1635: The Eastern Front — Snippet 57

Mike smiled. There was no humor at all in it, but it beat a scowl hands down. “I’m a major general, Colonel Higgins. That means I can do damn near anything I want. I can sure as hell create the brevet rank of ‘lieutenant colonel’ for a special purpose. Just to keep all the other colonels happy, you’ll stay at a captain’s pay grade.”

“Thank you, sir. I’d appreciate that. I, ah, don’t actually need the money anymore.”

Mike’s smile widened. There still wasn’t any humor in it, though. “As for your other objection, I’m not planning to give you any existing regiment. I’m creating a new one. It’ll consist of your Twelfth Battalion, and a battalion taken from the Gray Adder regiment. That’ll leave them a rump regiment, and ask me if I care, since they’re the shitheads who let two of their companies run wild.”

Jeff swallowed. Mike had had the major in command of that battalion executed also, along with the captains in command of the two companies — although he’d done them the courtesy of using a regular firing squad, not the volley guns. Then he’d broken every officer in the battalion to the ranks and replaced them with newly promoted sergeants from other battalions.

As a display of savage discipline, Jeff thought the ghosts of Roman tribunes past were applauding somewhere. The whole division was in something of a state of shock. Until Swiebodzin, Stearns had seemed like a very easy-going sort of general.

“Then I’m giving you Captain Engler’s flying artillery company instead of a regular artillery unit. For the purpose of your new regiment, he fits the bill perfectly.”

Stearns had used Engler’s unit to carry out the executions. Between that and the man’s well-known composure at Ahrensbök and Zwenkau, everyone in the division would take him dead seriously. Nobody made jokes any longer about “the Count of Narnia.”

Well, Eric Krenz probably still did. Jeff wondered how he was doing. And then wondered who he’d put in charge of the 12th now that he was being kicked upstairs. Krenz would have been his natural replacement as battalion commander, but he wasn’t available and Jeff had no idea when or if he might be.

“Your new regiment will fight alongside all the others in a battle,” Mike continued. “But it has a special function as well whenever I call on it. You’re the unit I’ll be depending on to keep everyone else in line. Do you understand me, Colonel Higgins? I want no repetition of Swiebodzin. Ever.”

Jeff looked around. They were holding this private conversation in one of the rooms of the small village tavern Mike had taken for his field headquarters. “Taken” as in “expropriated,” although no one had gotten hurt because the people who owned the tavern along with everyone in the village had fled before the division arrived.

You could hardly blame them. The news of Swiebodzin had spread widely and rapidly. But the expropriation of the tavern itself illustrated the fundamental problem, which was practical at its very core.

It would be nice if atrocities resulted solely and simply from the wickedness of men. Were that true, they could be suppressed by the simple use of harsh discipline. Unfortunately, the world was more complicated — and if Mike Stearns didn’t understand that, Jeff would have to explain it to him.

He hesitated, and took another deep breath.

To hell with it. If he shoots me, he shoots me.

And to hell with military protocol, too.

“Mike, this ain’t gonna work. Sure, I can probably put a stop to crazy shit like what happened at Swiebodzin. But that’s just the tip of the iceberg — and you oughta know it. We have to get supplies. And how are we going to do that? We’ve already pretty much run out of what we brought with us from Berlin. That means foraging, and foraging means stealing, and the way Koniecpolski’s been running us ragged there’s no way to round up enough supplies except to send out lots and lots of foraging parties and there’s no way in hell you or me or anybody can stay in control of that and before you know it some cavalry unit or some infantry squad is going to kill a farmer who squawks too much when they take his one of his pigs and then they’re likely to rape his wife or daughter or likely both and kill the rest of the kids while they’re at it. And what good is my shiny new regiment gonna be?”

