For All Nails #190: Going To California
May 17, 1898 (1)
"You've scouted to the south of us, Corporal Vasyutin?" Maj. Ivan Federov
asked the young man standing at attention before him.
"Yes, sir. There is a battalion of Mexican soldiers visibly encamped on
the other side of the border. They are 1000 feet south of the line. Infantry
and artillery both. They seem to be better equipped than we are. I could
see steel helmets, sir. Steel!"
"Did they see you?"
"No, Major, sir, they did not."
"How close to the border did you get?" Federov was especially wary of going
over the border after what had happened in February. When setting up camp
500 feet north of the line, he had personally checked the map twice.
"I was within ten feet by my map, sir."
Federov checked the scout's map and discerned that there had not been any
border crossing, and then he dismissed the corporal. His aide, Capt. Gomez,
walked up to him.
"Not looking good, sir?"
Ivan muttered under his breath at the worsening state of affairs. "No, it
isn't," he said more loudly. "Let's head south; I want to see things for
myself. I really don't like the way the scout's report sounded." He took
a couple minutes to fill Gomez in.
Gomez agreed, "You're right. That does sound bad."
Ivan looked through binoculars across the line between the nations. He could
see the Mexican soldiers well. He got a good look at their tents, their
uniforms, their guns. Vasyutin had been right about the steel helmets.
Head shots would be less effective than on his tin-hatted men. The AUSM
boots looked to be made better and in better condition. And the condition
of the soldiers themselves! How could the Mexicans keep them so well-fed?
The ordinary soldiers looked as well-off as himself and Gomez; even the
little brown ones looked well-fed (but not as much as their lighter comrades).
A couple of officers seemed actually pudgy. _It's a good thing I'm the
only one here with the binoculars_. Not that they were good binoculars;
he was sure the Mexicans had better ones. Federov did pass them over to
As his aide got his own look at their potential enemies, Federov wondered
whether Vasyutin had gotten a look at the AUSM physical condition. He wondered
if Vasyutin had mentioned it to any of the men. If his soldiers began thinking
life was better in Mexico, and that even low-ranked soldiers ate decently,
how could he count on them? Then he wondered how much his superiors knew
of the Mexican army life, and what kind of reaction they'd expect _him_ to
have. _I've got a Mexican aide, and I haven't made any secret that I think
highly of him. None of them do, the prejudiced fools. They’d probably think
I'll be disloyal._
"Come on, let's head back, Antonio."
Federov heard the commotion coming from the southeast and decided to see
what was happening. He had walked about 200 feet when he ran into one of
his patrols. The five-man patrol had with them a prisoner. He was brown
enough to be obviously Mexican, maybe from Chiapas. He was in civilian clothes,
although Federov realized this didn't mean he was no soldier.
Ivan addressed the commander of the patrol, "Sergeant Rozhdestvensky, what
is going on here?"
The sergeant saluted and answered, "Major, sir, we caught this Mexican sneaking
south toward the border. He was moving so as to try to avoid being seen.
Not well, though. We thought he may be a spy, but he claims he was with
"Ruso pigs! Mexico will eat you for breakfast!" The Mexican was reeling,
and spoke with slurred English. He was quite drunk. _No wonder he got caught_,
"It gets worse, sir. He was in Orlovsk (2), and the woman he was with sounds
like Sergeant Saprykin's wife."
Now that was unsettling. The wife of one of his soldiers, having an affair
with a Mexican, at the same time as his battalion was operating on what was
likely to be the frontline of a war with the USM? No, it was not a happy
idea. The opportunity certainly existed; he knew Saprykin had his home in
that town and that only officers were allowed to have family live on base
at Fort Romanov.
Federov scratched his head. "Saprykin is back at base camp. Let's all go
back there and let him know about this."
When the eight of them got back to the Russian camp, Sergeant Vyacheslav
Saprykin turned out to be at his foxhole. "Vyacheslav Vladimirovich, may
we have a word with you?" Ivan called down.
After Saprykin was told what had transpired, he was livid. That was to be
expected. "What is to be done with him?"
"Probably put on trial for spying. I must ask you, Sergeant, what have you
been telling your wife of our activities?"
Saprykin was quick with the answer. "Nothing, sir, often not even where
we are operating. I have not been home in a month, sir. I would not have
had much chance anyway."
As Ivan was pondering who to have guard the Mexican (who had never given
his name), a white flash caught his eye. He turned south. Yes, there it
was: a white flag fluttering in the breeze. A party of seven Mexican soldiers
was coming on horseback. Several of Federov's men raised their rifles, but
Ivan waved them off. "Stand down, men; they are coming under flag of truce.
Whatever they have in mind, it isn't hostile."
The Mexicans rode up to the Russian camp, and Federov walked out to greet
them, bringing along a few soldiers. He looked up at the lead horseman,
a major like himself. He said in passable English, "Major Ivan Federov,
in command of this camp. What can I do for you?"
"Major John Hatfield, AUSM. It probably comes as no surprise to you that
we've had chances to observe your men via binoculars. I'd bet you're doing
the same. Just now we saw you leading into your camp one of my men out of
uniform. He has been absent without leave for three days. We would be most
interested in speaking with him and extraditing him for military punishment."
Federov bit his lip. "Major Hatfield, this soldier of yours has committed
crimes here as well. We are currently holding him on illegal entry into
the Russian Empire and suspicion of espionage."
