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Greg Donahue

Dave woke up when the front door slammed. He sat up off the couch and pushed his glasses back in place. A book fell off his chest and onto the floor. Scooby sat up and barked once before running into the kitchen.

Dave muttered as he picked up the book and placed it on the coffee table. He looked at his watch. Gerd was probably getting home from his shift. "Hey buddy, how was work?" Dave shouted towards the door.

"It vass gut," Gerd hollered back from the kitchen. He appeared at the doorway with two beers. He handed one to Dave before taking a seat in the La-Z-Boy opposite the couch. "Aber, I am worried. I mean, but I am worried."

"Talk to me, Goose," Dave replied before taking a drink. Gerd first saw Top Gun two nights ago, and it had enchanted him. He was heartbroken to learn that apparently no one in Grantville possessed an aircraft.

"You know they let all men from Jena come here?" Gerd asked, calming down a bit after sipping his beer. Scooby, Dave's Great Dane, sat completely still, hoping Gerd would share the beer.

Dave was still getting used to his boarder's version of English. He had met Gerd a couple of months ago while helping recruit labor for his tree-trimming crews. Gerd was one of the few who spoke any English at the time, and Dave grew to like him. He offered to let Gerd stay with him after about two weeks of working together. Gerd had happily accepted, anxious to leave the growing refugee camp.

"I'm sorry, what?" Dave asked slowly.

Gerd had a look of concentration on his face before continuing. "The man all taken from battle at Jena. They come here and join Army, or work with us. I heard today at work."

"Oh, right," Dave replied. "We could certainly use them. So why are you worried?"

"These man are trouble. Gretchen kicked some out after Badenburg. How you know if they start trouble this time? Who kicks them out?"

"I'm sure some will start trouble. We gave you and the others a chance, and it worked out great. It's how we do things," Dave said, trying to keep his wording simple.

"Right, but these men . . . we must be careful," Gerd finished by setting his empty bottle on the coffee table. Dave knew Gerd liked a lot about Grantville, but the German was never shy about his feelings of the beer Dave and the other Americans had brought with them. Gerd had made no small ceremony of the day Dave ran out of beer. Dave was shocked with how quickly Gerd and his co-workers had started brewing their own.

"Look, America was formed in no small part by groups of unwanted people. In fact," Dave stood up and took his empty bottle into the kitchen, "several of . . ."

"I know, I know. I hear this from you before," Gerd followed him and put his bottle in the recycle bin. "What we have for dinner?"

Dave, relieved that Gerd moved onto another subject, smiled. "We're about out of the usual." He scratched his chin, then pointed at Gerd. "We will feast like men! Wait here!"

Dave left Gerd standing in the kitchen, waiting and looking slightly confused. Scooby, either picking up on the conversation, or just happy to be in the kitchen, started pawing at his bowl.

Dave returned with a shotgun in one hand, and a scoped rifle in the other. He tossed the shotgun to Gerd. Gerd fumbled and almost dropped it. He held the shotgun gingerly, as if Dave had handed him the fire of the gods. Scooby, seeing the weapons and knowing meat was coming, grabbed his bowl in his mouth and sat at the sliding glass door, pawing at it.

"We will stalk our prey like cats, strike like eagles and feast like pigs!" Dave shouted, thumping the rifle to his chest. He laughed at the look on Gerd's face. Dave handed him a box of shells. "Guess you'd better have a lesson first." Dave walked out the sliding glass door and into the woods behind the house.

Gerd followed, carefully holding the weapon as if expecting it to start firing off dozens of rounds at the slightest touch. "No more vegetables for dinner, thank God."

* * *

"So you ended up shooting your dinner?" Mathias asked, tugging on a branch as Gerd sawed away.

"Yes. I think Dave was looking for deer or something. A boar charged, and I dropped it with one blast from the shotgun," Gerd replied, with the last word in English. The limb broke free and fell to the ground. "A very impressive weapon; it stopped the boar cold. We had it cleaned and cooking within an hour."

"Nice! Mr. and Mrs. Sizemore haven't needed to go hunting yet. They had plenty of food stored away. I sure hope they eventually let me try, especially with one of his firearms," Mathias replied as Gerd helped him drag the branch over to the pile of detritus. "I think, however, that Mr. Sizemore would rather I save ammunition and use the bow he has. The damned thing looks like some torture device. Pulleys and wires everywhere, rails for holding the arrow, and other parts I can't recognize. It is extremely quiet and easy to use, though. An intriguing weapon." Mathias was staying with an older couple that took him in as a son.

"You'd love the shotgun. Smooth and very powerful. Not that I needed to, but I had it reloaded and ready to fire before the boar hit the ground. It's a wonder any of us survived the battle," Gerd said, remembering the leg wound he received that frightful day. "I wonder how bad the Americans chewed up the men marching on Jena."

"The way I hear it, not too bad, actually." One of Mathias' hosts, Mrs. Sizemore, was also an excellent source of rumor, gossip and news. Gerd found that Mathias wasn't shy in sharing any of it with his coworkers. "There is some girl who is supposed to be an incredible shot with a rifle. She apparently took out most of the officer types before anyone knew what was going on. They folded before really going nose-to-nose with the Americans."

"Lucky for them." Gerd started sawing on another limb. "When are the prisoners coming here?"

"They're already here, but not as prisoners," Mathias replied.

"How do you always know these things?" Gerd asked, a little exasperated.

"I suffer through hours of conversation with Mrs. Sizemore to get a few details. Mr. Sizemore says he let me stay with them just to 'run interference on the wife' as he put it."

Gerd laughed, understanding the meaning if not the translated idiom.

* * *

Hermann sipped his beer slowly, keeping his eyes on the crowd. Pieter and Jan were also eyeing the crowd. Most of the men from Jena were packed into Thuringen Gardens for their first night off after being inducted into the American Army.

"What an unusual place," Pieter said softly.

