October 1633

“Marie is a member of the radio guild!” Johan Kreger said with surprising heat. Well, shocking heat really, at least to Marie. The fact that he had said it at all left her a bit stunned. They were in a village to install a new radio with a selenium photo-resistor amplifier and a speaker. As had happened a few times before, the village council wanted her to stay right here till it was demonstrated that all the bells and whistles worked. This was the first time Johan had come with her rather than one of her parents or Peter Kreger.

“It’s all right. I don’t mind staying the night,” she said, trying to smooth things over. The whole situation with her old archenemy Johan had gotten really confusing. He had started being nice to her and she hadn’t a clue how to deal with it. Having him stick up for her and brag about her skill was freaking her out.

Herr Schmidt grunted acknowledgment then looked at Johan. “And how am I supposed to know that?”

“Ah . . . ”

“It’s good of you to stand up for your friend, son. But the last guy we had through here selling us up-timer products almost killed Gretchen Kauffman with whatever was in those little blue pills. He said he was an accredited supplier and a personal friend of Herr Doctor Gribbleflotz. We found out later that the one time he had been to the Ring of Fire, he had been arrested for trying to pass bad money. They took his picture and everything. Which is how we found out about it. He’s wanted for aggravated fraud this time. That’s what they call it when the fraud endangers someone’s life.

“So, now we check. Got a free box of the little blue pills, the real ones, when Herr Doctor Gribbleflotz found out about it.”

Johan didn’t much like it, but they spent the night. And the radio, as they almost always did, worked like a charm.

****

“You’re serious?” Peter Kreger looked at Greta Schultz doubtfully. “What good would that do?”

“If we use the freezer to store fresh peas, then we can take them to market in the middle of winter and get a better price,” Greta pointed out. “It’s what the up-timers did. Grew in-demand crops, stored them, then sold them at a higher price once they were out of season. And you know that fresh peas taste better than dried.”

“And have more vitamins,” Eva Katharina pointed out. “The nutrition program is always talking about vitamins. And using less salt. And using less fat, for that matter. Not that anyone here gets that much fat. But we could also make butter and save it for winter, too. There are all sorts of fresh foods that we could freeze, if we have enough space. It would bring a higher price come about, oh, January.”

“So you want the village to buy one of these refrigeration units and build a place to put it. That’s a considerable investment.” Peter didn’t have all that much choice. All the women of the village were dead set on the freezer. Of course, it didn’t just mean the refrigeration unit. They had to buy a generator to power it. They needed a Fresno scraper to dig out the space for the freezing unit to cool. And concrete to line it. And . . . well, the list got pretty long. It added up to quite a sum, but the village was flush from the sale of wheat that year. It was the first time in a long time that the village had been that cash rich. Peter would admit later that it had gone to his head as much as anybody else. He’d even bought his son Johan a camera, in spite of the fact that Johan couldn’t develop the pictures himself.

All in all, the six months delay before they would receive the freezer unit was a good thing. It gave them time to prepare for it.

Early Spring, 1635

“Oh, stand still, Joseph. You’re going to tear my tape measure!” Greta really couldn’t help snapping. She’d been trying to measure the child for half an hour and it wasn’t like she didn’t already have plenty to do.

Eight-year-old Joseph tried not to wiggle. He didn’t succeed particularly well, but Greta could tell he was trying. Mostly trying her patience, but that was the nature of boys, after all.

“Thirty-five inches, Marie. From his heel to his shoulder.”

“Yes, Mama.” Marie looked at the sizing chart in the 1635 Burke Wish Book. “He’s a size eight, then.”

“And we’ll order a size nine, then,” Greta said. “Maybe even a size ten. Because every time I turn around, this child is wearing rags. Rags that are too short. They claim that those Torberts will last and last. They’d better.”

“Can I go now?”

“Try to stay out of the mud,” Greta said. “Not that you can, not at this time of year.” She folded the tape measure, then stepped to the table. “I hope I get a chance to look at that catalog, Marie. It seems like every extra cent we have left from harvest is going to clothe Joseph and your father this year. But there are some things I want, too. Like a cloth tape measure.”

“I’ve got a bit saved,” Marie admitted. Most of Marie’s earnings from building crystal sets was supposed to go into her dowry fund. It didn’t always get to the dowry fund, though. Not that she was in any hurry to marry or had anyone she was interested in marrying. Well, there was Johan Kreger . . . but, well, he was Johan. She’d known him all her life.

