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Chapter 57

Most of Grantville's residential areas were south of Buffalo Creek. The Croats had begun their approach to the town on that same side of the creek. But their commanders, wanting to maintain surprise, had crossed the creek miles downstream and circled to the north. There, in the uninhabited hills between the town, the school and the power plant, the imperial cavalry had been able to move unseen.


Almost unseen. They did encounter a small crew of tree trimmers, engaged in clearing foliage away from the power lines. Croat light cavalry were superb woodsmen, so the tree trimmers were caught by surprise. The three men in the crew were butchered within seconds. The cavalrymen were prepared to linger over the woman, but an officer arrived and demanded dispatch. For all their well-deserved savage reputation, the Croats were not undisciplined freebooters. They made only token protest before decapitating her.


Once they reached the northern outskirts of Grantville, the commanders of the cavalry detachment sent against the town—about a third of the entire force—ordered the charge. Whooping their war cries, seven hundred Croats began pouring through the small streets, lancing and sabering—


Three dogs, a cat, and Mrs. Flannery. As pigheaded and irascible as she had been throughout her eighty-one years of life, the widow had refused to evacuate. The Croats found her standing in her yard, shrieking the same imprecations at them which she had visited on her neighbors for decades. The cavalryman who cut her down even hesitated for five seconds, he was so bemused by the sight.


For a few minutes, the Croats' attack was delayed as the cavalrymen smashed into the deserted houses, looking for victims. Kill everyone, they had been told. Especially Jews.


The qualifier, as Wallenstein's officers had foretold, was pointless. The Croats had only the vaguest notion of how to distinguish Jews from gentiles, and they were not, in any event, a soldiery given to making fine distinctions. As far as they were concerned, the operative phrase was: Kill everyone.


But there was no one to kill.


"Empty—again!" barked the officer, as he led his men out of yet another house. His commanding officer was waiting on the street outside, perched on his horse. While the officer made a hurried report, his men amused themselves with vandalism. But even the vandalism was petty—smashed windows and sabered furniture—since the cavalrymen were under orders not to linger.


The commander's snarl was ferocious. "They've been warned." He pointed to the center of town, whose taller buildings were clearly visible not more than two hundred yards away. "But they can't have gotten far. Gather the troops!"


It was the work of another few minutes to round up the soldiers from their futile house-wrecking. By the time the Croats reassembled, several of the homes were starting to burn. But even the arson was petty. The cavalrymen had been expecting a lightning strike aimed at massacre. They had brought little in the way of incendiary supplies and were not given enough time to set proper fires.


"Charge!" the commander bellowed. The order was relayed to the separate detachments gathered in the streets. Seven hundred Croats pounded toward Grantville's center, shrieking with murderous fury.


 


The fifteen hundred Croats surrounding the school were also shrieking, but theirs was a frustrated fury. Coming down onto the school from the ridge to the north, they had found no easy access into the buildings. Nor had they expected any. Their scouts had already reported that the school's vulnerability was on the south side.


Then, after circling, the Croats discovered the buses blocking off the entrances. For a moment, they milled around in confusion, hundreds of horses stamping their hooves on unfamiliar pavement. Within a minute, the large parking lot south of the school was covered with soldiers, staring at the bizarre yellow contraptions barring their way.


The officers gathered in a knot around the general commanding the entire expedition. Angrily, the general was stroking his mustachioes, examining the unexpected barricade.


"There must be a gap!" he snarled. "Between those—those things—and the building. Dismount and—"


* * *


James waited until the officers had gathered. He and Julie were positioned at the open window of a classroom on the second floor, facing to the south.


"I'll take the guy in the middle," he said, sighting down the barrel of the .30-06. "You take—"


Julie started firing. Crackcrackcrackcrack. By the time James took out the general—a perfect shot, right in the middle of the sniper's triangle—four of his officers were already dead.


Julie ejected the magazine and slapped in another. Crackcrack. Two more. Crack. Another.


The sole surviving officer spurred his horse into motion. It did him no good at all. Julie tracked him for not more than a second.


Crack.


"Jesus Christ," whispered James. He turned his head and stared at the girl next to him.


She responded with a glare. As she started reloading her rifle, she chanted in a little singsong: "'Can you handle a .30-06 semiautomatic, Ju-lie?' "


Nichols grinned. He extended his own rifle to her. "Tell you what, Julie. Why don't you do the shooting and let me reload for you?"


