Chapter Seven

Horst von Dückler walked forward along the side of the road, a strip of sacking tied across his eyes, tapping ahead of himself with a staff cut from a mountain ash in the heights a day’s walk behind them, and his hand on Ernst Röhm’s shoulder. It was mildly, pleasantly warm, a perfect bright summer morning after the rain-shower that had drenched them a little earlier, and the air was heavy with the scent of wet new-laid dust from the road and damp turned earth from the fields to either side, of dung from the animals pulling carts and wagons, and now and then the acrid exhaust of motor vehicles or the rattle of bicycles… and always of the sweat of steady hard effort from trudging men and women with heavy burdens on their backs.

Odd, he thought. My sweat smells just a little different from the Mexicans’. And so does Röhm’s, even more so. Heavier and… thicker. Probably because we grew up eating different foods? I don’t imagine Bavarian Käsespätzle or Silesian Himmel und Erde are too common here!

Horst heaved a silent sigh at the thought of savory black pudding, fried onions, and mashed potato with apples. He wasn’t hungry now, but he found that he was longing for the tastes of home nonetheless. And the weather, and the buildings, the pale quality of the light and the sound and sight and even the smell of his own people.

Vaterland meant Fatherland, and he was prepared to die for Germany.

What he was missing bitterly now was his Heimat

Heimat meant homeland in a much more particular and local sense, the place where your heartstrings were sunk into the earth, where your ancestors from time out of mind had lived and worked and begotten and given themselves back to soil that bore them, and where you had grown to manhood in turn.

I am missing my that rather badly.

He’d agreed to Pablo’s scheme for a disguise even though wearing a bandage across both his eyes brought back unpleasant memories of the nightmares he’d had after waking up with his left eye shot out… and convinced it was both eyes and he’d be blind for life. It had been very dark and the medic on the U-boat had kept him floating on morphine all the way back to Wilhelmshaven…

Waking up screaming again isn’t a problem here, they’ve had their war too.

War smashed minds and souls as surely as buildings and bodies.

Waking up screaming in German, that would be a problem here.

A woman who had remained nameless had come in the dark when they left the mountains and dyed his hair with some local herbal juice, and his skin too, and left a similarly-nameless bottle filled with more of it. Not too much dye, just enough that a glimpse under his long, baggy and authentically dirty and smelly campesino clothes wasn’t going to reveal the almost translucent paleness that was his natural color where he wasn’t sun-touched to a honey-hued tan.

He supposed he should be glad the von Dücklers didn’t tend to burning and peeling over and over again under a southern sun, or turning permanently brick-red as some did. His eldest brother Karl had fought in China against the Boxers at the turn of the century, and in the German colonies in Africa during the Herero War and the Maji-Maji uprising about a decade ago, postings he’d lobbied and pulled strings and activated family connects to get because he’d been bored to tears with peacetime garrison soldiering. Horst recalled how when he came back from German East Africa his forearms and face and neck had looked theatrically, unnaturally dark against the rest of him when he stripped for a swim.

And now authorities all over the American imperial sphere would probably be looking for a tall fair man with one eye, maybe even the British too, and the French who were Yankee lapdogs these days. The US military and the Black Chamber certainly would be. Fortunately, men with facial injuries were ten for a Pfennig here.

Horst could see reasonably well through the coarse burlap that covered his good eye; the hardest part was remembering to act as if he were blind, and tap with the walking stick. A glimpse at the ruined socket of his left eye was enough to prove his bona fides, and a fixed stare made the other look as if it wasn’t functional.

Röhm was supposed to be a Mexican combat veteran too—his facial scars made it gruesomely credible—and one so damaged inwardly that he couldn’t speak beyond a stammering growl and who acted as his blind brother’s guide dog. That would cover his thick German accent. Horst’s Spanish was good enough now that if he was very careful and kept to simple things he could pass as a native speaker… from some other part of Mexico, and if he gave no reason for people to pay special attention to him; there were nearly as many regional dialects here as there were in Germany, and war and revolution had set people moving.

