Early Spring, 1633
Under most circumstances, Harley Thomas was an even-tempered man—slow to get riled and slow to cool down. It was early morning, before dawn, as he peered into the steamed mirror. He wiped a final trace of beard from his face. The harsh lye soap caused the small cuts to sting. He rinsed the straight razor and dried it carefully.
He stepped out of the bathroom after wiping his face a final time. The movement triggered a deep ache in his left knee. He had jumped from a C-130 over South Carolina thirty years ago and had landed in a tree ending a promising, or so he thought, military career. The knee was proof to Harley, now in his late fifties, that old injuries always came back to haunt you.
He glanced at his watch and picked up the Second Chance vest from the bed and strapped it on over his heavy undershirt. This model extended below the belt line. It was somewhat uncomfortable while on horseback, but it had an upside; it protected his kidneys. With the vest firmly in place, he reached, out of habit, for his army shirt.
He caught himself in time and chose, instead, his old faded blue Marion County Deputy Sheriff uniform shirt. After the Ring of Fire, he was only a part-time law enforcement officer when not on active duty with the National Guard. Due to the lack of supply of Grantville PD shirts, the Chief had agreed that he could wear his old uniform shirt with its USA flag embroidered on the left sleeve and pewter-colored Corporal chevrons on the collar points and retain the title of Deputy Sheriff. Harley had discovered that down-timers viewed a police officer as nothing more than the equivalent of a down-time watchman. Sheriff deputies, on the other hand, were held in higher esteem. The title of Deputy Sheriff helped when dealing with down-timers and the minor nobility.
A Marion County Deputy Sheriff badge was pinned above the shirt’s left breast pocket. He tucked ithe shirt into his jeans, slipped his suspender straps over his shoulders, and moved to the dresser beside the bed.
On the dresser was his service pistol, a worn blue Government model Colt .45, three loaded magazines, a gunbelt and holsters for the pistol and magazines. He threaded the gunbelt through the belt loops on his jeans, through the leather holster, shifting the holster slightly to make sure it rode just to the rear of his right hip and attached a dual magazine holster containing two magazines on the belt opposite of the holster. With two pounds of steel on one hip and two loaded magazines on the other, a pair of handcuffs looped over his belt in the back, he needed both belt and suspenders to support the weight.
It’s time to go.
Dressed for the day, Harley left the bedroom and walked toward the kitchen in the rear of the house. He could hear his wife, Vina, talking with their down-timer neighbor, Greta Issler, and Harley’s mother, Emma Lou. Vina and Greta worked in the day care center and helped as needed at the hospital and at Grantville Assisted Living Center.
Emma Lou sat at the kitchen table sipping from her favorite glazed mug watching and listening; she was learning German slowly. Greta was a good teacher, but a lifetime of speaking English made learning a new language difficult for Emma Lou.
Vina was kneading bread dough when Harley entered the kitchen. Greta has been teaching her how to make bread and buns in exchange for the use of the Thomases’ electric oven. The heat from the stove and oven filled the room along with the aroma of baking bread.
Greta and her husband, Dieter, had been born in Vienna—Greta to a family of bakers and Dieter to a family that bought and sold glassware. Dieter had been a glassware factor in Magdeburg but when Tilly approached, they fled—eventually finding their way to Grantville and becoming permanent residents.
“Herr Alte Thomas was better yesterday,” Greta said in German referring to Harley’s father living in the Assisted Living Center. His time appeared to be measured now that the supporting drugs had been withdrawn. It was a difficult decision to make. Doctors Adams and Nichols had sent a plea to the residents and relatives of those living in Assisted Living Manor asking that a portion of the life supporting drugs be set aside for emergencies. The elder Thomas had volunteered. He, Emma Lou, Harley, and Vina had talked long into the night after the plea. Vina had felt that it was almost like asking someone to commit suicide. She also knew that when the drugs ran out there would be no refills. The result would be the same with the only difference being how much time Harley’s father had. After much discussion and turmoil, Emma Lou and Harley agreed with the senior Thomas. Vina had quit arguing against it but Harley knew she would never agree. The decision had built a barrier between her and her husband, and Harley knew it would be a long time before it would come down.
“His heart seems to be stronger. Our German air helps his breathing.”
As Harley entered the kitchen, Greta asked, “Are you riding today?” She referred to Harley’s occasional horseback patrols at the behest of Dan Frost as riding. Vena refused to look at Harley wearing his old Deputy Sheriff uniform shirt. Harley was home on furlough from the National Guard now that another class had graduated from basic training. She knew he would have to return soon. Dan Frost had no right! Harley already has a job.
“Ja. Max, Archie, Dieter, and I are going to a place near Rudolstadt. There’s been some thieving and some of the villagers have been knifed. They appealed to the count’s man in Rudolstadt who passed the buck to Dan Frost who asked Max, Archie, Dieter, and me to check it out.”
