East of Arpke village
Dieter Schwarzkopf crouched on one knee and looked up at his partner, Finn Kelley O’Donnell.
“Ah, there you are.” The huge Irishman raised his hammer with both hands. “Hold still, my lovely.” He swung the hammer down and smashed his target in the head.
Dieter jumped back out of the way. “You didn’t have to hit it so hard, you know. Half-way with one blow. You’re making the rest of the crew look like slackers. Besides, you’ll wear yourself out in an hour doing that. ”
Finn raised his hammer to his shoulder and took a couple of steps down the line, with Dieter following. “No, Dieter, it’s like smashing clods in the field. My brothers and I did that all day every day; and picked up rocks, and planted, and hoed. Much easier working as a mercenary, if you ask me. As for this small job, I’m just here to pass the time away.”
Finn and Dieter were no longer mercenaries. They were now working for the Grantville Central Railroad. When Dieter Schwarzkopf was released from his mercenary company, he heard from a cousin that there were jobs building roads. This road they were building was unlike any other road they had ever seen, though. Instead of packed dirt or cobblestones, this one was made of steel.
So he and his good friend, Finn Kelley O’Donnell, originally of Ireland, now worked as a spike team. Finn was the driver, and Dieter was the setter. To be sure, hauling steel rails and swinging a hammer was hard work. But it put silver in their pockets, and no one was shooting at them.
Another swing, and another spike was snug up against the rail. Before Dieter could set another spike, the blast of a horn shattered the air. Finn wiped his face with his kerchief, and glanced at the sun. “Looks to be lunchtime. I wonder if she’ll talk to me today?”
Dieter frowned. Finn talked of nothing else lately. “She didn’t talk to you yesterday, or the day before. What’s so special about today? Do you think she will notice you among the four hundred men on this site?”
Finn’s face spread into a huge grin. “Dieter, my lad, Wednesday has always been lucky for me.”
As they stacked their tools, Dieter worried. That look on Finn’s face always meant trouble. But he said nothing as they hurried into line at the cook tent.
They stepped up to the serving tables and Dieter started complaining. He was always more comfortable when he was complaining. “You be careful, Finn. Your Wednesday luck has only gotten me into trouble so far.”
He was served a pile of boiled turnips and cabbage from the first pot. “I heard that the Dutchman has an eye for her. He’s told anyone who will listen that she is his. And he’s the captain of this job site. If you want to keep your job, you’ll stay out of his way. They say he killed a man last month for speaking to her.”
Finn was just ahead. “I’m not worried about the Dutchman.” He grinned. “You didn’t see the way she looked at me yesterday. I think she loves me already.”
The woman filling the steins was the subject of Finn’s obsession. Her red hair and green eyes were not the only things that held everyone’s attention, there was also her smile. Roselynde was truly a beauty.
She was aware of her affect on the men, but tried to ignore their attention. Roz wanted neither their puppy-like adoration, nor their lascivious attentions.
Today, as Dieter and Finn approached, she hardly even looked up. She smiled at the man ahead of them. “You must have really worked up a thirst out there this morning. Careful, now, or you’ll slop it all out of the stein.”
The man ducked his head, blushing, then gingerly picked up his tray and his beer, and hurried off out of her sight.
Roselynde filled two more steins. “Well, come along, then. Who’s next? You’re holding up the line.” She smiled most of the time. But it was a kind of impersonal smile that didn’t quite touch her eyes. She was determined to avoid attachments at this point in her life, so she was a little surprised when one of the men addressed her directly.
“Mistress, you’re as lovely as this warm spring day.” He stepped up and treated her to a winning smile.
It kind of reminded Roz of a hungry wolf. It was huge, and had lots of white shiny teeth. “My, aren’t you the largest creature I’ve seen today.”
He swelled a little larger at her compliment. “And you the bright ray of sunshine that lights our way.”
Roselynde smiled as she always did. But she turned around quickly toward the tun. She could feel the heat on her face and didn’t want anyone to see her blush. What am I doing blushing? I can’t let any of these rough men think they can have their way with me! “Don’t you be thinking that I’m fooled by your silliness, now.”
He reached for one of the steins. “Silly it’s not, mistress. I’m blinded by your loveliness.”
Roselynde watched as he and his friend started to walk away from the serving line. She couldn’t take her eyes off of the big one. He truly was a sight. He stood at least a head and a half over most of the men around him. Few were as broad of shoulder, either. And his dark hair and blue eyes drew her attention more than she wanted to admit. Why hadn’t she noticed this man before?
The sounds of a disturbance across the track from the mess tent drew her back into reality. Crashes and oaths rattled out of the shanty housing the company office. The Dutchman, captain of the work crew, stepped out into the sunshine, still shouting. The office was a small shed on skids so it could be dragged to the next site every time the road crew moved.
Roz hurried to pick up some dirty steins, but the Dutchman plowed through the crowd toward the food line. “You there, that big Irish oaf. You’ve no right to speak to Roselynde. She is a lady, and above the likes of you.”
All the sounds of laughter and conversation around the mess tent dropped into silence as deep as a snowy morning. Roz turned and saw the big man carefully set down his tray and stein. He smiled, but this time the wolf look was a little more prominent.
The Dutchman was not as large, but his anger seemed to make him almost as tall. His speed increased as he stepped forward, and his beard bristled as he glared into the icy blue eyes of the Irishman.
“Roz, is this man bothering you?” He tried to put his hand protectively on her arm.
Roselynde avoided his touch. “Now that’s quite enough. This young man wasn’t bothering me, but you are. Go back into the office and pick up the mess you made of your lunch. If you want any more, you’ll have to come and get it yourself. I’m busy.”
His mouth opened and closed as he tried to think of something else to say.
Roselynde turned her back. “Get out of my sight, all of you.” She carefully didn’t look at him or anyone else.
Dieter watched the whole confrontation from the hillside where he ate his lunch. Finn finally joined him and threw himself down, but didn’t eat. Dieter let him fume for a moment, then said, “I told you to be careful. Did you see how much the Dutchman wanted to kill you?”
