Chapter Three

Sierra De Cardos
Near Jerez
State of Zacatecas
United States Protectorate of México
June 15th, 1917 A.D., 1917(b)

Röhm grinned at them and held up the odd-looking rifle; another lay at his feet, on top of webbing bandoliers of ammunition.

“This, example of one, a von Dückler StG-16 is, a Sturmgewehr, a…”

He seemed lost for the Spanish word for a moment, his scarred face working. Horst filled it in:

Fusil de asalto,” he said: assault rifle.

That wasn’t an established term in Spanish, but then until late last year it hadn’t been one in German, either.

I coined it myself because nobody would have taken something named Avtomat Federov seriously. Now I’ll get the credit, even though all I did was arrange to steal the weapons and machinery from the Russians after we beat them. It makes you wonder about the official versions of history, it really does. Though it looks like they’ve made a few improvements—the sights, and the grip on the forestock is further forward and the machining is smoother, probably better steel too.

“Correct, assault rifle,” Röhm said. “Let me what it can do ge… be showing.”

He held the weapon with the butt on this right hip and pointed with his left hand.

“These rocks there.”

The StG-16 leapt to his shoulder. Crack! Crack! and two rocks the size of a man’s head leapt off a boulder four hundred yards away. There was a murmur, but Horst thought it was for the shooting, which was impressive, rather than the weapon; the Mexicans were familiar with being on the receiving end of the Yankee R-13 for years now. Horst had taken his from a guard at the POW camp in El Paso, who didn’t need it after his head acquired a 180-degree turn to the rear in Horst’s grip, thus illustrating the old saying about there being no dangerous weapons, only dangerous men.

Weapons can certainly help, though.

“Now that,” Röhm said, pointing to a similarly-sized lump of pinkish stone.

It was much closer, but still around two hundred yards from where Röhm stood. His thumb flicked a little lever down at the back of the trigger guard and then he shouldered the rifle again, leaning into it a bit.

This time there was a stuttering crackle, a raakkkk sound. Brass flew out of the ejection port as the German officer fired a series of short bursts, three or four rounds each. The rock jumped into the air and shed fragments in a peening, hammering circle. Each following burst struck just as it landed, until the assault rifle clicked empty.

There was another murmur from the Mexicans as silence fell and he quickly switched in another magazine and repeated the process.

An excited murmur this time—except for Pablo, who was laying where he’d fallen and now snoring in the way men who’d been clouted in the head often did, bubbles of blood growing and popping on his smashed nose, along with the inevitable flies. This time the guerillas were impressed on a more technical level; they were familiar with the American machine-pistol, the Thompson, and how its heavy .45 pistol rounds could blast men to bloody sausage-meat… but two hundred yards was about twice its effective maximum range. Some of them looked extremely thoughtful.

Nothing on a battlefield was ever easy, but the Great War had proven attacking was hard for a malignantly and mutually reinforcing mass of reasons. Defending was hard too if you didn’t have access to a regular army’s crew-served heavy weapons. Sometimes a compromise like the assault rifle gave you the best of all possible worlds. All the Mexicans were excited, and the more thoughtful ones were running possible scenarios of attack and ambush through their minds.

They started to crowd around Röhm, their questions louder and louder as they stumbled over each other’s eagerness. Horst’s head whipped up.

“Silence!” he shouted.

It fell in seconds, and then there were yelled curses and a few crossed themselves. There was a faint sound in the air they all recognized, a snarling buzz—radial engines, the nine-cylinder models the US Army Air Corps preferred. That shook Horst fully back to alertness, like a jolt of cold water on a hot day. It came from the north, though that was hard to judge amid the echoes from steep rock-faces all around, and it was definitely getting louder.

“¡Ay, chingao!” someone yelped. “¡Aviones gringos!

Nobody needed to say a word after that. The guerillas and the muleteers ran the animals upslope until they were under a brushy overhang of rock, and then started frantically stripping their pack-saddles.