“Will you be home for supper?” Vina asked sharply. She had flour coating her arms halfway to her elbows. At some point she’d unknowingly deposited some flour on her forehead and cheek.
“I think so, if Dan doesn’t come up with something else.”
“Good! We’re having several folks for supper; it’s our turn for the neighborhood potluck. Greta has made turnip soup, and I’m adding some sausage.”
“Here’s some willow-bark tea to get you going, Herr Thomas,” Greta said handing him a mug. Harley had grown used to the tea, bitter as it was. It wasn’t coffee nor the tea he was used to but it did help to dull the pain in his knee. He had heard rumors that someone was trying to get tea imported. That would be welcome if it came to pass.
“Dieter left to get the horses saddled. He said he would meet you at the stables,” she added.
Harley nodded his thanks and sipped the hot tea. I think I’d kill for a mug of plain old Lipton tea. He and Vina had grown to prefer hot brewed tea rather than coffee since their return from Europe and his discharge from the Army. A long time ago now.
“Do you want to take some willow-bark tea with you?” Emma Lou asked.
“No, thank you. My knee will be fine.” Harley finished his tea and set the mug next to the kitchen sink. He hoped willow-bark tea would be half as good as up-time aspirin.
His jacket and scarf hung next to the back door. He wrapped the scarf around his neck, tucked the ends inside the front of his shirt and slipped on the thick nylon jacket with “Marion County Sheriff’s Office” printed across the back.
Harley, along with Archie Mitchell and Max Huffman, had been reserve deputies until the Ring of Fire. Now, he helped train recruits for the Army and train those who would be trainers. When home from the National Guard, he and the others helped Dan Frost as needed.
Keeps me out of the house, he thought. He retrieved his weathered blue trooper’s hat and its blue plastic weather cover and placed it on his head instead of his usual army headgear. Everyone seemed to have multiple roles since their arrival in Germany. Today, he was a deputy sheriff. Next month, he would be a DI, a drill instructor, again. He retrieved his M1 Garand rifle leaning next to the door, a relic older than he was, and picked up his saddlebags loaded with other outdoor essentials, emergency kit, extra ammo, canteens, and enough trail food for three days.
With the saddle bags over a shoulder, Harley walked through the kitchen door, across the back porch and down the steps to the alley that led towards the center of town, cradling the M1 and keeping alert in the darkness as he walked toward the city stables. The residents of Grantville had learned the hard way that when you needed a gun, you needed it quickly. Now, most homes in Grantville had at least one firearm always loaded and near-at-hand.
The other two reserve deputies, Max Huffman and Archie Mitchell, were in their late fifties like Harley. The three had agreed to work for Dan Frost when not on duty with the National Guard. They had worked together for years before the Ring of Fire and Dan Frost had decided they could help best by riding mounted patrols on the outskirts of the Ring and in the neighboring communities. Some of the neighboring towns and villages quickly took advantage of Grantville’s offer of mutual assistance. Whenever trouble appeared, they asked for help without hesitation. Harley, Max, and Archie were all combat veterans and weren’t intimidated by marauding packs of outlaws.
Dieter Issler had joined the Grantville Police last fall initially as an interpreter. Dieter spoke passable English with Polish and Italian thrown in as well. In his early thirties, Dieter most often rode with the three deputies acquiring on-the-job law enforcement skills while performing his translator duties.
Harley spoke twentieth-century German. Max and Archie didn’t. They were learning, but that didn’t help them in the here and now. Dieter called the three Deputies, Die Drei Alten Soldaten, or the three old soldiers. From Dieter’s perspective, that is what the three Deputies were. They didn’t act like any city Watchmen Dieter knew.
Max, Dieter, and Archie were already mounted when Harley arrived. The horses were now owned by the police department. Horses were more appropriate along the edge and outside of the Ring of Fire where roads were not well maintained or didn’t exist.
Harley slid his Garand into the scabbard on the remaining horse and mounted while the three waited. Like Harley, the two other deputies wore Marion County Sheriff jackets and blue trooper hats, and each was armed with a rifle and pistol. Archie would have liked to have had a pump or autoloading shotgun but those had been given to the National Guard. Dieter carried one of Harley’s spare pistols and a twenty-inch double barreled coach shotgun in his saddle scabbard. Good for close work but Dieter couldn’t hit the broad side of a barn with a rifle.
“Any more information?” he asked ignoring a sharp stab of pain from his left knee as he mounted the horse.
Max saw the sudden wince in Harley’s face. “You should mount from the other side Harley,” he said. Receiving no answer, he continued, “It appears to be a gang. They broke into some houses and a mill. Looking for food and loot, I suppose. Beat up the miller pretty good but he’ll live. They killed a villager while leaving the mill so they’ve been given outlaw status. They would have anyway for stealing food. The count’s man, Helmut Reinart, thinks there are four or five of them.”
“That’s not much more than what Dan told me last night. Well, let’s go. Vina and I are the hosts for the neighborhood potluck tonight and she wants me home for supper. They can’t wait if I’m late.”
