The Spotted Beast, Chapter 4: With the Scots

Michael H. Varhola

Germany, July 1633

            "The old lord is grateful. And when he is grateful, we are all grateful. I told him you were one of ours.  I hope you don't mind." John Hepburn grinned. 

            I did not respond.  My mind was not on the Scottish cavalier, now hatless and sitting across a wide expanse of polished walnut from me. It was on my situation.

            I had gone willingly to Nanstein with the Scottish "reenactors." I recalled that there was a Gasthaus there with a public telephone. From there I could call the base. But my first view of the old fortress hit me like a butt stroke; my knees buckled. Nanstein was no longer a ruin. The massive stone walls stood complete and intact, unscarred by siege or time. Colorful pennants boldly waved from red-tiled towers. The sun glistened from the glass-covered windows -- and within its walls, it teemed with life, soldiers laughing and rolling dice, women cooking and gossiping, and children racing everywhere. Dogs, horses, chickens and sheep completed a tableau that would have sent a Dutch Master scramblin for his canvas and oils.

            "What's the date?" I asked the man closest to me, a man who for a brief spell was to become a good friend and trusted comrade.

            "Why it be the 10th day of July, sir," the Scot replied, trilling his "r's" so that it sounded more like "sarrr."

            "And the year?"

            "The year, sir? It be the year of our Lord, sixteen hundred and thirty-three."

            "Oh, yes, of course," was all I could think to say.

            This was so real. The savory odor from the boiling pots was carried on the breeze, along with the stink of the latrines, the rich smell of animal manure, and the reek of unwashed human bodies. This could only be two things, and one of them was impossible.  This, of course, was a dying man's last dream. I could see that now. My legless body was still lying on that bed in the Army hospital in Landstuhl, my veins pumped full of morphine to deaden the pain. Yes, I reckoned, this was all a dying man's last dream. My mind, in a final desperate effort, had rescued me, not from the reality of death, but from the experience of that reality. 

            I had read about this. Ambrose Bierce had described a very similar situation in his "Incident at Owl Creek Bridge." There the whole dream took place in the second when the rebel spy's body dropped from the trestle before the noose caught and snapped his neck. In that moment, the southerner dreamed that the rope had broken and he had fallen into the water and successfully made his getaway. In his mind that second lasted hours. But it ended abruptly. My delusion might be lasting much longer than that. My death could be a lingering one, but the end would be the same -- blackness. 

            Or -- I was actually back in 1633. But that, of course, was impossible.

            "Master Charloe!" 

            A note of insistency in Hepburn's voice grabbed my attention.  

            "I said the old lord is grateful. He wants you to have this." John Hepburn slid a small purse across the table toward me. 

            "He?" I said.

            "Reinhardt von Sickingen," the lord of this fortress. Those brigands you killed murdered his nephew, Franz. Stripped him and left him lying naked on the side of the road. There was a third one. We got him too. He hadn't gotten far. Old Reinhardt has him now. Hantschi and Carli were the lucky ones, I would say." Hepburn grinned again.

            I grinned back. This was a great dream. I was a hero. I would savor every moment of this.

            "Those von Sickingens are an arrogant lot, but they do know how to show gratitude." John Hepburn continued. "He would even be more grateful, if you could return the signet that young Franz had been wearing. It bears the von Sickingen seal, you see."

            I didn't see, but I didn't need to. I rifled through the greasy leather bag that I had liberated from Hantschi. There were two rings in there, but only one that could reasonably pass for a signet ring. I slid it back across the table to Hepburn. The cavalier's grin returned, and expanded into a broad smile.

            "There's more," I said. "This is his pouch, the fat guy’s I mean, Hantshi"

            "Keep it. You earned it - and the clothes too. If anyone comes forward with a claim, I'll let you know. Normally, I would take a percentage -- for the common welfare, you know -- but you weren't properly in our service at the time. However, any contribution to the cause would be appreciated."

            I could take a hint. I emptied the contents of the purse onto the table. A few small silver coins glinted among the copper. The only item of real value appeared to be the second gold ring. It was heavy, but otherwise unadorned. It was by far the most valuable item in what was otherwise a rather paltry hoard. Hantschi and Carli seemed to have been barely more successful as highwaymen than as fighters.

            "Will this help?" I asked as I pushed the ring across the table toward Hepburn. 

