by Raymond Contour
Moscow Prison, September 8, 1812
Mikhail crouched on the cot in the corner of his cell shivering. His arm was numb below the elbow, and his hand stunk where that bastard had bit him. Bit him! Now he had an infection from the bastard’s filthy mouth. The bite was had become a weeping, stinking sore with a speed that horrified and astonished him. He needed better food to fight the infection off. Cold borscht and moldy bread was not enough. At least his cellmate wouldn’t be biting anyone else.
Mikhail had always been strong and healthy, and when that moaning bastard had come at him a second time for another bite, Mikhail had used all his strength to put that biting mouth through the bars along with the head the mouth was part of. The biter’s head had cracked and he had slid to the floor. In a rage Mikhail stomped his head until one of his eyes popped out.
Stomach cramps nearly doubled him over. He considered going over and kicking the body again, but wasn’t sure if he could make it as the room began to spin.
“Help me, I’m sick!” he cried out. It was quickly getting worse. He tried to stand, but accidently shit his pants instead. As he rolled off the bed to the floor he could hear someone coming toward his cell. He lifted his head, though it took every bit of his strength.
“Ah, looks like we have another. Hurry, this one is going fast. If we’re quick we won’t have to gag and tie him. Come, you will be set free soon.” Someone entered the cell and grabbed Mikhail by the ankles and dragged him into the hall before he blacked out.
Outside Moscow, September 13, 1812
Bernard walked toward his tent. Looking around he was amazed at how few tents remained from only a week ago, before Borodino. Talk around the camp was that it had been the largest battle fought by the Grand Armee yet. Supposedly it also delivered Napoleon his greatest loss of men.
Moscowwas in the distance, though. It wasn’tSt. Petersburg, but when they took the city on the morrow it would certainly deal a heavy blow to the Russian morale. Scouts had come back with reports that most of the city had been abandoned. These Russians were no fools. There was no way they could holdMoscownow that the greatest army in the known world was at their doorstep. Bernard opened the flap to the tent and entered.
“Dear God, close that quick! It’s freezing out there,” Jean-Claude barked at him. None of them had gotten used to the cold here. Back home it would be not yet autumn with warm days and cool nights. Here it was freezing every night.
“Kiss my ass. While you were in here sleeping I single-handedly killed a dozen Cossacks. The Emperor says he will let us use their heads for latrines. I am to be promoted to General tomorrow.” There was no response. The mood in the tent, and in the entire camp, was melancholy. No one remained who had not lost a brother in arms atBorodino. Bernard sat on his cot and began to pull off his boots. He looked at the center of the tent where three muskets leaned against one another in a tripod. It had been five. The oil lamp that hung above them gave off poor light and worse heat.
“Good night, then brothers,” Bernard bid his tent-mates.
“And to you,” Jean-Claude replied. Henri did not even respond. They left the lamp on for heat through the night.
Moscow, September 13, 1812
Petro stood in the abandoned mansion before his ataman, old Boris Ostap, listening as the plan was outlined. Petro’s was the last unit of Cossacks left inMoscow. In fact, his unit was some of the last Russians left inMoscow. Days before the French had arrived outside the city most of the residents had been evacuated. The pompous French fools believed that they would deal a heavy blow to the Russians by taking the city. They had no idea what a hollow victory it would be for them.
“Outside in a paddock are several hundred prisoners,” the old man rumbled in his deep voice through his shaggy mustache.
“Yes, I heard them when we arrived. Their moaning troubles the horses. They are sick, yes?”
“That would be a great understatement,” the ataman said while rubbing his balding head at the temples. He looked tired. “They have some sort of disease that is very horrible. They pass it to one another by biting. Once they are bit they seem to almost die. Their bodies rot and reek. The process, I am told, is very painful. Once they have caught the disease, though, they are truly something. Aside from breaking open their skull, they cannot be stopped and they attack anything alive. Prince Mikhail Kutuzov believes he would like to see this infection spread through the ranks of the French.”
“What do you require of my Cossacks,” Petro asked the old man.
“Tomorrow morning I want you to lead the diseased prisoners toward the French following the routes on the map I just showed you.”
“They seemed…unruly. Will they listen to the commands of my men?”