Finn wasn’t listening. As usual.
“Ah, Dieter, it was wonderful. I was right, she already loves me. I knew it the first moment ever I laid eyes on her. And now . . . ”
Dieter interrupted. “And now what? She stopped the Dutchman from killing you because it would shut down the road crew for the rest of the day. She doesn’t care a pfennig for you.”
Dieter watched Finn pick at his food, and worried again. “Finn, you’re really going to get us in trouble this time, I can just feel it.”
West of Arpke village
Gijsbert Keese watched a man in a black cloak appear from the trees and slip across the meadow in the moonlight. Then the man blended back into shadow.
He was nervous, and when he didn’t see the cloaked man for a moment, he whispered, “Are you alone?”
The cloaked man edged into the moonlight, and pushed off his hood. “Of course, you fool. I know that we can’t be found out. After all, we are conducting illegal activities.”
Gijsbert said, “It’s always good to check. I have the shipment for you. But I couldn’t get it all . . . ”
The man in the cloak exploded. “What? I told you I needed it all. The war continues on the coast, and we have men to feed. And they’re paying a pretty penny.” He started pacing.
Gijsbert kept silent. He was afraid of the man in the cloak. And he knew from experience that it was better to wait out the temper than to try to explain.
Finally the pacing stopped. The cloaked man’s eyes were piercing in the pale moonlight. “I guess I’ll have to take what I can get. How much do you have?”
“I was saying that I couldn’t get it all because the woman who runs the kitchen was counting everything. And I’ve been unsuccessful convincing her to cooperate. But I brought everything I got before she started inventory. There are several barrels of flour, salt pork, and wine. I didn’t get the beer.”
“Yes, yes. That will have to do. Let’s get it loaded on the carts and out of here. I don’t like meeting you so close to the village. It’s too likely that we’ll be seen.”
With a good deal of grunting and struggle, they rolled the barrels over to a waiting cart. Without another word, the man in the cloak climbed up to the seat, and gathered the reins. “I expect to see you next week with the full order. Don’t disappoint me again.”
Dieter’s week went from bad to worse. Finn worked as hard as ever, but all he could talk about was Roselynde. “She has the sweetest voice. Wouldn’t she sing like a whole choir of angels?” Even worse, “Never have I seen such eyes. Dieter, have you ever seen anything as beautiful as Mistress Roselynde’s eyes?”
Dieter worried more and more. Should he push Finn into action, or was it better to endure the constant talk?
One evening when Finn began washing up for dinner, he was telling Dieter in great detail everything he had noticed about Roselynde from her small feet to the wispy hair that slipped out of the pins.
The more Finn talked, the more a frown threatened to pull Dieter’s brows together into one great dark brow. Finally, he could stand it no more. “Finn, I’ve listened to you talk about that woman for days now. Are you just going to talk me to death, or are you going to do something about it?”
Finn stood up straight, and wiped the water streaming in his eyes. “Well, I’ve been talking very politely to her each day. Isn’t that enough?”
“You clod, of course not. All the men in the lunch line speak politely with Roselynde. In fact, I greeted her myself this morning. But you’ve been too busy acting like a mooncalf to know that. Finn, do you hear me?”
There was a pause. “Yes, Dieter, I do. You’re saying that I need a plan. I need to do more than enjoy speaking to her at lunch.”
Finn was silent for the rest of the evening. And that night Dieter was surprised when Finn went right to sleep.
Friday afternoon, Dieter was still worried. Finn still wasn’t talking. Not a word as they placed spikes in the long rail.
Finally, the horn blew for quitting time. Dieter watched Finn washing up, and decided he needed to know what was going on in his head. So he threw a wet towel at him.
Finn pulled the wet towel off his face, and whirled. There was mayhem in his icy blue eyes. “Dieter, what’s the matter with you?”
“Are you all right? Not a word about Roselynde, or anything else for that matter. Have you decided that you don’t love her after all?”
Finn smiled sadly. “Of course not. I love her still. But you were right to tell me to make a plan. And I think I have one.”
If Dieter had been worried before, he was downright fearful now. “What sort of plan, Finn? You aren’t going to do anything that I’ll have to save you from, are you? Remember that time in Rothenberg when you found . . . ”
Finn laughed. “This is nothing like that time. And those two girls were really exaggerating when they . . . ”
“Whether they were exaggerating or not is not the issue. What I need to know is how much trouble I’m going to get into trying to save your worthless neck this time.”
Finn said nothing.
“Okay, Finn, what is this amazing plan? Does it involve killing anyone, because the company frowns on that.”
“Of course not. It’s really very simple. I’m going to get some flowers, go over to the women’s tent, and tell Mistress Roselynde that I want to marry her.”
He was inordinately pleased with himself. Dieter could tell that Finn thought this was the perfect and flawless plan. “That’s your plan? Give her flowers and propose marriage? You know nothing about her. What if she’s married already? What are you going to do then?”
It was obvious that Finn had never thought such a thing. “Why would a married woman be working in a place like this, I ask you?”
“Because, you lummox. Maybe her husband is working here too. Or maybe she really is the Dutchman’s intended.”
“Bite your tongue, Dieter Schwarzkopf. She would never consent to marrying a man like that. She’s a much better sort.”
Dieter plowed on, ignoring all objections. “You like Roselynde because she is a very good woman. Isn’t it possible that someone of this high caliber will already be spoken for?”
Finn sounded a little deflated. “Yes, I suppose you’re right. She is a quality woman. And why wouldn’t a good woman like that be already married? She probably even has babies at home.”
Keeping an eye on Finn was a day and night job. No wonder Dieter felt so dour all the time. “Sorry, Finn. I guess you’ll have to come up with a new plan tonight. Don’t worry, we’ll be working on this stretch of road for a least another week or two. You have time for a really good plan.”
Dieter watched his partner carefully through the weekend. Finn spent a lot more time listening than he did talking, something very unusual for him. He and Dieter sat in the tavern, listening to all the gossip. Dieter found him under a tree outside the latrine, listening. One night when Finn didn’t come home, Dieter went to search for him, and found him asleep outside the woman’s tent.
