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Chapter 18

The first thing Jeff Higgins saw clearly, in the chaos of the camp ahead of him, was the figure of a woman. Alone, among the hundreds of people shouting and scurrying about, she was standing still. Still, silent, and very straight. Her hands were tucked under her armpits, and she was staring at him.

Jeff's motorcycle hit an unseen obstacle in the field, and he almost lost control of the bike. For a few frantic moments, he could concentrate on nothing else. Fortunately, his skill with a dirt bike was not much less than his boasts, and he kept himself from a very nasty spill.

When his eyes came up, he immediately looked for the woman.

She was still there. Still standing, still silent, and still staring at him.

There seemed to be no expression at all on her face, from what Jeff could tell at a distance. But something about her drew him like a magnet, and he steered his motorcycle toward her. Behind, his three friends followed faithfully.

Afterward, his friends would tease him about that instant reaction. But their jests were quite unfair. What drew Jeff toward her was simply that she seemed to be the one island of sanity in a world gone mad. A serene statue, towering over a horde of squealing people, scuttling through a rabbits' warren of makeshift tents and shelters.

It wasn't until he actually brought the bike to a skidding halt, not more than fifteen feet away, that he finally got a good look at the woman herself.

Goddam. She's— Goddam.

He was suddenly overwhelmed by shyness, as he always was in the presence of very pretty young women. Especially tall young women with an air of self-confidence and poise. The fact that the woman in question was wearing a dress that was not much more than a collection of sewn-together rags, was barefoot, and had a streak of dirt on her forehead, didn't matter in the least. All that registered on Jeff, and closed his throat, was the face itself. Long, blondish hair; light brown eyes; straight nose; full mouth; strong chin; and—

Oh God she's so lovely.


Larry Wild's voice, coming from behind, didn't help a bit.

"Leave it to Higgins to spot her," his friend snickered. "Now watch him blow his opening line."

"Hey, lady," whispered Jimmy Anderson, loud enough to be heard in China, "you wanna see my computer? I got a really great Pentium—"

Jeff flushed. "Shut up!" he snapped, turning his head. The movement brought his eyes to bear on the Protestant soldiers they had swept past on their way to the camp. The mercenaries were much closer, now. Not more than fifty yards away and charging forward like—

He didn't want to think about that like. Jeff Higgins, for all his precocity, was still a small-town boy at heart. But he wasn't that innocent.

Neither were any of his friends. All three of them were turned around in their bike saddles, staring at the mercenaries pounding toward them.

"What do we do?" asked Eddie Cantrell.

"Mike said warn 'em off," muttered Larry. "But I don't think those guys are gonna listen to any warning."

Jeff brought his eyes back to the woman. She was still staring at him. Her face was totally expressionless. For all that he could tell, she hadn't moved a muscle since he first spotted her. Her mind seemed to be a complete blank. Was she mentally retarded or something?

Then—finally—Jeff noticed the women kneeling in a circle around her. Young women. All of them were babbling something. Prayers, he thought. And all of them were weeping.

His eyes rose back up and met the gaze of the standing woman. Light brown eyes. Empty eyes. Blank.

Understanding came, and with it a rage he had never felt in his life.

Over my fucking dead body!

Deliberately, slowly, he lowered the bike's kickstand and climbed off. Then he removed the shotgun slung over his shoulder. A twelve-gauge pump-action, it was, loaded with buckshot. It had belonged to his father, just like the 9mm pistol holstered to his waist.

Jeff began stalking toward the oncoming mercenaries. They were thirty yards away. He pumped a round into the chamber.

He heard Jimmy shout something about Mike, but he didn't catch the words. His ears were too full of the sound of his own rushing blood. He did hear Larry's response, and felt a moment's rush of comradeship.

"Mike can kiss my ass! Hold on, Jeff—I'm coming!"

Jeff didn't hold on. He didn't even think. When the first mercenary was fifteen yards away, he brought the shotgun to his shoulder. The mercenary stumbled to a halt. The ten or so men with him did likewise.

Jeff moved the shotgun, waving it slowly back and forth to cover the entire little crowd. Dimly, he sensed a tide of other mercenaries breaking around the knot he had stopped. They were spilling around the edges, moving toward other parts of the camp. But they were slowing, he thought. He caught a glimpse of several of them, off to the side, staring at him. One of them was reloading his arquebus. The other two were fingering their pikes.

