Back | Next
Contents


Chapter 38

Reluctantly, Jeff let her go. "Be careful," he whispered, giving Gretchen's waist another quick hug.


"Me?" she demanded, frowning half-jocularly. "You are ze one goink in battle. Not me!"


Jeff was not mollified. "Still—"


Gretchen grabbed the back of his head and drew his face to hers. A quick, firm kiss followed. Then she stepped back, patting him on a plump cheek. "Go, husband. Come back to me. Safe."


Jeff sighed. When she wanted, his wife had a will of iron. He knew full well that this was one of those times. He still didn't understand why Gretchen had been so quick—so eager—to accept Mike and Melissa's proposal. But he hadn't questioned her at the time, and he wasn't about to do it now.


So he satisfied himself with a quick glance at her bodice and vest. The garments had been designed slightly oversize. Between that, and Gretchen's impressive bust, the 9mm automatic resting in the shoulder holster was quite unnoticeable.


His wife laughed. "Not to stare at mein tits!" she exclaimed, shaking her head and wagging a finger. "Vat skandal!" Then, very softly: "Do not vorry, husband. Go."


A moment later, Jeff was roaring off. He made it a point to do a wheelie as he passed a small group of young men standing by the road. The local toughs, by their look.


They were suitably impressed—not so much by the acrobatics of the machine as the ferocious scowl on the face of the very large man who rode it. That, and the odd but deadly looking weapon slung over his shoulder. Jeff would have been quite shocked—and utterly pleased—had he known the impression he made on those bravos. They saw nothing of a shy young man in his leather-jacketed form. Just a killer. The fact that he wore spectacles made him seem all the more dangerous. The better to see his victims, no doubt.


One of the young toughs was not as intimidated as the others. After the motorcycle's roar faded, he cast an eye on the woman standing by the road staring after it.


"Good-looking," he mused. "Very."


"Forget it, Max," hissed one of his friends.


Max leered. "Why, Josef? Who knows? Her man might be dead before the day is over."


Max's friends gathered around, crowding him close. "I said forget it," repeated Josef, punching Max in the shoulder. The gesture was not playful in the least. "He might not, either. And even if he is, what of the others?"


Max let it go. The woman had disappeared into the crowd, by now. And he didn't like the way in which Josef was gripping his dirk. "Just joking," he mumbled. But he made himself a silent promise to pursue the matter. Alone.


 


An hour later, their bikes perched atop a small ridge, Jeff and Larry Wild spotted the oncoming mercenaries through their binoculars.


Well—Jeff did. Larry was too busy admiring the scenery. "God, this is a pretty place," he murmured admiringly. He pulled the binoculars away from his eyes for a moment, to get a panoramic view of the Saale valley. The Saale was a small river, originating in the hills of the Thuringen Forest. In its northward course, flowing down the valley to which it had given its name, the river passed through Jena on its way. The valley was flanked by red sandstone and chalk hills, half-covered with grapevines. This was wine country, and it was as pretty as such areas usually are.


"Forget the vino," muttered Jeff. "Trouble's coming."


Startled, Larry's eyes followed the direction of his friend's binoculars. Even without the aid of his own, Larry could now see the cloud of dust.


"How many?" he asked.


Still holding the binoculars pressed to his eyes, Jeff shrugged. "Hard to say. That's not an army, so much as it is a mob. If there's any marching order at all, I can't tell what it is."


By now, Larry had his own binoculars back in place. "Not too many cavalry," he commented. "Mike'll be glad to hear that."


"I don't think there's any cavalry at all," snorted Jeff. "Just maybe two dozen guys who managed to steal horses and ain't real good at riding them yet. Call themselves 'officers,' I bet. The Scots'll go through 'em like a chainsaw."


After a few more seconds of observation, Larry chuckled. "I do believe you're right, buddy of mine. I do believe you're right."


Jeff lowered the glasses and reached for his radio. A moment later he was giving Frank Jackson directions to the ridge. He and Larry had already determined that it was the best position from which to command this portion of the valley. It was the only high ground in the area and, what was even better, the road into Jena passed by at the foot of the ridge. They were hoping that the veteran Frank would agree with them, with all the tender pride of youthful war-gamers putting abstract skills to concrete practice.


 


Frank did. Heaped them with praise, in fact, insofar as Frank's terse remarks could be called "heaping." But Frank Jackson was one of those people who ladled with a teaspoon, and Jeff and Larry were more than satisfied.


The next few minutes were taken up with preparing the American positions. Mike kept the APC and Mackay's cavalry out of sight, hidden beyond a curve in the road. They would be used to pursue and capture the defeated enemy. He stationed Heinrich and the German contingents across the road itself. They would form the barrier to the oncoming mercenaries.