“Hah! No, Petro. They will chase you as best they can through the streets. It will be the job of your men to stay ahead of them while drawing them toward the advancing French.”
“I see. I will now take some of that vodka you offered earlier.”
“You will need it. There is more I need to tell you. This is supposed to be secret from all but a few, but I feel you need to know. Once the French have fully entered the city, the governor wants to put it to the torch. Most everyone else thinks he’s mad, but he persists.” Ataman Ostap poured the vodka into two glasses and slid one toward Petro. “I fear that he will go ahead with his plan. Keep track of where you go in the city tomorrow. To herd the prisoners toward the French, many streets have been blocked. You and your men do not want to be caught out there if the city does burn.”
Petro took the vodka and sipped it slowly. It was good, the warmth spreading through his chest. Whoever had owned this house before them had been of means and knew how to spend.
“I understand. I will instruct my men and make sure all know where they should be. I will lead the first group. I will have Ivan lead the second group. I will tell him about the fire, though.”
“You can trust him?”
“He’s my starshy uryadnik, if he could not be trusted he would not be such.”
“Ivan was made starshy before you were weaned. He has stayed there because he is surly. Effective, but still surly.”
“As you say, it is so.” Petro bowed slightly, took the map, and turned to leave. He left the room and made his way downstairs to the ground level. As he walked through the largest home he had ever seen he pondered what Ostap had told him. He and his men were almost as much strangers here inMoscowas the French. They would need to make a second copy of the map for his second group. Getting lost was absolutely a death sentence.
Petro stood at the front door between the two men set on guard there. He began to head for the houses his Cossacks has turned into their barracks, but instead turned and made his way toward the paddock which contained the prisoners. He needed to see just what he was dealing with.
He smelled them long before he got to the paddock. He’d had a man under his first command take a ball to the thigh years ago. It had festered and turned black, leaking a greenish pus. The smell from the paddock reminded him of that leg thrown into a latrine. He nearly gagged before a gust of wind blew through and weakened the stench.
The paddock was originally just that. It had been for some princeling or tsar-hopeful to play at riding horses, being a circle several hundred feet across in the middle of what appeared to have once been an open square. The fence around it had been strengthened and raised. It was now more than twice his height and nowhere was there a large enough gap for him to stick more than his arm through. As he studied it, the wind changed direction again and he coughed as the putrid smell made its way down his throat so thick he could almost feel it.
The noise from his cough seemed to stir the prisoners. Their moaning began and rose in volume. It had an eerie, pained sound to it. Petro could see movement through the slats of the fence in the deepening dark of dusk. Here and there hands were shoved through, reaching out for him. Before he even gave a thought as to why, Petro drew his sabre.
Petro was not a cowardly man. He was actually considered almost recklessly brave by his men, but at that moment something about these diseased prisoners drove a knife into soul. Petro struck out with his sabre, the Cossack steel a blur in the twilight. One of the reaching arms fell to the ground.
In his life Petro had used his sabre countless times in battle and in anger. He did not remember a time like this. The man who lost his arm did not cry out, nor did he even pull back what was left of his arm. Worse was the blood. Instead of shooting out bright red in time with a heartbeat, it leaked out in thick black drops. Petro was stunned. Every fiber of his body told him how wrong this was, but he needed to know what would be chasing him through the streets in the morning.
Making sure to avoid the growing number of arms reaching through the fence, Petro rammed his sabre between two slats. He drove it up through the belly of the now-armless soldier, up past the ribs and into the heart. As he withdrew the blade he twisted it to make sure he did as much damage as possible. The cloudy eyes of the prisoner could be seen through some slats higher up. The bastard didn’t even blink. Petro drew one of the pistols at his belt, cocking the hammer in one smooth motion as the gun was brought up even with those eyes.
Petro pulled the trigger. In a split second the hammer dragged the flint down the frizzen, sparks hit the pan igniting the flash charge, and the charge fired the pistol blasting a lead ball bigger than Petro’s thumb through the milky eye. Even through the paddock fence Petro could see the head rupture and the prisoner drop to the ground completely still.
Two guards came running from the other side of the paddock, but Petro waved them away. Petro holstered his pistol and sheathed his sabre as he walked away from the paddock. He suddenly had no desire to sleep even in the same city as these monsters. If this disease were loosed amongst the French, Petro decided, the city would have to burn to destroy them. This disease could not be allowed to make its way across the motherland.