“What are you having?” Archie asked.
“Turnip soup and sausage.”
Glancing at Dieter, Archie leaned towards Harley and whispered, “Do you want to eat with Marjorie and me? We’re having some leftover pig from the last boar hunt and Marjorie still has some potatoes from last summer’s garden.”
“No,” Harley said softly. “Vina sets great store in this. I’ll never hear the end of it if I don’t have a good reason for not showing up. She’s adding the last of my homemade steak sauce to the mix. That’ll help and Greta is baking some fresh bread and buns. They were fixing something when I left the house. Vina was telling Greta about doughnuts and cinnamon rolls, so I hope there is something special tonight.”
The throb in his knee was lessening. He kicked his heels in the horse’s flanks and headed down the street towards Route 250 with the others following behind.
This wasn’t the first time the four had been sent out to help the neighboring towns when the local watchmen had more than they could handle. The mutual assistance agreements had significantly increased the good will being built between Grantville and their neighbors. Sometimes a small effort paid big dividends, and Grantville needed friendly and cooperative neighbors. As they rode down the road in the early morning gloom, Max muttered, “I feel like I’m in a western. A bunch of sheriff’s deputies riding out to catch bad guys. Where’s my white hat?”
“Shut up, Max!” Archie said. “You say that every time we ride out. It’s getting old.”
The deputies and Dieter rode down Route 250 past the high school. Foot traffic appeared, walking toward Grantville in twos and threes. Some were heading for the school, some towards the mine on the southwest side of town and others to jobs in Grantville or at the power plant beyond. By dawn, the three had reached the edge, leaving the up-time highway and riding up the graded, graveled ramp to the dirt road that continued to the junction of the Saalfeld and Rudolstadt road. The right turnoff went to Saalfeld, the left to Rudolstadt. They turned left.
They reached Rudolstadt by mid-morning and dismounted at the edge of the small town that backed up to the castle walls to give some rest and relief to the horses. The four continued on foot, leading the horses by their reins. They might need those horses fresh depending on what they discovered at the crime scene.
Rudolstadt looked much like the small German towns he and Vina had visited during Harley’s Army tour in Europe–narrow streets lined with well-kept houses. The street led towards the center of town where the town hall and central marketplace were located. The empty houses were being occupied again with residents returning now that the threat from Tilly’s marauders was gone.
The town hall was the largest building outside the castle walls. It sat on the edge of the main plaza where a few vendors were setting up their kiosks and products for sale. Today was market day. Most of the locals preferred to remain inside against the rain that the gray, threatening clouds had not yet delivered. From the Town Hall, they proceeded through Rudolstadt heading for the Saale River waterfront and up the river to the mill. The message sent to Grantville said that is where they would be met.
The mill was built on the bank of the river and powered by a water wheel. A large wooden building that appeared to be a warehouse was next to the mill, separated by a narrow alley. The mill serviced a number of small villages around Rudolstadt as well as the castle. The count’s man and a Rudolstadt watchman were waiting.
“Hello, Herr Reinart,” Harley said as he approached to two waiting men. “I am Deputy Sheriff Thomas. This is Deputy Sheriff Mitchell, Deputy Sheriff Huffman, and our assistant, Dieter Issler.”
“Hello, Deputy Thomas,” Reinart replied. “You arrived quickly. Herr Polizeichef Frost said he would send his best deputies.” He ignored Dieter.
Dieter was giving Max and Archie a running translation of Harley’s conversation with Reinart. Harley noticed the snub to Dieter but chose to let it pass. Grantville needed good relations with Rudolstadt. “What happened, Herr Reinart?”
“Four, maybe five men were discovered stealing flour and grain early yesterday morning by the miller. He lives here at the mill with his family. A villager from Debra was approaching from further up the river road when he heard the miller’s wife screaming. He was running to the mill when he was surprised by the bandits as he came around the corner here,” Reinart said, pointing to the entrance of the alley between the warehouse and the mill. “The outlaws ambushed him. He gave us a description of them before he died. The miller’s description is the same. The miller was badly beaten and was cut in a few places but has no serious injuries.”
The Rudolstadt watchman spoke for the first time. “Meine Herren, I am Watchman Werner Anthross. We have a description of four men of middle age; mid-thirties the miller estimates. Three wore front and back armor and carried at least one pistol each. The fourth was more poorly dressed, no armor and he carried an ax. I found tracks heading upriver along the river bank.”
And you didn’t go any further, did you? Harley thought. Town watchmen weren’t eager to venture far from their home town. They wanted overwhelming numbers if they were going to get into a fight. A single watchman couldn’t do much by himself. Getting killed wasn’t a part of his job description.
Archie and Dieter went off to speak with the miller and his wife while Max examined the scene. The morning thaw had left a layer of mud over still frozen earth. Too many people had trodden through the alley. Any attempt to distinguish the outlaws’ tracks from the civilians’ was impossible.
