Eddie Cantrell was quite certain he'd never been so exhausted in his entire life. He stood watching as the long, worn-out column reached more or less level ground south of Wismar at last and rubbed his eyes wearily.
Thank God Gustavus' canal-building crews had begun their efforts by hacking out a roadway (of sorts) to parallel the channel's course from Lake Schwerin to Wismar Bay! Without that, the entire trip would have been impossible . . . or, at least, so difficult trying to make it wouldn't have been worth the effort. He'd been this way once before already since Becky's warning had reached Grantville, but this time was different. Very different.
Louie Tillman's Chris Craft groaned past him on its improvised cart, fiberglass hull lurching as the clumsy wooden wheels found every uneven spot in the muddy, crudely graded roadbed. A long line of horses stretched out in front of it—thirty or forty of them, he couldn't really remember which in his exhausted state—and harness creaked as they leaned into it. Nor were they the only source of motive power. Scores of men, virtually all of them civilians from Wismar, conscripted for the task by the small garrison of Swedish troops Gustavus had left in the city, heaved and grunted right alongside the draft animals.
That launch had a dry weight of just over three tons. Intellectually, Eddie had known all along that 17th-century Europeans were accustomed to moving such weights by brute muscle strength. After all, some of their heavier artillery pieces weighed at least half again as much. But that knowledge had been dry and theoretical, harvested from histories of events long past. Even now, after two years here, he hadn't been prepared to see something the sheer size of Tillman's launch moving, however slowly and clumsily, under nothing but the power of straining muscle and sinew.
"How much longer, do you think?" a weary voice asked beside him, and he turned to look at the speaker.
"I'd guess another six to ten hours," he replied, and Jack Clements shook his head.
"Have to say I thought you were out of your mind to try it," he admitted. "Of course, I'd already decided you and Mike were both out of your minds to even contemplate something this crazy. I never thought we'd make it as far as the lake, much less cross-country from this end of it." His thick thatch of white hair gleamed in the gradually strengthening light of a very early dawn, and his face was etched with deep lines of fatigue as he shook his head again.
"Never thought you'd make it as far as the lake?" Eddie snorted. "Hey, you had the easy part! At least you got to use internal combustion engines! Best I could do was steam. And not very good steam, either!"
"If you think getting those monsters down the Saale was 'easy,' internal combustion or not, you're out of your frigging mind, whippersnapper," Clements riposted with a tired chuckle.
Eddie grinned back at him. He hadn't known Clements very well before the Ring of Fire, but all of Grantville's younger people had been fond of him. Despite his own age, rapidly approaching that of mandatory retirement, Clements had spoken up for their interests before several meetings of the Grantville town council. He'd also been a member of the local school board, where he'd done his best to ensure that the board considered how the students might feel about the various issues which came before it.
"Damn," Clements continued, kneading the sore muscles of his back, "but that river is one shallow son-of-a-bitch. Couldn't even begin to tell you how many times we grounded. Even as slow as we were taking it, there was a time or two when I thought we'd never get Watson's Folly to float off again. Good thing Frank sent the zodiacs along. At least I could send them out ahead with Al's fishing fathometer to look for the really shallow spots." He shook his head. "Even then . . ."
His voice trailed off as Watson's Outlaw came creaking and groaning along in the Chris Craft's wake. The huge, angular slab of fiberglass loomed above the men and horses straining to move it, and Clements grunted.
"George Watson," he declared roundly, "is even stupider than I ever thought. Putting that monster," he pointed at the rakish hull, "on any river—except maybe the Mississippi or the Amazon!—is like trying to use a transfer truck for a golf cart. The damned thing is a speed machine, pure and simple. Sure as hell whoever designed it never expected some landlocked hillbilly to plunk down umpty-ump thousand dollars for it!" He snorted derisively. "Course, only a lunatic would've done it, lottery win or not."