The new German recruits constituted about half of Mike's infantry force. They were still organized into their own units, under newly elected officers. Heinrich was in overall command.


Mike had intended to integrate the army immediately, rather than keeping the Germans in separate contingents. But experience had taught him that the process was going to be protracted. The problem was not "social," and involved no prejudice. The American and German soldiers were getting along quite nicely, as it happened—especially after a notable barroom brawl in which several American and German soldiers marched into the Club 250 and taught the resident rednecks who was who and what was what. Dan Frost and his deputies had tossed the lot of them into the town's jury-rigged jail thereafter, but the event had crystallized the army's growing sentiment of comradeship.


No, the problem was purely military, and purely simple.


Germans couldn't shoot.


Blast away, yes. Stand their ground like lions, yes.


Aim? Hit a target? Not a chance.


Squeeze the trigger? You must be joking! An arquebus has no "trigger." Just a heavy hand-lever closed with a jerk—after shutting your eyes to protect them from powder burns.


Heinrich and his men were veterans, and their habits were deeply ingrained. With the exception of a handful of the youngsters, none of the Germans had been able to adjust to modern rifles. The attempt to train them had simply produced frustration on all sides.


In the end, Mike had taken the practical course. "Screw it," he told Frank. "Just arm them with shotguns loaded with lead slugs. We'll use them for close action."


The Germans had been ecstatic. They took to shotguns like bears to honey. The shotguns were more accurate than arquebuses, even after the chokes were sawn off to produce cylinder bores which would handle solid slugs. But the Germans didn't give a damn about accuracy, anyway. They had survived as long as they had because each and every one of them was a devotee of the First Principle of Smoothbore Battle:


Rate of fire. That was Moses and the prophets, as far as the German soldiers were concerned. Rate of fire. Victory in battle went to the men who stood their ground and blasted away the most. Simple as that.


The American invention of bayonets was icing on the cake. None of them, any longer—arquebusier or pikeman—had to worry about the reliability of the other. All were now both in one.


Pump-action shotguns, fitted with bayonets—those, if nothing else, sealed the allegiance of Heinrich and his men to the new order. Their love for the marvelous devices was so great that it even reconciled them to the grotesque eccentricities of the Americans. Such as—


 


The German soldiers were careful not to ogle Gayle as she and two of the other women passed down the lines handing out extra ammunition pouches. Nor did they seem to pay any attention to Rita—unseemly attention, at any rate—when she took up her position as the unit's radio operator. Heinrich and his men, for all their crudities, had long ago learned the First Principle of Mercenary Armies: Don't piss off the toughest guys around. Which exalted status the Americans still had, in general—and one American in particular.


Rita's brother, of course, was their commander. But what was more important—much more—was that her husband stood in their own ranks. In the center, in the front line—as befitted a man who had gained the absolute confidence of his new comrades. And a man whom none of them—not the biggest and toughest veteran—would even think of challenging. Easy-going, he was—true, true. Not a friendlier man in the company!


Good thing, too. Seeing as how he was as big as a walrus and could bench-press a horse. So, at least, thought the man's German comrades. When the man himself had explained to them that he wasn't quite up to the standards of "professional football," he single-handedly killed—quite inadvertently—any chance that football would become a popular sport in the new society. In this new universe, it would be Tom Simpson, not Abner Doubleday, who caused the astounding popularity of baseball. A reasonable sport, baseball, playable by reasonable-sized men.


But Tom Simpson now had other accomplishments to his credit. One, in particular: it had been he, in truth—far more than the shotguns—who truly welded the German soldiers into the American army.


 


Tom Simpson, in the first months after the Ring of Fire, had been something of a lost sheep. His allegiance to Mike's course of action had completed his estrangement from his own parents. Yet, there had seemed no real place for him among Mike's crowd.


Not that Mike didn't make many offers. But Tom, stubbornly, turned them down. He had had enough nepotism and favoritism to last a lifetime. For a while, Tom thought of dabbling in business. But, in truth, he knew he had none of his father's executive skills. Nor, perhaps because of his rich birth, did he have the hardscrabble instincts of a true entrepreneur—which were an absolute necessity in the raw and booming commercial world springing up in southern Thuringia.


He had volunteered for the army, of course, as soon as Mike put out the call. But, there too, he had found no ready place. For all his size and incredible muscle, Tom was a rich kid from the city. Among his country-boy fellow soldiers, he quickly become famous as the worst marksman anyone had ever seen. The jests were never made in a nasty spirit—Tom was a popular figure—but they stung nonetheless.


Finally, more out of desperation than anything else, he volunteered to join the new contingents of German troops being formed. And there, as much to his surprise as anyone's, he found the home he was looking for.