Outside Moscow, September 14, 1812
Reveille had sounded not yet an hour ago, but the Grand Armee was already on the move. Bernard, Jean-Claude, and Henri were on the road leading intoMoscow along with thousands of their countrymen. For the first time sinceBorodino the mood amongst the troops was almost light. News had moved through the army that the city was nearly deserted.
“Ah, dawn always looks bright when you know you will be sleeping in an enemy’s captured home come night,” Bernard declared.
“Sleeping on a bed, even a Russian bed, and under a roof will do good for every man here,” Jean-Claude said. “We’re close enough to the head of the force that we should get a good house to before they’re all taken.”
“I suppose hoping that we find one with some wind is too much to ask for in this shitty country,” Henri nearly moaned. He had lost his best friend atBorodinoand had been grieving since.
“Cheer up, Henri, we should be inside the city within the hour,” Bernard said as he clapped Henri on the back.
Moscow, near the paddock, September 14, 1812
Petro and his Cossacks stood a short distance from the paddock where the prisoners moaned and pushed against the fencing. It almost seemed that they knew something was afoot, like they could sense what lay ahead. Petro surveyed his men. While the horses were unnerved, his men were doing their best to show no concern.
“Alright, Cossacks, you have your orders,” Petro addressed his men, “you have your equipment, you have your weapons, and you have your horses. No one in the world can stand against you!” The Cossacks were always dour before battle. Today was no different.
“We are the last fifty Cossacks in Moscow. I offered to the ataman to send thirty of you with the refugees. I told him that to face forty thousand French twenty of us would be enough. He said it was not allowed, as Prince Kutuzov feared if you were left loose amongst the refugee women that within two generations Russia would be overtaken by Cossacks. I believe that was a reasonable fear. You know what our orders from the ataman are today, and you know what your orders are from me. It is my hope that we can complete our task and still catch up withMoscow’s women by the evening. Now throw your asses in those saddles!”
Petro climbed into his saddle and cantered his horse over to where Ivan sat his own saddle. The old veteran had fought in more battles than any other Cossack Petro had ever met. The ataman was right in a way, as Ivan was truly surly when he had been drinking vodka. Sober he was worse. Certain things could be overlooked, though, when in the saddle charging at the enemy you were a demon. Visually, a demon might have been preferable. Ivan’s old face was a battlefield where wrinkles waged a constant war for dominance against his scars. He kept most of his head shaved save for a long braided topknot of his white hair. Petro had watched him strangle a man to death for having bad breath once. Ivan’s company was not for all tastes.
It was behavior like that which caused Ivan to be tossed from commander to commander. Petro was the first khorunzhy Ivan had served under for more than a year. What amazed others who had been over him, was that Petro had promoted him all the way up to starshy uryadnik. Placing men under him was the trick, Petro had found. Some men would hate him, while some men were amazingly loyal to him.
“Remember, once you finish this, you and your men ride like hell. Only engage the French if you have to.”
“Da.” Ivan was not known as a wordy man.
“And be damn careful, between the French, the disease, and fire, there are many ways for a man to die today.”
“And you,” Ivan said after spitting out a large wad of phlegm.
“Men, form up!” Petro called and the Cossacks obeyed instantly. Two teams of the finest mounted fighting menRussiahad ever produced readied themselves for their task. Petro took his place at the head of his men while Ivan did the same.
Petro took a deep breath and signaled the guards at the paddock to open the gates. The guards opened the locks and pulled open the paddock. Instantly they were both set upon by the prisoners. Petro and Ivan spurred their horses and leaped forward, their men following. Chasing them toward the French were the screams of the guards.
Petro risked a glance over his shoulder just before the first turn that would lead them throughMoscow’s streets, and reigned his horse to a halt. Hooves clattered on the cobbles of the street as his men did their best to not collide with one another. Petro’s men looked at him and then followed his gaze back to the paddock.
The prisoners had stopped at the gates of the paddock where the guards fell to them. It was not that they had stopped which caused Petro to stare, but why. It looked from the few yards away where Petro was that the diseased prisoners were not just attacking the guards, but eating them.