Sunday afternoon, Dieter was trying to nap when Finn suddenly appeared and sat on his cot. Finn sighed, but didn’t say anything. He definitely didn’t look like someone who was happy. “So, Finn. Have you devised another plan?”
Finn shook his head. “I have no plan. I haven’t found out if she is married, or even if any of the working women are married. Sometimes I’ve heard them talking about men and husbands. But I never could tell if they were talking about real husbands, or imaginary ones. I really don’t understand women at all.”
“I’ve been thinking. Maybe your first plan was the best. Maybe it would be a good idea to take her flowers and strike up a conversation. But I would suggest that you ask her if she wants to go to the tavern for some beer or go for a walk. Don’t just come out and ask her to marry you. That’ll scare her away right off.”
Finn brightened. “Do you really think that will work?”
“I don’t see why not.”
Sunday afternoon was a good time for some rest. Most of the girls in the women’s tent were sleeping or reading letters. Roz was finishing a letter to her father. She wrote one every Sunday, and put it in the post on Monday morning.
Just as she had sealed the letter and set it aside, she heard a deep voice say, “Hello?”
Elsa went to the door and Roz could still hear the man’s voice. “Good afternoon, Elsa. Is Mistress Roselynde in?”
“Roz, someone’s here to see you.”
“Well, if it’s the Dutchman, tell him my last answer still stands. I am not available. I’m washing my hair.”
Elsa’s smile became a full-blown grin. “It’s not the Dutchman. Come see for yourself. I think it’s precious.”
Elsa held the flap a little wider.
“Elsa, I swear, if you’re playing some kind of joke on me, I’ll . . . ”
Then she saw Finn. He reminded her of a huge forest troll, standing in the doorway with a bunch of flowers. Not that he was ugly like a troll, but he was so huge.
“Good afternoon, Mistress Roselynde. How are you this fine day?” Finn smiled, and Roselynde remembered the day at the beer tun, when she saw all of those teeth for the first time.
Elsa grinned again. “If you throw him back, let me know. I think he’s cute.”
Roz didn’t really know what else to do, so she stepped past Elsa and shooed her away, then reached back and closed the tent flap. Finn looked up from the ground, and held out a bouquet of flowers. It was a little mussed and starting to wilt. “Mistress, these are for you. But they pale next to your beauty.”
“How nice. Thank you very much. I need to get these in water. Can you wait here?” When Finn nodded, she stepped back and handed the flowers to Elsa. “Take care of these for me, please? I’m going to be busy the rest of the afternoon. You’re in charge of dinner.”
Before Elsa could object, or even comment, Roz was back outside the tent, talking to Finn. “Why don’t we walk for a little while? What was your name again?”
Finn fell into step beside her. “I’m Finn Kelley O’Donnell, named after my grandfather’s younger brother. My mother’s one of the Kelleys, so I carry her name myself. My father’s from the O’Donnells of Limerick, if you’ve ever heard of them. Not too well known in these parts, but everyone at home knows what sort of workers the O’Donnells are.”
Something in his voice reminded Roz of her own hometown. They fell into conversation as if they had known each other all their lives.
Late that night, when Finn returned to the crew tent, Dieter was waiting. He wanted to be ready in case someone showed up with a drunken Irishman in hand. But when the tent opened and Finn entered, Dieter could tell that he had not been drinking.
“How did it go? Did you get to talk to her? She didn’t slap you, or anything, did she?”
Finn moved across the tent as if he were floating on air. He drifted over, and lay down on his bunk. “Dieter, it was wonderful. She is a fine and beautiful woman.”
“Yes, I know that. But what happened. Did you go to the tavern? Did she like the flowers? What did she say?”
Finn sighed, still occupied in his gossamer dreams. “Say? Oh, she said a lot of things. I found out that she was born in Scotland, so she and I are almost kin, the Scots and the Irish being cousins after all. We talked for a long time. We didn’t go to the tavern; we sat on the hill behind the cook tent until after dark. And then we walked out by the lake to see the moonlight. She liked the flowers.”
There was a moment of silence. Finn relived his encounter, and Dieter imagined what it would have been like. “And Dieter, you’re wrong. She’s not married. She’s working here to support her old, sick father. He was crippled in an accident at the mill, and as she has no brother, she is doing her best for her family. Her father’s living in a village near Magdeburg now. She has no fortune, but is an honest working woman.”
Dieter was drawn into his partner’s recount of his romance. “What about the Dutchman? Is it true that they are engaged to marry?”
Finn sat up at that, looking angry. “It is not. The Dutchman started showing up at her door and pestering her since the day he got here. She doesn’t even understand his interest in her. There are a lot of girls who would follow his money anywhere. He waves it around, and tries to convince her that she should be seen with him. And he spreads wicked rumors about her.”
As Finn spoke, he became more and more agitated. Dieter could see that he might have created a monster. It was time to get a handle on the situation before Finn threw himself out into the night to beat down the Dutchman’s door and call him out in some sort of duel.
“You’re right, Finn. He’s a dirt clod compared to Roselynde. But if you want to keep this job and continue to see her, you need to calm yourself. Morning is coming soon, and the horn will be blowing. You need to get some sleep.”
Finn deflated a little, and then yawned. “You’re right. Can’t get fired now, when I almost have her convinced that marrying me would be the best thing in the world.”
Dieter was a little disappointed that Finn was asleep so quickly. He would have liked to listen to more gossip, but he didn’t want to get fired either.
Before lunchtime on Monday, Roz looked up to see a group of five men entering the kitchen tent. “We’re not ready for lunch yet. You’ll have to go out with everyone else and wait your turn.”
The group of men stopped and whispered among themselves for a moment. Then one of them stepped forward and bowed. “My name is Carl, ma’am. We’re a delegation of the crew, and we’ve come to file a complaint. We’ve noticed that for the past several days, the quality of the food we’ve been served has not been up to company standards, if you understand my meaning.”
He stopped a moment. Roselynde had nothing to say that would help.
