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Chapter 16

"How many, d'you think?" asked Mackay.

Andrew Lennox squinted nearsightedly. Then, remembering his new gift from the Americans, he took out the spectacles and put them on. It took him not more than five seconds, scanning the field, to pronounce judgment.

"Two thousand. Divided two an' one. Maybe e'en less. Tilly is more conservative than Gustav Adolf, an' this'll be one o' 'is poorer an' weaker units. They've got nae artillery 't'all."

Mackay nodded. "About my estimate."

Next to him, Mike cocked his head. "By two and one—?"

"Pikemen to arquebusiers," replied Mackay. The Scots officer pointed to the tightly packed mass of men slowly approaching their own forces. "See the formation? That's your typical Spanish-style tercio. All the Habsburg armies use it in battle, although the imperials prefer a higher proportion of arquebus than the Spaniards. Impressive, isn't it?"

Mike studied the advancing army. He had no difficulty agreeing with the word. Impressive, it most certainly was. The imperial army reminded him of a gigantic mastodon, bearing down with gleaming tusks.

And they're just about to become as extinct.

Tilly's mercenaries were packed into a rectangle approximately fifty files wide and forty ranks deep, covering not more than fifty yards of front. The men in the ranks were spaced every three feet, and the files were drawn up even closer. The formation was so tight that, even across the clear and level ground of what had once been plowed farmland, they could only move deliberately. Mike knew, from what Mackay and Lennox had told him, that if Tilly himself and his entire army had been here, the oncoming tercio would have been one of sixteen or seventeen such units. They would have been arrayed side by side, like a human glacier. Slow as a glacier, and just as unstoppable.

The pikemen formed the heart of the formation. Their great fifteen-foot spears, held erect, glistened even in the light of an overcast day. The five hundred arquebusiers were arrayed on either flank. The arquebusiers' principal duty was to fend off pistol-wielding cavalry and match volleys with enemy gunmen. But, as had been true for a century and more, it would be the press and charge of pike which would decide the day.

Such, at least, was the accepted theory and practice of the time. Frank Jackson, standing on Mike's left, echoed his own mental opinion. "Talk about candidates for extinction. One cluster bomb would take out the whole bunch."

"We don't have a cluster bomb," pointed out Mike mildly.

Frank snorted. "Neither did the NVA. But I'll tell you right now those tough little bastards in their black pajamas would have loved these guys. Mincemeat, coming up. Complete with nuoc mam."

Mike grimaced at the image. Frank had brought home a Vietnamese wife from the war. In the decades since, Diane Jackson—she had Americanized her name—had blended in extremely well. But she still insisted on cooking at least one meal a month with that godawful Vietnamese fish sauce.

"Nuoc mam," Frank repeated. Under other circumstances, the obvious relish in his voice would have been odd. Much as he doted on his wife, Frank was no fonder of the fish sauce than any other native-born American.

Mackay, listening, understood the essence if not the precise meaning of Frank's words. "You are that confident?" The Scotsman pointed to the oncoming enemy. "They outnumber us two to one." He glanced to the left, where Ernst Hoffman's ragtag Protestant mercenaries were drawn up. About five hundred of them, more or less. Their formation was so irregular and undisciplined that an exact count was impossible. "That's counting that sorry lot, who'll break in a minute."

Mike shrugged. "I'm not relying on Hoffman's goons at all. I just insisted they be here in order to get them out of the town."

He cocked his head around. The little American/Scots/Protestant army was drawn up less than half a mile north of Badenburg. Unusually, for a town its size—the population was less than six thousand—Badenburg was walled. Those walls, as much as anything else, had determined Mike's political tactics over the past two weeks. Hoffman had been reluctant, to put it mildly, to risk bringing his mercenaries into the open field. But Mike had insisted, and Mackay had sweetened the pot with a portion of the king of Sweden's money.

When he turned his head back, he found that the young Scots officer was giving him a very peculiar look. Well . . . Not so peculiar, perhaps. Mackay still hadn't quite gotten over his shock, once he realized the full extent of Mike's intentions. Defeating Tilly's mercenaries was only the first part of those plans. Liberating Badenburg, Mike had explained, required dealing with the Protestant mercenaries as well. Decisively and, if necessary, ruthlessly. Even Lennox, for all his grisly experience, had been impressed by Mike's cold-bloodedness.