"Good idea," she growled.


 


Captain Gars heard the first shots just before he reached the road. A wide road, it was, paved with some peculiar substance. Perfectly flat. The finest road he had ever seen in his life.


He turned his head to the northwest, listening. Anders Jönsson drew his horse alongside.


"Not far," stated Anders. Captain Gars nodded. He reached down and seized the hilt of his saber in a huge hand. Anders sighed. The captain, obviously enough, had no intention whatsoever of using his wheel-lock pistols. Saber, as always.


The rest of the Swedish cavalry was pouring onto the road. Captain Gars drew his saber and lifted it high. "Gott mit uns!" he bellowed, and spurred his horse into a gallop.


Within less than a minute, four hundred West Gothlanders, Finns and Lapps were thundering down what had once been—and was still named—U.S. Route 250. Heading west, following a madman.


"Gott mit uns!"


"Haakaa päälle!"


 


The Croats hit Grantville's downtown like a log hits a saw.


As soon as his horse debouched onto the main street, the commander spotted the figure of a lone man in the plaza to the east. The man was standing still, facing them. One hand was holding an object—a weapon, perhaps—while the other was planted on his hip. He seemed to be wearing some sort of uniform, with an odd-looking breastplate, and his hat had a certain "official" air about it.


The open target was irresistible, after the frustration of the past quarter of an hour. The commander drew his wheel lock and waved it forward. "Attack!"


As he led the charge, some part of the commander's mind noted that the entrances to the buildings had all been blocked off by various means. The sight filled him with good cheer. Blocked doors meant that people were hiding inside. Like chickens in a coop, waiting for slaughter.


 


Dan hefted the pistol in his hand, watching the oncoming cavalrymen. For a moment, he was tempted to draw the weapon in his holster and shoot two-handed. The notion appealed to his sense of history. Sid Hatfield, by all accounts, had fought so at Matewan. A weapon in each hand, as he gunned down the company goons from the Baldwin-Felts detective agency.


Firmly, he suppressed the notion. True, family legend claimed that Sid Hatfield, the sheriff who led the coal miners in their shoot-out with the company goons at Matewan, had been a distant relative. But Dan was skeptical of the tale. Practically everyone he knew claimed to be related to the Hatfield clan, the West Virginia half of the famous Hatfield–McCoy feud.


Still, Dan was tempted. Whether or not Sid Hatfield was a blood relative, he was most certainly an ancestral spirit. Company goons or Croats, his town was under attack.


But that was in the old days, when police officers were not really professionals. So Dan resisted the amateurish whimsy, and brought up the .40-caliber automatic in a proper two-handed grip. The first line of horsemen was forty yards away.


The first wheel locks were discharged at him. Dan ignored the shots. As inaccurate as the weapons were, especially on a galloping horse, he would only be hit by blind chance.


As he started squeezing the trigger, Dan forced another thought out of his mind. That was a much more difficult struggle. Dan disapproved strongly of cruelty to animals, and he was especially fond of horses. Still—


Professional.


He emptied the twelve-round clip, methodically mowing down the horses in the front of the charge. Most of his shots struck the cavalry mounts in the chest or throat, killing several of them outright. Even those horses that were only wounded stumbled and fell, spilling themselves and their riders. Then other horses, uninjured by bullets, began stumbling over the corpses. Within half a minute, the charge had piled up like water hitting a dam.


Long before those thirty seconds expired, however, the street had become a charnel house. As soon as Dan's first shot went off, the deputies and armed citizens in the upstairs windows began firing their weapons. The range was point-blank, and the street below was packed with horsemen. Due to their excitement and fear, many of the citizens—and not a few of the deputies—missed practically every shot they fired. It hardly mattered. It was almost impossible for a bullet not to hit something.


Screaming rage and terror, the Croats tried to return fire with their wheel locks. But the contest was hopelessly one-sided. Not only were the wheel locks inaccurate, but the men firing them were mounted on pitching horses. Any shot which struck home did so by pure luck. The residents of Grantville perched in the upper stories of the downtown buildings suffered only eight casualties. None were fatal, and only two of them were actual bullet wounds. The rest were cuts caused by shattering glass and splintered stone. And one freak concussion: when a heavily framed velvet portrait of Elvis, shot loose from the wall, landed on the head of a woman huddled below.


