Ring of fire II eric Flint

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Eric Flint

This is a work of fiction. All the characters and events portrayed in this book are fictional, and any resemblance to real people or incidents is purely coincidental.
Copyright © 2007 by
All rights reserved, including the right to reproduce this book or portions thereof in any form.
A Baen Books Original
Baen Publishing Enterprises
P.O. Box 1403
Riverdale, NY 10471
ISBN 10: 1-4165-7387-9
ISBN 13: 978-1-4165-7387-6
Cover art by Tom Kidd
Maps by Gorg Huff
First printing, January 2008
Distributed by Simon & Schuster
1230 Avenue of the Americas
New York, NY 10020
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Ring of fire II / edited by Eric Flint.
p. cm.
ISBN-13: 978-1-4165-7387-6
ISBN-10: 1-4165-7387-9
1. Fantasy fiction, American. 2. Alternative histories (Fiction), American. 3. Science fiction, American. 4. Time travel—Fiction. 5. Thirty Years' War, 1618–1648—Fiction. 6. Europe—History—17th century—Fiction. 7. Americans—Europe—Fiction. 8. West Virginia—Fiction. I. Flint, Eric.
PS648.F3R553 2008
Pages by Joy Freeman (www.pagesbyjoy.com)
Printed in the United States of America

To Hank Landau,
Ken Diamond, and
Matthew Diamond

Baen Books by Eric FlintRing of Fire series:1632 by Eric Flint
1633 by Eric Flint & David Weber
1634: The Baltic War by Eric Flint & David Weber
Ring of Fire ed. by Eric Flint
1634: The Galileo Affair by Eric Flint & Andrew Dennis
1635: The Ram Rebellion by Eric Flint and Virginia DeMarce et al.
1635: The Cannon Law by Eric Flint & Andrew Dennis
1634: The Bavarian Crisis by Eric Flint & Virginia DeMarce
Grantville Gazette ed. by Eric Flint
Grantville Gazette II ed. by Eric Flint
Grantville Gazette III ed. by Eric Flint
Grantville Gazette IV ed. by Eric Flint
Ring of Fire II ed. by Eric Flint
Time Spike by Eric Flint & Marilyn Kosmatka (forthcoming)Standalone titles:Mother of Demons
Crown of Slaves (with David Weber)
The Course of Empire (with K.D. Wentworth)
Mountain Magic (with Ryk E. Spoor, David Drake
& Henry Kuttner)
With Mercedes Lackey & Dave Freer:The Shadow of the Lion
This Rough Magic With Dave Freer:Rats, Bats & Vats
The Rats, The Bats & The Ugly
Pyramid Scheme
Pyramid PowerJoe's World series:The Philosophical Strangler
Forward the Mage (with Richard Roach)With David Drake:The Tyrant The Belisarius Series with David Drake:An Oblique Approach
In the Heart of Darkness
Destiny's Shield
Fortune's Stroke
The Tide of Victory
The Dance of TimeEdited by Eric Flint The World Turned Upside Down (with David Drake & Jim Baen)
The Best of Jim Baen's Universe
The Best of Jim Baen's Universe 2007 (forthcoming)PrefaceThis is the second of the Ring of Fire anthologies, following the one that came out four years ago, in January of 2004. As was the case with the original Ring of Fire, the stories in this anthology are all part of the 1632 series which I began in 2000 with the founding novel, 1632, and have since continued with the following novels: 
1634: The Baltic War
1634: The Galileo Affair
1634: The Bavarian Crisis
1635: The Cannon Law
In addition to the six novels so far published in the series and the two Ring of Fire anthologies, other stories in the 1632 setting have been published in the part-anthology/part-novel titled 1634: The Ram Rebellion, as well as the Grantville Gazette. The Gazette is an electronic magazine devoted to the 1632 series which I began publishing in 2003, the fifteenth issue of which has just come out. Beginning in the summer of last year, the Gazette is published on a regular bi-monthly basis. The first three volumes of the magazine were published by Baen Books in a paper edition, and the fourth volume is coming out in paper in June of this year.(For information on how to subscribe to the Gazette, see the end of this preface.)To put it another way, short fiction is as integral a part of this series as novel length stories. "Integral," not simply in the sense that the stories are part of the setting, but that they often play a major role in shaping the series. They are not simply, as is usually the case with spin-off anthologies attached to a popular series, stories "off to the side." What happens in these stories very often lays the basis for major developments in the novels, as well as either introducing important characters or developing them still further.That's especially true of the stories which appear in the Ring of Fire anthologies. There is no sharp and clear dividing line between stories that appear in the Gazette and stories that appear in the RoF anthologies. The distinction is certainly not one of literary quality in the abstract. But, as much as possible, I try to select stories for the Ring of Fire anthologies which connect more directly with the series as a whole than do most of the stories in the Gazette.That was true for the first Ring of Fire anthology, as I explained in some detail in my preface to that volume. It is true of this second one, as well. To give some examples:Andrew Dennis' "Lucky at Cards" is an integral part of the story line which he and I began in 1634: The Galileo Affair, developed further in 1635: The Cannon Law, and will be continuing in novels to come. It depicts an episode in the career of Giulio Mazarini—now Jules Mazarin, having taken service with Cardinal Richelieu's France.Gorg Huff and Paula Goodlett's "A Trip to Amsterdam," along with Iver Cooper's "The Chase," develop further the adventures of a group of young American entrepreneurs whose story was begun by Gorg as far back as the first volume of the Gazette (see "The Sewing Circle") and has continued in a number of stories published in later issues of the magazine. So far, those characters and their activities have only received incidental mention in the novels, but that will be changing in the future. These kids are not about to go away, to say the least.David Carrico's "Command Performance" is one of several stories he's written, the first of which appeared in the Gazette, that depicts the impact of the time-transplanted Americans on seventeenth-century music and musicians. These same characters will figure prominently in a murder mystery novel he and I are co-authoring titled 1635: Symphony for the Devil.K.D. Wentworth's "Eddie and the King's Daughter" tells the story of how the romance between Eddie Cantrell and the Danish king's daughter Anne Cathrine, which figured prominently in 1634: The Baltic War, got started in the first place.Virginia's DeMarce's "Second Thoughts" continues the story of Noelle Murphy, one of the central characters in 1634: The Ram Rebellion, and serves as a preface to the final story in this anthology.That's my own short novel, "The Austro-Hungarian Connection," which ties the development of Noelle as a character to major changes taking place in political and military developments in Austria and Hungary with the accession to the throne of a new emperor. The story also features Denise Beasley, one of the major characters in a new novel I've co-authored with Virginia entitled 1635: The Dreeson Incident, which will be coming out within a year. And this preface is probably long enough. I hope you enjoy the book.Eric Flint
July, 2007Those of you interested in subscribing to the