"What an unusual week," Hermann added. A few days prior, he had barely escaped death. Most of the other men on horseback, especially those with plumage on their heads, were swatted down by an unseen and unheard weapon. Hermann had immediately sensed the trend, dove off his horse and hid among the men. In short order, they had all surrendered under the best of terms. At the time, he actually looked forward to fighting with the obviously wealthy and powerful Americans. His first impression was fast changing. "Naïve bastards."

"Sir?" Pieter asked, cocking his head to the side.

"The Americans, naïve," Hermann repeated. "They could take any city, crush any army, and here they are, letting us sit on our asses and drink beer while they worry about refugee camps."

"Weak," Jan commented. He was always short on words, and those he did speak were often in agreement with Hermann. Hermann favored his efficient brutality over his "intellectual" dialogue.

"That's right my nearly mute friend, weak," Hermann said, pointing to his beer, "so get us some more." Hermann cuffed Jan and sent him on his way.

"I have to say, this could be a most profitable diversion, sir," Pieter said, once Jan had left.

"What diversion is that, Pieter?" Hermann replied.

Pieter smiled. "Our temporary stop in Grantville, sir. There are some things here that would be in extremely high demand in other parts of . . . well, anywhere, really."

"How do you propose we liberate the naïve Americans of some of their underutilized valuables? More importantly, how do we get out of here without having them looking for us with their damned vehicles?"

"As I said, sir, a profitable diversion."

* * *

"What's the matter?" Mathias asked. Gerd had talked his coworker into joining him at Thuringen Gardens for some drinks before heading home for the day. Apparently, most of the new arrivals from Jena also had the same idea.

"Why did you stop? Do you see one of those underdressed American women?" Mathias looked out in the crowd.

"Oh shit," Gerd muttered.

"I don't see her! Who are you looking at?" Mathias started jumping a little to look over the crowd.

"Stop, you fool!" Gerd growled, grabbing Mathias and dragging him to the side. "I see Hermann."

"Who the hell is Hermann?" Mathias protested, yanking his arm free from Gerd's grip.

Gerd took a moment to breathe deep before continuing. "Of course, you wouldn't know him. I suffered under him all of the winter and spring, before joining up with you guys."

"What, do you owe him money or something?"

"No," Gerd replied. He looked back over to the table where Hermann was sitting. His right-hand man Pieter was where he always was, next to Hermann. Hermann's two other favored thugs, Jan and Christopher, were nowhere to be seen. "He is one of the most vile men I have ever known. A bastard's bastard. What the hell is he doing here?"

"I imagine he was brought back after the battle at Jena," Mathias replied, giving Gerd a concerned look. "We've both known our share of bastards. What's the problem?"

"Let's get out of here. They are trouble, and I don't want him to see me." Gerd turned around and took off at a fast walk without waiting for Mathias.

* * *

Dave awoke to the sound of Scooby barking. He realized his watch alarm was beeping. It usually served to wake Scooby up, and Scooby in turn would wake up Dave. He rubbed his eyes and put his watch on.

"Stupid damned Ring of Fire," he muttered as he skulked into the kitchen. Everyone had been working hard ever since the Ring of Fire, and his tree-trimming crews were no exception. He hadn't had a day off since, but set his alarm early this morning to get one last good breakfast in before the cereal ran out.

Dave pulled open the cupboard and pulled out the last box of cereal. He got the milk out of the fridge. It wasn't the pasteurized, homogenized two-percent milk he was used to, but it was white, wet and helped the cereal go down.

"Come on, schlafkopf!" he hollered. "This is our last day of Lucky Charms for the rest of our lives!" They had agreed to make it a special occasion as the last of the cereal was consumed.

Dave got out two bowls and two spoons. He filled both with cereal and threw the empty box away. "I don't want to start without you, hurry up!" Since Gerd was moving slow, Dave figured he had time to get some coffee going. Coffee was running out too, so he decided to add it to their last "twentieth-century breakfast" for the foreseeable future.

"God damn it, wake up!" Dave yelled. He had already downed a cup of coffee with no peep from Gerd. "The best part of waking up, my ass," he muttered while walking to the living room. He turned on the stereo and set the volume to an uncomfortable level. A Rolling Stone's song started, causing the walls to buzz.

Gerd stumbled out of his room a minute later, punched several buttons on the stereo before finally hitting the power, and flopped into a chair at the kitchen table.

"What the hell's wrong with you? Stay up late with a lady friend?" Dave asked, pushing a coffee mug towards Gerd.

"Nein. I sleep bad." Gerd picked up the cup and held it both hands. "Remember our conversation about new men from Jena?"


Gerd got quiet and looked away quickly. Dave was about to say something before he continued. "Well, I . . . met some guys at Thuringen Gardens. They keep me up all night."

"Ah, some drinking buddies!" Dave said with a smile. "We could use some more drinking buddies. Invite them over."

Gerd almost dropped his coffee mug. "I . . . I didn't catch their names. Probably won't see them again."

"Hmm, okay," Dave said, setting his mug down and grabbing a spoon. "This is the last of the Lucky Charms, man, enjoy it while you can!"

Gerd finally managed a smile. He picked up his spoon and started on his bowl.

* * *

"This will do nicely!" Pieter said, with a savage grin. He racked the slide on the shotgun.

The three of them were sitting around a small fire on the edge of the refugee camp. Most of the inhabitants had quickly learned to keep their distance from the three men. It was evening, and they had spent the day familiarizing themselves with the tools of the American Army.

"I don't understand what that Simpson man meant when he called this the 'Elmer Fudd Special,' " Hermann said, holding up the large double-barreled shotgun issued to him. Tom Simpson spoke fair German, but during the weapons issuing process, he didn't elaborate on the strange term. Hermann, thinking it was probably the name of the inventor, and wanting to keep a low profile, hadn't asked. "However, it will indeed do nicely."

"Nice," Jan growled, sticking his large finger in the barrel of the weapon issued to him.

"Unfortunately, they are keeping a tight hand on the ammunition," Pieter added. They were not issued ammunition, and were instead given spent shells to practice operating the weapons.

