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Chapter 56

As she watched Julie's energetic rearranging of the chairs in her classroom, Melissa Mailey found herself laughing.

Julie's head popped up. "What's so funny?" she demanded. Then, seeing the way Melissa was looking at her: "You're laughing at me!"

Melissa brought fingers to her lips and forced silence upon herself. "Am not," she mumbled.

"Are too!"

As she studied the aggrieved expression on Julie's face, Melissa tried to think of a way to explain. A way that would make sense to an eighteen-year-old who was only a few months removed from being a schoolgirl. It was difficult. Melissa wasn't sure that anyone under the age of fifty could understand it. But she decided to try.

"I just thought it was funny, seeing the eager way you were helping me. When I remembered how hard it was to get you—any of you—to do the same thing when you were still in school."

To Melissa's surprise, Julie understood at once. The young woman's face broke into a smile. "Oh. That's not so hard to figure out. Back then you were Miz Mailey. Today you're—" The smile became very shy. "Now you're Melissa."

Melissa Mailey tried to fight down a sudden surge of maternal warmth. Tried and failed. Her eyes started to tear. In what seemed an instant, Julie was across the room and hugging her.

"I like you so much better this way," Julie whispered.

Melissa returned the hug with one of her own. "So do I," she said softly. "So do I, Julie."

For a few seconds, Melissa treasured the embrace. She had no children of her own, and never would. But, since James Nichols had come into her life, she had found herself changing in ways she would never have imagined. Her view of the world was still the same, at bottom, but it was so much less—brittle. After half a lifetime living among West Virginians, Melissa Mailey had finally adopted them for her own.

Melissa stroked Julie's hair. "Don't worry about Alex," she murmured. "I keep telling you—"

She broke off. Tensed. The sound of babbling voices—frightened voices—was coming from the corridor outside the classroom.

Julie heard also. She straightened and turned her head. "What's going on?"

James Nichols surged into the room. He gave Melissa a quick smile, but his eyes were focused on Julie.

"Can you handle a .30-06 semiautomatic?" he demanded. "We've got two of them, but they're the only rifles in the whole damned school."

Melissa gasped. So did Julie. Melissa's gasp came from shock. Julie's, from sheer outrage.

"Is that a joke? I can shoot anything!"

James Nichols was, by nature, a smiling man. It was one of the reasons Melissa loved him. But she had never seen such an incredible grin on his face. "Those poor bastards," he laughed. "Did they ever pick the wrong day to piss off pregnant women!"

* * *

The steel pillars holding up the weather awning in front of the school's main entrance were not really load-bearing structures. The bus knocked them aside like so many sticks. By the time Jeff slammed on the brakes and brought the bus to a halt, the awning had collapsed onto the bus' roof.

Jeff didn't bother removing the keys from the ignition. Even if they got into the bus, the Croats wouldn't know how to drive it. He hopped out and took a quick look at his handiwork. It didn't take him more than a few seconds to decide that the main entrance was almost completely blocked off.

Good enough. They'll pay hell, trying to charge through a school bus.

The bus gave a little lurch. The driver of the next bus wasn't taking any chances on leaving gaps. He had deliberately bumped his bus into the rear of the one Jeff had positioned in front of the door.

A moment later, the same bump was repeated. Repeated again. The drivers of the third and fourth buses were doing the same. Then the fifth driver, and the sixth.

But Jeff didn't wait to see the results. He plunged through the big doors of the entrance and raced toward the principal's office. Rebecca had set up her HQ there, despite the relatively cramped space, in order to take advantage of the communication facilities in the school's administration center.

When he charged into the office, Rebecca was talking on the telephone.

"One moment, Dan," she said calmly. Rebecca raised her head, eyes questioning.

"We're set!" said Jeff.

Rebecca nodded and resumed her conversation. "We have now blocked off the entire front of the school with a line of buses. We shall be doing the same with the rear entrances. The students and faculty in the technical center are moving equipment to block the entrance to their building. That will leave only the glassed-in walkway between the school itself and the technical center as an easy access route. We have no way of blocking that, but we will try to improvise obstructions on the inside."

