Spring 1632, Grantville, Thuringia, Germany, early morning

Old Pete sat in his favorite spot and huffed out a breath of air that made his mouth flap comfortably. He laid his head down onto his paws and watched the streets through the white wooden pickets of the porch railings. The scents of the budding flowers made his nose tickle and he sneezed. Even though it was colder than it should be with the smells of spring in the air, Pete found the sunshine just as warm as it always had been in this, his corner of the porch. That his favorite sunny spot had moved from next to the front door to over by the swing due to the Ring of Fire didn't matter to him.

Pete scanned the street once more and snuffled to be sure there were no strange scents in the air. All was good. Duncan would be home soon and then it'd be time for some exercise or he'd get to carry wood over to the smokehouse. Then he'd get fed scraps if someone came over to use it.

That'd be just fine with him. If he was lucky, he and his master could go hunting. From birds to bigger game, it didn't matter to Old Pete. He'd work them all.

Pete rolled over onto his back and let the sun warm his belly. Soon he was dreaming of chasing squirrels and rabbits in the woods just over the hills. It was a perfect day. His legs twitched as he dreamed.

****

The words Duncan Cunningham uttered ensured that no one would try to catch his attention or approach him as he stalked back home.

Duncan had watched others exiting the offices as he arrived. It had been nearly a year since his last visit and there were a lot fewer older folks in the waiting room this year.

He examined the exercise pamphlets and dietary plans Doctor Shipley had given him and stuffed them into his pack. He'd lost over forty-five pounds over the last year and here she wanted him to lose even more weight or he would die sooner than later!

He'd changed his ways as best he could, but since no more medications were available, he'd had to resort to the old-fashioned ways to control his diabetes.

Diet and exercise.

If Duncan didn't start working on his plans to get insulin made, it would kill him. No way in hell was "Slam Dunk" Cunningham going down easily. He couldn't change where or who he was, but he could do something about his being a diabetic, even if he was still just type two. Sure as winter brought snow, it'd get worse with time. Now it was up to him to get an insulin project started to make the medicine he'd soon need.

To Duncan it was a matter of life and death, but the city council and emergency board last year had said no—no funds and no way to make insulin. No place or people to spare to make it, either. More important medicines that would save people, including him, from pestilence took precedence.

"God damn their DDT." He slammed a beefy fist into his large hand. A hand so large that could palm a basketball as easily as someone's face in a fight.

He had no idea how much making insulin would cost, but the numbers were bound to be high. Higher than he could afford, straight up. At least his credit was good. It didn't hurt to be related to nearly everyone in town at times like these. What he'd read so far about insulin purification seemed simple, but there were so many obstacles and sundries he'd need to get it started. He knew he wasn't the man to make the insulin, either. One more problem to overcome.

Duncan knew he'd be in competition with the high school, the new hospital they were building, and even other facilities for some materials, and he didn't even have a tenth of an idea of what all he needed to produce the insulin.

It'd be a busy morning visiting homes and trying to trade unneeded items. He'd have to start small and work his way up to getting the gear for a lab dedicated to purifying insulin.

He'd show Dr. Shipley. He'd show everyone that Duncan Cunningham wasn't a quitter. Not now, not ever.

He wasn't going to die . . . but first things first.

****

Duncan sat down on the front deck's steps to rest. It'd taken several trips from the hired wagon to move the small hoard of items he'd managed to trade for that morning. Mostly they were items his imagined lab would need. It was going to take days to sort through it all to see if the stuff could be converted to be useful in a lab. Converting a child's ancient record player into a centrifuge would be tough, but the library or someone he knew would know how to get it done.

Selfish or not, the insulin, when it was made, would be his first. It was going to cost him enough money and time. Time he was short on, even today. It was almost noon and he still needed to put meat in the smokehouse. He owed too many people too much already.

He'd felt his next door neighbor's eyes following him when he unloaded the wagon. He suppressed the urge to give her the finger. Kitty Ann Chaffin was too nosy for anyone's good.

