In that shower of death it seemed preposterous that any of the hundred and sixty-eight could have escaped, for the trench mortar was of very large caliber. But the fragments had barely ceased screaming when men again populated the clearing. A swift survey showed that only a kettle and a pack had suffered and the latter but lightly.
Yeah, get used to this sort of over-hyped and low-stakes action. Also, either this post-apocalyptic society has come up with one hell of a mortar bomb, or the author is vastly overestimating the size and destructive power of a trench mortar. I think even a proper wheeled artillery piece is going to have trouble wiping out 150 men in a single shot. You can only fit so many models under the blast template, after all.
Lefty surges into action, ordering "Tou-tou" the French Guy to "Take cover in that passage mouth to cover us," ugh. Tou-tou's accent is rendered as "Yess, yess, mon lieutenant," and I have no idea why Hubbard is having the guy dragging out his S's instead of responding with a peppy "oui-oui." Maybe the Hollywood French Accent was different back in the 1930's.
Another three-pound shell whistles down, but the soldiers all disappear as soon as they hear it coming and reappear the instant the shrapnel stops flying. And wait a minute, three pounds? That's the size of the explosive that the narration worries could wipe out over a hundred men at once? Wikipedia says the Strokes trench mortar used by the Brits in World War I fired ten-pound shells. The mortar itself had a three-inch caliber, though. Maybe Hubbard's getting confused?
Anyway, Lefty is all "follow me!" and heads to a nearby pit leading into the buried fortress, but then immediately has to go back and help Sergeant Pollard finish dumping two hundred pounds of miscellaneous bullets onto a campfire. In fact, it's Lefty who completes the job - he waves Pollard on underground as he gets the last bullets a-cooking. Guess he's the only one with a bulletproof cape that can protect him when some of the cartridges start popping in the kettle.
Oh, and there's also mortar rounds and other crap coming down every other paragraph or so, but it's no big deal, everyone just takes cover when they hear one and carry on like they're not being bombarded the instant the coast is clear. But please pretend to be excited.
Once all the spare ammunition is cooking in the fire, Lefty rejoins his men, "raised his hand in the honored signal to follow him," and leads the way into the depths of the fortress. After two pages of "action" at the start of this chapter, we get two or three quiet pages describing the trek through the bunker complex, but more time is spent extolling our hero and his men than describing the environment, which disappoints me. I guess the characters are more important to the story than the scenery around them, it's just that I'm not interested in these characters, while I like a good ruin. So all that's said about the fortress is that the floor is uneven from roots forcing their way into the tunnels, which are flooded knee-deep with water in places. The place is littered with skeletons still stretched out in bunks or sprawled on the floor where they succumbed to gas or disease or mutinies, rusted guns standing "like prehistoric monsters, forgotten by time," and the only living things down there are rats that were at one point "bold enough to attack a sleeping man and tear out his eyes before he could awake." Dire rats, then. With a taste for eyeball-jelly.
But as I mentioned, the author has more to say about his characters than this location, namely that they're awesome. The soldiers of the "brigade" don't have an order of march, they're all experienced enough to know how to handle themselves, and without thinking about it move down the ruined corridors in a way that would protect them if the roof took a hit, and they've taken the hobnails out of their boots for maximum sneakiness, and so on. Malcolm can hear the distant echoes of the ammunition going off in the campfires and realizes it's a ruse to make it sound like the campsite is still defended, but even as he appreciates Lefty's cunning, he still isn't sure what to make of this guy who checks the chalk marks left on the fortress walls with "a twinkle in his eye and a sardonic smile upon his lips, as though he was hugely enjoying this business."
It was not that the lieutenant was kind. He merely did not care. His men did not belong to a government but to himself; just as he belonged to them. It seemed that all men with nerves had died of them, leaving a strange corps of beings above such things as human weakness and death, men who had evolved for themselves a special art of living. Malcolm had no hopes for the mercies of the lieutenant; they did not exist. And he was thinking to himself, following that cape, that the race of fighting men, while laudable in many ways, had degenerated in others. For what better evidence could he have than this fact of the lieutenant's running away from a force because it had field pieces?
Didn't Malcolm spend last chapter worrying that Lefty was going to just sit and get shelled instead of withdrawing like a sane person? Well, it's probably not the author being inconsistent here, this is obviously a way to establish Malcolm as a contrary twerp who just doesn't get actual soldiering.
