The Forever Engine – Snippet 40
October 9, 1888, On the Lim River, Bosnia
The rhythmic chuh-chuh-chuh-chuh of the steam launch’s motor, the slap of waves against the bow, and the low German and English conversations of the men packed into the boat seemed small things in the emptiness of the river.
Bosnia had a somber, brooding beauty — granite cliff faces and massive outcroppings from a distance looking like moss-covered boulders, scattered among scrub forest and meadows. The rain had passed on to the east, but a solid roof of dark clouds kept the sun from lighting the glens and woods, made them all home to imagined lurking menace.
Earlier we had seen groups of people on the banks, then a solid flood — families, some with carts, bundles on their backs, livestock, others with nothing but their lives. We passed boats as well, mostly fishing craft. The boats, the people on shore — all headed downriver, northwest. They said nothing to us, nor did they have to. I had seen refugees before.
I wanted to stop, question them, but Gordon insisted we had lost enough time already, were making slow enough progress.
“The river is running so fast this relic of a boat is hardly making headway against it. We need to make Uvats by dusk. We’ll find out what’s happened once we get there.”
I wasn’t so sure. The flood of refuges dwindled then dried up, and for the last hour we had seen no one.
I scanned all around us. Gray sky overhead, gray river broken by white chop ahead, and behind, seemingly forever, empty banks to either sideâ€”no wonder the men grew jumpy, talked only in lowered voices, checked and rechecked their rifles and ammunition. Gabrielle seemed restless, unsettled.
“What do you think, Gabi?” I asked.
“About what? Oh, the lack of people on the banks? Either the danger has passed or it has consumed Uvats, oui?”
Leave it to her to see to the heart of the matter.
“You don’t feel like uncasing that Winchester?”
“Non. If thirty armed soldiers cannot deal with the situation, I think one more gun will make little difference.”
She was right, but I checked my Webley all the same. Danger in the abstract was one thing, but as we grew closer to whatever was happening up ahead, the butterflies in my stomach woke up and started flying around. Gabrielle staring at me didn’t help.
“What?” I asked.
“Your wife, how did she die?”
My stomach clenched again, and for a moment I was afraid I was going to throw up. I felt a cold sweat on my face and knew I must have gone pale. I looked away, out over the river, but not for the view, just to avoid her eyes.
No one else here had asked me that. Not polite, you know, to inquire after a chap’s personal life. The answers might be embarrassing to everyone, and we wouldn’t want that, would we? But Gabrielle’s rather limited grasp of social convention was always trumped by her curiosity. Normally I liked that about her. I liked it a lot.
“She . . . um . . . killed herself.”
“This is so? My mother killed herself as well. Sometimes I wonder if she did so because of me.”
I looked at her. I’m not sure what I expected to see in her eyes. Maybe a hidden pain forced to the surface, a key to unlocking her trapped emotions. Instead I saw a thoughtful frown. Her mother’s suicide was another emotional puzzle for which she had no solution.
“Your mother made her own decision,” I said. “You can’t blame yourself for that.”
“Then why do you?”
The launch’s Bosnian skipper spoke enough pigeon Turkish to let me know what he was thinking when he felt like it. Now he raised his head to catch my eye, and I was happy for the distraction.
“Uvats. After hill,” he said.
I looked upriver, saw a bend to the right about two miles ahead with a large hill on the bank.
“That hill?” I asked pointing.
He nodded. I took a closer look. Faint smoke rose from behind the crest.
His face wrinkled up in thought. Then he let go the wheel and held up both hands, fingers spread, closed his fists, opened them a second time, closed them, opened them again.
I passed the word to Gordon, who called von Schtecker back to join us. Both officers seemed jumpy to me, both working hard at not showing it. Like me.
“Pilot says half an hour to Uvats,” Gordon started. “No telling what sort of a reception we’ll have there, so we need to be ready for all eventualities. Now, here’s my plan. Once we land I’ll take the Marines and find the local gendarmerie. Fargo, you will accompany me. Leftenant von Schtecker, you guard the boats and supplies with your chaps. Be prepared to support our withdrawal if things get hot.”
“Ja, sehr gut,” von Schtecker answered.
