The bullet ricocheted off the wall with a weird, pinging sound. But what really stunned Major Krysz Skiedweza – causing his world to pause for a moment – was the stinging spray of sand it spat into the side of his face and, worse, his eye. He cried out in pain, but there was no time to waste.
He and Colonel Sobczak spurred their horses across the narrow street into the next alley. Small angry mobs – some armed – ran toward them from right and left. Sporadic gunshots sniped at them from the roofs that lined the warrens of passageways through Cairo.
Reaching the next street, they found Feldwebel Gustav Steppenwolf taking quicksure aim at a rooftop target. A resounding thud closely followed his shot, as a man’s body fell to the dusty avenue. Steppenwolf automatically pulled the bolt back, chambered another round, then clenched his cigar with a rictus grin.
As men dashed around him, firing and looking about anxiously, Steppenwolf took in the scene with a deadly, careless calm. He fixed his eyes on the two officers.
“Feldwebel,” Sobczak addressed him. “Our perimeter is collapsing. The General has ordered a breakout to the south. We must clear a path of escape for him.”
“Why?” Steppenwolf grumbled around his cigar. “So the horse’s ass can put us in worse trouble?”
Sobczak spared a stunned instant for the insubordinate remark, then shook it off. There was no time now. Old Steppenwolf was their unit’s roughest, toughest, orneriest and most fearless non-commissioned officer. He was also, arguably, their best… when he was not confined in the stockade for fighting or drunkenness.
General Schwedt’s plan to escape with the unit’s full strength was a daring one. It relied on surprise, order, and the constant unremitting application of an overwhelming force against the enemy’s weakest point.
And this man was one of the few who could inspire or frighten the men into following along. They all needed him.
General Schwedt’s entourage was mounted and approaching their position as quickly as they could without throwing all caution to the winds. They should arrive soon. Sobczak divided the available manpower into three groups, each assigned a different chokepoint to hold. The officers remained in the middle of the dusty intersection to direct the action.
Prussian bolt-action rifles kept up a rapid fire against the throngs of fanatical “Mahdists” – the same thugs who had recently overrun several German garrisons, many of which had been stripped to the bone to support the North African campaign.
With a roar of shouting, the Egyptians up one of the alleys rallied and rushed the rudimentary barricades the Prussians had set up. Sensing danger, Steppenwolf turned his back on the sniper down another alley, dodged right, then left, to throw off his aim, and braced himself against the corner of a building on the alley so he could steady his rifle to bear upon the new threat.
The stick-wielding mob pressed forward. Three soldiers holding the line were firing furiously, and Steppenwolf’s well-aimed shots were taking their toll. But it was insufficient. The first several fell against the boxes and cart, clawing at them. By now, Skiedweza and Sobczak had also begun firing into the crowd from the middle of the intersection.
Three frenzied Mahdists climbed over those in front, and hopped on top of the barricades, hacking at the Prussian defenders with scimitars. Two fell, but the other jumped into the alley, followed by two more men with sticks. Two of the Germans at the site had fallen, and the other was cowering, having apparently lost his nerve. Krysz downed one of the three. The remaining pair ran toward the intersection with raging cries.
Stuck in between magazines, Steppenwolf cursed and rushed forward to use his rifle as a pugil stick against the two Mahdists. Krysz and Radim halted their fire, for fear of hitting their sergeant. Steppenwolf smashed in the head of one before he could even slice with his sword, then blocked the other’s swing with the butt of his gun. He followed up with a shoulder-butt which took both of them to the ground and caused the man to drop his club. Moments later, the Egyptian’s windpipe had been crushed by the application of the Wurttemburger’s weight upon his rifle across the man’s neck.
The Prussian troops had rallied to the scene, and now five rifles were directing accurate fire against the oncoming mob, which faltered. Many ran. A lone young man with a club ran instead toward the feldwebel, who was crouching over his latest victim. Steppenwolf calmly removed the spent magazine, replaced a fresh one, cycled the bolt and ripped open the man’s stomach with a bullet just before he reached him. The bloody man fell across Steppenwolf, the club flying into the dust a few feet beyond.
Just then, with one assault defeated, the deafening cacophony of shouts and gunfire and screams grew even louder from another direction. It crescendoed as a troupe of horses exploded into the soldiers’ presence from the far alley.
Colonel Weitz, the General’s aide-de-camp, yelled at them to move out toward the next defensible intersection.
“Where’s the General?” Sobczak shouted.
But immediately he knew the body strapped across the back of one of the horses was his legendary commanding officer, himself.