October 1635, Zielona G-ra
Sergeant John “Puss” Trelli was so intent on the men he was observing that he didn’t hear the man sneak up behind him, and he was totally unaware of the cudgel being swung at his head. He was also totally unaware of the dog in the shadows until it growled. Instinct, born of a childhood terror of large dogs, especially when they produced that particular spine-chilling growl, caused him to stop and search for the threat. Suddenly the distance was shorter than the assailant had expected, and instead of the sweet spot of his cudgel smashing into Puss’ skull, the shaft struck a glancing blow behind Puss’ ear before hitting his shoulder.
Not that Puss was aware of anything after the glancing blow to the mastoid, as that had rendered him almost immediately unconscious.
“Just what the hell did you think you were doing, Trelli?” Captain Georg-Friedrich von Frankenberg demanded.
Puss tensed in reaction to the words being uttered so close to his ear and winced with pain when his body protested
“Something hurt? That does surprise me. They say where there’s no sense there’s no feeling, and you certainly haven’t been displaying any sense lately, have you, Sergeant?”
Sarcasm dripped from every word Puss’ commanding officer uttered, so he knew Captain von Frankenberg was in no mood for excuses. “I’m sorry, sir.”
“Sorry? I tell you not to go near members of the Gray Adder on your own, and what happens? You get jumped while observing a group of them.”
“It was an accident, sir,” Puss protested. “I was just passing when I noticed some of them together, and I stopped to watch them for a moment.”
“My information is that you were watching them for a lot longer than a moment.” Captain von Frankenberg shook his head. “You were just lucky Private Amsinck wanted to thank you for saving his and Captain Havemann’s lives. If it hadn’t been for him it’d be you lying on a slab instead of Detlef Nebiger.”
“Yes, sir.” So Nebiger had been the man who attacked him. Well, that was one of the ringleaders down.
Lieutenant Heinrich Diefenthaler edged into Puss’ line of sight. “I know you think we’ve been dragging our heels over investigating the survivors of the Gray Adder for war crimes, Trelli, but we haven’t been idle. In fact, we’ve worked out a way to photograph the suspects without scaring them off.”
“You have?” Puss had brainstormed that problem with his patrol, but they’d failed to come up with anything practical. “How?”
“It’s quite simple,” Heinrich said. “From tomorrow the Quartermaster Corp will be adding photographs to the files of every soldier in the army as a means of confirming their identity at pay parades.”
Puss was quietly in awe of the thinking behind the plan. There had been a bit of a problem with some soldiers double-dipping by attending more than one pay parade using the identity of dead soldiers. Photo-ID would kill two birds with one stone. “I never would have thought of that.”
Heinrich exhaled onto his finger nails and buffed them on his jacket while looking smugly at Puss. “That is why I am a lieutenant, and you are but a lowly sergeant.”
“Forget the false modesty, Heinrich. It was your cousin’s idea,” Captain von Frankenberg said. “Johann Diefenthaler has his own camera-obscura equipage,” he explained to Puss.
“Nothing like drumming up a little business for one’s family,” Puss muttered.
“That’s what family is for,” Heinrich said, quite unapologetically. “Now you just get better, and don’t worry yourself about the Gray Adder. It’ll take a couple of weeks to get all the photographs we need.”
Puss lay in his bed and watched Captain von Frankenberg and Lieutenant Diefenthaler leave the infirmary. He was glad to know something was being done, but they could have told him before he nearly got his head caved in. For a while he lay there, thinking about how close he’d come to dying. Well, that was definitely not something he was going to include in his letters home.
“That could have been nasty,” Captain Georg-Friedrich von Frankenberg told his companion. “Can you imagine the fuss if we’d lost Trelli?”
Lieutenant Heinrich Diefenthaler nodded. “The newspapers would demand to know why we weren’t taking more care of the hero of Zielona G-ra.”
“And it would have been the silly fool’s fault,” Georg muttered.