“Mademoiselle Courbiere should stay with the boats, I believe. You know how touchy these Mohammedans are about women,” Gordon added.
I knew how touchy some Englishmen were.
“You mind missing all the fun?” I asked Gabrielle.
She wrinkled her nose in disdain.
“I have no desire to walk through a burning town.”
Gordon and von Schtecker both gave a small start.
“Burning town?” Gordon demanded. “What’s all this, then?”
“Didn’t notice the smoke?” I asked and pointed at the smudge above the hill. Gordon and von Schtecker both turned and studied it, frowns creasing their faces. Gabrielle looked at them and shook her head.
Uvats was a sprawling, motionless, nearly colorless town of gray stone and stucco buildings with brown tile and gray slate roofs, spilling down a low ridge to the harbor. The waterfront was abandoned aside from a couple small boats swamped in the shallows and scores of large blue-black crows, fat and unalarmed by our arrival. They studied us not so much with hunger as speculation.
The fire didn’t look as bad up close; the heavy rains last night must have drowned most of the blaze. Several buildings in the town still smoldered, and the fires might grow and spread, but for now all they produced were dirty coils of smoke that formed a veil of mourning over the dead town. At least it looked dead.
As soon as the launch bumped against the dock, the Marines scrambled over the gunwale and spread out into a skirmish line followed by the Bavarians.
The air was tinged with the smell of wood smoke, but something else as well, a sour, oily smell that tickled my gag reflex. It made my heart rate climb and sweat break out on my forehead. As soon as I was on the dock, I unfastened the leather cover on my holster, pulled out the Webley, and kept it pointed at the sky, finger out of the trigger guard but ready to go.
“Bloody hell this place stinks of garbage,” Gordon cursed, and von Schtecker nodded his agreement.
I looked at the Marines, the Bavarians, and saw some noses wrinkled in disgust, but nothing more. That told me something about them: they’d never been to war, at least not a long, nasty one.
“That’s not garbage,” I said. “It’s decomp.”
Gordon turned to look at me.
“Decomposing human bodies, lots of them.”
Gordon’s look of mild curiosity changed to disbelief and then horror, quickly concealed behind a mask of nervous indifference. A murmur ran through the Marines and Bavarians, a ripple of movement as men became alert and scanned the buildings near the waterfront. I heard a zipping sound behind me, turned, and saw Gabrielle kneeling on the dock, uncasing her Winchester shotgun.
“If something happened here long enough ago for the bodies to start to rot,” Gordon asked, “why hadn’t the Turks heard of it?”
“Weather’s been warm and damp, so I’d say this could have happened within the last three days. Why no news of it back in Visegard? Telegraph was out. You heard Cevik Bey. Happens all the time, so no one thought anything of it.”
“Good Lord, what happened here?” Gordon asked.
Something bad, that was sure. As if to emphasize the point, a wolf appeared from an alley and stood sizing us up. A rifle cracked from the crowd of men on the dock, a slug knocked a chip from the corner of a building a few feet from the animal, and the wolf streaked back down the alleyway.
Gordon looked around uncertainly. One of the Marines opened the bolt on his rifle, and a spent brass cartridge case clinked musically on the dock.
“You call that shooting, Private Kane?” Corporal O’Mara demanded.
You call that fire discipline?
But it wasn’t my army so I kept my mouth shut.
Gordon looked at the steam launch, clearly wanting to reboard and head downriver. But then what? He looked into the silent town and wiped his mouth with the back of his hand.
“Well, let’s see if anyone is still here other than the wolves. Leftenant von Schtecker, same plan as before. You stay here with your men and guard the launch and our provisions. Make certain this cowardly bugger of a boatman doesn’t run off and leave us hanging. If you hear heavy gunfire, and you are not yourself engaged, send one section to support us, but you are to stay here with your other section and guard this boat.”
“Jawohl, Herr . . . Yes, Captain.”
I glanced back at Gabrielle and gave her a reassuring smile as we set off into the town. She nodded, face serious, and went back to pushing shells into the magazine of her Winchester.
“Any idea where we’re going?” I asked Gordon. We’d originally planned on asking directions once we got to town.
“It isn’t that large a town. The public buildings will be on the square.”