The men in front of him were all pikemen, fortunately. They could run him down, but not before he killed several.

Then, Larry was standing at his left, his own shotgun leveled. And then, not a second later, Jimmy and Eddie were bracing him on the right. Both of them had their own shotguns up also.

Jeff heaved a sigh of relief. He had acted without thinking, on impulse. Now that some time had elapsed, he realized how insane his situation was.

Their situation, actually. Even with his three friends—even armed with pump-action shotguns—Jeff could no more have held off that mob of several hundred mercenaries than he could have stopped a stampede.


He raised his head a little, taking his eye off the barrel of the shotgun, and swept his head around.

The mob was stopped.

Well . . . in a manner of speaking. The Protestant mercenaries had poured around the group which Jeff had halted in its tracks. The four American boys were now, for all practical purposes, surrounded. Dozens of mercenaries in the inner ring were staring at them. Others were pushing forward to look over their shoulders. Jeff had a sense that other mercenaries were starting to tear at the edges of the Catholic camp, but he wasn't certain. Everything was very chaotic.

"So what's the plan, kemo sabe?" hissed Larry.

Jeff hesitated. He had no idea what to do. He was amazed that the mercenaries hadn't already attacked them. He decided that they were simply too confused by the situation to know what to do.

So am I, for that matter.

Then, Jimmy's squeal of glee came. And then, the bellowing hoot of the first truck's air horn. And Jeff Higgins found himself fighting not to tremble.

The Seventh Cavalry had arrived, so to speak. In the proverbial nick of time.


The coal-hauling trucks which Mike and his men had converted into armored personnel carriers were not really off-road vehicles. But they would do well enough, on flat ground, as long as rain hadn't turned the soil into mud. The drivers were pushing their vehicles at a reckless pace, under the circumstances. It didn't help that the steel sheeting which had been welded over the cabs left them with only narrow slits to steer by.

In the cab of the lead truck, Mike was holding on for dear life. The driver had an air-cushioned seat, but all Mike had was a thinly upholstered one which provided almost no protection from the jolting ride.

The driver yanked on the cord over the door, blowing another blast through the air horn. "You want me to slow down?" he asked.

"No!" shouted Mike. He squinted through the slit in the steel plate over the window. "Damn those kids," he muttered. "Warn 'em off, I said. Instead—" An unseen furrow sent him lurching half off the seat. "They're making like Davey Crockett at the Alamo."

But for all the grousing in the words, his tone was not hostile. Not in the least.

Mike caught another glimpse of the four boys, staring down a huge mob of thugs with leveled shotguns, and felt a surge of pride.

My kids, goddamit!

"Hit that horn again," he commanded. "Just lean on it, lean on it. And step on the gas."

The ride got worse. "Where do you want me to park the truck when we get there?" asked the driver.

Mike laughed. "Don't park it at all. Just drive right into that crowd of goons and start circling the boys." Seeing the driver's frown, he laughed. "What? Are you worried about getting a ticket?"

Harshly: "I don't give a damn if you crush fifty of those bastards. Just do what I say."

He caught a glimpse of a man on horseback, floridly dressed. Ernst Hoffman. The mercenary leader was in the middle of the crowd, giving some kind of speech.

"You see him?" Mike demanded. The driver nodded. "Aim right for him. Try to run him down."

The driver looked startled. Then, seeing the grim and implacable look on Mike's face, he forbore any protest. A moment later, he even grinned.

"Yessir. One road kill coming up."


By the time the truck arrived, none of the mercenaries were staring at Jeff and his friends any longer. They had turned around and were gaping at the—monsters?—charging toward them.

In truth, few of those soldiers really thought the oncoming trucks were monsters. Men of their time were already accustomed to machinery and manufacture. Wagons, wheels, gears, crankshafts, glass—everything except rubber and the internal combustion engine. The Bohemian Hussites, more than a century earlier, had even developed their own version of armored personnel carriers. The machines of the time were primitive, of course, and the mercenaries wondered where the horses pulling the things were hidden. But they were still able to recognize the trucks for what they were. Vehicles, not magic beasts.

Still, the oncoming things were larger than elephants and they were charging forward faster than any vehicles those mercenaries had ever seen. As they neared, the armored cabs of the trucks loomed up like battlements.