He wondered how well the second charge would hold; Saprykin had admitted
his wife wouldn't have known anything. But was he telling the truth? Could
he afford to let this man back into Mexico when he might hold information
on Russian movements? Could not turning him over be one more provocation
He remembered his doubts about Russia's ability to win any war with Mexico.
Avoiding such a war, then, was a desirable objective. It also occurred
to Ivan that when found, the Mexican had been drunk. How much information
might he be able to recall to his superiors? If thoroughly searched first
for anything written down, he would have to rely on his inebriated mind.
Hopefully when he sobered up, he wouldn't recall enough if he was a spy.
Ivan arrived at a decision. "Major, we would be willing to return this man
to you. Would noon at the border suffice?"
Hatfield replied that this would be good.
Federov stood at the borderline with a party of ten men and the Mexican prisoner.
Saprykin had asked to come along, and it had seemed a reasonable request.
The sergeant seemed to be angrier with his wife than with the prisoner.
Hatfield rode up with ten of his own men.
"Major Hatfield. Unfortunate we are seeing each other under these circumstances."
"I agree, Major Federov. I see you have Corporal Ramirez with you." Federov
felt glad to finally know his prisoner's name. Hatfield turned to address
Ramirez. "Corporal, you have been most troublesome ever since you were assigned
to me. Major, this is not his first disciplinary problem. I intend to make
it his last."
"Just a moment, please, Major Hatfield." Federov looked to see who had spoken.
It was Saprykin. "While he was on the Russian side of the line, this man
claims to have had an affair with my wife. His tale contains enough facts
to be believed." With this, Saprykin's face suddenly contorted with rage,
and he leaped upon Ramirez and began punching his face repeatedly.
Federov and two Russians pulled him off as Ramirez swung at them all. The
wronged husband and the adulterer traded obscenities for a minute. Federov
stepped between them.
"Enough of this!" he yelled. "Our nations may be close to war, but I would
like us to behave as civilized men, even when we are enemies." He caught
a flash of admiration in his opposite number's face.
Saprykin nodded. "My apologies, sir. I have an idea more along those lines."
It was then that Ivan saw the Russian sergeant was wearing gloves even though
it was not cold enough to need them. Saprykin took one off, walked up to
Ramirez, and slapped him with it. "You, sir, have insulted my honor. I
Hatfield moved over to Federov and looked him in the eye honestly. "What
do you think? Should we permit our men to participate in this duel? Dueling
is pretty rare now in both of our countries."
"I guess if we don't, one or both of them may continue the rivalry violently.
This'd cause more incidents. If we settle it honorably, we can settle it
for good and worry about the bigger picture," Federov mused.
Hatfield nodded. "Sensible reasoning. I like you, Federov. A pity I'm
likely to have to go into battle against you someday soon."
The duel was agreed to be at ten paces, and a flip of a centavo determined
Ivan would officiate. Both commanders loaned their service pistols, since
the Mexican was unarmed and the Russian only had his rifle. The two rivals
stood back to back as he began to count.
"One. Two. Three. Four-” Ivan caught a blur of motion, and his counting
stopped abruptly as Saprykin whirled around, aimed, and fired in one swift
motion. Ramirez fell over, dead before he hit the ground. From where he
was standing, Ivan could see the bullet had gone in the back of his head
and blown open the forehead.
The reaction of the Mexicans was immediate. All of them but Hatfield aimed
their own rifles and fired. Saprykin appeared to take three rounds in the
chest and was killed. Federov didn't really blame them; his man had just
committed a dishonorable act of murder. But two other Russians had been
hit. The rest of the Russian party fired back. Four Mexicans fell.
Federov dropped to the ground as he realized he was unarmed. Neither he
nor Hatfield had been carrying anything besides their pistols. Neither one
of them was in position to retrieve his. _Do I really want to go to war
over an philanderer and a cuckolded, treacherous sergeant?_
Both sides had found cover and were taking time to reload. _No. No, I don't._
Ivan stood up, braving Mexican fire, and stretched his arms out. "CEASE
FIRE!!" he bellowed.
It was a miracle he'd been able to get the whole sentence out without being
hit. It was an even bigger miracle the Russian troops all had heard, considering
the noise. "Enough. We are not going to war over this." As he spoke, he
saw that on either side of the border, troops were rushing forward, hearing
that battle had been joined. Then he heard his counterpart screaming out
orders in English. They were also stand-down commands.
Ivan turned toward his approaching troops and held up his hand for them to
stop. Then he turned to survey the scene. Only four Russians and five Mexicans
were still standing, counting the two majors. Each side had one wounded
man being tended to. "Major Hatfield," he said, "you must have had the same
thoughts as me. I don't want a war. I definitely don't want a war over
this. But I will go to war if ordered to do so, and I will fight to the
best of my ability for my country."
Hatfield nodded. "I couldn't have said it better myself. You'd make a formidable
opponent. If we do go to war, Federov, I'll be proud to fight against the
likes of you." The Mexican major saluted, and then turned back toward his
camp. After a moment, Ivan headed toward his.
1. Sobel mentions a major border incident on this date on p. 239, but never
elaborates. This is that incident.
2. OTL Brookings, Oregon. A small coastal town within sight of the border
with the USM.