Grantville Gazette can find it at the following URL: http://www.grantvillegazette.com.   Horse ThievesKaren Bergstralh Fall 1633The rain pelted down solidly, stirring up the puddles in the road's many ruts. Four men and a boy slowly rode along, huddled in misery. This stretch of road passed through several still-abandoned villages and the nearest inn lay several miles down it. "Why does it always rain when the four of us travel together? Twice I've gone with Herr Parker and it only rained a little. It didn't rain at all when we went to Magdeburg and Jena with Fraulein Parker. Why does it do so now? If we had brought them, would they keep the rain from falling?" The soft tenor grumble came from Reichard Blucher, a huge man with a cheerful smile not reflected in his voice."It rained plenty when Rob was with us," Dieter replied. "I think it is just France telling us it is time to go home." "We've been out of France for a week," Wilfram Jones muttered back. A trickle of cold water traced down the back of his neck and he tried fruitlessly to adjust the collar of his rain slicker. The battered old Stetson he wore directed the rain away from the back of his neck better than any other headgear he'd worn, yet some cold water always got through. The true miracle was the slicker. It shed water better than any oiled wool cloak and was far lighter. "Papa, will it rain all the way home?" Jacques asked. The thirteen-year-old boy had been adopted the previous year. Some of the former mercenaries had stumbled into Jacques' village and found only two women and four children alive. Christian was now married to one of the women and had adopted the surviving children. This horse-buying trip was the first time Jacques had come along. "No, son," Christian replied, smiling at the boy. That gentle smile on Christian's face always surprised the other men. Christian du Champ generally looked like a priest about to launch into a three-hour sermon on mortal sin. Despite the rain, it had been a good trip. The results, forty large horses, followed quietly on lead ropes behind the men. On this trip they had gone to Le Perche in their search for draft horses. The mercenaries-turned-horsetraders had gotten a good selection of young mares and two yearling colts. The animals were slated for Ev Parker's heavy horse breeding program, but only the colts belonged to Herr Parker. All the rest belonged to them. A sense of satisfaction settled on Wilf. Two years before they had all been mercenaries in one of Tilly's tercios, marching on Badenburg. The tercio had found out that the rumors of "wizards" nearby were true, as up-time guns had shattered it. Taken prisoner, the men had been saved by Gretchen Richter. It still amazed him, to have gone from mercenary to prisoner to hired farm help and now to partner in Herr Parker's draft horse breeding operation—all in the space of those two years. Give them another year like the last, and they would be rich men. A better end, he thought, than his father had predicted years before. Maybe next spring he would travel back to England and see if his father still lived. Lightning bloomed overhead followed immediately by thunder, making several of the horses dance. When eyes and ears had adjusted, Wilf signaled his companions to silence. He had caught the sounds of someone else swearing. Christian moved his horse ahead of Jacques, giving Dieter the lead rope of his string of horses. Reichard swung his mount alongside Wilf's and handed over his string also. Hands now free, the two men moved slightly ahead of the rest.Out of the darkness and rain emerged two sodden men on horseback—men dressed in uniforms with muskets at the ready. Wilf had just enough time to see Reichard's lifted eyebrow and nod before one of the soldiers spoke. The order for them to halt was no surprise. What had caught their attention was the uniforms and the muskets—flintlock muskets.Complying with the soldiers' orders, the group stopped and waited. After a brief consultation that looked more like a whispered argument, one soldier remained in front of them. The other rode past, peering intently at them as he passed. Having inspected them, the second soldier then rode back to join his companion. Another whispered argument followed with much gesturing. Reichard leaned toward Wilf and muttered under his breath, his eyes on the two soldiers. "They want our horses, from what I make out.""Aye," Wilf replied, "and they'll not care about any objections from us." Wilf turned his head and caught Dieter Wiesskamp's eye. Dieter smiled tightly and quickly tucked one of his lead ropes under his thigh. His free hand dipped into his slicker pocket. That pocket now contained an up-time revolver. At Reichard's side, Christian frowned blackly, nodding also. In his right hand, hidden by his slicker, would be one of those lovely small swords the up-timers called a "Bowie knife." In Christian's hands, blades had a deadly elegance. Turning back to face the soldiers, Wilf dallied both lead ropes around the saddle's horn with a quickly muttered prayer that the draft horses would remain calm and docile. Wilf's hand slipped through his own slicker pocket and the slit behind it to find the pistol at his waist. Easing it out of the holster, he snuggled it down in the raincoat's pocket."They're going to split up, one riding next to me, the other next to Christian. Think we're the merchants." Reichard whispered. "Leave them to Christian and me. We can do it quietly and if we miss . . ."Wilf nodded in agreement. Gunshots from up-time guns sounded distinct to the trained ear. He had no wish to announce the group's connections with Grantville if it could be avoided. Soldiers like these wouldn't be alone. More would be somewhere nearby. If Reichard and Christian could dispose of these without having to shoot them, there was one less risk of bringing unwanted attention to them.Finally the two soldiers reached a decision. "You will come with us. Do not argue or we will kill you. If you try to escape, we will kill you." With that the speaker turned his horse and motioned for Reichard to join him. The second soldier moved to the side of the road and took up station alongside Christian. "You," growled the second soldier, his musket pointed at Christian, "will ride at the back." When Christian nodded in agreement, the first soldier motioned for the group to move out.The first soldier rode just to one side. His musket was aimed at Reichard but he was trying to watch all of them. Turned awkwardly, the soldier didn't see the tree branch looming ahead. Although it was barely more than a large twig, the slap of the branch against the side of his head distracted him. That was all Reichard needed. He reached out with one huge hand and wrapped it around the soldier's neck. A quick jerk dragged the man from his saddle to dangle over the road. Reichard's other hand grabbed a shoulder and twisted. The sound of the soldier's neck breaking was almost hidden by the splatter of the rain. Reichard dropped the limp body and spun his horse around. Behind them, Christian saw Reichard's first movement. Slamming his horse hard against the second soldier's, Christian's hand snaked out with the Bowie knife. The nearly headless body slumped down and slid off onto the muddy road."Papa, weren't you afraid he would shoot you?" asked Jacques in a quivering voice."No, son. Flintlocks aren't worth spit in heavy rain; wet powder won't fire. He wasn't a very good soldier, either. He rode too close to me. You did well, Jacques, for your first fight. Now, take the horses over there, under that tree, and wait.""Yes, Papa." The boy smiled, proud of his stepfather's praise."We can make a soldier out of him," Dieter commented. "Now, what should we do with this one?""Pray God he never becomes a soldier. I'll not have that life for him." Christian spat and shot a sour look at Dieter. "As for this piece of filth . . ." He dismounted and approached the dead soldier. "Haul him into the woods and let the wolves deal with him." "Did you notice their horses and how the beasts move?" asked Dieter. "Like they were on their last legs. See, this one just stands here." Working gently Christian slipped a rope over the horse's head and unbuckled the bridle. "Ever seen a bit like this before?""In several books—the same books that showed uniforms like they were wearing and saddles like that one," Reichard replied, bringing up the other loose horse. "Up-time books?" Wilf asked."Yes, those ones on the Americans' civil war. Rob Clark loaned them to me, when my leg was broken. He thought I'd like it because it was about soldiers. The cavalry used this kind of saddle. Some Scotsman made them, I think. I've even seen one, at Herr Parker's.""Aye, Herr Parker has one of these saddles. 