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Chapter 55

"Light 'em up!" commanded Ferrara. His words were carried over the radio to all three catapults. Almost simultaneously, three cannisters were flung into the air. Propelled by the relatively gentle motion of the catapults—gentle, at least, compared to a cannon—the cannisters soared through the sky in a looping trajectory. The catapults had been specifically designed for this purpose. The fragile cannisters could not withstand the shock of gunpowder—and nobody wanted to be in the vicinity when their contents were spilled.


The missiles cleared the walls of the castle with no difficulty. The timed fuses went off just before the cannisters landed. Each cannister contained five gallons of napalm. Hellfire erupted across the fortifications and the thousands of soldiers huddled within.


Greek fire was back—with a vengeance.


"Fire at will!" shouted Ferrara. The next round of napalm was lobbed a bit more raggedly. The three different crews had practiced with the devices, but there was a slight difference in their proficiency. Again, hellfire spread across the battlements of the castle. By now, the upper fortifications were a raging inferno.


A man appeared on the walls, burning like a torch. It was impossible to tell, from the distance, whether he committed suicide or simply stumbled to his death from sheer agony.


Watching, Mike winced. He could already hear the swelling shrieks of the Spanish soldiers burning to death inside the castle.


"That is some nasty shit," muttered Frank. "Been so long I'd half forgotten."


A new voice came over the radio, instantly recognizable. Hilda was the only German woman who had so far enlisted in the U.S. army and made it past Frank's screening. Since her English was good, if heavily accented, she had been assigned to serve as a radio operator.


"The main gate is opening! Main gate is opening!"


Mike raised his binoculars. Sure enough, he could see the heavy gate starting to swing aside. A moment later, waving pikes and arquebuses, a mob of Spanish soldiers surged through.


That gate was the only entrance to the castle from which large bodies of men could issue quickly. For that reason, Frank had positioned the M-60 to cover it. The men manning the machine gun didn't wait for orders. There was no need. Frank's instructions had been crystal clear: If they come out armed, kill 'em.


The M-60 stutter-stutter-stuttered. The packed mob of soldiers were cut down as if by a scythe. Stutter-stutter, stutter-stutter. Stutter-stutter-stutter.


Mike lowered the binoculars and looked away. In less than a minute, the M-60 had left a small hill of bodies. The gate was almost blocked by the corpses. The Spaniards who survived had stumbled back into the castle.


He watched another cannister of napalm explode over the battlements. The entire castle now resembled a bonfire. The resemblance was an illusion, more than a reality. The Wartburg was stone, not wood, and the lower levels of the castle would still be untouched by the flames.


An illusion—so far. Even stone castles will burn, if given enough of a start. Not the walls themselves, of course. But all castles are full of flammable substances. Wooden beams, furniture, tapestries, textiles—with enough napalm, the interior of the castle would be a firestorm within an hour. Nothing at all would survive. Over ten thousand men, thinking they had found a haven, had discovered instead a hideous deathtrap.


Mike opened his mouth, about to issue the command to cease fire. Then, seeing Frank's cold eyes on him, he fell silent.


No choice. The Spanish army trapped in the Wartburg still outnumbered the U.S. forces by a large margin. Until they surrendered—marched out, unarmed—Mike could not afford to ease up the pressure. So, tightening his jaws, he said nothing.


Burn and burn and burn. The first men started popping out of the castle; stumbling through a multitude of exits, even scrambling down the walls. Most of them were unarmed. The few who still carried weapons dropped them quickly enough, when they heard the voices shouting at them in Spanish. They had no thought but survival—anything to escape the holocaust which the Wartburg had become.


Now, dozens of unarmed Spaniards started pouring out of the main gate, pushing aside the mound of corpses by sheer weight of numbers. Then hundreds.


"It's done," said Frank. Mike nodded and gestured at Ferrara. A moment later, Ferrara passed along the order. The catapults stopped firing.


