Friday, February 21, 2014

Fiction Friday: Le Sergent

Other tales at the Fiction of Yesteryear index!

Hubert was in bad want of a musket. The nearest was eight yards away, where Gautier had been shot clean through the forehead, but it had fallen on the lip of the sunken road and was in plain sight to Spanish fire. "Conneries!" he swore at himself, at the world, at the Spanish, at his men. Lieutenant Seneville was moaning like a stuck pig with a ball in his arm and another one in his leg. His hat had fallen into the mud a mere handspan from Hubert; maybe he could grab it, fling it up, and then dive for the musket. Better, though, if he could just push Seneville into the woods and use him as a bargaining tool. Would the Spanish care to take a lieutenant captive in exchange for the lives of the other partisans? Well, he'd never get the chance to find out. The asses in charge of the column, most likely the colonel himself, had issued all sergeants with huge unwieldy partisans. What was he to do if he got corps-a-corps with a Spaniard? Knife him in the eye, perhaps, while all his men had the luxury of sabres and shot.

Just as he began to slither forward to make a grab at the weapon, the Spanish poured a hail of lead into the thicket. Bushes swayed madly back and forth and tree limbs whined with shot. The puffs of musket smoke rose in a thick choking cloud above the Spanish position. Hubert had had enough. "That's it, boys!" he growled, rising to his full and impressive height. His culottes were stained with the lieutenant's blood, but his men had no way of knowing that. To them he was like some kind of avenging colossus, bloody and proud. "Charge!" he howled. Over the lip of the road they went, their legs pumping to carry their bodies to the Spanish lines before the bastardes reloaded and turned them into so much useless meat.

The Spaniards, evidently, did not think well of their chances. With huge Hubert and his men screaming war cries and ploughing through the undergrowth and their own muskets still unloaded, the foe chose instead to make a tactical withdrawal. So what if that withdrawal had the appearance of a full route, some of the rearmost being sabred to death before they even managed to scramble up out of their hiding places? Hubert, with his ridiculous partisan in hand, never got as near as a handspan to one of the enemy, but it was his action that carried the day. He grinned and told his boys, "The king don't know what he has here in you." That was their work done for the time, and Hubert could hope that they wouldn't be sent out from the column in any other foolish action for a while again. Let them rest, and the lieutenant recover, let the other boys have their turn getting shot at or chopped to pieces.

With the wood secure, Hubert made a mental count of the dead. There was Gautier, of course, and two others. He'd keep Gautier on the payroll and add his own pension to the growing pool that Hubert himself collected and kept from the pay. When were they going to get their money? Probably not until the king captured another town or a party of partisans forced some Dutch to cough up their required taxes. The creditors in Paris were waiting in a line a mile long, and each new army action sent home gold and silver from the Spanish-held Dutch as the soldiers wrung it out of the populace.

Hubert was most concerned about Seneville out of all his lot. He was a lenient commander, and as the lieutenant of the partisan detachment from the Reg. de Lyonnais he was sergeant Hubert's direct superior. He never pried into things like the number of dead men against the number still alive to draw pay or the misappropriation of goods. Hubert had a small business on the side melting down extra shot and selling the lead to the Dutch for the repair of roofs damaged in the war. Gautier had been one of his chief confederates in that operation, which was all for the good because he'd been getting a little persnickety lately. Nothing put an end to a good career in the army like getting snitched out. Oh well. Au revoir, Gautier!

They returned to the column with Seneville on a makeshift stretcher, screaming every time one of the men jogged or jostled him. That left Hubert to make his report to the adjutant, which he did before going off to have a smoke and a fuck in the train. They'd been in the Netherlands for a year and a half now, and the fighting hadn't gone as Hubert had hoped. When he'd first signed on, scrawling his name on that sheet of paper as the drummer played patriotic rhythms and the recruiter had clapped him on the back and bought him a lager, he'd imagined standing up in one or two great setpiece battles, making his fortune from looting the dead, and taking the proceeds to buy a fine farm or some other business.

What had he got? Ten thousand Spanish forts, bogging down the army every step of the way. The clap once, and crabs. The whores that followed the Armée Royale were infinitely less clean than the farm-girls in neighboring villages. But the villages were Dutch and Lebeau had been caught just last week in a rick with some straw-haired lass and had his cock chopped off by her father and three Spanish soldiers before being sent stumbling back to the column, culottes all bloody from his excised organ, to show the French what happens to men who fuck little farm girls.

