Wednesday, 4 March 2009

Fever and fury.

Ursula reached the barracks in time to watch the first companies of Regiment Sleibnitz march out, drums beating and fifes squealing, the colors flapping in the breeze. Their colonel was at the head, mounted on a white horse. If he was suffering any ill effects from the wound inflicted upon him by Horatio that morning he showed no sign. He rode, stiff and correct, and even drew his sword as he rode closer to her. "Eyes right!" he called.

The companies obeyed the command in exemplary fashion, heads snapping round to acknowledge her, the officers drawing their swords and raising them to their faces. Ursula drew herself up to her full height and saluted. It was probably not the correct thing to do under military etiquette but she refused to let a small factor like that prevent her from doing the right thing. Some – even many – of these men may not be marching back here when the regiment returns. It's the least I can do.

Once the color party with the colonel had passed, she felt enough honors had been exchanged, dropped the salute and went in search of Konrad's quarters.

The physician and his young assistant were outside the room. The youngster bore an empty enamel bowl and a towel which looked none too clean. Both looked around in surprise as she approached and hurriedly bowed to her. "Good morning, gentlemen," she said. "I'm here to see Konrad Beckenbaur."

"Good morning, Grafin," the doctor replied. "If you would care to wait a few minutes until I've bled him, you may go in."

"You're going to bleed him?" Ursula exclaimed. "That man has shed enough blood for his country!"

"Excellency, it is a recognized procedure," the doctor said in a patronizing tone. "The patient is exhibiting an increasing fever, and bleeding will give him much relief afterwards."

"For God's sake, let him be!" she snapped, pushing the man out of her way. "It's nothing short of butchery!"

"But madam!"

"But nothing!" She opened the door and headed into the room. A fire burned in the hearth but the windows were shuttered. "This place is like an oven! How can anyone breathe in here, let alone a sick man?"

Over on the bed Konrad raised his head and let it fall, as if it weighed too much. "I'd recognize that hectoring tone anywhere," he said, and she was shocked at how weak he sounded.

She crossed to the bed and examined his face, ignoring the doctor and assistant fussing behind her. Konrad's features were waxy, drawn. Perspiration poured off him and the bedding reeked of sweat. "How are you feeling, old fellow?" she asked softly.


"That figures. You look awful!"

He managed a smile. "Thank you for your honesty!"

"My pleasure." She rounded on the doctor and glared at him. "You! Make up a dose of bark, fetch hot water and a washcloth, and open those damned shutters a crack!"

"But --!"

"But nothing! I worked in the Order's infirmary in Randstadt, I know what's required for a fever. Go!"

Faced with her fury the doctor withdrew, spluttering. The assistant gave her one terrified glance then leapt to open the shutters. It's good to be the Grafin! She thought, returning to the bed. Pouring a glass of water from the jug on the table, she propped Konrad up and helped him drink. "I'm staying here to take care of you, my friend. These boobies couldn't manage a drinking contest in an ale house!"

"What would you know about ale houses?" he said with a weak smile.

"Enough," she muttered. Lifting her voice she roared "Where is that damned bark and hot water?"
Konrad knew his fever was rising, and one way or another the coming twenty-four hours would see him live or die. But it's good to have this girl by my side, whatever happens, he thought.
* * *
"We're drawing close to where the Gravies are reported to be crossing, sir," Midshipman Kurt said, looking at the map. "They should be around this next bend."

Horatio nodded. He could see the right-hand curve in the river coming up, the point marked by a stand of willows. "Very good, Kurt. Make sure the lookouts are watching both banks now."

His attention was divided between watching the east bank and keeping an eye on the pennant boat ahead. The hussars were still keeping pace, and he reasoned that their mounts had to be reasonably fresh. There's no more than a troop over there, though, he thought. I wonder where the rest of the regiment is.

Even as he speculated the riders came to the stand of willows and reined in. Horatio saw an officer pointing somewhere inland and soon the troop trumpeter sounded a few notes, the horses turned as one, and the cavalry disappeared beyond the trees.

"There goes our company," he said.

"Yes, sir. I guess they're going to report."

Styx began a gentle curve to starboard, her wake pale and truncated by the strong current. "Helm, two points to starboard," Horatio commanded, and the flotilla turned in succession.

As they rounded the bend the Eisenwasser opened out ahead and they could see the low blocky shapes of pontoons crossing the river half a mile away. A collective sigh went up as the crew saw their foe. Horatio smiled grimly. "Now we shall give those fellows a proper welcome to Hetzenberg!" he shouted, and the crew cheered.

He glanced at the banks. So far no enemy had appeared on the west side of the river, but now he could see a bridgehead had been established on the Hetzenberg shore and the area was thick with the black coats of enemy soldiers. To the east a hedgerow followed the shore some little way up from the bank before reaching a small row of military tents. Ahead, a drum began to rattle aboard Styx.