That made sense. We started up the cobblestone street. It wound up the hillside at a slope I felt in the calves of my legs after a dozen paces.
Up close the town looked pretty bad. The street was littered with clothing, broken crockery, soggy paper, the detritus of looting and panicked flight. The rains which put out the fires had left a muddy gray sludge everywhere, ash washed from the sky. Most of the doors stood open, some off the hinges. A lot of roofs had collapsed, the support timbers burned out from under them. What the hell happened here?
Once we were out of the waterfront and onto what looked like the main street of the town, the Marines went from skirmish order into a ragged group, walking up the middle of the street. Shipboard combat was their main duty, and I figured they were trained for use as a landing party as well, but they clearly didn’t know much about street fighting.
I moved over to the right side of the street and looked in an open door. A rug shop, with some woven baskets as well. Living quarters were probably upstairs. No sign of recent habitation.
“Anything?” Gordon asked as I turned away.
I shook my head.
“Corporal O’Mara, have the men check out the buildings to either side of the street,” he ordered.
“You heard the army captain,” O’Mara barked. “Jones, Riley, left side of the street. Williams, Kane, right side. Hop to it.”
We hadn’t gone more than a block before Kane, the private who’d fired at the wolf, drew back from an open door and vomited.
“Something here, Corp,” the Marine with him called out.
I walked over and looked in. Three bodies, and the wolves had gotten to two of them. All were bloated, the skin stretched and shiny. The decomp smell was strong, but there was something else, almost as strong.
“Diarrhea,” I said to Gordon as he came up beside me and looked in, white-faced and covering his mouth and nose with his hand. “Looks like these people shit themselves to death. I’d guess cholera or something pretty close.”
He took a step back and nodded.
“Small wonder they tried to burn the infected bodies,” he said, voice shaking. “Corporal O’Mara, send a runner back to the dock. Tell the Bavarians there is cholera in the town and they are under no circumstances to drink any water until it has been boiled.”
“You heard the army captain, Kane. Get going.”
Gordon was using his head, which was a good sign. And he knew cholera was water-borne and boiling was an effective prophylaxis. I wasn’t sure when folks figured that out, but obviously before 1888, at least in this world.
Gordon walked faster to draw ahead of the Marines and gestured for me to follow. When we were a dozen paces ahead he spoke to me in a low voice without turning to look at me.
“Cholera is endemic to the region. I cannot think people would abandon a town in panic because of it.”
“No, me neither. Something else must be going on.”
We walked in silence for a few more seconds. Then Gordon cleared his throat.
“I . . . ah . . . cannot say this to anyone else here. I am quite frightened by all of this, to the point that I fear my judgment may be impaired. But I am responsible for the success of the expedition. I cannot appear uncertain in front of the others. You understand?”
“Yep. Been there myself.”
“Really? As a translator?” he asked, doubt in his voice.
I glanced at him. It must have taken a lot to open up like this, especially to me.
“The truth is, I wasn’t always just a translator.”
I wondered if he did. We walked on in silence for half a block.
“My point is, I’m a bit at sea, trying to sort out what to do next. Everything seems . . . quite different than we anticipated.”
“No plan survives contact with the enemy.”
He grunted, almost a laugh.
“You’ve read Moltke, I see. I met him, you know. Not at all what I expected. Of course, he was quite old at the time. I’m rambling a bit, aren’t I?”
“Yeah. You want my advice? First things first — find the Turkish soldiers. We can use the extra firepower and someone who speaks the local languages. But if we can’t find them, we still have Gabrielle, a map, and the element of surprise.”
The street opened into a plaza ahead of us, with a church on the left side and what looked like a municipal building opposite it. Gordon motioned to O’Mara, and a barked command sent two of the Marines trotting toward each building. Gordon took out a cheroot and tried to light it, but his hands trembled too much to get the match lit. I lit a match myself and held it for him while he puffed the cigar to life.
“Thank you,” he said quietly.
“Nothing here, Corp,” a Marine called from the door of the municipal building.
“No one alive in the church,” another called from the other side of the plaza. “Ten or twelve bodies in there.”
I heard the pop of a rifle in the distance, from the direction of the waterfront, then another, then a crackling exchange of rifle fire punctuated by the distinct boom of a twelve-gauge shotgun.