1637 – The Polish Maelstrom – Snippet 48
Mike Ellis stared at the woman who’d just sat down across the table from him. His jaw was sagging a little. Jozef, who’d brought her there, smiled a little at the sight of the man ogling Christin as he took his own seat. If Ellis were a down-timer, Jozef would assume he was just ogling a beautiful woman, too rude or too stupid to realize that the man with her might take offense. Or that she might–which, with Christin, could get ugly. Once Jozef had met her, he’d had no trouble figuring out where Denise Beasley got her ability to become instantly belligerent–what Americans called “go to Defcon 1”–if she thought a man was behaving improperly toward her. Whether that was genetic or a mother’s example remained unclear. Jozef suspected it was both.
But there was no danger of such a ruckus on this occasion. Christin’s reaction to Ellis’ bug-eyed stare was a soft chuckle.
“Surprised to see me, Mark?”
Ellis squeezed his eyes shut for a moment. When he re-opened them, they had resumed their normal circumference and protuberance.
“Holy shit,” he said. “Is that you, Christin?”
“Do I look like a ghost?”
“Uhâ€¦ no. But what are you doing here?”
She jabbed a thumb at Jozef. “The short answer is that I’m with him. The long answer gets pretty long, and Jozef can probably explain it better than I can.”
Ellis now transferred his stare to Jozef. “You’re withâ€¦? Oh.” He closed his mouth and swallowed a bit. “I was sorry about Buster, Christin. I didn’t know him real well–or you, for that matter–but he always seemed like a decent guy to me, regardless of–ah–“
She chuckled again. “Regardless of his reputation? He wasn’t a bully, Mark. That was the second thing I noticed about him. I liked that. Here was a guy who could beat the crap out of just about anybody but he never felt any need to prove it. You left him and his alone, and he’d do the same for you.”
Now curious, Jozef asked: “What was the first thing you noticed about him?”
“He was really exciting.” She gave Jozef a sly, sidelong look. “That was the first thing I noticed about you, too. The truth is, when it comes to men, I’m an adrenaline junkie.”
Caspar now spoke. “Mark, who is this woman? Is sheâ€¦?”
“Yeah, she’s an up-timer. Christin George. She’s the widow of Buster Beasley. He got killed during the Dreeson Incident–although not before he took down a whole bunch of guys himself.”
Caspar and Czeslaw now spent a few seconds staring at her.
“How well did you know her?” Czeslaw asked abruptly.
“Not real well. She and Buster were ten years older than me, and I’d already graduated from high school before their daughter Denise started, so there was no connection that way, either. But Grantville is–well, was, it’s not any longer–a small town where you know almost everybody.”
The underlying import of the question finally registered on him, and he shook his head. “It doesn’t matter how well I knew her, Czeslaw. She’s who she says she is–which means Jozef’s story has got to be true. I can’t see any other way to explain why she’d be with him. And why would she be lying?”
He placed his head in his hands and looked down at the table. Caspar started to say something but Czeslaw placed a restraining hand on his forearm. As was true of Jozef himself, Czeslaw understood that Ellis was considering something and he wanted to hear what it was.
After perhaps ten seconds, Mark raised his head and gave Jozef a very direct look that bordered on belligerence. “I want out of here,” he said. “And I’m saying it in front of these guys”–here a little jerk of the head indicated the two Polish radio operators–“because I think they want to get out of here too.”
Jozef looked at Czeslaw and Caspar. “Is he right?”
Caspar nodded immediately. “Yes. Czeslaw and I have been talking about it. Neither of us has family here in PoznaÅ„ and we don’t like the way things are looking for us.”
“Our guess is that sooner or later whoever murdered the Grand Hetman is likely to go after us,” added Czeslaw.
“Why?” asked Christin. She wasn’t challenging the statement, just indicating her curiosity. “Why would they suspect you of anything–and what could you do anyway? You’re just radio operators.”
Jozef answered the question before either of the two men to whom it had been addressed could speak.