At last! "Kurt, you may beat to quarters!"

Even as the words left his lips and the crew raced to their stations, a nagging thought intruded upon his mind. A hedgerow?

"Kurt?" he said.

The youth sprang to attention. "Sir?"

Horatio pointed. "Was that hedgerow there when we came upriver?"

The youth stared at it. "I…I don't think so, sir."

Horatio saw Captain Creighton standing on the quarterdeck of Styx, his jowly features crunched up in a frown as he too stared at the hedgerow.

"Something's amiss…" Horatio began to say but at that moment Styx slowed dramatically. Such was the suddenness of her deceleration her lookout fell from the masthead with a startled cry and crashed to the deck amid the gunners clustered around the big gun. Styx, her way checked and sweeps clashing, swung broadside across the river directly in Acheron's path.

"All astern! Warn Cocytus and Phlegethon!" Horatio roared. "There's a boom across the river!"

At that moment a movement ashore caught his eye. Horatio stared as the hedgerow toppled forward, exposing a line of six heavy cannon. As one they gave vent to blooms of fire and smoke and in an instant the air was filled with the thunder of roundshot.

Styx was hit hard. Splinters and whole planks shot up from her bows as most of the salvo struck home. Her starboard sweeps disintegrated as a ball skimmed low over the surface and Horatio could only imagine the carnage below decks. He looked at the bank, where the enemy gunners were already reloading. The 'hedgerow' lay on the ground in front of the battery, and he could see it was nothing more than scrub bushes cut and plashed together to resemble a living hedge. The cunning bastards!

The six-pounder went off behind him, a popgun compared to the heavy metal on the shore. "Belay there!" he snapped. "Reload and stand ready!" He directed his voice forward. "Gun crew, fire when she bears then load with canister! Oars, port forward, starboard aft!"

As Acheron began to turn on the spot he stared grimly at the battery. We need to close and sweep those fellows from their guns or we're all dead!

"The boom's a heavy cable, sir, stretched across the river," the bosun said. He pointed to the bank. "It's anchored over there, to the left and below the battery. It's covered with brush but you can just make it out."

Horatio saw the cable had been frapped around a thick post buried in the bank. It was a formidable obstacle; one none of the gunboats could cross. But at least Styx was already pointing in the right direction. Her big gun roared. The flame of the discharge was a stabbing spear of bright yellow against the dark water. Horatio followed the line of the shot and saw it bury itself in the bank in a great spray of mud. A few enemy gunners fell, struck down by flying clods of earth or stones, but not enough men fell to disrupt their smooth drill. The battery fired again, and again Styx took a pounding. Screams tore the air and Horatio saw bodies – and parts of bodies – fall into the water.

"She'll not last long at this rate!" Midshipman Kurt exclaimed fearfully.

"Look alive, boy, and man the mortar!" Horatio said, pushing him toward the gun platform. I wish we had Graf Philip and Mary Amadeus with us now! He thought.
The new gunner raised his arm, indicating all was ready to fire. "Up oars!" Horatio called. The sweeps came out of the water. "Fire!" Acheron's main gun fired, her hull jerked back in the water, but the ball passed harmlessly over the battery.

Astern, Cocytus and Phlegethon had heeded the warning and were following his lead. Over on the bank the enemy gunners worked with increased speed as they saw the four great muzzles swing to bear upon them.

Cocytus and Phlegethon fired almost in unison. Horatio watched with amazement mixed with grim satisfaction as a cannon leapt into the air and flew apart. The crew fell as one, struck down by flying debris.

"Good shot, there!" he roared. "Sweeps, full ahead! Master gunner, be sure to elevate enough!"

Midshipman Kurt faced aft. "Ready here, sir!"

"Pitch it high, Kurt! I want that shell to drop right on their heads!"

Styx and the enemy battery fired at the same instant. Again Styx's shot was aimed too low and the heavy ball smashed into the bank. But the enemy had her range and their next salvo proved her last. With an agonized groan the bows of the stout gunboat seemed to disintegrate, her surviving crew spilling into the water as she plunged to the bottom. Horatio caught a glimpse of Captain Creighton diving into the river but was too wrapped up in the engagement to pay any more attention.
Acheron's deck seemed to drop under him as the heavy mortar fired. Cursing came from the big gun as a gunner dropped the priming quill with the shock of recoil and had to reach for another. "Watch your work, there!" Horatio shouted.

A huge mushroom of fire, smoke and earth billowed up beyond the battery as the heavy bomb exploded. Horatio fancied he could hear screams but his ears were already ringing from the gunfire. The gunner had the new quill in place and trimmed. Stepping back, he held up his arm. Horatio glanced around for bearings. Acheron was appreciably closer to the enemy shore.