The guards were no longer screaming and the prisoners were ripping and tearing pieces of flesh and guts and greedily stuffing them into their mouths. Behind the first prisoners who stopped to attack the guards, the remainder of the occupants of the paddock moaned aloud while pushing and shoving to get closer to the fresh kill. One of Petro’s younger Cossacks vomited loudly, setting the man next to him to the same task.
Petro looked to his right across the square to see that Ivan and his men had stopped as well. Ivan looked to Petro seemingly asking for orders. Petro was about to shrug when the prisoners apparently finished the last of the two guards and stood. They seemed to be searching, more by scent than sight, for their next meal. Petro had no intention of following the guards to their fate, nor seeing any of his men do so either. He let out a loud cry to draw the attention of the prisoners, and Ivan followed suit.
The attention of every one of the prisoners that Petro could see immediately was upon either Petro or Ivan. A cold sweat broke out across Petro’s body as he wheeled his horse and shot off once again at a gallop toward the route he was to lead the prisoners. From the sound of it Ivan was doing likewise. The faster his horse ran away from the prisoners the better Petro felt.
His unit had gone three blocks and through a slight bend in the roadway before he once again looked back to make sure the prisoners were following. Once again he reigned in his horse. This time his men were ready and the stop was much more orderly. There was not one prisoner to be seen. Petro’s men nervously looked to one another and to Petro. These were good dependable men, but watching a man be eaten by a mob was apparently enough to shake them.
“Sir, where did they go, “ kazak Igor asked.
“I don’t know, perhaps they all followed the uryadnik and the men with him.” Petro did not like to have his men hear him sounding unsure, but after what they had all just witnessed Petro seemed to be the least unsure of all the Cossacks in the street right now. Then the wind changed and Petro’s horse suddenly acted as if it had been spooked. Its eyes rolled around wildly and the beast tried to run farther down the street. Petro almost lost control of him, but swiftly recovered. Once he did he could see that his was not the only horse to act that way. Then Petro caught the scent that had startled the horses. It was the foul rot of the prisoners, and now Petro could hear their moans as well.
The mob of diseased prisoners was nearly two blocks away when Petro first saw them. When he realized why the mob had been delayed he swore loudly. The prisoners moved in a shambling horde no faster than a healthy man could walk. Petro shouted again at the prisoners to see if they would move any faster, a few of the younger men looked at him as if he were crazy for calling to the monsters.
The prisoners seemed to speed up some, but not enough to make any real difference. Petro swore again.
“Sir?” Petro was not even sure who spoke. His mind was almost reeling with what this meant.
“This is bad, my Cossacks,” Petro addressed his men. “The plan was for us to lead these horrors to the French, as you all know. The streets down which the French will be forced to travel are blocked and barricaded to take the French to the point where they would be trapped with our prisoners,” Petro pointed down the street at the mob which was now halfway to the Cossacks. “Look at these poor bastards, they move like old women. The ataman’s plan was that we would make it to the square where the French are to be trapped with these ghouls just before the French arrive. That way we, and uryadnik Ivan’s men, can get away down a third street with a barricade ready to fall behind us so that our escape will not be troubled by either the French or the prisoners.” His men looked at him with no sign that they understood what the speed of the prisoners meant to them. Most of them in fact were looking over their shoulders at the mob which was now a little less than a block away. The horses were becoming almost uncontrollable.
“At this speed,” Petro pointed at the prisoners, “we will not make it to the square before the French.” Realization spread through the men. “We will be trapped between several hundred diseased madmen and tens of thousands of French soldiers,” Petro continued. “My intention is to continue with the plan. Hopefully we can break through the French so that some of us might escape yet. Now we should get moving, the prisoners are almost upon us.”
“Sir, what’s that?” kazak Igor asked pointing past the mob to a point where the sky could be seen between two buildings.
“Dammit!” Petro cried as he wheeled his horse. His men were glad to follow, creating more distance between them and the mob. Petro looked back again. It was no illusion Igor had seen. There were three great black plumes of smoke rising in the distance. Moscowburned.
Moscow, inside the city proper, September 14, 1812
Bernard marched in formation with Jean-Claude to his right and Henri to his left. They had formed up just before entering the city and even at the reduced numbers following the losses at Borodino the Grand Armee was an impressive sight. No wonder the Russians had abandoned their city.