“What I mean, ma’am, is that we aren’t getting very much to eat compared to what we had before. There’s still stew and bread, but the bread runs out before everyone gets some, and the soup’s too thin. If we wanted to eat this kind of rations, we’d just go back to our mercenary companies.”
Roselynde listened until he seemed to have run down. She forced herself to be calm. “I understand your concerns, but the supply train should have been here day before yesterday. I bought all the supplies I can from the village, but it’s spring, and they have as little as we do right now. If you all want something to eat for the rest of the week, we have to stretch everything.”
Carl glared at her. He seemed to be trying to decide whether or not to argue, but his politeness won out. He turned on his heel and stomped back to the men’s tent, with his “delegation” fluttering behind him.
Dieter was still worried. Not about Finn this time. What he worried about most was the morale of the camp. There was more grumbling, more boasting and threats. And the worst of it was that if violence broke out, it could very well be Dieter and Finn defending Roselynde against the rest of the camp. The odds were not in their favor.
Saturday night, Finn and Roselynde were walking along the finished railroad. She was brooding so deeply that she didn’t notice that Finn wasn’t really talking.
He finally broke the silence. “What is worrying you so?”
Roz looked up into Finn’s eyes, and saw the concern there. “Oh, it’s nothing I want you to get involved in. It ‘s just that things have gotten very complicated.”
Finn nodded, but said nothing.
“You know about the supply problem. I’ve been cutting back on things so that I have enough until the next supply train shows up. I’m not in dire straits yet. I have the chickens out back, and they are laying lots of eggs this spring. They’re finding a lot of bugs and worms and the fresh grass is helping. So even though I’m out of any fresh meat and we don’t have any more sausages, I can still serve something.”
Roz picked up her apron, and pressed it against her face. “I don’t want to alarm anyone else, but we’re not waiting for one shipment, we’re waiting for two. When the supply trains come out here to the end of the line, they’ve been carrying steel and ties for the road, but not one barrel of food for the men.”
She was sniffling hard now, and there was a catch in her voice. “And now I have almost nothing. Only one flour barrel, and we only have enough salt pork left for three more days. Arpke village has no more flour to spare without starving their children. It takes almost a ton of food to feed all four hundred of you every week. I don’t know what to do.” She began to sob in earnest, then turned and buried her face in his chest.
“Have you heard at all from the company? Have they said why everything is late?” Finn asked.
Roselynde’s voice was muffled in his shirt. “I’ve only spoken to the Dutchman about it. He says that bandits are stealing things before they can get loaded on the train. I pointed out that the men cannot work without food, but he says it’s not my place to worry.”
Finn could feel her shudder. “That’s not all he said to you, is it?”
Roselynde gulped, and got herself under control. She stepped away from Finn, and started walking again. “No, it’s not. He grabbed my hand, and told me that if I really wanted to support my family, all I had to do was consent to marry him. He yelled that if I didn’t, I would get what I deserved. And when I tried to pull my hand away, he became angry, and looked as if he would strike me.”
She stopped walking, and turned back toward Finn. “I didn’t want to tell you, as it always seems to upset you so.”
Before he could say anything, she planted her hand squarely on his chest. “Now you listen to me, Finn Kelley O’Donnell. Don’t even think about confronting the Dutchman. He’s a wicked man and doesn’t believe in a fair fight. He’ll do his best to kill you.”
“Don’t worry about that. The Dutchman never fought in the wars, as I have. He’s nothing but a back alley scrabbler. I wouldn’t even need my pike to deal with him.”
Roselynde whirled around suddenly, and started walking again. She was speaking as she moved. “I don’t know why we’re even talking about all this. Odds are that food supplies will arrive on the morning train. I’m just worrying for nothing. I worry like this all the time, with no reason at all. Don’t pay any attention to me.”
Her voice sped on and on, and her feet kept rhythm. “And, you know, it’s not like we are really out of things. Why, for lunch tomorrow, I’ve found some fresh greens. That will be so wonderful after a winter of dried fruit and salted pork. It’s not like either of us has to . . . ”
Finn caught her hand, and stopped her headlong rush. “Don’t take on so. I promise not to speak to the Dutchman about this if it will make you happy. Everything’s going to be all right, I promise.”
Roselynde looked up into Finn’s blue eyes. Her heart fluttered as she realized for the first time how important he had become to her. “Yes, you’re right. Everything will be all right. And you just remember your promise, Finn. You’re not to talk to the Dutchman at all.”
That evening, Finn recounted the conversation to Dieter. This had become something of a ritual. Finn enjoyed telling the events of the day, and Dieter enjoyed the romance by proxy.
When Finn came to the end of his tale, he said, “And I had to promise her again at her doorstep not to talk to the Dutchman. She knows that if I promise it, I won’t talk to him. I’ve given my word.”
Dieter sighed in relief. If Finn didn’t talk to the captain, it was much more unlikely that trouble would erupt.
Unfortunately, it was a little too soon for him to be relieved. Finn swung his feet off the bunk. “Dieter, going out tonight and looking around his office isn’t talking to him, is it?”
“What exactly are you planning?”
Finn picked up the candle and smiled like a wolf. “Well, now. The Dutchman’s up to something, I can feel it in my bones. His office would be an interesting study, and since I promised not to talk to him, I have to look at it when he isn’t there, like right now.”
Dieter felt as if he were trying to hold onto moonlight. Finn dodged around him, then stopped outside the door of the tent. “You’re coming, aren’t you? Just to keep me out of trouble, as it were?”
The moon was dark, and the clouds were thick. It was difficult to see anything except in the open spaces. The blackness of the empty buildings was deeper than the darkness of the landscape around it. Dieter knew that appearing to sneak called attention to you, so he strolled across the yard as if he owned it.
Finn was already at the office door when Dieter arrived. “Quick, Finn. Someone will see us. Can you get it open?” Finn examined the lock, handed Dieter the unlit candle, then took a step back as if to throw himself at the offending object.
Dieter hissed. “We don’t want to be heard either, you big oaf. Be quiet.”