Harley asked the watchman, “How far from here did you track them?”
“Up the river to the place where a stream enters the river. The tracks continued up the stream.”
“You didn’t go any further?”
“Nein. I came back to report to Herr Reinart and he sent for you.”
Max and Harley met Archie and Dieter on their return from speaking with the miller. The miller hadn’t provided any new information.
“How do you want to handle this, Harley?” Archie asked. “You can’t walk far with that knee of yours.”
Harley grimaced momentarily. It was embarrassing that his knee was an issue. All three of them were getting a little old for this kind of business. They couldn’t always use Dieter as a bird dog to walk point. He didn’t have the experience. Most of the younger folks were joining the Army or one of the ambassadorial teams. Harley had his bad leg. He suspected that Max had a heart condition, but Max hadn’t said anything. Archie had an ulcer and had lost over forty pounds in the last year. Of course, Archie said that he had the weight to spare, and that was true.
Dan Frost needed a younger deputy, and Dieter was the best candidate he had. Today may be the day for his promotion. The decision had been left up to them. They were the best judges to determine if, or when, Dieter was ready.
“Let’s do it this way, flush and sit. Archie, you and Dieter follow the trail. Let’s use this as an opportunity to give Dieter some training. Max and I will ride outside of the trees that line the streambed, out of the brush, and see if we come across any tracks. If we do, I’ll send Max back to get you with your horses. If we don’t find any tracks, Max and I will set an ambush in case you flush them out. If you hear us shooting, lie low until you’re sure they aren’t coming back your way. I don’t want you to try to nab them by yourself.”
“Shoot, Harley, I’m not that stupid. I’ve kept my hide intact all these years, and I’m not gonna change that now,” Archie replied. With that, Archie retrieved his rifle, canteen, and pack from the horse. Nodding to Dieter, he said, “Dieter, tell this watchman to show me these tracks and where he stopped.” Dieter spoke to the watchman who, with an acknowledging nod, turned and walked off down the alley with Max and Dieter following behind.
“Herr Reinart, we’ll see what we can find,” Harley said.
“Danke schön. I’ll have Watchman Anthross waiting here for you. He can find me if you need me.”
Harley and Max mounted their horses and, each leading one of the two riderless horses, followed Archie, Dieter, and the watchman down the alley.
“Look, Max. You can see how that creek cuts back from the river.” Harley pointed to a distant line of trees that ran from the river to the northwest. The ground close to the river had the glimmer of ice, unmelted among the leafless trees. “It looks like there is a slough down there. Those outlaws won’t stay there. It’s too wet. Let’s run up along that tree line to the ridge and see if they came out.”
The two deputies rode toward the ridge in the distance, leaving the Watchman standing near the edge of the trees along the river. Archie and Dieter were not in sight. When Max and Harley rode off, the watchman turned and walked back toward the mill. His task was over. Now, he just had to wait.
Max and Harley rode slowly, listening, watching. “Ya think Dieter is ready?” Max asked.
“Yeah, I think so. I’ve been watching him. He’s learning and thinking before he jumps. If he does well today, I’ll tell Dan to promote him.”
“I agree. So does Archie. We talked about it this morning.”
They rode a bit further when Max said, “I’ve still got my Sheriff’s Association card . . .”
“Really? I’ve lost mine.”
“Well, I was thinking we ought to give him something. It was just an idea . . .”
“I like it. You can give it to him if he doesn’t screw up. Tell him it’s his deputy membership card,” Harley said with a chuckle. “It’ll do until we can come up with something more official. A certificate, maybe.”
The threat of rain was ending. The clouds were rising allowing the morning mist to thin, making visibility easier.
“I wish we had some radios, Max. I don’t like using them as bird dogs, but neither of us could do it.”
Max glanced at Harley quickly but didn’t say anything.
They rode slowly, watching the ground and the surrounding terrain. There were tracks in a number of places, human and animal, but they were weathered; obviously more than a day old. The further they rode, the higher the ground rose until they reached the top of the ridge around mid-day. There, they found a footpath leaving the lower trees and leading over the ridge to continue towards a cluster of buildings in the distance. Those structures appeared to be a small satellite farming village that supported Rudolstadt castle and the town. Along the path were one . . . two . . . three . . . four pair of tracks heading for the village and not over a day old.
Was this Debra? He checked the map he carried. The distant buildings were in the right place to be Debra but he expected to see more people about if it were Debra. Didn’t matter really, so many small villages had been abandoned while armies marched back and forth.
“Max,” Harley ordered, “ride back along the tree line and find Archie and Dieter. I’m going to follow these tracks a bit, but I’ll wait for you. You get them and follow me as quickly as you can.”
“All right, but don’t go far, you old fart! Vina’d skin me if I let something happen to you.”
“Get going, I’m just going over the ridge to the other side—don’t henpeck me. You aren’t equipped.”
