswick Regiment’s battery seemed to have convinced the blue men to keep their distance. All the silver lorries were well back from the fighting, and it looked like they were sheltered by the reverse slope of a gentle hill – visible from the train, but probably eclipsed from the view of the gunners.
Gunfire was getting more evident, as the Glengarry Rifles, Canadian Dragoons, and the company of the Kent Regiment that had joined them from Clapham covered the north, west and south walls against probing columns of beasts. Devlin watched those probes with a deepening frown: the savages were advancing in waves, a dozen at a time seeming to leapfrog ahead, then drop behind their fallen fellows for cover.
The more the Imperial soldiers shot down, the more cover successive waves had as they approached.
A .303 bullet would, of course, go through a body, but with so many dead filling the fields around Farpoint, when savages dropped for cover, it was hard to pick them out as targets… Dammit, the beasts would be formidable when they fought with even a whit of military sense.
Lowering his glasses, Devlin glanced at the General, and wondered exactly how Sir Julian was going to inject the infantry aboard these two trains into the fight. Undoubtedly the extra 2,750 men would make a difference, if they could get into the town.
But how would they do that?
“Quite a situation,” Sir Julian almost seemed to be reading Devlin’s mind when he muttered those words, then lowered his glasses. “Hell of a way to show up at a fight, eh Captain Devlin?”
The young Newfoundlander nodded, “It is sir. I hope you’ve got more bright ideas about how to get in there than I do.”
“That’s why I’m the General, my boy,” Byng said. “I may not have a damned clue. But bugger if we won’t find a way.”
Devlin wasn’t entirely sure if that sentence made sense, but he didn’t dwell on the question. Instead, he waited for Byng’s orders, and without much further delay, they came.
“Sharp will be looking for our arrival… he’ll have enough men in place to open the gate and let us into the rail yard without compromising the defense. But we’ll have to do our part. Captain Devlin, pass the word back through the train, and to the train behind: all men and machine guns ready to fire from every window and rooftop. We’ll make sure they can’t overrun us as we head for that gate.”
Devlin reacted instinctively, saluting and then leaving Byng on the observation platform of the passenger car. As he stepped into the sparsely-populated headquarters carriage, though, he began to piece together the orders Byng had asked him to pass back through the companies.
They were going to race into town, go through the gate in the palisade that would let them into the rail yard, and fire like madmen the whole way to make certain no savages followed them in… or somehow derailed the train short of town.
It made sense, but somehow it struck Devlin as a dangerous venture.
How quickly could a train stop?
It didn’t much matter; better a wreck behind the palisades than being derailed and eaten. Jimmy hurried back through the car so he could start warning the men of what was coming.