To the east the guns fell silent. The last clouds of powder-smoke drifted away on the late afternoon breeze. General Rauppen-Schlepper rode slowly down the main street of Wentwitz, accompanied by his staff, their ears assailed now by the cries of the wounded. They had to ride carefully, to allow their mounts to pick their way with equine delicacy among the bodies. His experienced eye took in the scope of war damage suffered by the town, the dead and wounded laying in clumps here and there, the abandoned wagons of the enemy’s train. For the first few hundred yards the blue coats of Hetzenberg were in equal numbers to the black of the Margraf’s army. But as he rode nearer to the bridge the ground was exclusively black. Men from the hospital train already moved here and there, finding those who yet lived and giving them what succor they could. Here the General paused and leaned on his saddle bow as he gazed at the bloody and bullet-scoured stonework of the bridge. “Dear God, but this was an awful business!”
“Pure slaughter, sir,” Captain Scharfe said with feeling, his face screwed up in repugnance. “There must be an entire regiment lying dead here!”
“Very close.” Rauppen-Schlepper looked at the source of the destruction. “Hullo! What’s amiss there?”
As one the gunboats were lowering their colors to half-staff. As the headquarters party watched a hand aboard the Acheron raised a black pennon in place of the commission pennant. “It seems Captain Creighton fell at his post, gentlemen,” Rauppen-Schlepper said sadly, doffing his hat in salute. His party did likewise. After the appropriate interval he replaced his hat and beckoned to a galloper. “Hail the Acheron and ask her to come to the wharf. I would like to speak with whoever commands now.”
The man saluted and trotted about his errand. Within minutes the gunboat’s oars emerged and stirred her into motion. Rauppen-Schlepper dismounted and walked down to the wharf. He waited quietly until Acheron was made fast to the bollards and the brow run out. Commander Horngebläse came slowly across the brow and saluted, his face tired and showing dark powder stains. “Give you joy of the victory, sir.”
“Thank you, Commander.” Rauppen-Schlepper shook his hand. “It seems it was not without cost to you, however,” he added, gesturing to the black pennon and the bullet-pierced fabric of the boat.
“I’m afraid not, sir. Captain Creighton died early in the encounter.” He spread his hands. “At least was quick,” he said sadly.
“I suppose that’s all we can ever ask for. The command of the flotilla devolves to you, I gather.”
Horatio nodded. “By virtue of my new rank, sir.”
“What do you intend to do next, young fellow?” Rauppen-Schlepper asked kindly.
“We shall drop downriver to our depot at Lehmangraz as soon as possible, sir. We need to bury our dead. Our ammunition is low, too and we must effect repairs and make up our losses.” He wiped his hand over his face. Rauppen-Schlepper noticed the young officer didn’t glance once in the direction of the bridge, where his guns had made such slaughter.
“No doubt His Grace will require your services for the upcoming siege of Randstadt.”
“I think so, sir. Once we have made good we shall head back upriver with all dispatch and seek further orders.”
“What you propose sounds reasonable to me, Commander. Before you depart you will need to write a full report and casualty list. I shall delay sending off my own report until you have finished yours. In that fashion they may be sent together.”
“I thank you for your consideration, General. You shall have my report delivered to your headquarters within the hour.” Horatio saluted. “If I may be excused?”
“Certainly, certainly. And thank you for all you and your crews’ efforts this day.”
“Sir.” Horatio returned aboard the Acheron. Rauppen-Schlepper refrained from shaking his head and returned to his horse. We ask so much of our young men and expect them to bear our demands. Yet how long can even the strongest stand when presented with the evidence of his effectiveness such as this?
* * *
Babbington put down his teacup and carefully dabbed his lips before replying. “We have no further interest in this war, my dear fellow. The moment your general gives the word we shall march for the Free City of Cottbus.”
“Cotbuss.” Brabenachel nodded sagely. “Were you not employed there until you took the Margraf’s ticket?”
“Yes, but I don’t think we shall be turned away.” Babbington waved his hand languidly. “The last I heard the City Fathers had failed to employ any white company to replace mine. I’ll apply a suitable request for employment, perhaps at a reduced rate.” His smile didn’t quite hide his pain. “Wild Geese must soon learn to swallow their pride.”
“I see.” Brabenachel raised his wineglass. “I wish you success, dear sir. You were a worthy opponent and I hope we shall not meet again on the field of battle.”
“I thank you, sir.” Babbington raised his teacup. “Happy trails to you too!”
* * *
General Kuchler stood by his horse atop the knoll and watched as the remnant of his army trudged by. No colors flew, no band played. What fight had remained in them during the retreat had been scourged by the last battle amid the streets and especially on the bridge at Wentwitz. They’re beaten, and beaten hard, he thought, grim-faced. At least old Rauppen-Schlepper does not seem inclined to pursue. For that mercy let us give thanks.
Not far away stood the customs post that marked the border between the two realms. The douanier and his two assistants stood in front of the small building, watching wide-eyed as the shattered hopes and dreams of their master flowed by. And what of me? Kuchler pondered, returning the salute of a wounded officer who passed by, his head swathed in a bandage. Dare I show my face at Schloss Bagelwein again? He touched his breast where a locket hung next to his skin. Perhaps there is at least one to intercede for me.
* * * * *
So ends the aftermath to the Battle of Viehdorf. I shall return to Hetzenberg soon, but for now I have my wedding to plan and arrangements to make. Our happy event is to take place on 3rd July (which is one way of remembering our anniversary!). After that, I hope to present the Siege of Randstadt, and the continuing adventures of Mary Amadeus and Ursula...