"Maybe," Eddie agreed, then he grinned again. "All the same, I've got to admit I always really wished I could take it out and play with it myself. Seemed unfair someone like George had it sitting behind his house all that time."
"That's because your poor teenaged brain is too awash in testosterone for rational thought," Clements told him. "Besides, you'd probably have killed yourself with it in nothing flat." He hawked and spat on the ground while he absently massaged his chest with one hand. "I know you kids. You'd have taken that over-powered bastard out on a river somewhere and shoved the throttles to the stops, wouldn't you?"
"Well . . ."
"Sure as hell that's what you would've done. And when you did, you really would have killed yourself. Trust me, Eddie—comparing that son-of-a-bitch to any bass boat or ski boat you've ever handled is like comparing an F-16 to some Piper Cub." He shook his head. "I spent eight years in the Coast Guard when I was about your age, son. Put in a lot of time handling small craft, and I've owned half a dozen good-sized boats of my own since. But this sucker is like a rocket on slick grass."
"Then I guess it's a good thing Frank and Mike sent you along, isn't it?" Eddie chuckled. "Without you to drive it, we'd have to trust Larry with it."
"Larry Wild?" Clements shuddered. "Eddie, I've seen him steering a ski boat. Trust me, it would be like . . . like giving Hans Richter a Corvette!"
"Nothing could be like giving Hans a Corvette," Eddie replied firmly. "Personally, I always figured the best thing about Jesse's teaching him to fly was that at least in the air there's nothing he can run into!"
" 'Cept the ground," Clements agreed.
"Well, yeah," Eddie conceded. "On the other hand, Jack," it still felt . . . odd to him to be calling Clements anything besides "Mr. Clements," but officially, he actually outranked the older man, "it'd probably be a good idea for you to check Larry and me both out on the Outlaw." Clements raised both eyebrows, and Eddie shrugged. "Well, Larry, at least. Seems pretty obvious that it's going to be our 'flagship,' " he pointed out. "It's the biggest, fastest thing we've got. And Mr. Ferrara managed to put together an eight-cell launcher for her, and we can carry at least three or four complete reloads in the cabin. The Chris Craft and your boat are both slower, and they're both completely open-cockpit designs, too." He shook his head. "That's going to make stowing extra ammunition dicier. Too much chance of the exhaust from one launch touching off the backup rounds. So seems to me it only makes sense to have a backup driver just in case, well . . ."
He shrugged again, but this time the gesture carried a completely different meaning.
Trying resolutely to ignore the ache in his chest, Jack Clements looked at the young man standing beside him with his denim jacket buttoned against the October chill. The youngster could have used a shave, he thought. And for all the gold bars pinned to the collar of his plaid shirt, he looked like exactly what he was—a kid who'd stopped being a teenager less than two months ago. But there was nothing particularly kidlike about the eyes watching the Outlaw dragging its way past them. Or about the thoughts behind those eyes at this particular moment.
"Of course," Clements said after a moment, his voice deliberately light, "the proper Navy term is 'coxswain,' not driver, you ignorant lout."
"Coxswain, driver—whatever," Eddie allowed with a dismissive wave of his hand.
"Jesus, and you a full lieutenant!" Clements shook his head. "I see I'd better take you in hand and teach you what's what Navy-style before Admiral Simpson has to do it."
Colonel Holtzmüller tried not to hover anxiously as Lieutenant Cantrell and Lieutenant Clements oversaw a rowdy gang of dockside workers. In Clements' case, it was apparent that he actually understood what he was doing. Lieutenant Cantrell's expertise was less obvious, but his German was far better than Clements'. No doubt that had made him particularly valuable to the American Admiral Simpson in Magdeburg, and it certainly stood him in good stead now, as well.
"Achtung!" he shouted as Clements made a frantic hand-sawing gesture. "Ease up on the left line!" he added, and Clements heaved an unmistakable sigh of relief as the thirty-three-foot boat slid stern-first into the waters of Wismar Harbor.