She fell silent, listening to something the police chief was saying. Then: "No. We are evacuating the auditorium completely. We will collect as many students as possible in the classrooms on the second floor. But there is not enough space for all of them, so we will put the older students in the gymnasium."

Again, she fell silent for a few seconds. Then: "Not much, Dan. Two rifles. Eleven pistols and revolvers in the personal possession of teachers. And Jeff has his shotgun and—"

She gave him a questioning glance. Quickly, Jeff flashed his fingers. "He says he has fourteen rounds left."

She paused, listening to something Dan was saying. Jeff could hear Dan's loud voice coming over the telephone, ringing in her ear. Grarr! Grarr! Grarr!

Rebecca shrugged. "Yes, I know. It is a pitiful arsenal. A stupid oversight on our part. In the future, we shall certainly do otherwise. But we have nothing else at the moment, except"—her lips quirked—"a plentiful assortment of kitchen utensils and baseball bats."

Suddenly, Jeff saw Rebecca stiffen. "No! Dan—you cannot! They will certainly be attacking the town also. Until we know where the attack is concentrated, it would be pure folly for you to bring an expedition here. These are Croats, Dan. The best light cavalry in the imperial army. They will not line up for you neatly like a tercio. If they see you coming, they will set an ambush. They will swarm any caravan of vehicles on the open road. And you do not have any APCS. They are all with the army in Eisenach. Wheel-lock pistols are quite capable of butchering people trapped in an automobile. And if you emerge, you will be sabered and lanced. As long as we are behind walls—here as well as in town—we have a chance."


"Dan, that is stupid! Think. What good is a rescue attempt that never arrives? You will all die for nothing. What you must do is smash the Croats attacking the town first. Then you can send a rescue expedition."


Rebecca's lips tightened. "Dan—listen to me! They are coming—now. Get off the telephone—now. See to the town! We will hold them off here as long as possible. Do not make any attempt to rescue us until you have defeated the Croats in the town!"

With a motion as decisive as her voice, she placed the telephone back on its cradle. Immediately, she turned to Jeff.

"The most dangerous place will be the gymnasium. We will not be able to keep the Croats out of the ground floor of the building for very long. The buses will slow them down, and make a mass charge impossible, but—"

Jeff nodded. "They'll smash in the windows to the cafeteria, first thing. There's enough space between the buses and the wall to move single file. Once they're in the cafeteria, all bets are off."

He glanced at the large vestibule beyond the administration office. The door to the cafeteria led directly into it. From there, the enemy would be able to reach the gymnasium as well as the administration center itself. To reach the classrooms on the second floor, they would have to use the stairwells. Jeff could hear the clattering sound of desks and cabinets being moved into place, blocking those access routes. The obstructions could be removed, but there were enough sidearms—and the two rifles in the hands of James and Julie—to make that a bloody business for cavalrymen trying to force their way up a flight of stairs.

But there was no way to block the gymnasium, beyond locking the heavy doors. The doors and locks were solidly built, true. Impossible to break through simply with shoulders or boots. But the Croats would smash them in soon enough. There were simply too many ways they could improvise a battering ram.

Jeff grimaced ruefully. He had provided them with battering rams himself, he realized, by knocking down the pillars supporting the weather awning. He drove the thought aside. The fog of war, Clausewitz called it. The friction of a battlefield, where actions produced unintended consequences.

"Will do," he announced firmly. He hefted the shotgun. "This is the best weapon for that area, once they break in."

He gave Rebecca a stern look. "You're going upstairs. Now."

She nodded. "Yes. I had thought to remain here, where we have communications—"

"No way, Rebecca! Once they break through, this office is a death trap!"

Ed and Len Trout charged in. Both of them were holding pistols. "They're coming!" shouted Piazza. "From the north, over the ridge. One of the kids just spotted them."