"Yes, Mackay, I am that confident." Mike's eyes ranged up and down his own battle line. The UMWA members, reinforced by high-school seniors, were lying prone behind a log parapet. There were, by exact count, 289 Americans in that line. All of them were wearing hunting camouflage, and all of them were armed with high-power rifles.

Mackay had been skeptical, but he had agreed to let the Americans form up at the center. His cavalry, evenly divided, was marshaled on the flanks. Every one of those Scotsmen had been at least as skeptical as Mackay, once they understood what Mike had planned for them.

Pursuit? Cough, cough. Doesn't that, ahem, presuppose that you've already defeated the enemy?

Mike smiled thinly. A half hour from now, he didn't think the Scots would be skeptical any longer. His eyes moved to the enemy, now less than two hundred yards away. The tercio was marching across the open field almost as slowly as a turtle.

"If I wanted to, Mackay," Mike said softly, "I could end this battle right now. Your arquebuses can't hit anything much beyond fifty yards, even in a volley, and they take a minute to reload. I know you think our tactics are only suitable for skirmishers, but you've never seen breech-loading rifles in action. With our accuracy and rate of fire, we could have half that army dead before they could get in range."

Mike pointed to a small group of coal miners crouched in a rifle pit. The rifle pit was positioned on the left flank of the American line. "I want to do more than just win this battle. I want to terrify them completely—and Hoffman's goons with them. So we'll wait, for a bit, until the hammer falls."

Mackay stared at the men in the rifle pit. They were making last-minute adjustments to the weapon in the center. The adjustments were quite unnecessary, in all truth. But those middle-aged men were nervous. Their Vietnam days were many years behind them. It had been a long time since any of them fired an M-60.

Out of the corner of his mouth, Mike whispered to Frank: "I still can't believe you stole the damn thing."

Jackson was unabashed. "What the hell? I figured the Army owed me." He shrugged. "Hey, I was a piker. I knew one guy who smuggled a howitzer back from Nam."

Mike chuckled. Frank had shown him the machine gun less than three weeks ago. He had been a bit shame-faced, at the time, leading Mike and Dan Frost into the woods behind his house where he had buried it, years before, along with three boxes of ammunition.

"For Christ's sake, Jackson," Dan growled, after Frank hauled the carefully wrapped device out of its hiding place. "That thing is so goddam illegal I ought to put up most wanted posters all over town." The police chief rubbed his left arm, still in a sling. "Good thing for you I'm officially on the sick list."

Yes, then, Frank had been embarrassed. "It's not like I was some goofy survivalist or anything," he'd tried to explain. "Just— Oh, hell. I was a kid. It seemed more like a prank at the time than anything else."

But that was then, and today was now, and Mike was glad to have the M-60. Delighted, if the truth be told.

Tilly's mercenaries were a hundred and fifty yards away, now. They were dividing their forces. The bulk of the formation continued to advance straight toward the Americans in front of Badenburg. But five hundred of them, approximately, were moving toward Hoffman's men. The Protestant mercenaries, skittish as kittens, had insisted on forming up some distance to the left. Right alongside the road leading back into Badenburg and the safety of its walls.

Mike took a last glance up and down the line. He turned his head, looking over his left shoulder to a small knoll some thirty yards behind. Standing on the top of the knoll, Greg Ferrara made a quick gesture. Thumbs up.

Mike looked away. He hoped the confidence of the science-teacher-become-artillery-officer was justified. Ferrara and his precocious students had designed and built the rockets themselves. Whether they would work, in an actual battle, remained to be seen.

Frank, apparently, shared Mike's doubts. "I just hope the damn things don't hit us," he muttered.

"They won't," came a voice from behind them. For all its youthful timbre, the words were spoken with great assurance.

Mike smiled, but didn't turn around.

Ah, yes. D'Artagnan, and the Three Musketeers.

The voice belonged to Jeff Higgins. Jeff was one of Ferrara's "whiz kids." Although he and his three best friends had played a big role in designing the rockets, they had a different assignment in this battle. Larry Wild, Jimmy Andersen and Eddie Cantrell probably had as much talent for science as Jeff himself. They certainly shared the same enthusiasm for off-road motorcycling. Mike had decided to use them for couriers today. Their dirt bikes would be perfect for the task.

Mike didn't really think he would need four couriers, but the boys were well-nigh inseparable. That had been true even before the Ring of Fire. Since the disaster, they had clung together ferociously.