Everyone who wasn’t helping with that ran for cover themselves. Horst did too, but he paused to snatch up his R-13 and then the semiconscious Pablo, throwing the man over his left shoulder as he ran back uphill to the spot where he’d waited for the mule-train half an hour ago. Röhm arrived at almost the same moment Horst tucked the semiconscious man under a bush without wasting time on gentleness, either because he’d been following or because he had as good an eye for ground as Horst did, a survival trait in a fighting soldier; he had both the assault rifles and their ammunition.

“I suppose you think that because you beat him and then rescued him, Pablo there will become your most faithful vassal and blood brother?” he said sardonically as he found a place with overhead cover.

Horst didn’t turn his head away from the direction he expected the aircraft as he answered; there would be more than one, from the sound that was echoing off the mountainside. It was very pleasant to speak his own language again, after more than half a year living in English and then Spanish.

Even speaking with Röhm, he thought, and went on aloud:

“Hauptmann Röhm, do I look like a complete idiot? Or Old Shatterhand?”

“Not like a complete idiot, no,” Röhm said, with a chuckle of recognition at the reference.

That was the sort of thing that happened in a Karl May novel; May was a writer of adventure stories set all over the world, but mostly in a highly-colored version of the American West, where the German frontiersman known as Old Shatterhand and his Apache companion Winnetou wandered around, slaying enemies and animals and waxing poetic about their feelings and the landscape in fine sub-romantic style.

Very few German men of their generation—Röhm was about four years older than Horst—had grown up without reading them in their teens. Horst still did occasionally, or had back in Germany, for relaxation and nostalgia’s sake. Though he knew that despite May hinting it was all true and that he was Old Shatterhand, the author hadn’t even crossed the Atlantic until he’d written most of them, and had never gotten closer to the wild Western lands than a good hotel in Buffalo, New York.

“Incidentally, I’m not a captain any more,” Röhm said; that was what Hauptmann meant. “It’s Major Röhm now. The Sturmgewehre did very well—all the Stoßtruppen use them now. Ten magazines each, grenades, a Lewis or two per squad, and you’re ready for anything—twice the firepower we had before for less weight. They’re thinking of reequipping the regular infantry the same way. You may be sure I wasn’t shy about how I got them for us, and my battalion and regimental commanders were very impressed.”

Ach, so,” Horst said, a usefully noncommittal verbal placeholder. “Congratulations. Well deserved, I’m sure—we heard about the Yankees running out of France with their tails between their legs.”

Christ and His Mother! He was hard enough to deal with when we were of equal rank.

From his taunting grin the Bavarian knew exactly what Horst was thinking, and let the moment stretch out before going on:

“You’re a major too, now. I’ve got the paperwork here with me somewhere.”

Horst grunted in surprise; they were both extremely young for the rank in pre-war terms, and fairly young for it even after two years of very heavy casualties—in proportion to their numbers German combat officers always had higher casualty rates than their men, up to about battalion command level. Before he went back to Intelligence, at one point Horst von Dückler had been commanding a battalion for a little while… or what was left of it… as an Oberleutnant, simply because nobody more senior was alive and unwounded to do it. But on a personal note…

“I got promoted for that beschissene mess in Berlin? Or that was in Berlin until the enemy spies sabotaged the annihilation-gas works and then escaped in the confusion with one of our Naval airships and the secret radio-rangefinding apparatus?”

“Escaped with you and I in valiant pursuit all the way to the front in France!”

“I recall taking a Navy semirigid at gunpoint to do that,” Horst said dryly.

“Exactly! Why waste precious time with bureaucratic formalities when you can grab a man by the throat and stick a Luger up his nose instead? I was impressed. You may be sure I upheld your credit manfully when I debriefed,” Röhm said. “After all, I was involved too, so it was my credit as well. I emphasized my observations of the enemy tanks, too, and that was one of the first contacts—we’re calling them Panzerkampfwagen, Panzer for short, by the way. Everyone’s worried about them and the War Projects division of the Emperor’s Institute has a new crash program.”