"Hundreds of 'em," growled Trout. "Over a thousand, probably."

Ed marched forward and took Rebecca by the arm. "Let's go. You're going upstairs, young lady—this second!"

Unresisting, Rebecca allowed herself to be led away. Her eyes remained on Jeff. Soft, dark, gleaming with sorrow and apology. She had condemned him to death, and knew it.

He gave her a cheerful grin. Made the attempt, anyway.

"Relax, Becky! It'll be okay." He propped the butt of the shotgun on his hip and tried to assume his best Clint Eastwood spaghetti Western imitation. The good, the bad and the ugly—all rolled into one. With spectacles.

Rebecca's eyes teared. "Hidalgo, true and pure," she blessed him.


Once they left the office, Piazza gently handed Rebecca over to Trout.

"Get her upstairs, Len. I'll stay with Jeff and the kids in the gymnasium."


Ed was startled. He stared up at the tall, balding figure of the school's former vice-principal. Trout was glaring down at him.

"I'm the principal of this school now, Ed, not you." He jerked his head toward the stairs. "Upstairs. Becky and the teachers will need you up there."

Jeff was emerging from the office. Trout started walking toward him. Over his shoulder, repeated in words of iron: "Upstairs, Mr. Piazza."

Ed stared at him, his mouth half open. Rebecca placed her hands on his shoulders, turned him, and started moving him toward the stairs.

"Come along, Edward." She managed a little smile. "We are in a school, you know. We dare not disobey the principal."

Piazza's mouth was still open when Jeff and Len Trout entered the gymnasium. A moment later, hearing the heavy locks sliding into place, he closed his lips. "Jesus Christ," he whispered. "I've known Len Trout for twenty years."

The sentence was like an epitaph.


"We'll give the bastards another Matewan," Dan snarled. "With cherries on top."

He pointed to the bridge over Buffalo Creek. The bridge was now blocked off by one of the school buses which served the town as its public transportation. "Get the recruits over there, Gretchen. You stay with them, you hear? As long as you're there, they won't lose heart."

Gretchen nodded and started bellowing orders. A few seconds later, her 9mm gripped in her hand, she was leading the young Germans who were being trained as new police officers onto the bridge. There were eighteen of them, four of whom were female. All of them were armed with shotguns and revolvers and, like Dan and Gretchen, were wearing bullet-proof vests.

The bridge and the three-way intersection next to it was the center of Grantville. The intersection formed something in the way of a small plaza. The buildings on all sides were two and three stories tall. People were still pouring into those buildings from all the houses and trailers on the north side. Many of the men and some of the women were carrying rifles and other firearms.

Fortunately, Rebecca's warning had come in time to evacuate the part of town directly in the path of the oncoming Croats. It had also enabled the police force to organize the citizens into an impromptu militia. True, most of the able-bodied men and women were with the army in Eisenach or Suhl, but there were still plenty of people who could use a gun—especially firing from within buildings. Rebecca's plan still grated Dan Frost's soul, but he had bowed to the logic of it.

The police chief turned to Fred Jordan, one of his deputies. Before he even asked, Fred was answering. "They're all in place, Dan." Jordan swept his outstretched hand in a half-circle, indicating the buildings lining the intersection. "Got deputies in every one. They'll organize the other people with guns. Biggest problem we're having is keeping the hotheads from charging right off to the school."

Dan nodded. He studied the intersection for a few seconds. "Good enough. All we need is something to draw their attention and suck 'em into the ambush."

He was already marching toward the intersection before he finished speaking. For a moment, Fred was rooted in place. Then, realizing what the chief intended, he started hurrying after him.

Hearing his steps, Dan turned around. "Get out of here, Fred," he said quietly. "Take position in one of the buildings. We don't need two people for this."

Fred started to squawk a protest, but Dan waved him down impatiently. "Do as I tell you, dammit!" His face twisted into a wry grin. "As long as this town seems bound and determined to make me Wyatt Earp, I may as well do it up right."