“At least the concussion and broken collar bone are likely to keep him out of the fighting for a while.”
“Yes, but that just means he’ll be staying in Zielona G-ra for the foreseeable future, and you know who else is staying behind.”
“The Gray Adder. Still, having his right arm in a sling should stop him getting into trouble.”
“This is Trelli we’re talking about, Heinrich. Trouble has a way of finding him.”
“Actually, I’ve noticed it’s more the men in his patrol finding trouble, and Trelli trying to rescue them from their foolishness.” Heinrich paused for a moment. “Why is it that an up-timer with a high school diploma isn’t an officer?”
“Trelli?” Georg asked. “His training record says he lacked motivation, was immature, and failed to display leadership skills in training.”
“Failed to display leadership skills? The fool successfully led Captain Havemann’s company in a fighting withdrawal, with minimal casualties.”
“I know. To be fair, I think it was mostly the lack of maturity and motivation that drove that analysis. He only volunteered for the army because he couldn’t think of a career he wanted to do, and sort of drifted through training.”
“Well, he’s certainly matured and developed some motivation since then,” Heinrich said. “First Wietze, then Zielona G-ra.”
Georg shook his head. “Wietze was an accident, and you’re forgetting that before Zielona G-ra there was Åšwiebodzin. I think he grew up there.”
Just thinking about Åšwiebodzin left a foul taste in Georg’s mouth. Soldiers of the Gray Adder had gone berserk, raping and murdering innocent civilians in the town, even though the town had surrendered without fighting. Their actions had gone against the code of war as Georg knew it, and he agreed with Sergeant Trelli that the men responsible should be brought to justice.
A few days later
Puss stood over the spot he’d fallen when Detlef Nebiger attacked him and contemplated the bloodstain in the dirt. “Nebiger took a while to die.”
Beside him, Corporal Thomas Klein stared at the bloodstain. “What makes you say that, Sarge?”
“Once the heart stops beating, the blood stops flowing pretty quickly.”
“You reckon he bled to death?” When Puss nodded, Thomas muttered sarcastically, “Couldn’t have happened to a more deserving guy.”
Puss ignored his companion, because he’d detected movement out of the corner of his eye, and he was remembering something from that fateful day. There had been a dog. “Klein, to your right, can you see a dog?”
“Jeez, he’s a big one.”
Puss wasn’t sure they were looking at the same animal. Almost hidden in the rubble, the dog he was looking at was a scraggly, unkempt animal a little smaller than a German Shepherd. The animal had been tearing at something in the ruins, but now it was staring at Puss. It emitted a growl that the hairs on the back of his neck recognized. This was the dog that had inadvertently saved his life, and it looked hungry.
Puss felt amongst the pouches in his webbing for something to offer the animal. His fingers found a couple of sticks of home-made pemmican—perfect. He held a stick of pemmican in the fingers of his left hand and slowly walked toward the dog, the pemmican held well in front of him.
“What heck are you doing, Sarge? That animal could be dangerous.”
Puss ignored Thomas. At the very least he was sure the dog wasn’t rabid. He’d run into one of those before, and he wasn’t likely to miss the signs of the disease. This dog just looked hungry, which was why he was barely holding the pemmican. If the dog snatched at it, he didn’t want to be bitten.
The dog’s growl intensified. It was a warning, so Puss stopped advancing. Instead, he crouched down and stretched out his hand. Then he waited.
“Just throw it at him, Sarge,” Thomas called from the safety of twenty feet away.
“Stop worrying, Klein. The poor thing’s starving.”
“Yeah, and you’re a couple of hundred pounds of meat on the hoof.”
“He’s not going to eat me,” Puss assured Thomas. Certainly the dog’s center of interest had moved from Puss to the food in his hand. “Come on boy, you know you want it,” he whispered at the dog.
Slowly, the dog edged closer to Puss’ outstretched hand, then, quick as lightning, it shot forward, snatched the food, and ran off a dozen feet before turning to look at Puss. Their eyes met, and Puss waved. The dog’s tail twitched, almost as if it was trying to remember how to wag, then the dog turned and ran off.