Finn nodded, then re-examined the doorknob. “This won’t take but a minute.” He braced himself on one side of the door jamb, and put his boot on the other side, next to the latch. He leaned back, and pushed with his foot. The building creaked and groaned like an old miser faced with the tax collector. Then the door quietly swung open. “Is that what you wanted?”
“I promised myself that I wouldn’t allow you to drag me into any more trouble. How come I always find myself with you, outside an open door in the dead of night ?” Dieter asked.
“Because you’re just luckier than most.” Finn closed the door, then lit the candle.
“What are we looking for, do you think?”
“I’m not sure, exactly. Why don’t you keep watch while I look for it?” Finn walked around to the chair, where the captain would sit to work. The Dutchman was by no means a neat accountant. Everything was strewn in heaps and piles.
When he started methodically sifting through the paperwork and books, Dieter turned his attention back to the window, and kept nervous watch.
Fifteen minutes passed by, and the search was taking longer than Dieter had planned. “Finn, aren’t you done yet? Someone’s going to see the candlelight, and we’ll get fired for sure . . . if not worse.”
Finn said, “Mmm.” He wasn’t really listening. “Dieter, this is very interesting. It seems that our Dutchman is part of a larger group of bandits. They smuggle the supplies off the train, and sell them to the black market. He’s already gotten paid for one of the missing loads, and is arranging to sell the other this week. He seems to have it stashed somewhere in the woods nearby. I knew he was up to something.”
“What does that . . . Wait, someone’s coming!” Dieter dived behind the door, and Finn blew out his candle as he slipped under the desk.
The door came open, and the Dutchman entered, carrying a shrouded lantern. He turned back to speak into the darkness. “You can’t just show up here now and demand the shipment. I’ve got to feed these men something.”
A voice sounded outside in the darkness. “That’s not really my problem. I just know how many barrels of flour and salt pork are needed by my associates on the coast. And that’s how many I’m taking.”
There were footsteps coming toward the desk. Finn made sure that he wasn’t visible and held very still. No one had seen him or Dieter yet.
The Dutchman walked over to the desk, looking for something in the mess of papers. “Give me the money now, and I’ll meet you at the rendezvous before dawn.”
The laugh was an evil thing. “Do you truly think I trust you that much? You’ll get your silver as soon as I’ve counted every one of the barrels and crates you promised. Until then, you can just dangle for your money.”
The Dutchman was silent for a moment. “My pipe. Where did I leave it?” He opened a drawer on the desk, and brought out his pipe and tobacco, then stomped out the door.
Dieter was just letting out his breath when they heard the key in the lock.
“Why don’t we just go get my hammer and beat some sense into the Dutchman’s head?” Finn asked.
Dieter peered out a window, hoping that no one else was outside. “Who knows how far up the conspiracy goes? Shouldn’t we send a message to headquarters?”
“Dieter, my lad, who are we going to get to send the message? The Dutchman? We’re going to have to wait until the company sends out inspectors and auditors. I think they’re due some time before summer. But it’s not summer yet. That’s why I want to express my opinions on the Dutchman’s skull tonight.”
“No time for that now. It’s well past the middle of the night. I think it’s a miracle that we haven’t been caught in here yet. We need to get back to the crew tent before we’re missed. I would prefer that no one ever knew that we were here. You’ve got to do the thing to the door again.”
Monday seemed to drag for Dieter. He had not slept well for two nights, worrying. What if somebody had seen them? Still, there hadn’t been any rumor of a break-in, maybe they weren’t in for it after all.
This morning breakfast had been a little thin. The men had always been provided with bread and beer to break their fast before work. Today, there was only enough bread for each man to have one thin slice, and the beer was watered to tastelessness. At lunchtime, there was not much more than some bread, boiled eggs and thin soup. The men were beginning to grumble more loudly.
After lunch, Dieter saw the Dutchman came out of his office, and walk down the rail to examine their work. As he approached, the grumbling faded into silence, only to well up behind him as he passed. He seemed oblivious to the smoldering glares and icy silence directed at his back.
Dieter turned his head slightly as the Dutchman came near. He was half afraid that his guilty conscience was reflected in his eyes.
Finn didn’t seem to have that problem. He was able to look at the Dutchman. As he approached, Finn rose to his full height, and rested his hammer on his shoulder. Dieter placed another spike in the fish plate to keep busy and not look like he was watching. Finn looked directly into the Dutchman’s eyes, and grinned slightly. Then he straightened, lifted the sledge off his shoulder, and brought it down with a grunt. Another blow, and he stepped forward to the next tie.
The Dutchman looked nervous. “What is it, then, you idiot? Do you have something to say to me?”
Finn glanced at the Dutchman again, then turned to Dieter. “Are you ready? Let’s see how many more of these spikes we can set before dinner.” He knocked Dieter’s placed spike into the tie with two solid blows.
The Dutchman watched for a moment, then continued the rest of his inspection round. After he left, Dieter took a step forward, and placed a spike on the next tie. As they continued down the length of their rail, the work blended into a graceful dance of set and swing and step and tap. The afternoon slid into the background as they concentrated on their movements.
As the week progressed, the mood at the camp worsened. The rain didn’t help, either. It began Tuesday afternoon before the end of lunch. There was no lightning or wind, just the steady rainfall. It came in gentle waves, but there were very few moments that the work crew didn’t have water dripping from their hair, making their grip on the tools difficult.
Late Friday afternoon, Finn was about the only crewman remaining cheerful. He was standing with his hammer on his shoulder as if nothing was wrong.
Dieter began to dislike him intensely for his cheerful smile. “My mother told me that if I were wicked, something like this would happen. Do you think it rains like this in hell?”
Finn’s smile was maddeningly happy. “No. But it rains like this in Ireland. I grew up working in the thicker air.” Finn waited for Dieter to place another spike. “It’s nothing but a little water. And since you’re not made of salt, you’ve nothing to fear from it.”
“I like water fine when I’m washing up, but not when it’s running in my eyes. I’m just as likely to drop a spike and have you drive me into the tie instead.”
Finn laughed. “Well, set up that spike, and we’ll see if I hit you or it, why don’t we?”