There were plenty of war-cripples too. He’d seen a dozen or more this morning on the road, and anyone who’d been around the detritus of battle would find the physical and mental damage credible enough. Röhm thought the whole thing was hilarious, and occasionally gave a tittering laugh that was both in character with his cover identity’s shell-shock… and entirely sincere.

There is courage, and then there is insanity. I know which I think Röhm suffers from.

The road that led eastward to the town of Jerez was new, made of well-cambered dirt with good ditches on either side and a surface of compacted gravel. It even had modern concrete culverts and small bridges over watercourses—seasonally flooded ones, mostly, which meant they had water in them now—to keep the occasional heavy rains from damaging the surface, which would have made it an excellent road in any rural part of Silesia. The whole thing reminded him of marching through France, down to the trees growing on either side and casting a little shade that felt like a flicker of coolness as they walked by; they were older than the road, twelve-foot saplings transplanted from elsewhere, though about one in ten hadn’t survived the process and were being replaced. It was all very un-Mexican, and Horst asked a tactful question.

Gringo military road, for their troops and wagons and motor trucks,” Pablo said quietly.

Which was undoubtedly true, though there were plenty of Mexicans using it right now. For that matter, he thought that Mexicans—some prisoners, and others just poor men glad to swing picks and shovel dirt for their food—had probably done most of the building, with American engineers to direct.

Horst had regretfully shed his German marching boots, but by now his authentically dirty feet had adjusted to the sandals, though they didn’t fully share the local peasantry’s battered look. Nobody would think the odd machete or knife anything out of the ordinary—they were tools a campesino or muleteer needed for his work—so they kept those rather than sending them anonymously in loads of produce as they did the firearms. At least now he had a sound excuse to shave every day, to keep the fair stubble from showing.

“Checkpoint!” Pablo said under his breath. “Rurales. And gringo soldiers. They’re mallates,” he added.

Which was an extremely unflattering local word for those of visibly African descent.

The traffic thickened as it slowed, and Horst peered through the coarse fabric. It didn’t come to a complete stop; the policemen were waving a good many through. The dozen gendarmes were all Mexican, all uniformed in a baggy outfit much like American Army uniforms but in a khaki-brown color and bearing the marks of the recent rain, and all heavily armed with Colt .45 pistols and R-13 semi-auto rifles or Thompson machine pistols. The local traffic went past the checkpoint at walking pace; now and then the rurale officer examining them would motion someone aside for further questioning.

Horst had more than half expected they would be, and he wasn’t particularly alarmed when a preemptory wave set them aside to wait.

We’re out of the ordinary, and that catches the eye. No way to avoid it.

He squatted on his hams, a posture he’d had enough practice at recently that he could do it without his muscles seizing up, and pulled his sombrero down over his eyes and threw the serape back over one shoulder. Röhm did likewise, taking out a battered packet of cigarettes bearing the picture of a Frenchwoman of the turn of the century smoking a cigarette with pouting lips, and the proud label: El Numero 12.

Smaller print showed that it was manufactured by a firm calling itself El Buen Tono, S.A., which meant something like The Fashionableness, Ltd.

The other German lit three, and passed one each to Pablo and Horst, who remembered to wait until his hand was nudged to take it. They were workingman’s cigarettes, strong as the devil and biting harsh in his mouth and lungs compared to the Bulgarian and Turkish blends Horst preferred, but vastly better than the Ersatz wartime rubbish most people in Germany had been smoking when he left. Which smelled and tasted as if it was made of the dried sweepings from the stall of an undernourished horse with a necrotic bowel disease. They had a chance to smoke them to butts and start another before the policeman waved them forward, and by then cool breezes and gathering clouds to the west hinted at more rain to come.

Horst spent the time he had to wait looking over the American soldiers, straining to inconspicuously pick out details through the burlap. There were about a Zug’s worth, a platoon—a full forty-eight, as specified by the regulation US Army table of organization, unlike the formations of the German army, chronically understrength after years of savage fighting. The gendarmes were horsemen and had picketed their mounts with feedbags on their noses, but four Model T trucks and a Guvvie—a type of little car with all four wheels driven—showed how the US Army troops had arrived.

