Hey guys! I figure I'll post excerpts from some of my writing projects here. This year I wrote about 30 pages of Napoleonic War fiction just for fun. Here is an excerpt:
Corporal Janos Kellner watched as the sponger cleaned the barrel of the nine-pounder gun. Squinting, he saw the distant lines of infantry across the river. The smoke from the volleys was drifting up into the sky and obscuring his view. He could barely make out the lines of blue and white. The blue of French line infantry and the white coats of the Austrians were the only distinction at this distance. Already, the enemy was falling back and reaching the extreme range of the guns. Janos could see the French artillery arrayed about the south and east extremities of the town. They looked like toy soldiers at this distance, like the ones Janos had played with as a child.
“Powder!” barked the gun’s captain, a bulky, mustached man named Sergeant Walder. “Load!” The loader rolled the nine-pound ball of lead down the muzzle of the gun. Kellner could hear the echoed sound of metal on metal, with a thump as it settled at the back of the barrel. Then the men moved out of the way of the barrel and Corporal Kellner stepped forward. In his hand he held the priming match; a burning wick at the end of a metal rod. He waited for the order.
“Fire!” barked the Sergeant. Kellner touched the match to the touchhole and automatically arched his body back out of the recoil of the gun. As expected, it exploded with a deafening crash and the ball flew across the river, probably to kill some unlucky Frenchman. The recoil shot the gun back three feet, and already the men were rolling her forward again.
“Sergeant!” shouted a voice behind Kellner. He knew better than to look; he kept his eyes on the sponger as he cleaned the barrel again. “Limber your gun and move it down the hill. Turn to the right at the bottom and follow the path to the crossroad. Take another right and proceed until you cross the stone bridge. Once across, you are to deploy the piece wherever directed by the commanding officer.”
“Yes Sir!” replied the Sergeant with a salute. “Gun crew! Discharge the gun and prepare to limber up.”
Corporal Kellner made eye contact with the powder man, who had frozen in place as soon as he heard the order to move. “Sergeant, the gun is cleaned and discharged,” ventured the Corporal.
“Well then, limber up! Move, you fucking wastrels!” cursed the Sergeant with his customary bad temper.
“Ready, Vasil?” asked Kellner. The Private nodded, sweat running from his brow. The Italian sun was already beating down on them and Kellner longed for water to moisten his dry mouth. “One, two, lift!” he shouted and the two men lifted the heavy metal trail of the gun so that the muzzle pointed down at the ground. Another man rolled the caisson into position and Kellner eased the metal ring onto its corresponding peg. He heard the Private beside him let out a puff of air as the weight was released.
Without pausing for a moment, Janos ran to assist Private Dengg with the horses. Dengg was a big man and good-natured, if a bit slow. Janos took hold of the right horse’s bridle and backed it up toward the caisson. Looking over his shoulder, he saw Sergeant Walder waiting by the tongue of the caisson. He was holding the wooden tongue in his left hand and reaching out for the horses with his right. Grabbing the flap of the saddle, he eased the team back and hooked the tongue into the straps.
“Oh, fuck it all!” shouted the Sergeant, jumping up and down on his left foot. “Dirty fucking beast!” he struck the right-hand horse that had stomped on his foot. It whinnied balefully but made no other acknowledgement. Corporal Kellner hid his grin and swept a caressing hand across the horse’s neck. The warm sweat stuck to his palm, reminding him painfully of his thirst.
Kellner joined the rest of the gun crew as they completed loading powder, shot, and tools onto the caisson. The two Privates jumped up onto the small wooden bench at the front of the caisson. Corporal Kellner snatched his shako off the ground and strapped it onto his head before clambering up onto the box itself. The seat faced back toward the artillery piece and his legs straddled the gun trail.
“Clear behind?” shouted the Sergeant from the saddle of the right horse.
“All’s ready, Sergeant!” shouted the Corporal automatically. The artillery piece rumbled into movement. Kellner felt the familiar vibration of the wooden seat travel up his body. He watched the ground rushing past his dangling feet, the taller grass brushing against his dirty boots. After catching his breath, his hand went to his canteen. He gulped a few grateful mouthfuls of the warm water and rejoiced at the soothing feeling in his parched throat. Choking slightly, he recapped the canteen and twisted his neck to see ahead.