'McClellans,' they are called. Miserable things to ride, but they are lightweight and are supposed to fit horses better than ours. It appears someone else has been reading the same books.""Well, this saddle doesn't fit this horse very well. I've never seen such sores before." Christian cursed as he eased the saddle off. "As large as my fist, this one is—and another on the other side just as big.""We need to get off this road before some of their friends come looking for them." Wilf chewed his lip for a moment, then shrugged. "Tie the bodies up on their horses. We shouldn't be too far from that meadow we've camped at before. Then we need to find out where the rest of them are. God grant they are not between us and home.""Aye, we can dump the bodies deep in the woods and let the pigs deal with them," Reichard stated matter-of-factly. "After a day or so there won't be enough left for their mothers to recognize them if they are found. Once that's done, let me do a little scouting. If the rest of these soldiers are close, I'll find them." The rain had ceased some time ago, but here under the trees water still dripped. The ground beneath gave up water like a squeezed sponge whenever Wilf moved. At least it wasn't as cold here where the wind didn't reach. He looked at the men on each side, gauging their discomfort. Reichard Blucher lay quietly, only his eyes moving. Reichard's size should have made him clumsy in the woods but he moved like a wolf. Wilf had heard the tales Reichard told of his forester father and grandfather. Now, hunkered down in these sopping woods he found himself believing them. On his other side, Christian du Champ stretched full length in the wet turf, his body still, his hands holding a pair of treasured up-time binoculars to his eyes."What do you think?" Wilf hissed. "Just what I thought last evening," Christian replied, his voice irritated. "They number about a hundred and show no signs of breaking camp. And they are blocking our road home." "Waiting for someone or something." The soft tenor voice was always a surprise from the burly Reichard. "They're the oddest cavalry I've ever seen.""Aye, all of them have rifles—flintlock muskets. Pistols, too. Even the camp is laid out strangely."The slightest of rustling noises behind him caught Wilf's attention. He turned his head and saw it was Sam O'Reilly crawling cautiously up the slope. Slithering into place beside Christian, Sam held a hand out for the binoculars. The previous night, when Reichard had returned from his scout, Sam O'Reilly and Klaus Goltz had been with him."Found them messing about in the woods, making enough noise to frighten a deaf old woman. I thought it better to bring them here than have them blunder into our new friends," was all Reichard said. O'Reilly and Klaus had explained that they were tracking a group of horse thieves who had hit a village near Grantville."Looks like the bastards got ahold of an old U.S. Cavalry manual," Sam whispered. "Damn camp is laid out like something from the Civil War. Even got themselves uniforms." "Yes," Reichard replied softly. "You are right. This camp does have the look of something from that manual. Good book, lots of good ideas there.""Where'd you see it?" Sam asked suspiciously."One of you Americans. He saw me reading a book on your civil war and loaned me a copy. Very good book. He's one of those who play act as soldiers.""Oh, one of the reenactors. Shouldn't have let you see it; your people get enough ideas without our folks helping." Resentment heavily laced Sam's voice."Ah, but we are on your side now. We are all citizens of Grantville. This, my friend, is not a good place to argue—those soldiers may hear us." Reichard's voice was barely audible. "Aye, well they might," Wilf whispered. "Sam, have you any idea why these troops are just sitting here?""Guarding the road?" "H'mm, I think not. This is hardly a major road, after all—which is why we were using it. We're nowhere near a crossroad or ford. They haven't been pillaging, save for your missing horses. The officers are holding the men in camp." Wilf sighed. "Why are they here? This road only leads to . . . Ah! To the Badenburg road. Clever bastards. Sneak along this road—" Wilf took a twig and sketched a rough map in the mud "—until you are in position to drop down on the main road. Wonder what their target is? What about guards?""Sheltering out of the wet under trees there, there, and there." Reichard pointed, a feral grin spreading across his face. "Poor bastards will catch hell if their captain finds them, but they've left a couple of nice gaps for us. It would seem some old habits die hard. None of the officers have ventured out of their tents except to go into that big tent. No one is checking the scouts. The officers are lazy pigs.""Probably noble-born sons," Christian whispered hoarsely. "Useless sots. This lot could use someone like Captain von Schorlemer.""Or Captain Ramos." Wilf snorted. The other mercenaries laughed silently at old memories."No sergeants, then. No one keeping them on their toes." Sam finally handed the binoculars back to Christian."Oh, they've got sergeants. They are the men sitting around that nice big fire on the edge of the camp. It is old habits, bad old habits, which this new cavalry troop hasn't lost. The weather's too bad for battle so everyone huddles down and waits. I thought your army people were crazy at first. Your sergeants work very hard all the time. Now, sitting up here and looking down on these, I understand." Reichard nodded at Sam. "I do not think one of your army units would be so easily spied on.""Don't count on it," Wilf replied thoughtfully. "All men get lazy and careless. I think that too often you up-timers believe rate-of-fire is all there is to war. Your manuals warn repeatedly about getting careless—as do your sergeants." "Yeah, Little Big Horn syndrome. Just because you got better guns doesn't mean the enemy can't kill you," Sam agreed. "Guess you Limeys had some problems that way with the Zulus, someplace called Rorke's Drift." "Ah, yes. I've seen that movie, too. The English hold out in that one. I think the one you mean is Zulu Dawn. A few brave English soldiers attempt to stand up to thousands of spear carrying natives with predictable results. The lesson is: don't get cocky and don't get careless and don't assume better arms mean you will win. General Jackson and others say such things often. Which is why I think we should depart this hill before continuing our discussion. Sam, you go first, Christian next, then me, and Reichard will tidy up after us.""Ha! Those guards, should they move from their dry spots, will never know we were here." Reichard smiled. "And when the time comes, they will not know they are dead until they try to get up. I have some new tricks I want to try." His smile grew wider and fiercer. The horse traders were camped in a small valley a little distance from the cavalry camp. Unless one looked very carefully it was hard to spot the three small shelters tucked under some tall bushes. What did draw attention was the large number of horses grazing along the tiny creek. When Sam approached, one horse, a big, ugly roan, looked up and snorted. Dieter Wiesskamp stepped into visibility, an up-time rifle cradled in his arms. Nodding at Sam, Dieter whistled two short bursts and Jacques du Champ stood up from a low spot in the meadow, proudly holding a .22 rifle."Where are Wilf and Reichard?" Dieter asked."Scouting to see if we've drawn any unwanted attention." Sam tried not to show his dismay at not having spotted either Dieter or Jacques. Damn, when had they gotten so good? "So what's the verdict? Are we going to sneak back to Grantville?" "So impatient, Dieter, always you are so impatient," Christian chided, coming out of the woods and crossing the meadow behind Sam."I want to get somewhere dry," Sam groused and resumed walking. The idea that his down-time companions might be better woodsmen irritated him. "Aye, and I wouldn't turn down a warm meal." Christian angled off to admire his adopted son's clever hiding spot. "So my best guess is that whoever these men are they are waiting for someone or something. What their target is, I wish I could guess." Wilf spoke around the stem of his pipe. "Might be looking for targets of opportunity. A hundred men aren't that large a force. Especially armed with flintlocks in this weather." Sam gestured at the rain, again bucketing down outside their shelter."A hundred men . . . From the two we met up with they might be Bavarians. I can't see them being Spanish but maybe good old John George has grown a backbone. Whoever, they appear to be copying an up-time manual so this would be a company, correct?" Reichard poked at the fire, flipping a piece of