 


Dan had planned to retreat, as soon as he fired off his first pistol. But now, seeing that the charge had been stymied, he stood his ground. Carefully, almost gently, he laid the empty automatic on the street next to his feet. Then he drew the pistol from his holster and started shooting again.


One of the officers who had been in the forefront was just now rising to his feet, shaking his head. The man was still dazed from his spill. He stumbled, and fell to his knees. His head came up, staring at the uniformed man who had so shockingly—one man!—shattered the charge.


Dan would have passed him up, if the man had managed to lose his hat. But Croats treasured their headgear—none more so than officers—and the hat was firmly attached by a drawstring. It was a very fancy, elaborate hat, replete with feathers. A commander's kind of hat. Even the bullet which came in between his eyes and blew out the back of his head didn't dislodge the thing.


Again, methodically, with a proper two-handed grip, Dan began killing the dismounted cavalrymen who had been in the first rank. He had intended to save a few rounds to cover his retreat. But by the time he came to the last few rounds, he saw that retreat would be unnecessary. Downtown Grantville, like a giant-scale Matewan, had become a death trap for arrogant outsiders. Already, he could see the Croats beginning their retreat.


Rout, rather. There was no discipline or order in the mob of horsemen galloping off to the east. Just five hundred panicked cavalrymen, leaving two hundred dead and wounded behind, driving down a road which led to no destination they knew. Just—away.


Dan heard the engine of the bus blocking the bridge start up. He spun around.


"Goddamit, Gretchen—wait for me!"


 


Gretchen had positioned all the German police recruits in the bus, ready at the windows to cover Dan's retreat if necessary. Then, seeing the way the battle was going, she ordered the driver to start the bus.


The driver was an elderly man, confused and frightened by the situation. Seeing that he was useless, Gretchen seized him by the scruff of the neck and manhandled him out of the bus. Then, scanning the large crowd which had gathered south of the bridge, she bellowed: "I need someone who can drive this thing!" She repeated the words in German.


"I can! I can!"


Gretchen recognized the voice even before her little brother forced his way through the mob. Hans was grinning from ear to ear. "I can drive anything!" he called out proudly, racing toward her.


Gretchen hesitated. Her brother loved to drive and was very good at it—measured, at least, in his ability to get from one place to another in a minimum amount of time. But he had an extremely nonchalant attitude toward what the American driving instructors called "defensive driving." His operating motto behind the wheel was: You can't live forever, anyway, so why not get where you're going?


Her hesitation was brief. Time was of the essence, and she could think of no one who would get the bus to the school quicker. "All right," she growled. "But be careful." Even to her, the words sounded absurd.


Hans clambered aboard and flung himself eagerly into the driver's seat. "Where to?" he demanded, starting the engine.


Scowling, Gretchen studied the main intersection. The plan which Dan had developed, to pursue the fleeing Croats directly, was obviously impractical. The street was so littered with the bodies of horses and men that it would take a quarter of an hour—at least—to clear a pathway. Already, she could see that the buses which Dan had held waiting a few blocks away were arriving on the scene, ready to load the deputies and other armed men in the buildings. But until the obstacles were removed, her bus was the only one which could go into immediate action.


She was about to order Hans to follow the road just south of Buffalo Creek, running parallel to the street down which the Croats were retreating, when she spotted Dan racing toward them. The police chief was supposed to ride one of the other buses, but he had obviously reached the same conclusion as Gretchen.


For a moment, so great was her furious determination to punish the invaders and protect the school, Gretchen almost left him behind. But she managed to restrain herself. Dan Frost was the best pistol shot in town, for one thing. And she'd never hear the end of it.


"Wait a moment," she said. In the few seconds it took Dan to reach the bus, Gretchen hurriedly explained her new battle plan to Hans and the recruits.


As soon as Dan came aboard, Hans closed the door and sent the bus lurching ahead. Dan grabbed the upright post by the door to keep from falling.


When he saw Hans at the wheel, the police chief hissed, "Oh, shit."


"He can drive anything," stated Gretchen firmly.


The bus careened around the corner. Frantically, Gretchen grabbed the overhead rail. "Anything," she repeated. Not as firmly.


Hans took the next turn like a charging cavalryman. The rear right wheels of the bus hammered over the curb, half-spilling the recruits out of their hastily taken seats.


"Oh, shit," repeated the police chief. He was now holding onto the upright with both hands. His knuckles were white.


On the next turn—whang!—Hans massacred a stop sign. "Anything," prayed Gretchen. "Gott mit uns."


 


 


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