A year and a half since that first trip with Johan to a village and Marie still wasn’t sure how to deal with him. She had grown quite fond of him, but she still didn’t have a dowry of any size and it was looking like she was going to have to sell her business to save Papa’s half-farm.

The village had bought a lot of stuff from Grantville and Magdeburg in the last two years. A generator system that was her charge was one of the first purchases. It was 3,500 watts which ran the freezer in the summer, electric lights for the village and, of course, the radios. They used the lights sparingly; they were expensive and didn’t last that long. It also ran the water pump and a router and other tools in Johan’s wood shop. Johan was making the cases for her radios now.

Her family owed the village for their part of the generator use, as well as owing for their part of the rent. As it was, Marie was working constantly on building radios and their accessories just to keep her income up with the outgo.

In spite of all Marie and her mother could do, Papa tended to be a bit, well, extravagant. It was a worry. And a worry that was getting bigger each day.

****

Peter Kreger was worried, too. The price of wheat was down. Again. The village was producing twice as much as it ever had by using the proper fertilizer, but wasn’t quite covering the debts they’d agreed to assume. The villagers held the debt for the generator in common, as well as the debt for the new plows. Then there was the thresher, the damned thing. Always breaking, it was. And new parts—those the blacksmith couldn’t build himself—cost plenty.

Then there was the great idea of frozen vegetables that the women had. But no one thought of freezer burn. They should have; they had all seen the effects of freezing on plants and animals caught out in a blizzard. About half of the food the women had preserved had been freezer burnt and unsuitable for sale. Naturally, the village ate it, freezer burnt or not. In fact they ate an awful lot of fruits and vegetables that winter. Peter hadn’t thought that you could get tired of fresh peas, but people were getting pretty sick of them by spring and there were still a lot in the freezer.

Still, if John George had left the borders open like he had in most of 1634, things wouldn’t be too bad. But the major market for their wheat was Magdeburg and John George did not want his people dealing in American dollars. He wanted them to use his Saxony thalers, period. They could sell their wheat in Dresden, but that would mean going down the Schwarze Elster to the Elbe then back up the Elbe to Dresden, where they’d get a lousy price. In spite of Herr Berger’s new steam barges, it was still more expensive to go upriver. Actually, that was the reason that the Elbe had been closed. Altogether too many people had shipped their crops down to Magdeburg last year. The village had made their second payments on the stuff they had bought, but just barely. It didn’t look like they would be able to make the next one.

****

“They’re lovely, dear.” Greta tried to hide the worry. Karl was so proud of the dishes he’d ordered to surprise her. God only knew how they’d pay for them.

“Civilized, they are,” Karl said. “Very up-time.”

Greta was beginning to hate that term.

****

Marie wasn’t blaming the up-timers She wasn’t really blaming anyone. Aside from a few extravagances, they had mostly bought things that would—in the long run—pay for themselves. In the long run. They shouldn’t have bought so much so soon. But everyone had been so happy about the good year in 1633. They had gotten almost twice what they got most years and their costs had been the same. The profit had been almost three times what it was in a normal year. They had seemed rich. They had been rich. It had seemed like a perfect time to be alive.

****

“I’m getting worried.”

Anna Katherine Schuster didn’t really want to hear this. Her brother Heinrich was close to impossible to live with in the first place. When he got worried he gnawed at problems like a dog with a bone. A little dog with a big bone, meaning he never got beyond scratching the surface of whatever he was worried about. “What about,” she asked.

“Th-that fucking John George, is what. Things were going fine until he closed the border. We can’t pay our debt in Saxony thalers! Have you heard what they’re trading for in the Magdeburg market? It’s-it’s . . . they’re worthless!”

That was only the truth, Anna Katherine knew. She and Heinrich—Schuster Finance Company, as they called their business—had made a lot of loans to villages in Saxony in 1633. Only the wealthiest and most productive villages had been offered credit, of course. It wasn’t like there was any lack of productive villages that didn’t have the cash to buy the new products.

Because Schuster Finance was arranging the sales—in effect buying the stuff and reselling it—they got volume discounts from the catalog stores, Burke’s Wish Book, as well as the Gerber Bargain Book and others.

They hadn’t passed those discounts on to their customers. After all, they were doing a lot of work and travel and deserved a fair profit. And it wasn’t like they were short on customers. There might not be enough cash out there to pay for all the goods that the new factories were producing, but ten times what those factories were producing wouldn’t make a dent in the demand.

