Sierra De Cardos
State of Zacatecas
United States Protectorate of México
June 18th, 1917 A.D., 1917(b)
Pablo may be hasty, but he’s determined enough for two, Horst thought.
Pablo was breathing through his mouth as silently as he could while they moved in single file through what passed for dense forest here, moderate stands of a pine called ocote averaging about eighty feet high filling the air with the spicy-sweet scent of their sap, and with the soft warm sough of the breeze through their branches and needles. It was beautiful upland country if you viewed it objectively, steep blue slopes fading into the distance all around, interrupted by streaks of bare cliff that were often pink… and though objectivity was rather hard when you were being hunted and were half-starved, Horst still tried. Not least, it gave him something to think about besides the hunger; the cargo those mules had brought had been badly needed and they’d left it behind at high speed three days ago.
He was impressed with Pablo’s willpower; the nose had to be hurting badly under the improvised splint, and it was still too swollen and full of blood-clots to pass much air, but the Mexican hadn’t let it slow him down. The path beneath them was narrow, winding across the steep hillside with that exact attention to the slope that only careful surveying or the instincts of wild animals could produce. He was also impressed by the Mexican’s endurance in this thin air and up-and-down landscape, which had Horst’s lungs and legs aching a little even now. The four of them had been moving over rough country since dawn, with nothing but a few stale tortillas and some pine-nuts, though at least they had plenty of good water.
His own belly growled, and it was getting harder not to daydream about things like Schlesisches Himmelreich, a particular favorite of his that his family always had on his birthdays as a boy—smoked pork belly cooked slowly with dried pears, plums and apples, spiced with cinnamon and served with sour red cabbage and bread dumplings. Horst swallowed the rush of spit at the memory and was about to suggest that they stop to wait out the hottest part of the day and eat some of their meager hoard. It would be the same vile mess, since they’d been too hard-pressed to stop for much hunting or foraging, but as the old soldiers’ saying went:
Altes Brot ist nicht hart. Kein Brot, das ist hart.
Old bread isn’t hard. No bread, that is hard.
Pablo’s head came up as Horst drew breath to speak. The guerilla knocked back his sombrero with the back of one wrist and looked up, sweat running down his brown face and making his mustaches limp. The other ex-muleteer—he went by Chango, evidently something to do with his ears, which were jug-like—nearly ran up on his heels.
Horst and Röhm silently went to one knee on either side of the trail; Horst lowered the rolled blanket that carried his camping gear and share of the food to the ground and carefully switched off the safety of his rifle. He was still carrying the R-13; he preferred it, and had passed on the second assault rifle to Pablo. That had been a case of love at first sight, and had slightly decreased the Mexican’s hostility to Horst.
Chango started to complain, and Pablo silenced him with a thick hissed:
Which meant: take cover, fool! and had Horst’s entire approval.
They all waited, while birds chirped and warbled and insects buzzed… and sometimes stung as they went after the salt-rich water of the humans’ sweat. Pablo’s injured face twisted in frustration, ignoring the pain the expression must cost him to pay attention to instincts that had kept him alive through years at the focus of a clever, unceasing and utterly merciless hunt.
“There is something wrong,” he said softly. “I thought I heard engines, very faint and then a very little bit louder, but now there aren’t any. I do not know what’s wrong, but they should have been getting fainter before I lost them.”
Just then Röhm’s face turned westward, towards the narrow cleft in the mountain wall they were heading for, and he swore… also softly. The others all followed his eyes. A finned orca shape was drifting forward there, just clearing the pass and then rapidly gaining altitude by virtue of the way the ground dropped steeply away beneath it to the east. The airship was a hundred meters long… a hundred American yards, or near enough… and a quarter that at its broadest point, and a few minutes put it nearly at a level with their position high on the mountainside. The long aluminum-and-glass gondola slung below was a third of the length, suspended from the interior bracing keel that gave semi-rigids their name, and it had a ball-turret at each end with twin machine-guns.
Horst knew the type well, since the German navy had outright copied it—both sides had been doing that with various gadgets since the war started or even before—and it should have been accompanied by a continuous racking snarl from the two big radial engines that stuck out from the gondola on stubby wing-like projections on either side. They were silent, and the very modern three-bladed aluminum propellers—most aircraft still used wooden ones—were visible and motionless.
