The Forever Engine – Snippet 41
October 9, 1888, Uvats, Bosnia
The downhill slope lengthened my strides, and the buildings flashed by, scarcely noticed blurs of gray and black. I fell on the ash-slippery cobblestones once but scrambled up again, never lost my forward motion, hardly missed a stride.
The gunfire grew louder, and suddenly the waterfront loomed ahead of me. I stopped at the corner of a building, used it for cover, and took a look.
Bodies by the dock, four of them, none in a gray-green riding habit. A jumble of movement at the nearby seawall to the right, occasional heads bobbing up, a couple rifles resting on the edge of the wall and firing across the open ground at targets to my left. I watched and listened for a few secondsâ€”no sign of Gabrielle, and no sound of shotgun fire.
I risked a look farther around the corner to my left — a low boathouse and two sheds. A rifle fired from the door of the boathouse, then another from behind a jumble of crates and nets beside one of the sheds.
I pulled back and heard the pounding of boots on cobblestones behind me, turned and saw O’Mara leading, with Gordon and the rest of the Marines straggling behind. O’Mara stopped at the wall beside me, panting, and I realized I was panting, too.
“What’s the plan, sir?” he asked.
O’Mara looked to me, not Gordon, for leadership. I filed that away to think about later, but I knew it was a problem.
The others drew up beside us, and Gordon pushed his way to the front. I knelt down facing them and drew a sketch in the damp ash.
“We’re here. Hostiles are firing from cover in a cluster of small buildings here. Our people have taken casualties and are pinned down by fire behind the sea wall here. Our people are returning fire and have the enemy’s attention. The enemy is unaware of our presence. We . . .”
I stopped and looked up at Gordon.
“I recommend we use the Bavarians as our base of fire to keep the enemy pinned down, use these buildings to maneuver under cover to the enemy’s flank and rear, and attack using surprise to overwhelm them.”
Gordon knelt down as well, studied my diagram in the ash for a moment as if it contained some hidden wisdom which might have eluded him, and then nodded.
“Corporal O’Mara, we will use these alleyways to get behind the villains. Mr. Fargo and I will go ahead and find suitable attack positions. Wait for two minutes and then follow us.”
I followed Gordon down the alleyway. He stopped at the end, looked around the corner, and then trotted across five yards of open ground to the back of a burned-out house. We made our way past two more buildings before we caught sight of the back of the boathouse. I checked back and saw O’Mara and the Marines hurrying toward us.
“You have done this sort of thing before, haven’t you?” Gordon asked. “Any last advice before the others get here?”
Gordon asking me for advice? That was a switch.
“If you just open fire and bang away at them from back here, it’ll give them time to adjust psychologically to being flanked. Make a quick charge and take them out before they know what hit them. Assign specific men to specific buildings. And a prisoner or two would be nice. I’d like to know what the hell’s going on here.”
Gordon nodded and wiped his forehead with the back of his hand. O’Mara and the Marines clustered around us, looking from Gordon to me. Gordon looked at the back of the boathouse, licked his lips, then nodded.
“They’re in those buildings. O’Mara, take three men and secure the shed on the right. I will take you four here,” and he pointed to the Marines closest to him, “and clear the boathouse. Mr. Fargo, you take the last three and capture the shed on the far side. Take prisoners if possible. We’ll make it in one dash, no firing or shouting until we enter the buildings. Is that clear?”
“Don’t forget there may be men between the buildings,” I said. “I saw one behind a barricade.” Gordon nodded, but I wasn’t sure he understood. He looked from face to face and then nodded again.
He turned and started running, leaving the rest of us to scramble to catch up.
I ran across the open ground, passed Gordon as he pushed open the door to the boathouse with his shoulder, heard a shot, then another. I saw a man turn from the barricade beside the boathouse and fired two shots from the Webley at him, saw him go down. I came to the back of the shed, and there was no door or window. I wasn’t sure what to do.
I ran around the far side — a window. I broke out the glass, fired two shots into the dark, stepped to the side. A Marine following me put his rifle through the broken window. A shot exploded from inside and he pitched back, blood spraying.
I stepped back in front of the window, saw movement through it, fired twice, heard a cry of pain, stepped aside, broke open the revolver and dug for cartridges in my pocket. The other two Marines knelt by the wounded man.
“You, secure the front!” I shouted.
The closest Marine looked up, eyes wide, face white.
“‘Ee’s ‘urt!” he shouted back.
“Secure the front!”
Okay. Tactical breathing. Get centered again.
I finished loading with trembling hands and snapped the Webley closed. I edged to the corner of the shed and looked around the front, listened.
Shouting, men in rage, O’Mara cursing, someone crying out in pain, a pistol shot close by, then another, but nothing from the interior of my shed.
I took two quick steps to the door, looked at the handle but couldn’t make anything of it. Was it a latch? A door knob? The shape wasn’t familiar, so it didn’t register. I took a step back, kicked the door in, and went through with the Webley up and at eye level.
Movement in the dark corner. I turned, almost fired, but he sat in the corner waving a hand in the air, saying something, no weapon visible. His rifle lay at his feet. I crossed the three steps to him and kicked the rifle toward the door, backed away, scanned the shed for signs of anyone else.
Cordage, nets, wooden buoys, the smell of rotting fish and old kelp, but no one else.
“Clear!” I shouted, and turned back to the fellow on the floor.
He wore a shabby uniform jacket and trousers, hard to tell the color in the gloom of the shed but dark, maybe blue. He held his right arm with his left hand. Blood stained his uniform sleeve black but was bright red on the fingers of his hand. He blubbered something I couldn’t understand.
“Speak Turkish?” I asked him in Turkmen.
“No. Yes. Little,” he answered.
“Stay. Don’t move.”
