As the jagers withdrew from the riverside and the firing died away in the town a lull fell upon the flotilla. The gunboat crews had time to pay proper attention to the numerous wounded and to drink from the scuttlebutts and wash the grime of battle from their faces. For Horatio it was a time to take stock of the situation.
He leaned on the bullet-splintered quarterdeck rail and glared at the destruction wrought by the flotilla’s guns on the riverfront houses. A plume of smoke had begun to rise over one, and he wasn’t comforted by the fact the adjoining houses were mere piles of rubble and so acted as a firebreak. All this death and destruction, caused by the Margraf’s greed!
Midshipman Steiner came up and silently offered him a cup of water. Horatio took a sip, swilled it around and spat it into the river before drinking. “Thanks,” he said, handing back the cup and turning his mind back to practicalities. “Where did you put the Captain?”
“He’s in the main cabin, sir. We covered him with his coat.”
“Well done, lad.”
Steiner shrugged sadly. “He was a fine officer, sir. We’ll miss him.”
“Yes, we shall. Once this is over I’ll write to his family.” He looked at Steiner. “It’s one of the hardest duties to befall an officer, Mr. Steiner. I hope it doesn’t come your way too often when you rise to your own command.”
“Yes, sir,” Steiner replied, looking somber.
The midshipman walked forward. “Deck there!” cried the port side lookout. “Flag of truce approaching on the wharf!”
Horatio stared at the three black-clad figures as they approached. Two were officers, a brigadier-general and a captain who held a stick with a white flag. The third was a stocky drummer boy who, as Horatio watched, launched into a flurry of beats that became the recognized rhythm of the parlay.
“Dip our colors in acknowledgement,” he snapped to the bosun. With that signal the deputation walked up to the shot-torn wharf-side and the drumbeat stopped.
“Do I have the honor of addressing the commander of this flotilla?” the general called across the water.
Horatio thought ruefully of Captain Creighton, lying dead below. Dead men's shoes…“You do, sir.”
“I am General Kaffe-Klatch, commanding the infantry contingent of His Excellency the Margraf’s army.”
“What can I do for you, general?” Horatio asked.
“We acknowledge our defeat in the recent action at Viehdorf. The army of Hetzenberg is pressing us closely but we do not seek to prolong this confrontation. Our army seeks passage across the Wentwitz bridge in order to leave your soil. Will you permit us to cross unmolested, sir?”
Horatio looked at the destruction along the riverside and thought of the men who’d fallen in action that day and in all the long days since the invasion began. The crew was looking at him, and he sensed their mood. He shook his head slowly. “General, your Margraf sent you onto our soil in an act of pure conquest and destruction. You were defeated, but not enough to match the damage you’ve done, I feel. You seek to escape across this bridge? Then you must take your chances, sir!”
The general drew himself up, outrage plain on his face. No doubt a sharp retort formed on his lips but he contented himself with saying “Then nothing more remains to be said,” and sketching a bow.
Horatio watched the trio walk back the way they’d come. “Crew to general quarters!” he roared. “Prepare for action! Clear away the mortars!”
* * *
On the street near the church General Kuchler received the bad news from his subordinate with regret. “It is much as I feared, General,” he told Kaffe-Klatch. “We must run the gauntlet, it seems. Even so, I think the damage inflicted on this army can be kept to a minimum if we make haste.”
Some of the assembled regimental officers stiffened at this. Their collective thoughts were as one. Make haste? Are we to run across the bridge as if we’re rabbits afraid of the hunter?
Lieutenant Weissmuller was uncomfortable in such exalted company but as the de-facto commander of the jager contingent on the west bank he had to be there. All bar one of the other officers treated him with a degree of condescension. The exception was Colonel Babbington, who shot him a look of sympathy. When the orders group broke up Weissmuller found the mercenary colonel walking by his side. “I don’t know about you, lieutenant,” the Colonel said, “but I, for one, am going to lead my boys hell for leather across that bridge.”
Weissmuller shot him a look then nodded. “I shall do the same.” He shuddered. “I’ve seen what those gunboats can do with their quarterdeck guns alone. I’m dreading the execution they’ll exact on us with their main armament!”
“Justifiably so.” Babbington paused to fill his clay pipe and Weissmuller stopped politely. A sputter of musket fire from the rear of the column announced the Hetzenberg army was closing in on the rearguard. Babbington cocked his eye in that direction. “At the moment I’m seriously reconsidering my legion’s employment by the Margraf,” he said. “Times like this tend to focus one’s mind wonderfully, don’t you find?”
Without waiting for a reply Babbington saluted him and walked away whistling The Black Joke. Weissmuller stared after him then turned and sought out his own troops, his thoughts grim.