“It must have been disabled,” Röhm said quietly in German. “Yankees put off fixing things.”
Horst grunted; that didn’t feel right, and it was too much of a coincidence for it to be right over their heads. Americans were sloppy at maintenance by his meticulous Prussian standards, but you had to admit they were good with machinery in their own way. Yet what other explanation could there be? Aircraft engines were started by spinning the propeller, and that had to be done by hand or by truck-mounted engines before takeoff, very much like cranking an auto.
Except for the very largest airships, von Dückler, you dumb-head! Horst told himself, mentally slapping his own skull. And more autos have self-starters all the time, and the principle is the same!
The newest, biggest zeppelins were much larger than the one he was looking at; three times as long as this semirigid, truss-framed goliaths with up to ten engines each. They could stop and start their own engines using compressed air motors, and some could bring them inboard for repairs. There was no reason the starter mechanism couldn’t be built small enough for lesser craft.
Don’t expect things to stay the same in fields that didn’t even exist when you were a youngster! Keep up with the pace of change or die!
He unslung his R-13 and slowly brought it to his shoulder, resting the forestock in the crutch of a twisted pine and holding his left hand to shadow the end of the telescopic sight so that there would be no chance of a reflected flash of light from the lens to catch the eye of the crew of the airship. The semirigid sprang closer. It was mostly painted in a light blue-gray so it wouldn’t stand out from sky to a surface observer at sea; for the rest it bore US Navy markings, a white five-pointed star on the tail-fins and an identification number, ZNMP-22.
The name painted across the blunt bows was some obscure Yankee joke: Sock-Two-Pussy, showing an octopus with a boxing glove on each of its tentacles punching at two cats with pickelhaube on their heads—the spiked cloth-covered leather helmet German troops had worn until the more practical coal-scuttle-shaped metal Stahlhelm replaced it last year, and which was still used on ceremonial occasions when your skull wasn’t likely to meet shrapnel or shell fragments.
More importantly, the crew seemed perfectly at ease, three of them on either side leaning out of the gondola windows, scanning the valley below with heavy binoculars on flexible mounts—the airship must be steady enough for that, particularly without the vibration of the engines to make everything a blur as the optics moved…
“At a guess, they’ve got a model with self-starting engines now,” he said, and repeated it in Spanish. “So that they can switch them off and drift when the wind is in the direction they want to go—it extends the range for surveillance work. And you can’t hear them coming.”
Röhm grunted and nodded; there was nothing wrong with his wits, especially on matters military. Pablo wasted his breath on a long sequence of liquid insults mostly involving the airship’s and its masters’ mothers and sisters, asserting their lack of morals and the thousand unknown fathers of their offspring to the last generation, also alleging bestiality, blasphemous hostility to God, His Mother and the saints, and intimate relations with devils and domestic animals and siblings.
Pablo finished cursing and added: “I hope Miguel is keeping a sharp look-out. He is a good man, but he gets into a rut and thinks of nothing but the task before him.”
The guerilla party had split in two after the attack on the mule-train, to leave fewer tracks while they put as much distance as they could between themselves and pursuit; a couple of drenching afternoon thunderstorms had helped, but they could feel that someone was dogging their trail relentlessly, and they didn’t have the numbers to split off an ambush team to buy time.
It wasn’t much like combat as he’d experienced it in Europe…
More like hunting, he thought. From the game’s point of view. Or like undercover intelligence work, or like something halfway between that and fighting.
Miguel and ten others—two painfully wounded, with blisters from the mustard-gas or the clinging muck from the fire-bombs—had taken the easier, lower path while the fittest went along the mountainsides. That kept the two groups roughly level, the easier passage balancing the greater strength, and the upper party had a better view along their back-trail.
