Four Days On The Danube – Snippet 09
Tom never remembered much afterward about the assault that drove off the Bavarians besieging the artillery barracks. The light thrown by a three-quarter moon only seems bright when everything is calm and peaceful. In the chaos of a battle, there were shadows everywhere and all colors were leached out. You could detect motion clearly, and that was about it.
That might have been a blessing. Tom still had vivid memories of his first real battle, when he and Heinrich Schmidt had driven off an assault on Suhl by Wallenstein’s mercenaries almost four years earlier. The horror hadn’t stemmed from the fighting itself. There hadn’t been much of that, since they’d been firing at an enemy in the open from behind good fieldworks. The end result had been a lot closer to a massacre than what you could really call a battle. Afterward, the field had been carpeted with bodies. And blood; and intestines; and brains; and some things whose identity Tom had never been sure about and didn’t want to be.
There wasn’t so much of that tonight. Not because it wasn’t there but because you couldn’t see it very well. Fighting in the darkness, by the light of a moon and the flashes of gunfire and grenades, all a man had time for was motion. Once an enemy went down, you ignored him. The blood spreading out from his body blended into the cobblestones. Everything was a shade of gray and blood was no different.
There were drawbacks to that, of course. Twice he slipped and fell, when his foot skidded on something wet — and, in one case, horridly squishy. But who could say? In that sort of melee, the falls might even have saved his life, when bullets passed through space he no longer occupied.
His one clear memory was that of an enemy soldier rising from the street, as he neared the last corner before the barracks. The man had probably slipped and fallen himself. He must have fired his gun and hadn’t had time to reload — or he simply panicked. He came up screeching, thrusting his arquebus forward as if it were a spear and catching Tom in the stomach. If the weapon had been a spear, the blade would have sunk into him at least six inches. As it was, the gun barrel just knocked some of the wind out of him and left a nasty bruise.
Not all of his wind, though; not even most of it. Tom’s torso was massive, and most of the mass was hard muscle. He didn’t feel any pain and didn’t even realized he’d been bruised until afterward. He just grunted — a very pronounced sort of “oof!” — and struck back in reflex.
That instinctive reaction was not the best response, all things considered, since he held his pistol in his hand and the blow was mostly delivered by his knuckles. Against a lobsterstail helmet, too, not a mere skull.
That did hurt. But as strong as Tom was, the blow knocked his opponent back down onto the street. He was dazed, and his weapon slid out of his hands.
Before Tom could decide what to do, a pikehead came from behind him, thrusting forward just past his elbow. He was almost deafened by the screech of the soldier wielding it, who was now standing right next to him as he skewered the man lying on the cobblestones.
Night battles aren’t much suited for taking prisoners. Tom would probably have decided to kill the man himself, in another second or two.
He took a moment to look around, the first time he’d had a chance to do so since he ordered the charge. And was relieved to see that the much-vaunted virtues of surprise had real substance. Everywhere he looked, the enemy was running away.
At least, he assumed they were the enemy. Some of them were wearing the same USE uniform that his own men were wearing. Traitors from the 1st Battalion, he figured. The rest, the ones in more nondescript clothing, would be the Bavarian mercenaries.
He fought down the temptation to order a pursuit. If there were any chance of winning a real victory here, he would have given the order. But even before he launched the charge, he’d come to realize that Ingolstadt was lost.
Tom wasn’t the only commander who’d used the factor of surprise tonight. Duke Maximilian of Bavaria had done so also, and done so to much greater effect. Tom had taken a barracks; the duke had taken a city. There was simply no way Tom would be able to drive the Bavarians back out of Ingolstadt with the forces that remained to him. All he could do now was try to lead an organized retreat out of the city and salvage as much of the regiment as he could.
Captain Geipel came up to him, pointing over his shoulder with a thumb. “One of my sergeants says he’s established contact with the artillerymen in the barracks. But they’re distrustful since they don’t know him and — just as you guessed — a number of the regiment’s units have turned traitor.”
“I’ll talk to them.” Tom started toward the corner Geipel had been pointing out, with the captain walking alongside him. “You and Fischer get your companies back into order. We’re heading out as soon as we can get the artillerymen moving.”
“Where to, sir?” Geipel’s question sounded a bit apprehensive.
“Don’t worry, Captain. I don’t propose to attack the Bavarians with what little we’ve got. We’re leaving the city altogether.”
Geipel nodded, his expression obviously relieved. He’d never served under Major Simpson before, so he’d had no idea whether the American officer was reckless or not.
Once he got to the corner, Tom gingerly stuck his head out far enough to see the barracks. “This is Major Simpson!” he shouted.
After a moment, a voice shouted back: “What’s your mother’s maiden name?”
Tom frowned. That wasn’t a question a down-timer would normally think of; not, at least, as a security question. Seventeenth century German women did not adopt their husband’s last name when they got married. In the here and now, that custom was mostly restricted to England.
But Tom himself was the only up-timer in the Danube Regiment. There were three Americans in the TacRail unit that had been stationed in Ingolstadt, but they’d left the city a couple of months earlier in order to work on a rail line leading north from Regensburg. So who…
The answer came to him almost at once. In the months he’d been in Ingolstadt, Bobby Lloyd McDougal had made friends with one of the artillery units. He’d probably been gossiping.
The sergeant in command of that unit was David Steinbach. “My mother’s maiden name was Forbes, Sergeant Steinbach! Now quit playing games or I’ll use you to demonstrate American football! You’ll be the playing field!”
He heard a distant laugh. “All right, Major, come on!”
From there, things went quickly. The artillerymen were every bit as eager to get out of Ingolstadt as all the other soldiers in what was left of the regiment. The only hang-up was that the heavy artillery units wanted to salvage their twelve-pounders.
That idea was impractical to the point of lunacy. Artillerymen were not entirely sane on the subject of their guns. The twelve-pounders had been taken off their carriages in preparation for placing them as defensive guns on the walls. It would take at least an hour of hard labor just to get them remounted. And then how would they haul the carriages? Guns that size needed to be drawn by large teams of horses. There weren’t enough horses in the stables adjoining the barracks for the purpose. In fact, there were barely enough to salvage the six-pounders, which would be a lot more useful in the field anyway.