Puss was quite proud of himself. He’d actually managed to keep a hold on the stick of pemmican until the dog pulled it from his fingers, rather than dropping it and jumping back when the dog shot forward. He’d certainly come a long way in controlling his fear of dogs.
“That was a damned fool stunt, Sarge,” Thomas said when Puss walked back to join him. “I thought you were supposed to be scared of dogs?”
“Not scared. Effing terrified, but maybe I’m getting over it.”
Thomas stared at Puss for a while then shook his head. “Now is not a good time to be getting over a fear of dogs, Sarge. You were lucky that animal didn’t savage you.”
Puss glanced in the direction the dog had taken. It hadn’t appeared savage. Certainly it hadn’t had the demented attitude of some of the dogs he’d met up-time. Mind, that was often the influence of the owners, which suggested that the dog had been well trained at some stage.
A few days later
“How’s Sergeant Trelli coping with the wait for the photographs?” Lieutenant Heinrich Diefenthaler asked Corporal Klein.
“I don’t think he’s noticed any delay, sir. He’s found himself a new hobby,” Thomas said.
“Hobby? Doing what?”
“He’s trying to tame a dog.”
Heinrich raised his brows. “I thought he wasn’t supposed to like dogs?”
“It wasn’t a matter of like, sir. He assured us when he first took command that Wietze was an accident. He’s actually absolutely terrified of dogs.”
“So why is he feeding one?”
“He says he doesn’t like to see an animal suffer. Heck, sir, you should see the way he spoils that mangy nag of his. He even gives it sugar lumps.”
“Up-timers have no idea of how to treat animals,” Heinrich agreed.
Corporal Michael Cleesattel considered babysitting Sergeant Trelli a complete waste of time that could be better spent in some tavern—with or without an accompanying wench. However, orders were orders. So he sat, bored out of his mind, watching Sergeant Trelli sit in the dirt down the same alley he’d been coming to for days. At his feet was a wood bowl of a stew he’d cooked up. Even from where he was standing—a safe distance away—Michael was salivating at the smell. And to think it was going to be wasted on a stray dog. Michael shook his head in disgust.
There was movement in the shadows, and by concentrating, Michael could make out the dog slowly making its way toward Puss. And what did the fool do? He held out his hand for the animal to sniff at. Well, you wouldn’t catch Michael Cleesattel doing a damn fool thing like that, not with a strange dog.
Then the dog buried its head in the bowl and started eating, and Puss started to run his hand along its back. The dog tensed, and Michael laid a hand on his service revolver. The only thing stopping him from drawing it was the sure knowledge that Sarge would be angry if he scared off the dog. It was a tense few seconds for both him and the dog, until the dog relaxed and got on with eating.
Then Puss did something that dumbfounded Michael. He pulled a brush out of his sling and started to brush the animal’s filthy coat.
Eventually Puss stopped grooming the dog, picked up the empty bowl, and rose to his feet. The dog bounded away a short distance when Puss moved, but it stopped and just watched him walk away.
“That’s enough for today,” Puss said as he approached Michael. “Let’s drop over at the lieutenant’s cousin’s tent and see how he and his fellow photographers are doing.”
Michael glanced toward the dog, which was still standing there, watching. “Sure, Sarge.”
“Do you think they’ll finish photographing the Gray Adder by the end of this week?”
“Even if they do your shoulder won’t be healed enough for you to ride over to Åšwiebodzin to question survivors that soon,” Michael said.
“No problem, I have a patrol of four enthusiastic men only too willing to interview the survivors and see if they recognize any of the men in the photographs.”
Michael snorted. “These four men, would I know any of them?”
Sarge stopped and looked down at Michael. “You don’t recognize the description?”
Michael was happy to see a familiar grin lighting up Sergeant Trelli’s face. “Nope. I can’t think of anybody in the company that fits that description. Åšwiebodzin’s a good day’s ride, so they’d be away for a week at least.”
