The Forever Engine – Snippet 47



October 10, 1888, The Lim River valley, Serbia

We’d camped in the shade of a wood which stretched up the slopes of the foothills to the north and east. The ground opened up behind us down to the river, and I had a good view of Priboj, across the river and about a mile to the southwest. Its stucco houses with tile and shingle roofs sprawled along the riverbanks and up a ridge gray with granite outcroppings. Smoke rose from the town, thick smoke from burning buildings here and there, but I saw no other movement. There might be a few people moving around down there, but there sure weren’t a couple thousand.

Refuse dotted the meadow along the river on the far bank — a cart, bundles of possessions, pieces of clothing fluttering in the light breeze, and silent lumps I took to be bodies. The number of bodies suggested a panic rather than a mass slaughter. No one stopped to bury those people, but we buried our own dead that morning.

Two of the missing Bavarians were still alive, having climbed into a tree and spent the night there. Three of the Bavarians and one Marine were dead, and their bodies weren’t in good shape. I didn’t know the Bavarians, but the Marine was the youngster named Kane, the one who took a shot at the wolves back in Uvats, and who lost his lunch when he saw the bodies in the building.

We’d started out with thirty-six people, and less than a day after stepping ashore at Uvats we were down to twenty-five. This was turning into a massacre.

And we hadn’t gotten to the bad guys yet.

Fear and depression showed clearly in the faces of the men. In my opinion, the Bavarians were finished. They’d taken most of the casualties and, between the dead buried here and the wounded sent back with the steamer, they were down to about half strength. They all had to be thinking about their chances of surviving day two of this death march.

It might have been different if Melzer were more of a leader, but he wasn’t and I didn’t expect him to suddenly “find himself” in the crucible of combat. I didn’t think there was much there to find.

Gabrielle and I ate a breakfast of tinned bacon, ship biscuit, jam, and sweet tea. The Marines cooked and shared with us, so in true British style the bacon was hardly warm. I knew it was sort of cooked before it went into the can, but it was still gross. It was nice of them to share, though, so I smiled and choked it down. Gabrielle didn’t seem to mind.

“The weather turns cold,” she observed. “We will use up fat to climb the mountains.”

From a fuel point of view, I didn’t have an argument. Other than that she didn’t have much to say over breakfast. She sat quietly with her thoughts, which wasn’t surprising. I’d given her a lot to process.

Work details recovered the abandoned weapons and packs, and we leveled the supplies between those of us still standing. Corporal O’Mara walked across the trampled camp area with a rifle in each hand, stopped by us, and held them up for me to see.

“Which one suits you, sir?”

“I’ll take the Mauser.”

“Don’t want poor Kane’s Lee-Metford?”

“Your section shot off a lot of rounds last night. Split Kane’s ammunition up between your men. I’m betting there’s plenty of Mauser ammo to go around.”

He looked at the Mauser and smiled ruefully.

“Well, you’re right about that, sir, although I wouldn’t say it too loud. The Fritzes are a bit touchy this morning.”

I took the Mauser, opened the bolt to eject the chambered round, and caught it in the air. It sure wasn’t the classic 8mm Mauser cartridge I was used to. It was bigger than I expected, fatter, and a good three inches long, most of which was brass. If it were loaded with modern propellant, this thing would shoot through stone walls, and probably break my shoulder, but I remembered the cloud of smoke over the Bavarian firing positions at the seawall and the smell of the fight last night — black powder. There was a slight neck-down in the cartridge, so slight I wondered why they bothered, and a round-headed lead slug that had to be 11 or 12mm.

The long cartridge case was rimmed, center-fire, and stamped with “MÃœNCHEN” on the base along with a couple numbers that didn’t mean anything to me, maybe lot numbers.

There was no box magazine at all.

“So, how does this thing work?”

“The bullet comes out ‘ere, sir,” O’Mara said cheerfully, touching the muzzle with his finger. “Beyond that you’ll have to ask a Bavarian.”

O’Mara returned to his men, and not long after that Gordon joined us. I had the feeling he had waited until we were alone. He asked Gabrielle’s permission before sitting on the grass beside me.

“I am concerned about the Bavarians,” he said.

“Good. You ought to be. I think those animals are all that kept them from slipping away in the darkness last night. How are you going to keep them moving?”

“They are Germans, after all, a martial race bred to obedience. You don’t think they will simply follow my orders?”

I considered tackling the notion that people were bred pretty much like dogs, but what was the point?

“No, I don’t think so. Not for long, anyway.”

“What do you propose?”

I pointed across the river.

“Priboj looks deserted. I wouldn’t be surprised if the other towns and villages around here were as well. Whatever’s going on, it’s not limited to the Bosnian side of the border. Even if someone sees us, the authorities probably have their hands full. Originally we planned to move mostly at night and avoid the towns. I think we can stop worrying about running into the Serbian Army; they’ve got bigger fish to fry. You got your map?”

Gordon pulled the map from his map case and spread it on the ground. It was about fifteen miles from Priboj to Kokin Brod, most of it over a mountain road.

“We planned on moving at night and off the road to avoid detection. I don’t think we have to worry about that,” I said.

“Near as I can tell we’re less than a mile from this first town, Pribojska Spa, just past this woods. I say we push through the woods to there and pick up the road. We’re also almost out of water, so we need to find some. If spa means the same thing in Serbia as it does everywhere else, it may have natural spring water and we won’t have to boil it, but either way we find some there. Another mile to this village — what is it? Banja? — then up the road five or six miles to that last village before Kokin Brod.”

“Kratovo,” Gordon said, craning his neck to read the map.

“Whatever. That puts us almost halfway to Kokin Brod, and it’s mostly downhill from there. We spend the night there and finish the march the next day, or hold up there a day and scope things out. The thing is, it gives us an objective for the day that ends up with us under roofs and behind walls. That’s got to sound better to the Bavarians than this.”

“They might think marching back to Uvats is better still,” Gordon said.

“Well, if that comes up, you could point out that you’ve got the only translator, so good luck explaining what happened to the Jandarma when the Turkish Army shows up.”