The Forever Engine – Snippet 42



October 9, 1888, The Lim River valley, Serbia

It was late in the day to begin a march, but we needed to keep the men moving and too busy or too tired to think. We ate on our feet — hardtack, although the Marines called it ship biscuit. It filled my belly but made me thirsty.

We marched southeast until sunset and then kept going, slowly and carefully. Sunset came early this time of year, about five in the afternoon, and with the weather it was full dark less than an hour later.

The Serbian border town of Priboj and its gun batteries lay across the river on the southwest bank, and Gordon and I decided our best move was to use the darkness as cover and make our way past it that night. There was a new moon, and enough overcast we didn’t even have starlight to see by, so our progress slowed to a crawl. We had to move carefully; the last thing we needed was someone with a broken leg.

I expected to be able to pick Priboj out on the far bank by lights on the waterfront, but there was nothing. The town might have been scoured from the planet, its inhabitants struck down or carried off, for all we could tell. The only evidence of life we heard was the crackle of rifle fire drifting across the water, distant and impotent-sounding, about an hour after dark. We paused to watch the distant fireflies of light, and make sure they weren’t firing at us, but it had the sound of a close-in fight to me, people firing as fast as they could rather than taking careful aim.

“Is that the Turkish patrol?” Gordon asked softly as we listened.

“Might be. They’re on the wrong side of the river, but who knows?”

We decided to take a five-minute rest break, and I sat down next to Gabrielle.

“How you holding up?”

“I am fine. My load is small compared to the others. Some of the Marines, they fly too much. They are not so used to the walking.”

She was right. I’d heard some panting from one of the Marines myself. If they were out of shape, somebody wasn’t doing their job back on Intrepid. There was plenty of deck space for exercise. With all those companionways up and down, the climbing alone should have kept their legs and lungs strong. It was too late to do anything about it now, aside from keeping an eye on it.

“I was frightened for you back at Uvats.”

“Really?” she asked.

“Yes. When I saw the blood . . .”

“Oh. You thought it was mine? Non. It was terrifying and so surprising. We had no warning, simply gunfire and men falling. I did not know what to do at first. Then the lieutenant stepped in front of me, as if to shield me. Otherwise I would be dead instead of him. When I heard the shot, felt his blood on me, I must have jumped behind the seawall, but I do not remember.”

“You got a round or two off from your Winchester, as I recall.”

“Yes. That I remember.”

I patted her hand but could not see her expression in the darkness.

The distant firing died away, and the silence was somehow more ominous after that.

“I wonder who won,” she said.

A bird screeched, and we both started. Hearing a hawk in the distance was one thing, but this one was close, maybe a hundred yards, and it sounded — bigger. The way a tiger sounds bigger than a house cat when it purrs and the purr comes out as a rumbling noise in the back of its throat that could rattle the china in a cupboard across the room.

“Fricken Teufel,” a Bavarian soldier near us muttered.

Another screech answered him, farther away and from behind us in the direction of Uvats. I stood up and listened. More screeches behind us, and then a murmur of frightened conversation ran the length of the small column. Much of it was in German, and I caught, “To hell with the British,” and “Let’s get out of here!”

“Gabi, better break out that shotgun, but stay down. Don’t run.”

What was the name of the Bavarian sergeant? Müller? No, Melzer.

Feldwebel Melzer,” I called out. “Where are you?”

He called to me from near the back of the column, and I made my way past nervous soldiers rising to their feet and checking their weapons. I hadn’t said much to Melzer since the fight in Uvats, and neither had Gordon. With von Schtecker dead, he was in charge of the Bavarians, and I don’t think either one of us had a good sense of who he was. As I walked in the darkness I tried to reconstruct a mental image of him: average height, stocky, broad jowly face with deep-set eyes, crooked nose, and a pronounced under bite that gave him a defiant, pugnacious look. But he’d never made much noise, and he wasn’t barking his men to silence now. I never know what to make of quiet sergeants.

“Your men are nervous.”

Ja. Who is not?” He looked around even though there was nothing to see in the darkness.

“Fargo! Damn it, where are you?”

That was Gordon, panic creeping into his voice.

“Back here with Feldwebel Melzer.”

The babble of conversation up and down the line grew louder, and Melzer just stood there with his thumb up his ass.

“Ruhig in dem Rängen!” I barked in my best drill-instructor voice — quiet in the ranks. Whether from instinctive obedience or just surprise, they immediately shut up.

“Fargo, is that you? Speak up, dammit. I can’t see a bloody thing.”

“Right here,” I answered, and Gordon joined us, breathing heavily. Walking the length of our short column hadn’t winded him. My money was on fear.

“I don’t know what’s out there, but we need to get away from them,” he blurted out.

Ja,” Melzer agreed, his head bobbing in agreement.

“No!” I said. “Form a firing line with a squad –”

But nobody was listening.

“Make for the foothills to the left!” Gordon shouted. “We’ll take cover there, find some trees!”

Take cover? From animals? Now men began running off to the left, the sounds of jingling and clanking equipment almost drowning out their footfalls, but not the renewed screeching of birds, more birds, a large gaggle on the hunt, except they were on the ground, not in the air. I ran back to where I left Gabrielle, and she was still there, sitting in the grass, waiting for me.

“Come on, Gabi, time to haul ass!” I helped her to her feet.

“You said not to run if the others did.” Fear made her voice shake, and I could feel it tighten my own chest as well.

“Yeah, I just didn’t count on the whole outfit going.”

We ran. I ran to her left and a little behind her, between her and the sound of the animals. When she looked back to see if I was there, I yelled at her to run as hard as she could. I kept up with her.

We passed someone down in the grass, trying to get up, but didn’t break stride to help. Part of me was relieved we weren’t the last stragglers anymore and grateful I wasn’t in charge, because then I’d have to stop and help. Another part of me was ashamed of those feelings, but it was a small part and not a very survival-helpful one at the moment.