The abandonment of the city must have been an unruly thing, Bernard though. There were wagons and carts and furniture strewn everywhere, most of it blocking the side streets off the main road into the city. Blocking at least two smaller streets that Bernard saw were piles of what looked like firewood and tipped over ox carts. The thought of being a refugee in the surrounding fields without a fire for warmth was a horrible thought to Bernard. The cold here, even in mid-September, was too much for him. He began to keep track of where the wood piles he had seen were so that after he and his comrades found a home for the night he would be quick to round up enough wood for a roaring fire. And he’d have to move quickly since they were near the rear now.
The march was easy now, the road being not only straight and flat, but paved also. The army was almost to the square up ahead where they were to present themselves in formation to Emperor Napoleon as he officially took the city. Had the sun made its way from behind the clouds Bernard might actually have been happy. Until Henri opened his damned mouth, that is.
“Well, isn’t that just what this campaign needed,” the glum Frenchman to Bernard’s left said pointing to the distance.
“Fucking crazy Russians. They’re burning their own city. No doubt we’ll wind up on fire duty while the officers get the best houses. We’ll be sleeping in a hovel with holes in the roof and walls freezing our asses off.” Bernard’s mood could not have gotten any worse until he heard not too far ahead the clatter of hooves coming down a side street. Between the heads of the men in front of him Bernard caught glimpses of a small group of what appeared to be Cossacks riding into the ranks from the right.
Bernard could hear the screams of men and orders being yelled out. Gunshots sounded and the air began to fill with the powder smoke. Bernard’s unit leader called out the order to fix bayonets. As one the men brought their rifles off their shoulders and attached the needle sharp steel spikes the end of their rifles.
Bernard had seen this tactic from the Cossacks before. They would ride into the middle of a column from the flank and fight their way through before the men could bring their rifles of bayonets to bear. Men were reluctant to shoot at the Cossacks for fear of hitting their own, and the Cossacks would ride off after breaking through on the opposite side. The French were often by that time busy affixing their bayonets and not ready to fire at the fleeing horsemen.
Jean-Claude was on the outside row and was just as familiar with the Cossack tricks as Bernard. They both left their bayonets in the scabbard and leveled their muskets at the angle where the Cossacks would emerge. The first one out was an old man with a long, white ponytail braided like a woman’s. Jean-Claude pulled his trigger but had a misfire, the powder in his flashpan burning quickly but not igniting the charge in the barrel. Bernard had better luck. His shot cleanly took the horse out from under the Cossack just before he made it to a side street that was not blocked like all the others.
Now two more of the Cossacks had made it through and were past the dead horse as its rider struggled free. In the blink of an eye the now-horseless Cossack drew his sabre and charged back at the column. Bernard lost sight of the crazy bastard then. More shots rang out, but they sounded not like the French muskets. Bernard had heard Cossack pistols before and was sure that was what he was hearing. Jean-Claude had another charge in his pan and was drawing back the hammer as he brought up the musket to his shoulder again.
A large group of Cossacks, what must have been the remainder of the force, broke free. Jean-Claude’s musket roared and one of the Russian bastards lost a goodly portion of his skull. Bernard was shocked to see the Cossack without a horse somehow break away from the melee he had entered, collect the riderless horse and follow his comrades down the side street. A large crashing noise followed from the side street. Some men ran after the Cossacks to try getting a shot off at them. Bernard was one of those.
When he rounded the corner to look down the street where the Cossacks had made their escape he was shocked to see a pile of wood and stone debris, some of it still tumbling down to rest, and dust rising. The Cossacks had obviously set up this ambush well. There was no way that the French could clear the street in time to make a pursuit of any worth.
Bernard turned back toward his unit and for the first time got a good look at what the Cossack charge had cost the French. He resumed his place back in formation between his friends.
“The bastards got away. They had a bunch of wood and rocks waiting to be pulled down or something once they passed a point not too far down the street.”
“How bad is it up ahead,” Jean-Claude asked.
“A quick look is all I got. I’d guess we lost between twenty and thirty men, dead or dying. It’s going to be a bit before the column gets moving again.” Bernard took a few moments to reload his musket and attach his bayonet. If there was another Cossack ambush, he wanted to be ready.
