1637 – The Polish Maelstrom – Snippet 52

Elsewhere… not so much. One of the other reasons Jeff and von Mercy had picked this gate to assault was because the moat here was no more than twenty feet across and seemed to be fairly shallow. Both of them were confident that it wouldn’t take long for the combat engineers to fill a length of the moat with fascines and lay an already prepared corduroy road across it.

That task would now be easier. But then what?

A change of plans was needed. Now.

“This is why I get paid the big bucks,” Jeff muttered. He turned to one of the three radio operators standing just behind him. “Tell the rear battery to adjust their elevation. We need them to fire into the city itself–and tell them to err on the side of ‘too far in’ rather than ‘too close to the walls.'”

As the radio operator started transmitting, it occurred to Jeff that he probably shouldn’t have used a hoity-toity verb like “err.” Hopefully the radio operator knew what it meant and if the man at the receiving end didn’t, he could explain it to them.

But he had more pressing issues to worry about. Von Mercy’s cavalry would be arriving soon and they’d have absolutely nothing to do except mill around. Men on horseback were ill-suited to storming over a wall that had been turned into a pile of stones. And good luck getting the snooty bastards to get off their horses and use their own legs.

He turned to the second operator. “Tell Eddie Junker we need him to provide us with reconnaissance. Specifically, I need to know if the garrison is still defending the gate–what’s left of the gate–or if they’ve retreated into the city.”

If the garrison had fled already, his life just got a lot easier. If they hadn’t…

The first rounds fired by the rear battery started passing overhead. Jeff waited a few seconds until they started landing and he could hear the explosions.

“And tell Eddie we also need him to let us know where the bombs are landing. And–never mind.” He’d been about to add the caution that Eddie needed to stay high enough or far enough out not to get in the way of the incoming bombs, but that was just twitchiness on his part. Eddie Junker was not a fool.

Now he turned to the third and last radio operator. “Order the Hangman Regiment–the whole regiment; make sure that’s understood–to come forward. On the double. We’re going to need them to get us over the wall, thanks to that bastard Murphy. No, skip that last clause.”

Now what? he wondered. Oh, yeah. Von Mercy. He’d also had three couriers standing by, as a second string to his bow. He now summoned one of them to his side.

Pointing in the direction where the cavalry would be coming from, he ordered: “Go meet von Mercy and explain what’s happened. Tell him to get close but then wait for my instructions.” After the courier galloped off, it occurred to Jeff that his authority over Bohemian cavalry amounted to zilch. He’d just have to hope that von Mercy would have enough sense in the middle of a battle to let protocol take a rest. He seemed like a sensible fellow.

The forward battery was still firing at the barbican and the gate–or rather, the piles of rocks and shattered wooden planks that had once been a barbican and a gate.

That was just a waste of ammunition now, and he wanted to save as many of the RDX warheads as he could. He was sure they’d need them come the spring, since the general strategic plan–

He barked a sarcastic laugh. At the moment, so-called “plans” were a subject of scorn and ridicule, as far as he was concerned.

The radio operator who’d gotten in contact with the airplane pilot came up to him. “He wants to talk to you, sir.”

Jeff took the mike. “What is it, Eddie?”

It would help if you explained what you’re planning to do.”

Quickly, Jeff sketched his new plan. Which came down to:

Blow the hell out of everything in this vicinity of the city with the mortars, and too bad for the civilians who got caught in the fire. They had to drive the garrison away from the walls here.

Storm the walls–pile of rubble–with the infantry. As soon as they could clear a way in for them, the cavalry could do the rest.

Gotcha.” Eddie’s American slang had gotten impeccable. One of the side effects of being Denise’s squeeze. “I can tell you already that the garrison isn’t trying to hold what’s left of the gate. So far as I can see, none of them are within fifty yards of the walls anymore. Out.

That was good news. Jeff handed the mike back to the operator. As he did so, he wondered if Eddie had gotten his radio training from Jimmy Andersen, who’d always been a stickler. Most people would have said “over and out” to indicate they’d ended their transmission, but that was not actually proper protocol since what it really meant was “I’m done talking and it’s your turn except I’m hanging up.”

For one of the many, many times since his friend’s death, Jeff felt a pang of anguish. The worst of it–what he knew he’d never get over no matter how long he lived–was the sheer happenstance of the death. A bullet from nowhere, fired by a man who couldn’t see Jimmy and had no idea he was there, had taken his life. It was as if God had chosen Jimmy Andersen to be a personal illustration of chaos theory.

But there was no time for this. Another courier had brought his horse up, knowing what had to come next–as did Jeff himself. He’d have to lead the infantry charge personally, under these chaotic and mixed-up circumstances.

In and of itself, that didn’t bother him. What did annoy him was that he’d have to do it on horseback, just to make himself visible to the troops. Which, of course, also meant being visible to the enemy. Still worse was that he’d have to ride a damn horse without being able to concentrate on his horsemanship–which was mediocre to begin with. He was more likely to break his neck falling off the beast than he was to get hit by enemy fire.

Nothing for it, though. He clambered aboard his mount.

Then, made sure his sword was loose in its scabbard. He’d have to wave the thing around, too, which always made him feel stupid. But his men would expect him to do it. For some incomprehensible reason buried in the ancient and near-mindless reptilian brainstem, that seemed to make a difference to people under fire.

Jeff thought he could already hear the thrumming sound made by two thousand cavalrymen in a canter, but he wasn’t sure. The mortar fire was like a thunderstorm up close. The bombs were raining down onto Poland’s most prestigious city, which had been there for centuries. It was also the site of the Commonwealth’s world-famous (Europe-famous, anyway) center of scholarship and learning, Jagiellon University.

“If Melissa Mailey finds out about this, I’m dead meat,” he muttered. “The fuss she raised when Harry Lefferts burned down one lousy thatch-roofed theater!”