That was nothing, Alberte said. He was one of the old hands in the war, telling stories from all kinds of campaigns in Europe. He seemed to shave once a fortnight, perpetually stubbly was he. He also stank from refusal to bathe—"It'll rain soon enough, or the damn Dutch will bring the sea to us." It was a kind of fervent superstition. He told stories of Dutch Republican partisans breaking up dikes to flood out army positions and drown horses. "Yer lucky we ain't seen none a' that yet. But we will." We will, we will. That was Alberte's constant promise. Lucky we haven't seen the pox spread through the army... but we will, we will. This litany, this oration, was enough to drive you mad. That was part of the reason Hubert spent so much of his time among the camp followers. The other was, of course, that he had a purse swollen with the money of dead men and not enough ways to spend it. What good would it do to be a rich man only to have your face shot out the next day? No, better to lay with as many women as he could, drink as much as he could stomach, and pass out before the battle.

It was with shock and horror, then, that Hubert awoke to the sound of men acclaiming the king. Le roi de Soleil was present in his column. He scrambled out of his sweat-sodden sheets and tried to dress. The whore was little help to him, pawing at his naked ass and back, purring to receive his custom just once more. He glared at her and thought about striking her, but the ensuing fight would make him even later. For her part, she did her level best to please him and draw him back into bed just one more time—for she had a daughter and son in a village on the border who were in need of food and roofing. If Hubert had known, he might have paid her in stolen lead. As it was, his haste left behind a smattering of silver coins in the straw, for which she wept and thanked the cruel God who had put her there in the first place.

Yes! There it was, the red-plumed hat of the king, and it was by the infirmary where Seneville and the other men from his party were kept. Oh merde, merde, Hubert tripped over his own unlaced boots, pressed his arms into his red sergeant's coat, and prayed his partisan was still by the lieutenant's sickbed. Half a hundred yards from the infirmary tent he straightened up, took a piece of bread from his forage sack, and made the pretense of having been about a breakfast stroll to look at the lines. As he arrived beneath the white awning, the king was saying, "Marvelous work. We've asked your colonel to make you the chief foraging party. That means your men will be given the Chevalier St. Michel in your place for the time being. So cheer up, hmm? You'll be back on the lines in no time and in the meanwhile your men won't get flabby." The king gave Prevert's belly a playful pat. Hubert could see a species of idiot pride glowing behind the man's eyes.

So much for rest! The chevalier St. Michel turned out to be a trim fop with only the vaguest idea of how to conduct himself on a battlefield. So it falls again to me, Hubert thought grimly, to manage this tide of metal and flesh. St. Michel took the men together in a big clump away from the camp and told them their objective: "There is a little fortalice not more than half a day's walk from here. The king wishes to drive his army in that direction, to surprise the Spanish in the big fort yonder." One of those huge ugly star-fortresses stood at the far end of a rolling field and meadow, a quarter mile distant. "But this means that the fortalice must fall so it does not serve as a caltrop in the heel of the Armée. So that is where we go today, mes amis!"

Hubert could have clubbed him senseless. St. Michel had the sure manner and waif-thin person of a dandy raised on horse-racing. Worse, he had a few dueling scars which showed him to be a man incapable of holding his tongue and even poorer at holding a sword. Sweet virgin, following this man into combat would be suicide. But follow they did, across field and dell, skirting a nameless little Dutch village and avoiding Spanish patrols on the raised roads. Hubert wondered if the world would miss the Netherlands were they to sink back into the sea. All the trouble they'd caused!

An hour or two after a hurried lunch they came to the fortalice St. Michel spoke of. It couldn't have housed more than twenty-five men all told but it was a strong position on top of a swell of land and the steep walls were capped with small culverins that could cut the flank of an army to pieces. St. Michel at least at the good sense to stop the party on the far side of a Dutch barn and hayloft before the fortress could sight them. When the farmers ran out to complain, Hubert managed to vent a little of his frustration with his commander by knocking the man down and threatening to break his leg with the butt of the partisan. That made him feel better.

"Are you ready, men?" St. Michel asked. They were most certainly not, clumped up in a group behind a barn. Hubert gave St. Michel one of the famed death glares that usually preceded flogging. St. Michel, insensitive to the normal operations of the army, threw up his hands. "What is it, sergeant?" His voice had the exasperated tone of noble officers everywhere.

Hubert folded his arms and tapped his foot. Some of the men grinned. Good old Hubert, going to give the pompous fool what he deserved. "We should arrange lines first, sir. And wait for the sun. In an hour or so, it will be in the gunner's eyes."

"Ah, yes, well," St. Michel fumbled, "yes. That sounds very good then."

Hubert rolled his eyes. Another day, another war.

Taking the fortress actually proved to be remarkably easy. The Spanish were caught completely off guard and the culverins never so much as fired a shot. Hubert spent the entire time trying to make sure St. Michel didn't get killed, throwing the idiot down when Spanish musket fire crackled from the hilltop and hauling him up when it was safe to charge. So much work for so little reward. Ah well. He would have to soon report some of the dead men, he mused as St. Michel strutted about the fortalice's little courtyard, crowing the victory. Otherwise the party would be so depleted as to risk its existence. Money was all to the good—surviving was better.

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