Grinning, Max rode back toward the line of trees with the reins of the two horses in hand. Harley swung his leg forward over the pommel and slid to the ground. It was easier dismounting this way. Surprisingly, his leg was not hurting; maybe the willow-bark tea worked!
The ground was leaf-covered, masking the mud underneath. With the reins in hand, Harley followed the tracks. On the other side of the ridge, the tracks continued towards the distant buildings.
Harley took a pair of binoculars from his saddlebags and steadied them on the back of his horse while he examined the buildings approximately half a mile away. A plume of smoke arose from one, the white smoke of a wood fire. A door opened on the side of the building, and a man stepped out, walked around to the rear of the house, and disappeared.
There was an old, leafless oak not far off the path at the edge of a grove of smaller trees. Harley led his horse into the trees and tied its reins to a sapling. He gave the horse enough slack so that it could graze a little from the sparse ground cover. Finishing that task, he retrieved his ground cloth, rifle, canteen, and a sack from his saddlebags and spread the ground cloth behind the old oak tree and sat down. He was close enough to see if anyone came down the path but far enough off of it to be difficult to be seen. He crossed his legs, pulled some jerky from the sack, chewed off a strip, and settled down to watch the farmhouse.
Harley continued to watch. His rifle lay across his thighs, and his elbows propped on his knees as he peered through the binoculars. He’d counted at least three different people moving around the buildings—performing what appeared to be innocuous tasks. The larger structure was similar to some of the houses in Rudolstadt, two stories high with the lower story and foundation made of bricks or stone, large enough to house a couple of families. The upper story appeared to be wooden with strong wooden trusses framing the exterior and coated with mud or plaster that had dried to the consistency of cement. The sidings and roof were either slate or wooden shake.
He could see a door and several shuttered windows on this side and suspected there might be other doors on the far side. Smoke continued to rise from the chimney.
The other buildings appeared to be older. One was open on one side and appeared to have been a stable at one time. The other looked more like a barn. A low stone fence encircled the three buildings. The view to Rudolstadt was blocked by another tree-covered ridge.
While Harley was mulling over his observations, he heard movement on the path coming from his rear. It was probably Max with Archie and Dieter but it never hurt to take precautions. He picked up the M1 and moved further behind the oak tree. From here, he could easily see the path and have good cover for defense if necessary. He had one eight-round clip in the rifle, two more clips in a small pouch strapped to the stock, and a fourth in his jacket pocket. Thirty-two 30.06 rounds should suffice against four outlaws with single-shot pistols or matchlocks.
As the sounds grew closer, he could see three horses and riders approaching on the path. It was Max and the others. A quick low whistle alerted them as he stood up.
“See what you think of this,” Harley said. The four had crawled up the ridge until they could see the buildings without being seen. A stiff breeze had risen from the west, ruffling the weeds and their hair and adding a tint of windburn to their faces. A faint smell of wood smoke arrived with the wind. The view across the way had cleared. The noontime sun had burned off the morning fog.
The ridgeline dropped down into a small valley with a half-filled creek at the bottom. The area between the trees along the ridge, down to the creek and up towards the farm, was open land that had been farmed at some time. The far slope rising towards the house was creased with deep gullies—the evidence of heavy erosion.
“Max, you and Dieter go down along the left, cross the creek, and approach through the gullies. Dieter, you take the front of the farmhouse, and, Max, you watch the back and those stables. Archie and I will sneak down the right to that grove of trees, cross the creek there, and approach the house from the opposite side. I’ll join Dieter at the front, and Archie will cover the barn and the right side of the farmhouse. When Dieter and I knock on the front door, they will probably bolt out the back. That’s where you and Max will be waiting for them. If they don’t take off, Dieter and I will go through the front door, and the two of you come in the back. That should sandwich them between us.”
Neither Max nor Archie cared for this approach. The three of them had been trained for SWAT entrances. Dieter hadn’t. “Harley,” Max said, “Archie would be better going in the front with you. He can cover you . . .”
“Max,” Harley interrupted, “Dieter has the shotgun. That’s what is needed. You and Archie can cover the back with your rifles. Dieter can’t.”
With that statement, Max paused, thought it over, and nodded his head. Turning his head to the other deputy, he asked, “Well, Archie, is that okay with you?”
“Don’t like it,” Archie muttered, still watching at the distant farmhouse through the binoculars. “Don’t like it a’tall, but he’s got a point.”
“Then that’s settled. Dieter and I will give them the standard knock and warning. If they don’t come out, Dieter will kick in the door and I’ll go in low and to the right. Dieter will go in to the left. Don’t forget where we are. Dieter did all right last week in that tavern brawl in Staalfeld.”
Harley could see Dieter from his location at the corner of the house. Dieter had crawled up from the gully and was watching the house from the ground through an opening in the low rock wall that surrounded the house. The remnants of a wooden gate hung from one side of the opening. Dieter’s crawl had added some camouflaging mud to his clothes. Harley wasn’t much better. The warmth of the day had softened the ground, and Harley’s jeans and jacket were now damp and had a coating of dirt, leaves, and mud. The dampness sucked heat from Harley’s body, causing him to shiver from time to time.