“You afraid of missing all the comforts of Zielona G-ra?”
“What comforts? No, the problem is the lieutenant has ordered me and the others to make sure you don’t have another run in with members of the Gray Adder.” Movement caught Michael’s eye. “Don’t look now, but we’re being followed.”
“The dog. I can’t keep calling him ‘Dog’, so I’ve decided to call him Yorick.”
Michael just stared at Sarge. “Why?”
“Because when I first met him he was barely more than skin and bones.”
That explanation certainly didn’t help Michael. “What’s that got to do with calling a dog Yorick?”
Puss struck a pose, with his left hand held out as if it was holding a skull. “Alas, poor Yorick! I knew him, Horatio, a fellow of infinite jest, of most excellent fancy. He hath bore me on his back a thousand times, and now how abhorr’d in my imagination it is! My gorge rises at it.”
“Sounds pretty,” Michael said. “But what’s it got to do with the dog?”
“Heathen! Shakespeare’s Hamlet. Act five, scene one. Hamlet is holding Yorick’s skull when he makes that speech.”
Yorick had been closing the distance while they talked. Slowly, in discrete moves, he’d closed the distance until he could almost put his head under Puss’ hand. Michael knew what was going to happen even before Puss reached out his left hand and rubbed a thumb around the base of one of the dog’s ears. “The lieutenant isn’t going to be happy about your new pet.”
Puss knelt down and gently ran his hand over Yorick’s head. Yorick meanwhile tried to lick Puss’ face. “I’ll pay for the food,” Puss said as he struggled to keep his face safe from Yorick’s tongue.
“Don’t say I didn’t warn you.”
“What is that?” Lieutenant Diefenthaler demanded the moment Puss and Corporal Klein appeared in the platoon encampment.
Puss held out a hand for Yorick to rub up against. “He followed me home, sir. Can I keep him?” It was a paraphrase of a line Puss had never dreamed he’d ever use.
Heinrich folded his arms. “I am not amused, Trelli. Why do you want to keep a dog anyway? I thought you were scared of dogs.”
“I used to be terrified of them, sir,” Puss said as he knelt and petted Yorick. “But I don’t think I am any more.”
“And do you intend keeping this dog?”
Heinrich unfolded his arms and reached out a hand for Yorick to sniff. “Does it have a name?”
“You can keep Yorick, but his food comes out of your rations. You’ll not be issued anything extra.”
Mid October, Åšwiebodzin
There was one book of photographs on each of the ten trestle tables arrayed outside the tavern. Each book held photographs of the surviving members of one or other of the companies forming the Gray Adder regiment, and each book was being carefully examined by a crowd of people.
Puss edged up to Corporal Michael Cleesattel. “I’m surprised so many people want to look at the photos,” he whispered.
“It’s the photos they’re interested in, Sarge. Most of these people have never seen anything like them,” he whispered back.
That didn’t sound like good news to Puss. He’d been hopeful when he’d seen the crowd gathering to look at the photographs, but he wanted identifications, not idle curiosity.
“Table four,” Corporal Thomas Klein muttered into Puss’ ear. “Looks like someone’s come across a familiar face.”
Puss glanced at table four, and immediately saw what Thomas had seen. A woman was staring at the book on the table in shocked horror. Or at least that’s what Puss assumed the look on her face represented. He grabbed the interpreter and hurried over to the table.
Puss hated not knowing what was being said, but Anna Krohne was doing the best she could to calm the woman down, without much success. Then Yorick stuck his head under the woman’s hand. The woman began to stroke him, and slowly she started to calm down.
Puss cleared a space so that Anna could bring the woman, and Yorick, back up to the table. Words were exchanged, and the woman pointed to one of the photographs and accused the man of violating and robbing her. The crowd around the table fell silent.
“Can she give me anything I can use as evidence? Identifying marks, descriptions of anything that was stolen?” Puss asked Anna.