Dieter was grateful when the horn blew for the end of the day.
Some effort had been made to provide a shelter for dinner. Tarps and cloths had been stretched between trees. But the grass was still wet, and the pathways treacherous with mud.
Finn and Dieter were not at the head of the line, but they were close enough to hear the words exchanged by the man in front and the girl at the table. “What do ye mean this is all we have?”
The girl couldn’t have been more than sixteen, and was frightened by the shouting crewman. She was from a nearby village, and had only been working for the company for a couple of weeks. She listened to the shouting man for just a moment, then turned and ran sobbing into the cook tent.
After a moment, Roselynde came out with a rolling pin in hand like a destroying angel. “You great lump, were you raised in the barn with the pigs? What do you think, making Marie cry like that? I’m even thinking that you don’t deserve any dinner at all, if you would treat the girls that way.”
The man who had done the shouting didn’t back down. “See here, I was told we’d be fed properly for working here. Not just a bit of bread and watery soup.”
Roselynde didn’t back down either. “If you want more than that, you have my permission to catch a fish from the lake over there. But I better not see you yelling at these girls anymore. You’ll go cool your head a little before I’ll serve you any dinner.”
The man stomped away. She turned to the other men in line. “And what about the rest of you? Are you wanting to shout at any more of my girls?”
The other men ducked their heads, not wanting to look at her. Roselynde turned and went back into the tent, and the line began to move again. Dieter thought a lot about that. He decided that it was just best never to get on Roz’s bad side.
Dinner wasn’t as bad as it could have been. The soup was mostly cabbage, but it had been stewed with some beef bones, and there were fresh greens in it, too. There was bread as well. The men picked up bowls from the table, and shuffled forward, careful to not complain too loudly. Nobody wanted to see what Mistress Roselynde would do if she got really angry.
Saturday morning dawned bright and lively. It promised to be a beautiful day. The little bit of mist that wafted between the trees melted as the sun touched it. There were still puddles and mud, but it was the model of a beautiful spring day.
Before the horn blew for breakfast, the whole crew was out and about. Word spread that an inspection team had arrived.
It was something of a holiday on the line. Well, almost. The work was halted while the safety inspectors went over each rail and tie, looking for sloppy work. The men weren’t allowed to leave the job, but the break from work was like a holiday anyway.
While the inspectors worked their way down the railroad, most of the crew found their entertainment by sitting on barrels and rocks along the sides of the right of way.
But Finn and Dieter weren’t found among the other workmen. They were hurrying along the path toward the mess tent. “Finn, I don’t understand exactly what we’re doing.”
Finn gestured with his hand as he hurried toward the cook tent. “Ah, Dieter. It’s as clear as glass. The inspectors are going to want to see all the records as well as the rail work. Roselynde is quite certain that the Dutchman will try to throw the guilt onto her lovely shoulders. We just need to make sure that the auditors catch him at his shenanigans and keep her out of trouble.”
Dieter was a little winded trying to keep up with his partner’s long strides. “And how are we going to do that?”
“Well, if I know Mistress Roselynde, she’ll jump into trouble with both feet. We need to be there to pull her out.”
Finn was right. Roselynde had already jumped in feet first. She just didn’t know how much trouble was heading in her direction.
As soon as the auditors started at the mess tent, she slipped out the back. This was the opportunity she was looking for. She opened the door to the empty office, and hurried inside. She became engrossed in her search for evidence, and didn’t pay attention to anything else.
Then the door flew open, and the Dutchman stood framed against the bright sunlight. He saw Roselynde behind his desk, papers in her hand, then quickly closed the door. “Here, what’s this? What are you doing in here?”
Before she could hide the letter she held, he caught her by the throat. “Roselynde, we can make it through this inspection together, if you cooperate. If not, I’ll claim you were robbing my office and turn you over to the authorities. We’ll see how long after that you have a job, let alone a protector in that Irishman. You’re better off with me, anyway. What do you say? I’ll cut you in for two hundred silver, up front.”
Roselynde’s heart was rattling in her chest like a captive finch, and she could hardly breathe with the Dutchman’s hand on her throat. Her fear was so strong that it tasted like acid.
His fingers began to squeeze slightly, and his eyes began to burn. “Answer me now or you’ll regret it. I’ll have to tie you up and hide you away somewhere until the inspection is over. Answer!”
Roselynde wasn’t afraid now. She was angry and getting more so. “You fool. I see nothing in you that’s worthwhile. I’d never throw in with you, a liar, a thief and a bully.” She pulled his hand off her throat with both hands. He still held her elbow with his other hand, but her anger seemed to give her superhuman strength. She gripped his left hand, sinking in her fingernails.
He kept glaring at her as he struggled to release his hand and bend her to his will.
Roz began to realize that she had more control over his hand than he had over her. In fact, she actually started enjoying the thought that he was in pain. Her anger overflowed, and everything around turned red. She bent and sank her teeth into his thumb.
Finn and Dieter searched the cook tent, the women’s quarters, and the open areas in between. Finn scowled. “This isn’t good at all. I’m sure she’s gone to the office to try and prove her innocence.” He broke into a run.
They were just outside the office when they heard a scream and a thud. They both recognized the voice. Finn kicked the door open.
Finn caught the Dutchman with a left hook. Not to be defeated so easily, the Dutchman came up and drove his head directly into Finn’s torso. The momentum threw them both out of the cabin.
Roselynde came to the door of the office and saw him on top of Finn, the anger still burning bright in her heart. She launched herself onto the Dutchman’s shoulders, screaming like a banshee and tearing at his neck and head with her fingernails. She was truly a frightening sight to behold.
When he got a chance, Finn reached out and pried her off the Dutchman.
Roselynde was spitting like a rabid cat. “Put me down, you great clod of a man. Couldn’t you see that I was helping?”
Finn kept an eye on the Dutchman while he struggled to hold the raging and wiggling Roselynde. “Dieter, now I know how you feel trying to keep me out of trouble. Give me a hand here.”