There was no one in sight and there hadn’t been any movement since they had left the eastern ridge to begin their approach to the farm. Harley could see Archie covering the barn. Catching his eye, Harley gave an interrogative hand-sign. Archie replied with another signal that all was clear.
Harley looked back to Dieter and pointing to Dieter and then himself, indicated that they should approach the farmhouse. This would be close work. Harley laid the M1 on the ground and drew his Colt .45 pistol. He rose and quickly advanced on the farmhouse in a crouch, reaching the doorway at the same time as Dieter. The windows on each side of the door were shuttered closed. Dieter crossed to the front of the house next to the doorway, ready to kick in the door when told. Harley, slightly crouched, prepared to rush the door from the left. He would cross to the right in the interior covering the left side of the room. Dieter would rush the left side of the room to cover the right.
Harley looked at Dieter and pointed to his ears. Dieter nodded indicating he had inserted his earplugs. Harley had inserted his before he had joined Dieter at the doorway.
“Hello the house! This is Deputy Sheriff Thomas. Come out without weapons and your hands on your head!” Harley shouted in German.
Harley waited for a moment listening for movement or a reply. Nothing. Either they were gone or lying in wait. Finally, he nodded to Dieter to act. Dieter stood, moved to the center of the doorway, and kicked. Immediately, a shot boomed from within. Dieter spun and fell face down to the side of the doorway.
Damn! Dieter knew better than to stand in the middle of the door! He felt a surge of anger grow within him. He had been growing more irritable as the day progressed with its wet and cold. For many people, anger flared like a flaming conflagration that led to reckless reaction. For Harley Thomas, anger was cold, quiet, and controlled, a tool to be used, and Harley Thomas was a master craftsman of that tool. Time slowed, and he dived into the room.
As he passed through the door another shot boomed. The lead ball struck the doorframe driving wooden splinters into the side of his neck and face. Hitting the floor, he rolled onto his right side. BAM! BAM! He fired two shots at a shadowy figure standing at the back of the room with a wheel-lock pistol. The two forty-five slugs punched through the middle of the man’s breast plate about two inches apart. The outlaw took a step, fell to his knees, and then collapsed face down on the floor.
Rising to a crouch, Harley scanned the room when a sharp blow to his back shoved him forward, back down to the floor. Harley rolled onto his side and kicked backward with his left foot, sweeping the feet out from under his attacker who then fell on top of him.
He felt a pop and a stab of intense pain from his knee when the outlaw landed. The second outlaw had attempted to stab Harley in the back with a dirk. Harley’s body armor had blunted the blow. Unfortunately, the fall had also caused the dirk to slash his upper arm.
Dieter appeared in the front doorway, silhouetted against the noonday light. He had been grazed by the large caliber ball that had gouged a path along his ribs. The impact had temporarily knocked the breath from him, but he was needed within to cover Harley.
He saw Harley struggling with a man on the floor and rushed over to the two figures to give a vicious kick to the side of the head of the outlaw on top. The force of the kick shot the man’s head to the side breaking his neck with an audible snap.
The rest of the room was empty. Dieter was helping Harley to his feet when three shots rang out from the rear of the farmhouse. One shot had been a boom from a down-timer weapon.
“Get your breath and keep watch,” Harley ordered. “I’ll check the rest of the house.”
The room had two exits, one to the rear and one to the left to another room. Harley limped to the left doorway, paused, and slipped into the room. Dieter raised his shotgun to cover the door to the rear of the farmhouse just as another outlaw burst through the doorway with an ax in his hand. Dieter was ready and fired both barrels of the shotgun. The ax wielder staggered back and fell across the doorway.
The sound of the shotgun had alerted Harley and he re-entered the room at a limping run to find Dieter ejecting the two spent shotgun shells and reloading. At that moment, Max Huffman entered the room from the rear doorway, jumping over the body and stood crouched along the wall next to the doorway. Max saw the three bodies. “Harley! Dieter!” he panted. “You OK?”
“We’re okay,” Harley and Dieter said.
With that information, Max leaned against the wall and slowly slid to the floor. When Max reached the floor, Dieter could see that he was as pale as fresh snow.
“How about you, Max?” Harley said and he knelt next to his friend.
“Just . . . let me . . . get my breath . . .,” he said between pants. “Archie got another one coming out the back. . . . He practically ran over Archie. . . . Archie nailed him, but he got off a shot and hit Archie in the leg. . . .”
“Dieter! Take care of Max, I’ll check Archie,” Harley said as he limped through the rear door. There was another room in the back, a kitchen with a large hearth and a fire still lit. No one was there. With a quick glance out an open window, he continued out the back of the farmhouse.