“That’s exactly why they would be targeted. Whatever Czeslaw and Caspar might or might not do–and they are well-known to be my uncle’s men–they were the two people in the world who could spread an accusation all over Poland. Anywhere in the continent.” His chuckle was dry and had no humor in it at all. “I’d say they need to get out of PoznaÅ„ as soon as they can. Which brings us back to you, Mark Ellis, because unless I miss my guess you have a plan for how to do it.”
“I wouldn’t call it a ‘plan’,” said Ellis. “It’s just an idea. The big problem with escaping PoznaÅ„ isn’t the guards at the gates, so much–some of those guys would sell their mother for a big enough bribe. “
Czeslaw’s chuckle had no more humor in it than Jozef’s. “He’s right about that. I can name four–no, five–guards I know would do it.”
“More like a dozen,” chimed in Caspar. He nodded at the American engineer. “But what he’s going to tell you is that once you get out of whichever gate you choose, you’ll then have a horde of hussars chasing after you. Even worse, you’ll have some Cossacks in the mix.”
“Exactly,” said Ellis. “And whatever else you want to say about the smelly bastards, Cossacks can ride like nobody’s business. You wouldn’t get two miles before they brought you down.”
“That depends,” said Jozef. He now looked at Caspar and Czeslaw. “What’s your best guess? How many angry Koniecpolski partisans are there in the city? Hussars, I’m talking about. And by ‘angry’ I mean ones who are willing to break out of PoznaÅ„ and ride right over anyone who gets in their way.”
Caspar and Czeslaw glanced at each other. “Maybe a hundred, hundred and twenty,” said Caspar.
“More than that,” said Czeslaw. “But not a lot more. A hundred and fifty, I’d say.”
Jozef nodded. “And how many hussars would really press the pursuit?”
Again, the two radio operators exchanged a glance. “Not a lot more. Two hundred. Three hundred, maybe? Most of the Polish troops in PoznaÅ„ thought highly of the Grand Hetman, and we’re not by any means the only ones here who think he was murdered. Butâ€¦”
He shrugged. “You know how most people are–and hussars aren’t much different. As long as they’re not directly affected, they’ll look the other way.”
“But they also won’t move heaven and earth to capture other soldiers who broke out of the city. Not for long, anyway.”
“Wellâ€¦” Another exchange of glances took place. Jozef was beginning to wonder if these two fellows were joined at the hip, at least mentally speaking.
“Wellâ€¦” That was Czeslaw, echoing Caspar’s hesitation. “Here’s the thing, Jozef. It depends where they think we’re going. The one thing almost all hussars are agreed upon”–he gave Christin an apologetic glance–“is that the USE is a nation of–never mind that. A nation that can’t be trusted, let’s put it that way.
“So if they think we’re defecting to Torstensson, they’ll get really pissed. A lot of them will keep a pursuit going, right up to the USE’s lines–and those will be miles away because the only gate we’ve got a chance of escaping from is the north gate. That’s about where the Swedes ended their fortifications, but it’s also where we have a lot of troops gathered.”
“Which means there’s no way we could escape except by heading east once we got out of the gate,” said Caspar. “And then if you wanted to defect to the USE you’d have to ride halfway around the city. And far out from it, too, or you’d get caught by a sortie.”
Czeslaw shook his head. “It doesn’t matter, anyway.” He used a quick motion of thumb and forefinger to indicate himself and his partner. “We won’t agree to it. Neither of us will defect to the damn Germans.”
He gave Christin a little nod. “Meaning no offense.”
She grinned in response. “No problem. I’m not German, remember?”
From the somewhat sour expression on Czeslaw’s face, it was obvious that he considered that a pretty flimsy distinction. No, you’re not German–you’re one of those damned Americans who gave the Germans what they needed to overrun a good part of Poland.
But he left it unsaid.
Jozef was now looking at Mark Ellis. “In case you’re wondering, I’m with them. Part of my agreement with Richter–that’s Gretchen Richter, yes, that Gretchen Richter–when she let me out of prison–“
“You were imprisoned?” That came from Caspar.