Duncan had friends he did favors for sometimes, no questions asked, and they'd returned the favor when he asked for help this morning. Though it meant that he'd have to babysit five or six kids, mostly pre-teens, this weekend in return. He didn't mind children; it was adults that got on his nerves easily for some reason. Duncan loved children, and the birth of his grandchild, Noah, had made him ecstatic. Word that Gayla was trying to have a child, too, made him even happier.

He grunted. "Well, Pete, it looks like we're not long for this world if Grantville can't get its shit together. And here I am, out of work with an empty house." He scanned his double wide that was anything but empty. There was over thirty years of his and Linda's collected life here.

"Wish Linda had come down-time with us; she'd know what's worth what in no time." Duncan sighed. "You're gonna be one spoiled dog for a few months as I clean out the junk food I was saving, if I can't sell or trade that stuff first."

He glanced over his shoulder and saw Kitty's curtains move again. There was a woman God should have found a way to leave up-time one way or another.

Duncan scratched his faithful hunting dog's ears and grinned as Old Pete's tail thumped the wrap-around wooden deck. The sound reverberated like a Japanese demon-drum. Old Pete wasn't a small dog by any means, by luck more than intention. He might actually be a bit bigger than a St. Bernard and easily pushed two hundred pounds of muscle, tooth, drool and fur.

Somehow the loyalty of his half-breed father had been passed on to Old Pete in spades. It was too bad a coal truck had taken Pete's father out five years ago. There were only two other dogs in town he knew of that were directly related to Old Pete.

Old Pete had the instincts of a hunter. He knew when to move quietly, and how to push larger game towards the stands Duncan and his friends set up in deer season. So it had usually ended up with friends inviting Duncan and Old Pete to hunt, and leaving their own dogs at home.

"Well, we're not going to spend the rest of the day moping around, Pete. Freezer's gonna need filled again. Let's get a move on."

Pete knew what the words "freezer" and "filled" meant. It was time to go hunting again!

"Still have some bounce in you, do you? If you do, old boy, so do I." Duncan hopped to his feet to prove that point to himself. "Hah! I still got the moves!"

Old Pete's thunderous barks were punctuated by even more bouncing and shaking of the deck underfoot. "How about a big ole pig? I hear that there are some running wild in the woods near the marsh lands towards Badenburg, harassing folks. Be a long walk, boy. We'll pack for an all-nighter, just in case."

Normally no one went hunting alone, but time was short and the day wasn't getting any younger. No time to make a few calls or visit the store for a pick-up hunting partner.

Duncan pulled out his small game shotgun, an over-under.410, and pocketed a dozen-and-some small game shells and a similar amount of heavier slugs for the gun. It wouldn't be anywhere near powerful enough to take down a hog, especially if the rumors he'd heard were close to the truth, so he reached for his favorite handgun and holster belt.

The Taurus was a very heavy handgun. The belt held three quick-loaders in a pouch with the same ammo in them and twenty rounds in leather loops on the belt.

Every hunter in Grantville had gotten a lesson in seventeenth-century hunting laws soon after the Ring of Fire. Luckily, animals didn't care about borders and moved into the areas the locals could hunt without offending or breaking a local noble's laws.

Meat was meat.

He put on his Indiana Jones fedora. That had been a Father's Day gift from Noreen after the family had gone to see Raiders of the Lost Ark so many years ago. Before she'd had to be committed for her own safety.

A tear threatened to fall, but he bit his cheek. It wasn't his fault Noreen had lost it mentally after the Ring of Fire, but at least she had good care. His other daughter, Gayla, and quite a few friends worked at the facility where she now resided.

He wore the fedora proudly and had even added a timber-rattler's skin band to it after the snake had made the mistake of announcing itself where Old Pete could hear it.

Duncan reached into a cupboard and packed two instant Gatorade mix packs from his dwindling supply. That was one purchase he'd never regretted, but he hated the grape flavoring, so it had lasted longer than anyone would have guessed. For a diabetic on a sugar crash, the instant mixes were the nectar of God.