"Only for these shotguns. We have all the powder we need for our pistols." Hermann gestured, with the shotgun, to their wheel locks. The wheel locks were normally a hot commodity, and Hermann had felt fortunate to have just one, prior to Jena. In one violent moment, he and his comrades learned how obsolete the pistols had become. As such, the Americans had no use for them, and Hermann had taken several from other fallen mercenaries.

"Not too tight," Jan said, smacking his fist into his other hand.

"What was that, you lout?" Hermann said impatiently. Hermann made it a point to always act annoyed at everything Jan said or did.

"I think he meant we could get ammunition easily, for the new guns that is," Pieter replied for Jan.

Jan nodded.

"Do you care to tell us how?" Hermann poked Jan with the end of his shotgun.

"There," Jan said, pointing to some of the American houses visible from their fire.

Hermann was about to tear into Jan about how all the Americans have ammunition because they all have weapons, but stopped himself. If Jan thought he could get ammunition from an American home, Hermann was inclined to let him try. Jan had a way of getting things done. If not, Hermann knew he had one less person to split any loot with.

Hermann sat back a moment in thought. He looked at Pieter and considered the plan Pieter brought up at the beer garden. Pieter returned the look, nodded and winked. Hermann smiled, glad that at least one of his smart men was still around. Christopher, unfortunately, did not survive the battle at Jena. Pieter's original plan, slightly modified to allow time for Jan to get ammunition from an American home, would work nicely.

* * *

"No, NO!" screamed the old man. 

Gerd hesitated, earning a backhand from Hermann. 

"You gutless cur, he's obviously hiding something!" Hermann snarled. 

Jan pulled back on the old man's arms tighter and smiled. "Do it." 

Gerd tried to postpone the inevitable by reheating the knife over the candle. 

"For God's sake, young pup," growled Hermann. He grabbed the hand Gerd was holding the knife with. "The longer you wait, the longer this old bastard suffers." 

Hermann guided, by force, Gerd's knife-wielding hand towards the man's stomach. He slowly pressed the knife in. The hot tip sent an acrid smell of burnt hair, skin and blood into the air. Hermann released his grip. 

"Pull it out and heat it again," Hermann said, sounding bored. 

Gerd pulled the knife out, and stuck it back over the candle, blood sizzling. He felt like he was going to throw up at any moment. 

"Please," the old man whispered. 

"What?" Jan said, driving his knee into the man's back. 

"Please," came another weak whisper. 

"Speak up." Hermann grabbed the man's thinning hair and lifted his limp head. 

"Please, no more." 

"Gerd, give him a reminder." After a moment's hesitation, Hermann turned to face Gerd. "I don't want to tell you twice." 

Gerd stuck the knife slowly in the man's stomach. 

"Where is it, you bastard?" Hermann yelled at the old man. "Where's your stash? Give it up! Give it up! Give it up . . ." 

* * *

" . . . get up! Man, get up! I'll sic Scooby on you!"

Gerd woke up with a flinch. Dave stopped shaking him.

"What the hell's been going on lately?" Dave asked, opening the blinds in the room. "You've been oversleeping and looking like hell."

Gerd sat up and rubbed his eyes. "Was ist . . . what time is it?"

"You're not late, but only because I bothered to check on you," Dave answered. "Still don't have a lot of time. We're going to start clearing some trees to the north. Looks like they might run a line up to Jena."

Gerd got out of bed without comment and lumbered to the bathroom.

"Good morning to you, too." Dave went to the kitchen, concerned, and started preparing breakfast.

* * *

"Remember, don't make a sound, and avoid anyone. No need to make them look for murderers," Hermann whispered. He handed a matchbook and sack to Jan.

"Nice." Jan took the sack and matchbook with a smile.

"When you find enough shells, pick a shed, not a house, to light. We don't need to give them a reason to look for a murderer or an arsonist, make them think it was an accident," Pieter added.

Jan stood up and walked quickly to the first house. Hermann and Pieter stayed behind cover, with an axe handle, to quietly take care of any witnesses. Hermann had picked midmorning rather than night to make their move, as the houses would likely be unoccupied. He also wanted daylight to navigate quickly out of town.

Jan disappeared around the back of the house. After a few long moments, he walked quietly out the front door. He had the sack in his hand, with something in it, and smiled.

"He's really good at this, you know," Pieter whispered.

Hermann nodded. "He only needs the occasional flogging to keep him on his toes."

Jan continued to the next house and took much longer. Hermann was about to send Pieter to go and get him, when he finally appeared at the front door. He shook his head and pointed to the bag. It didn't look any fuller.

Jan hurried to the back of the third house they had cased. After a few moments, he quickly walked back the way he came, shaking his head, indicating with his free hand that someone was sleeping inside.

Hermann waved Jan over to a house farther down the street. Jan nodded and proceeded towards it at a fast walk. Hermann and Pieter crept through the edge of the woods, keeping pace.

"He needs to slow down, he's too obvious," Pieter hissed.

"He'll be done soon enough, get ready to move." Hermann hustled over to their gear, as Pieter followed.

Jan was in and out of the last house before they had gathered all the gear. He had a huge smile on his face and the sack had several more boxes in it. He disappeared behind the house for a minute before returning. A small wisp of smoke was coming from the backyard.

"Hurry," Jan said as he approached.

Hermann grabbed the sack as they hustled into the woods. It held five boxes of shotgun shells. One of them was labeled "20 Gauge" and the rest "12 Gauge." When they were issued their weapons, they were told that the weapons were made for 12-gauge shells. Hermann would have normally backhanded Jan for something like that, but he was too happy to have four boxes of usable ammunition.

"Perfect. Let's get out of here, we have a package to pick up," Hermann whispered. They headed northwest.

* * *

"This is not rocket science!" Dave hollered.

Gerd sighed and lowered the .22 rifle. Of the ten soup cans on the ground fifty yards away, only one had any holes in it, and only two holes at that. Fifteen spent .22 cartridges were on the ground next to him. "Ja ja, I know, and Germans make rocket science. You say that before!"

"Tell you what, forget about the .22. You do fine with the shotgun anyways." Dave had spent the afternoon after work trying to teach Gerd marksmanship with a rifle, so Gerd could help hunt as well. He was fast deciding it was a wasted afternoon. Gerd had done well enough by killing a boar with a shotgun slug a few days ago.