They had taken the orders, offering “rent with an option to buy” contracts to the villages, in order to sell the stuff up the Elbe and its tributaries. They had had an inheritance, the rents on several villages in Saxony and had sold them for the startup money. They used that money to buy the goods from the catalog stores and have them sent to the customers. They had done their research before going into the business, and had learned that small loans were almost always paid back. It had seemed like a great business to get into—revolving credit with an initial interest rate of only eight percent . . . but as soon as the customer fell behind on payments, the interest jumped to twenty-five percent. It would give them a better income than the rents, they were sure.

With the first loans secured by the stuff being bought and subsequent loans secured by not only the new purchases but the old ones as well, business had boomed. Boomed to the extent that Anna Katherine wasn’t sure where Heinrich had gotten the money for the later loans.

What they hadn’t counted on was the closing of the Elbe. That had affected over seventy percent of their customers. It also meant that they couldn’t repossess much—not with John George’s troops in the way.

“We should be fine,” Heinrich insisted, clearly trying to convince himself. “As long as we get paid. I used the collateral of the loans to leverage our investment. Got one heck of a good rate, too.”

Anna Katherine felt her face pale. “Oh? You didn’t mention you were doing that.” This was a disaster. If they didn’t get paid then the bank would foreclose, taking their paper and checking the books. Heinrich was in charge of getting the money and Anna of making the loans. There were some minor irregularities in their bookkeeping. Well, minor as long as most of the people made their payments. And it wasn’t like they were the only company doing it. It was just that some of the customers didn’t actually, literally, exist. Some products sold according to the books hadn’t actually been bought or delivered.

Not to mention that the irregularities were minor, so long as Heinrich didn’t pay any attention to her books. Which he usually didn’t. Until now. She’d had a fairly free hand with the accounting and payments that came in. And there were things a girl wanted that her brother didn’t really need to know about.

****

“I mean, it isn’t all that different than what the Grameen banks did up-time. At least mostly, and the late fees would cover the rest. There would be no problem at all if my idiot brother Heinrich hadn’t leveraged us so much.”

Rodger Rude’s hearing was fairly acute. It had to be. Of course, he didn’t call himself Rodger Rude in real life. That was his pen name. He leaned back a bit in the booth, partly to hear better and partly to keep the woman in the next booth from noticing him. And especially to keep the man she was with from noticing him.

“Now, Anna,” the man rumbled. “Don’t worry. I did exactly what you said. The money is perfectly safe.”

Rodger wasn’t about to bet on that. This sounded like a real nifty little story. Betrayal of kin, cheating, lying, financial shenanigans—maybe even stealing.

But, darn it, Rodger didn’t really have a handle on money. Which meant he was going to have to share the byline with someone. Probably that twit, Karl Gottliebe, who’d been freelancing for The Street. And all over the radio. Any program that mentioned money or markets, there Gottliebe was, giving out advice. Ah, well. Rodger would share the byline for a story that sounded as juicy as this one.

****

“I’ll say,” Rodger muttered. “This contract is downright punitive once you miss that first payment.”

“Worse than that,” Gottliebe pointed out. “Take a look a subparagraph J. If you can read it without a magnifying glass, that is.”

Rodger shook his head and picked up another contract. “I’ll take your word for it. SFC is bad enough. It’s almost honest, sort of. Not illegal, at any rate. The big bad guys are Heileman Finance. They’re the sort the usury laws were designed for.”

“I’ve blocked out a program time. The article hits The Street tomorrow, then tomorrow afternoon I’ll announce my consumer report on credit,” Gottliebe said. “There are more good companies than bad. But HFC is certainly going down. And SFC is going to lose a lot of business.”

“Six weeks it’s taken,” Rodger said. “But we’ve got them.

****

“This is Hans Günther, reporting for The Street. As anyone who has read the paper knows, our own Karl Gottliebe has been involved in an investigative report on consumer credit. While most of the companies were on the up and up, we want to warn you about Heileman Finance and a couple of other companies. Schuster Finance Company, for instance, has some very irregular contracts. Karl, tell our listeners more, please.”

Rodger fairly hated listening to Karl speak over the radio, but it was impossible to do it himself. It would blow his cover sky high and he got too much dirt by being unidentifiable by the Grantvillers. Pity, though. Karl’s voice was so nerdy-sounding.

