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Chapter 46

Ollie Reardon, the owner of the machine shop, wasn't sure if he was amused or aggravated. Both, he decided.


"Why is he wasting time cutting the outside of the barrel?" demanded Mackay. The Scots officer was practically dancing with impatience. "We don't have time for cosmetic adornment!"


Studying the work being done at the lathe, Ollie pursed his lips. The lathe operator, Jack Little, had been a machinist for longer than Alexander Mackay had been alive.


Guess which one of them knows what they're doing? But for all the irritation in the thought, Ollie decided to explain. Politely.


He pointed to the large casting. The butt end of the future cannon was held in the lathe's jaws; the front, already center-drilled, was held steady by a live center projecting from the tailstock. The two trunnions were rotating so rapidly they formed nothing more than a blur. Soft bronze could be machined at a much higher RPM than steel. Jack was making a very shallow cut a few inches long near the end of the barrel—a skin cut, as it was called.


"There's nothing cosmetic at all about what he's doing. He needs a machined surface for the steady rest. Unless the end of the barrel is held steady, it'd take forever to drill out the internal diameter. Just holding the casting at one end, the chatter would be ferocious."


Mackay frowned. "What's a steady rest?"


Ollie suppressed a sigh. He pointed to a fixture sitting in a rack at the end of the lathe's ways. The fixture, which could be swung apart on a hinge, formed an open circle some ten inches in diameter. Three adjustable columns ending in ball bearings projected into the center at 120-degree intervals. Two of them would cradle the piece from below; the third, from directly above.


"That is," he growled. "You set it on the ways, clamp it down, and then bring the bearings to ride on the machined surface which Jack's cutting right now. Steadies the piece and holds it true for the next operation, which, on these three-pounder barrels, is drilling out the bore." The precisionist soul of a machinist surfaced. Frowning: "We really ought to be reaming it, for the finish cut—we'll use a boring bar for the six-pounders—but those cast iron cannonballs are so sloppy and uneven there's no point. We'd be trying to make a silk purse out of a sow's ear."


Mackay flushed. "I see." With obvious embarrassment, he tugged at his short beard. "I see," he repeated.


Next to him, Julie grinned. "Any more questions, big shot?" She turned to Ollie and shrugged. "You got to make allowances. He's still trying to adjust to his magnificent new status."


The grin widened. "Colonel Mackay, no less. And he only just turned twenty-three!"


"Stop it, girl," grumbled Alex. "I was only—"


Ollie clapped him on the shoulder. "Congratulations on your promotion, by the way. I'm sorry I wasn't able to make it to the celebration at the Gardens yesterday, but—"


A little salt in the wounds, here. "I was here till midnight, making sure we were set up to run the new castings. No time for me to be carousing all night."


Mackay's embarrassment deepened. He had caroused all night. His grumpy attitude this morning was the direct result.


"Sorry," he muttered. Then, rallying what was left of his dignity: "Well, since everything is obviously under control, I think I'll be on my way."


Ollie let no sign of his relief show. In truth, he liked the Scotsman, and was willing to forgive the man being an occasional fussbudget. Besides, Ollie understood as well as Mackay what was riding on this first shipment of new guns to the king of Sweden. So, politely—even affably—he escorted the Scotsman and his girlfriend to the door.


Memory of something he'd heard this morning suddenly surfaced. "Oh! And congratulations on your engagement, also."


Julie beamed happily and showed off the new ring on her finger. "Nice, isn't it? Alex found it in Eisenach, when he was there last week."


Mention of Eisenach caused Ollie to raise an eyebrow. He hesitated, wondering if he should ask—


"There's no big secret about it, Ollie," said Mackay. "Eisenach's almost certain to come in. They're just dancing around for a bit, waiting to see what Gotha decides." The Scotsman snorted. "And they're dancing around waiting on Erfurt, and Erfurt is dancing on Weimar. But it should be all over soon enough."


"That'd give us—what? Six stars on the flag, instead of two?"


Julie butted in before Alex could speak. "Eight, I bet! Word is that Mike and Becky's trip to Saalfeld and Suhl was a big success too!"


Ollie started. "I didn't know they were back. Saalfeld, huh? That'd give us a boost on the chemical side, what with the mines in the area. And—"


Mackay, his voice filled with satisfaction, completed the thought: "And that would almost certainly bring in Gera. The United States would have all of Thuringia's major towns, then. In the south of the province, anyway. Every last one."


But Ollie's mind was already elsewhere. "I'm thinking about Suhl. That town would give us control of the entire Thuringenwald. And what's probably more important is that it would stabilize our ordnance industry. A hundred years ago, you know, Suhl was the biggest armament center in Germany. Still has a lot of capacity left." He pointed over his shoulder with a thumb. "We got those castings from Suhl, as it happens. Be nice to see them part of the family."


Less than a year ago, the Scots nobleman Alexander Mackay would have been astonished to see a manufacturer and a former schoolgirl discussing matters of foreign policy. Today, he didn't even take notice of it. On that happy note, Alex and Julie left the machine shop and entered the street.