“My God, they must have wounded more than you say,” Henri said. “I can hear them moaning clear back here.”
Streets of Moscow, September 14, 1812
Petro and his men continued to trot their horses down the road according to their orders. The mob behind them continued to keep pace. Petro had sped the men up initially to give them at least one block of distance. As they lured the prisoners forth, Petro had gotten a rough count of them. He was fairly sure that about two thirds of the prisoners had followed his force. Hopefully Ivan made it with the remainder. They were only a few blocks from the point where they were to meet the main unobstructed roadway that the French would be using.
Petro had outlined his plan to the men as they had made their slow progress across the city. Once they were within two blocks of the French, they would draw their sabers and charge the French column. Whoever the last man through was would use his sabre to knock free the debris deadfall blocking the French from not only following the Cossacks, but also from escaping the prisoners.
Petro signaled a halt. His men knew what to do without him needing to issue an order. These were good men. Some of the finest he had led or fought beside, and Petro hoped most of them would make it to the escape route. Looking at them now, he was certain they knew how he felt, and Petro felt that to speak it out loud would somehow lessen the sentiment.
The moaning horde behind them was nearing. Petro drew his own sabre and spurred his horse forward at a trot to the corner ahead, just beyond which was a short two blocks to the French column. Had these shambling bastards behind him made better time Petro and his men would have pass just in front of the Russians. But it was not to be this day.
Petro rounded the corner and kicked his horse to a full charge. He could see the French ahead of him, none of them had heard him yet. They seemed to be looking back behind them. Petro had little time to worry about it before he was in among the French.
He and his horse were well experienced at this. They bowled into the first few rows of Frenchmen. Petro always found himself enjoying perhaps a little too much the surprised faces of men he caught unawares like this, his sabre moving up and down in a blur.
Frenchmen fell back before him as his horse lashed out with his front hooves. Petro continued to press forward knowing that the men behind him were bringing up the rear of his charge. A few of the Frenchmen must have had their rifles ready. Muskets close by began to fire and Petro had to knock away multiple bayonets stabbing at him.
Petro was almost free of the French when one of the bastards stabbed low with his bayonet and managed to run the damn thing through Petro’s thigh and into his horse. That’s all the horse needed to panic and break into a run as he passed the last Frenchman, though the damned musket bayonet remained in Petro’s leg. His horse began to stumble and the bayonet waved back and forth sending explosions of pain through Petro’s entire body.
Petro breaking through the lines must have opened the French up. Petro’s men were passing him and making it down the street to escape. The number of French muskets firing now increased drastically, the French no longer afraid that they would hit their brothers in arms. One of those French musket balls hit his horse and the damn thing tumbled throwing Petro to the ground near the deadfall. As the horse lay on the ground screaming and thrashing, one of its legs struck the board holding the deadfall in place. Petro covered his head as broken bits ofMoscowcrashed down around him.
Somewhere in Moscow, September 14, 1812
Bernard, Jean-Claude, Henri, and three others from their unit crouched low in a back room of a building they had broken the window out of and climbed into after the ranks broke. Jean-Claude and Henri had shoved a table up over the broken window to make sure none of the monsters followed them into the building. Bernard could still not believe what had happened.
Shortly after the first group of Cossacks had attacked and before the column had begun moving again, a group of Russian madmen attacked the column from the same direction as the Cossacks had. The French had been made ready by the first Cossack attack and immediately began firing on the filthy men as they stumbled forward at the line. Bernard saw clearly from where he stood on the opposite side of the column as musket balls hit their targets over and over again, though only a few of the Russians who were hit actually fell. The mob awkwardly stumbled forward so slowly that the French had time to reload and fire another volley, though the second was no more effective than the first. By then the Russian mob was upon the French.
Bayonets were no more effective than musket balls at stopping these Russians, and the first few rows of French were pulled down. Thinking back on it, it seemed to Bernard that the Russians had used no weapons that he saw at all other than fists and teeth. These Russians were savages. They fought like dogs and set their own city on fire.