Tom, it developed, had a knack for learning foreign languages; in the field, at least, if not in a classroom. What was more important—much more—was that he discovered he had the right temperament for the work. He liked the German soldiers, and they liked him. He was easy-going, unflappable, friendly—and fearless.


True, that fearlessness had yet to be tested in a gun battle. But there was not a man in Heinrich's contingent who doubted the outcome. Fear, they knew, came from the mind, not the bullet or the pike. In the way such men have, many had tried to intimidate Tom in the first weeks.


Size be damned! Size isn't everything. Toughness is a thing of the mind. So, in the first few weeks after Tom joined their ranks, Heinrich's toughest veterans tested his alpha-male mettle.


Heh.


Tom never had to raise a hand. He was accustomed to the ferocious intimidation on the football fields of the nation's top universities. In the line. And he had been very good at it. His body wasn't quite up to the standards of professional football, but his mind certainly would have been.


By the time the battle of Jena began, the thing was settled. Tough Tom—gut Thomas!—stood in the front line, in the center, where he belonged. His comrades took strength and courage, seeing his huge form standing there.


Because that was what won battles, in the end. Not firepower and fancy marksmanship. Strength and courage.


 


So, needless to say, no one ogled his wife. But once the other women were gone, scampering up the ridge, some gave vent to their true sentiments.


"The Americans are crazy," grumbled Ferdinand, one of Heinrich's lieutenants. "You watch—those silly bitches'll start screaming as soon as the first gun goes off."


Glumly, Ferdinand stared up the slope. The bulk of the American soldiers, he knew, were positioned just over the crest of the ridge. "Then those soft-headed American men will drop their own guns and spend all their time trying to calm the women down."


He shifted his gaze, now staring up the road. Perhaps half a mile away, Ferdinand could spot the first enemy horsemen coming into sight. "You watch," he concluded sourly, "we'll wind up doing all the fighting." He stroked the sleek shotgun in his hands, finding solace in that wondrous rate of fire.


Heinrich, examining the same horsemen, sucked his teeth. "Maybe," he grunted. He lowered the binoculars and looked up the ridge. He spotted Frank almost at once. Two women—girls, in truth—were standing next to him. One of those girls, Heinrich knew, was Frank's own niece. He and Frank had become very friendly, over the past few months, and Heinrich knew full well that Frank shared his own reservations. On the other hand . . . 


"I admit the damn girl can shoot," Frank had told him once. Grudgingly, true. But given Frank's definition of "shooting," Heinrich understood just how much praise was contained in that sullen admission.


He looked away. "Maybe," he repeated. A slight smile came to his face. "Then again—maybe not."


 


At that very moment, as it happens, Jeff and Larry were heaping their own praise onto Mike and Frank. And there was nothing grudging or sullen about it. The two young men had just realized what Mike intended, by positioning most of his American troops on the reverse slope of the ridge, just below the crest. They would be invisible to the enemy there, until he summoned them forth.


"Man, that's slick, Mike!" exclaimed Larry.


Mike jerked a thumb at Frank. "Tell him, not me. He's the pro—I'm just following his advice."


The adulation was transferred to Jackson. "Just like Wellington at Salamanca," intoned Jeff.


"And Le Haye Sainte," agreed Larry sagely.


Frank scowled. "Common fucking sense, is what it is. I learned this trick from a sergeant in Nam. I think he learned it from the NVA. So who the hell is Wellington?"


Jeff and Larry goggled at him for a moment. Then, in a small voice, Jeff said: "He's the guy they named your favorite boots after."


Now, Frank was impressed. "Oh," he said. "Him. Good man! Whoever he was."


 


And, at that very moment, Gretchen struck the first blow against a different enemy. A much less concrete foe, in her case—and a much harder one to vanquish.


"All right," said Mathilde, one of the women in the shack. Her voice was hesitant, uncertain. She glanced quickly at the four other women huddled on pallets against the walls. Two of them were Mathilde's sisters; the other two, cousins. Both her cousins and one of her sisters were nursing babies.


Mathilde's own fears and doubts were mirrored in their faces.


"I do not ask you to take great risks," Gretchen said immediately. "Nothing you are too scared to do. But I think you will find everything much easier by tomorrow. After the battle is won, Jena's high and mighty notables will not be so quick to accuse anyone of witchcraft."


The women in the shack stared at her. They were still frightened, Gretchen saw. They had been frightened and nervous since the moment Gretchen approach Mathilde and one of her cousins. The two young women had been part of the crowd watching the American army march past. Gretchen had singled them out within a minute of Jeff's flamboyant departure. She had been guided less by instinct than by her own hard experience. She knew how to recognize desperate women—and, what was more important, women who still retained their backbones.


