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Chapter 19

As soon as Mike left Jeff and the young German women, he headed for Nichols. The doctor was moving through the crowd of frightened camp followers, quickly inspecting the women and children to see which might need immediate medical attention.


"James!" called out Mike. The doctor turned. Mike reached him in a few quick strides.


"I think you should look at those people first," he said, indicating the cluster of people by the outhouse. He gave Nichols a quick explanation.


The doctor winced. "In there? Jesus Christ almighty. What kind of a world—"


Nichols broke off. "They should be all right, if they haven't been bitten by the wrong kind of spiders. Lucky they didn't suffocate, though. And you're right, Mike—we need to get them to the sanitation center right away. I'll see that they get first priority."


"I already told Jeff and his friends to look after them," Mike explained. "So you can have them escort the girls—the whole family—to the school." Mike glanced back over his shoulder. Seeing the way Jeff was staring at the tall young blonde, Mike's spirits lifted. The sight of a young man so obviously dazzled by a young woman was quite refreshing. Innocence and sanity blooming in a field of lust and murder.


Nichols was observing the same tableau. He grinned. "From the looks of things, I'd have to pry him loose with a crowbar."


He began walking toward them. "I'll take care of it, Mike." James pointed into the distance, back toward the original American lines. His grin widened. "Rebecca's here, by the way. Speaking of prying people loose with a crowbar."


"Rebecca!" Mike spun around, staring in that direction. "What in the hell is she doing here?" For a moment, he began to charge off. Then, guiltily remembering his responsibilities, he forced himself to turn back.


For the next ten minutes, while he organized the disposition of the surrendered Protestant soldiers, Mike's mind was only half on his task. Half, at best. He was fretting over Rebecca.


What is that crazy woman doing on a battlefield?!


Fortunately for him, Harry Lefferts and Tom Simpson cheerfully took on themselves the nitty-gritty work. Between Harry's savage grin (go ahead, Kraut—make my day) and Tom's sheer size and extravagant musculature (yeah, go ahead—I need an arm bone to pick my teeth), Hoffman's mercenaries were quickly rounded up and organized into a column. Hands carefully placed atop their heads, eyes front, meek as could be.


Then Frank showed up, along with Lennox—Frank in his pickup and Lennox on his horse.


Lennox spoke first. "We've got t'Catholics neatly tied oop," he announced complacently. "Mackay's seeing to t'last o' t'strays. 'E'll be coomin' in a minute." Mustachioes bristled. "T'en we'll march this lot into Badenburg an' put'm under guard. Don' expect no trooble."


Frank had his arm perched on the open window of the truck. He was studying Mike with half-quizzical/half-amused eyes.


"Oh, why don't you cut the act?" he chortled. He hooked his thumb toward Grantville. "Just go see the lady, Mike. Lennox and I can handle the rest of this business."


Mike glowered. "What's she doing here?" he demanded. "She could have gotten hurt! She's got no business—"


"Are you that stupid?" snapped Frank. "She's worried sick about you, what do you think? You're the one went marching into battle, not her." Frank snorted. "She isn't alone, either. Half the women in town showed up, looking for their fathers and sons and husbands and boyfriends. Did you think they were going to stay home, waiting for a telegram—with a battle being fought practically on their doorstep?"


"Oh." Mike stared into the distance, looking for the log parapet. The parapet itself was not visible, but the small knoll where Ferrara had positioned his rockets made the location obvious. To his surprise, he saw that the knoll was now covered with people. American women and children, he realized, anxiously trying to spot their menfolk in the field below.


He winced, remembering the carnage on that field. None of the bodies were American, but the sight was nothing he wanted to inflict on children. He'd had a hard enough time with it himself.


"I guess I'd better get over there," he muttered. "Reassure everybody."


Frank grinned. "Yeah, guess so." He got out of the vehicle. "Here—take my truck. I can't bear to think of you tripping and falling all the way back. Fast as you'll be running and paying no attention to where you're going."


Mike was already at the wheel. "Do try not to wreck the thing, willya? It's only two years old—" Off with a roar, fishtailing in the dirt. Frank sighed. "So much for the paint job. Not to mention the shock absorbers."


 


Mike spotted Rebecca easily. She was standing on top of the parapet, balanced precariously, shielding her eyes from the sun with her hand. When she spotted the oncoming truck, her scrutiny focused on it. As soon as she was sure that Mike was the driver, she hopped off the parapet and began running toward him.


Mike brought the truck to a halt and climbed out. Not far away, to his left, was a scene of sheer ghastliness. Americans with medical experience, led by Doctor Adams, were picking their way through the battlefield looking for survivors. Mackay and his Scots, meanwhile, had organized the Catholic prisoners to start burying the corpses. But there were so many torn and ruptured bodies. The soil was literally soaked with blood. Flies swarmed everywhere.


But he had no eyes for that. Just for the figure of a woman, running. He had never seen her run before. For all the cumbersome nature of the long skirt, Mike was struck by the grace of her movements. He always thought of Rebecca as stately, because of the quiet poise with which she stood, walked, sat. Some part of him, finally erupting, realized that he was seeing her for the first time. His heart felt like it might burst.


Rebecca came to a halt a few feet away. She was breathing heavily. Her bonnet had fallen off, somewhere along the way. The long, black, very curly hair hung loose. A mass of glossy splendor. Her face glistened with a slight sheen of sweat, shining like gold in the sunlight that was beginning to break through the clouds.


"I was so afraid," she whispered. "Michael—"


He stepped toward her, extending a hand. The gesture was tentative, almost timid. Her own fingers slid into his palm. There they stood, for a few seconds, saying nothing. Then, so fiercely Mike almost lost his breath, Rebecca was clasping him in an embrace. Her face was buried in his chest. He could feel her heaving against him, and hear the quick sobs, and sense the tears starting to moisten his shirt.


He placed his hands on her shoulders. Gently, stroking. He felt the firm flesh under his hands, separated by nothing more than a thin layer of cloth. He could feel most of her body, she was pressed so closely. Breasts, belly, arms, shoulders, hips, thighs.


They had never touched before, except her hand on his arm during their daily walks. The passion that poured over him drove every other emotion away. Anger and horror and fear—the residue of battle—were like footprints obliterated by a wave. Paw prints. His arms enfolded her, drawing her more closely still.


Her hair was beautiful. Long, black, glossy, curly. He was kissing it fiercely. Then, gently but insistently, he nuzzled the side of her head. When her face came up—so quickly—he transferred the kiss to her lips. Full, rich, soft—eager. As eager as his own.


How long that kiss lasted—that first kiss—neither of them ever knew. As long as it took, before the cheers of the crowd startled them back to awareness.


"Oh," said Rebecca. She craned her neck, looking at the sea of grinning faces standing on the knoll nearby. Watching them. Cheering them. For a moment, Mike thought she was about to bury her face back into his shoulder. Trying to avoid that public exposure. But she didn't. She flushed, yes. But nothing more.


"Oh," she repeated. Then, smiling, she raised her lips again. "It is done," she whispered. "And I am so happy for it."


"Me too," Mike said. Mumbled, rather. Rebecca wasn't letting him get a word out. Not for some time. And he was so happy for it.


 


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