Mike put a hand on Jeff’s shoulder. “Relax. I know the realities of this kind of warfare and I’m going to start taking some steps to ameliorate it. I don’t expect perfection, Jeff. I know there’ll be incidents. And even if I come down on them as I hard as I did after Swiebodzin — and you can bet your sweet ass I will — some of those crimes will go unpunished because there’s no one left alive to report them except the culprits and they sure as hell won’t. But that’s still not the same thing as wholesale slaughter. That, we can control — with your new regiment.”

Jeff took another deep breath, and slowly blew it out. “Okay, then. We’ll need a name.”

Somehow or other, the tradition had gotten started in the USE army of using names instead of numbers for the regiments. The names had no official existence, but nobody except idiot accountants used the regiments’ numbers anymore.

“Call it the Death Watch,” said Mike. “Better yet, call it the Hangman.”

Jeff thought about it, for a few seconds. “The guys’ll probably like that, actually. Well, the ones in the regiment, anyway. Don’t know about the others.”

“Yeah, I think you’re right.”

They were silent, for another few seconds. Then Jeff said, “Off the record, Mike, you know how fucked up that is?”

For the first time, a trace of humor crept into Mike’s smile. “The Ring of Fire didn’t cut us any slack, did it?”


After Mike finished explaining what he wanted, David Bartley frowned. The young financier-turned-army-lieutenant stared at the surface of the table he and Mike were sitting at, in the back room of the tavern that Mike was using for his headquarters. His eyes didn’t seem quite in focus.

“Pretty tricky, sir,” he said after perhaps a minute. “There’s no chance of using TacRail like we did in the Luebeck campaign?”

Mike shook his head. “We’re not fighting French and Danes here, Lieutenant Bartley. Leaving aside his own cavalry, Koniecpolski’s got several thousand Cossacks under his command. They’re probably the best mounted raiders in Eurasia, except for possibly the Tatars. TacRail units would get eaten alive before they’d laid more than a few miles of track, unless we detailed half our battalions to guard them. Which we can’t afford to do.”

Bartley nodded. “That leaves what you might call creative financing.”

“That’s what I figured — and it’s why I called you in.”

The lieutenant looked unhappy. “The regular quartermasters are already kinda mad at me, sir. If I –”

“Don’t worry about it. To begin with, I’m pulling you out of the quartermaster corps altogether. You’ll be in charge of a new unit which I’m calling the Exchange Corps.”

“Exchange? Exchange what, exactly?”

Mike gave David the same humorless grin he’d given Jeff an hour earlier.

“That’s for you to figure out. Whatever you can come up with that’ll enable us to obtain supplies from the locals without completely pissing them off. No way not to piss them off at all, of course. But the Poles have had as much experience with war over the last thirty years as the Germans. They’ll take things philosophically enough as long we aren’t killing and raping and burning and taking so much that people die over the winter.”

Again, Bartley went back to staring at the table top with unfocussed eyes.

“Okay,” he said eventually. “I’ve got some ideas. But I’ll need a staff, General. Not too big. Just maybe three or four clerks and, ah, one sort of specialist. His name’s Sergeant Beckmann. Well, Corporal Beckmann, now. I got him his stripe back but then he ran afoul of — well, never mind the details — and got busted back to corporal.”

“Where is he now? And what sort of specialist is he?”

“He’s right here in the Third Division, sir. One of the quartermasters in von Taupadel’s brigade. As for his specialty… Well, basically he’s a really talented swindler.”

Mike laughed. And then realized it was the first time he’d laughed since he saw the carnage in the streets of Swiebodzin.

“Okay, you got him — and we’ll give the man back his sergeant’s stripe. May as well, since I’m promoting you to captain.”

David looked very pleased. That was just another of the many peculiar results of the Ring of Fire, Mike thought. Take a rural teenage kid and put him somewhere he can become a millionaire — but he still gets a bigger charge out of getting a promotion to a rank whose monthly salary was about what he earned in three hours of playing the stock market.

The Ring of Fire might not have cut anyone any slack, but here and there it had certainly played favorites.