Horst felt a snarl of envy deep within. Only a few elite units of the Deutsches Heer had their own motor transport, even though both the internal-combustion engine and the automobile were German inventions; his country had been critically short of petroleum until the recent conquests in Rumania and Russia, and it was still so short of rubber that vehicles in German cities mostly rode on wheels of resilient steel. Though Röhm had told him there were talks underway with the Japanese to supply that and other tropical goods, now that the Trans-Siberian Railway was running again under the new management.

But different new managements east and west of Lake Baikal.

He felt a certain amount of resentment at the thought. Germany had broken the Czar’s forces, whereupon the Japanese had leapt in to tear off juicy chunks of the defenseless carcass, facing no real resistance, in exactly the same way they’d annexed the French and Dutch colonies in Southeast Asia. Even the Americans couldn’t really object, since the Japanese were theoretically their allies and theoretically taking those lands over to keep the Germans out.

Well, we got the better half of Russia for our pains, and the Japanese are a useful buffer against the Americans in the east. Remember the fable of the dog losing its real bone because it tried to grab at the reflection in the water! There will be a time to deal with them when we have mastered and settled the lands we’ve taken. Them and the Yankees and the English. Europe is what matters, and we hold that from the Atlantic to the Urals.

As Pablo had said, the Yankee soldiers were all dark-skinned in varying degrees. Most of them were young, even the lieutenant bent over a map spread on the Guvvie’s hood; though the slightly older platoon sergeant had the air of a man who’d seen the elephant as the Yankee saying went. Many were big strapping muscular youngsters, one bigger than Horst himself, just the sorts you wanted to carry a machine-gun or cans of ammunition around a battlefield at the run. Röhm said the Yankees had done surprisingly well in France for green troops, with tactics obviously based on careful observation of the first two years of the war; they’d fought very aggressively too, and had learned fast from that bloody experience.

Of course, by then everyone was out of those verdammt trenches.

These men had the cocky strut and snap of those sure of themselves, their comrades and their training; he recognized it…

Because that’s the way we felt, in 1914. And we were almost as good as we thought we were. Almost meant two years and a million dead to do what we thought would be over by Christmas.

And they were certainly splendidly equipped, down to the ingenious folding tools they’d used to dig shallow fighting positions in the muddy dirt, what the manuals called hasty entrenching… and it was interesting that they had the discipline to dig automatically and uncomplainingly when they obviously wouldn’t really need it and it meant soiling their uniforms and more work later going over their gear.

Digging in whenever you stop moving… that’s good practice. Sweat saves blood. And the right habits keep you alive when you don’t have time to think about it.

When another Guvvie arrived towing a two-wheeled trailer that had a smoking chimney, he realized it was what his own army had invented in the 1890’s and called a goulash canon, a mobile field kitchen… but motorized too.

Which made both Horst and Röhm give grunts of envious disbelief; he doubted there was one single motorized field kitchen in the entire German army. A more personal envy struck again when soldiers fetched pails of stew and sacks of cornbread to their comrades before it drove off… and a pail of soapy water for them to scrub out their gear when they were through, which was a nice touch. Three of them, the team of a Lewis light machine gun, were close enough for the travelers to smell the food as they dipped it into their mess-tins, and it had more meat in it than anything he’d eaten recently, probably pork.

When you were on the move in heavy fighting, soldiers would sometimes bark, meow or neigh as they lined up at the goulash-cannon, and with good reason. The cooks often replied with a cheerful: no, it’s your grannie, stupid-head.

This pork stew also smelled…

“Whooo lordy, dat hottah n’ hell!” one of them burst out.

Chilies, Horst thought. They’re using local cooks and these Mexicans even put chilies in chocolate, by God’s Mother!

What the young men were speaking was about as far from the standard book-English he’d learned as the thick Schwäbisch of peasants from the banks of the Neckar was from his own Silesian aristocrat’s Hochdeutsch, but Horst could follow it more or less. Mostly it was standard soldiers’ talk about food and drink and women—they thought highly of the local girls and he was nearly sure one had said that tequila was dirt cheap and like being hit up… or beside… the head with a piece of timber—but there were other things as well, about their last posting, in Jackson, Mississippi.