Then the mercenaries spotted the slits in the front of the things—and the bigger slits along the steel sides—and they knew. War machines. Those slits would be spouting gunfire any moment—the same gunfire which had shattered Tilly's tercio.

They broke even faster than they had when Tilly's pikemen charged. In an instant, all thought of plunder and rapine vanished. The mercenaries were simply scrambling to get out of the way.


Jeff didn't start laughing until he realized what the driver of the lead truck was doing. Then, for the next several minutes, he and his friends were howling with glee. Their shotguns—on safety; they had all been well trained by their fathers and uncles—were lowered, held in loose hands.

The lead truck—and then another, and then another—were playing "tag" with Ernst Hoffman. The scene was utterly comical, for all its deadly potential. None of those truck drivers was trying to miss.

The portly mercenary leader's horse pitched him after the first truck roared past. Thereafter, Ernst Hoffman was waddling on his own. He lasted for five minutes, scampering through the torn-up fields of what had once been fertile farmland, before he collapsed from fear and exhaustion.

One truck roared up and stopped just a few feet short of crushing him. A figure clambered down from the passenger's side of the cab and stalked over to Hoffman. The mercenary leader looked like a pig, lying on his side, flanks heaving.

Even from the distance, Jeff could recognize Mike Stearns. He couldn't make out the face, but Mike's athletic stride was unmistakable. He saw Mike lean over, something glinting in his hand. It was the work of seconds to haul Hoffman's arms around to his back and put on the handcuffs.

"Yes!" shouted Jeff, his fist pumping. "My man!"

He looked around. All of the mercenaries within sight were surrendering. There had been twelve trucks in that charge. Three of them were near the Catholic camp, protecting it. The rest, except for Mike's truck, had formed a wide circle around the milling mob of Protestant soldiers. Some of the mercenaries, Jeff suspected, had managed to escape the encirclement. But most of them were lowering their weapons and raising their hands.

"A nice day's work!" exclaimed Larry. The boy—the young man, rather—was filled with elation. "Just like Mike planned. The Catholic mercenaries are whipped, and these so-called Protestant bastards—" He jeered at the huddling knots of soldiers, and jerked his thumb over his shoulder, pointing to Badenburg. Some of the surrendering soldiers were staring at the town also, obviously longing for the safety of its walls.

Too far, too far. They had been well and surely trapped.

Jeff stated the obvious. "Ernst Hoffman's reign of terror is over."


Then, she was there. Jeff had quite forgotten her, in the excitement of the standoff.

She didn't say anything. Her face still seemed as blank as ever. She just stared at him. Light brown eyes.

She extended her hand. Her hand was large, for a woman, and not at all delicate. The fingernails were blunt, worn short by labor. When she took Jeff's shoulder and squeezed it, he was astonished by her strength.

She spoke. Her words were a pidgin mishmash. German and heavily accented English mixed together.

"Bitte. Pliss. I muss—need he'p."

She pointed to an outhouse nearby. To Jeff, the structure looked like something out of—

Middle ages. Probably when it was built, too. Yuck! Thank God for plumbing.

Insistently, the woman gave his shoulder a little shake. "Pliss. Need he'p. Pliss!"

Puzzled, Jeff slung his shotgun over his shoulder and nodded. The woman led him toward the outhouse, striding quickly. Behind him, Jeff's friends followed. The cluster of older women and children huddled to one side rose and began running toward the outhouse.

What the hell is going on?

The woman ahead of him reached the outhouse first. She seized the door and practically wrenched it loose, almost snapping the leather hinges. For a moment, Jeff was dazzled by the strong, shapely figure outlined under the tattered and shapeless dress. Even the woman's dirty bare feet seemed lovely to him.

A moment later, the woman—frantically, now, no almost about it—had entered the outhouse and was lifting the wooden seat up. Wrestling with it, pitching it out the door. Jeff scuttled aside hastily, barely avoiding the horrid missile.

What the hell is she doing? Is she crazy or something?

Then, when he heard the first wail, he knew. He was so stunned, he couldn't move. Dimly, to one side, he saw Larry turn away and double up, vomiting. Behind him, he heard Eddie hiss with shock and horror. Jimmy came up alongside him, muttering. "I can't believe this, I can't believe this."