Roselynde was trying to break Finn’s hold. “Oh, I see now. Only the men can take care of business. You want me to step aside, and let you take care of everything. Well, I’m done with that! I can take care of myself, you know.”
The Dutchman stepped back out of range of Roselynde’s kicks. He dabbed at the blood on his mouth. “Hold her just like that until the inspector arrives, O’Donnell, and I’ll not press charges against you for attacking a superior.”
Finn placed Roselynde on her feet next to Dieter. “Hold her.”
Now Roselynde had a new victim. She screamed and clawed at Dieter’s heavy coat, but just couldn’t get to anything she could hurt.
While Roselynde spouted threats, Dieter eased her away from the fistfight that had ensued the moment she was separated from it. “Roselynde, we have other things we can do to protect Finn. The inspectors are here now. They are the ones to deal with the Dutchman. You need to search for evidence to show them. It’s up to you to find whatever you can before the fight breaks up. Finn’s distracting the Dutchman now, but it can’t go on forever.”
She stopped struggling. “All right, Dieter. I’ll look for the paper I had before the Dutchman found me. It can’t have gone far. You go get Finn’s hammer.” She frowned. “And make sure he doesn’t kill Finn. I’m holding you responsible!”
“Yes, ma’am, it’s what I’m best at. I’ve kept that Irishman alive up till now, and I don’t intend for him to be killed today.”
As he reached the sidelines, Dieter could see that there were very few of the crew who had any sympathy at all for the Dutchman. Some were even moving among the rest, taking bets.
The crew were not the only ones interested in the proceedings. The inspection team came out of the kitchen tent. One caught Dieter by the arm. “See here, man. What is all of this? Why is that man attacking Herr Keese?”
Dieter paused to explain. “I think the captain gave an illegal order, and the other man is expressing his opinion of that order.” One inspector stayed to observe the fray, and the other hurried off to find their guards. Dieter let him go. Time enough later to worry about legal complications. Now he needed to be get Finn’s hammer and stay nearby in case Finn needed him.
The Dutchman caught Finn in the side of the head with a roundhouse blow. Finn saw the movement from the corner of his eye, and ducked. He jerked his head sideways, rolling backward to get his feet underneath him, coming up facing the Dutchman, hands in front, protecting his face.
The Dutchman charged in again. They were trading blow for blow, like titans in the battle at the end of the world. After a little while, the Dutchman took a step or two back, and stood with his hands on his knees, sucking in great breaths, letting his sweat and blood drip onto the ground. Finn stepped back also, and stood observing for a moment.
“Here, now. Are you surrendering?” Finn called.
The Dutchman straightened and glared, then brought his fists up again. “I’m more of a man than you, you uneducated ogre. I’ll not surrender.”
Finn stood up with his fists at the ready. “Ogre am I? Well, you little weasel, take your best shot.”
The Dutchman charged again. He stepped up and delivered a two punch combination, left and right. Finn caught one of the blows on his forearm, but the second came past, and slammed onto his cheek. The Dutchman rolled back and turned, just as Finn’s fist came hurtling toward him. He tried to duck, but his feet found one of the many mud puddles in the area and he slid into the mud.
Finn started to laugh. The spectators pushed their way forward, and Finn was shoved into the mud as well. Laughter scattered across the entire meadow.
When the Dutchman fought his way to his feet, he was almost knee deep in the muck. Mud clung to every part of him, sticks and leaves as well. There was a low rumble through the crowd, as he resembled nothing so much as the ogre he’d just invoked.
Finn stood, covered in the same glorious muck. He went at the Dutchman, throwing punches, plowing through the slippery slime as though he were a locomotive. By the time they reached the bank of the mud hole, the Dutchman was standing more from stubbornness than anything else.
The edge of the puddle met the back of the Dutchman’s knees, so suddenly he was sitting. When Finn saw his opponent collapse, he backed up to see what was happening. The Dutchman blinked like a rabbit blinded by a bright light.
Finn leaned forward, and rested his hand on his knee. His breath was blowing like a warhorse after a sprint. He heard a groan from the crowd.
So Dieter spoke for everyone. “Hey there, Finn. You’re not finished yet, are you?”
Finn straightened. “No, Dieter. We’re not near finished yet. My friend here was only taking a small breather. Any of you fellows got some water for us?”
It was only moments before a wooden bucket appeared. The Dutchman stood to get a drink, and was a little surprised to have the water poured over his head instead. Finn, watching from the other side of the mud hole, burst out laughing until a similar bucket was emptied over him.
“Here, now. What’s the idea?” Finn shook out his hair like an dog after a bath. “Wasn’t I wet enough already?”
Finn made his way out of the mud hole while the Dutchman cleared enough muck out of his eyes to see. Finn turned and offered his hand to pull him up out of the mire. The Dutchman took Finn’s hand and finally reached solid ground. Then, keeping hold of Finn’s hand, he pulled Finn close and swung his fist at his head.
Finn tried to duck the blow, but caught some of it. He stumbled, but didn’t let loose of the Dutchman. He tumbled to the ground, taking his adversary with him. They rolled across the grass, causing the crowd to back up.
Then Finn got his feet under him, stood up with the Dutchman’s lapels firmly in each hand. He swung the lowlander around, flinging him against the wall of the nearby office, then he put his head down and rammed it into the Dutchman’s gut.
Roselynde was startled when the walls shook and the crowd roared. Dust shook out of the rafters, and she coughed a little. Then, looking down, she finally found a crumpled letter under the edge of the desk. She stooped to retrieve it. Yes, this was important, a list of shipments that she had never received.
Then she noticed a wooden box under the desk. The box was locked, but Roselynde wasn’t even slowed down. It didn’t look very sophisticated. A few moments work with a letter opener, and the box was open.
Inside, there were a couple of money pouches, and several papers. It was the letter underneath that was exactly what she was looking for.
Outside, the Dutchman snapped a punch into Finn’s chest. The big Irishman’s arms wind-milled and he stumbled back. Before he could recover, the Dutchman was on him, throwing a hail of body blows. They broke apart, and rolled slowly to their feet. This time Finn was ready. The Dutchman charged, Finn swung hard and he bounced backward, the momentum carrying him into the kitchen area of the camp, knocking over pots and pans, stumbling into crates and barrels.