"Mathias say the Sizemores have a bow. I can use that, and not use ammo. I can ask him tomorrow."

Dave made an overdramatic display of slapping his forehead. "I haven't used that thing in years!" He turned and ran into the garage, leaving Gerd outside, unloading the remaining .22 cartridges. After rummaging in the garage for a few minutes, he seemed to find what he was looking for.

"Got it!" Dave ran out with a crossbow. "Oh, crap, I'd better get the foam target for it, so we don't ruin all the bolts." After a few more minutes of rummaging, Dave came out and quickly had the crossbow ready and the target set up.

He handed Gerd the crossbow. "I hope you have a strong back, it's set pretty tight. It doesn't use sights like the rifle, but a bead and . . . damn dude!"

Gerd yanked the string back and locked it with little apparent effort. He slid a bolt into place and sighted on the target. Gerd fired and the bolt hit a few inches high, but horizontally centered. "Much better."

"Definitely," Dave added. "Again."

Gerd repeated the process and put the next one directly in the middle.

"You'd better stop before you Robin Hood my bolt and ruin it," Dave laughed.

"Can you tighten it? These little wheels make easy to pull back," Gerd said, pointing to the cams.

"Uh . . . sure. I think I have some Allen wrenches handy. However, I think the bolt might punch through a deer if we do that, and I don't want to lose any. Let's leave the setting where it is, gorilla boy." Dave took the crossbow back from Gerd.

"Mathias is coming over tonight. He is bringing some ladies from the camp, and some more real beer!" Gerd said as they walked back to the house. Mathias and the Sizemores lived fairly close to the camps. He was always meeting women there and trying to get them to meet his friends.

"What was wrong with my beer? I still don't understand why you're so happy it's gone."

Gerd smiled and didn't answer.

* * *

Hermann, Pieter and Jan had been moving for over an hour without being seen by anyone. They had heard some strange sirens on some vehicles heading back in the direction of the houses Jan had robbed, but nothing else. Hermann saw one of the vehicles, a red one. One of the many markings on it had the word "Fire" in English, raising Hermann's hopes that the American police were not involved. Jan, despite his typical brutality, was a remarkably hands-free thief. It was possible no one would know they were robbed for hours, even days.

* * *

"Ja. Ich verstehe," Gerd said into the phone.

"Did Mathias get stood up?" Dave asked, while Gerd was on the phone. He must have detected the obvious disappointment in Gerd's voice.

Gerd nodded. "Sorry."

"Damn!" Dave put the box of Twister back in the closet. "The beer and Twister combo would have worked, too, I know it!"

"Ja . . . Ja . . . tschüs," Gerd said into the phone, and hung up.

"So what happened?" Dave asked.

Gerd suppressed a smile. Dave was learning German, but much slower than Gerd was learning English. He could still safely rant in German without Dave picking up on too much.

"He say there was a fire several houses down, in someone's shed, this morning. He was helping rebuild it. Also, someone rob two houses, maybe more. They were checking all the houses."

"Well, let's head to T-Gardens. Maybe we'll meet some ladies there." Dave stood up and grabbed his jacket.

"I, uh . . ." Gerd hesitated. He didn't want to risk running into Hermann and his thugs there. "If these house robbed by someone, maybe we should stay?"

"It was probably just kids, stole some cigarettes and lit the barn up by accident. I'm not worried about it, Scooby has it covered." Scooby, hearing his name, ran to the kitchen full of hopes.

"All right, but . . ." Gerd sighed. He really didn't want to have anything to do with Hermann. "Bring your pistol. In case they not kids, I don't want to get robbed on the way. Also one less thing to steal."

Dave shrugged. "Well, I don't mix beer and guns, but I'm on a mission to find women tonight. I don't want beer goggles interfering with that anyway."

Gerd smiled. He inwardly hoped that Dave would meet Hermann tonight. More to the point, he hoped Dave's .357 would meet Hermann. "All right, let's go."

"What are you worried about, anyway? You pull that crossbow back like it's a slingshot! You could throw some young punk across the street."

* * *

Dave decided Gerd was right. They should have stayed home. He was sharing a table with Gerd, three lovely ladies, and Johann, one of the Germans newly inducted into the Army after Jena. It was all probably a perfect evening with friends new and old, except the only other person who spoke English was Gerd. He was too busy flirting and having fun to translate for Dave.

Dave's hopes flared a little when he spotted Tom Simpson. Granted, Tom didn't have any women with him, but he spoke both English and German and was a fun guy. Dave waved him over.

"Hey there L-T!" Dave shook Tom's hand. "Congratulations on a successful military campaign. Care to reap the rewards of peace by helping me chat it up with some of these ladies?"

Tom shook his head. "I'd love to, but I'm here on official business."

"That's a damned shame. What's going on?"

"A few of the new arrivals from Jena failed to muster this morning. They probably deserted, but in case they're screwing around here, we need to grab them. They have some weapons with them. Some of our weapons, that is." Tom was scanning nearby people.

"No shit, huh? There was a fire this morning and some break-ins, you think it might be them?"

"Could be," replied Tom. He turned to the other people at the table and asked them, in German, if they knew or saw anything. Dave was pleased he picked up most of Tom's German. He knew he was a little slow in learning the language. The ladies shook their heads, while Gerd paused before shaking his head. He looked a little ashen.

Johann stood up, in respect for his new superior, before replying with a nein. 

"All right," Tom said, turning back to Dave. "The bastards probably just took off with a couple of shotguns. We didn't give any ammo to them yet, though. They're likely halfway to Leipzig by now. Damn it!" Tom gnawed on his lower lip hard enough that it looked painful to Dave. "Well, we're going to keep searching around here. Keep your eyes open. They won't be in any uniforms or camouflage, but will have our shotguns. None of them speak a lick of English, to my knowledge."

"All right, hope it works out." Dave shook his hand again.

"Catch you later, thanks." Tom stormed off through the crowd.

Dave and Johann sat back down. Johann started talking with one of the women again. Dave looked across the table, and noticed a face missing.