Lowering the radio, Mike's face was ashen. "Oh, Christ. We've been suckered."

Frank Jackson, Harry Lefferts and Alex Mackay were gathered around him. Frank turned his head and glared at the Spanish prisoners being herded into a makeshift "prison camp." The camp was nothing more than a large stretch of farmland below the Wartburg's hill. The prisoners were held in place not by fences but by the crude expedient of guns pointing directly at them. Even the guns did not surround them completely. The area to the west of the prisoners was bare and open. But the three catapults were standing by, ready to lob hellfire into their midst in case of any trouble.

"All this?" Frank demanded. His voice was choked. "They sent an entire fucking army—just to get a clear shot at Grantville?"

Mike sighed. "Yes, Frank. That's exactly what they did. That—and the army that marched on Suhl. Just diversions, that's all."

Silently, Mike cursed himself for an incompetent fool. He glanced at Mackay. "It's not as if you didn't try to warn me," he muttered.

The Scottish colonel shook his head. "You are missing the point, Mike. The problem is not that you made a mistake." He pointed to the Spaniards. "That is an army. Had you not come here to meet them, they would have been no diversion at all. They would have sacked Eisenach and poured into Thuringia. And if Heinrich and Tom hadn't done the same in the south, Suhl would now be burning."

Half-angrily: "So what else could you do?"

Mike said nothing. Again, Mackay shook his head. "You must face a reality. You are simply too small, Mike. Half of Europe—no, two-thirds of it!—is now arrayed against you."

He jerked his head toward the prisoners. "The Spanish army is perhaps the most powerful in the world. On land, at least. If they ever get over their obsession with reconquering Holland, God help the rest of Europe." Pointing to the southeast. "And now Wallenstein has amassed that huge army outside Nürnberg. A hundred thousand men, he must have by now—a force equal to the population of Thuringia."

He shrugged. "And if you defeat all of them, then what? Can you march into Spain and Austria and crush the Habsburgs in their lair? And what about Richelieu, and the power of France? They are also now your enemies, clearly enough."

He waited. Mike was silent. Mackay moved his stare to Frank and Harry. They, too, said nothing.

"If you do not destroy the Habsburg dynasty—and the French, and the Papacy and the Poles and the Russians, for that matter—they will remain an ever-present threat. And you have no way of doing that. Before too long, the ammunition for the M-60 will be gone. Within a year, even with your capacity for reloading, you will run out of ammunition for your modern rifles. Long before the Habsburgs will run out of money and soldiers. Then what? How long can you hold Europe at bay, even with your technology? The powers arrayed against you can gear up while you gear down—and they are immeasurably larger than you are."


Mike heaved a sigh. "Yeah, Alex, I know. I've been thinking about it a lot, lately." He managed a rueful smile. "It's about all I think about, in fact."

"Well, think about it later," snapped Frank. "We've got today to deal with. What do you want to do?"

Frank's question broke through Mike's paralysis. He stared at the Spanish prisoners for a few seconds. Then:

"Let 'em go. All of them except the officers and the priests. We can keep those locked up in Eisenach for a few weeks. March the rest of them straight west for maybe ten miles and then send them on their way. Tell them we'll kill any who turn back."

Jackson started to protest but Mike waved him silent. "We haven't got time to mess around with them, Frank!"

Alex was nodding his agreement. "I can leave you Lennox and a few hundred cavalrymen to ride flank. The rest of my men and myself will start back to Grantville." He left unspoken the obvious: Not that cavalry can get back in time to do any good.

Mackay's support crystallized Mike's determination. "Right. Frank, you and the infantrymen stay here, until you're sure the Spaniards are gone for good. Harry, gather up the APCs and cram as many men into them as possible. We're heading back right now."

He glanced at his watch. "Even on that road, the APCs can make it back in three or four hours. So let's go!"

He left unspoken the obvious: Not that three or four hours will be in time either.


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