1637 The Volga Rules – Snippet 40
Ivan considered taking the troughs out of the bunker and pointing the rockets directly at the approaching boats, but that would take five minutes at least. More likely ten. By then the steamboats would be at the docks. He calculated again, adjusted the aim once more, and sent another salvo. But he didn’t watch this one. Instead, he turned to Captain Sergei Lagunov. “Captain, gather the men and head for the docks. It looks like we are going to have company. I’ll try to support you with indirect fire.” It wasn’t an order that Ivan liked giving, but at this point he knew more about firing the new rockets than anyone. Besides, he was going to have to be the one to decide whether the risk to his own people . . .
“Got one,” shouted one of the rocketeers.
Ivan looked over. A second of the steamboats was on fire and turning away. That left one untouched, and coming up on the docks.
As he watched that single ship coming on, Ivan noted the fundamental difference between land armies and waterborne armies. On land the army would have broken by now, as hundreds of individual soldiers decided for themselves whether to stand or run. Each man who ran made it easier for the next to run and harder for the others to stand. But the boat that was steaming for the docks was doing so because the ship’s captain decided to. The soldiers on the rails, and even more the sailors manning the engines, had very little idea what was going on in the rest of the battle and no choice at all where the boat went. Not unless they wanted to mutiny, which was a whole different question than just turning and running in the confusion of battle.
Sergei looked at the steamboat and considered his options. The dock was a long stonework dock that went along the bank, so once the enemy debarked they would be spread out. On the other hand, if he charged now he could take the boat. He started up and a hand grabbed his arm. “Sergei, no!”
Sergei swung around and almost hit his little brother.
Vadim shouted. “No! If we go out there Major Maslov can’t support us with the rockets.”
“He can’t anyway, not at this range. He’d be shooting almost straight up. They would go wherever the wind took them.”
“There is also cover. We have it here and we won’t on the docks.”
By the time he and his idiot little brother had finished arguing, it was too late. The troops on the boat weren’t on the boat anymore. They were on the dock. On the other hand, Sergei’s men were in place with their AK3s loaded and ready.
“Fire!” shouted Vadim. “Reload. Quickly now, boys, but don’t forget to prime your pans.”
The smoke was clearing from the first volley. It had been effective. At least five men were down there, and the return fire from the dock had not hit anyone. It was the difference between standing in the open and crouched behind cover.
The commander down there was shouting to his men too. “Reload! Cock and aim. Fire!”
The enemy were firing their second round while Sergei’s men were still reloading. That was the difference between flint locks and caplocks. A bullet flashed by and Sergei felt a stinging in his right arm. He reached across with his left hand and felt wetness. Then it really started to hurt.
“Fire!” Vadim shouted again, and the battlefield was wreathed in smoke. Between them and the attackers, they were firing too fast for the smoke to fully clear before the next volley blinded them all again. And that, Sergei realized, was to the enemy’s advantage. So far Sergei himself was the only one of his people wounded and that was because he was standing up arguing with Vadim, not crouched behind cover. He crouched and shouted. “Wait for the smoke to clear.”
He looked around and turned back to Vadim. “They are going to charge soon.”
Vadim nodded, then pointed up the hill. “We need to get some people up there to cover our retreat.”
Sergei looked down at the docks and up the hill, then nodded. “You do that. Take the men you had out on the march and get up there.”
Vadim nodded again and started shouting names. He shouted some orders and Sergei didn’t pay much attention. He was watching the gun smoke slowly drift away. He could see the enemy again, shadows in the acrid gray fog. “Wait a little longer,” he shouted.
Suddenly the enemy were running up the hill toward his men. “Fire!”
The bayonets were an adaptation that had gained rapid acceptance from Russian troops. Everyone wanted one. And by now, with the stamp presses, just about everyone who had a gun of any sort had a bayonet. They were not great steel. Anyone from Damascus would spit when they passed by. But they were sharp and hard enough to cut. And there were scores of them charging his command. Sergei drew his sword with his right hand. His arm hurt, but it seemed to be working. Sergei didn’t have time to worry about it.
Vadim got his men in place just in time to see the enemy charge strike home. Now there weren’t two forces, just a milling mob. Well, not entirely. His brother was holding — being pushed back, but slowly. “Aim for the rear ranks, men. And only aimed fire now.”
His men started shooting. Not a volley this time, but the crackle of individual fire. Sergei was holding them in place while Vadim’s boys were sniping them. Vadim looked at the battle and saw a man in the fanciest coat that he had ever seen. The man had a tall fur hat as well. Vadim took careful aim and fired. And missed. Apparently not by much, though. That man was looking right at Vadim. He turned and pointed his pistol up the hill, aiming at Vadim, and started shooting. Vadim was under cover, only his head sticking out, and he was at least forty yards away, so it wasn’t surprising that the man missed with all five shots.
What was surprising was that one of the shots was close enough for Vadim to see the wood chips from where it hit a log. Ducking behind his cover, Vadim reloaded quickly and then laid his AK3 on the log and took careful aim. The fancy coat had managed to reload his pistol faster than he’d been able to reload his AK3 and there was another fusillade of shots. Then Vadim fired again, and the man went down.
That caused consternation in the enemy’s ranks, and they started peeling away and running back toward the boat.
Ivan Maslov watched the battle from the hilltop till the enemy broke, then he realized he hadn’t given any instructions for what to do if they won. Ivan ran for a horse, any horse he could find. He needed to get down there now and avoid a blood bath. Besides, he wanted that boat. He wanted those guns. Especially the cannon.
As it happened, he needn’t have worried. Sergei and Vadim had been happy enough to take the enemy’s surrender, even patching up Petr Ivanovich Chaplygin, who apparently Vadim had shot in the left leg. Vadim insisted that it was intentional, but Ivan didn’t believe it. He also didn’t publicly question it. In fact, he was fulsome in his praise for everyone from Alexi who had been in charge of placing the mines through Sergei and Vadim and the troops. The first battle of Ivan’s first command had been a victory, and nothing breeds esprit de corps like victory.
Now if they could only survive long enough to get some sort of armaments.
The next evening
The cannon from the steamboat were still being hauled up Kruglaya Mountain. They were good guns, if light. Rifled breech-loaders that would reach across the river. And once they got the ones from the sunken steamboats they would have eight.
Petr Ivanovich Chaplygin was drinking copious amounts of vodka as anesthetic for his leg. The bullet had apparently chipped his thigh bone and the surgeon had been busy for a couple of hours, cutting him up and sewing him back together.
“General Birkin has an army of fifty thousand men,” Chaplygin said, sounding both belligerent and aggrieved to Ivan. “You won’t stop him with your fancy tricks.”
“I don’t expect to stop him,” Ivan offered calmly. Chaplygin had been one of those officers that despised the academy and the baker’s boy. Ivan knew him and didn’t like him at all, but the more important issue was getting some intelligence. Ivan needed to know what the enemy had in mind. To do that he needed to engage Chaplygin in conversation.
“Even so, Ivan, I wonder if we have enough men,” Alexander Volkov said. “Sure, this is a great position. I know that, you know that. Ivan the Terrible knew it when he put the fort here. But the best fort has to have people manning it.”
“‘At’s right,” Chaplygin slurred. “And peasants won’t do it, not like Vadim here. I put a dozen shots into the tree he was behind and he kept calm and shot me in the leg. Lazy peasant wouldn’t do that. Buggers would run as soon as the wood chips started flying!”
Ivan hastily waved Alexander down before he could correct Chaplygin on the courage of peasants when they were armed and defending their own.