"Hey, where did Gerd go?" Dave exclaimed. Johann knew little English, but understood the meaning and shrugged. The other ladies did the same. "That's odd. I hope he comes back with some pretzels."

Dave wasn't too worried, Gerd was having fun talking to one of the girls, and would surely be back to pick up where he left off. Dave decided to try again with one of the other ladies.

"So, uh . . . Wie heisst du? Whoops, my bad. Wie heissen Sie?"

* * *

Dave got concerned about Gerd after about an hour and a half. He called back to the house, with no answer. He spent another fifteen minutes walking around the area looking for him, with no luck. Dave decided to head home before the sun set.

* * *

When he opened the front door, Scooby was there to meet him.

"Gerd!" Dave hollered. "Where the hell are you?"

He went through all the rooms and around the outside of the house looking for Gerd, with no luck. He finally plopped on the couch and turned on the TV. The marquee said that Memphis Belle would start in an hour. Dave hoped Gerd would show up by then. As much as his German friend loved Top Gun, he should like tonight's movie. Of course, Dave recalled, it pitted Germans and Americans against each other.

The thought abruptly vanished when loud whining came from the kitchen. Dave stood up and walked towards it.

"I fed you this afternoon, butthead," Dave grumbled. When he got in the kitchen, Scooby was sitting and pawing at the back door, whining and wagging his tail. His bowl was in his mouth. "Ohhh SHIT!"

* * *

Hermann heard Jan's quiet whistle. He and Pieter shuffled across the road to Jan's position. The sun had been down for about a half hour, and they were beyond the lights of Grantville. They had followed one of the American highways out, keeping a slow pace, out of sight in the adjacent woods. They finally had to cross it to keep heading northwest. There was no indication the Americans were looking for them, but they kept quiet anyway.

"How much farther do you think?" Hermann whispered.

"Not sure. This is still American land that was put here from the Ring of Fire," Pieter replied. "If what they told us is right, we'll be in German land shortly. The effect ends three miles from the center of town."

"The outhouse we want is about two leagues west of Jena."

"We're on track, sir. We will most likely get there before dawn."

"We may need daylight to find our little treasure." Hermann starting walking, smacking Jan into motion as he passed by.

Pieter and Jan fell in behind him.

"This works out well. We only have to split it three ways, not five. Gerd and Christopher aren't joining us," Hermann snorted. "Poor Christopher is dead and Gerd ran off like a girl months ago."

"He was weak. Good riddance." Pieter spat.

"No," Jan stated flatly.

Hermann turned to look at Jan. He stared for several moments before finally backhanding Jan. "Do I always have to prompt you? Will you ever just spit it out without encouragement?"

Jan rubbed his chin and smiled. "I saw him."

Hermann stopped and pointed his shotgun in Jan's face. "For God's sake, man. I think you like it when I hit you. No more games, talk!"

Jan lost the smile. "When we were in the Gardens. He was there. I don't think he saw me."

"Or the rest of us?" Pieter asked.

Jan shrugged.

"Damn!" Hermann hollered. "He might have already grabbed it!"

"I doubt it, sir. He's too soft, and probably has nightmares about that old man. If it is indeed gone, we can always sneak back into town and beat it out of him."

Hermann nodded. "I think I'll send Jan by himself. He'd attract less attention. We'll worry about that if we can't find the sack. We still need to get away from town."

* * *

"No, it's not a missing persons issue. He took off. He took my shotgun, too, and who knows what else!" Dave shouted into the phone.

"So this is a robbery? He lives with you . . ."

"Look, who else is on duty?" Dave got frustrated.

"Fred Jordan."

"Put him on." Dave rubbed his temples. Hopefully Fred would see it as a more urgent situation.

"Fred here, what's up?"

"Fred! My boarder, Gerd, has taken off with my shotgun."

"When did you last see him?" Fred asked.

"We were at Thuringen Gardens. I turned to talk to Tom and he took off. I came home an hour or so later, and he wasn't here, and neither was the shotgun."

"Okay. Any idea where he might have gone?" Fred continued, the sound of scribbling audible in the background.

"Not really. I don't think he really had much to drink, either." Dave was glad he didn't have any. He wanted a clear head.

"Does he have any beef with Tom? Did you or Tom say anything that might have pissed him off or something?"

Dave paused for a moment before answering. "No, I don't think he had any problem with Tom. I'm thinking," Dave sighed. "Tom mentioned some missing men from Jena. New guys brought into the Army. He thought they might have deserted."

"All right. I heard that from Tom as well. They sent out a few guys on bikes, but didn't see anything. His boys in Jena have been told to be on the lookout, in case the deserters went that way. You think he joined them?"

"I really have no idea," Dave sighed, knowing the frustration in his voice was too obvious.

"Hey, we'll figure this out, try to relax a little. Tom was going to send some of the new recruits on a combined field exercise and search party. I don't think they're going to find much on foot, though. This counts as enough of an emergency to use the truck. I'll be at your place at dawn. Be ready to roll when I get there." Fred hung up the phone before Dave could say anything else.

Dave went to the closet in his room and yanked the door open. He pulled his M-1 Garand out of the back and headed for the kitchen. He field stripped it and began cleaning.

* * *

Hermann squinted in the near darkness. The moon was out, but not full.

"I think we just head west from here," Pieter whispered. The area looked familiar. A faintly visible road wound its way east and west.

"We'll wait here until morning. We won't be able to find the loot without light, and I'd rather sleep now so we can grab it, leave, and get as far away from Grantville as possible."

* * *

Gerd's legs burned like fire. He didn't know how much of a head start Hermann and the rest had, but he was determined not to miss them on account of not running fast enough.

He had scouted the route once before. It was shortly after Gretchen had set most of the detained soldiers free. He was given the benefit of the doubt at the time for being new to that group of mercenaries. Luckily, no one seemed to know about the horrors he was complicit in committing with the likes of Hermann. Before being picked for Dave's tree-trimming crew, he took a day to find the sack of gold and other trinkets that he helped steal from the old man west of Jena. Jan had hidden the sack in an outhouse, so that Hermann and others wouldn't be forced to "share" with other mercenaries, or have it outright stolen. Gerd had located the sack, and then left it in place, buried in the same sort of filth that desired it. Gerd still had no idea where the old man got all the loot from. It didn't matter if the old man had ten times as much, Gerd thought, it wasn't worth taking a soul. Taking a soul and damning another, he thought.