A previous resident had laid down paths of flagstones connecting the back door to the barn and stable. Another flagstone path led to a covered well. Harley saw the fourth outlaw lying in a growing pool of blood a few feet away from the farmhouse. Archie was leaning against the side of the well attempting to tie a bandage around his left thigh.
Harley, now barely able to walk, hobbled slowly over to Archie. “How bad is it, Arch?”
“Could’ve been worse, I guess. Damned ball ricocheted off that flagstone walk and grazed me here along my pants. It must’ve hit my fingernail clipper. I pulled it out of my leg.” In Archie’s hand were the bloody nail clipper, bent beyond usefulness by the lead bullet. Angrily, Archie threw the nail clipper away.
“You don’t look too good yourself, Harley,” Archie replied. The side of Harley’s face and neck were covered with blood, soaking the collar of his uniform shirt and jacket. The left sleeve of his jacket had been cut and the sleeve edges were dark with blood.
Archie had filled a bucket of water from the well. He had been using it to clean his wound. Harley wetted his handkerchief and began wiping his face and neck, extracting splinters as he found them.
“I don’t trust this well water. I’ve a bottle of ‘shine in my saddlebags. We’ll wipe down with that when we get to the horses.”
Harley finished and had refilled the bucket by the time Max and Dieter came out of the farmhouse. Harley wasn’t sure if Max was leaning on Dieter or Dieter was leaning on Max.
Archie whispered, “Max was back of the stables when the shooting started. I think he ran flat out the whole way from the stables to the house. Over a hundred yards at least. I’ve never seen him move so fast. I didn’t think it would hit him this hard.”
“I think he has some heart problems,” Harley replied softly. “He can’t keep this up much longer. Vina said that she heard Doc Nichols tell him they couldn’t refill some prescription. I know he’s been worried about something.”
A half-hour later, they had cleaned themselves as best they could with the water from the well. Dieter’s wound wasn’t as severe as it had first looked. In fact, all their wounds were superficial—bloody, but still superficial.
“Dieter, I think you are in the best shape. Go get the horses. I have a first aid kit in my saddlebags, and Archie has some moonshine we can use for disinfectant. We’ll bandage ourselves up and go home.” Harley looked at his watch, it was only a little after one in the afternoon. “We’ve had a hard day.”
On the way to the horses, Max waved him over and handed him a small card. “Ya did good . . . , Kid. Congratulations,” he said between breaths.
Dieter walked on to where the horses had been tied. From time to time, he looked at the card Max Huffman had given him. Max said he had passed the test. He’d been shot at and had shot back. He’d remembered his duties and hadn’t failed. Dieter held the card closer to his face. He’d show Greta when he got home tonight, and he would be home tonight. It could have gone differently. It was a lesson he would not forget. He read the card again. It said, “Member. West Virginia Sheriff’s Association.” He was a deputy sheriff—finally. Greta would be proud.
Dan Frost stood in the doorway of the Grantville police station watching his deputies ride towards him. They were quite a sight. All were mud-covered to one degree or another. Max Huffman rode slumped in the saddle, his face gray with weariness. Harley, Archie, and Dieter displayed bandages on various parts of their bodies. Harley wore a bandage on the side of his face and neck with another on his upper right arm. Archie had a bandage that looked like a Kotex pad tied around one thigh. Dieter wore a bandage around his ribs, showing through a rent in his jacket.
They halted in front of Dan and dismounted slowly, all obviously in pain. “Well, well, look what the cat’s drug in,” Dan spoke. “Looks like you had a bit of a fight.”
Harley looked at Dan for a moment and said, “We caught the thieves in a farmhouse. Told them to come out. They didn’t so we went in after them. We left their bodies where they fell. The villagers can take care of them.”
“Who were they?” Dan asked.
“Probably some out-of-work mercenaries. Appears they ran out of food and were beginning to starve. So they began stealing food to survive. I guess they figured they had a better chance taking us on than they would from the local folks,” Harley answered. “I told the Rudolstadt watchman that someone had to know they were there. It was too close to Debra to be overlooked and the path to Debra and Rudolstadt was too worn for just the four outlaws. They had help.”
“You’re probably right. Well, you told him. We’ll see what comes of it,” Dan Frost replied. “For now, come in and get warm. There’s coffee in the pot, and you all look like you can use some. Besides, I have some news for you.“ He turned and stepped into the office and held the door open. “Go on back to my office. I want to talk to you before you all go see Doc Nichols.”
“Will this take long, Dan?” Harley asked. “Vina’s waiting for me.”
“No, not long. I’m coming to the potluck, too.”
The four deputies slowly walked inside. Dan closed the door and followed them down the hallway that led to his office. As Harley, Max, Archie, and Dieter entered the police chief’s office, they saw Frank Jackson and Chuck Riddle, Grantville’s, and the NUS’s, chief judge seated to the side of Dan’s desk.
“We’ve been waiting for you boys,” Frank said. “We’ve got an offer for you.”
Judge Riddle nodded in agreement.