Mike sighed, thinking about their situation. By and large, Grantville's families had come through the Ring of Fire relatively unscathed. Fortunately, the disaster had happened on a Sunday, when almost all the families were at home. Even the coal miners who had come into town for Rita's wedding had, with few exceptions, brought their wives and children.

Still—there were some heart-breaking exceptions. Bill Porter, the power-plant manager, had lost his whole family. He had been at the power plant, but his wife and children didn't live in Grantville. They had stayed behind, wherever "behind" was. A few others faced the same situation. Like Bill, most of them tried to bury their grief in hard work, consoling themselves as best they could with the knowledge—the hope, at least—that their families were still alive and well. Wherever—whenever—they were.

But there was no situation as bad as that of these boys. Jeff and Larry Wild were the only ones who lived in Grantville. They lived right next to each other, in two of the double-trailers in the trailer park next to the fairgrounds. Jimmy Anderson and Eddie Cantrell, who lived in Barrackville, had been visiting them. Jeff and Larry's families had all been gone for the day. The four teenagers had been taking advantage of the situation to enjoy an uninterrupted and adult-free game of Dungeons and Dragons.

None of them except Jeff had reached the age of eighteen. And now, orphans in all that mattered, they were adrift in a world more vicious than any fantasy adventure.


"About time," said Jackson.

Mike pushed all other thoughts aside. The enemy, he saw, was a hundred yards away.

"You're the expert, Frank," he said. "It's your call."

Frank cupped his hands around his mouth. "Light 'em up!" he bellowed.

The M-60 erupted, sweeping the front ranks of the tercio. The man firing the weapon was using the three- to six-round bursts of a veteran. The stuttering machine gun started ripping holes in the tightly packed front line of the enemy. At that range, the .308-caliber rounds could punch right through an armored man and kill the man behind him.

The M-60 had been placed on the left flank in order to maximize its effectiveness. The gunner had a semienfilade angle of fire and was taking full advantage of it. In less than two seconds, all of the men behind the parapet added their rifle fire.

The seemingly unstoppable tercio staggered. The front rank fell, like a glacier calving flesh instead of ice. The M-60 traversed back. Another rank spilled and shattered. Back again. Another. It was like mowing wheat.

Mike was amazed at the reaction of the soldiers taking that incredible punishment. He had expected them to break immediately. Instead, the tercio was stubbornly pushing forward. If anything, the pikemen reacted to the horrendous losses by stiffening their determination. The men in the rear ranks were stumbling over the bodies in front of them, but they were still coming on. Some of them even tried to dress their formation.

God, those men are tough! That's just pure balls keeping them up.

Something of his thoughts must have shown in his little shake of the head. Behind him, Jeff Higgins whispered: "That's what this kind of early gunpowder warfare was all about, Mike. Guts, sheer guts. There wasn't—isn't—much skill involved in being a pikeman or a musket-shooter. Slam it out until somebody quits. That's how they're trained."

Mike didn't doubt the words. He knew that military history was one of the enthusiasms shared by Jeff and his friends. But he had none of Jeff's "knowledgeable" nonchalance about it. Mike was not a teenager. He had a much better sense than the boys behind him of what it really took for those men to keep standing under that punishment.

Say what you will about those bastards. Murderers and thieves and rapists, some of them. But don't ever say they lack courage.

As he watched, the enemy arquebusiers on both flanks managed to get off a volley. Few if any of the rounds, at that range, came even close to the Americans. Before the mercenaries could reload, the M-60 hammered their neat front line into shreds.

Yet, for all the wreckage which the machine gun inflicted on the tercio, most of the casualties suffered by Tilly's mercenaries were actually caused by the rifle fire. Almost all the men shooting those weapons were experienced deer hunters. Many of the older ones were combat veterans. They were using modern rifles, firing into a pack of massed men at less than a hundred yards—point-blank range, essentially, for those weapons. Few of their shots missed a target, and the armor worn by the mercenaries was never designed to protect against high-velocity rounds.

By later examination, it would be determined that well over two hundred of Tilly's mercenaries were killed by rifle fire. The same number, wounded. All in less than a minute. The machine-gun rounds, in contrast, caused fewer than two hundred casualties—a majority of whom were simply wounded. If for no other reason, Frank had given orders to be sparing with the ammunition. Those three boxes were all they had.