Gerd ignored the burning in his legs and kept running.

* * *

Dave was restless the whole night, and didn't sleep. He had cleaned the Garand four times, and the pistol twice. He heard a car pull up in front of his house as he started to work on the pistol again.

"I don't know when I'm coming back, Scoobs. This is your lucky day." Dave pulled out a large chunk of cooked boar from the freezer and tossed it on the floor. The sun had just peeked over the horizon and Dave heard a honk from outside. He came out of the door with his Garand in hand, and got in the police four by four. Fred put the truck in gear and floored the gas.

"Which way are we headed?" Dave asked.

"For now, we'll just take the highway out. I don't think we need to head to Jena, given that Tom's already got a small garrison up there," Fred replied. "I hope we just find him walking down one of the highways, though he's been gone long enough to be in German lands by now. We'll hit some of their roads, too, and see what we see. The woods are too dense to really drive into, and there's too much area to cover. If he's not walking alongside a road, this is a lost cause."

"The way I hear it, Tilly's army is north of here. If the deserters don't join back up with them, they'll probably head roughly north, over familiar ground. I can't even guess what Gerd has in mind." Dave slapped a clip into the rifle and pulled his hand free as the bolt slammed shut.

"Damn, man, you going to open up on him with that antique? I hope I never piss you off!"

"Probably won't." Dave smiled. "However, he is armed, and so are the deserters. I'm not sure if he's rushing to join up with them or what. He might even have a grudge against them."

"How much would it bother you if he shot those deserters if, say, they killed his wife or daughter? The way I hear it, many of the guys in these mercenary armies are as much victims as perps," Fred offered. "I'm not sure what Dan or the others would do with him if that's the case. A jury of our peers would let him go."

"Don't talk around it, I heard about that Gretchen thing." Dave smiled. "Frontier justice had a bit of a rebirth after the Ring of Fire."

* * *

Hermann saw Jan waving them forward. He and Pieter hustled up to Jan's position. The small cluster of houses was much as they left them months ago, except the houses had long since stopped burning, leaving charred skeletal remains. The rising sun cast long shadows across the ravaged crossroads. The only untouched structure was a lone outhouse.

"Funny the men didn't burn that," Pieter commented.

"Some things are indeed sacred, especially to a soldier," Hermann replied.

The three of them made quick work of tearing the outhouse away from the underlying pit. Jan set his shotgun on the ground and stared inside the hole, with his hands over his eyes.

"Still too dark." Jan stood up and let out a deep breath.

"See if you can't find a large stick or board to fish it out with." Hermann pointed to both Jan and Pieter.

Pieter returned quickly with a hoe retrieved from one of the collapsed barns. "This should work."

Jan took the hoe from Pieter and started poking around in the pit. When he had hidden the bag, he'd tied a rope to it to help later pull it out. He dug around for several minutes before Hermann interrupted.

"Is it in there or not?" he asked.

Jan stood up and shrugged. "Still too dark to tell."

Hermann let out a sigh. "I'd like to know if we have to send you back to Grantville to beat some answers out of our friend Gerd. Would you rather dig in filth all day looking for a sack that isn't there, or be beating the piss out of Gerd by noon?"

Jan smiled. "Beating Gerd."

"That's right. So tell me, will Gerd have the sack, or is it still swimming here in this shit?"

Jan didn't answer. He got back on his belly and continued looking for the sack.

"Got it," Jan said with little emotion, five minutes later. He stood up and pulled the hoe out. A rope was looped around the end.

"Excellent!" Hermann almost grabbed the rope with his bare hands, before remembering where it had been sitting for many months.

Jan took his shirt off and wrapped it around his hands. He grabbed the excrement-soaked rope and pulled out the sack. The sack was equally soaked. Still working with his wrapped hands, he managed to untie the sack. Inside was another, much less soaked sack. Jan threw his shirt down and grabbed the second sack. He pulled it free and set it on the ground with an audible clink.

"Ah hah!" Hermann clapped his hands and laughed.

"Don't worry, my friend, we'll be able to buy you another shirt!" Pieter squealed, patting Jan on the back.

The sound of the bolt flying through the air might have registered in Hermann's mind, but it was moving too fast and too quiet for any of them to even realize what it was before it hit.

Jan staggered back while clutching his lower stomach. The bolt had punched clean through, instantly staining both sides of his undershirt with his own blood.

* * *

Gerd set the crossbow on the ground and picked up the shotgun. Instinctively, he had wanted to shoot Hermann first. Logic dictated that Jan, being the most dangerous in a fight, took the first hit.

He sat perfectly still. During their brief hunting trip, Dave told Gerd that camouflage coveralls made a man virtually invisible. The less he moved, the better the concealment. Gerd, having survived the battle at Badenburg, was already a true believer in the American camouflage.

Hermann and Pieter ran for one of the burnt outbuildings while Jan fell to the ground. Pieter fired an unaimed shot into the woods on Gerd's left, sending hundreds of small pellets ripping through the leaves.

Gerd smiled. During his brief shotgun lesson with Dave, Gerd was told to use birdshot only when hunting birds. He had ended up killing their dinner with a slug. Hermann the pig, Gerd thought, will get a slug as well.

Hermann and Pieter dove behind a section of collapsed roof as Gerd lined up his shot. He heard rapid talking followed by a moan from Jan. His fallen form raised an arm and pointed directly at Gerd. Gerd was about to shoot Jan again when Pieter leaned around the piece of roof and fired right where Jan pointed.

Gerd yelped as a couple of sharp stings bit into his shoulder. He clenched his jaw and lined up his shotgun with the piece of roof Pieter and Hermann were using for cover. He fired three rapid shots before pressing himself behind a tree. His shooting was rewarded with a startled grunt of pain from behind the roof.