Holtzmüller heaved a deep breath of relief of his own. Personally, he had his doubts about this entire project. His king's orders had stripped his garrison to the bone—at the moment, he had fewer than three hundred troopers from his own regiment, whereas manning the extended fortifications the Swedes had erected around Wismar's original walls required a minimum of almost four thousand. Even at that, there would be precious little in the way of any central reserve.
He could make up some of the shortfall by impressing civilians from the city itself, plus the crews of any Swedish merchant ships which found themselves trapped in the port when the inevitable Danish blockaders arrived. Even at best, however, that wasn't going to give him the number of live bodies he needed. Worse, Wismar's civilians lacked much of the motivation Protestant cities in other parts of Germany might have had. After all, the Danes were also Protestants—fellow Lutherans, in fact. It hadn't been so very long ago that Christian IV had been the anointed champion of Protestantism. True, he hadn't been very good at it, but he was unlikely—to put it mildly—to indulge his troops in any massacres or introduce a religiously repressive regime if he should take the city. Which meant that any of the local civilians were more likely to be thinking about the consequences to their families' health and their own property rather than fighting defiantly to the death if the siege proved long and arduous.
"All right," Lieutenant Cantrell announced. "Let's get the Century into the water, and we can all take a break."
His labor gang headed for the third of the large speedboats obediently. One or two of its members seemed less than fully enthusiastic, although they were scarcely likely to object with a half-dozen of Holtzmüller's rifle-armed dragoons standing around. The fact that four of Krak's Shooters were also keeping an eye on things didn't hurt, either. But most of the dock workers seemed as fascinated as Holtzmüller himself by the huge, sleek up-time craft floating majestically in the harbor.
Like so many of the Americans' mechanical marvels, the speedboats radiated a refined grace, a fusion of line and form. There was something indefinably "right" about them. Holtzmüller didn't pretend to understand the mechanical principles upon which they operated. Like most of the rest of Gustavus Adolphus' subjects, he was prepared simply to take the Americans' word that they would perform as promised. Yet, just as he could recognize the grace and power of a well-conformed horse, he could recognize those same qualities in these sharply carved, alien watercraft.
The one the Americans called the "Outlaw" was half as large as most of the seagoing merchant vessels anchored in the harbor, and it seemed still larger. Perhaps that was because he'd seen its size and arrogantly shaped hull before its gleaming propellers disappeared into the water.
"That's right!" Lieutenant Cantrell encouraged as Lieutenant Clements said something into his ear and his straining laborers swung the bow of the "Century" around so that they could ease it into the water stern-first. "Keep that stern rope tight, Gunther!" Cantrell admonished a moment later, then scurried over to lend his own weight to the line.
The big boat moved with ponderous grace, simultaneously urged into motion and restrained by the ropes and hands of its attendants. It slid slowly and carefully into the water, and Holtzmüller watched Lieutenant Clements drop down into the open cockpit while mooring lines made it fast to the wharf.
Another work gang, this one headed by no less than three of the up-time Americans, had already swung into action. The wooden wheels of a wagon creaked and clattered across the stone-ballasted quay, and Holtzmüller watched one of the up-timers climb down into the Outlaw.
"Let's get the base mount down here first," the American said. "After that, I guess we need the blast shield." His two fellows nodded agreement and began passing down the first components of the "rocket launcher."
Holtzmüller turned away with a mental shake of his head. In the end, he knew, it was going to be a race between whatever forces General Torstensson found to replace his own stolen garrison and the Danes. And it was going to be up to these Americans and their outlandish devices to buy time for Torstensson to win the race. On the face of it, the notion that so few men—less than sixty, even counting the native Germans assigned to the American reinforcements—could delay a force the size the Danes were bound to throw against Wismar even temporarily was ludicrous.