Bernard wasn’t close enough to have seen what triggered it, but suddenly the French broke. Men were pushing past each other, screaming and falling in their rush to get away from the madmen who were attacking them. Bernard had been pushed to the ground and would have been trampled had it not been for Henri pulling him up off the ground and dragging him along in their escape. Somewhere back there where he fell was his musket. All Bernard had left now to fight off these mad Russians was a long knife at his side.
Jean-Claude stood up and slowly made his way toward the broken window they had climbed through. He peered out carefully. Bernard could smell smoke from the fires now. Jean-Claude turned back to them quickly.
“There are some soldiers coming this way – French soldiers. I can seem them through the smoke,” he whispered.
“Call them over here and let them in for God’s sake,” one of the other men said. Bernard didn’t know his name. Bernard got up and went over to Jean-Claude to help him move the table. At the sound of them moving it, the soldiers turned and headed toward them.
“Over here,” Jean-Claude whispered loudly. “Get in here quick!”
Something about the soldiers was wrong. At first Bernard couldn’t place it. The soldiers were only a few feet away when Bernard heard one of them moan. It was the same moan he had heard right before the attack.
“No, shove the table back. They’re those Russians dressed in our uniforms! Block the window!”
“What are you talking about, I know that one, his name is, hell I can’t remember, but he’s no damn Russian.”
The French soldiers made it to the window and Bernard drew his knife. Jean-Claude was extending his hand to help them up when one tried to bite his hand.
“Dammit! What are you-“
Bernard pulled Jean-Claude back quickly and stabbed the soldier in the eye. He dropped immediately. Jean-Claude was up and shoving the table back against the window with the strength of a man in a panic. Just as the table blocked the window, Bernard saw as some of the smoke cleared that a large group of both the Russians and French soldiers were moving this way. They had the same stumbling walk that the Russians had.
“We need to get out of this building. More of them are coming this way. “ This time Jean-Claude didn’t argue. The six Frenchmen made their way farther into the building. Near the back was a door that lead to the street behind the building. The six of them made their way out as quietly as possible. In the distance they could hear musket shots, screams, and the crackling of fire nearby. Under it all was the constant moaning.
Ambush point, Moscow, September 14, 1812
Petro awoke with a mouth full of dirt and wood splinters. He tried to sit up and spit it out, but his arm was trapped under a pile of debris. He gagged and turned his head just in time to vomit. While it was as unpleasant as every other time he had vomited, at least it seemed to clear a good deal of the debris from his mouth and throat.
It took a few moments for him to remember where he was. Part of his confusion was from the smoke. It was so thick that he thought it was night at first. When he realized finally where he was he looked around for the French. There were bodies strewn around the street that he could see and in the distance he could hear voices and muskets firing.
His right side was mostly under the debris from the deadfall. He managed to get his arm free and then tried to move his leg. He had to stifle a scream as he remembered the French bayonet. Petro slowly dug his leg out from under the pile of rock and wood. Once he was free he tried to stand. He could hop some, but his leg would not bear enough weight for him to run.
In his belt sash, his scabbard was empty. Of his four pistols only one was left. His powder and bullets were kept in a bag on his saddle. He assumed that his horse was somewhere under the tons of debris. Perhaps out in the main street there were some additional weapons he could make use of.
Petro carefully hop-limped to the corner and peered out into the main street where the fight with the French had taken place some time ago. Kneeling in the street was a Frenchman over the body of one of his countrymen. No doubt he was grieving over a lost brother. More importantly to Petro was the fact that the Frenchman was armed with a musket and had a long dirk at this side. Petro slowly took aim at the Frenchman’s back and fired.
Had he the time to consider things, Petro would likely not have been surprised that his pistol misfired. He also would most probably not have been surprised that the noise from the powder igniting in the flashpan attracted the attention of the Frenchman. But even on this day Petro was shocked to see when the Frenchman stood that he had not been grieving over his comrade, but instead eating him.
The disease must move quickly, Petro thought, as the French ghoul moved toward him in that shambling way. Its mouth hung slack, a piece of French uniform caught between two teeth. Petro flipped his pistol around, gripping the barrel. The grip of the pistol had a round brass cap made for using as a club. Petro hoped he could muster the strength needed to crack one more thin French skull.