The limbered gun was going down the rear side of the hill, shielded from the enemy. Walder and Dengg were directing the horses diagonally down the slope to avoid losing control of the descent. Kellner’s rear left the seat momentarily as the wheel struck a large rock and he cursed under his breath at the brief, shooting pain.
“I reckon this is a good sign. The Colonel’s done it again,” grinned Private Zotter, turning sideways to speak to both of his companions. “If we are moving forward, then the poor infantry must be making ground. I reckon the fight will be over by the time we get there.”
“I’ll warrant you have it right,” said the man on the right, “We will be eating our supper in that town. We will eat the farmers’ chickens and bed their daughters!” cackled the bearded Private Breuer. The infectious laugh drew an answering grin from the other two men.
“I love Italian women, I cannot commend the chickens, however!” replied Zotter and both Privates cackled together.
Kellner grinned and suppressed the sudden urgent longing that stirred him at the thought of a woman’s touch. Or perhaps it was just his hunger that intensified his emotions. “Do you have any food?” he asked the others. Zotter glanced at him and then dug through a pouch. His blackened hand emerged with a smashed bread roll. Kellner took it eagerly and shoved it into his mouth. He closed his eyes as he savored the soft texture of the bread in his mouth. Then he was jolted from his seat again, cracking his teeth together painfully. Grabbing the box reflexively, he managed to stay in his seat.
The ringing in his ears emphasized the absence of the roaring thunder from the whole battery. Looking around, Janos saw that they were on the dirt path which they had traversed in the other direction not two hours previous. More guns were being maneuvered down the hill behind them, but apparently they were in the lead position. The horses were speeding up to a quick trot now that they were on a road. Janos fidgeted with his cracked fingernail. He sucked on the finger absentmindedly, tasting the sweat and gunpowder. Raising his right leg onto the gun trail, he shifted into a more comfortable seating.
A particularly large bump shook him awake, and he realized he had been dozing with his eyes open. There were trees on both sides of the road now and one had fallen across the road. Traversing that fallen trunk must have jolted him awake. On the right was the splintered stump of the tree, no doubt struck by a stray cannonball. Janos saw a few wounded men limping or laying beside the road. The bloody coats or missing limbs might have disturbed him a few months ago, but he had seen enough gore during the Austrian advance across northern Italy. Now the sight was expected, almost commonplace.
The shroud of trees opened out into a patch of trampled grass, and his ears picked out the babble of running water behind him. The sound of muskets had been steadily growing but still wasn’t close enough to cause alarm. Janos focused his eyes and sat up, twisting his neck to see ahead. Right ahead was a cobblestone bridge over a shallow river, and on the other side a gradual upward slope and some trees. Bodies were heaped in the grass around the bridge, apparently pulled back and out of the way. A dozen or so still littered the bridge’s sides, but the horses would be able to get through without stepping on anyone.
Powder smoke was rising from the slope to the right of the bridge. The outlines of the town’s roofs were hazy against the skyline. Private Breuer glanced back at him, “Sleep well, Corporal?” Kellner didn’t bother to answer but rather looked out at the running river. There were dead men washed up on the banks of the river but the running water just made him feel thirsty. He uncorked his canteen and took another swig of warm water. The canteen was distressingly light and he wished he had time to fill it from the river. This caused him to feel vaguely guilty as he contemplated the corpses running downstream.
The gun team rode onto the west side of the river and the jolting bumps of the cobblestone were replaced by the subtler feeling of dirt. The Corporal propped himself in position with his foot as the slope angled slightly upward. The moans of the wounded were more evident now and he saw them scattered about the whole area. The Austrian and Hungarian corpses had been piled out of the roadway but as the horses left the road they began to tread on the dead and dying of both armies. Janos grabbed the box with both hands to steady himself as the caisson jostled back and forth. Glancing across the river, he could see the hill that they had been using as a firing platform not thirty minutes ago.
“How much closer, Sergeant?” asked Zotter loudly to be heard over the growing musket fire.