She looked Puss up and down. “You, go away. Take your men and find a quiet corner while I talk to these people. You are a soldier, and you scare them.”
Puss stood. “Just remember to take plenty of notes. I want to know who their leaders were.”
“Yes, yes, I will take notes. Now go. But leave the dog,” Anna said.
Puss could see why Anna wanted him to leave Yorick behind. He was busy licking the tears from the Polish woman’s face, and she wasn’t fighting him off. Puss felt in his webbing for a couple of pemmican sticks and passed them to Anna. “I don’t know if Yorick will want to stray too far away from me. But these might help. If the worst comes to the worst, I’ll be just over there.” Puss pointed toward the tavern which he hoped had a fire going.
Zielona G-ra, a week later
With his arm secure in its sling and the severe talking to from the unit medic still ringing in his ear, Puss was just a passive observer as the men of his patrol, with Anna sticking her pretty nose into everything, turned over the possessions of a suspect. They were looking for stolen property that could be connected to Åšwiebodzin. Yorick was leaning against his new best friend, Anna, while she idly caressed the base of his ears.
“What do we have here?” Corporal Thomas Klein asked the tent in general as he pulled a leather pouch out from under Joachim Fasch’s bed.
Joachim made to grab the bundle, but Corporals Poppler and Cleesattel restrained him.
“Empty it onto the bed,” Puss ordered.
Thomas loosened the drawstrings and tipped the pouch’s contents onto the bed. There were some silver coins and some jewelry. Most of the jewelry was the type of cheap trinkets Puss had learned to expect soldiers would accumulate, but there were a couple of pieces that deserved closer investigation. He slid them closer to Anna. “Do they match any of our lost property?”
Anna picked up the first piece and hefted it. “It’s got good weight. Not something I’d expect a common soldier to come by honestly.”
Puss reciprocated Anna’s wry smile. Everybody knew soldiers looted. And no doubt these pieces were loot. The real question was where did Joachim acquire them? Puss left Anna to closely examine the pieces and compare them with the list of stolen property from Åšwiebodzin and turned his attention to their suspect.
“Would you care to tell us where you obtained the pieces Frau Krohne is examining?”
“I found them,” Joachim said.
“In someone’s home in Åšwiebodzin, no doubt,” Michael Cleesattel suggested.
“Which would be looting,” Puss said.
“The general takes a dim view of looting,” Lenhard Poppler said. “You can be put in front of a firing squad for that.”
“You can’t do that! All I did was take a few bits and pieces. That’s a soldier’s right,” Joachim protested.
“There is no right to loot in the USE military,” Puss said. “You are paid regularly precisely to stop looting. Take him away.”
Michael and Lenhard took a firm grip of the respective arms they were holding and marched Joachim Fasch out of the tent, leaving Puss with Corporals Hermann Behrns and Thomas Klein, and Anna.
Anna held up an earring. “This matches the description of some of the jewelry taken from the Kowalski household.”
That was the house from which Puss had carried a badly traumatized eight-year-old girl, who’d been brutally raped. “Then we put pressure on Fasch to find out who was there with him.”
“No need to ask him,” Herman said as he checked a company roll from the set he carried. “Joachim Fasch is in the same section as Gerhard Nebiger and his late brother, Detlef.”
Detlef had been the man who attacked Puss and broke his collar bone. “Did anybody check Detlef’s possessions?”
Thomas shook his head. “We were more worried about you, Sarge. Besides, his brother would have claimed everything.”
“Then we still lack evidence to connect Gerhard to the Kowalski household,” Puss said. “Nobody picked him out of the photographs.”
“Only because Elzbieta Kowalski is still too traumatized to go through them,” Anna said. “Maybe if you’d included Detlef’s photograph you might have had some success.”
“He was dead, and nobody thought to take a photograph before he was buried.”
“So Gerhard Nebiger gets away with it?” Anna asked.