Mike stared at the burning castle. There was no way to stop the conflagration now. By the next day, the Wartburg would be a gutted ruin.


He tried to find humor somewhere. Whimsy, at least. "You know," he mused, "that's probably a historical monument, in the world we came from. Makes you feel a little guilty, doesn't it?"


"Not me," snorted Frank. "A castle is a castle is a castle. Just a robbers' den, far as I'm concerned. Thieves braggin' about their thievin' great-grandfathers. Good riddance to the whole lot."


Mike didn't know whether to laugh or sigh. In the end, he laughed.


"What can I say? You're right."


 


When Rebecca saw the horsemen charging out of the trees, her jaw dropped. Sharp terror held her frozen. Part of her mind was paralyzed, but the rest had no difficulty understanding what was about to happen. The grinning savages racing their horses down the slope were not even bothering to unsheathe their sabers. They would keep her alive, for a while.


Rebecca Abrabanel, the Sephardic maiden of a year ago, would have still been standing in the road, petrified with terror, when the Croats took her down. The Becky Stearns of the present, heavy with child, was rummaging in her large handbag within seconds, whispering thanks to her hillbilly husband.


Mike had insisted that she learn to use a gun. Obediently, Rebecca had tried. Tried, and failed. Failed, at least, insofar as accuracy was concerned. Whatever her other qualities, even her husband had finally agreed that she couldn't hit the broad side of a barn.


So be it. There are guns for barns, too. Harry Lefferts had been delighted to provide her with one. "A gift for a pretty lady," he called it, with Appalachian gallantry.


When the first Croat was ten yards away, Rebecca hauled the sawed-off shotgun out of the handbag. At five yards, she cut loose with the first barrel.


Five yards, with a sawed-off twelve gauge loaded with buckshot.


She missed. Completely. Didn't even scratch him.


The horse, on the other hand, was killed instantly. The pellets ripped the beast's throat wide open. Its legs buckled, spilling the rider.


An animal as big as a horse, moving at that speed, has too much momentum to be stopped by any handheld firearm. Squawling with anger and fear, Rebecca managed to dodge the horse. But her now-ungainly figure could not avoid the rider. He plummeted into her shoulder, knocking her to the pavement.


The impact dazed her, but she managed to hold onto the shotgun. Lying half-sprawled on the road, she shook her head. Her long black hair spilled loose and free. For a moment, her only thought was a sharp fear for her unborn child.


That fear was driven out by another. She felt a hand seize her hair. An instant later, with a vicious jerk, she was hauled to her feet.


Off her feet. The Croat was a powerful man, and filled with rage. He didn't quite understand what had happened to his comrade, but he had no doubt who was responsible. He started hauling Rebecca onto the saddle.


"Fucking Jew-bitch!" he shrieked.


Rebecca didn't understand his language. She didn't need to. She still had the shotgun.


The Croat's fury fled, then. Replaced, not by fear but simple astonishment. He stared at the hard object pressed into his groin. He had time to recognize it as a firearm of some kind, before Rebecca pulled the trigger and blew his testicles off. Along with his penis, his lower intestinal tract, his bladder, and a portion of his spine.


Her hair released, Rebecca collapsed back onto the pavement. She landed on her posterior. Again, the impact dazed her a bit—and then, flattened by the leg of her victim's skittering horse, she was momentarily stunned. Her eyes were still open, and she could see. But her mind could not process the data.


She saw that the horseman on the other side was blinded, his face splattered with blood and flesh. The Croat was clawing at his face, trying to clean away the gore. Out of action, for the moment.


The first horseman, the one whose mount she had killed, was just starting to move, groaning. Also out of action, for the moment.


The other Croat, the last of the four, was not. He was preoccupied, true, bringing his startled horse under control. But the mount was a warhorse, accustomed to the sound and flash of battle. The Croat reined him in. Then, snarling at Rebecca, drew a wheel-lock pistol from its saddle holster. He was not thinking of rape, any longer. He was just going to kill the Jew-bitch.