Knowing he might be out past dinner, he made sure some homemade jerky filled other pockets. He filled his medicinal flask with some snake-bite juice, then grabbed the first-aid kit and finally moved out. One glance next door and he barred the dog doors from the inside, then locked the doors.

As much against thieves as inquisitive next door neighbors. One in particular, especially.

****

Old Pete had spooked quite a bit of small game on the way to the Ring by Birdie Newhouse's farm, but Duncan had only bagged three decent rabbits and two keeper squirrels so far. He'd fed Pete the squirrels, as they were too small for the pot this soon after winter.

Now Duncan sat waiting on the game trail just past the village near Birdie's farm, watching for the patrols he'd seen signs of on his way up here. If he'd read the signs right, the patrols had passed this same area twice earlier in the day, as if following a route. That meant they were trained men and not likely to be bandits.

Old Pete growled, and Duncan fought the urge to load and close the breech on the shotgun. "Stay calm, boy. We know they're there, and now they know we do, too. Sit." He snapped his fingers down toward his side next to his six-gun and took the opportunity to slip off its safety strap. Old Pete obediently sat down next to him, but never took his eyes off the bushes to their left.

Duncan could now smell the scent of someone who'd spent the day on a horse and who didn't bathe too often. Old Pete seemed to agree, as he whined softly and sneezed.

"Well, you coming out of the woods or not? I can smell you, and so can Old Pete."

Finally, a medium-sized man stepped forward, wearing a weathered leather jack over a jacket that blended well with the trees and brush of the area. He held a small spear point down in one hand, and had a musket strapped over one shoulder. A brace of pistols was shoved into his wide belt. The man's hat wasn't too different from Duncan's, excepting the large feather.

"My name is Conrad Feldmeier. I am the head game warden for Count Ludwig Guenther. These lands are his, perhaps even those your town is upon, too." He held up his hand before Duncan could protest. "You wish to hunt these lands?"

Duncan nodded, rolling the shells in his hand.

"You must pay for the privilege then." He named a fee that Duncan knew was outrageous.

"Too much."

"Perhaps if you let us know what you wished to hunt today, we could come to an arrangement?"

"I'm here for some wild hogs I heard were harassing folks in the area, digging up gardens and fields and . . . worse." Duncan let the last word linger and watched the man's reaction. He saw the eyes narrow. So the warden did know of the hogs, then. The spear with crossbar near the top just under the long blade indicated that he'd been prepared for them, too.

"That . . . rifle? I do not believe it is big enough for a hog. Maybe a small deer. Yes?"

"It's not meant for hogs. For them I got this—" Duncan slapped his holster "—and Old Pete here." The dog huffed and wagged its tail slowly. "Trust me, this revolver will do the job."

The man, the warden, snapped something in rapid fire German that Duncan couldn't quite catch, but some words needed no translation. They were words no one would use in polite company.

"I think I like you, Conrad. I like your hat, too." Duncan tipped his own. "Wide brim is good to keep the rain off your face, ain't it?" The man's face remained impassive. "God, I wish you spoke English."

"I speak some. I learn more soon. Count Ludwig has ordered it to be. That is, that we learn the language of our neighbors." The warden shrugged.

"Well, I'll be damned. No, not that way, it's a saying in . . . ah, hell."

"This is an American thing, yes?"

"Yeah, like cussing, don't mean nuttin', err, nothing. But sometimes it does. Like when you told those two idiots to point their weapons someplace else."

The man shrugged and smiled. "You wish to hunt boar with only one dog? Must be a very good dog. He is very ugly, but seems big enough." Old Pete sat up and wagged his tail. He was smart enough to know when folks were talking about him, no matter the language they spoke.

"May I?" The warden gestured toward the shotgun. Duncan handed him the unloaded weapon and he examined it closely.

"A fine weapon, but as you say, not for pigs. Small game?"

Duncan nodded as he watched Conrad handle the shotgun carefully and then reached for it when he handed it back. "So, can we be friends and come to an agreement about what I bag?"