burning wood back into the center. "Depends on how they're organized," Sam replied. "Might be, I don't know. I've never run around in my great-granddaddy's long johns pretending to be a soldier. Had enough of soldiering when I was in the army. This bunch of foreign bastards isn't big enough to be a serious threat to Badenburg or Grantville.""Mayhap the target is not Badenburg. The war is heating up again. Troops and supplies might well be found moving along that road. A hundred men could do damage there." Dieter's voice was thoughtful."A hundred men could destroy villages and set fire to farms," Klaus agreed. "To a village a hundred such men is a very big threat.""Sherman's March to the Sea. Terrorize the farmers, burn what they can't steal and generally create havoc. But would they think of that?" Sam sat cross-legged, field stripping and cleaning his .30-06. "It appears they have a cavalry manual so they probably have several histories." Reichard shook his head. "I've read about Sherman's march in different books. There are lots of ideas in those books, especially for fast raids with cavalry. If they have something about General Forrest . . . that could give them very nasty ideas. As it is, they seem to have obtained flintlock muskets in some numbers." His huge hands caressed one of the soldier's muskets. A sack at his side contained the uniforms and other items the two dead soldiers had carried. "Not rifled, and they are not using cartridges. This pattern doesn't look like any I've seen in Grantville.""Might be from Suhl. There've been rumors of Suhl selling flintlocks in great numbers." Christian peered closely at the other musket. "No, none of the marks are from Suhl. There are people in Grantville who should see these." "Agreed, see them and soon," Wilf stated, puffing on his pipe. "We need to decide what we will do. Grantville and Badenburg must be warned about these fine gentlemen camped in the woods. You two have found your horse thieves; mayhap you should give the warning. Whatever else, we have horses to deliver." "I think someone needs keep a watch on them and, perhaps, discomfort them somewhat." Reichard's voice had a rough edge. He tossed the musket and sack across the fire to Dieter. "Aye, watch them indeed," Wilf agreed amiably. "There are too many friends here about for me to find comfort in either these soldiers' presence or the thought of losing sight of them. The odds are poor, though. A hundred against six . . . best not stir them.""I'm with Reichard," Dieter said. "The army may not have any troops close enough to get here before these move off. Besides, we all are members of the army. Reservists to be sure, but still . . ." He examined the musket he now held. "Piss poor flint on this one. Is the other any better?"Wilf smiled. "And some of us are getting a bit soft with all this fine living we've been doing. I agree, watch them. But watch only. If you do your usual throat cutting, they'll know we are here."Christian frowned. "This powder is poor. Badly milled." He sniffed at it and touched his tongue lightly to the small pile in his hand. "Bah! I think someone's let sand get into this powder. The other man's powder was better. Do they each supply their own?" Shrugging, Christian dusted his hands."Maybe they do have a bigger target in mind. Maybe they are waiting for more companies to join them. Say they broke their regiment up to sneak them in this close." Sam finished cleaning his rifle and began reassembling it. "Damned sneaky, foreign bastards.""Oh, aye. A warning must get to Grantville. Our horses must be gotten away from here or else they give away our presence. So many gray horses are difficult to hide. Besides, fresh horses might be what the soldiers are awaiting. Their own appear to be in bad shape. Christian, I think it best if you and Jacques go with the horses and the warning." Wilf pointed his pipe at the sleepy boy leaning against Christian. "Sam and Klaus should go, also. They are family men and should our friends discover us . . ." Wilf shrugged and smiled grimly. "Dieter, you'll be needed to help with the horses. Your woodcraft is not as good as mine is. Reichard and I will stay and keep watch on the camp."Christian nodded. "Best we leave before dawn. Reichard, if we take that path you showed us, don't we hit the Badenburg road?""Yes, but well enough down it that you should miss any stray patrols. The trail is narrow in spots, only one horse wide, so don't think you can hurry along it. I'll get you started on it come morning." "Come on, Jacques, you need to get some sleep." Standing, Christian looked around the group. "I will pray for your safety as I will not be there to keep you out of trouble. Do not get too fancy with your plans lest they tangle you up—as usual." Wilf grinned back at the thin mercenary. It was Christian who usually got tangled up, especially when the wine or beer had been freely flowing. "I'm staying." The flat statement came from Sam."Three men cannot handle all the horses on that trail," came the equally flat reply from Dieter. "The boy is not strong enough if there is trouble.""Then Wilf should go in my place." Sam's response was forceful and final."Why should I go in place of you?" Wilf asked, surprised at Sam's attitude. There had been trouble with the man the previous spring. A matter of inheritance, or lack of it. In addition, O'Reilly was one of the few up-timers who never seemed comfortable working with down-timers. Sam was often found at Club 250, drinking and cursing all "foreigners." When the final blow up occurred over the disputed inheritance, the man had gotten massively drunk, beaten up his wife and stolen several horses and guns. Quickly caught and as quickly convicted, Sam O'Reilly had served a year of hard labor. After that, he had appeared to calm down. He did his work but he continued to complain if he thought some down-timer was given an easier job. In short, sneaking around in a wet forest keeping watch on a hundred soldiers was hardly a task Wilf expected Sam O'Reilly to volunteer for. "Why should you stay?" Dieter asked."Because I've got this." Sam slapped his hand against the butt of the .30-06. "And this." He drew a huge pistol; one Wilf thought was a .357 Magnum. "If things get dicey I can off more foreign bastards faster and from farther away than that little popgun of yours." The light from the fire played across Sam's face, giving his eyes a red and feral glint. Glancing at Reichard, Wilf caught a thoughtful look and gesture of agreement from the big mercenary. Dieter and Klaus remained silent but had their hands near their own guns. They both remembered Sam's blow-up the previous year.Sighing, Wilf nodded. "Aye, nearly a cannon that gun is. Should blow great holes in our friends if needed. Agreed. I'll go back with the rest and leave you and Reichard to entertain yourselves watching yon miserable excuses for soldiers sitting in the rain. Give the sack to me, Dieter. I'll see it delivered.""You should take these fake McClellans back with you, too." Sam spat into the fire. "There are a couple of guys, reenactors, who should see 'em. Look like damn poor imitations to me, but these guys will know. Might be someone in Grantville has been selling old saddles to the enemy. If they have . . . well, leave it to these guys.""I think you are right in calling them imitations." Reichard picked up one of the saddles and turned it over. "From the way they are made the saddler had only a picture or sketch. Look here, how narrow the bars are. I've seen Herr Parker's saddle. Its bars are wider and smoother. This leather is thin and soft. See how it has wrinkled here? The real one, it is covered with rawhide.""Yeah, the tree should be covered in rawhide," Sam replied. "Then the seat gets covered in saddle leather. Damned trees aren't even from side to side and the two saddles don't match, either. Crappy workmanship." "Hurried, and working without a true model to show how it should be. Still, as you say, the poor workmanship surprises me. Someone wasn't paying proper attention to the work." Reichard's large hands stroked the underside of the saddle. "Saddlemakers know well enough that the leather must be smooth. Wonder if some saddlemaker isn't too fond of the man buying these