Rebecca still had the shotgun in her hand, but both barrels had been fired. She twisted on her hip, desperately searching the pavement. There were more shells in her handbag. When she spotted it, lying by the side of the road, she was flooded with despair.


Too far. She could hear the clatter of the Croat's horse, as he guided it toward her. He was about to shoot. Despair was washed aside by simple sadness. I so enjoyed my life.


Her mind grew dull, now that there was no hope. The adrenaline was wearing off, and she had taken a brutal hammering. She was simply waiting, like a stunned ox, for the sound of the final gunshot. She was so dazed that she never noticed the much louder sound that was filling the road.


The Croat did, however. He was no longer even thinking about Rebecca. He was just staring at the bizarre vehicle racing toward him.


Fury unleashed. Chooser of the slain.


Now, it was a savage horseman's turn to be frozen in place. It was not the mount itself which produced that terror, but the man atop it. The Croat had never encountered spectacles on a killer. The better to see you with.


 


When Jeff heard the first gunshot, he was simply puzzled. Puzzled, and a bit outraged. That had been a shotgun. Twelve gauge, by the sound of it.


What idiot's firing a shotgun by the side of the road? he wondered. The school buses will be coming through any minute!


The second shot went off just as he was rounding the bend, and everything became clear at once. He didn't recognize the woman lying on the road, nor did he recognize the horsemen. Not Scots, for sure, but who they were he did not know.


Nor did it matter. The uncertain boy he had once been, not so very long ago, had done well enough on his first battlefield. That boy was gone, long gone. Replaced by a man who was no longer a stranger to violence. And, perhaps more important, was married to a woman whose soul was tempered steel. Not married for long, true. But more than long enough for Gretchen to have rubbed off. Mercy be damned.


He raced down the final stretch. He saw one horseman firing his wheel lock at him. Jeff had no idea where the bullet went.


At the last second, he almost laid the bike down bringing it to a skidding stop. The horses, terrified by the strange noise and sight, whinnied and skittered. The two men still mounted were completely preoccupied with staying in the saddle.


Almost leisurely, Jeff dismounted and drew the shotgun. The magazine was full, loaded with slugs. He glanced at the woman, and recognized her immediately. He held out his hand, palm down, and made a little patting motion.


"Stay down, Becky!"


The man on the ground was rising to his feet. Jeff decided to take him out first. He pumped a round into the chamber and brought the shotgun to his shoulder in one easy motion.


Clickety—boom! The Croat was back on the pavement, dead before he landed.


The two men still on horseback had brought their mounts under control. The one who had fired at him earlier was drawing a new wheel lock. The other already had one in his hand.


Jeff grinned, as savagely as might Harry Lefferts. "It's called rate of fire, motherfuckers!"


Clickety—boom! Clickety—boom!


Two bodies landed on the asphalt with sodden thumps. The horses raced off. Jeff glanced at Rebecca to make sure she was unhurt. She smiled feebly, then lowered her head. He decided she would keep, until he made sure of the enemy.


He strode toward the men lying on the highway. One of them was clearly dead. The slug had blown his chest apart. The other—


Jeff wasn't quite sure. Mercy be damned. Clickety—boom!


He turned away and hurried toward Rebecca. By the time he reached her, she was starting to rise. Then, she collapsed back to her knees.


Now deeply concerned, Jeff tilted her face up. Rebecca's dark eyes seemed very wide. Dazed looking. He thought she was in shock. She was mumbling something, but he couldn't make out the words.


Jeff hesitated, unsure what to do. She needed medical attention, clearly enough. The closest place for it was the school, not half a mile away. And Dr. Nichols would already be there. He and Melissa always showed up early in the morning. But how was he to get Rebecca there? She was obviously in no condition to walk.


For a moment, longingly, Jeff looked at his bike. Then shook his head. In Rebecca's dazed state, that would be sheer folly. She'd fall off, sure as shooting.


Again, she mumbled something. This time, he understood the words.