            We were sitting in what appeared to be a either a very large dining room, or maybe a somewhat modest banquet hall. My gaze shifted from the cavalier to the large windows that were letting in the last rays of the sun. The chandeliers of glistening crystal were reflecting crimson sparks from their multiple facets. The light from the window and from the chandeliers was reflected back by the mirrors that covered three of the walls, and wrapped Hepburn's countenance in a warm glow. I felt good. As dreams went, this was a pretty good one. It sure beat those smelly old men around my hospital bed wailing at me. I would enjoy this while I could. I would put the inevitable end to this out of my mind. There was nothing to be gained by dwelling on it.

            "You want to return to your unit? The Armorican regiment." John Hepburn continued.

            "I don't think that is possible," I replied, returning his attention to the man.  "They are in the east, far away, fighting the . . . uh, the Mohammedans. I was wounded and sent back, but I got lost."

            "Ah, the Ottomans! The scourge of Christianity. A worthy crusade. But you seem well enough now."

            "It was a long journey, and now there is no going back."

            "Na h-uile fear a theid a dbollaidh,  gheibh a dolar bho Mhac Aoidh," Hepburn said, and peered at me expectantly.

            "I don't speak that language, Sir." I responded.

            "It's our Highland tongue. Your Breton language must be different, closer to the Welsh, I wager -- and they can't even all understand each other, let alone talk to us. But who wants to talk to them anyways? Their moods are as black as their beards." He chuckled. 

            "What I am saying," Hepburn continued, "is that whatever your situation, you can always obtain employment with Donald McKay. He is our commander, and a laird too.  He is in Munich with the army. We were detailed here at the request of old Reinhardt to garrison his fortress. We'll be joining the rest of the regiment soon, and then we'll rid Germany of the Hapsburgs, be they Austrian or Spanish." He was grinning again, all boyish and eager for whatever was to come. He reminded me a lot of my platoon leader, Lieutenant Conrad, back in the Second ID.

            "You'd only be a private soldier, mind you. You're not a Scot, you know. But you're a fellow Gael, and the lads will be happy for another man in the ranks. But, be warned, we drill like old Caesar's legions -- and then some."

***

            The detachment was formed six ranks deep, posing a narrow front. The first rank was kneeling, the second stooping, and the third standing. I was in the third rank. 

            The muskets were charged, the pans were primed, the match cords were lit and cocked. I had learned how easily that red glow at the end of the burning matchcord could disappear. When that happened the powder in the pan would not ignite, and the weapon would fail to discharge. Worse yet, was when the cord spit and prematurely reached the pan. Depending on which rank the soldier was in, and exactly where the musket was pointing, the results could be very unfortunate, both for the careless soldier and for whatever poor bastard was in his line of fire.

            "Guard your pans!" The drill sergeant shouted, apparently spotting a soldier who had neglected to do so before blowing on his match.

            "Present!"

            Using his left hand, I pushed the furket that supported the heavy weapon into the soft earth of the wheat field. I positioned the musket in its fork, directing it between the men in front of me, all the while shielding the fine black powder in the pan with my right hand -- and waited for the next command.

            "Give fire!"

            The thunder of the massed muskets rattled my skull, but the sulphuric stench of the smoke was even worse. We had been firing for an hour now, rank after rank in rapid succession, and the gray smoke heavily around us like morning mists of Hades.

            Without conscious thought, I pulled the furket from the ground and faced to my right, as the other three ranks marched through the first three to assume the same postures.  Normally I would reload, but there would only be one more volley before the final charge. 

            "Present!" the sergeant bellowed, his voice noticeably hoarser than it had been an hour earlier. 

            "Fire!"

            Another skull-splitting roar reverberated over the otherwise peaceful country-side.   Then, after a brief silence, eerier by far than the sound of the muskets and the sergeant’s commands, came the staccato beat of the drums. 

            "For Scotland and Mackay!" the sergeant croaked, his over-worked vocal cords almost failing him.

           "And a bit of silver for the wife," the soldier next to me said, not troubling to whisper.

            Then, almost with one voice, the soldiers let loose their Highland battle cry, and as it reverberated along the broad valley of the Glan, the weary Highlanders raced across the field, waving their heavy matchlocks like clubs.

            In short order the "enemy" was clubbed into loose straw and shattered poles.  And another day on the drill field came to an end.

            The soldiers were given a few minutes to catch their breath and recover their furkets. Then the drummers beat the assembly, and the soldier formed into two long ranks facing the sergeant.

            "Shall we have another go at it, lads?"

            It was the same old tired joke that I had heard at least a dozen times now.  

            "Aye! Aye!" They shouted back in unison, but they all knew that the offer was as bogus as their response.