Horst turned his attention to the valley as soon as he’d checked that they all had good overhead cover. It was steep-sided and there was little in the way of flat land at its bottom; there was a seasonal stream, which had pools now and a trickle between them, and heavier overhanging trees, oaks and other broad-leaf varieties he didn’t recognize. Except that one type looked a little like poplars and were letting fly with seeds attached to some odd downy cotton-like stuff that floated on the breeze like warm snow. He scanned along the stream, slowly and carefully; it was five or six hundred meters away and about the same distance lower, though the x3 scope brought it much closer, close enough that hummingbirds—little living jewels like crosses between birds and dragonflies and like nothing he’d imagined before he first set foot on this continent—showed as tiny blurs going past.
Ja, he thought. There they are.
Miguel was in the lead, a rifle in his hands and his head swiveling alertly… but unfortunately only at ground level. The rest followed him, the soldaderas helping along the worst-injured, and several more armed guerillas bringing up the rear. They were doing well…
Except that they haven’t noticed what’s hanging over their heads. Pablo is right: Miguel is used to listening for aircraft and it’s going to get him killed and possibly me too. Because if I can see them from here, then the airship…
As he watched a set of blurred streaks shot out from the gondola, the thumps running up the rock and pine-woods of the mountainside, and an instant later echoing back from the other side of the valley. Then the streaks burst with harsh crack sounds that echoed likewise, turning into round puffs of blue and red smoke.
Signals, Horst thought grimly.
“Miguel, Miguel, du bist total am Arsch,” Röhm said.
Horst saved his breath; Miguel was utterly fucked, but there was no need to make a joke of a brave man’s impending death.
At the same time the airship’s engines coughed, sputtered, shed wafts of smoke, and settled to their usual droning roar. It turned as purpose came back to its drifting passage, heading into the wind from the west and then throttling down until it hung nearly motionless above the party of guerillas. The machine-gun turrets flexed and turned, but it didn’t try to come down low enough to use them, not yet. Individual rifle-shots weren’t much threat to a giant bag of hydrogen, but Horst was grimly certain they didn’t need to take any risks.
Miguel visibly started and probably cursed; Horst could see his mouth moving, and his fist shaking at the great shape hanging in the sky above him, and behind him the others ran into the forest and took cover. Then the guerilla jerked around, ignoring the airship and grasping his rifle as if it were a life-ring at sea. A perceptible instant later Horst heard what the man down in the valley did. Human voices, distant but shrill and loud for all that, a shrieking with a barking chant in it:
“Kie-kkkkkkk-oooooOOOOOOhhhh-ak-ak -” endlessly repeated, a saw-edged rising and falling ululation; he instinctively knew it was a hunting cry made as men burst into an all-out sprint to close with their prey, howling every time a foot struck the ground.
“Cazadores de cabezas!” Pablo shouted.
Headhunters, Horst thought; he’d heard enough to be fairly sure it was truth, not just slandering an enemy.
Pablo turned and began a plunge downslope, towards his fellows, the assault rifle in his hands.
He really is a hasty man, but there’s nothing wrong with his guts or instincts, Horst thought. Though it’s a wonder he’s still alive. There are old soldiers, and bold soldiers, but few old, bold soldiers.
In the same moment he grabbed the collar of the guerilla’s shirt and jerked him back—tensely and cautiously, ready for a rattlesnake-swift knife strike. He wasn’t worried that Pablo would turn the rifle on him; the Mexican was too good a soldier at this peculiar type of fighting to fire and so pinpoint his own location with a pursuit closing in.
“No!” the German barked. “Think, man! If you kill a headhunter or two before they kill you, do you think Roosevelt will rage and weep? Will they mourn in the streets of Chicago or New York?”
Though some woman might weep and scream with grief for a husband or a brother or a son, in a hut far away amid hot jungle hills.
“We are here to do the Yankees real harm! We cannot do that if we die in some meaningless skirmish!”
Pablo did start to go for a knife; then stopped himself with an effort that left him shaking and wet with harsh-stinking sweat.
“You are right,” he grated in a voice of utter hatred as Horst released him. “Fuck your mother, you are right. I will stay here with you and your friend the murdering jodedor. But do not speak more now, or I will kill you.”
He stalked away and melted into cover, nearly invisible even though Horst knew where he was. Horst slid back to his own watching position; considering that men who’d been Pablo’s comrades for years were now certainly doomed, it said something that the Mexican was able to overcome his impulses. Or possibly the prospect of hurting the people he hated was what tipped the balance, more revenge than he’d thought possible in years.
