THE AUSTRO-HUNGARIAN CONNECTION – snippet 17:
Chapter 8. The Cuirass
Near the Fichtelgebirge, on the edge of the Saale valley
Janos Drugeth was trying to keep his temper under control. Despite his demands—he’d stopped just short of threatening his charges with violence—the up-timers had wasted so much time arguing over which items could be left behind that there had been no way to resume the journey until the next morning. And then, the idiots had wasted half the morning continuing the quarrel before they finally had the two intact wagons reloaded.
But, at least they were on the move again. Luckily, the USE garrison at Hof seemed to be sluggish even by the standards of small town garrisons. There’d been no sign at all that they were searching the countryside. They’d be a small unit, anyway, not more than half a dozen men with a sergeant in command. Perhaps just a corporal. As was the rule with sleepy garrisons in a region not threatened directly by war, they were mostly a police force and would spend half their time lounging in taverns by day and conducting desultory patrols of the town in the evening. The only time they’d venture into the countryside would be in response to a specific complaint or request.
It was even possible that they didn’t have a radio. The up-time communication devices were spreading widely, at least in Thuringia-Franconia, but from what Janos understood of their operation—“reception” seemed to be the key issue—the sort of simple radios the Hof garrison would most likely possess might not be able to get messages sent across the Thueringerwald. Not reliably, at least.
So, hopefully, the delay would not cause any problems.
At the edge of the forest, on a small rise, he paused to let the wagons go by. Then, drawing out an eyeglass, scanned the area behind them.
Nothing, so far as he could tell.
He was about to put the eyeglass away when his lingering animosity caused him to bring it back up and study the wagon they’d left behind, the way a man might foolishly scratch an itch, knowing he’d do better to leave it alone. It was still quite visible, being less than half a mile distant.
The only good thing was that at least they’d left the road by then and been making their way across a large meadow toward the forest when the wagon axle broke. Janos had ridden back to the road while the up-timers squabbled to see if the wagon was visible from there. The terrain was flat, but there was enough in the way of trees and shrubbery and tall grass to hide it from the sight of anyone just passing along the road—at least, to anyone on foot the way most travelers on that small country road would be. Someone on horseback would be able to spot it, if they were scanning the area.
Other than that…
What a mess. He’d tried to get the up-timers to repack the wagon with the goods they were leaving behind, so that if someone should happen to come across it they might assume the owners had just gone off to get assistance. If so, they’d either go about their business or—better still—they’d plunder the unguarded wagon. In the latter eventuality, of course, they’d hardly bring the attention of the authorities to their own thievery.
But, no. Careless in this as in seemingly all things, the up-timers had simply strewn the goods about. Anyone who came across it now would assume that foul play had transpired.
Nothing for it, though. Sighing, he started to put the eyeglass away. Then, catching a glimpse of motion in the corner of his eye, looked back again.
Two horsemen were approaching the wagon. Not locals, either, since each of them was leading a pack horse.
He brought the glass back up. But even before he looked through it, he could see the flashing gleams coming from one of the riders. That had to be armor, reflecting the sun.
“What the hell are you doing?” asked Noelle.
Eddie shook his head and finished untying the cuirass from his pack horse. “You said it yourself, remember? ‘That’s got to be them!’ Very excited, you were.”
He started putting on the cuirass. “Do us both a favor and hand me the helmet.”
When she just kept staring at him, Eddie looked up at her. “Think, Noelle. These are ‘villains,’ remember? Not likely to surrender simply because we yell ‘stop, thief!’”
She stared back in the direction they’d spotted the wagon. Then, put her hand on the pistol holstered to her hip. “I thought…”
“Have to do everything myself,” Eddie grumbled. Now that he’d gotten on the cuirass, he took the helmet from the pack. “I remind you of two things. First, you can’t shoot straight. Second, while I can—”
He finished strapping the helmet on and started clambering back onto his horse. An awkward business, that was, wearing the damn cuirass. Eddie was trained in the use of arms and armor, but only to the extent that the son of a wealthy merchant would be. He was no experienced cavalryman.
“While I can,” he continued, now drawing the rifle from its saddle holster, “you will perhaps recall that due to Carol Unruh’s penny-pinching, the only up-time weapon I was allotted was this pitiful thing.”
Noelle studied the rifle. “It’s a perfectly good Winchester lever action rifle.” A bit righteously: “Model 94. They say it’s a classic.”
“A ‘classic,’ indeed,” Eddie chuckled. “The gun was manufactured almost half a century before the Ring of Fire. Still, I’ll allow that it’s a sturdy weapon. But it’s only a .30-30, it has no more than six cartridges in the magazine, and while—unlike you—I can hit something at a respectable range, I’m hardly what you’d call a Wild Bill Hitchcock.”
“Hickock,” she corrected. “Hitchcock was the guy who made the movies.” She looked back in the direction of the wagon. There still didn’t seem to be anyone moving about, over there. “You really think…”
He shrugged, planting the butt of the rifle on his hip and taking up the reins. “I have no idea how they will react. What I do know is that if they see a man in armor demanding that they cease and desist all nefarious activity, they are perhaps a bit more likely to do so. I’d just as soon avoid another gunfight at the Okie Corral, if we can.
“’OK,’ she corrected. ‘Okies’ are sorta like hillbillies.”
“And will you desist the language lesson?” he grumbled. “Now. Shall we about be it?”
Noelle hesitated, for a moment. She considered riding back to Hof and trying—
No, that was pointless. When they’d arrived in Hof early this morning, the garrison had still been asleep. Sleeping off a hangover, to be precise. All except the corporal in charge, who’d still been drinking. They’d be as useless as tits on a bull for hours, yet—and the traitors were almost into the Fichtelgebirge. Noelle was pretty sure there was no way she and Eddie would be able to get the garrison to go into the forest. That meant trying to get help from the soldiers at Saalfeld, and that was at least thirty miles away. By the time they got there, convinced the garrison commander to muster his unit, and got back, at least two days would have passed. More likely three, unless the garrison commander at Saalfeld was a lot more energetic and efficient than most such.
Two days, maybe three. Given that much lead time, it was unlikely they’d ever find the defectors. The Fichtelgebirge and the Bohemian Forest it was part of wasn’t a tall range of mountains, but it was heavily wooded. Mostly evergreens, too, so they wouldn’t get any advantage from the trees having shed their leaves. Assuming the man in charge, whoever he was, knew what he was doing—and there was no evidence so far that he didn’t—he’d almost certainly be able to shake off their pursuit. There was enough commercial and personal traffic back and forth across the forest between Bohemia and Franconia that there would be a network of small roads—well, more like trails, really, but well-handled wagons could make their way through them. After the passage of two or three days, especially if the weather turned bad, it was unlikely they could figure out which specific route the defectors had taken.
“It’s now or never, I guess.” She started her horse into the meadow. “I’ll do the talking. You just look fierce and militaristic and really mean and not too smart. The kind of guy who shoots first and lets God sort out the bodies, and doesn’t much care if He gets it right or not.”