Horst gave a curt nod of acknowledgment. Röhm could have blamed everything on Horst, who wasn’t there to defend himself, but that was the cautious move: deflecting blame while admitting a disaster. Claiming credit for what happened and trying to make it all out as an epic of heroism was much riskier… but it did require giving a share to Horst, as well, and if they’d both been promoted he must have done it very skillfully. Horst supposed that someday his career would mean something to him again, and in any case there was now a debt.

“Your Colonel Nicolai… I’m seconded to Abteilung IIIb too, now… managed to throw most of the blame on the Navy. They deserved it, too, the bumboy twits—they never even realized something was going on until we warned them, and did nothing about it until we came in at the last minute. Right now there’s a lot of credit going around for everyone. Except the Navy, and even there the U-boats are stars. You’re due major kudos for the Sturmgewehr, too, since your name’s on it. These last few months everyone’s polishing their medals and kissing arse and angling for a chateau…”

“Happy as God in France,” Horst said, quoting an old German saying for ease and plenty.

“Precisely! Nicolai says you can have a nice one with a good vineyard, if you want it, by the way—the Custodian of Enemy Property is a very good friend of his.”

“The Colonel looks after his people,” Horst said—truthfully.

“Though he’s just been given an estate south of Kiev himself, three thousand hectares of black earth,” Röhm added with a sneer. “He’ll build a Schloss, I suppose… Schloss Spionage… and play at being a Junker in his spare time.”

Horst looked over his shoulder for a moment and gave him a brief cold smile; Nicolai was no more of noble birth than Röhm. The von Dücklers were Uradel—nobles as far back as written records went, into deep time.

“He deserves his share. What’s the point of winning a war if you don’t plunder the defeated? And land, land is the best booty of all because in the end all other wealth comes from it. As for playing the Junker, did you think our lines sprang by magic from the loins of Wotan in the mists of time? Every Hochgeboren family tree starts with a lucky soldier—a commoner, too—planting the acorn with his sword, watering it with the blood of his enemies and fertilizing it with his plunder.”

“A point,” Röhm said grudgingly.

“And you? I didn’t think you’d give up a combat command for intelligence work.”

Röhm wasn’t just a competent professional soldier; Horst had pegged him as a war-lover, one of the rare breed who simply reveled in combat and were very good at it.

“The war’s over. It’s been over since I walked into the Mediterranean up to my boot-tops,” Röhm said casually, then grinned. “And then unbuttoned and pissed in the direction of the Yankees and the Parlewuhs.”

“That was a campaign, not the war,” Horst said, puzzled.

Röhm shrugged. “The real war, the main armies hitting each other head on, the war of massed divisions and the Western Front and the Eastern Front… that war is over, all but the armistice and the negotiations. We’re demobilizing now that the Yankees are out of Europe. Twenty-five divisions worth of troops—all the older year-classes, a lot of skilled workers, the married men…”

“We are?” Horst said, shocked.

I think some part of my mind assumed the war would go on forever, he thought, contemplating that sensation.

“We need more aeroplanes and submarines and Panzers, not masses of infantry,” Röhm said. “And to repair the railroads and five dozen other things we let slide because we had to, and then there are the new territories to whip into shape to yield what we need since the Navy has Scheiße gebaut—”

Which was roughly equivalent to the English phrase ‘fucked up royally’.

“—and the Yankees and Englanders still control the oceans. With V-gas around on both sides that big-war game isn’t worth the candle, not until someone comes up with a defense, and the scientists say that won’t be soon. We’ll be putting down rebels and partisans for a generation inside our wonderful new Greater German Empire and that’s better than nothing, but a bit boring. And God did not make me to be the founder of a line of Junkers!”

He cocked an eye skyward. “That little affair where we chased the Yankee spies and hijacked the airship, that wasn’t boring at all. And this… this isn’t boring either. Colonel Nicolai keeps his chosen men busy!”

The engine noise was much louder now, and all the guerillas were thoroughly concealed.

“And Colonel Nicolai didn’t send me alone, magnificent German warrior that I am,” Röhm said. “I came with presents besides your promotion papers, and little helpers… because the longer the Yankees take to get their own V-gas plant going, the better our negotiating position will be at those armistice talks sooner or later. It’s all codenamed Alberich.”

