1636: The Ottoman Onslaught – Snippet 47
Bavaria, on the Amper river
Two and a half miles east of Zolling
That evening, after searching for the Hangman Regiment’s commanding officer for half an hour, Mike found Jeff Higgins digging a grave. Part of him was irritated that a colonel was engaged in simple labor that he could have assigned any soldier to do. For that matter, he could have just let the three soldiers he had helping him dig the grave while he went about doing what he was supposed to be doing, which was commanding more than a thousand men. (One thousand, two hundred and seventy-one, to be exact, as of the start of the battle. All of the Third Division’s regiments were over-strength; none more so than the Hangman.)
But Mike said nothing. He didn’t have to remove the tarpaulin covering a corpse next to the grave to know whose body it was. Or had been, he supposed, if you believed in an afterlife. Mike didn’t and he knew Jeff didn’t either, but he wasn’t sure about Jimmy Andersen.
He got off his horse and went to stand by the grave. It was already at least four feet deep.
“Do you have a coffin?” he asked.
Jeff stopped digging and straightened up, leaning the shovel against the side of the grave. “No, and I’m not waiting until we can get one. I doubt if there are any civilians within ten miles of here.” He looked up at his commanding general and made a face. “I’m being self-indulgent already, so I’m not about to tell my men to start playing carpenter — assuming they could find the tools anyway. Besidesâ€¦”
He waved his hand in a gesture that encompassed everything around them. “There are hundreds of corpses in the area. Most of them are ours, but the Bavarians left some behind too. We can’t make coffins for more than a handful of them, so I don’t see any point in trying to pick and choose.”
Mike looked around. He’d noticed on his way here from Moosburg that there were fewer corpses strewn about than he’d expected to see. “Whereâ€¦”
Jeff rubbed his forehead with a forearm. That wiped away some of the sweat, at the expense of smearing a little mud on his face. “The Bavarians stacked them up in piles.” He nodded toward the corpse under the tarpaulin. “I found Jimmy in one of them. He was kind ofâ€¦ wellâ€¦”
He shrugged. “He’d been there almost two days and he was getting a little ripe. But at least his body was still intact. Some of the corpses — a fair number of ’em — were in pieces.”
Mike reached down a hand. “Come on out of there. Your men can finish the grave and we need to talk.”
Jeff took his hand and Mike helped lift him out of the pit. Then, he walked away a few steps so the two of them could talk privately.
“I’m sorry, Jeff,” he said. This was not a time for military formalities. “I fucked up pretty bad, and if I hadn’t Jimmy would still be alive.”
Jeff shook his head. “Don’t beat on yourself, Mike. If generalship was easy, everybody and their grandmother would be calling themselves Napoleon and Alexandra the Great. Jimmy’s death was a fluke. The bullet that killed him wasn’t even aimed at him. It just came in out of nowhere at exactly the wrong time and place. The same thing could happen to you or me or anyone on any given day in a combat zone. War sucks, period. It’s just the way it is.”
There wasn’t anything to say in response. Jeff was right, on all counts. Which still didn’t make Mike feel any better.
“Besides,” Jeff continued, “the real problem is the same one it’s been since the USE put its army together. It’s not you, it’s that we don’t have enough cavalry. Half the time we’re stumbling around half-blind, and some of the time we might as well be completely in the dark.”
“Yeah, I know. I’ve put in another request –”
“It ain’t gonna happen, Mike,” Jeff interjected, “and you know it as well as I do. The Third Division’s at the bottom of any stinking nobleman’s list, when it comes to ‘cavalry jobs wanted.’ So I think we need to go outside the box. What we need is our own airplane. Or airship, if we can get our hands on a hydrogen one. These hot air jobs are fine for a lot of things, but they purely suck when it comes to providing us with reliable reconnaissance.”
“I’ve thought about it myself, but I don’t know where we’d find one. I had David check with Kelly Aviation, since everything Hal’s building is already signed up by the air force. But they don’t have anything free, either.”
“What about an airship?”
“There’s nothing suitable being built in the USE, that I know of. There might be something underway in the Netherlands, but King Fernando will have first dibs on whatever gets built.”
Jeff chuckled heavily. The sound had very little humor in it. “So have your wife twist his arm. She is figuring on being the next secretary of state, right? Or am I supposed to believe that silly bullshit that she stepped down for Piazza because nobody else was available?”
Mike chuckled as well. “My lips are sealed. Butâ€¦ Next time I see her, I’ll see what I can do.”
The soldiers digging the grave starting climbing out of the pit. “We’re finished, sir,” said one of them. “Six feet, like you said.”
Mike and Jeff went over and looked down. Then, as if they were of one mind, each of them took one end of the tarpaulin-covered figure lying next to the grave and lifted it up.
In the end, Mike wound up lowering Jimmy into the grave himself. He did so by the simple expedient of climbing in and having Jeff and another soldier hand the body down to him. They didn’t have any ropes to lower the corpse and the alternative of just pitching him in wasn’t acceptable to either of them.
After he positioned the body as best he could, Mike climbed back out, hoisted by Jeff and the same soldier. The other two soldiers started shoveling dirt over the body.
“Hold on,” Jeff ordered them, raising his hand. “I want to say a few words.”
“Do you need a Bible?” Mike asked. “That’s one thing about a down-time army. Every other soldier will have one.”
Jeff shook his head. “Jimmy wasn’t religious, Mike. None of us Four Musketeers belonged to a church except Larry Wild. He was raised in the Church of Christ but he didn’t really hold to it any more. There’s a passage from Ecclesiastes that Jimmy always liked, though, and another one from Romans that Larry Wild recited to us once and all four of us agreed we held to it. I recited it after I heard that Larry had been killed and I still have it memorized.”
He moved to the edge of the grave, lowered his head a bit and, with his hand clasped before him, said the following:
“For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven. There’s a time to be born, and there’s a time to die. For none of us lives to himself, and none of us dies to himself.” He took a breath and added: “Go in peace, my old friend Jimmy Andersen. And if you do find anything over there, try not to screw up, okay?”
He stepped back from the grave and nodded at the two soldiers with shovels. As they went back to filling the grave, Jeff turned to Mike. “What do we do for a headstone? There aren’t any masons left in the area either.”
Mike had been pondering the same problem and had already come up with a solution. “Just remember where this grave is and hammer a stake with Jimmy’s name into it. We’ll replace it with a headstone when we get a chance.”
“What about the rest of the soldiers? We can’t dig individual graves for everybody.”
“No, we’ll have to bury most of them in mass graves. Butâ€¦”
He was thinking ahead, still. “After the war’s over — this war, anyway — we’ll turn this whole area into a military graveyard. There’ll be headstones lined up in rows for every soldier who died here, even if they’re not right where the man was buried. Like we did at Arlington and Gettysburg and — oh, hell, lots of places — back up-time.”