1636: The Ottoman Onslaught – Snippet 41

But wild-ass guess or not, the general needed an answer. “I figure we’ve lost maybe twenty percent of our guys, all told. Most of those are wounded, not killed, but they’re out of the fight now.”

Not good, but better than I feared. How’s your morale? Your men’s, I mean. I know yours is solid. It always is.”

Jeff felt a little better, hearing that. He had a tremendous amount of respect for Mike Stearns. It was nice to know that the man had a high regard for him as well.

“We’re solid, General. We held ’em off and now the guys are mostly pissed.”

All right. Here’s what I want you to do…

After Stearns finished the quick sketch of his plans, he asked: “Any questions?

Jeff’s answer came immediately. “No, sir. Our part’s about as simple as it gets. Hook up with von Taupadel, hunker down along the river, and hold the bastards in place while you do all the complicated stuff.”

“That’s pretty much it. Is there anything else?”

Jeff hesitated. This wasn’t really part of military protocol since the commanding general of a whole division didn’t need to be told every detail of the casualties they’d suffered, but…

“Jimmy Andersen was killed, Mike.”

There was silence on the other end of the radio for a moment. Then Stearns said: “I’m sorry, Jeff. I truly am.”

“War sucks, what can you say? Hangman Regiment out.”

Bavaria, Third Division field headquarters

Village of Haag an der Amper

Mike stared down at the radio receiver he still held in his hand.

Jimmy Andersen dead…

The Four Musketeers, the kids had liked to call themselves: Jeff Higgins, Larry Wild, Jimmy Andersen, Eddie Cantrell.

Four teenagers, close friends in the way that geeky boys in a rural area will stick together — the more so because all four of them had lost their entire families in the Ring of Fire. For one reason or another, their folks had all been out of town that day in May 2000 when it happened. There’d been just the four of them, playing Dungeons & Dragons in the Higgins’ family mobile home.

Five years later… and now half of them were gone. Larry Wild had been killed in the Battle of Wismar on September 9, 1633. And now Jimmy Andersen was gone, also killed in combat.

He looked up at Christopher Long. “What’s the date?” He’d lost track. Middle of May was all he could remember.

“May 14, sir.”

“1636.” For some obscure reason, Mike felt the need to include the year.

Jimmy Andersen would have been… what? Twenty-three years old? That was Jeff’s age, Mike knew. His birthday had been in March. March 22, if Mike remembered right. Gretchen had sent Jeff a cookie — which hadn’t arrived until the next month, naturally.

His thoughts were wandering, and he couldn’t afford that. Not now. Not today. But before Mike shoved them aside he allowed one final spike of sheer pride to race through his soul.

Everything he’d always believed had been confirmed over the past five years. Every ideal, every tenet of political belief, every guide to personal and social conduct. Mike took no credit for any of them, because like most people born and raised in the United States he’d grown up with those beliefs and ideals. What he did take pride in — and take credit for, to the extent he shared in that credit with thousands of other people — was that when a small town in America had been ripped off its foundations by a cosmic catastrophe and tossed into a maelstrom, the people of that town had risen to the challenge. And they’d done so by holding fast to their beliefs and ideals — no, more; championing them for everyone — rather than abandoning them.

Along the way, lots of compromises had been made, sure. Mike himself had been personally responsible for a good number of them. Things sometimes got ragged around the edges. But that was the nature of political affairs — hell, any human affairs. Marriages only survived by the willingness of people to compromise.

Still, all things considered, they’d done well. Damn well. And paid the price for it, too. Somewhere around thirty-five hundred people had come through the Ring of Fire, and by now — just five years later — at least five hundred of them were gone. Mike didn’t know the exact figure, and felt a moment’s guilt that he didn’t.

Most of those people had died because, like most rural towns in economically depressed areas, Grantville had had a disproportionate number of elderly residents, many of them in poor health. Anyone dependent on up-time medicines that couldn’t be duplicated down-time — and most of them couldn’t — was gone by now.

The others, though, had died in the line of fire, doing their duty. Some of them had died fighting tyranny; others had died fighting one or another of the diseases that ravaged this era.

Larry Wild had died at Wismar and Jimmy Andersen here at Zolling. Derek Utt had died in the Rhineland, fighting the plague. So had Andrea Decker and Jeffie Garand. The list went on and on, and it would keep going on.

Mike tried to remember the famous line from Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg address. That cause for which they here gave the last full measure of devotion, he thought it was.

His people. They’d always been his people. Now more than ever.

“General?” Ulbrecht Duerr’s voice broke through his musings.

Mike turned. “Yes, Ulbrecht, I’m here.”

He grinned then, and though he didn’t know it — then or ever — that grin brought instant cheer to every soldier in the tavern who saw. They’d come to know that grin, this past year.

Mike slapped his hands together and advanced on the map spread over the table.

“Gather round, gentlemen. Another stinking duke is going down.”