Horst made an intrigued sound. That was the name of the king of the dwarves in the Nibelungenlied, the legends that Wagner had used as a basis for his Ring cycle. Alberich’s tribe had made the magical swords and rings and invisibility-capes of myth.

“Where?” he said.

“Had to stash them some distance away, far too bulky to drag into the mountains, and the helpers are technicians, not fighting-men.”

Ach, so,” Horst said with satisfaction.

He wouldn’t get any details until he really needed them, of course. And working with Röhm might be difficult… but Röhm needed him, his superior command of the language and even more his local contacts and knowledge.

Röhm looked skyward again. “We can have fun with the toys, assuming we don’t die today. How are your Lumpenpack of brown clowns here for fire discipline, by the way? They hide pretty well, but you learn that quick when you’re attacked from the air. If you survive the first time or two.”

“They’re surprisingly good,” Horst said—again, truthfully. “The incompetents and absolute brainless fire-eaters are all dead or in labor camps or back in their villages hoeing beans and hoping the Yankee secret police never find out about them. Darwin got them, you might say. The few still in the field know their business—natural selection eliminating the unfit.”

Röhm grunted. “There must have been a lot of them to start with, then,” he said. “In my regiment we were laying bets on whether the Yankees would give up on it and pull out, back just before the war in Europe started.”

Horst shook his head. “Roosevelt doesn’t give up on a fight once he’s in it, and neither do the ones he picks for command, like Wood… Wood pacified the southern Philippines back after the Americans took it from Spain. That was as bad as Mexico was in 1914. Here… the Yankees killed three hundred thousand of the Mexican rebels and caught and executed all their best leaders, and made it plain they weren’t going anywhere and would go right on killing until they got things quiet, and that discouraged most of the rest. Then the Yankees gave an amnesty, and they’ve been surprisingly mild to those who don’t fight. They like to hand out candy and pats on the head to children, and build new wells and schools.”

“Stick in one hand, carrot in the other,” Röhm said. “I prefer sticks in both hands… each of them wrapped in barbed wire.”

You would, Horst thought.

Röhm gave another of those infinitely cynical grins. “And most of these here, they’re the ones their own families would… how do the Yankees put it… I have been studying that abortion of a cross between Plattdeutsch and Froggie called English and what I’m thinking of is a lot like jemanden verraten…”

Rat out,” Horst said, dropping into that language’s American version for a moment; he spoke it well, though with a noticeable accent.

“Ja, that’s it, the ones their own families would rat out if they went home. Americans are great ones for coining a vivid phrase!”

It was perceptive of Röhm to figure that out so quickly—he must have come across by U-boat, one of the big new cargo carriers, and paddled ashore in a rubber raft to some deserted beach not more than a couple of weeks ago, to meet locals able to help him transport and hide Nicolai’s toys and their operators.

U-boats are so very useful. To think of all the money we wasted on battleships! Thank God we started developing them seriously a little before the war, at least. The Kaiser insisted on outdoing everything Roosevelt tried… and imitating a smart man’s actions is almost as good as being smart yourself.

“And here are our Yankee friends, ready to shit on our heads like pigeons in the Englischer Garten back home,” Röhm said.

They were talking normally; neither was the sort of man who whispered simply because they felt anxious.

The aeroplanes were a flight of four Curtis Falcons, two pairs flying in a loose gaggle along the front of the mountains and banking in to hug the curve. Röhm had a pair of small field glasses out, little ones the size of a palm that he held inside his hand to shield them from reflections—you could see the glint off a lens from the air.

“Falcons,” he said and grunted thoughtfully. “The latest model, with the three-hundred-fifty horsepower engines. They gave us hard trouble in southern France whenever the fighting-scouts couldn’t keep them off, like artillery firing over open sights from the sky when you didn’t expect them, bombing and strafing our front-line positions… and the artillery and the supply columns. I’m surprised to see them here… No, damn me, I’m not! Why cross the Atlantic through the wolf-packs to sit on their backsides in Corsica or North Africa, and lose more ships supplying them?”