The Sergeant twisted in his saddle. “Until we find a goddamn officer to tell us where to go!” he replied irritably. A cannonball whistled overhead and the Sergeant squinted and lowered his head reflexively. Kellner turned and saw the caisson of the next gun crew explode. The horses were launched forward and the massive gun spun away like a toy. By some miracle chance, the ball must have struck the powder store and sparked an explosion. Janos’ face was scrunched up as he considered the similar bomb he was sitting on.
The outskirts of the town were visible up ahead through the powder smoke. Wooden houses and sheds were scattered about the edge of town with wooden fences to keep in livestock. A few dozen Hungarians were crouched behind the nearest fence, their black shakos ducking in unison every time the enemy fire erupted from the windows of houses.
A horseman rode up to the gun team, unmindful of the whizzing musket balls. “Sergeant, deploy your gun by the chicken coop and start firing into those houses!” he shouted over the din of battle. Corporal Kellner grabbed his shako and held it in place as the horses suddenly turned to the right. He could see how close they were to the fighting now and cringed as he witnessed musket fire exploding from the windows of the shacks.
The limbered gun rolled up to a small structure, seemingly a chicken coop. Sergeant Walder leapt down from his horse as it slowed down. The three men on the caisson hopped down and jumped to their duty. The familiar actions of operating the gun brought a relative tranquility to Kellner’s thoughts. The gun team had worked themselves into a well-oiled machine and there was a certain calm in following the familiar track.
Kellner and Zotter raised the gun trail off of the peg with no more than a minor grunt. They dragged it into a good firing position in the middle of the dirt road, wheeling it around to point at the enemy before setting it down again. Sergeant Walder and Private Breuer manhandled the caisson into a good position a few yards to the left of the gun while Private Drengg tied the horses to a wooden fence.
“Round shot,” barked the Sergeant, “directed at the house!” He pointed to a shack with a thatched roof not more than 100 yards away. Breuer inserted the powder cartridge and Zotter rammed it down the barrel with the wooden ramrod. Then Breuer grabbed a six-pound lead ball and rolled it down the muzzle before lunging out of the way. “Fire!” screamed Sergeant Walder and Kellner lit the touchhole with the matchstick. Fire exploded from the barrel with an ear splitting crash and a large hole appeared in the wall of the shack.
“Reload!” shouted the Sergeant, and the process began again, with Drengg joining the gun crew. The second shot grazed the straw roof of the building and Kellner thought he saw Frenchmen fleeing the house through the smoke. The third shot hit the wall squarely and the structure collapsed in on itself. The gunners cheered briefly as they began to reload.
The gun heated up and smoke veiled the gunners’ vision as it roared on, shot after shot. The crew was operating the weapon with a furious efficiency and destroying the outlying structures that offered cover to the French defenders. Kellner’s dry tongue stuck to the roof of his mouth but he barely noticed his thirst as all his attention was focused on doing his job. He continually lifted and readjusted the gun’s angle as well as firing the touchhole to every shot. Two other guns from the battery had formed up in the roadway to their left.
Kellner was watching as Breuer slammed the powder cartridge into the hot barrel of the gun when he heard Drengg shout on his right. “Sergeant!” called the big man and Kellner automatically looked to the right. He was horrified to see a line of French infantry advancing up the road in three ranks.
“Load canister!” barked the Sergeant just as the French unleashed a vengeful volley on the gun crew that had been pounding them. Kellner saw the blood spatter Drengg’s white uniform as a musket ball exited his back. Kellner felt Sergeant Walder’s hand on his right arm, and then the Sergeant awkwardly fell into his arms. He was gasping in pain and laid his head on Kellner’s shoulder. He felt the Sergeant’s hot breath on his neck and the hand gripping his arm for balance. The French ramrods were glinting as they thrusted the ball and powder down the muzzles for another volley.
“Take cover!” shouted Kellner. He dragged Walder toward the chicken coop and somehow had time to remark that he didn’t feel afraid. By all rights he should be but he just felt a need to do his job correctly, and right now that meant not dying. He pulled the Sergeant behind cover as the second volley percussed his ears. Glancing over the roof he saw the French advancing towards him and ducked back down. He sat with his back to the chicken coop and felt the feeble structure lean an inch from his weight. It was almost comical to hear the bocking of chickens at a time like this, and the sound even caused his stomach to turn over in hunger. Now was not the time for such thoughts but the whole situation seemed unreal to Corporal Kellner in that moment.
