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1636: The Ottoman Onslaught: Chapter Nineteen

       Last updated: Friday, November 4, 2016 20:09 EDT



Bavaria, on the Amper river
Two and a half miles east of Zolling

    Lt. Colonel Jeff Higgins was staring down at the reason his regiment had not gotten in radio contact with divisional headquarters.

    His radio specialist, Jimmy Andersen, still had his hands clutched around his throat. Lying on his back just outside the entrance to the radio tent, in a huge pool of drying blood. His eyes looked like a frog’s, they were bulging so badly.

    “Jesus wept,” Jeff whispered. Some part of his mind knew that — if he survived this day himself — Jeff would be weeping too, come nightfall. Jimmy Andersen had been one of his best friends since…

    He tried to remember how far back. First grade. They’d met in first grade. They’d both been six years old.

    It was obvious what had happened. Jimmy had heard the gunfire, come out of the tent to investigate — not even a radio nut like Jimmy Andersen would have sent a message before doing that much — and a stray bullet — dear God, it had to been almost spent, at that distance — had ruptured his throat. The last two or three minutes of his life would have been a horror, as he bled out while choking to death. The only slight mercy was that he’d probably fainted from the blood loss fairly soon. From the looks of it, the bullet had nicked the carotid as well as severing his windpipe.

    A freak death. But they were always a feature of battles. It would have probably happened right at the beginning, when the initial Bavarian charge allowed them to come within a hundred yards of the radio tent. Right now, the enemy cavalry had pulled back a ways and the front line — such as the ragged thing was — wasn’t close enough any more for a bullet to have carried this far.

    What had happened to the assistant radio operator? Jeff looked around but didn’t see him. He’d probably just run off, panicked by the surprise attack and the still greater surprise of seeing his immediate superior slain like that.

    “Should I contact HQ, Colonel?” asked one of Jeff’s adjutants. That was…

    Jeff’s mind was foggy and this was one of the new recruits to the regiment. It took him two or three seconds to pull up the fellow’s name.

    Zilberschlag. Lieutenant Jacob Zilberschlag. He’d been commissioned just two months earlier, and was the first Jewish officer in the division. Probably the first Jewish officer in the whole USE army, for that matter. Mike would have made a place for him.

    More to the point, Zilberschlag was one of the few officers who knew how to use a radio.

    “Yes, please, lieutenant. Get General Stearns. I need to speak to him — and quickly.

    While he waited for Zilberschlag to make contact, Jeff shook his head in order to clear his brain. He had no time right now to let Jimmy’s death fog up his thoughts.

    The situation was… stable, sort of, but that wouldn’t last long. The Hangman Regiment had been caught by surprise and battered bloody, but they’d held together long enough to survive the initial clash. Their one bit of good fortune was that they’d only been fighting cavalry and they’d never broken and run. Routed infantry got slaughtered by cavalry, but if they could stand their ground it would be the cavalry that eventually broke off first.

    Yes, the fighting had been one-sided but not that one-sided, especially after the first five minutes passed and the regiment was still hanging together. The Bavarian cavalry had taken something of a beating too. A bruising, at least.

    Jeff could see the river, not more than twenty yards away. The enemy cavalry had pulled back a few minutes ago. That almost certainly meant that they’d been ordered to cover the infantry who’d now be crossing over the from the south bank — right where Captain Finck, bless his miserable special forces black heart — had suggested would make a good place for an army to do that.

    Which meant the Hangman Regiment had to retreat. Now. Fall back a third of a mile or so, however far they had to in order to link up with the 1st Brigade.

    He looked back down at his old friend’s corpse. He’d have to leave it here. There was no time for a burial party. Hopefully, they’d be able to retrieve Jimmy’s body later. Or if the Bavarians wound up in possession of the field, maybe they’d bury him.

    But Jeff didn’t think they’d be in possession, when everything was said and done. Tonight, maybe. Not tomorrow, though.

    The Bavarians had caught them flat-footed, sure enough. The Third Division’s commander had screwed up, no doubt about it. But that was all over and done with — and the battle was just getting started.

    Jeff’s money was on Mike Stearns. Fuck Piccolomini and Duke Maximilian and the horses they rode in on.

    “General Stearns wants to talk to you, Colonel.” Zilberschlag now had the radio case mounted on his back. He came over, handed Jeff the old-style telephone receiver and turned his back so Jeff wouldn’t have to stretch the cord.

    “Yes, sir,” Jeff said.

    “What kind of shape are you in, Colonel?

    “We’re pretty beat up. I figure we’ve lost…” Jeff tried to estimate what the regiment’s casualties had been. That was bound to be guesswork at this stage. He also knew from experience that casualties usually seemed worse than they were until all the dust had settled and a hard count could be made of those who were actually dead, those who were wounded — and, of those, how many were mortally injured, how many would recover fully and how many would have to return to civilian life. It always surprised Jeff a little how many people came through what seemed like a holocaust completely uninjured. He’d done it himself in several battles now.