Horst studied the enemy aircraft through the scope. They were neat twin-engine biplanes with spatted landing gear, a bit larger than a fighting-scout but not much, four Browning machine guns built into the pointed, a shark’s mouth and staring eyes painted below, and two more machine guns on a ring mount manned by the observer who sat back-to-back with the pilot. Bombs were slung under the lower wing, two large or four smaller ones on either side of the engines.

They were close enough now that he could see the heads of their pilots and observers, encased in leather helmets and goggles and with their scarves fluttering in the slipstream, turning from side to side as they looked at the shrubs and rocks and trees below. Horst examined the loads of the war-aeroplanes through the x3 sight of his rifle and swore to himself, before shouting a warning in Spanish:

“Gas bombs!”

A volley of colorful curses came from various places of concealment, rippling further away as the warning was passed on. Even Mexicans allowed themselves to show that they were frightened by poison gas, which you could neither see nor fight back against… and none of them had masks. One of the Falcons had green or yellow crosses painted on the noses of its load, four of each; the Yankees used the same color-coding as Germany, since they’d copied it along with the war gasses themselves.

Green-cross meant diphosgene mixed with a little chlorine to help it spread, and it could blind you but mostly killed by destroying your lungs. Sometimes at once, sometimes you started choking and it got worse and worse, and sometimes you just abruptly dropped dead hours later; it was nearly invisible, and detectable only by a slight smell like new-mown hay; as an added bonus it quickly corroded the filters in gas-masks of the sort they didn’t have.

Yellow cross was even worse news. That meant a newer weapon called nitrogen-mustard introduced last year; it was a viciously effective invisible vesicant smelling like garlic or horseradish that burned every part of your body it touched, soaking freely through cloth, the wounds swelling into huge and agonizing liquid-filled blisters, crippling and blinding and killing like third-degree burns inside and out… or like being flayed alive in a tub of acid.

Röhm and Horst had both seen them in action and Horst felt his mouth go dry. Neither was as bad as Annihilation Gas, of course. But dead was dead, and V-gas was at least quick: green-cross and yellow-cross were both were as painful as the worst sort of belly-wound for a slow hard passage to oblivion. Or to the afterlife he no longer really believed in at times like this. Gas was feared more than other weapons because it didn’t just threaten you with death, it threatened you with death by slow torture.

Himmihargodzefixsaggramentallelujamilextamarschscheissglumpvarregts!” Röhm shouted, a thick Bavarian dialect mixture of blasphemy and scatology that couldn’t even be translated into standard German well, much less English.

“What is it?” Horst said.

“Look at the last pigdog in the arsehole chorus line of pigdog flying Yankee swine-farts,” Röhm said.

Horst swung his rifle. The four bombs under that one’s wings were just long smooth ovals, painted black on top and light grey below.

“You know the stuff we put in Flammenwerfer?” Röhm asked rhetorically; flame-throwers were a German invention and used modified fuel-oil. “Well, just lately the ingenious inventive Yankee swine took that and made it worse—gasoline thickened to jelly with soap, with powdered magnesium and aluminum so it’ll burn underwater and something that makes it stick like glue and burn you to the bone. I’ve had it dropped near me twice now and that’s twice too many.”

“Well, damn that,” Horst said mildly, despite feeling his scrotum clench. “Of course, weapons are supposed to hurt.”

“How philosophical, you Junker cunt!”

“I have to tell that you I love you too, Ernst, just this once before we die,” Horst replied, and they both laughed in a harsh bark.

The aeroplane bearing the fire-bombs had a personalized sigil on its side, a red fire-breathing boar’s head with horns, and under that the legend: Hellpig. That made more sense now.

It seemed to be a theme of this Schwarm, what Americans called a flight. The others had names too: Satanfist and Hellhammer and Mr. McBeelzebuddy Flies. The last one took him a moment to figure out—humor was one of the last things that came across as your command of a language got better.

“The other two have four HE-fragmentation bombs each, standard forty-kilo models,” Horst added.

Which since aircraft bombs didn’t need thick heavy casings meant each bomb had an explosive load equivalent to four or five shells from 210-millimeter heavy howitzers.