* * *
The Tuhellenbach Hussars led the way. Their coming was announced by a rumble of hooves that raised the echoes in the street. Horatio watched as the gaudy horsemen surged into the open and rode hard for the bridge, their rudimentary guidon fluttering. From his place by the main gun Steiner looked at him, the query plain on his face. Horatio shook his head. He liked horses and saw no reason whatsoever to slaughter the poor creatures. “Let them pass,” he called. “There’ll be other targets yet.”
The crew watched stone-faced as the stream of cavalry flowed across, their passage like a continuous rumble of thunder. Some of the horsemen looked across at the gunboats, waiting patiently on the river like huge menacing water beetles. They can’t believe their luck, it seems! Horatio thought. Ride on, gentlemen! You won’t die this day!
On the hooves of the hussars came the jagers, scuttling green-clad figures utilizing every scrap of cover they could find. They too moved at speed. Horatio pursed his lips then nodded to Steiner. Time for some serious payback…
* * *
“Whose bright idea was this?” Kleiner shouted, running hard for cover against the bridge parapet.
“Shut up and keep moving!” Träger bawled pushing at his friend’s back. He cast one terrified glance at the gunboats and saw the figures working around the huge guns behind the bulwarks. “Oh shi -!”
He dived, landed on top of Kleiner who roared as if a cannonball had struck him.
The world around them disintegrated in a welter of sheer noise. Grapeshot smashed into the ancient stonework or howled through the air with a diminuendo whine. The ground shook beneath them and Träger stared horror-struck as a jager who’d moved too slowly vanished in a cloud of red gore.
“Come on!” The Old Man was suddenly there and grabbing their arms. “They’ll take time to reload those brutes. Move!”
* * *
“Shall we fire the mortar, sir?” Steiner called eagerly.
Horatio shook his head. “No, wait for a denser target!” he shouted back. “And make sure those fuses are cut short!”
He watched coolly as the jager scuttled across the bridge to join their fellows on the other side. We got some of them! Even skirmishers can’t dodge a double hatful of grape from three big guns!
A rattle of drums and squeaking of fifes announced the next candidate for destruction. Close on the heels of the last jager came a line infantry regiment, colors flying proudly, each man stepping out at the regulation pace. Horatio nodded. “All squared away there, Mr. Steiner?”
“Ready, aye, ready, sir!”
“Fire the main guns on my command!” Horatio shouted, making sure his voice carried to the other waiting gunboats. The regiment marched onto the bridge. Not a man looked over the parapet at the deadly menace on the river. “Fire!”
The great guns roared, Acheron bucked and the deadly grapeshot expanded outward in a cone-shaped cloud to tear into the marching ranks. Cocytus and Phlegethon added their quota of destruction and screams and cries rose above the ringing in Horatio’s ears as he waved to Steiner. “Gun crews clear! Stand by the mortars!” The men ran to their places. Steiner bent over the squat brutish mortar to light the fuse then stepped back. “Fire!”
Acheron shuddered again, snubbing at her anchor cables as the huge weapons belched flame into the sky. Horatio watched anxiously. Fuse-cutting was a fine art and even experts got it wrong sometimes. The great bomb rose, a black blur in the sky, the fuse a red sparkling streak. It rose then descended to burst directly over the head of the shattered column. Cocytus’ bomb fell short, dropping harmlessly into the river but Phlegethon’s fell plumb on the bridge itself. Men were flung into bloody red rags and what discipline remained was lost as the ranks broke apart and fled across the bridge. “Reload!” Horatio snapped feeling sickened at the slaughter. Streams of blood flowed through gaps in the parapet to trickle into the river. This is sheer butchery! But none of us chose it!
Colonel Babbington watched sadly as the next regiment took its place at the entrance to the bridge, colors flying defiantly. General Kuchler was engaged in earnest discourse with Kaffe-Klatch. There seemed to be some kind of argument going on there. He turned and looked up the road. The Seinfeld Cuirassiers were coming in, the big troopers and their mounts picking their way past the abandoned wagons of the train. Their colonel saw him watching and raised his sword in salute as he passed by, his face a smudged blank, left arm tied in a sling. Babbington returned the salute. Just my legion between what’s left of the army and the ‘Bergers now, it seems.
The sound of fifes and drums made him glance back toward the bridge but he hurriedly turned away as the guns roared from the river. Hardening his heart to the sounds of carnage he walked steadily toward his shrunken band where it was drawn up in line and facing up the road out of town. “Captain Tobermory!” he called as he walked up to the command group. “We shall go light. Pray remove the Margraf’s colors from the staff and order the men to reverse arms.”
Tobermory saluted his features grave as he gave the order. Babbington watched, peacefully puffing on his pipe. “There’s a time and place for everything,” he murmured.