Eric Flint: Ring of fire II

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Eric Flint Ring of fire II
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    Ring of fire II
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    Альтернативная история / на английском языке
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"Sorry, boy, but we've no time for a leisurely breakfast this morning." He slapped the big horse's neck affectionately. It took only a minute or so more to bridle the horses and tie the sacks of camping supplies behind the saddles.

"Now we are ready to leave this place in a hurry." Reichard snapped lead ropes to the halters he'd left on under the bridles. "So we will go and get that crazy man out of trouble. Trouble I've no doubt he started himself."

Leading the horses through the woods, Reichard came to a spot just below the ridge where they had first spied on the soldiers' camp. The shooting had quieted some.

The first response from the camp, disorganized by the surprise attack, was coming under control. The officers and sergeants were back in charge. The lack of smoke from O'Reilly's rifle would keep the soldiers from pinpointing Sam's exact position. But soon, very soon, some bright man would figure out that the firing was coming from one place on the ridge. Reichard tied the horses to a sapling. He double-checked that both knots would release with a quick pull. When beating a hasty retreat, not being able to untie your horse was not a good idea.

Sam's fire had also slackened. That meant that the easy targets had gone to ground. Reichard eased up the slope in a crouch, his eyes watching for movement on either side of him. Near the top he dropped to his belly and started to crawl toward the rocks where O'Reilly hid.

"Sam, it's time to get out of here," Reichard whispered.

Startled, Sam half-turned, his rifle almost lining up on Reichard's head. "Oh, it's you. About time you showed up. Get up here and give me a hand. Got 'em dancing! Bet they think it's the whole U.S. Army up here!" Turning back, Sam sent a pair of shots down into the camp.

Reichard watched Sam's face carefully. The man's expression seemed unnaturally gleeful. "If we're going to play like we're the Army, we need to change positions. You've been in this spot too long."

"What? Whaddaya mean?" Confusion chased suspicion across Sam's face.

"You've been firing from this spot all along. To make them think we are an army we need to fire from several different positions." Reichard was close enough now to smell Sam's breath and the whiskey on it. Connecting that with the empty bottle now residing behind Travy's saddle, Reichard had an explanation for Sam's behavior.

"I gotta good spot here. Can see all of the camp. You go someplace else and shoot at 'em." Rearing up, Sam took aim at a running man. He fired and missed, fired again and whooped as the man fell and rolled out of sight. "Got the bastard! Why the hell should I move?"

In point of fact, Reichard knew he'd missed the man. That roll had been a controlled one, not the flopping of a man killed or badly wounded.

A movement caught Reichard's eye and he looked to his left. Two more cavalrymen were slipping through the trees, muskets ready.

"Because we are being flanked." Reichard shot at them before he finished the sentence. One man dropped with the loose boned look of death, the other dodged behind a large tree. A shot slammed into the rocks, coming from Sam's right.

"Damn! They should be running by now! I've killed twenty, twenty-two of 'em! The damned bastards should be panicked and running!"

"Well, they aren't," Reichard growled. He left off adding that O'Reilly's estimate of the men he'd killed was wildly exaggerated. A superb marksman such as Julie Sims might be able to kill that many men in such a situation, but there was no chance at all that O'Reilly had done so-or could have, even if he'd been sober.

"If we are to keep fighting them we need to get away from this spot," he repeated urgently.

"I can't see anyone over there… guess you're right. Let's boogie!" O'Reilly rose, fired a couple of shots into the woods to the right and started walking down the hill.

"Stay down!"

"Hell, man, Americans don't run and we sure as hell don't crawl!" Sam stopped, turned deliberately, and sent another shot into the trees before resuming his walk.

"The horses are over there." The remaining soldier on the left stepped away from a tree, his musket aimed and ready. Reichard snapped a shot that way and saw the soldier duck back. Fumbling a bit, he reloaded as he followed Sam down the hill.

When they reached the horses Reichard was relieved to find them still there and alone. He ground his teeth in frustration as Sam took time to check Travy over and readjust the saddle.

"Ain't one of you foreigners can saddle a horse right." Sam finally swung up in the saddle. "Won't see me…"

He paused as several shots came from the top of the ridge. "… soring any of my horses' backs." Grunting, he shook his head, then slid the rifle into the saddle scabbard. Unsnapping his holster, Sam pulled the.357 out and emptied the cylinder at the men now coming down the slope. Not one of the shots came close to any of the approaching enemy, so far as Reichard could see.

"Getting a bit warm around here!" Sam grinned, spun Travy around and set the horse off at a run.

"Just a bit warm," agreed Reichard, relieved that O'Reilly was no longer arguing to stay and fight. He sent Troll in pursuit of the smaller horse. As they galloped out into the sunshine of the meadow, Reichard saw the stain spreading just below Sam's right armpit. It wasn't sweat.

When Travy half-jumped the little stream, Sam wavered. He took the reins in his right hand and wrapped his left around the saddle horn. The horse, aware something was wrong, slowed. Reichard caught up and saw the paleness in Sam's face.

"Can you hold on until we've hit the path? Once back in woods we'll stop and tend your wound."

"Bastards!" Disbelief edged out pain in Sam's reply. "Can't believe some stupid foreign bastards waving old-fashioned smoke poles managed to hit me. Can't hit a barn door with one at fifty yards. Everybody knows none of you can hit what you shoot at. That's why all the foreigners in the army got our shotguns."

Unwilling to argue with the wounded man, Reichard only replied, "Put enough lead into the air and some of it is certain to find flesh. The one who shot you may have been aiming at me."

"Oh, yeah, you make a bigger target." Sam moaned and slumped as they entered the woods on the far side of the meadow.

When Reichard brought his horse to a stop, Sam's horse stopped also. Gently Reichard plucked the smaller man off his saddle and laid him on the ground. Sam moaned and tried to say something. Even before he lifted the bloody shirt Reichard knew the wound was fatal. Blood foamed from Sam's lips and bubbled out the hole under his arm.

"'S not in my back… didn't get shot in the back?" O'Reilly managed.

"No, Herr O'Reilly," Reichard replied. "One of the flankers shot you. I'll bandage it." He felt O'Reilly go limp.

Glancing across the meadow he saw several soldiers moving on foot. One was pointing toward the trees and shouting at the others. Reichard moved swiftly, wrapping Sam's body in his rain slicker and tying it across Travy's saddle. Finished, he checked the meadow again. The tracker was now trotting along their tracks. Ten or so horsemen appeared on the far side, muskets ready across saddles. It was time to go.

Reichard came out of the last patch of woods and onto the Badenburg road. He couldn't hear his pursuers but, considering the determination that they had shown so far, he was certain that they were still following him.

He started trotting along the road toward Grantville. A quarter of a mile later he realized that there was no other traffic.

"Ah, boys," he told the horses, "this is good. Our friends got through. I'll bet they sent Jacques ahead on his fast little pony. Come on now, Troll, step lively."

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