“Fucking Joyous Christmas Day,” Röhm snarled as they waited motionless for the aircraft to sweep by; at least it wouldn’t take long, not at a hundred and eighty kilometers an hour.

“Let’s hope none of the Mexicans gets a wild hair up his ass,” he added.

None of them did… but the mules were much less disciplined.

One broke free of its handlers, probably spooked more by the smell of the fear in their sweat than by the racketing buzz of the engines as it built to a climax. The animal danced sideways away from the cliff overhang, braying and bucking and kicking in a circle, then dashing away down the slope towards the path it had climbed only a few minutes before. One of the handlers did lose his head then, running out to follow it waving his arms and shouting, which let another break loose as well.

“You don’t notice it!” Horst said in what was nearly a prayer. “It’s just a mule… it looks like a deer to you, your President loves wild animals, he’d crucify you if you machine-gunned a deer from the air… it could be running wild… oh, Holy Mother of God!”

One of the Yankee aeroplanes had spotted the mules running down the narrow path; it turned away from the mountains and then up and over in a showy Immelman turn that left it flying straight back towards the path; the others went into a circle at slightly higher altitude, waiting. It dipped lower, until it was skimming the slope, and the pilot squeezed off a burst from the forward-facing machine guns, walking them towards the target with the forward motion of his craft.

The sound of the short burst hammered at their ears in an overwhelming BRAAAAPPPP!

The sharp nose of the Falcon disappeared for an instant in muzzle-flash as the tracers stabbed out. The mule nearly disappeared from sight in the dust the burst raised as well. When the debris from a hundred-odd rounds blew away it was lying shredded on the ground in a pool of blood and parts and scattered cornmeal and dried beans from ruptured sacks, and giving its last dying kick.

The mule-driver was just behind it. He survived the burst unharmed by some freak of ballistics and might have passed unnoticed if he’d simply leapt for cover or even just frozen, but in what was either hysteria or reflexive courage he brought up his rifle and began firing at the thing that had killed his animal.

The pilot certainly noticed that, and the observer swiveled his twin weapons and gave him a half-second burst as the aircraft banked away; six or seven of the heavy high-velocity bullets hit the muleteer, tossing him aside in an instant’s jinking dance like a loose-jointed wooden doll shaken by an angry child. The second mule shied violently around the bloody corpse of its companion, then disappeared down the slope at a gallop.

The aeroplane went by overhead looking close enough to touch, pulled up and looped again to avoid the cliffs, and soared out over the basin to the east. The others approached it; Horst brought up the rifle and saw broad gestures exchanged as they circled, ending with the flight-leader waving his right arm in a circle overhead and then chopping it towards the mountainside with a striking motion, the edge of his palm forward like the blade of an ax.

“For what we are about to receive…”

“May the Lord make us truly fucking thankful,” Röhm finished.

Horst thought of shooting—there was less point in concealment now—but warned by the muleteer’s futile gesture all the American aircraft kept higher, enough to make that a waste of ammunition, especially since he knew the latest Falcons had light armor around parts of the engines and the crew’s seats. Which didn’t prevent all twenty-odd of the guerillas from blazing hopefully away, but Horst thought a similar number of Germans would probably have done about the same thing. Once one man shot, most found joining in irresistible.

Mr. McBeelzebuddy Flies came in first with the gas bombs and released all eight behind Horst’s position as it climbed, so that they arced out gracefully…

Upslope, Horst thought suddenly. Against the cliffs above us.

“Rennt!” he screamed: Everyone run!

The bombs detonated with a muffled liquid thump of dispersal charges, precisely placed to flush anyone downslope out of cover. Horst jumped to his feet, and just barely remembered to make his yell in Spanish this time:

¡Huyen! ¡Huyen! Run for it! Poison-gas is heavier than air! It’ll flow down towards us like water and saturate the whole area! Certain death! Run! Run!