“We need him,” he said warningly in German. “We need him very badly. Chango is as brainless as one of his mules but Pablo is cunning, he knows the area well, and he has contacts in Jerez and Zacatecas.”
“Yes indeed,” Röhm replied, good-humor in his tone.
Horst looked over; the Bavarian had laid his small binoculars down on the brown rock before him and was unfastening his canteen.
“Were you afraid I would be angry with the good heroic Pablo?” he said.
They were speaking softly, but not whispering. The distance would make even a bellowing shout faint. Röhm went on:
“No, no, we do need him. Besides that, first, while I might be angry if you, my dear comrade, said such hurtful words… nothing any of these chattering brown monkeys says really matters except as I choose. And second, hmmmm, what was it the old Greeks said, about self-knowledge?”
“γνῶθι σεαυτόν,” Horst said, who’d had the Classics drummed into him like any upper-class youth. “Gnōthi seauton. ‘Know yourself’. One of the maxims inscribed at Apollo’s sanctuary at Delphi.”
“Exactly. Just what I was thinking of! Clever, clever fellows, those Greeks! Though the language wasn’t my best subject at the königliches Maximiliansgymnasium.”
Röhm grinned. “And in fact I am a murdering jodedor, as our good friend Pablo said. Why be angered by the truth? And now the Yankees are putting on a lovely show for us on this fine day after a walk in the clean country air, though the refreshments could be better. A nice tall mug of Rauchbier and a plate of Thüringer Rostbratwurst with more of the beer sprinkled on while they cook, and done on a hot grill rubbed with bacon, I think, by preference. And a heap of fried potatoes. But even without beer and sausage and potatoes, life is good, Horst, mein Bruder. Life is very good.”
Horst turned his head to hide a grimace of distaste, and put his eye to the scope on his rifle. He didn’t fear Röhm, which he suspected put him in a distinct minority among those who knew the man, but he couldn’t afford to fight with him either.
You use what you must for the Fatherland, he thought.
His mind called up memories, flashes and glimpses. The rambling ancestral Schloss of the von Dücklers, the village and church huddled close-by as he rode back across the fields, with the snow of an iron winter creaking beneath the hooves of his horse. The windows glowed yellow in the dusk through leafless trees and the chimneys trailed smoke up to a gray sky…
His father’s quiet blaze of pride and the hand on his shoulder with a brief: Like a von Dückler, boy! when he’d come home from the Marne with a captain’s insignia and the Iron Cross on his tunic.
His mother’s face in lamplight and her touch, as she sat by his bed while he tossed with fever as a boy.
A stab of unexpected wistful envy, as he watched his older brother Eric kneeling and laughing as his child made his first staggering steps away from his mother and towards his father’s outstretched hands, waving and crowing triumphant laughter as he stumped and staggered on chubby legs through mown grass starred with fallen petals of cherry-blossom.
They need me. My Heimat and the Fatherland need me, need men like me, in this new world of ice and fire. For them I will endure anything… and do anything. Anything at all.
He put his single eye back to the sight. For long moments there was nothing but branches and pine-boughs moving in the wind, and what followed was more a thing of sounds rather than what he could see.
But the sounds painted a vivid picture for someone who had the experience to interpret them, them and the occasional glimpse of muzzle-flashes.
A flurry of shots—the familiar slow bang-bang-bang of bolt-action rifles, yelling, the swifter snapping ptank-ptank crack of the American semi-autos like the one he carried, the typewriter crackle of machine pistols, the muffled bumpf! of a grenade and then another, a brief red wink visible through the branches of the trees in the shadow they cast. The distinctive rattlesnake stutter of a Lewis light machinegun squeezing off neat professional short bursts. A high thin screaming, pain this time, cut off in a way anyone who’d been on battlefields would recognize. Silence fell for a moment; and then the yammering exultant brabble of the headhunter war screech again.
