“It appears the enemy light infantry commander split his force, Mr. Steiner,” Horatio observed, his telescope to his eye as he studied the figures scurrying from cover to cover near the bridge entry on the east bank. “Those fellows over there are jagers from the same regiment.”
“I think his tactic worked up to a point, sir,” Steiner replied. “The jagers on the west bank caused enough trouble for us when they made the breach in our defenses and let those hussars through.”
“Yet now they’ve been neutralized and will seek to reach the east bank and safety.” Horatio lowered the instrument and looked to the west as another volley of musketry raised the echoes. “Colonel Brabenachel is still holding out, and drawing closer to us by the sound of that firing.” He rubbed his jaw. “Make ready. I have the feeling we’ll be needed again soon.”
Steiner touched his hat. “Aye aye, sir.”
* * *
“I don’t know about you, Reis, but I sense an increasing urgency if not desperation in those fellows,” Colonel Brabenachel said in a near shout as the two companies began yet another withdrawal by fire.
Reis grinned, the light of battle in his eyes. “They’re pressing hard sir, but we’re slowing them down!”
Yes, but at a cost, Brabenachel thought, looking at the dwindling numbers of his men. One Gravy company commander at the head of the column had forced his men into a rudimentary firing line and the volley had stung. If the enemy pauses to organize a proper firing line then we shall be finished.
Just then a figure staggered up to the headquarters party and Brabenachel recognized the fahnjunker he'd sent as messenger to the gunboats. How long ago was that? He wondered as the exhausted and battle-stained youth gave him a wavering salute. Only an hour ago at most yet it seems like a lifetime! “Fahnjunker Gruber! Where have you been, sir?”
“Fighting alongside the militia, sir,” Gruber gasped. “Forgive me, Colonel; I had no choice.” He pointed back toward the river. “A company or so of enemy jager got into the town and prevented me from returning until now. We drove them back and the gunboats hurt them some, but they’re still occupying a part of the town south-east of here.”
“South-east, you say? What’s the condition of the militia?”
“They’re about spent, sir.” Gruber shook his head then flinched as a stray musket ball whirred overhead. “They fought well but they’re up against professional soldiers and their Major is dead, too.”
Brabenachel clapped the youth on the shoulder. “You’ve done well, Gruber.” He glanced down the street toward the river. To his relief he saw the bridge was now in plain sight. “Cut along to whoever now commands the militia and desire him to withdraw to the main street. He is to keep those jagers from our backs until we can link up with him. Then together we shall withdraw into the north-west part of the town and hold out there. Repeat your message.”
Gruber did so faithfully and Brabenachel nodded. “Very good. Rejoin me once you’ve delivered it.”
Gruber saluted and ran off down the street. Brabenachel drew a deep breath, winced at the hot pain in his arm then returned to the fray.
* * *
The shout rose even above the sporadic crash of musketry in the streets. Kliener slammed to attention, earning a withering glance from the sergeant. When the NCO turned to the lieutenant Kleiner looked at Träger. “Is it me or has the Old Man got a bug up his ass today?” he whispered.
Träger shrugged and surreptitiously helped himself to a slug of schnapps from his water bottle. A roundshot howled overhead like a lost soul. “I can’t imagine why.”
The lieutenant stepped forward to address them. “Men! Our plan to gain entry to this town worked. The enemy is in a state of confusion…”
“They’re not the only bleedin’ ones,” Kleiner grumbled under his breath, still sore after discovering the ‘gypsy’s’ deceit.
“We now have to cross the bridge to rejoin the rest of the battalion on the east bank.” The Lieutenant raised his forefinger to the heavens, a gleam in his eyes. “There lies safety, gentlemen, and a drink to toast a job well done!”
“Safety? Does he mean the east bank or Heaven?” Kleiner asked mournfully, looking at the officer's finger.
“Since we have to cross that damned bridge with those nasty gunboats watching I think we’ll soon find out,” Träger sighed, shouldering his musket. "And if you ever dare appear before the pearly gates Saint Peter'll spit in your eye!"
* * *
“Sir!” an aide called out in relief and pointed ahead. “It appears the enemy is giving way.”
Sure enough the regiments were pressing forward faster now. Kuchler drew in a deep breath and murmured a short prayer of thanks. “Then let us proceed with dispatch, gentlemen! We have tarried here long enough.”