Pablo was awake enough to be cradling his injured head. He screamed in pain and surprise as Horst grabbed him again and threw him over his shoulder, before dashing away down and across the slope. Röhm loped not far away, but the Mexicans were a little slower. He heard the snarl of engines again and a Falcon was heading straight for him…

Hellpig swept by overhead and released its load of fire, the flame-bombs tumbling by above them, turning end-over-end. Horst risked a single backward glance, and saw that the target was a clump of fleeing guerillas unfortunately close behind. He wrenched his attention back to the rough ground as he stumbled and recovered with a hard twist against the uneven weight on his shoulder and flogged himself to run even faster, grunting with effort at each long stride.

“Don’t just run, scatter!” he yelled. “Don’t give them big—”

There was a hiss like a dragon’s coughing roar, then a rumbling thunder of flame and acrid chemical reek; the back of his neck felt as if it was on fire. Pablo shrieked like a gelded hog, and gobbets of fire did fly past, landing on brush with malignant hisses and setting it aflame. A man ran by, a pillar of moving howling fire, and then collapsed ahead of him. Others shrieked like damned souls behind. Horst leapt heavily over the burning corpse and his trousers were only smoldering when he landed, coughing in the bitter chemical smoke underlain by a roast-pork stink.

“—big targets!” he choked out to himself.

Machine guns chattered in the air, the tracer rounds stabbing down like twisting corkscrews of death as the aeroplanes circled above their foes, the observers using their twin weapons to squeeze off bursts at anything they saw moving.

CRUMP, and a hundred-pound bomb exploded, shaking the earth under his feet.

Fragments of hot razor-edged steel went by with a malignant whine, and the blast made him stagger on the edge of a fall that would mean death. The ground opened up ahead; he went down the side of a ravine in a half-controlled fall, and for a wonder it was narrow enough that trees along the edge above gave good cover. His mind sketched distances.

“Just… a minute,” he wheezed, and halted.

This wasn’t a pace men could keep up for long, particularly not carrying heavy burdens. He set down—dropped—Pablo and scrambled for his canteen, half-coughed and half-spat out a mouthful. Carrying that much weight at speed was something he could do, but it wasn’t easy. Some of the water came out through his nose, and he coughed and spat again to clear his mouth. The Brownings were still chattering behind him, as if the American gunners feared ammunition would be outlawed tomorrow. It was maybe a thousand meters or so behind him now, and they were thoroughly out of view. Which gave them a few precious seconds of safety, perhaps a minute or two, and the ravine would take them a kilometer or more under cover.

Röhm was sobbing for breath not far away, fumbling to lay his StG-16 down so he could get to his own canteen and then bend over with hands on knees before he caught enough breath to speak:

“That… was too much of not boring,” he managed to gasp.

He’d moved very fast over the short distance, but only by pushing himself to ten tenths of capacity and a little more. Röhm had the sort of build that was a knot of muscle on muscle under field conditions but would go to hard bulging fat if he had ease and plenty of food, especially when… if… he reached middle-age. Horst weighed about the same as the Bavarian, between eighty and ninety kilos give or take, but his long limbs and runner’s constitution gave him the advantage here.

But Röhm is death in a fight; don’t forget that.

Horst choked on the second swallow, kept it down and followed with another. Then he could talk:

“One of them will have a wireless set,” he said. “There will be more aeroplanes like flies on dead meat, and there’s a garrison of Rangers in Jerez. They have motor trucks and the roads they’ve made down there are good, so they can get to a spot an hour’s walk from here in twenty minutes. Did I tell you how happy I was to have you show up and bring me the good news of my promotion, Röhm?”

Before the Bavarian could reply, Pablo stirred. “Gringo pig, I kill you soon now,” he gasped, and began to vomit half-digested tortillas and beans over Horst’s boots.

The two Germans looked at each other.

“Hello, Major Shatterhand,” Röhm said, and they both began to howl with gasping laughter.

Things were moving. If luck was with him, he might get a chance to deal the enemy a stinging blow… and while it was a very big war, the part of it people like him fought was much smaller. So he might get a chance—

I might get a chance at… her. He knew it was obsession talking, but he couldn’t make himself care about that. It will be her. It must be.


Copyright © 2019-2020 by S.M. Stirling