One of the soldaderas broke into view, dashing across the clearing with her skirts kirted up and her rifle at high port. A flash of steel came from behind her, pinwheeling through the air and striking in her thigh. She went down with a scream of shock and tried to rise and fell again and lay scrabbling at the earth. Miguel dashed out of cover from the other side of the opening, obviously trying to rescue her and drag her back to his position.
“Dummkopf,” Röhm said crisply, watching through his binoculars. “And a dead stupid-head, soon enough.”
Horst nodded agreement, unconscious of the gesture until it disturbed his sight picture and he had to set it again, though he sympathized more with the guerilla leader than Röhm probably did. You hated to leave one of your own down and wounded, but tactical necessities had to take precedence. He’d seen times where four or five men were lost trying to go after a single casualty crying for help on ground raked by enemy machine-guns, and where whole companies could have been decimated by chain-reactions of unthinking heroism if a leader hadn’t clamped down an iron discipline.
You had to be ready to die for your battle-comrades, just as a good company commander had to love the unit he led like his own sons, but the mission came first and to accomplish that you had to be ready to kill the thing you loved.
He’d expected someone to simply shoot Miguel as he ran for the bait, but instead a figure broke cover across the oblong clearing. It was a blur, moving very fast and casually wrenching free the blade that stood in his first target’s leg as he passed without breaking stride, bringing a fresh but weaker scream from the soldadera.
There are a lot of big veins and arteries in the thigh, Horst thought clinically.
He didn’t like killing noncombatants, though it didn’t bother him overmuch when necessity demanded it, but a woman who took up arms was a combatant. And as he knew from experience—he touched his eyepatch reflexively—sometimes a dangerous one.
Dead in a few minutes at most with a wound like that.
Miguel had a pistol in his hand, an old-style revolver where the hammer had to be thumbed back for each shot. He managed to get off two, both missing. Which was no surprise; most men did miss in combat, even at close range. Horst didn’t and he didn’t think Röhm would either, or Pablo, but they were all unusual types in their own ways.
Miguel threw up the revolver to block the arc of steel that came at him. Instead his hand flew free still clutching the weapon, and he had a fraction of a second to stare at the spouting stump before there was another flash across his throat and he fell and flopped like a landed fish for an instant. The one who’d killed him ran on, halting and crouching low in the shadow of a tree for a long moment.
That let Horst see him clearly. He was a little man—that was clear from the relative size of the R-13 rifle slung over his back—who seemed to be built out of wire and sinew, a quivering readiness for motion clear despite the bagginess of the American-style uniform. His hollow-cheeked face was brown, browner than most Mexicans Horst had seen, his narrow black eyes darting around in utter wariness, with high knobs for cheeks and a button nose, and a rat-trap mouth open wide for a gasp or a grin.
His filed teeth showed blood-red, and so did the spittle that drooled down his chin. Objectively Horst knew it was just the juice of the betel-nut that people in the man’s part of the world chewed the way Europeans used tobacco, but something in his mind recoiled at the sight. That wasn’t helped when the headhunter raised the dripping blade in his hand and casually licked it; the weapon was twenty inches of broad steel blade curved like a saber, but sharpened on the inner side, with an odd-looking flared hilt curving inward more sharply still. He’d heard that it was called a Ginunting in those far-off isles. Besides that the man wore a floppy canvas bush-hat over a red headband that held frond-like feathers at the rear to dangle down his neck, and around that neck a string of small bones with a tuft of fur or hair. Long ornaments dangled from the upper lobes of his ears on both sides.
The silence stretched, and then a whistle sounded, three short blasts and a long one. Evidently that was the all clear signal, because the man Host was watching relaxed—at least as much as he ever did—and walked back into the clearing. He was definitely grinning as he raised Miguel’s head by the hair and chopped it free of the neck with one swing of the inward-curved blade in his hand. He threw back his head and gave that barking, moaning shriek again, and a dozen more like him faded out of the brush, like figures appearing in a magician’s act. Many of them carried heads of their own and the blade they’d reaped them with in the other hand; they formed a ring and began a hopping, hip-pumping, stamping birdlike dance, wheeling in circles with knees deeply bent and arms outstretched to either side. Miguel’s killer danced in the center, stopping occasionally to hold the head high, yelling with glee.