The woman bent over, extending her arms. A moment later, her back arched with effort. Effort. Effort.

Jeff saw her face turning toward him. Saw the look of silent pleading. Pliss. Need he'p.

Jimmy was still muttering. "I can't believe this. I can't believe this." Jeff was paralyzed.

The face. Pliss. Need he'p.

The breath blew out of Jeff's chest. He hadn't realized he'd been holding it. Jerkily, he scrabbled the shotgun off his shoulder and thrust it at Jimmy. "Hold this!"

An instant later, he was stepping forward. Then, seeing the straining frenzy in the face ahead of him, began running. He was at her side in seconds.

Looking over her arm, he saw the face of a young girl staring up at him from a black pit. The girl's expression combined terror and—

Christ, they must be suffocating in there.

Almost violently, Jeff thrust his arm into the hole. The woman crowded alongside him was holding the girl's hands. He seized the girl's wrist. Between them, heaving, they hauled the girl out in seconds. Jeff, flinching from the smell, almost threw her out the door. But he managed to transform the motion into a simple toss. The girl landed on her knees, gasping for breath. Then, almost immediately, she began vomiting alongside Larry. Her tattered dress was crawling with spiders.

Eddie and Jimmy were staring at him. Jimmy was still muttering. "I can't believe this, I can't believe this."

Angrily, Jeff pointed at the girl. "Help her, goddamit! At least get the spiders off of her!"

He didn't wait to see if they obeyed. He turned back into the outhouse and took his place alongside the woman. Another girl, another heave—out. This one didn't vomit, judging from the sounds coming from behind him. Just gasped and gasped, before breaking into sobs.

Another—out. He and the woman had the procedure down, now. Each take a wrist. Heave. Get them out of here!


Jeff almost lost it, then. A baby? Fortunately, the woman could handle the baby on her own. Jeff was locked into paralysis, fighting down his nausea.

Seeing another white face in the darkness—the last, thank God!—he managed to control himself. He didn't wait for the woman to return. Just bent over, seized, heaved. He drove off hideousness with humor. Coach'd be proud of me.

He did not toss the last girl out of the outhouse. Something in him rebelled, demanding that a measure of dignity be returned to a world swirling down into utter foulness. Holding the girl under the armpits, ignoring the spiders on her shoulders and the one crawling down his arm, he carried her out and set her gently on her feet.

The gesture was pointless, perhaps. The girl collapsed immediately and began retching. But Jeff still felt the better for it. He held out his arms, examining. One spider, no more. A quick flick of the fingers did for that.

Jimmy and Eddie were crowding around him. Then, backed away.

"Thanks a lot," grumbled Jeff. "Can you see any more spiders?"

After circling him for a few seconds, his friends shook their heads. Jeff was almost amused by the paleness of their faces. But not much. He didn't doubt his own face was just as pale.

He was feeling a bit giddy, now. He realized that he had been holding his breath. Trying to restore his calm, he turned his head back and forth, examining the scene around him.

The area was now packed with Americans. Two of the coal-hauling trucks had pulled up near the outhouse and disgorged the miners who had been inside manning the rifle slits. Other Americans had begun to arrive in pickups. All of them were being drawn by the commotion at the outhouse.

A young man pushed forward from the crowd. Harry Lefferts. His camouflage was bulked up in his midsection by the bandages he was still wearing from the first day's gunfight. He held his rifle in one hand, muzzle pointing to the ground.

"I can't believe this shit," muttered Harry. He shook his head, turned it, fixed his eyes on a German prisoner standing a few feet away. The man had his hands raised, clasped on top of his head.

"Little girls'd rather hide in a shithouse than deal with these fuckheads." Harry gave the German prisoner a very savage grin. "Go ahead, asshole!" he shouted, hefting his rifle. "Look at me cross-eyed, why don't you? Spit on the ground. Anything. Just give me an excuse so's I can blow your fucking brains out!"

The German obviously didn't understand the words. But, just as obviously, he understood the essence of them. He kept his hands firmly clasped on top of his head, and kept his eyes carefully away from Harry.

Smart move, thought Jeff. He looked around. All the German soldiers were now behaving as meekly as lambs. Harry's reaction to seeing the girls being hauled out of the outhouse was fairly typical. Many of the coal miners were taking the opportunity to express their opinion of Hoffman's mercenaries—usually right in their faces, obviously quite prepared to shoot if anyone gave them any trouble.

