1637 The Volga Rules – Snippet 36
Ivan Maslov was using an AK3. Not because he didn’t have an AK4, but because he didn’t have the caps for it. There was a cap factory setting up in Kazan and another in Ufa, but as yet they had very limited output. For now at least they used what caps they did have just as sparingly as they could. He watched as the lead steamboat approached the mine. Just about now. . . .
The boat hit the mine. The nail went in. The spring didn’t release. The nail was moved, but not quite enough to release the spring.
Meanwhile, a trickle of water started to leak through the disturbed wax around the nail. The mine that had been pushed away by the contact with the hull of the steamboat floated back up and hit it again with a thump. Again, nothing happened. The spring quivered, but didn’t release. More drops of water leaked in. The iron pot went down and bounced up again. The spring released. The wheel-lock spun and the powder, which was mostly dry, ignited.
The explosion was contained by the water surrounding the pot, but it was less constrained where the water was closest to the hull. It ripped a four by seven foot hole in the bottom of the boat. There was no sudden explosion . . . unless you count bilge water shooting all over the place. But a sixty by thirty foot steamboat with a hole that size in the bottom of its hull amidships is going down. It’s just a matter of time. And not much time.
The steam boat behind the leader turned to port to avoid the leader, which took it to the other side of the river from the waiting ambushers. Ivan cursed under his breath. Not only did that increase the range, it meant that the sinking steam boat would act as cover for the follower. The third boat in line, seeing the river blocked ahead and to port, turned to starboard. The fourth, having more time, reversed its engines and tried to back away at least long enough to gauge the situation. The standard conversion from sailing riverboat to steam riverboat was capable of reversing thrust, but it wasn’t a quick process and the steamboats had been traveling in line with not that much space between them.
The good news, Ivan didn’t know, was that the third boat had blocked the first boat’s cannon and, because it was turning its cannon too were pointed in the wrong direction.
“Fire,” Ivan shouted and shot at a man standing on the bow of the third boat with a line and sinker in hand. He missed, but that didn’t stop the man from dropping the line and ducking away from the railing.
Another forty odd shots rang out, as well as a few curses as flint locks failed to fire. There were three hits. Ivan popped the chamber from his carbine, tapped the second chamber over the pan, inserted it into the lock and closed the lock. All the while, he heard Lieutenant Vadim Viktorovich Lagunov crowing.
Vadim hadn’t liked the plan. Mostly because it was Ivan Maslov’s plan, but also because it didn’t quite fit in with his notion of martial glory. He was now starting to reconsider. There were four boats full of troops and cannon being held by sixty men and a bunch of mines. Besides, Vadim had hit his man. The captain, or perhaps a mate, but clearly someone important. He popped the chamber from his AK and started reloading.
On board the third boat, the first mate, now in command, was cursing the pilot for abandoning his post. The Volga here was not particularly deep and it had sand bars. Which was almost certainly why the ambush was placed here. He tried to guess where the sandbars might be, then he found one with the bow. “Stop engines,” he shouted. It was the right thing to say. The engineer pulled a lever that disconnected the prop from the engines. Now there was only momentum and current pushing the nose of his boat onto the sand bar. That was enough to push the nose a couple more feet into the sand, but the boat was at an angle to the current and the current pushed from the side. The third steamboat pivoted on its bow and came within a foot of wedging its stern on the sunken first steamboat. But a miss is as good as a mile, and the third steamboat of the expeditionary force pivoted around till it was facing upriver and came loose from the sandbar.
The first mate took that as a sign from God that upriver was the way they should be going. “Full speed ahead!” he shouted. The fact that they had taken seven more casualties in the two minutes it had taken for the boat to pivot might have had something to do with the mate’s interpretation of God’s will. That and the fact that he couldn’t see any slackening of the enemy fire and he couldn’t even see the people shooting at them, just the smoke from their guns.
The second boat, which had turned to starboard to avoid the first, got by without a scratch. However, its captain, who was not a boatman but a member of the service nobility, was now looking downriver and seeing in his mind’s eye a mine under every square foot of water. There was shooting behind him, but he was an experienced officer and gunfire was something he understood. He looked at the river ahead, then he looked at the battle behind. And he shouted to the boatman, “Turn us around!”
The boatman looked at him like he was crazy and the captain pulled his pistol. It was a six-shot black-powder caplock pistol, copied from an 1851 Colt and made in the gun shop. The boatman turned the boat around. “You’re going to take us right back the way we came.” The captain pointed. “And we’re going to drop ropes to pick up survivors from the lead boat.”
They made their way back up the river and didn’t take much fire. Most of the ambushers were still shooting at the retreating third boat. Much of the crew of the first boat were picked up, but the expedition commander had gone into the water wearing a steel breastplate.
Ivan looked around at the aftermath. His little force hadn’t taken so much as a scratch and there were three riverboats retreating back upriver. On the other hand, Ivan was pretty sure what he would do in this situation. He’d go upriver half a mile or so, till he was out of direct fire from the enemy, then he would unload the soldiers and sweep down the bank. “Sergei, head upriver and keep watch on the boats. If they land, run back and tell us.” Ivan turned to Lieutenant Vadim Viktorovich Lagunov. “Well fought, Lieutenant. Signal our steamboat to collect the rest of the mines, and let’s see if there’s anything on that –” He pointed at the riverboat sunk to its smokestack in the center of the river.
“Right, Major,” Vadim said with less resentment than Ivan was expecting.
It took an hour to collect up the five other mines that had been placed and by that time Sergei was back with a report of infantry marching along the riverbank. “The boats are staying back of the infantry,” Sergei added, grinning a gap-toothed grin.
“A lot, Captain. Three hundred and more, I make it, and they have the AK4s. They left the cannon on the boats, though.”
“Shit. I’d like to try and bring up the guns on that wreck out there, but . . . How long before they get here?”
“Maybe a half-hour. I ran after I got a look at ’em.”
“We could put out a screen to delay them,” offered Vadim.
Ivan shook his head regretfully. “I’d like to, Vadim, but we just don’t have enough men. All right. Get everyone on the boat and we’ll go to the next spot.”
The next spot was seventeen miles downriver, where the Volga split into three channels with visible sandbars between them. Only the rightmost channel was deep enough for a boat, and if they put out the mines in that channel there was a good chance that they would get another boat. Seventeen miles was a couple of hours by steamboat, but a long day’s march along a twisting, muddy riverbank.
“Will we set up another ambush?”
“No. Just a couple of scouts, and they will be a half-mile or so downriver from the mines. Then we’ll see what they do next. If they have people on both sides of the river, we’ll keep retreating before them. But if they put them all on one side, we’ll set up an ambush on the other.”
“Why?” Vadim asked. The question wasn’t derisive, but curious.
“Because a group like that can only go as fast as its slowest unit. Every time the troops on either side of the river run into an obstacle, everyone has to wait till they negotiate it. So we want them split into as many groups as we can manage.”
Ivan’s force had good news — well, mixed news — when they camped that night. The three remaining boats had stopped at the ambush site to recover the cannon and the lost rifles from the sunken steamboat. They spent two days doing that, then the riverboats went on, while many of the troops marched along the riverbank on the southwest side of the river.