“For now,” Puss agreed. “But maybe Lieutenant Diefenthaler can get something useful out of Joachim Fasch.”
A few days later
Puss stripped to the waist before looping a belt over his neck to act as a simple sling for his right arm. He then used a wash cloth to wash as best he could using just his left hand. He’d barely managed to soap up when there was a cacophony of screaming, shouting, and the excited barking of a dog.
Puss rinsed off his face before hurrying toward the source of the noise. He wasn’t the first to arrive. Herman and Thomas were there, with their cap and ball revolvers drawn. They, and an excited Yorick, were confronting Gerhard Nebiger, who was holding Anna Krohne.
“What’s going on here?” Puss demanded.
“I found this female going through my stuff,” Gerhard said.
“Do you have anything to say?” Puss asked Anna.
Anna threw something toward Herman, who barely managed to catch it. “Elzbieta Kowalski was wearing that cross that day.”
Gerhard might not have known who Elzbieta Kowalski was, or what day was so important, but he was smart enough to know he was suddenly in deep trouble. He drew Anna closer as he adjusted his hold, and he drew his dagger, which he held against her throat. “Nobody move, or the woman gets it.”
It was a Mexican standoff, with two military policemen pointing revolvers at Gerhard, while he held the knife against Anna’s throat. Thomas was in a lousy position to get off a shot without hitting Anna, and Herman wasn’t a good enough shot to risk firing. That left Puss. He dropped his hand, reaching for his revolver, but failed to find it. He knew where it was. He’d placed it on his shirt when he stripped to wash. However, his search for a weapon wasn’t totally wasted. He found an apple in his pocket.
“Drop the guns, or I swear, I’ll kill her,” Gerhard yelled.
“Keep your weapons trained on him,” Puss said as he walked closer to Gerhard and Anna. As he walked he gripped the apple in both hands and twisted it until it broke into two almost equal halves. He put one half into his pocket and whistled.
“I suggest you drop your knife and let the woman go, Gerhard Nebiger. If you use that knife, you’ll die where you stand,” Puss said.
Gerhard backed away, keeping Anna as a shield between him and Thomas and Herman. He was starting to look worried, which was both good and bad. Bad because a cornered rat like Gerhard was unpredictable. Good because it meant he wasn’t thinking straight. Certainly the man wasn’t treating Puss as a threat.
Puss heard the Seventh Cavalry arriving and held out his right hand clear of the left side of his body so the mangy nag everyone accused him of spoiling rotten could delicately snuffle up the half apple he was presenting.
Anna was looking at him accusingly, and Puss tried to reassure her with a smile. Meanwhile, his left hand found the spare Ruger Vaquero he kept in the saddle holster. Like many young men involved in Cowboy Action shooting, Puss had trained himself to shoot with the off-hand. He wasn’t the greatest off-hand shooter, but he could usually place his first shot into the nine-ring at twenty-five yards. The range to Gerhard was no more than twenty yards.
Puss drew the revolver from its holster, and thumbing back the action, brought it to bear on Gerhard’s arm. Before anybody could react, Puss fired. The bullet hit Gerhard in the lower arm, just above the elbow, and suddenly there was blood everywhere as Gerhard squealed in agony and dropped the knife.
Anna broke free and threw herself into Herman’s arms while Thomas tried to stem the flow by tying a handkerchief around Gerhard’s arm and used the barrel of his revolver as a lever to tighten it.
Puss looked around. An area that just moments before had been denuded of people was suddenly crowed with them. A medic was assisting Thomas, while Herman didn’t look like he needed, or would appreciate any help with comforting Anna. He shoved the revolver inside his waist band and pulled the other half apple out of his pocket. Thunder, who was nobody’s fool, had moved away as soon as he saw Puss draw the revolver. Puss held the apple out on his right hand and whistled.
Like the well-trained animal he almost was, Thunder walked over to inspect the apple half and snaffle it up. Puss put his left arm around his horse and hugged him.
“And they say I don’t know how to treat an animal,” Puss murmured.