An American officer stalked into the open space, a tall man with a red mustache and a rifle held muzzle-up with the butt on his right hip, but nevertheless wearing the same necklace and headband and ear-ornaments as his men. One of them passed him a bloodied weapon, and he absently licked it before returning it to the man who’d offered it; the headhunter visibly swelled with pride as he strutted off.
“Arse-licking teacher’s darling,” Röhm chuckled; he was watching the same scene through his binoculars. “I bet he always brought an apple to school.”
The officer’s whole posture and wagging finger spoke of a scolding. In similar circumstances German soldiers would have braced to attention, and Horst thought American regulars would have done the same—though even Yankees probably wouldn’t have been dancing around waving severed heads amid sprays of blood in the first place. The Rangers shuffled their feet and looked down with sulky pouts instead; one was kicking his toe into the dirt like a schoolboy caught throwing spitballs at a rival. At a final decisive gesture they wiped and sheathed their steel, stuffed the heads into bags that closed with drawstrings and put those in their knapsacks, unslung their rifles and machine-pistols and trotted off in a springy, tireless, businesslike fashion.
“The Yankees’ little brown monkeys are serious little brown monkeys,” Röhm observed. “Ah, they’re bringing the airship down.”
The red-haired American officer raised a flare-pistol and fired into the air, the shell bursting green. In response the airship hovered overhead and dropped a cable; men on the ground secured it to a huge boulder, and a winch whined until the craft was down below a hundred meters, its nose much lower than its tail and not far above the tips of the pines. A bosun’s-chair arrangement was dropped next, out of an open door that had a boom and pulley; wounded men, bodies, and bundles of gear began shuttling upwards, and other bundles that probably held food and ammunition came down.
“Efficient!” Horst said. “They’ll lose a lot fewer of their hurt if they can get them out fast by airship like this. The first couple of hours are the crucial ones with a serious wound. And bringing in supplies like that means lighter loads and faster movement.”
“Wouldn’t be practical if anyone was shooting at them,” Röhm remarked, rising and slinging or tucking away his gear.
“Right,” Horst said, picking up his own rolled blanket and slinging it from left shoulder to right hip. “Time to go.”
He called to Pablo: “Let’s get some distance before the headhunters are after us. That pass the airship came over is open now and they haven’t caught our trail, we can go west and circle back further south. With some luck they’ll never know we were here.”
They moved off briskly, but with due care for cover, the men with the assault rifles before and behind for emergency firepower at close range, Chango behind the leader and Horst second to last. He spoke over his shoulder to Röhm.
“Someone is extremely sensitive about guerilla activity in this area—that wasn’t everyday precautions we just saw.”
Röhm nodded. “Colonel Nicolai was right. The Americans have put their V-gas factory in Zacatecas and they’re ramping up security in the area. They’re calling it the Dakota Project—the time we wasted sending men to that stretch of nowhere! For a while Nicolai was convinced it was in that place where Teddy the Cowboy had his ranch! That let them get it nearly finished while we were rushing around empty steppe and they picked our men off. But they’re about finished and that’s the best time for an attack, and they know it.”
He paused and said thoughtfully: “Wahrscheinlich haben sie dafür einen Großkopferten aus dem Stab geschickt.”
That meant he thought they’d probably sent in a hot-shot troubleshooter from HQ to oversee it—though Großkopferten meant literally ‘Big-head’.
Röhm used an English idiom next, rather badly, with malice aforethought and a grin in his voice:
“Or maybe a Großkopfjäger, a big head-hunter. But the head-hunter won’t know about the toys I brought. The Yankee Big-Head-Hunter doesn’t want to be our brother, so we’ll use my toys to…”
“So schlag’ ich dir den Großkopf ein,” Horst said with a slight cruel smile; that completed an old saying Röhm had been playing on, with an appropriate modification. “Smash his Big-Head.”
The original went:
Und willst du nicht mein Bruder sein
So schlag ich dir den Schädel ein.
Which meant: If you don’t want to be my brother, I’ll crack your skull.
“Exactly, Horst. Exactly.”
Copyright © 2019-2020 by S.M. Stirling