Two rapid booms accompanied a shower of pellets, but the tree Gerd was behind provided plenty of protection. He slid three more slug shells into his shotgun before breaking cover and charging Hermann and Pieter's position. He had seen Hermann's doubled-barreled shotgun, and knew he would still be reloading. As he approached, he saw Pieter lean back around the roof, shotgun first, with his face partially covered in blood and splinters. Gerd fired from the hip. The shot went high, but forced Pieter to duck back behind the roof.

Gerd racked the slide on the shotgun, and ran to the opposite side of the roof. He turned the corner to find Hermann facing him, his double-barreled shotgun open as he fumbled to put more shells in. Gerd fired from ten feet away. The slug blasted dead center through Hermann's chest, and he collapsed to the ground in a mangled heap.

Pieter scrambled to turn and face Gerd, his backside covered in Hermann's blood. Gerd racked the slide. Pieter dropped his shotgun and threw his hands up. He had managed to make it to his knees. His face was covered in splinters and was bleeding in several places.

"Mercy, my friend," Pieter said quietly.

"You . . . you . . . bastard!" Gerd spat. Some part of him was wishing he had something better to say. His finger crept into the trigger.

"I never made you do . . ." Pieter's reply was cut short by a boom.

For the shortest of instants, Gerd thought he had fired. There was a numbing slap on his left thigh and Pieter went down hard, face first. Gerd struggled to maintain his footing as his thigh began to burn and seize up. As Pieter fell, Gerd saw Jan behind him, smiling and holding a smoking wheel lock. Gerd quickly put the shotgun to his shoulder and fired. The slug caught Jan in the chin and scattered his smile, along with the rest of his head, across the remains of the outhouse.

Gerd crumpled to the ground, his thigh oozing blood. A gurgling bloody cough came from Pieter's fallen form.

"Killed by the maniac Jan," Gerd snorted. He unzipped the coveralls and pulled them past his waist. He removed his belt and did his best to staunch the bleeding.

"Both of us," Pieter hissed through spit and blood. He let out a string of hacking coughs, forming a foamy pool of blood on the ground.

"I think not. You may have saved my life, just by being in the way." Gerd grunted as he tightened the belt over a rolled-up strip of cloth on the wound.


"You and your two dead friends, sure!" Gerd laughed. He picked his shotgun back up and laid it across his lap.

"No, pigs!" Pieter gurgled. He used his head to nod in the direction Gerd came from.

Gerd looked over his shoulder and saw several wild pigs trotting from the woods. Using both his hands and one good leg, he spun around to face them. Pieter hacked out rough laughter.

"What are you laughing for? I've still got some fight in me. You don't." Gerd wasted no time, using his three-"legged" crawl, in distancing himself from Pieter. He topped off the ammo in the shotgun, and held it at the ready. He had two shells left in his pocket.

The animals approached Hermann's corpse first. They sniffed it briefly before taking a few tentative bites. Pieter's hacking cough and desperate attempts to move got their attention, and they approached him.

Gerd thought he might enjoy watching the pigs eat the bastards that had damned him. Hearing Pieter's screams changed his mind, quickly. He fired one round into Pieter's side, instantly silencing him. The shot sent the pigs running.

Gerd allowed himself to relax for a moment. He didn't feel his soul was any more or less damned, but he sensed profound satisfaction and closure, knowing all others involved were dead.

The pigs quickly regrouped. Gerd shuffled over towards the outhouse pit. He knew Jan's discarded shotgun would have more shells in it, even if they were likely birdshot. He propped his shotgun on his good knee, forcing himself to keep an eye on the pigs as they split their work between Hermann and Pieter.

Jan had one more wheel lock pistol hanging from his belt. Gerd took it. He struggled to his feet, and took a few tentative steps. He leg throbbed with deep, dull pain. He limped away slowly, looking over his shoulder. Several of the pigs started to follow him. He fired the wheel lock at one, missing. The pigs scattered. They quickly gathered again at the fallen bodies, apparently deciding Gerd wasn't worth the effort. He slung the shotgun over his shoulder, and concentrated on walking.

* * *

"What do we have here?" Fred brought the truck to a slow stop.

The small crossroads they approached contained the remains of a few burnt houses. There were several carcasses strewn about. They looked like men, given only that they had bloody clothing more or less on them. There were several pigs gnawing on the bodies. Some ran back into the woods at the sight of the truck

"If Gerd doesn't magically float down on a cloud and into the truck in five minutes, I say we get the hell out of here!" Dave clicked the safety off his Garand.

"You don't have to tell me, mister," Fred pulled his .45 from his holster.

The two got out of the truck and slowly approached the pigs. One turned to face them and Dave fired, dropping the squat animal where it stood. The remaining ones scattered.

"Any of them Gerd?" Fred asked quietly.

"I don't think so. These guys are all dressed like Germans. Gerd was fond of jeans." Dave started approaching one that appeared to be missing a head. As he did, his foot snagged on something. He looked down to see a crossbow bolt stuck in the ground. An aluminum one. "He was here."

"Check this out!" Fred said excitedly. He was tapping a sack with his foot. Several of the contents had spilled out. They all shined brilliantly. "If Gerd was here, why did he kill them and leave this stuff?" Dave didn't answer.

Dave and Fred gathered the shotguns left on the ground and put them in the four by four. Dave put the sack in the truck as well. It smelled like it had been marinating in the outhouse for some time.

"Jeff is going to get a kick out of this," Dave giggled, pointing at the sack.

"Out of that?" Fred waved his hand in front of his nose. He bungied the sack down tight.

"Yeah, that. Amazing what wonderful treasures can be found in German outhouses."

Fred let out a tired laugh and motioned Dave inside the truck.

"We've retrieved most of the weapons, and found the deserters. I don't think we're going to find Gerd unless he wants to be found. Sorry, Dave, but we've got to head back into town and let Tom know. I can't justify burning any more gas over this whole ordeal," Fred said.

Dave nodded without comment.