“… an’ dis offay wid de string tie and de big hat, he say: You cullud boys sure gots plenty of dem machine-guns, an Ah say, all polite an respekful laak de standin’ orders say: Yassuh, we does and we knows how to use ‘em. We’s American fightin’-men now, ready to lick Germans an’ de whole damn worl’ besides!

“An’ whut he say den?”

“He doan’ say nuthin’. But his face pucker up like he take a big bite o’ de green persimmon.”

The other two soldiers laughed, and the one who’d spoken first kissed his fingers and used them to pat the flat horizontal ammunition drum of the Lewis gun in an affectionate gesture and said:

“De bottom rail o’ de fence on top now!”

“Haw! Dat de truf!”

“De Lawd save an’ keep Teddy! Do Jesus, I prays he be Pres’dent foevah and evah!”

“Aaaaa-men, brutha! I likes dat testifyin’!”

The rurale finished with the group before them and jerked a thumb.

“You three!” he called. “The ugly stupid ones!”

All three of them dealt with the cigarettes they’d just lit the way a working-class local would, pinching them out with callused fingers and stowing them away. They rose and walked over to where the man stood with his thumbs in his waist-belt. He extended a preemptory hand, snapping his fingers, and Röhm held out the pack to him; the rurale took it, pulled out a cigarette, lit it with a little American gadget, and stuck the rest in a tunic pocket of his jacket.

He was a man in his thirties, with weatherbeaten light bronze skin and narrow black eyes and scars that were only a little less spectacular than Röhm’s, though Horst thought they were from knives rather than shrapnel and the white tissue gave him a perpetually angry sneer that seemed to fit his personality. He was stocky and strong-looking, with a clipped mustache and the very beginnings of a paunch; a billed cap on his head had a flap to cover the neck, and he carried a Thompson slung across his belly.

Not much like what rurales wore before the Americans came, Horst thought.

He’d run across photos and paintings of those during his work in Mexico early 1916 while the US was still neutral in the Great War, making contacts for Abteilung IIIb. The gendarmes of the Porfiriato had been decked out in a version of vaquero garb, based on the platero costume of bandits of the 1870’s… some of whom had been recruited by Diaz for his police back then, under the slogan of bread or the club; they got the bread, and swung the club on their former associates. Tight brown leather pants with silver coins sewn up the seams, high-heeled riding boots, broad felt sombreros, bolero jackets…

This looks much more businesslike, but I suspect the basic arrangement is similar, he thought.

“Papers!” the gendarme barked.

They handed the little identity booklets over; Pablo had a genuine set, and Röhm had brought expertly forged blanks along for himself and Horst, which had only needed a few details filled in and then some crumpling and rubbing with dirt to show—bilingually—a history of poverty and transient migrant labor. Once he’d glanced through them the rurale casually dropped them in the mud, and Pablo and Röhm bent humbly to retrieve them and stow the precious things away, carefully wiping them and wrapping them in scraps of cloth. Horst took his when it was nudged against his hand, thanking God silently that he’d remembered not to react.

Perhaps after the war, I could go on the stage…

“So, who are you sons of whores really, and where do you think you’re going?” the policeman said.

Pablo took off his sombrero and held it in both hands as he glanced down at the man’s booted feet. There were big-roweled star-shaped silver spurs on the heels.

“I am Pablo Ramírez, Señor. My cousins Diego and Alejandro and I are looking for work,” he said quietly. “Our village is… was… near Calvillo, in Aguascalientes. It was burned in the fighting, and we lost everything.”

Pablo had told them Calvillo was a region a bit south of here known for its guava orchards, hot springs, and also for having more fair-skinned men than most places.

“Since then we have moved about, trying to find food and a place, as our documents show, your excellency. We have heard there is much work in Zacatecas and Jerez; work and a roof and food is all we seek.”

“Cousins?” the policeman said, going over their faces.