He nodded vigorously, then shook his head just as vigorously. Pain creased his face and he started rocking back and forth, moaning.
My ears rang with the echoes of gunfire, but outside I heard only harsh orders in English and men talking rapidly to each other — the post-combat chatters. I stuck my head out the door and looked around. Gordon emerged from the boathouse at the same time, looking dazed. He saw me, but for a moment the image didn’t seem to register. He closed his eyes, shook himself, and then walked over to me.
“I . . . is it over?” he asked.
“Looks like it. I have a prisoner here, but he’s wounded and he doesn’t speak much Turkish. Did you take any prisoners?”
He thought about it for a moment, face creased in a frown.
“I don’t think so. One of them may still be alive, but he’s in a bad way. Maybe he’ll survive. No, he’s very bad. I don’t know.” His eyes flicked back and forth, up and down.
He looked at the revolver in his hand as if he’d never seen it before.
O’Mara and another Marine emerged into the open area, dragging another of the men in dirty blue. He saw us and started toward us.
“Here’s O’Mara,” I said in a low voice, just for Gordon. “Take a deep breath and get your head together.”
Gordon looked at me, still dazed, but his eyes cleared and he nodded.
I left Gordon and O’Mara to round up whatever prisoners there were and see to our wounded. I started to walk toward the breakwater, saw our people there stand up and begin climbing up onto the dock, and I broke into a run, heart pounding.
Gabrielle was there, a Bavarian helping her up onto the dock, and I saw blood on her face and coat. She looked at me, face pale and eyes wide, still in shock herself. I stopped in front of her, looked for a wound but didn’t see one, touched her shoulder.
“Are you hurt?”
She thought about the question and shook her head, looked around, stared at the bodies on the dock.
“The lieutenant . . . he stood before me when the shots came.”
I followed her gaze and saw von Schtecker’s unmoving body on the ground. Gabrielle swayed, and I helped her sit before she fainted. I put my arm around her shoulder, and she wept quietly.
We had one Bavarian dead beside von Schtecker and four wounded. One of those probably wouldn’t make it. The only Marine injured was the private shot through the throat. He might not make it either, but you never knew. We had killed five “hostiles,” captured two of them wounded, and one got away in the confusion — the one between the buildings I had winged as I ran by. I was glad he’d gotten away. Pointless, stupid fight.
We had massacred what was left of the local Turkish Jandarma.
The realization that this was nothing but a blue-on-blue fight hit the men like hard. A lot of them reacted with anger — anger at the Jandarma for attacking without a challenge or attempt to communicate, anger at Gordon and me for leading them into this mess, anger at themselves for what they had done and what they had felt while doing it. Some reacted with grief for fallen friends, some with depression. Any exhilaration they might have felt at a fight won vanished.
The surviving Jandarma corporal spoke and read Turkish. When I showed him the letter from Cevik Bey, he cried.
Once he pulled himself together, he told us what happened in the town. The disease was cholera, but a very virulent form, one that struck people down and killed them within hours of the symptoms first appearing. That spooked the townspeople, and so had the wolves coming down from the hills, more aggressive than anyone had ever seen them, attacking in packs in broad daylight in the town’s streets and only retreating in the face of gunfire. Farmers from the hills fled to town, telling wild stories of livestock slaughtered by azhdaja. I didn’t know the word’s meaning but it sounded mythic and I translated it as troll for Gordon.
Panic grew as the death toll mounted and finally everyone fled downriver except for a dozen Jandarma who had stayed at their post with their captain. That had taken some guts. The captain died that morning of cholera, four others deserted, and we had done for the rest.
What of the platoon of riflemen sent by Cevik Bey?
They were somewhere across the border, patrolling the north bank of the river, trying to find if the Serbs were somehow behind this plague. I had a feeling one Serb in particular was, but I didn’t know how.
“I am uncertain whether to wait here for the return of the Turkish patrol or head out after them,” Gordon said after drawing me aside.
“Yeah, tough call, but I’d say head on. There’s no guarantee they’ll even come back here, assuming they survive. Every day we spend waiting is that much less chance we’ll take Tesla by surprise.”
“Yes, there is that.”
“Also, you’ve got some morale problems. If we sit around for a couple days, with nothing for the men to do but stew about what happened, things aren’t going to get any better. If we keep the men marching hard, they’ll have other things to worry about.”
He looked away, down the river, and squinted as if trying to see something clearly, but what he was searching for wasn’t out there.
“I’ve rather made a hash of things, haven’t I?”
“Nope. You had some bad luck, that’s all. Shit happens. What you do next could screw things up, but so far I don’t know what you could have done differently. How do you feel? How did the fight go for you?”
“Well . . . I don’t know exactly. I mean, it was exhilarating in a terrifying sort of way. I fired a lot of bullets but I don’t believe I hit anyone, even as close as we were. I’m rather glad, actually, now that we know . . . well. The thought that it was all unnecessary . . .” He shook his head. “I don’t suppose you ever ran into anything like this before.”
I laughed without humor.
“Oh, I see. Then what is the best way to avoid this sort of thing happening again?”
“Career change was working pretty well for me until today.”
The Greek word anabasis means the march up-country. Twice the Greeks used it to mean a heroic march through enemy-controlled territory: the march of the Ten Thousand under Xenophon and the March of the Macedonian army of conquest under Alexander.
We buried our dead. We loaded our wounded and the two surviving Bosnians in the steam launch, along with one healthy Bavarian armed with his own rifle and my report to Cevik Bey on the incident. Once it came time to explain what happened, I didn’t want the two Jandarma to have the only voice.
We had no pack animals, so we left our tents in the steam launch. As it chugged downriver to safety, we distributed our provisions, ammunition, and Cevik Bey’s eight signal rockets among our backpacks and haversacks, determined our march order, and began our own anabasis.