Grantville, January 1634

Maria Helena Kolb slowly searched the line of trees. Somewhere, hidden in the shadows, she was sure Benji Matheny was hiding in ambush. Time to send in the cannon fodder. "Daisy, Regina, when I give you the word, I want you to run around that tree over there and, if you find Benji, throw your snow balls at him." Maria Helena smiled at the younger girls. "Do you understand?"

Both girls held up their hands, each holding a carefully crafted snowball, and nodded.

"Right, then wait a moment for me to make some more snowballs."

Daisy and Regina waited impatiently while Maria Helena finished shaping some snowballs. "Are you ready yet, Maria?" Daisy asked.

Maria Helena checked her access to her ammunition, then taking a snowball in each hand, nodded.

Daisy and Regina burst out from behind cover and ran for the tree Maria Helena had indicated.

Benji stood up and opened fire on them. Maria Helena, still behind cover, was presented with Benji's back as a target. She, quite naturally, took full advantage of the exposed target, and opened fire.

It was a massacre. Three to one odds, even if two of the three were barely four years old, were enough to completely trounce eight year old Benji.

Totally outgunned, and short of ammunition, Benji took to his heels, the girls in pursuit.

****

"Where do you think you're going, young man?"

Benji threw a look over his shoulder. The girls were close now. He ran up to his Great Grandma Aggie and took shelter behind her. Peeking round from behind her he could see Maria Helena idly tossing a snowball in her right hand. It wasn't right that a girl should be able to throw as well as she could. "They ganged up on me, Granny Aggie. It's not fair." Benji noted that Maria Helena was patiently waiting for him to make a break for the house. "Granny, tell Maria Helena to drop that snow ball."

Aggie Beckworth smiled at Maria Helena. "Okay, girls, you've had your fun. You can drop that snow ball you're tossing, Maria Helena."

Maria Helena looked from the snow ball in her right hand to Benji, who was making faces at her from the protection of Granny Aggie. With a sigh she gave it one last toss and let it fall to the ground.

Benji slid out from behind Granny Aggie and . . .

Thwak!

The snow ball Maria Helena had been hiding behind her back was in flight almost before Benji stepped clear of Aggie. It hit him flush in the face. The snowball Benji had been in the act of throwing went wide.

****

Aggie Beckworth struggled for breath as she laughed at the shock and surprise on Benji's face. She hastily grabbed a handkerchief from a cuff and coughed into it. It took a few minutes for the coughing spasm to come to an end. Short of breath, Aggie looked down at the anxious faces. "It's all right, children. Just a bad cough. Now get inside where it's warm. We don't want you catching a cold."

Benji, Daisy and Regina ran up to the house, shaking the snow from their clothes before going indoors. Maria Helena gave Aggie a searching look before walking back to the house. Every few steps she looked back to make sure Aggie was following.

****

Lora Matheny looked from the blouse in her hands to her daughter. "Look at this blouse, it's filthy. How did you get it so dirty?"

Scuffing her feet, Daisy looked up at Lora through her eyelashes. "Me, Regina and Maria Helena had a snowball fight with Benji."

Lora sighed. She had a pile of washing to do, and she was sure her washing machine was on its last legs. The weather was lousy for drying clothes, so she had washing draped all around the house drying. The laundry door was sticking, and with her husband Jeff still working in Nürnberg, she'd asked her father if he could fix it. He'd promised to come in after work, and that meant she'd probably have an extra for dinner. Two, if he brought Uncle Stu along to help.

"Go and play with Regina and Maria Helena then, and try to stay clean."

"Yes, Mommy." Daisy slipped away.

Lora walked over to her favorite chair and slumped into it. She was exhausted. It wasn't that the kids were a real problem. They could be trouble, but that, as Jeff always said, was in the design specifications. It was everything that was getting her down. Yesterday she'd visited her mother at the assisted living center. If you could call what her mother was doing living. Her half-sister Karrie was just as bad. The rental income from Mom's home was contributing to their care, but things were tight, so tight that Grandma Aggie had moved in so that her place could be rented out. It made for a crowded household, but she wouldn't have it any other way. Family was important. If only the sun would shine so she could get the washing dry.

A few days later

Dell Beckworth lowered his pack to the ground. Then, rifle in hand, he joined his brother at the edge of the ring wall. Together they looked out at the scene below. "Any idea why our bit of hunting ground is suddenly worth twenty percent more than last year?"

"Nope." Stu kicked away a bit more of the unstable cliff edge. The brothers watched the loose soil and rocks fall to the ground a couple of hundred feet below. "The way we're losing bits of it over the ring wall, I'm surprised anybody wants to buy it."

"Yeah, but the letter came from someone." Dell reached into his jacket pocket and pulled out the offending letter and reread it. "Yep. It still says Joachim Schmidt wants to buy our bit of dirt. Any idea who Joachim Schmidt is?"

Stu shook his head. "Nope, and Mrs. G. doesn't know who he is either."

Dell raised his eyebrows at that little tidbit. In his admittedly limited experience, Mrs. Gundelfinger knew everybody and everything that was happening in Grantville. "What? Something the marvelous Mrs. G. doesn't know? That's a first."

"Hey, don't knock her information network, Dell. It saved us a hell of an embarrassing interview when you dropped that letter of credit from the Mehlis City Council right under her feet."

Dell shuddered. That had been a bad moment. "Don't remind me. The way she picked it up. Looked at it, then smiled up at us, and casually asked if we'd bought a bridge recently still gives me the heebie-jeebies."

"Yeah, that was a nasty moment. But things got better when she asked us into her office. Hell, she even paid us something for the information the Mehlis City Council had Derek Modi designing their new bridge. I'd say having Mrs. G. accepting us as clients is the first bit of good luck we've had in years."

Dell folded up the letter and put it away. "Yeah, lucky. From the latest financial report she gave us, we could be out of debt inside ten years." He spat over the edge of the ring wall. "Shit, I'm fifty-five this year. I want to be more than just out of debt in ten years time."

"Ain't that the truth? Still, if we accept that offer for our bit of hunting ground we could give it to Mrs. G. to invest."

Dell paused to survey what he could see of their land. It was typical West Virginia hill country. Wooded hills that looked like inverted ice-cream cones. "Yeah, except she gave us a 'don't sell' warning even before that letter arrived."

"Makes you wonder what she knows that we don't? But I bet Mr. Too Big For His Britches has the same information."

Dell grinned at the name they had for one of the more successful opportunists in Grantville. Both of them hoped to one day see Mr. Too Big have a Too Big fall. "Yeah, as an ex-county commissioner he'll have the contacts. You think Joachim Schmidt's a front for him?"

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- The Grantville Gazette Staff