saddles."Dieter shook his head skeptically. "And what happens when that man notices the problem and takes his complaints back to the saddlemaker? Chance there would be one less saddlemaker alive." Normally silent, Klaus spoke up. "I think it is either a case of bad workmanship or very clever sabotage. See, on this saddle the leather is not wrinkled. The tree is still uneven but the stitching is better. Yet, be the poor work deliberate, the false saddlemaker may live. There are no maker's marks on either saddle. So how is anyone to know which saddlemaker did this work?""Crappy work or sabotage, what does it matter? We've got that bunch of foreign bastards to keep an eye on come morning." With that final comment Sam picked up his rifle and moved off to the shelter where his sleeping bag awaited him."He may have the right of it. For now it matters little. Rest well, gentlemen." Wilf nodded to his companions and pondered Sam's motives. Very quietly he whispered to Reichard, "Watch yourself. Yon man is too eager to kill foreigners, any foreigners.""I understand. I'll be careful." "Jesus! What the hell did you do to him?" Sam choked out, his face going pale and green. "Looks like a panther chewed him up and spit him out.""Softly, softly, my friend. There are four other guards about." Reichard looked up. "Should any of them wander over here and find him, I think they will be confused. Lynx do not usually attack humans.""Yeah, yeah. Maybe they'll think the cat was rabid. But how did you manage to make it look so real?" Swallowing, Sam peered down at the body."These." Reichard held up a necklace of five claws strung together with a number of teeth. "Made it when I was ten years old. I'd just killed an old lynx that was bothering the sheep and Papa let me keep the teeth and claws. It was a silly, childish thing to do. I don't know why I keep it." Sam gave a grim chuckle. "I've got the claws from the first bear I shot. Strung 'em just about the same way, too. I was just turned twelve when Pa took me on that bear hunt. Won't his friends wonder why there was no noise?""That, my friend, depends. If any among them are foresters the deception will not hold. If luck is with us, they are all city scum. I was going to just cut his throat, but even a city scum understands that means some enemy is nearby. Come. This one's on his way to damnation and we need to avoid the rest." "Hey, I've got an idea. Two of these jerks are down that gully—" Sam pointed back the way he had come "—and they're arguing something fierce.""Ah, let us go along carefully and see. Perhaps they can be pushed into a duel. But first, any changes in the camp?""No. Saw the night road patrols come in and the morning ones go out. Took 'em half an hour to switch off. Only one sergeant was involved in the shift change. He sent three patrols out, two headed east and one west.""What about their horses?" As they backed away from the body, Reichard carefully removed any traces of their presence."Oh, yeah. You were right. Looks like they've only got maybe ten horses still in good enough shape to ride patrol. That piebald and the little dun went out again but not with the same troopers. Those two they stole from us. That same guy was out again plastering mud on the sores. Damn good way to get 'em infected. If we have to scoot, these boys can't put up much of a pursuit.""We cannot count on that. If they are stirred up enough they will come after us no matter how bad the horses' condition. We must remain careful. Let them be cold, wet, and afraid. Waiting in these conditions is hard.""Hey, man, they get a look at that poor sucker and they're going to be having nightmares. Hell, he's enough to give me nightmares." Reichard laughed. "Aye, nightmares are what we shall give them. Strange happenings, odd noises—such will have the most hardened soldier looking over his shoulder. Perhaps some will decide to flee.""And how about we pick off the saps that flee? Let the rest know they'll meet uncanny fates within this wood?"Reichard chuckled and smiled. "Aye, aye. Then the rest are less eager to continue. They must know they are near Grantville. Everyone knows the minions of Satan protect Grantville. Ah, my man, you give me ideas!" Reichard sighed and looked at Sam. "But it must be done carefully." Two hours later and the score stood at five dead cavalrymen. One soldier had the bad luck of deciding to urinate from the top of a boulder. Reichard snapped that one's neck and tossed him down onto the rocks below. Sam garroted the third and used a piece of rope to hang the body from a handy tree branch. Reichard carefully marked the ground beneath the body."Now," the big man commented, "It looks properly like he hung himself. When the neck doesn't break it takes a bit for one to strangle to death."The two guards Sam had seen arguing were easily provoked from words to knives by a couple of well-thrown rocks. The surviving guard, as he stood swaying over his dead companion, never saw Sam looming behind him."Ah, good work." Reichard chuckled grimly. "One more cut will not be noticed on this one." "Yeah, and nobody's likely to notice the bump on the back of his head, either." Sam shook his head. "Wonder what the hell they were arguing over.""I think a woman. At least a woman's name was being thrown back and forth. Now, we must leave this place. They will be missed and their sergeant will come looking." "Damn, but it would be easy to pick off those officers." O'Reilly caressed the stock of his rifle. "I'm getting tired of all this sneaking around.""How many bullets do you have?""About thirty rounds for my rifle and twenty-four for the magnum. Why?""I have twelve for my pistol," Reichard said. "If we both shoot like Julie Sims, never missing, we will have forty left alive. Those forty will be very, very upset with us. Those are not odds I like.""Shit! We shoot a few of the officers and the rest will tuck their tails and run!""Ah, like our tercio did at the Battle of the Crapper?"Sam stared into the distance. Reichard could see the man was remembering that day. The tercio had just kept coming and coming and coming—right up the muzzles of the Grantville Army's rifles. And with Frank Jackson's M-60 hammering them from the side. Reichard had been in those ranks and had taken a machine gun round himself. Shaking his head, Sam finally replied. "Okay. Guess you've got a point there."Reichard exhaled slowly. The crisis was over for now. O'Reilly might be tired of skulking about in the woods, but Reichard was tired of dealing with Sam's inclination for blind violence. Very tired. The up-timer had some woodcraft but he had no patience, and no subtlety. Gunfire awoke Reichard. Rolling out of his blankets, he knelt and listened. The sound of several rifles boomed raggedly in the distance. Above those was the rhythmic crack-pause-crack-pause of an up-time rifle. Reichard gave a low, sharp whistle, his hands busy picking up the small amount of camping gear and stuffing it into a pair of sacks. At the sound of the whistle, the two horses grazing in the meadow lifted their heads. The larger of the two began to trot toward Reichard. The other, smaller horse grabbed another mouthful of grass and then trailed after his companion. Troll, a massive, ugly, half-Clydesdale gelding, had become Reichard's horse the year before. In that time the big roan horse had learned that such a whistle meant 'oats.' Sam's horse, Travy, appeared to be making the same connection.Seeing the horses were coming, Reichard again listened. The shooting had decreased somewhat. There was a long pause in the up-time rifle, then it started up again. When the horses arrived, Reichard poured a handful of oats into the feedbags and tied the bags over their noses. While the animals munched on their oats, he quickly brushed their backs and bellies, then threw their saddles on. Troll rubbed his head against Reichard's back, nearly knocking him over. "Sorry, boy, but we've no time for a leisurely breakfast this morning." He slapped the big horse's neck affectionately. It took only a minute or so more to bridle the horses and tie the sacks of camping supplies behind the saddles. "Now we are ready to leave this place in a hurry." Reichard snapped lead ropes to the halters he'd left