Immediately, another discussion on foreign policy erupted. Mackay launched a preemptive strike before Julie could raise the subject anew.


"You are not going—and that's final."


"Ha! We'll see about that! You don't get to make that decision—Colonel, sir!"


The two lovers glared at each other as they worked their way down the street. Their progress was slow, partly because they were immersed in the argument, but mostly because the street was very crowded. By April of 1632, Grantville's population density bore a closer resemblance to Calcutta than the small town in West Virginia it had once been.


The preemptive strike having failed, Mackay launched his next salvo.


"Impossible," he stated. "Your father would insist on a chaperone. For that matter, I'd insist on a chaperone. And there's—"


He stumbled for a moment, trying to force words through Julie's ensuing sarcastic remarks about his drastic change in attitude on the subject of chaperones—which he certainly hadn't been concerned about the night before; quite the contrary! Hadn't it been he who found that deserted—


Rally, Scotsman! "—no other woman be going," he concluded.


Julie looked smug. Mackay felt the pit opening beneath him.


 


"I don't like it," growled Mike. "Not one bit."


Rebecca said nothing. She simply sat there on the couch, relaxed, hands clasped in her lap, and returned her husband's scowl with a patient smile. Three months of marriage had brought a deeper intimacy into their relationship. Intimacy—and a much better knowledge of each other's habits and foibles.


So, where the fiancée would have argued, the wife simply let the husband argue with himself.


It wasn't much of an argument. The advantages to her proposal were blindingly obvious.


"I don't like it," he repeated. "You're pregnant and it's wartime. God knows what you'd run into."


Blithely, Rebecca ignored the issue of her pregnancy, other than running her hands down her waist to show that it was still as slim as ever. But the rest seemed to call for a response.


"Michael, all reports agree that Tilly has fallen back on the Danube. The Lower Palatinate and Franconia are firmly in Swedish hands, as is most of Würtemburg. We would encounter nothing on our way to Gustav Adolf's camp except for a few bands of stragglers and deserters. None of whom, as you well know, pose any threat to the expedition. Not with Mackay's cavalry and Tom's dragoons as an escort."


Silence. Rebecca decided to add a sweetener. "And since your sister insists on accompanying Tom," she added, smiling, "I would be chaperoned. So you would not even have to worry about my fidelity."


For all his fretting, Mike couldn't stifle a laugh. "What a relief! Boy, will that help me sleep easy at night."


The humor broke the tension. "All right," he sighed. "I agree it's the best response. I'd like to go myself, of course, but—"


Rebecca was already shaking her head. "That is impossible. I know you do not like to hear this, Michael, but the fact remains that your personal authority is key to our negotiations with the other cities in Thuringia. We must weld them into the new nation quickly, before the war takes another turn. For the worse, quite possibly. You have stressed that necessity over and again. In this day and age, diplomacy is a thing between specific persons, not abstract political entities. Without you—here—none of the cities will be confident in any negotiations."


Mike's fears made a last feeble sally. "The same could be said if I'm not there to meet—"


Again, Rebecca was shaking her head before he finished the thought. "We are not negotiating with the king of Sweden, Michael. We are simply making an appearance." She smiled. "I suspect Gustav Adolf simply wants to make sure we are real, and not figments of a deranged Scotsman's imagination."


Mike smiled. "Or he simply wants to make sure we are not witches." His eyes, examining his wife, were full of love—and, truth be told, immense satisfaction. "Witches," in seventeenth-century Europe, were not something out of a Walt Disney movie. They were not beautiful stepmothers. They were hideous crones. Which Rebecca was most certainly not!


Accurately reading the look in her husband's eyes, Rebecca decided the moment was right to bring up another matter. "In that respect, I think we should add another person to our party. Ed Piazza will bring assurances of middle-aged male sagacity and stability. Tom Simpson, of course—especially accompanied by his pretty young American wife—will bring the appearance—the reality, I should say—of martial strength and vigor." Modestly: "I will do what I may." Then, raising her eyes to the ceiling as if a thought had just come to her: "But I think—something more—"


Mike grinned. "Cut it out, you schemer."


Rebecca lowered her eyes and studied her husband. Michael often insisted that she was smarter than he was. Rebecca thought he was wrong. Quite wrong. True, there was no comparison between their respective intellects, measured in what might be called "book learning." But Rebecca had not been reared in the poisonous doctrine of "IQ tests." She measured intelligence by the concrete standards of her own time—in that respect, at least, she had not acclimatized to American notions. A man's mind could not be separated from the man himself.


"I love you so much," she whispered. Then, ruefully running fingers through her thick black hair, she confessed her sins.


 


"Mackay'll shit a brick," predicted Mike. He scratched his jaw. "But—you're right. If there's any person in the world who could convince Gustav Adolf that we're not witches, it'd be a high-school cheerleader. Especially that one."


The happy thought was replaced by another. "As long as he doesn't see her shoot. And how are we going to keep her from bringing that damned rifle along?"


The doting husband scowled at the brilliant wife. "So, genius. Any bright ideas on that score?"


Silence.


"Ha!"


 


 


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