All showed the tracks of violence in their different ways.

“They don’t look much like you, they’re even uglier. And less indio.”

Pablo sighed and scratched his head. “Well, sir, my aunt… the majordomo of the hacienda was a cruel man who took what he wanted… you know how it is for a poor defenseless girl of the people…”

The rurale laughed. “So your mother and your aunt were whores,” he said. “Those ugly cripples don’t look like they can work. We’ve got enough useless beggars around here already, whining and stealing and taking up space an honest goat could get some use out of. And then you can eat the goat.”

“Alejandro is big as you can see, and he is still very strong, Señor,” Pablo said. “For many tasks he does not need his eyes, and Diego can help him… Diego does not speak well now, and he has bad dreams, but together they manage, with what help I can give.”

The policeman reached out and pushed up Horst’s bandage, grunted at the scars over the empty gaping eye-socket, then took a pull at his cigarette and blew smoke up into his face. Horst carefully kept his remaining eye’s stare blank, blinking only when the smoke stung slightly.

“That was a bullet, right enough. And your crazy chueco bastard brother there got his wits blown out by artillery, I know the look. Who did you fight for?” he said.

Röhm gobbled and stuttered convincingly. “Eh… Eh… El General, El General… Hw… Hw…”

“General Huerta, sir,” Horst said, still staring ahead.

Pablo went on: “Oh, yes, for General Huerta, Señor. For the forces of order and respectability against Villa’s evil bandits. We all went home with our wounds before the gringos… that is, before the Americanos came.”

The policeman bellowed mocking laughter. “Do you guava-sucking hidrocálidos know how many men I’ve asked that question? Hundreds, by the Virgin! Thousands! And do you know how many said they fought for Villa? Or Zapata? Or for the PNR anarquistas? Not one! And just one said he was Carranza’s man, a constitucionalista. If I believed that pack of lies, even Villa and Zapata wouldn’t have fought for themselves!”

He took another pull on the cigarette. “And I’ve seen thousands of war cripples. You know how many admitted they’d been jodidos by the Americans? None! It’s amazing—the gringos killed three hundred thousand men or more, but from what people tell me they’re such good shots that there isn’t a single güey still crawling around who was just crippled by them. Even their artillery killed every cabrón it was aimed at, if I believed what I was told. So only we dumb Mexicans just fuck someone up for life instead of killing him outright, eh?”

“I am only a poor and ignorant man, Señor, and know nothing of such things,” Pablo said, his voice still soft.

I wouldn’t like to be that policeman if Pablo ever caught him alone, Horst thought.

“Now me,” the rurale said, “I fought for Félix Díaz, the old man’s nephew. Don Porfirio ruled for thirty-two years and gave us peace at home and built railroads and bridges, and he kept the foreigners quiet. Madero and Villa and Zapata and Carranza all talked big and made big promises that fools believed, and what did we get from any of them? Bullets up the ass and a sky raining shit!”

Pablo spoke again: “Excuse me, Señor, but what did you do before the war?”

The policeman grinned. “Me? I was a rurale!” He slapped the automatic weapon slung across his body. “Whoever sits in the palaces, there’s always work for men like me!”

The mocking amiability dropped off the man’s face like water off greased iron. He gave Horst and Röhm another long look, obviously feeling a mental itch he couldn’t scratch. Horst put on an ingratiating smile to go with his blind stare over the policeman’s head.

“Just work, Señor,” he said softly. “Work and food.”

The rurale’s eyes flicked to the young American lieutenant studying the map on the hood of the Guvvie, and equally obviously thought: not worth the trouble of talking to the damned mallate and making sense of his bad Spanish.

“Now get going!” he said instead. “And pray to the Virgin and your saints that you never see me again.”

As they trudged away there was a crack of thunder, and it began to rain again. Horst sighed quietly, but soldiers were at least as accustomed to working through rain as peasants were.

“At least that fucking traitor gets wet too,” Pablo said, shrugging his serape across his shoulders and keeping his head down as they trudged through the storm. “And the mallates.”


Copyright © 2019-2020 by S.M. Stirling