Eventually there's daylight up ahead, and the tunnel turns out to end right on the hill that the Russians' PC ("Post Command," thank you footnote) is sitting on. The brigade hides in an adjoining trench, and Lefty gets to show his tactical genius. He deploys Pollard and the First Regiment... okay, I know this is still technically a brigade, but Lefty only has 168 men, and a full regiment is at least two thousand soldiers strong. He should be thinking more in terms of companies, or even platoons. Or maybe each man in these "regiments" counts as a platoon in himself.
Anyway, Pollard and the First go on the east slope, Tou-tou and the Second on the west, and the Third will follow Lefty up the middle. Carstone gets to stay behind with the machine guns, while Weasel and six other scouts are sent to find the enemy baggage train. And everyone is to use melee weapons only, no gunfire allowed, and "do not kill their commander or the staff." Aaaaand break!
The First and Second vanish like the expert stealthers they are, while Lefty shoves a stick down into the ground to make a simple sundial, because watches are hard. After a bit he gives the signal to advance, and the Third follows him up the ridge, dodging rabbits as they creep in and out of old craters - though someone does come across and grab a wild pig. But the bad guys don't hear the squeals, and Mawkey comes back to report that the Russian officers and their guards are all looking south towards where they think the brigade is shooting at them. After ordering an Italian chap named Gian to get ready to attack the enemy gun battery, and making another sundial to wait a bit longer, Lefty decides it's time. He pulls down his visor, his men do the same and fix bayonets, snicking their guns firing mechanisms... wait, didn't Lefty just order them not to shoot anything?
Whatever, time to engage the enemy! The brigade crawls through the tall grass much less conspicuously than a pack of Velociraptor, and when Lefty trills like a meadow lark three times, they burst into action! Someone yelps in terror by the gun battery and an officer desperately tries to give an order as the brigade pounces on them, the thirty Russian guards only managing two or three shots before being "drowned in a sea of charging men." One enemy leader tries to run for it only to be brought down by Mawkey, who has improvised a flail with a stick, some chain and shrapnel.
And that's it. "It was all over before the dust had a chance to rise." Thirty prisoners, six field guns, and the enemy baggage train have been captured, and only one of them was "slightly wounded" while the brigade suffered no casualties. Huh. Not even a Hubbard Action Sequence.
Lefty takes off his helmet and cape and has a chat with the Russian commander, who conveniently speaks decent English. The enemy leader, who must be a hero of his own story since he doesn't have a name beyond "the commander," is very gracious in defeat and congratulates Lefty for outmaneuvering him. Lefty reveals that he distracted the Russian troops with cooking ammunition and snuck past them via an old bunker tunnel, and the Russian smiles at this "trick" before admitting that his force is only here in search of food. Lefty says there isn't any, and that his force only attacked the Russians because they have delicious horses.
When they're done with these pleasantries, the lieutenant and the commander get down to business, discussing terms. The Russians raise a flag to recall their troops and understand that the brigade will get to confiscate all their "impersonal baggage," but they'll be able to keep their guns since after all there are unfriendly soldiers about. Other than that, they're free to go, so long as they promise to go right home. Lefty and Commandy also trade intelligence, and Lefty says that he knows of no fertile regions nearby worth capturing, while Commandy reveals that his force is the last of the Imperial White Russian Army kicked out of Moscow some five months back, and they were looking to try to set up some farms or something around Paris - Germany's a mess right now, no government to speak of beyond a few scattered officers, and France is starving.
And that's it. Lefty wishes the Russians luck as they look for better foraging grounds, perhaps down in Italy, and they're gone by the afternoon, while the brigade butchers and feasts upon the poor horses, the spoils of a "battle" that was less violent than some football games. Just goes to show how people don't really hate each other, and the universal camaraderie of junior officers in all the world's militaries will win out over any national divisions, and politicians and generals are the real bad guys, etc.
Lefty gets to preen a bit, "pleased as any commander should be when he has chosen his ground, carried through an elementary bit of strategy and tactics and found that his men still behaved well." A strategy that basically boiled down to throwing a rock to make the enemy look one way before sneaking up behind him, a cunning stratagem that worked because the opposing sentries were all incompetent and their attack force never realized that they were being "shot" at by some campfires. I can win a battle when I set the enemy AI to "Very Easy" too, but I'm not trying to pass myself off as a master strategist. Just an excellent strategist.
And oddly enough Malcolm has no reaction to Lefty meeting with an enemy commander and generally chumming it up with the guy, no astonishment that the Russians are being allowed to go free, with rifles in hand no less! Heck, he doesn't even say anything to show how impressed he is with Lefty's brilliant strategy, or-
Oh, wait. Malcolm stuck with the machine gunners covering a potential retreat while the rest of the brigade advanced. And nobody went to fetch him before the chapter was over. Whoops.
Back to Chapter I