Finn followed him. His face no longer carried a look of laughter or fun. The crowd drew back from him as they would from a bear in the forest.
The Dutchman scrambled to his feet as if to make a break for it. Then he spotted something that had been thrown from an overturned table. He picked up the butcher knife, holding it like a bully from the docks.
Now that the Dutchman had a weapon, one that he obviously knew how to use, a hush fell over the crowd. The only sounds were the fire hissing nearby, and a few bookmakers at the back of the mob.
“Finn, I fetched this for you,” Dieter called. “Thought it might come in handy.” He threw Finn’s huge hammer. Finn held out his hand and caught it.
Finn raised his voice. “Are ye sure you want to do this? It will not go well for you.”
The Dutchman crouched slightly, and held his knife like a dagger. “I’ve heard bluster like yours before. You don’t want to come against this knife. You should just let me leave in peace.”
Finn crouched slightly as well, and took a couple of steps to the left. The two men circled for a moment, then charged.
It was difficult for Dieter to tell what was happening. He saw the butcher knife glitter, and the hammer swing, almost too fast for the eye to follow.
Finn stepped back, blood dripping from his left forearm. The Dutchman was lying on the grass, unmoving. Dieter moved cautiously next to Finn. “What did you do, Finn? Is he dead?”
Finn lowered his hammer and looked down. His voice sounded distant, as if he were coming back from a far place. “No, I don’t think so. When he came at me, I aimed at his elbow. I think I heard it crack. Then I threw a blow right into his knee. I decided not to kill him, just tapped him lightly on the back of the head. Not hardly a blow at all, really.”
Finn kicked the knife away into the tall grass. “I guess his head wasn’t as hard as he thought it was.”
Dieter heard a disturbance at the back of the crowd. He turned and saw Roselynde come out of the office, letters in hand. She was shouting and waving them over her head. Her red hair streamed behind her like a bright flag.
“Where are the inspectors? I have proof the Dutchman was stealing from the railroad company, and I have the name of his accomplice.”
As she shouted and ran, the crowd parted in front of her, and she found herself next to Dieter and Finn. “What happened here?”
Finn’s smile was like the sun after a cold March rainstorm. He seemed to come back to himself with Roselynde next to him. “Nothing at all. We were just dancing a little. And then he tripped and fell, right there.”
Roselynde put her hands on her hips. “And, pray tell me, how did you get that bloody wound on your arm? Is it a bug bite, perhaps?”
Their conversation was cut short when the inspectors appeared with guards in tow. Ten men with six foot staffs followed their commander, who was armed with a shotgun.
The men surrounded Finn and the Dutchman, and held their staves at the ready. Roz stepped next to Finn.
“Here now. What is all this?” the head inspector asked. “We don’t need a riot. What did you do to Herr Keese?”
Finn put his right hand on his chest, and grinned a little. “Herr Inspector, I’m afraid that the captain can’t speak to you right now. He’s napping.”
The guard commander knelt and felt the Dutchman’s throat. “He’s alive all right. Where’s your medic? I think he needs to look after this man.”
The inspector frowned up at Finn. “What’s the meaning of this? Assault on a supervisor is not tolerated by the Grantville Central Railroad.”
Before Finn could answer, Roselynde stepped between him and the inspector. “My name is Roselynde, and I’m in charge of the kitchens. We’ve been having difficulty finding enough to feed these men. He’s been selling the food to bandits.” She gestured with her evidence. “I found these letters that prove it.” She pointed. “And when he tried to kidnap me, why, Finn only stepped up to protect me. And that’s the whole story.”
The inspectors remained on the site for three days more, examining the books and all the papers in the office. Gijsbert Keese had been carted off to lockup by the guards, and Finn and the other men had been sent back to work. The fully-stocked supply train showed up bright and early Monday morning, and Roselynde was able to feed the crew as much food as they wanted.
On the final day of his business, the head inspector summoned Finn into the captain’s office. He was sitting behind the desk, shuffling papers when Finn tapped on the door frame. “Ah. Finn. Come in, come in.”
Finn was a little nervous. It was very possible that he would still be reprimanded for striking a superior.
The inspector stood, and offered Finn his hand. “Have a seat. As we’re planning to move on tomorrow, there are a couple of things that you and I have to talk about. This worksite is in need of a competent captain, and I’m ready to offer you the job.”
“Me? You want me as the captain?” Finn was having a little trouble following the discussion. There was a roaring in his ears, and the room seemed to tip dangerously to the side. He eased himself into the chair in front of the desk.
The man sat down in the other chair. “Why, yes, we do. We’ve had reports from many of the men that you’re a good leader and an honest man. That’s exactly what we need. Your pay will increase accordingly, of course. You’ll be expected to keep track of the records, as well.”
Still, Finn couldn’t find his voice. It was all like a dream.
The inspector looked at him, then continued. “You’ll need an assistant, as well, I think. There’s really a lot to do here. You can hire anyone you feel fit for the position. As a matter of fact, it’s the first task you’ll have as captain. So what do you say, O’Donnell? Can we depend on you?”
Suddenly, everything was clear as glass. This would finally give him the opportunity and standing to marry Roselynde. “Yes, I’ll do it. You can certainly depend on me.”
Farther down the line
Dieter was sitting at the desk, shuffling paper. There was a knock, and the door opened. A very pompous man stepped into the office. “I’m Schmidt, the civil engineer for this project. Are you the captain?”
Dieter stood, and shook the engineer’s hand. “Have a seat, Herr Schmidt. The captain isn’t available today. I’m his assistant. What can I do for you?”
The heavy man settled carefully in the small chair, and looked disgruntled. “This is very disturbing. Where is Herr O’Donnell, the captain? I was told he was always on site.”
Dieter leaned back in his chair and smiled. “I’m afraid that this week I’m all you’ll get. Don’t worry, I know everything you need. But Captain O’Donnell and his wife aren’t available. They took some time off to celebrate the birth of their first son.”