Trouble, needless to say, was conspicuously absent. The prisoners were thoroughly intimidated.

Mike Stearns arrived then. After hearing a quick muttered explanation from Harry, Mike walked over to the group of girls and stared at them. The girls were still on their knees, but they were not vomiting anymore. Jeff didn't think there was anything left to vomit. Just four girls, gasping for breath. Old women surrounded them, still brushing off spiders.

Jeff was standing close enough to hear Mike's whisper. "They can't be more than thirteen years old." His face was as pale as a sheet. Mike's faint freckles were normally almost invisible. Now, they shone like stars in the sky. Red stars. Antares—and Mars. Jeff could sense the big man's effort to control his temper.

Hearing the whisper, the young woman whom Jeff had helped stared up at Mike's face. She seemed to flinch, for an instant. Then, rising, she stood straight before him. Hands at her side, back stiff, shoulders square.

She was shielding her family again, Jeff realized. From the blows she expected to come from Mike. He saw her turn her face aside. Still level, but presenting the cheek.

Mike understood also. "Jesus Christ," he whispered. "What a nightmare world." He started to raise his hand, as if to comfort the young woman, but dropped it. The gesture seemed feeble, helpless. What can you do? Say?

* * *

The leader of the strangers came up just as Gretchen and her family were cleaning the last spiders off of the girls. Gretchen was so relieved to see that all of them were unharmed—filthy, yes, but unharmed—that she never noticed his arrival. Not until he was standing right next to her and whispered something did she realize that he was there.

Startled, she looked up. Then, when she saw his face, she stood erect.

She recognized the leader. He was the one who had captured the Protestant chieftain. He was even bigger, up close, than she had realized. Not as big as Ludwig, but—

This man could have broken Ludwig in half.

Gretchen didn't doubt that for a moment. The American leader was the scariest man she had ever seen in her life. Much scarier—much scarier—than even Diego the Spaniard.

It was not so much the sheer size of the man—not even when that size contained nothing but bone and muscle—as he himself. He loomed above her like something out of old legends. She barely noticed the mottled clothing and the odd helmet. (Why put a lamp on a helmet?)

She saw only the face, and the anger in it, and knew the ancient warriors of Teuton myths.

Gretchen assumed that the leader was angry at her and her family. The Protestant soldiers also, of course. But mostly she. Because of her, some of his newly captured women were so foul no man would touch them. Not even soldiers.

She felt herself cringing, and fought it down. Cringing before men only fed the flames. She turned her head, bracing herself for the beating. She knew from experience that a blow on the cheek was the easiest to handle.

But the man simply turned away. He muttered something to the young man who had helped her. The young man nodded and turned toward Gretchen. She realized that the leader had instructed him to watch over her.

She glanced around. The victors' camp followers were arriving. She was astonished to see a Moorish physician in their midst. Only powerful people could afford Moorish or Jewish doctors. Then she saw two or three women moving through the camp, and was astonished again. Each of them was wearing a white armband with a red cross emblazoned on it. A religious order, apparently. Gretchen almost laughed. The piety of the insignia went very poorly, she thought, with those brazen bare calves. One of the women had a dress so short it showed her knees!

Then, another thought drove out all humor. She turned, looking for help from the same man who had provided it twice already. The man who had helped save her, and her sister, might help her save her brother. If Hans could be saved at all.


"Mein bruder. Hans." The woman pointed toward the battlefield. Jeff, looking, saw that the distant field was now covered with people, moving slowly through—

He swallowed. There were so many bodies there. So many.

"Pliss," she repeated. "Mein—my—brutter. Hans."

Eddie Cantrell spoke hesitantly. "I think she's looking for her brother, Jeff."

Jeff looked back at the woman. She was not much shorter than he was, he thought. At least, her eyes seemed very level. Light brown eyes.


"Sure, ma'am," he replied. "I'll be glad to help you look for your brother."


He ignored the chuckles, as he and the woman walked away. With great dignity, he thought. He even managed to ignore Larry's parting remark.

"See? That's an opening line, stupe. Flowers'll work, too." Then, half-shouting: "Beats the last stand at the Alamo, you crazy jerk!"



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