"Stop the buses," she was saying. "Stop the buses."


Jeff's uncertainty vanished. Of course! The school buses would be passing through any minute. They'd be jampacked, of course, as many kids as there were in town nowadays. But room could certainly be made.


He half-helped, half-hauled Rebecca to the side of the road. She was shaking her head, still mumbling: "Stop the buses, stop the buses." Then, after covering her with his jacket—you were supposed to do that with people in shock, he knew—Jeff hesitated again. What else should he do, besides wait for the buses?


His eyes fell on the bodies littering the road. "The kids don't need to see that," he muttered. Quickly, he went over to his bike and rolled it to the side. Then, he hauled the bodies off the pavement and rolled them down the far slope toward the creek. Not completely out of sight, but as close as he could manage in the time available.


As he was finishing with the last corpse, he heard the sound of the first bus approaching. He scrambled up the bank and lunged into the road, waving his arms. His efforts were wasted, however. The bus was already coming to a stop. The driver had spotted Rebecca on the side of the road.


Hurriedly, Jeff lifted her up and half-carried her to the bus. The driver had opened the door and was calling at the children to move back, make room. As Jeff heaved Rebecca onto the step leading into the bus, she held out a hand and tried—feebly—to block him. "No, no," she mumbled. "Stop the buses."


Jeff shook his head. The gesture combined worry with amusement. "Boy, are you out of it! I did stop the bus, Rebecca. I'm putting you on right now."


Still, she tried to block him. But Jeff was having none of it. "She needs to see a doctor—now!" He carried her into the bus by main force and set her on a seat made vacant by the driver.


"Get her to Doc Nichols right away," Jeff ordered, ignoring the driver's babbled questions. "I'll explain later."


He hopped out of the bus, turned, and waved his arm vigorously. Move, goddamit!


The driver obeyed. The door closed with a hiss and the bus rumbled into motion. Jeff hurried over to his bike. By the time he started it up, a line of buses was coming down the road from town. He preceded them into the school's parking lot as if he were leading a parade.


As hundreds of schoolchildren started pouring off the buses, Jeff plunged through the entrance. Half running, he made his way through the corridors. He was at the clinic less than a minute after parking his bike.


Rebecca was already there, perched on an examination table, with Nichols in front of her. Jeff's leather jacket was draped over a nearby chair. As he started pulling it back on, Jeff heard someone behind him. He glanced back and saw that Ed Piazza and Len Trout were coming through the door, their faces full of concern. Trout had replaced Piazza as the school's principal months ago, given Ed's general responsibilities. But, at his insistence, Piazza had kept using his old office.


The driver, Jeff realized, must have spotted the bodies. Not to mention the blood and gore all over the highway. He would have charged right into the principal's office and told them.


But, for the moment, Jeff's concern was all for Rebecca. He turned back. To his surprise, he saw that she was staring at him. He was even more surprised to see that the dazed look was gone. Instead, her eyes were filling with tears.


"Oh, Jeff," she said softly, "why did you not stop the buses?"


His face must have shown his confusion. Rebecca shook her head sadly. "I wanted to send them all back to town, where they would be safe."


Jeff's jaw started to sag. Rebecca wiped the tears away with a trembling hand. Then, straightened her shoulders.


"Never mind," she said firmly. Her eyes were now dark with purpose. Not dazed in the least. "What is past is past."


Startled by the iron in her voice, Nichols stood erect. Rebecca glanced at him, then Piazza, then Trout.


Her eyes came back to Jeff. For a moment, they softened. "Thank you for saving my life, Jeffrey Higgins. Now, we must see to the lives of the children."


"Oh, Jesus," whispered Jeff.


Rebecca nodded. "Yes. They will be coming soon."


 


Captain Gars took his eyes off the trail for a moment, glancing at the sky. It was a very brief glance. Driving a horse down such a trail required concentration.


"Now," he growled. "They'll be starting the attack now." He cocked his head, shouting at the men following.


"Faster!"


 


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