"We can, but I will come with you with one other man. The rest will continue looking for poachers and bandits, though few make it past your Grantville these days."

"Right. So you, me and one other, and Old Pete here. I'm guessing you both know how to walk in the woods and marshes hereabouts?" Duncan got an amused smile in return. "I had to ask. It helps to know who you're hunting with. Helps prevent accidents."

Conrad adjusted his gear. "Hermann, take the men and go patrol. Estevan, you will come with us and translate."

"Sure, Conrad." Duncan smiled. "By the way you want to try some chew?" Duncan extended a plug of tobacco to Conrad. "Just remember not to swallow and spit the juice."

Conrad didn't even blink as he reached for the offered gift.

Duncan smiled.

The Marshes

They'd been on the tracks of a pack of very large pigs for over an hour when the screams started. Before Conrad could do anything, the American had yelled something, a curse maybe, and then waved his dog to the right and charged into the brush at a speed that surprised both of the Germans. The dog had moved parallel to the man without even making a noise, as if this was a normal everyday exercise.

"We'd better go after him," Conrad said. "The count would be most upset if we let an American get killed on his lands. Maybe we can be in time to save him from his foolishness." He spat out the wad of chew.

Then the firing, squeals and barking started. Their jog turned into a full-out run. Their spears were held defensively before them, in case they rounded a tree and found themselves face to face with one of the wild hogs.

It wasn't a pretty scene.

Conrad and Estevan approached, spears out and at the ready. Duncan leaned shaking against a nearby sapling for support.

****

Duncan gave a signal and Old Pete circled the area and then took off. Finally, Duncan's breathing slowed down enough for him to speak.

"Estevan, hombre, we're going to need some shovels. Hogs killed two . . . two people. Before I got here." Duncan wasn't about to look any closer at the bodies. He'd seen dead folks before, but not like this. The string of curses he loosed wasn't directed at them, but at himself. He really needed to lose more weight. Had he been another twenty to thirty pounds lighter he might have been able to save one of them. Maybe.

Conrad and Estevan stared at him as if surprised he was still alive.

"Don't stare at me like that. I've hunted hogs with just a pistol before!" he snapped, surprising the game warden. Duncan held up a hand. "I'm sorry, Conrad. I'm not angry at you. It's my sugar levels. They are too low."

"This is a disease of the blood?"

Duncan nodded. For a "simple game warden" Conrad seemed very educated.

"You did well, here. You did what you could for them."

Duncan tried to spit again, but found his mouth was too dry.

Conrad and Estevan scanned the soft ground and looked at each other. "This was a big pack, Herr Cunningham. Pardon me for saying this, but I still think you're crazy for having charged in here with just the dog and one gun. Even if you've hunted like this before. These aren't farm pigs gone wild."

Hell, the sow alone would stress the springs in the back of Duncan's huge pick-up truck if he'd ever figure out how to get it into the truck bed in the first place. Duncan looked at the giant boar and blinked in disbelief. He'd need a tow truck to get that thing out of here. "How we gonna get all this meat out of here, anyway? Before the other hogs come back?" His share of the meat would add up to a lot of money once he smoked it and sold it. Even after he paid off the debts of the trades he'd made earlier that morning.

"My men should come to investigate the noises shortly. We should build a fire, as well. We will have them cut a path here for some horses to drag them out of the marshes and then we'll use a wagon each to get these beasts to where they can be butchered properly. The boar's head will make a fine trophy, but I think the count will claim it, as it is his right." Conrad added the last part again when Duncan didn't respond.

"Or we could send Old Pete to guide them back here," Duncan added. He looked at his hands and made fists so he could hide their shaking.

"I left Hermann in charge of the men. I think you should keep your dog here instead."

"Yeah, that's fine. Oh shit! The game bag!" It was then that he saw that Old Pete had brought up the bag of game and dropped it at his feet already. He'd forgotten he'd sent Old Pete for it minutes before. Not a good sign.

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