            "Shoulder your muskets," the sergeant ordered.

            Then, with the drummer beating out the Scot's March, we set out on our hour-long trek back to Nanstein. My uniform was of coarse grey wool, the standard for those soldiers who didn’t have a clan tartan, and it was beginning to look well broken in.  Nobody in my old unit would recognize me now, in jacket and breeches of hodden grey, with knee socks to match. My hair, which had not been cut since the Mid East, was starting to grow out now, black and straight. My only regret was that I could not grow the thick beard that my Scottish comrades sported, so, lacking a decent razor, I painfully plucked my face clean whisker by whisker -- just as my ancestors had, or so said my grandfather. But, my god, how it hurt!

            How were they all doing, I wondered -- the guys who had survived that blood bath. I was not sure if the lieutenant could have done anything to change that outcome.. And Hixson, Cox, and the other guys in the unit? Would they make it?

            I also wondered about my grandfather, the Indian activist. Was he back in North Dakota tilting at some windmill, or was he maybe only inches away, by the bedside of his dying grandson? Would he give me the gift that he seemed to have withheld from my father -- the gift of being there for him when he was needed? These thoughts brought home to me the realization that I hadn't heard the old man's voice since the "awakening," as I was now calling this new reality. 

            "I am here, Grandson. Do not fear. Your path is the right one."

            I smiled. I found that voice a reassuring one, although I had no illusions about its reality. I wasn't schizophrenic. It was just an imaginary conversation with somebody I loved. But it could nevertheless, be reassuring.

             After a while, I heard the long wail of the bagpipe that I knew signaled we were approaching the town of Landstuhl. It was John Hepburn's wish that we put on a bit of a show for the locals when we returned from the drill field. Actually, I liked it. The skirling of the bagpipes always put a bit of a spring back into my step, regardless of how worn-out I was. As the stirring notes of The Battle of Frankfort echoed along the river valley, I found myself singing along with the rest of the Scots, like a Highlander born and bred.

In the ranks of great Gustavus,

With the bravest they were reckoned,

Agus O, Mhorag !

Ho-ro ! March together !

Agus O, Mhorag !

            Never mind that Gustavus Adolphus, the Emperor of Sweden, had died a year earlier at the Battle of Luetzen. Many of these soldiers had been at Frankfort, and Luetzen too. They were proud of their service, regardless of Gustavus's fate -- and, in any event, it was a great tune.

***

            I had found a relatively quiet corner in the courtyard of the Nanstein Fortress to clean my musket. Relatively quiet meant that I could almost hear myself think above the raucous play of the children, the interminable babble of their mothers, and the semi-intoxicated banter of their fathers. The American Army sometimes styled itself as a family, a military family -- but this detachment of Scottish mercenaries was a real family. There was no way of knowing how long the war would last, or how long a soldier would be away. If he wanted his wife and children to be there when he returned, the best thing was to bring them along. And that was not only the ones bound by the bonds of matrimony. There were also the camp followers, the women who because of profession or misfortune had chosen to accompany the mercenary force. There was no escape from them, neither in the courtyard nor in the barracks. The concept of privacy did not exist in Nanstein, not unless one was passed out from beer or schnapps.

            As I ran the water-soaked rag up and down the smooth bore of the musket, I mulled over what had consumed my thoughts ever since I had entered Nanstein three weeks earlier. Or was it really three hours, or even three minutes? There is no such thing as time in a dream. The reality, I feared, was such that my mind could not and would not accept it -- that I lay legless and doped up on morphine on a bed in the US Army hospital in Landstuhl. Dream on, Jake, became my mantra. Enjoy it while you can.

            I would savor even that which I could not enjoy, the incessant racket, the smell of human sweat and human waste, and the fleas. 

            There was also the matchlock musket. I hated it - well, not so much hated, maybe, but rather I held it in contempt. It was heavy and primitive. Using a burning piece of rope to set off the powder in the pan was beyond primitive, it was potentially lethal, both to the bearer and anyone in the near vicinity. All were at the mercy of the matchcord. There was no uniformity in its manufacture. Some sparked like a fuse on a Fourth of July firecracker. Some smoldered quietly, only to send out an unpredictable spark at an inauspicious moment. When that happened, the lucky soldier would be guarding the pan with his right hand, while his left hand steadied the musket in the furket. The reward for that were burns of varying degrees on the back of the hand. The unlucky soldier would find himself holding a weapon that had unexpectedly discharged, quite possibly sparing one of the enemy, while inflicting harm on one of his comrades. 