Sergeant Walder was awkwardly leaning sideways against the chicken coop and he wasn’t moving. Kellner moved him into a more natural sitting position and the Sergeant offered no resistance. He gasped for air and his eyes were wide and unseeing. Beyond him, Kellner could see Private Breuer laying down on his face by the wheel of the gun with his hands covering his head.
Another volley roared out much closer now. A shot chicken squaked as it died. Janos felt the rickety structure lean into him as pressure was applied to the other side. Glancing to his left, he saw the blue britches of a French soldier as he steadied his musket on the roof. Janos rocked the coop as well as he could and heard a questioning grunt from the other side. The need to find a weapon struck him and he snatched the pistol from his Sergeant’s belt.
A fierce roar split the air which was followed by screams from behind. Kellner saw a line of Austrians from the 114th Tyrol Regiment marching down the road toward him. One of the other artillery pieces had turned on the flanking force and that was the source of the roar which had startled Kellner. The line of friendly infantry ahead raised their muskets and pointed them in his direction. He flinched and tried to press himself to the ground as the volley roared overhead. A couple balls thudded into the wood of the chicken coop and another squawk emerged from inside.
Janos leaned forward and peered around the limp body of Sergeant Walder to see the French line falling back. Their counter attack had hurt the gun crews and slowed the attack but now it was being repulsed. Climbing to his feet, he looked across the roof of the coop and saw an astonished young Frenchman on the other side. Without thinking, his arm shot up with the pistol and fired. The good looking young man’s face became a bloody wreck and he sprawled forward onto the roof before sliding back to the ground. Janos ducked down again and squeezed his eyes shut but all he could see was the astonished face of the Frenchman. The horror he felt was new to him; he had never killed a man up close before.
The Austrian infantry was nearer now. The front rank was speckled with fire and three men fell to the ground. Kellner could not let them fight alone. Sergeant Walder was still staring forward and gasping for water but there was little more that Kellner could do for him. He handed Walder his canteen then stamped out into the road to grab Private Breuer who was still on the ground covering his head. He thrust the larger man onto his feet and shouted in his face, “Load canister!” Tears had run lines down the Private’s face, but the shouted order stirred him into action.
Musket Balls were whizzing overhead and around him as he spotted Private Zotter, who was sheltering under the gun trail. “Get up!” shouted the Corporal. “Get the fuck up Vasil!” The man looked up with an uncomprehending gaze but after a moment he stood shakily. “Help me turn!” The two men raised the gun trail as they had done so many times before. They wheeled the gun to the right, heedless of the lead flying about their ears. Breuer was there now, packing the canister shot down the muzzle. Canister or grape shot was essentially like buckshot only with pellets the size of musket balls. It was only effective at close range, but it was terribly effective.
Corporal Kellner had found the match stick, the slow match miraculously still burning despite everything that had happened. He waited a second for the order to fire before realizing that he now commanded the gun. “Fire!” he shouted, if just as a warning to the others and a matter of form. He set the match to the touchhole and the gun leapt back. The canister cut a swathe through the withdrawing French line, turning a dozen men into a heap of limbs and offal. A red mist descended slowly to the ground where the men had been standing.
“Reload!” barked the Corporal and the others returned to the familiar motions of operating the gun. By the time they fired the next canister, the enemy had fallen back far enough to decrease its effectiveness. Nevertheless, the metal balls and shrapnel bounced lethally off the ground and into the backs of the retreating men.
The Austrian infantry moved past the gun crew in pursuit of the attackers. A grizzled Sergeant stopped briefly and touched Janos’ arm, “You alright, boys?” he asked with a generous smile.
“We are, thanks to you, Sergeant,” replied Janos with a nod. The Sergeant nodded to the others and moved on with his platoon. They were obscuring the gun’s fire and so they turned it back toward the town. It appeared that the enemy had withdrawn from the remaining shacks and outbuildings and the Hungarian infantry was moving up to take the ground.
Fan fiction written by our members.
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