on under the bridles. "So we will go and get that crazy man out of trouble. Trouble I've no doubt he started himself."Leading the horses through the woods, Reichard came to a spot just below the ridge where they had first spied on the soldiers' camp. The shooting had quieted some.The first response from the camp, disorganized by the surprise attack, was coming under control. The officers and sergeants were back in charge. The lack of smoke from O'Reilly's rifle would keep the soldiers from pinpointing Sam's exact position. But soon, very soon, some bright man would figure out that the firing was coming from one place on the ridge. Reichard tied the horses to a sapling. He double-checked that both knots would release with a quick pull. When beating a hasty retreat, not being able to untie your horse was not a good idea. Sam's fire had also slackened. That meant that the easy targets had gone to ground. Reichard eased up the slope in a crouch, his eyes watching for movement on either side of him. Near the top he dropped to his belly and started to crawl toward the rocks where O'Reilly hid. "Sam, it's time to get out of here," Reichard whispered.Startled, Sam half-turned, his rifle almost lining up on Reichard's head. "Oh, it's you. About time you showed up. Get up here and give me a hand. Got 'em dancing! Bet they think it's the whole U.S. Army up here!" Turning back, Sam sent a pair of shots down into the camp.Reichard watched Sam's face carefully. The man's expression seemed unnaturally gleeful. "If we're going to play like we're the Army, we need to change positions. You've been in this spot too long.""What? Whaddaya mean?" Confusion chased suspicion across Sam's face."You've been firing from this spot all along. To make them think we are an army we need to fire from several different positions." Reichard was close enough now to smell Sam's breath and the whiskey on it. Connecting that with the empty bottle now residing behind Travy's saddle, Reichard had an explanation for Sam's behavior."I gotta good spot here. Can see all of the camp. You go someplace else and shoot at 'em." Rearing up, Sam took aim at a running man. He fired and missed, fired again and whooped as the man fell and rolled out of sight. "Got the bastard! Why the hell should I move?"In point of fact, Reichard knew he'd missed the man. That roll had been a controlled one, not the flopping of a man killed or badly wounded. A movement caught Reichard's eye and he looked to his left. Two more cavalrymen were slipping through the trees, muskets ready. "Because we are being flanked." Reichard shot at them before he finished the sentence. One man dropped with the loose boned look of death, the other dodged behind a large tree. A shot slammed into the rocks, coming from Sam's right."Damn! They should be running by now! I've killed twenty, twenty-two of 'em! The damned bastards should be panicked and running!" "Well, they aren't," Reichard growled. He left off adding that O'Reilly's estimate of the men he'd killed was wildly exaggerated. A superb marksman such as Julie Sims might be able to kill that many men in such a situation, but there was no chance at all that O'Reilly had done so—or could have, even if he'd been sober."If we are to keep fighting them we need to get away from this spot," he repeated urgently."I can't see anyone over there . . . guess you're right. Let's boogie!" O'Reilly rose, fired a couple of shots into the woods to the right and started walking down the hill."Stay down!""Hell, man, Americans don't run and we sure as hell don't crawl!" Sam stopped, turned deliberately, and sent another shot into the trees before resuming his walk."The horses are over there." The remaining soldier on the left stepped away from a tree, his musket aimed and ready. Reichard snapped a shot that way and saw the soldier duck back. Fumbling a bit, he reloaded as he followed Sam down the hill.When they reached the horses Reichard was relieved to find them still there and alone. He ground his teeth in frustration as Sam took time to check Travy over and readjust the saddle."Ain't one of you foreigners can saddle a horse right." Sam finally swung up in the saddle. "Won't see me . . ."He paused as several shots came from the top of the ridge. ". . . soring any of my horses' backs." Grunting, he shook his head, then slid the rifle into the saddle scabbard. Unsnapping his holster, Sam pulled the .357 out and emptied the cylinder at the men now coming down the slope. Not one of the shots came close to any of the approaching enemy, so far as Reichard could see."Getting a bit warm around here!" Sam grinned, spun Travy around and set the horse off at a run."Just a bit warm," agreed Reichard, relieved that O'Reilly was no longer arguing to stay and fight. He sent Troll in pursuit of the smaller horse. As they galloped out into the sunshine of the meadow, Reichard saw the stain spreading just below Sam's right armpit. It wasn't sweat. When Travy half-jumped the little stream, Sam wavered. He took the reins in his right hand and wrapped his left around the saddle horn. The horse, aware something was wrong, slowed. Reichard caught up and saw the paleness in Sam's face."Can you hold on until we've hit the path? Once back in woods we'll stop and tend your wound.""Bastards!" Disbelief edged out pain in Sam's reply. "Can't believe some stupid foreign bastards waving old-fashioned smoke poles managed to hit me. Can't hit a barn door with one at fifty yards. Everybody knows none of you can hit what you shoot at. That's why all the foreigners in the army got our shotguns."Unwilling to argue with the wounded man, Reichard only replied, "Put enough lead into the air and some of it is certain to find flesh. The one who shot you may have been aiming at me.""Oh, yeah, you make a bigger target." Sam moaned and slumped as they entered the woods on the far side of the meadow. When Reichard brought his horse to a stop, Sam's horse stopped also. Gently Reichard plucked the smaller man off his saddle and laid him on the ground. Sam moaned and tried to say something. Even before he lifted the bloody shirt Reichard knew the wound was fatal. Blood foamed from Sam's lips and bubbled out the hole under his arm. "'S not in my back . . . didn't get shot in the back?" O'Reilly managed. "No, Herr O'Reilly," Reichard replied. "One of the flankers shot you. I'll bandage it." He felt O'Reilly go limp. Glancing across the meadow he saw several soldiers moving on foot. One was pointing toward the trees and shouting at the others. Reichard moved swiftly, wrapping Sam's body in his rain slicker and tying it across Travy's saddle. Finished, he checked the meadow again. The tracker was now trotting along their tracks. Ten or so horsemen appeared on the far side, muskets ready across saddles. It was time to go. Reichard came out of the last patch of woods and onto the Badenburg road. He couldn't hear his pursuers but, considering the determination that they had shown so far, he was certain that they were still following him.He started trotting along the road toward Grantville. A quarter of a mile later he realized that there was no other traffic. "Ah, boys," he told the horses, "this is good. Our friends got through. I'll bet they sent Jacques ahead on his fast little pony. Come on now, Troll, step lively."Ahead the road bent around a half-rebuilt mill and crossed the mill creek bridge. Something about the scene bothered Reichard and he stopped his horse."You wouldn't shoot a friend, would you?" a familiar voice called softly from the rubble.Reichard chuckled. "No," he replied. "Especially not when that friend is behind a nice big wall and I can't see him. Hold on for a few minutes and you will have some targets you can shoot at with my blessings. It would be nice to discourage them."Major Stieff stepped out into the open, an up-time rifle cradled in his arms. He gestured toward a pile of downed trees across the road. "We've enough to do that, I hope." He smiled. "Four of us on this side and four more over there. How many are we waiting for?""Eight, maybe nine. I think I wounded a couple.""Ah, so you didn't manage to bring the entire bunch after you. Eight or nine we can handle. There's an army unit headed down from above Badenburg. We'll