"Up sweeps!" The oars came up. Ahead, a number of gunners saw what was coming and threw themselves flat. "Fire!"

The gun fired. Acheron jerked back. The air ahead of her was filled with smoke and flying metal. Horatio coughed and peered forward. Alongside Cocytus and Phlegethon fired one after the other, adding their metal to the fray. He cursed as the smoke clouds from their guns rolled over Acheron and obscured his view even more.

Yellow light blossomed in the gray-brown clouds and he flinched as heavy bangs and crashes told of enemy shot striking home. Above him the mast was cut clean in two, the top part with the unfortunate lookout dropping into the river.

"Easy oars!" he shouted, stepping up onto the railing in an attempt to see ahead. Acheron slowed and stopped; the gun smoke rolled away downriver, exposing a sight of carnage ashore.

Horatio saw three guns had been stripped of their crews. Some freak of ballistics had spun one cannon around so it pointed directly away from the river. He saw now they were faced with a battery of twelve-pounders, the heaviest guns the Margraf fielded. But men were staggering to their feet over there, still in the fight.

"Reload!" he roared. "Midshipman Kurt? Are you ready to fire?"

"Midshipman Kurt is dead, sir," a gunner called.

Horatio looked and saw the man was pointing at the headless corpse of the youth lying in the scuppers. "Damn!" Horatio shuddered but steeled himself. "Are you ready to fire, man?"

"Yes sir!"

"Then pray do so!"

The gunner picked up the linstock and blew upon it. "Stand clear!" he shouted and swept the glowing fuse over the touchhole.

Acheron bucked underfoot as the mortar belched fire and smoke. Ahead of it the main gun crew dashed back to their posts and began to reload.

Two enemy cannon fired. Acheron jerked as another shot found its mark, but it was too late for the enemy guns. Horatio caught a glimpse of a black streak dropping from the heavens, well behind the battery. Disappointment had barely begun to make its mark in his mind before a huge gout of fire erupted, much bigger than a ten-inch bomb should make.

The wave of flame rolled over the battery, the blast sending men whirling into the river. Cocytus then Phlegethon fired almost by reflex, their canister rounds blasting the stricken battery into extinction.

Horatio felt a hot gust of air roll over him and Acheron trembled with the shock wave. By God! We must've hit their ammunition wagon! He rubbed at his streaming eyes and looked around. Styx had sunk; her mast poked forlornly above the surface. Acheron had taken some blows and a number of her crew were dead. But we're still in the fight!

"Sir!" The bosun was jerking his sleeve. "Look there!"

Horatio looked where the man pointed. A gray blob was bobbing about in the water near the drowned Styx, and he realized it was a man in the water. As the smoke cleared Horatio saw a number of men had gathered along the line of the sunken boom, engaged in some kind of activity. "What on earth are they doing?" he exclaimed.

"They're cutting the cable!"

Even as they watched the small group of swimmers began to move apart, slowly at first then with increasing speed as the current took them. He watched with relief as they all struck out for the Hetzenberg shore. Those who sailed upon the oceans of the world preferred not to learn to swim. Rescue for anyone who fell overboard was a chancy affair and most preferred to drown quickly rather than prolong the agony in swimming as they watched their ship sail away. The river men, however, made it a point of learning to swim. After all, they were seldom more than a hundred yards from shore and safety in the event of disaster. And now those brave fellows have opened the way for us!

The gray-haired man turned and waved, and he recognized Captain Creighton. With a grin Horatio saluted him.

"Bosun, hail Cocytus and Phlegethon. We're going to drop downriver and engage those pontoons!"

The way was clear once more and the three gunboats swung into line abreast and began to forge downriver. Someone aboard Phlegethon struck up a jaunty tune on a fiddle and Horatio smiled as he recognized it as The Valkry's Daughter. Ahead, whoever was directing the pontoons saw the oncoming danger and the cumbersome vessels began to swing in all directions as their crews sought to head for the nearest shore. Horatio watched grimly as two collided, staving in the side of one and spilling the unfortunate infantrymen into the river.

"We're within range, master gunner," he called. "Aim at those two locked together. Fire when she bears…"


Capt Bill said...

A wonderful naval battle, every bit as good as a Patrick O'Brian novel. keep up the good work!

Bluebear Jeff said...

Why does this sort of remind me of one of Hornblower's "cutting out" expeditions? I mean it isn't a "cutting out" expedition . . . but it still reminds me of one.

-- Jeff

David said...

Woo - tremendously spirited stuff! :-)

Thanks - looking forward impatiently to the next instalment...


Fitz-Badger said...

Excellent, action-packed and believable river battle, once again!