Harley had a sudden sinking feeling as he sat slowly on a couch along the wall on the side of the office. Max and Dieter joined him while Archie sat in a side chair next to the couch. They waited for Frank to continue. Harley noticed Max and Archie looking guarded. Dieter looked puzzled and obviously had no idea what was about to happen.
“Did you clear up that problem for Rudolstadt?” Judge Riddle asked, speaking for the first time.
“Yes, they did,” Dan Frost said before Harley had a chance to make a reply. “All neat and tidy—no loose ends,” meaning there were no survivors left to prey on people.
Frank noticed a small pool of blood collecting on the floor under Archie’s chair. “Uhhh, Archie, you’re bleeding on the chief’s floor.”
Archie looked back at Frank with an expression of extreme irritation on his face. “F . . .” He caught himself and said instead, “Up yours, Frank.”
“Now, Archie, keep control of yourself,” Frank said with a smile. He turned towards Judge Riddle. “That should keep Rudolstadt happy.”
Dan Frost had been pouring coffee while Frank Jackson and Judge Riddle were talking. He gave one to each deputy and said, “Jamaica Blue Mountain it ain’t, but this is the real thing. I make one pot a week, and this is the day for that one pot.”
As the four held their mugs, the judge began to speak. “I have a problem. My jurisdiction includes all of Thuringia and probably Franconia. Corruption is rampant, the legal system is inconsistent, and its application is erratic at best. We have a petition from representatives from Franconia for assistance. They were referred to Dan Frost and me since the NUS has administrative authority in the region.”
“Evidently, there are some readers of up-time literature in Franconia, and they’ve gotten some Louis L’Amour and Zane Grey westerns. They want us to establish a force along the lines of the Texas Rangers and the US Marshals. Some have seen some John Wayne films too—True Grit and Cahill, US Marshal.”
“We have limited resources—a few administrators here and there—and we’re just starting to really understand the scope of the issues. Shoot! Just look at the mess that happened in Suhl. There is still a lot of potential trouble there that will keep our attention focused all across Franconia and Fulda, not to mention Bamberg is about to boil over.”
“We need more of these folks firmly on our side. If we can provide some stability, Thuringia and Franconia will become our base, our bastion for survival.”
Dan Frost broke in, “There are other changes coming here in Grantville as well. I’ll be leaving by the end of the year—maybe sooner. There’ll be a new police chief and sheriff. Probably either Fred Jordan or Press Richards. Don’t know which yet.”
The judge continued, “We envision an organization, two organizations, really, that will be a combination of the Texas Rangers and the US Marshals’ Service to provide visible law and justice to the New United States. The original Texas Rangers spent more time as a quasi-military force fighting the Comanches. It was later, after the Civil War, that they spent more time in law enforcement than as a militia. But that is what we need: a force to provide law and order, a mounted field force to patrol the territory, and judicial bailiffs—marshals, to provide liaisons with the local governments, administrations, and ruling aristocracies. An organization to do all the little dirty jobs that will arise including criminal investigations.”
“We know you boys are getting a little long in the tooth, and you still have National Guard commitments,” Frank Jackson interjected, “except, of course, for you, Dieter. We had planned to have you continue as instructors and trainers after you trained a few more DIs for the Army. But we realized there were younger men around in better shape that could do the job just as well. What we don’t have are folks who can react to situations that the rules haven’t covered. You three, and now you, Dieter, are more like those old-time marshals than anyone else around. We’re not looking for a `one riot, one Ranger` hero. Just some folks who can take care of themselves when it gets down and dirty and train others to do the same.”
“Just like you’ve done with Dieter, here,” Dan Frost added.
“By the way,” Harley said, “Dieter passed his test today. It’s time he’s a full deputy.”
Frost nodded, “Congratulations, Dieter.”
“Danke,” Dieter replied.
“So that’s the deal,” Judge Riddle continuing after Frost’s interruption. “We’re asking for the creation of a Marshals Service and a Mounted Constabulary along the lines of the early Texas Rangers and Judge Isaac Parker’s marshals. I have my son Martin working up charters. When he and I are satisfied with it, Martin will take them to the legislature for review, approval, and funding. We’ve been having some straw man meetings with some of the down-timer representatives, and we think we can get it approved—probably later this year or early next year.”
“I would be the head of the Marshals’ Service until we can find someone to take on the job full time. We have some other folks in mind for the Mounted Constabulary. What we want for you is to be marshals. When the time comes, you would be discharged from the National Guard for the purpose of accepting a position in the Marshals’ Service. Your former army status will help with some of the local aristocracy. I want this organization to be one where anyone can call for justice. Finally, I want it to be a model that the other confederated principalities can use.”
“What if we turned you down?” Archie asked.
“Well,” Dan Frost grinned and replied slowly, “we hope you won’t. But if necessary, we can always draft you.”
“Yeah!” Frank Jackson laughed. “Greetings! You have been selected by your friends and neighbors . . .”