The Tuhellenbach Hussars dismounted and shook out into a skirmish formation. Colonel Brabenachel watched from the vantage point of the church tower as they spread out on either side of the road and closed to within long musket shot of his position – then stopped. He could see the hussars’ busbies and flashes of gorgeous colored britches and pelisses amongst hedgerows and between the trees of an orchard, but there they remained, with no apparent intention of closing further.
Hmm. This is unexpected. He gazed out of the high window and drummed his fingers on the dusty sill. After a moment or two of thought he took his telescope from an orderly and directed it to the south-west. Musket smoke drifted there some two miles away, showing a brisk engagement was in progress. It was hard to make out the sober black coats of the enemy against the countryside but their banners were clear enough. Beyond he could see the familiar sky blue of Hetzenberg uniforms as the pursuers pressed closer. With a pang he recognized the magenta standard of his own regiment as it redeployed. His subordinates over there were competent men and blooded now. They would handle the necessary maneuvers without risks, but for a moment he wondered how the regiment was doing, and wished he were with them.
Yet here was the point of most danger. The whole enterprise had been a war of attrition, and he was under orders to see the enemy was treated to a good kick in the britches before being seen off the premises.
A clatter of shoes on the wooden stairs announced a new arrival in the tower. Brabenachel turned to see a portly middle-aged man in the somber olive green of a militia officer ascend the last few rungs and halt, panting on the threshold. “May I be of service to you, sir?” Brabenachel inquired courteously.
The man gasped a few more times, his face an unhealthy puce, before answering. “I rather hope to be of service to you, Colonel. I’m Julius Eisen, Major Eisen of the Wentwitz militia. My men are formed up in the town square and shall be deployed wherever you see fit, sir.”
“Come, that’s generous of you,” Brabenachel replied, knowing full well that he outranked any mere officer of militia but he was prepared to be magnanimous. He thought quickly. “I think you would be best engaged in covering the southern aspects of your town. I propose to hold the enemy here on the high road for as long as possible before withdrawing through the town, fighting as we go. Your men shall cover our left flank and fall back in time with us. Once we reach the wharfs we shall both retire out of range under the guns of the gunboat flotilla, and let them do their work. Do you understand, Major?”
Eisen drew himself up and saluted. “I do sir, and we shall endeavor to do our best to support you.”
“Good man. See to your preparations, please.”
Eisen departed and Brabenachel turned his attention back to the skirmish line of hussars. Not a man moved there. What are they waiting for?
* * *
Horatio tossed the chicken bone over the side into the river and wiped his lips on a napkin as he looked around. The Wentwitz town militia had formed up on the main street near the western approach to the bridge but the other streets were largely deserted.
A blue-clad officer appeared on the main street and threaded his way past the militia. He trotted toward the short jetty off which the flotilla lay peacefully at anchor. “Messenger coming up,” the lookout called unnecessarily from above.
Horatio thrust the napkin in his pocket and moved to the side. “What news?” he called as the man drew near.
The officer came to a halt on the jetty and saluted. “Colonel Brabenachel’s compliments, sir, and he is in position at the church on the edge of town. The enemy hussars are dismounted nearby but they aren’t closing yet. The Colonel intends to withdraw this way when the enemy does advance and presses the engagement. The town militia will support our left flank.”
“That sounds good to me,” Captain Creighton replied coming up to stand by Horatio. “My compliments to Colonel Brabenachel and thank him for his courtesy in keeping us informed.”
The officer saluted and trotted away. As he passed the assembled militia he gave a casual salute to a florid-faced and obviously sweating militia major who had just arrived. Horatio watched as the man barked orders and the militia stumbled over each other in their attempt to execute them. The two hundred or so men moved off in a bunch rather than anything resembling a military formation “Oh, dear me!” Horatio sighed. “This doesn’t look promising, sir.”
Creighton watched them pass into the streets south of the bridge. “No, they seem to be a pretty band of jack-puddings!”
“Sir!” the lookout yelled and as one the officers tipped their heads back to regard the masthead. The lookout was pointing frantically to the fields near the edge of town. “More enemy cavalry – hussars - approaching!”
“Beat to quarters! Man the port quarterdeck gun!” Horatio roared running back to the high poop. The drum began to beat as he clattered up the ladder to stare across the narrow gap of water. Gray and crimson-clad troopers were riding across the meadows at a round trot, carbines deployed and resting on their thighs. A rudimentary guidon fluttered over the lead troop and Horatio remembered their original banner had been captured along with their colonel at Viehdorf. They’re out to restore their reputation today, it seems! He thought grimly. I shall speak to the lookout later. They should never have come so close without being seen!
The gun crew clustered around the port side six-pounder. Captain Creighton was standing close by, hands behind his back, glowering at the oncoming cavalry. “I think…” he began to say when a sudden fusillade of musketry sounded. Blood spurted from his mouth and he dropped to the deck with a look of astonishment. Musket balls smacked and clattered into Acheron. One ball ricocheted off the gun barrel and struck the loader’s arm. The man gave a cry and staggered back, his hand clutching the savage wound. Horatio ducked and looked for the source of the firing. The windows of the houses overlooking the river seemed full of powder smoke and dark green-clad figures.
“They’re enemy jagers!” someone shouted. “They’ve infiltrated the town!”
Even as full understanding washed over Horatio’s mind the sound of fierce musketry rose again, much greater than before. Bullets crashed into woodwork and whirred spitefully overhead. Another gunner went down and Horatio swore under his breath. Still holding his arm the wounded gunner crawled over to the prone form of Captain Creighton. After a brief check he looked back at Horatio and shook his head.
Horatio felt a brief stab of regret for Creighton’s death but knew he had other priorities now. “Return fire on those houses!” he roared to the gun crew. “Reload with grape!”
The gun-captain swept his linstock to the touchhole and the six-pounder roared. Acheron shuddered sideways in the water and Horatio heard the crash of masonry as the ball struck home. The stink of burnt powder filled the air. Horatio stood and ran back across the quarterdeck to shout orders to the other gunboats. We’ve got to stop the rot here or Colonel Brabenachel will be between a rock and a hard place!