leave the main body to them. Your horses look like they could use a breather. They can join ours in the trees while we see if we can discourage your pursuers." Stieff faded back to his place behind the mill's walls.Reichard dismounted and led the horses into the trees. The pile of tree trunks he noticed made a solid, U-shaped wall. Each tree had the nice, clean cuts of a chainsaw. He grinned in approval when he saw that someone had plastered mud over the newly sawn wood. The soldiers chasing him should see a pile of cut trees and not realize it was a freshly made fort. Afterward, the mill owner's lawyers would have something to say about those trees. One of the figures behind the wooden wall stepped forward and took Travy's lead rope. "Sam did something stupid, didn't he?" Lannie Parker's voice had a disgusted tone."Ah, well.""Was he drinking, again? Forget it. Of course he was drinking. Poor Maggie.""Fraulein Parker, he's at peace now, however he found it," Reichard said. Reichard looped Troll's lead around a branch and loosened the cinch on his saddle. Lannie stripped the bridle off Travy, leaving the halter. She gave the horses a quick drink from a canvas bucket before escorting Reichard into the fort."Hey, Reichard. How the heck did they miss a target your size?" Rob Clark slapped the big man on the back. "Glad to see you made it this far.""Of course I made it. I'm too mean to die. What is that saying your aunt had?""Heaven won't have me and Satan's afraid I'll take over hell.""That's me, Rob. That's me. Put your hat on, boy. These men aren't blind, and that red hair of yours is a wonderful target."Lannie sighed. "Thanks, Reichard. I've been telling him that for that last fifteen minutes. He doesn't listen to me.""Fraulein, it is ever that way between men and their women." Reichard bowed to Lannie and winked. "A man cannot openly take his woman's advice without feeling that his friends will mock him."The other men behind the improvised fort were up-timers whose names he didn't remember. The younger up-timer glanced toward Sam's body and gestured up the trail. "Did you kill him or did they?"Reichard grunted at the insult. Rob laid a hand on Reichard's arm and Lannie rounded on the man."Doggie, you dumbass. You're still the dumbest guy I know. You sure haven't eaten any smart pills since high school." "Hey, Lannie. Back down. Why're you mad at me? Sam's your cousin, not mine," Doggie whined. "I was just asking. Gotta watch ourselves around these krauts, you know."Lannie glared at him. "Sam's had a death wish for a long time. He knew Grandpa would shoot him if he raised a hand against Maggie or the girls again. That was if I didn't get to him first."Reichard smiled down at the red-faced up-timer. "He wasn't shot by me." He tapped his up-time pistol. "Go dig the ball out and see for yourself."Lannie Parker's defense of Reichard or the offer of an on-the-spot autopsy quieted Doggie. The young man turned back to watch the road. The other man said nothing, only nodding toward the road."Didn't hear what you told the major. How many we waiting for?" he asked politely."Eight or nine.""Riding or walking?""Riding, the last time I saw them.""Doggie," the older man addressed the younger, "aim for the middle of the chest.""Why you telling just me?" "Because the rest of us have been in a fire fight before. Shut up, Doggie. Or I gotta figure Lannie's got the right take on your brains."Doggie looked offended but said nothing.Reichard examined the wooden fort with a critical eye.He nodded and spoke to Rob and Lannie. "This will do nicely. You've moved fast to block the road and get this ambush set up.""Yeah." Rob replied. "Jacques had sense enough to come to my place. He knew I'd take his message seriously. I got on the phone to Major Stieff and he sent out the call-up. We were ready soonest and headed up here with the major. Got a couple of regular army units headed this way but it will take time for them to arrive. We're just supposed to slow your 'friends' down if they come this way and then fade back into town."Lannie added. "Wilf and guys came through late last night. The rest of the militia is mustering in town. Just in case it's another raid."Reichard shook his head. "I do not think it is a raid on Grantville." He grinned. "If I'm wrong we will treat them rudely and send the remnants running home.""You and Sam stirred things up." Rob said. He pointed down the road and continued in a whisper. "Here comes your tail. Is that all of them?"Reichard peered over the logs. "Yes. They've bunched up. The one on the gray seems to be their leader."Rob pulled out a child's walkie-talkie and conveyed Reichard's words to Major Stieff. "Wait until the last man passes the dead tree." The major's voice hissed scratchily in return.Rob pointed out the tree in question and Reichard quickly settled himself. He broke open his pistol to reload and stopped. The only bullets he had were the two left in the gun. Lannie clucked and dug into her fanny pack. "Here. You're using .38's, right?" She dropped a box of bullets into his hands. "Thank God Rob's dad stocked up for Y2K—or was it World War III?""Y2K followed by the complete disintegration of civilization," Rob replied, his eyes on the approaching horsemen. "Dad suffered from having been both a Boy Scout and a Marine. 'Be Prepared for Anything' was his motto." His pistol reloaded, Reichard turned his attention back on the road. The soldiers on the road had stopped. He counted seven of them. He must have hit a couple in that last exchange of shots before reaching the Badenburg road. The soldiers' horses stood still, heads drooping with fatigue while the men argued."They've spotted us." Doggie whispered. "Told you they would.""Shut up, Doggie." Rob whispered back. "They're arguing about tracks. The guy with the corporal's stripes thinks Reichard went the other way. None of them are trackers if they can't pick out Troll's size thirteens."The argument resolved itself and the soldiers kicked their horses into motion toward the bridge. The last man, the corporal, rode past the dead tree and the ambush was sprung.Reichard emptied his pistol into the body of men and bent to reload. Beside him Rob's rifle cracked out, followed by Lannie's and the older up-timer's. The major's up-time rifle snapped from the mill along with the bass booms of flintlocks. Reichard straightened up in time to see two of the soldiers turning their horses and trying to flee. Lannie's and Rob's rifles cracked, and the two were down. Over the ringing in his ears, Reichard heard men and horses screaming. Lannie and Rob fired together and the screaming horse was silent.Doggie was on his knees, white faced and vomiting.Hans Buchen came out from the mill and cautiously approached the dead and wounded soldiers. Major Stieff followed, his rifle at the ready.Reichard moved to join them."Hang on, Reichard." Lannie spoke quietly. "We're supposed to stay here and keep guard."Hans checked each body, tossing any weapons he found away from unfriendly hands. Five of the bodies were too still for life. Satisfied that neither of the wounded was a danger, Hans whistled and a two-horse wagon creaked out from behind the mill. Buchen and the driver loaded the dead on first and then, more gently, lifted the wounded aboard. The second man climbed into the wagon bed and began bandaging the wounded.Major Stieff walked across the road. His eyes continued to stray up the road. "Is that the lot, Blucher?""They're the ones I saw following me." Reichard answered. "Could be others. The rest may come along, too.""Of course. That is why we will stay here and watch. How many did you and Sam kill?""Somewhere between five and seven that I'm certain about. Perhaps another five wounded too badly to ride," Reichard replied.The major turned toward the others. "I want to keep Georg here." He gestured toward the wagon driver. "We may need our other medic. That means I need someone to drive the wagon while Peter tends to the wounded. I'd like to have at least one of them get to Grantville alive."Doggie stepped forward. In a shaky voice the young man volunteered as a wagon driver. Major Stieff looked him over and nodded, then turned back to Reichard. "Go with the wagon, Blucher. See that everyone gets back safely. Then get a good meal and some rest.""Yes, sir. I should take Herr O'Reilly's body to his wife. She should know how he died." "Yes, yes, by all means!" the major said. "Please extend my condolences to the good lady." "A toast to a job well done." Ev Parker lifted his stein. "Your mares are beauties. I don't think I could have done any better myself. Those colts look to grow up into good studs."Wilf lifted his stein in response. "Herr Parker, without your guidance—without your friendship, we would still be but a gang of poor mercenaries."The other ex-mercenaries nodded in agreement."You have, Herr Parker," Christian said, "given us lives, livelihoods, and a home."Wilf refilled the steins. "Nay, good Christian. Not just a home but a home and family. 