            That was one of the reasons for the incessant drill, to master this ornery piece -- and even I, the product of 21st century technology, could not help but be impressed by the volume of fire that this detachment could deliver. A well-trained musketeer was a treasure, and not one to be thrown away lightly in combat.

            I had considered bringing up the subject of the flintlock to John Hepburn, the detachment commander. I had considered, then rejected it. The flintlock was as much of an improvement over the matchlock, as the breech-loading rifle was over the muzzle loader. Whoever in this conflict that was consuming Germany achieved that technological breakthrough first, would have a decisive advantage over his adversary.  But as much as I liked the Scots that I marched and caroused with, I was not sure which side in this complicated war I wanted to prevail. The Scots were employed by the Swedes, who were in a protracted war with the Hapsburgs of Spain and Austria. Some billed it as a religious war, but I didn't buy that, anymore that I believed that his war, or what was once my war, was a struggle between Islam and Christianity. Things were never that simple, and, indeed, Catholic France was now supporting Protestant Sweden.  Moreover, John Hepburn himself was a devout Catholic, as was his more famous uncle, Sir John Hepburn, who was serving with Cardinal Richelieu's forces in France. Why I should care about such things in a dream perplexed me at first. But the answer, I realized, was simple. I wanted this dream to be real, and I wanted it to go on.

            I turned my attention back to musket. At least they should fit it for a bayonet.  This waving it like a club stuff was stupid. Also, if the musketeers had bayonets, the regiment wouldn't need so many pikemen. They were useless until the enemy charged, and if they could meet that charge with bayonets fixed, then they could replace those pikemen with more musketeers.

            Maybe I should mention this Hepburn -- or maybe . . .

            "Jake, grab that fat purse of yours.  The lads be meeting at the Zur Rose."

            That was Robbie McKay, one of several McKays in the detachment, but this one was a little older than most, about my age of 25  He was the first Scot, other than Hepburn, that I had spoken with after my "awakening," and we had hit it off pretty well.  With hair to match the red of his tartans and a wildly freckled face, he looked like he had stepped straight out of the movie, "Rob Roy." He was easy-going, and like most of the Scots, he enjoyed his beer just as much as he enjoyed the company of his fellow soldiers."

            "You bet, Robbie." I loved the "Zur Rose." It was one of several reasons that I dearly wished this dream would never end. I especially loved that occasional evening when, Jenny Bell, the wife of one of the Scots, would show up with her lute, and entertain the soldiers with mournful highland ballads. On evenings like that, the soldiers would be on their best behavior -- not that they would drink less, but they would do it quietly. And I was not the only half-drunk soldier whose eyes glistened to the refrain of Lord Randal,

            "For I'm sick at the heart, and fain wad lie down."

            Poor Randal had been poisoned by a faithless wife, and potentially faithless wives and lovers were never far from the minds of absent soldiers. That surely explained why many would join in when Jenny reached the final line of the ballad, some shouting it out, some muttering it ominously. Even I, who never had a wife, would do my part.

            "I leave her hell and fire," I would call out along with them, trilling his "r's like the Highlander he now wished he were. Those were good times.

            "Charloe, no town pass for you tonight."

            I turned see the detachment sergeant, Jaimie MacAlister, looking down at me, bearing the perpetual scowl that seemed to be the trademark of all senior sergeants in every army. Jaime was dark of hair and beard, and looked every inch the veteran soldier that he was. Like most of the Scots, he wore his clan tartan, which was of a dusty green/blue pattern on a red background. Unlike Robbie, Sergeant MacAlister wasn't a Highlander. His father was a fisherman in the town of Tarbert on the west coast of Scotland. For MacAlister that was a hard life with little to recompense the long days and nights in a small boat on cold, choppy northern waters. So a young Jaimie had cast his lot with McKay, and had never looked back. On Saturday nights in the town, he would trade stories with the other Scots, tales of clan feuds and midnight raids, in a brogue that made him quite unintelligible after four or five rounds of Landstuhl's lager. Sometimes, after a particularly grisly tale, I wondered if these Scots had joined the army to get away from all that fighting. That would have been ironic, but I knew better, of course. It was all about money.

            "You are with the foraging party tomorrow -- and you too, Robbie, me lad."

            "Foraging party?"

            "Aye, you will be accepting contributions for our upkeep from the local farmers."

            "Be at the main gate at first light.  Bring your kit and your musket."

            "Yes, sergeant."

            "And Charloe, can ye ride?  A horse, I mean."

            "Well . . . ."

            "Good, lad."