But Holtzmüller recognized confidence when he saw it; perhaps even more importantly, he'd seen enough bravado to know when "confidence" was only another word for desperation. These bizarre Americans truly believed they could slow the Danes down enough to make the difference. And as he looked back at the harbor one last time, at those white "fiberglass" hulls and the ungainly framework of the "rocket launcher" already taking form on the Outlaw's foredeck, he actually found himself believing that perhaps—just perhaps—they might be right.
"I accept your assurance, of course, Admiral," the compte de Martignac replied with exquisite politeness. "My only concern is that the season grows late. It is already the second day of October. We do not have many weeks left before my own ships and those of Admiral Tobias must return to their home ports."
"I am well aware of how hard our Northern winters can be," Overgaard assured him. "And, in all honesty, I am fully as impatient as you are yourself. Unfortunately, as I am certain you are aware, it was impossible for anyone to predict precisely when the Spanish and Dutch would meet in combat." He did not add "and you and your fine English colleague could betray the Hollanders," although he felt quite sure Martignac heard the unvoiced thought, anyway. "Because of that uncertainty, we dared not press our own preparations too openly. Gustavus, and especially that devil of a chancellor, Oxenstierna, have spies everywhere. Had we made it apparent that we were preparing an expedition, they would quickly have divined our intentions, which could been disastrous. Their navy is very nearly a match for our own, and the first thing Fleming and Gyllenhjelm would have done would have been to seek a decisive engagement with us before you could sail to reinforce us. Even had they failed in that purpose, Gustavus would have been given sufficient warning to redeploy his troops to meet us."
"That much is understood. Yet my fear is that if our blow is delayed much longer, that delay will have the same effect as forewarning them might have. By now, word of Dunkirk must have reached Magdeburg, and Gustavus will already be redeploying his forces."
"Of course he is," Overgaard acknowledged. "And that is a less than good thing in many ways. Yet even Gustavus must have been prey to at least a brief uncertainty as to our intentions. No doubt he is repositioning his forces, but it will take him some time to move significant numbers of them. Moreover, our own spies' reports indicate that he has personally undertaken command of the garrison at Luebeck."
"He has?" Martignac's gaze sharpened suddenly, and Overgaard nodded.
"He has. And if he truly intends to hold that city, then he will be forced to reinforce its garrison. Which means he must strip forces from other positions . . . like Wismar, Rostock, and Stralsund."
"I see," Martignac said slowly.
"I'm sure you do," Overgaard agreed. "If Gustavus chooses to pen himself up in Luebeck, so much the better. It is he, and he alone, who binds this Confederated Principalities of Europe together. And it is he alone who stands protector to the Americans. If he can be swept from the board, then all he's managed to build must come tumbling down. In which event, of course, my king will become master of the Baltic once and for all, and yours will have what he seeks elsewhere."
"An alluring prospect, indeed," Martignac observed. "And if he is given time to draw the garrisons from those other northern ports into Luebeck, then he denudes them of their own defenders."
"Exactly. We have no intention of delaying a moment longer than we must, but neither are we blind to the possible advantages accruing from our unanticipated delay. It would have required true magic for him to have learned about the Battle of Dunkirk quickly enough to issue his movement orders in time to cover the rest of the North German coast. At the moment, the troops he had covering Wismar are undoubtedly most of the way to Luebeck, which is unfortunate in some ways. It effectively removes any possibility of our convincing the city to surrender without resistance, and it also means that his garrison there will be sufficiently strong to foreclose any chance of seizing it by a sudden assault. No, Compte. Luebeck will require a siege now, and the army required to prosecute that siege is completing its embarkation even now. As is the second army which will reinforce Gotland to provide us with a base for the investment of Stockholm when the time comes.
"But the same moves which have strengthened Luebeck have weakened him everywhere else along the coast. We will be able to move in almost unopposed and secure control of all the ports well before he is able to assemble the forces to do anything about it. And with those ports in our hands, his Confederated Principalities will starve and wither like a tree cut off from its roots."