The madman seemed heedless of the pistol as he lunged at Petro. Petro assumed that this day was going to continue in the same way it had so far as he felt the diseased cannibal’s body crash into his. Petro’s injured leg gave way under him and the two of them fell to the ground.
Underneath the reeking body Petro realized that the thing was now a corpse. He rolled it off of him and struggled to his feet. A large, round indentation from his pistol butt was clearly visible in the thing’s temple. Petro carefully reached down and took the dirk from the thing’s belt. He drove it through the ear as hard as he could, sinking it in several inches. The corpse didn’t twitch. It was truly dead.
Petro looked up and down the street trying to get his bearings. His exposure toMoscowwas extremely limited. Clouds of smoke moved down the streets making it hard to see more than a few hundred feet in any direction. That was enough though to let Petro see that up and down the street were men stumbling around singly, in pairs, and even a few large groups. Petro knew that he would die here if he didn’t get away soon. As he was backing toward the deadfall, he noticed something across the street. It was another Cossack horse lying dead. Petro made his way carefully over toward it trying not to make any noise or draw attention to himself in any other way. Once at the horse’s corpse, he saw that it was Ivan’s.
Petro allowed himself only a second to hope that his comrade’s death had been quick. Then he tore open the pouch on the saddle where Ivan kept his powder and bullets. Petro reloaded his flashpan and stuffed his pistol back in his belt sash. Then he opened saddlebag.
Petro and Ivan had come up with the decision to burnMoscoweven if the governor didn’t. Petro knew that they could not let this disease loose on the Motherland. Burning it down around the Frenchmen was the closest thing to a solution that he and Ivan could come up with the night before. Inside the saddlebag were several torches, at least two pounds of gunpowder, and a tinderbox. Petro took all of it and then clambered over the deadfall. Even if Ivan’s men made it to freedom, they would not have known to start the fires near where the French had moved into the city earlier that morning. With the fires that the governor had set moving the direction they were, if Petro could set fire to the city near the mouth of Ivan’s unit’s escape, he might be able to send his fire back toward the ones burning now.
Moscow, near the entrance to the city, September 14, 1812
The six Frenchmen were within a few blocks of where the Grand Armee had entered the city. Henri had climbed up to the top of some sort of tower and seen that it was so. He also said that there were fires burning everywhere, but that a large force of Napoleon’s men were heading this way being followed by an even larger group. They figured if they continued in this same direction they would meet up with the force of their countrymen who were apparently getting the hell out of this nightmare city.
They came around a corner quietly hoping to avoid any of the monsters stalking the city and saw a filthy Russian crouched down near the street where one of the ox carts full of firewood had been tipped over. He was striking a flint with what appeared to be a French long knife.
“That son of a bitch is trying to set that wood on fire! He means to trap our men in this burning hell hole with those things,” Bernard growled.
“Hey!” Jean-Claude yelled at him. Henri already had his musket shouldered and aimed at the Russian.
Moscow, near the entrance to the city, September 14, 1812
Petro had found one of the carts of wood near where the French had entered the city. There was enough dry wood here to get a good fire going. Petro dumped the gunpowder out in a pile of kindling and laid the torches on top of that. He was trying to strike the flint with the shitty French knife when he heard someone behind him yell. He stood awkwardly and turned to see six fucking Frenchmen, three of which had muskets.
Petro dropped the knife. He had to start the fire and a musket ball in his chest would keep that from happening.
“We have to stop this disease. Let me start the fire and we can all just go. If this doesn’t get stopped here, there’s no telling how far it will spread. Please, if you-“ one of the muskets roared. Petro for an instant could only see a large orange ball. Then it felt as though a horse had kicked him in the chest.
Petro crumpled to the ground. His last thought before everything went black was, fucking French.
Moscow, near the entrance to the city, September 14, 1812
Bernard watched the Russian fall. The wood pile behind him was splattered with blood. Henri’s aim had been true.
“Quickly, we can meet up with the Armee just outside the city,” Jean-Claude said. The six Frenchmen climbed over the wood in time to see several hundred of their brothers in arms emerge from a huge cloud of smoke. Some of the men in front saw the six and waved at them to run.
“Get out of the city! There are thousands of those things,” a man in front screamed. Bernard and the others didn’t think or talk about it. They turned and ran out ofMoscow.