1635: The Eastern Front — Snippet 59

Chapter 28

That very moment, Mike Stearns was wondering if Jeff Higgins was still alive. He might very well not be — and if he was dead, Mike would be the one who killed him.

He’d deliberately left Jeff’s regiment twisting in the wind, and he’d done it for two reasons. The second of those reasons left Mike feeling a little sick to his stomach.

The first reason was straightforward: Higgins and his men had kept the Poles in Zielona Gora preoccupied while Mike moved the rest of the division around the city to the south. Once he launched his attack, he thought he could overwhelm the defenders pretty quickly. He’d be attacking from a direction they wouldn’t expect and with overwhelming force.

The maneuver was tough on the Hangman Regiment, of course, but that was just the chances of war.

Hard-boiled, yes. But Mike’s other motive had been a lot colder and more ruthless. He was utterly determined that no army under his command would ever again behave the way some of its units had at Swiebodzin. That, of course, was the reason he’d formed the Hangman in the first place.

But if Mike was a neophyte at organized warfare, he was no stranger to conflict. He knew perfectly well what would happen if his new regiment simply had a reputation for being hard on soldiers in its own division. They might be feared, but they wouldn’t be respected — and fear without respect only took you so far. Over time, they’d be looked on as the boss’ toadies. The damage to Mike’s reputation would be just as bad as the damage to their own. Nobody respected toadies. Most people didn’t think much of a boss who surrounded himself with toadies, either.

The solution had been obvious. At the very first battle, shove the Hangman into the worst of it. If they acquitted themselves well, they’d start developing a very different reputation. People might not like hardasses, but they respected them as long as the hardass led from the front.

And if the inexperienced young colonel whom Mike had known since he was a kid and had forced into command wound up getting killed, so be it.

The Ring of Fire hadn’t cut anybody any slack. If it had played favorites with Mike Stearns by skyrocketing him into a position of power and prominence that he almost certainly never would have known in the world he’d left behind, it had done so at a price. The Mike Stearns in that other universe had been a lot nicer man than the one he’d become in this one.

He wasn’t sure exactly when the change had started, but Mike knew without a doubt the moment it had crystallized. That had been the day in his office, while he’d still been the USE’s prime minister, when his then-spymaster Francisco Nasi had informed him that except for the two of them and the culprits themselves, no one in the world knew that Henry Dreeson had been murdered by French Huguenot fanatics instead of anti-Semites.

That murder had enraged the Committees of Correspondence all over the USE. They’d been primed for a fight, anyway. All Mike had to do was keep his mouth shut and the fury would fall on Germany’s anti-Semites. The same sort of people who’d produced a holocaust in another universe, and in this one had been insulting and threatening Mike’s own wife for years.

He hadn’t agonized over the decision. In fact, he’d made it within two seconds. He’d gone further than keeping his mouth shut, too. At his command, Nasi had turned over to Gretchen Richter and Spartacus and Gunther Achterhof every file he had on the country’s anti-Semitic organizations and prominent individuals. There’d been thousands of names in those lists. Not more than half of them had survived what came next.

What bothered Mike wasn’t their fates, though. He had no sympathy at all for people like that. As far as he was concerned, they’d gotten what they had coming. Live by the pogrom, die by the pogrom.

No, what bothered him was his own ability to lie so smoothly and cold-bloodedly. Granted, the Mike Stearns he’d left behind hadn’t run around compulsively telling everyone about every cherry tree he’d cut down. Still, he’d felt guilty on those occasions he had told a lie — and there hadn’t been all that many to begin with.

To this day, he’d never felt the slightest twinge of remorse over his actions after the Dreeson Incident. None.

How many times could a man do something on the grounds that the end justifies the means before he rubs away his conscience altogether?

Mike didn’t know. What he did know was that today he was scraping away some more of it.

Christopher Long came racing up. The English officer was such a superb horseman that he didn’t think anything at all about galloping his horse across any terrain as long as it was reasonably flat and dry. Here on the southern edge of Zielona Gora, Long’s definition of “reasonably dry” bordered on lunacy as far as Mike was concerned. True, there hadn’t been any rain lately so the soil wasn’t muddy. But there were little streams and rills all over the place, some of which you couldn’t see until the last moment. In fact, Long was about —

The Englishman came to the rill in question and casually leapt his horse over it. Ten seconds later he was drawing his mount alongside Mike’s. His face was flushed with excitement, but that had to do with the military situation, not the trivial issue of jumping a horse while going twenty-five or thirty miles per hour.

“The Third Brigade is about to engage the enemy, sir!”

Two things struck Mike immediately.

The first was the invariably antiseptic nature of military terminology, which he had noticed before. “Engage the enemy.” That meant that three thousand men under the command of Brigadier Georg Derfflinger were about to start murdering and/or maiming an as-yet-unknown number of Polish soldiers — who, for their part, would do their level best to return the favor. Do unto others before they do unto you.

Mike was pretty sure that sort of veiled language had been intrinsic to the military since the foot soldiers of Sargon “engaged” their Sumerian counterparts by running them over with chariots and hacking them to pieces with bronze axes.

The second thing Mike noticed was a lot more modern.

Once again, one of his brigade commanders had forgotten to use his radio. Instead, as commanders on battlefield had done since horses were domesticated, he’d sent a courier. That peculiar forgetfulness seemed to be ingrained in seasoned veterans like Derfflinger, even though the man was only twenty-nine years old.

For that matter, Long had obviously overlooked the radio as well — and he’d just turned twenty-six.

But now was not the time to berate anyone for being technological challenged.
“Where are von Taupadel and Schuster?” They were the commanders, respectively, of the 1st and 2nd Brigades. Along with Derfflinger, they were the Third Division’s brigadiers.

Long pointed to the northeast. “Schuster’s brigade has closed off the road to Wroclaw. Von Taupadel’s continuing to push around the city to the east.”
Of the two brigadiers, von Taupadel was the senior. He’d have instructed Schuster to fortify positions cutting the Wroclaw road while he took the more challenging task of continuing the flanking maneuver. That made sense, and it’s what Mike would have told him to do had he been there. (Or if von Taupadel had thought to get in touch with him by radio, but never mind.) Schuster’s brigade was the weakest in the division because Mike had stripped troops out of the Black Falcon and Gray Adder regiments to form Jeff’s new Hangman Regiment. Its morale was shaky, too, because except for the Finnish cavalrymen all the soldiers who’d been executed for the atrocities at Swiebodzin had come from that brigade.

Mike hadn’t punished Schuster or the colonel commanding the Gray Adder regiment. Schuster, because he’d been elsewhere at the time and couldn’t in fairness be held responsible. The colonel, because he was dead. His killing at the hands of a sniper, in fact, was one of the things that had triggered off the slaughter.

But while he hadn’t penalized Schuster, Mike had privately made clear to him that if the 2nd Brigade was guilty of another such incident, the brigadier could expect to be cashiered on the spot. For a while, at least, Schuster was bound to be excessively cautious. So would his soldiers, for that matter. Guarding a road from behind fixed positions would be a good way to start rebuilding their confidence.