* * *

Gerd had been convinced for the last hour that his next step would send him falling to the ground, and that he wouldn't be getting back up. It had been slow but steady going all morning, but as the afternoon wore on, he was beginning to have doubts about his leg. It was with great relief that he found the edge of the American road. Somehow, leaving behind the brutal world of mercenaries, torture and nonstop war had a physical effect he could feel. Over the months, the perfectly cut dirt wall had been smoothed out to a dirt slope connecting the German landscape with the American one. He eased his way down the slope, grunting with each step.

He wasn't sure how soon it would be before an American vehicle would travel by and see him. Not soon enough. The bleeding from his wound had stopped, but his leg was still swelling and seemed to get more tender with each step. As he had done for the past hour, he overrode the pain with willpower, and hobbled on.

Ten minutes later, biology overrode willpower, and Gerd found himself hurling towards the ground. He caught himself in the tumble, and managed to prevent any further injury. He tentatively worked his injured leg. It didn't budge, and he was instead rewarded with intense pain.

Gerd took off his shirt and bundled it under his head before zipping up Dave's hunting coveralls. He considered leaving the top unzipped and pulled down, knowing his white chest would catch a driver's attention much easier than the camouflage coveralls, but the afternoon sun was making its way to the horizon and was taking the temperature with it.

The events of the day, and being finally off his feet, quickly caught up with him. Gerd recalled something he read from Dave's small collection of textbooks from, as Dave called it, his "aborted college days" from the late twentieth century. He knew his body was on a collapse from an adrenaline surge, and he realized he'd had nothing to eat since the previous night. Gute Nacht, Gerd, was the last full thought he remembered before losing himself in the gentle shuffle of leaves and trees lining the American road.

* * *

"No, NO!" screamed Dave. 

Gerd hesitated, earning a backhand from Hermann. 

"You gutless cur, he's obviously hiding something!" screamed Hermann. 

Jan pulled back on Dave's arms tighter and smiled. "Do it." 

Gerd tried to postpone the inevitable by reheating the knife over the candle. 

"For God's sake, young pup," growled Hermann. He grabbed the hand Gerd was holding the knife with. "The longer you wait, the longer Dave suffers." Hermann guided, by force, Gerd's knife-wielding hand towards Dave's stomach. 

Gerd jerked the knife away from Dave's stomach and shoved it into Hermann's chest. "What in the hell are you sick bastards thinking?" Gerd screamed. He rammed the shotgun that suddenly appeared in his hands against Jan's face and pulled the trigger. Gerd was slightly surprised, as Jan's head exploded exactly as he knew it would. 

"Mercy, my friend," Pieter oinked through his snout, as Gerd swung the shotgun towards him. Hermann's corpse turned into a pig and started nibbling on Pieter. "Mercy," Pieter said again, before being consumed. 

"Let it go, Gerd. Let it go and come with me," Dave said. He turned and started walking out of the house and towards Grantville. "Let it all go, Gerd. Have a beer, watch a movie with me and Scoobs, and just leave all this behind." 

Gerd struggled to follow Dave to Grantville, but found he couldn't walk fast enough, much less run. His leg wouldn't cooperate. Dave walked farther, looking over his shoulder and beckoning to Gerd. 

Jan's headless form sat up and somehow started speaking, very loudly. "FRED DAMN NEAR RAN OVER YOU, YOU'RE ONE LUCKY SON OF A BITCH!" 

* * *

Gerd sat up in a flinch. He was in the back seat of a police four by four, and Dave was in the front passenger seat and was still talking.

"If we hadn't driven by, you might have been lying there a bit longer. By the looks of your leg, you couldn't afford a bit longer. How in the hell did you make it this far on that leg anyhow?" Dave's voice betrayed an enormous amount of concern.

Gerd rubbed his eyes hard. Sleep was still drawing him in, and he tried to fight it off. "What happened?" He felt his voice come out in a croak.

The man driving the truck spoke up. "We might ask you the same thing, Gerd." Gerd remembered his name as Fred, one of Grantville's deputies. "We had three dead men back there, or what the pigs left of them. You didn't make off with their weapons, or that sack full of goodies. In fact, given where we found you, I'd say you were trying to hobble your way back to town. What gives?"

Gerd sat up slowly, shifting his weight to his right side as his left leg quickly reminded him of the lead ball still inside. "They were murderers. Thieves, rapists and murderers."

"Not to mention burglars and arsonists." Fred grumbled. "I take it they did their murdering before the Ring of Fire. You knew them from Tilly's army?"

Gerd nodded.

"Dare I ask how you became aware of their crimes?" Fred shifted his gaze from the road to the rear view mirror, looking right at Gerd.

Gerd shook his head.

"Punished outside Grantville for crimes committed outside Grantville. Hell, crimes committed before Grantville even existed," Dave said. Gerd caught Dave giving Fred a knowing look.

Fred's mouth bunched up in a suppressed smile and he shook his head. "As much as I criticized it before the Ring of Fire, I'm starting to miss the American criminal justice system."

* * *

Reverend Jones opened the door to find a large, dirty sack sitting at the stairs. A young man was walking away and towards a police truck.

"Hey, there! What's this about?" Reverend Jones asked.

The young man got into the truck before answering.

"Don't ask. It ain't a perfect world. Just put it to good use, Reverend." The truck pulled away.

It ain't a perfect world, the minister thought. That would be a good intro into my next sermon. 

He leaned over to pick up the sack, and was caught off guard by the odor.

* * *

"Thanks Ms. Nichols," Dave said. "Don't be too gentle on him, though."

"He's a cutie; I can't make any promises!" Sharon replied, before turning to Gerd. "What happened to you, anyway?"

"I . . . uh . . . plead the fifth," Gerd stammered.

"Hey Gerd!" Dave hollered from the truck.

"Yes?" Gerd replied.

"If you have any other dark secrets in your past, can you get them sorted out before you come home? I'd just as soon not risk getting in the way!" The truck pulled away before Gerd could respond.

"Dark secrets, huh?" Sharon asked, dubious, as she led Gerd into the first aid tent.

"I plead the fourth? I thought it was the fifth! The sixth then?"


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