    But wild-ass guess or not, the general needed an answer. “I figure we’ve lost maybe twenty percent of our guys, all told. Most of those are wounded, not killed, but they’re out of the fight now.”

    “Not good, but better than I feared. How’s your morale? Your men’s, I mean. I know yours is solid. It always is.”

    Jeff felt a little better, hearing that. He had a tremendous amount of respect for Mike Stearns. It was nice to know that the man had a high regard for him as well.

    “We’re solid, General. We held ’em off and now the guys are mostly pissed.”

    “All right. Here’s what I want you to do…

    After Stearns finished the quick sketch of his plans, he asked: “Any questions?

    Jeff’s answer came immediately. “No, sir. Our part’s about as simple as it gets. Hook up with von Taupadel, hunker down along the river, and hold the bastards in place while you do all the complicated stuff.”

    “That’s pretty much it. Is there anything else?”

    Jeff hesitated. This wasn’t really part of military protocol since the commanding general of a whole division didn’t need to be told every detail of the casualties they’d suffered, but…

    “Jimmy Andersen was killed, Mike.”

    There was silence on the other end of the radio for a moment. Then Stearns said: “I’m sorry, Jeff. I truly am.”

    “War sucks, what can you say? Hangman Regiment out.”



Bavaria, Third Division field headquarters
Village of Haag an der Amper

    Mike stared down at the radio receiver he still held in his hand.

    Jimmy Andersen dead…

    The Four Musketeers, the kids had liked to call themselves: Jeff Higgins, Larry Wild, Jimmy Andersen, Eddie Cantrell.

    Four teenagers, close friends in the way that geeky boys in a rural area will stick together — the more so because all four of them had lost their entire families in the Ring of Fire. For one reason or another, their folks had all been out of town that day in May 2000 when it happened. There’d been just the four of them, playing Dungeons & Dragons in the Higgins’ family mobile home.

    Five years later… and now half of them were gone. Larry Wild had been killed in the Battle of Wismar on September 9, 1633. And now Jimmy Andersen was gone, also killed in combat.

    He looked up at Christopher Long. “What’s the date?” He’d lost track. Middle of May was all he could remember.

    “May 14, sir.”

    “1636.” For some obscure reason, Mike felt the need to include the year.

    Jimmy Andersen would have been… what? Twenty-three years old? That was Jeff’s age, Mike knew. His birthday had been in March. March 22, if Mike remembered right. Gretchen had sent Jeff a cookie — which hadn’t arrived until the next month, naturally.

    His thoughts were wandering, and he couldn’t afford that. Not now. Not today. But before Mike shoved them aside he allowed one final spike of sheer pride to race through his soul.

    Everything he’d always believed had been confirmed over the past five years. Every ideal, every tenet of political belief, every guide to personal and social conduct. Mike took no credit for any of them, because like most people born and raised in the United States he’d grown up with those beliefs and ideals. What he did take pride in — and take credit for, to the extent he shared in that credit with thousands of other people — was that when a small town in America had been ripped off its foundations by a cosmic catastrophe and tossed into a maelstrom, the people of that town had risen to the challenge. And they’d done so by holding fast to their beliefs and ideals — no, more; championing them for everyone — rather than abandoning them.

    Along the way, lots of compromises had been made, sure. Mike himself had been personally responsible for a good number of them. Things sometimes got ragged around the edges. But that was the nature of political affairs — hell, any human affairs. Marriages only survived by the willingness of people to compromise.

    Still, all things considered, they’d done well. Damn well. And paid the price for it, too. Somewhere around thirty-five hundred people had come through the Ring of Fire, and by now — just five years later — at least five hundred of them were gone. Mike didn’t know the exact figure, and felt a moment’s guilt that he didn’t.

    Most of those people had died because, like most rural towns in economically depressed areas, Grantville had had a disproportionate number of elderly residents, many of them in poor health. Anyone dependent on up-time medicines that couldn’t be duplicated down-time — and most of them couldn’t — was gone by now.

    The others, though, had died in the line of fire, doing their duty. Some of them had died fighting tyranny; others had died fighting one or another of the diseases that ravaged this era.

    Larry Wild had died at Wismar and Jimmy Andersen here at Zolling. Derek Utt had died in the Rhineland, fighting the plague. So had Andrea Decker and Jeffie Garand. The list went on and on, and it would keep going on.

    Mike tried to remember the famous line from Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg address. That cause for which they here gave the last full measure of devotion, he thought it was.

    His people. They’d always been his people. Now more than ever.

    “General?” Ulbrecht Duerr’s voice broke through his musings.

    Mike turned. “Yes, Ulbrecht, I’m here.”

    He grinned then, and though he didn’t know it — then or ever — that grin brought instant cheer to every soldier in the tavern who saw. They’d come to know that grin, this past year.

    Mike slapped his hands together and advanced on the map spread over the table.

    “Gather round, gentlemen. Another stinking duke is going down.”

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