It was the M-60 that broke them. One in five of those rounds was a tracer. On that gray and cloudy day, the tracers blazed like streaks of magic fire. To Tilly's men, and the Scots who watched, it seemed as if a sorcerer's wand was smiting them down. Along with, seconds later, the spitfire of a dragon. Ferrara and Jeff's confidence proved to be warranted. The warheads on the rockets were not particularly powerful, but the missiles themselves sped swift and true.

The center of the tercio finally caved in under the M-60's blazing hammer blows. Holes were torn throughout the formation by the rockets. And, everywhere in the first five ranks—and then the next, and then the next, and then the next—men withered under the deadly rifle fire. In less than two minutes after the battle erupted, the proud and confident little army which had marched on Badenburg was an utter ruin.

Alexander Mackay was not the only Scotsmen, then—not by far—who committed the sin of blasphemy.

"Jesus Christ son of God," he whispered. "Jesus Christ son of God."

Andrew Lennox did not join in that violation of the commandment. Not because he was more saintly, but simply because he was more hard-bitten. His ruddy face might have paled, a bit. But his cold eyes never ceased ranging the battlefield.

"Hoffman's men are beaten," he announced. "They dinna fire more than one volley, th' wretchet cowards." His voice carried utter condemnation. Calvin and John Knox, speaking through a veteran, pronouncing the ultimate sin of a seventeenth-century soldier. They did not stand and take it like men.

Mike looked to the left. Sure enough, the Protestant mercenaries were retreating before their Catholic counterparts. Years of garrison duty had turned Hoffman's soldiers into a gang of simple toughs. Extortionists, now facing real soldiers on a battlefield. They were already scrambling toward the road, with Tilly's men lumbering in pursuit.

Mike bellowed an order; then, repeated it twice. Raggedly—his coal miners and school boys were hardly a trained army yet—the American riflemen shifted their aim and began firing at the separate Catholic detachment on the left. The distance was greater, but it was still within easy range for good riflemen. Those mercenaries began dropping too. The men in the rifle pit began shifting the machine gun, but Frank shouted at them to hold their fire. Plain enough, there would be no need for the M-60, and they had to husband the ammunition for the machine gun.

Mike turned to Mackay. "I think . . . ?"

Mackay was still too shocked to think. Lennox shook his arm.

"Yes, lad—he's right. Let's to it." The next word was spoken with sheer relish. "Pursuit."

Both wings of Tilly's mercenary army had collapsed by now, and the survivors were retreating in disorder. Mike called out the order to cease fire. A bit raggedly, again, the American riflemen obeyed the order. Mackay and his two hundred and fifty Scots cavalrymen poured onto the battlefield. Within seconds, they had overtaken the enemy and were calling on them to surrender. Those who resisted or continued to flee were ruthlessly sabered or shot down with wheel-lock pistols.

The battle was over. It had been Mike's first, and he was finding it hard to control his gorge.

"Is it always like this?" he whispered.

Frank shook his head. "This wasn't a battle, Mike. This was just a slaughter." The Vietnam veteran stared out at the bodies littering the field. Mounds of them, in places. "I almost feel sorry for the poor bastards, now. Almost."

Jeff Higgins interrupted. His voice was urgent. "Mike—it's starting." Jeff's finger was pointing to the left.

Mike followed the finger. Hoffman's Protestant mercenaries, seeing the complete and unexpected destruction of their seemingly triumphant opponent, were rallying. Mike could see Ernst Hoffman himself, astride his horse, waving his saber. The mercenary captain pointed the sword to the north. Onward.

Mike did not bother to squint into that distance. He knew what Hoffman was pointing to. The Catholic camp, now unprotected and ripe for the picking. Hoffman's mercenaries hadn't been worth a damn in a fight, but Mike didn't doubt for a moment that they would prove to be experts at plunder, pillage and rapine.

Mackay and Lennox had predicted this scenario, in the event the Americans won. Mike had shaped his plans accordingly.

The battle was won, but the fight wasn't over. He intended to liberate Badenburg. From all its enemies.

"Okay, Jeff," he said. "You and your buddies get over there. Right now. If you can, warn off Hoffman's men. But they probably won't listen to you, and I don't want you taking any chances. Don't do anything else until the reinforcements arrive."

As he straddled his bike, Jeff nodded. His three friends were already peeling off, their engines racketing.

Mike shouted after the rapidly receding boys: "Remember, dammit—wait!"

"Fat chance," muttered Frank. "You're looking at four knights in shining armor. Fucking D&D paladins, no less."

Mike turned to him, grinning. "Well, then, let's back 'em up. Call out the armor."


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