'Tis not something mercenaries often find at the end of their soldiering." He looked around for a barmaid. It was a quiet time at the Thuringen Gardens, midway between the last of the lunch crowd and the beginnings of the dinner crowd. Most of the staff were taking their well-deserved breaks. "Before Grantville's arrival," Wilf continued, "the best we could hope for was to be killed quickly in battle. Else we'd end our days begging for drinking money in some village until death claimed us." One of the barmaids was approaching the table at last."Yes." Reichard picked up the conversation. "Surviving as the village drunk and filling young boys' heads with tales of the loot and glory of a war company. Little wonder some of those boys run off and join the first company they find.""Some of us," Christian chimed in, "found ourselves, ah, encouraged to leave home. When one has no home, no family, and no craft, the mercenary companies offer food, companionship, and a craft."Wilf noticed the look on the barmaid's face as she came closer. "Methinks we have trouble brewing, boys." He stood and shoved his chair back."Herren," the barmaid whispered. Her face was white with fright. "The men, the no-kraut men, they are looking for you. They say you murdered a man.""Damn bunch of rednecked idiots!" Ev swore. "Damn that Sam O'Reilly—still kicking up trouble even when he's dead.""I think that trouble wears the name of Doggie this time." Reichard said. "He accused me of murder at the mill.""Doggie's dumber than a pail full of rocks," Ev replied. "Unfortunately he's got a overly-healthy imagination fueled by too much beer and weed. He's also got a big mouth on him."They were all standing when the front doors slammed open and twenty some men pushed in. Seeing their targets standing calmly the mob halted in confusion. A few taunts were shouted at the ex-mercenaries but more were aimed at getting the mob organized for its attack."Shit, man, get your skinny ass over here and stop trying to bash Win's head in. Save it for the krauts!" shouted a skinny man in a John Deere gimme cap. "BB, you dumbass, you poke me once more with that thing and I'll wrap it around your fat neck," a voice yelled over the general uproar.Reichard faced toward the mob and the others lined up on either side of him. Wilf leaned over and whispered, "Herr Parker, if you don't mind, it would be better if you moved aside. We'll be the ones these fools are after.""I've a mind to join in but it's been fifty years since my last bar fight." Ev grinned briefly. Wilf was relieved when the old man moved to the back of the room. He turned his attention to the mob milling around just inside the door. They would have to cross thirty feet to reach his group. Thirty feet full of heavy tables, chairs and benches. Good. They had to either move those tables and chairs out of the way or split up. The sound of wood scraping on wood behind him brought a savage grin. Klaus was moving tables to block anyone trying to get at their backs. "Break bones but let's try to avoid killing." Wilf said. Christian barked a laugh. "Ah, but their blood is too hot and some of them need a medicinal bloodletting. Look at that one in the red shirt. His face is the same shade."Dieter chuckled. "Aye. The one in the green cap also has that look.""That's the old way," Reichard stated pontifically. "The new doctors suggest rest. A little tap on the head and he'll go to sleep.""Keep the bloodletting down." Wilf growled. "We don't want a massacre."The men took notice that the mob was armed mostly with baseball bats. A couple of them had lengths of motorcycle drive chain and one fellow sported a golf club. Two men at the back had ropes in their hands—ropes with hangman's nooses tied in them."They're looking for a lynching," Dieter said. "Do you think that they believe we will quietly cooperate with their plans?"The mob had finally sorted itself out and began its charge. Their tight group split up as they wove between tables and chairs. The first man to reach them planted himself and swung a length of chain at Wilf's head. Wilf grinned, ducked and slammed his fist into the chain wielder's stomach. Things got a bit busy then. Wilf caught occasional glimpses of his friends. He saw Reichard pluck a baseball bat out of a man's hands and slam it back into that man's ribs.Wilf braced himself for the next attacker. The man in the green cap pushed forward, swinging his golf club. Wilf stepped inside the swing and swept the man's feet out from under him. When the man was on the floor, Wilf stomped on his hand. A blow took him across the back and he turned to deal with it. A high-pitched scream cut above the general noise. Wilf risked a glance. One of the mob was clutching his stomach with both hands, trying to keep his intestines in. At his feet lay a rusty machete. The sight of serious blood gave the mob pause. Six other combatants lay on the floor, two writhing in pain from broken bones.Most of the mob turned and fled. Four did not. The man in the red shirt screamed, "You fucker! You fucker! You killed him!" and pulled a pistol from his waistband. His hand shaking with fury, he pointed it at Christian. "I'm going to blow your fucking brains out!" Christian's Bowie knife swept up, knocked the pistol aside and almost separated the man's hand from his arm.A shot deafened them all. Wilf's attention snapped back to the remaining attackers. One was down; his body completely limp, head resting at an impossible angle. The dead man's hand was wrapped around a revolver. Reichard stood over him, blood seeping from his forearm. The last two attackers looked at each other in horror and ran for the door. "I'm not out here to arrest anyone, Ev," Dan Frost explained. "I just need to finish my paperwork on that brawl.""The boys," Ev Parker replied, "have already paid the Gardens for cleaning up and the broken furniture. Which was generous of them, I'd say. Especially as they only defended themselves. Reichard's arm is busted, Klaus has cracked ribs, Dieter's got broken toes and a couple of broken fingers, and Wilf's probably got a cracked shoulder blade. Christian needed some stitches in his thigh."Dan snorted. "I've got Austin O'Meara dead. The doctors had BB Baldwin in surgery for eight hours and they're not giving him good odds to last the week. Winston Beattie's got a fractured skull to go with having his right hand nearly amputated. His odds aren't great, either. The other injuries run to broken ribs and arms with lots of cuts and bruises mixed in. One sorry specimen may be singing tenor. He's hospitalized and, for once in his life, praying mightily.""Yeah, heard about him." Ev grinned. "I also hear that his wife is praying his voice change is permanent.""There aren't going to be any charges pressed against any of your 'boys.' We've got plenty of witnesses for self defense." Frost leaned back in his chair. He sat silently for a minute, sipping his coffee and thinking."You know, Ev, everything considered, I'm kind of surprised that only one man is dead. Even if BB and Winston die, that's not the result I'd have expected. Your boys pulled their punches. It wasn't a fair fight. More like a bunch of junkyard dogs trying to take on a pack of wolves. No, that isn't quite right."It was Ev's turn to snort. "Twenty drunken amateurs going up against five professional soldiers. Try 'a bunch of junkyard dogs taking on five grizzlies.'""Now that sounds right, Ev."

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