Frightened, yes; nervous, yes. But Gretchen knew her choice had been well-aimed. The women had still listened, as she spoke, with neither protest nor any attempt to drive her out of their miserable dwelling in Jena's worst slum.


Mathilde and her extended family were part of the great mass of poor women whom the war had driven into dire straits. All of them were refugees from the Palatinate, who had found a sanctuary in Jena. The adult men in the family were all dead or gone, except for Mathilde's crippled uncle. He was sleeping quietly in the next-door shack.


Mathilde and the prettiest of her cousins supported the family by prostitution. Jena was a good town for the trade, what with its large population of young male students, most of whom were from Germany's nobility and prosperous burgher class. But if Jena was a sanctuary, it was a precarious one. Women of their kind were only tolerated so long as they kept their place. For almost a century, since the witch-hunting craze began, it was wretched creatures such as they who were the first to be accused of witchcraft. The accusation was almost impossible to disprove, even if the area's notables were willing to listen to protestations of innocence—which, more often than not, they weren't in the least.


"Trust me," Gretchen stated. "After today, the notables will be much less full of themselves."


"You are so sure?" asked one of the cousins. Her voice, for all the meekness of its tone, held a trace of hope.


Gretchen gave no answer beyond a level gaze. But that was enough. For all their fears, the women in the shack were quite dazzled by her. They could tell she was one of their own kind. Yet the woman seemed so—so—


Sure. Confident. Poised.


Powerful. They had never seen a woman like that. Not once. Not from their own class . . . 


"All right," said Mathilde again. This time, the words were spoken firmly. "We will do as you say, Gretchen. We will start here, with us. There are some others we can talk to, also." Mathilde glanced at her sisters and cousins. "Hannelore, I think. And Maria."


One of her sisters nodded. Mathilde's cousin Inga, the other prostitute, smiled. As if a dam had burst, she began to speak quickly and eagerly:


"And the students will be easy. There are at least three I can think of at once! Joachim, Fritz and Kurt—especially Joachim. He's very nice, and always wants to talk to me afterward. He thinks a lot about politics, I know that, even if I can't follow half of what he says. I wish he wasn't so short of money all the time so he could come more often."


Mathilde laughed, a bit coarsely. "He comes often enough, girl! What kind of idiot whore lets her customer owe her money?"


Inga flushed. "I like him," she replied stubbornly. "So what if he can't always pay at the time? He never cheats me. He always gives me what he owes whenever his parents send him money."


Mathilde didn't press it. She rather liked Joachim herself, actually. But mention of his name brought up another concern.


"For the students it will be easy, this—what did you call it?"


"Committees of Correspondence," said Gretchen.


"Yes. For them, easy. But for us? Inga is the only one who can even sign her name."


Gretchen scanned the women in the room. "You are all illiterate?" Five nods came in reply.


Gretchen sat up straight. Since she had the only chair in the shack, she practically towered over the others. The height, and her own size and posture, made her seem like a hearth goddess.


"Then that is the first thing we will change." Her eyes fell on the youngest woman in the shack. A girl, really. Her name was Gertrude, and she was Mathilde's youngest sister. She had just turned fifteen, and already showed signs of becoming as attractive as Mathilde. Under normal circumstances, she would become a prostitute before she saw another birthday.


But circumstances had changed. The family had been adopted by a hearth goddess, and she made her first decree.


"Gertrude will accompany me back to Grantville. We will put her to school."


There was no protest. The first Committee of Correspondence was still fearful, still uncertain, still groping for clarity and understanding. But their timid fingertips could feel the first touch of hope. And, besides, women of their class did not argue with a goddess. Not even a goddess who spoke in their own tongue. Especially not such a goddess.


Mathilde cleared her throat.


"You will speak to the students, then, after we—" She fumbled at the unfamiliar terms: "organize a meeting?"


Gretchen smiled. "Me? Nonsense! Well, not alone, at least." She snorted. "Stupid boys. They'll think of nothing but what I look like naked."


Soft laughter filled the shack. Gretchen's smile returned, wider than ever—and more than a little wintry. "No, no. I will come. But I will bring my husband with me. Better that way. He's an intellectual himself, which I most certainly am not. The students will understand him better."


Inga's eyes were very wide. "I saw him, when you came into town. Oh!" She snickered. "They'll be so scared of him, too."


Gretchen's heart warmed, for a moment. She would be sure to mention that comment to Jeff. He would be pleased, very. She liked pleasing her husband, even if the whole matter was male foolishness.


But she let none of that show. Her eyes were cold and grim.


"Yes, they will. Sehr gut!"


 


Back | Next
Framed