“Ladies and gentlemen, there has been a great deal of ‘rent with an option to buy’ going on all over the place. And, over all, that has been a good thing. It’s gotten a lot of products into the hands of people and businesses that needed to have the product in hand to make the money to pay for it. Farmers and craftsmen have benefited and so have their customers, as they have produced more. But it seems every silver-lining has to have a cloud. It’s become rather easy to get in over your head. And worse, some of the people offering ‘rent with an option to buy’ contracts are dishonest. You need to read the contracts before you sign them. If you didn’t do that, you still need to read them. Because not everything we have learned from the up-timers is good. Scoundrels and cheats have learned new techniques to take advantage of us. As if they didn’t have enough already.

“We urge everyone in range of our broadcast who has signed a contract with any of the finance companies that have proliferated in the last few years to review their contracts very carefully. Pay particular attention to any fine print. Take them to a lawyer if they seem confusing—or even if they don’t. I’m afraid, Hans, that there are going to be some very sorry customers out there. Some companies have perpetrated outright fraud, some others are skating on very thin ethical ice. I want to stress that most of them have proven to be excellent companies that provide excellent service. As usual, though, a few bad apples are rotting the entire barrel.”

“What about the report that Anna Katherina Schuster was seen leaving Grantville early this morning? Do you think that’s in indication of wrong-doing?”

Rodger cursed. He’d missed that.

Gottliebe went on. “While what the Schusters have done isn’t illegal, it is certainly unethical. But it is not a crime in Saxony. Arguably, it’s not even a crime here. It seems to me that Anna has left her brother Heinrich holding the bag for whatever they may have done. I’ll have more on this in half an hour on our new program, which is called Consumer Reports.”

****

Greta Schultz listened to the market reports almost religiously. And it was a darn good thing, too. She pulled out the family’s contract with SFC, then had to sit down with her hand pressed against her chest. “Marie. Marie. Go get Peter Kreger. Right now.”

Marie didn’t think to argue, even though her mother had interrupted a delicate piece of soldering.

****

“This won’t affect us,” Eva Katharina said. “Hans and I didn’t buy anything for ourselves. We’ve been waiting until we had some cash.”

“You don’t understand, Eva,” Peter said. “I didn’t either, not until I read the fine print. I commend Greta for bringing this to my attention once she found out. And I have to point out that it isn’t just the Schultz family that has been buying with village credit.” He looked around the room. “About half the families here have been signing contracts that obligate the whole village to a much higher interest rate if even one payment is missed. Among other things that are even worse.”

“What?” “Not us!” “We haven’t bought anything!” The uproar in the room was furious.

Peter waved them all down. “Subparagraph J on the SFC contracts is the culprit. And we won’t even go into the HFC contracts, since we were lucky enough that we didn’t sign up with them. What that little clause says is that if someone misses two annual payments, the debt is transferred to the village as a whole. Plus, they can repossess everything that has been bought. Everything. We all agreed to the main contract that let the village buy the plows, the reaper, the fridge unit, and all the common purchases.”

That meant that if Greta’s new tableware wasn’t paid for, SFC could take the plow, the thresher, the refrigeration unit . . . everything that they had bought. That all the payments went into one common fund. Greta’s flatware, Anna’s bolt of fine wool cloth—all went into the same pot as the plow and thresher—so nothing was paid for till everything was.

They all started talking at once, blaming anyone who had bought anything on their own. Which just about everyone had.

Pastor Althus stood up and looked around the room. The uproar lessened in intensity. “I note that while you’re all fussing, you’re doing it in a warm room with good lighting and with full bellies.” He walked over to a shelf that was full of how-to books. He picked up one that everyone in the village recognized. It had a big red cross on the front and covered such things as how to set a broken bone and the effects of vitamins on health. “Do you happen to remember the winter of 1628? There were no frozen vegetables that year. No raspberries frozen in August to be eaten in February. The insulation wasn’t all that great, either. I particularly remember that, because three children died that year. All three from pneumonia. Have we had a case of pneumonia this year? I must have missed it. All the children that were in the village last fall are still here and a new one besides. A happy, healthy little fellow he is too, little Robin. Is there a lack of grain for the village to eat? A lack of vegetables?”

That got a laugh. People were eating rather more vegetables then they might have preferred in the winter of 1635. Pastor Althus put the book back in the shelf.

“Is anyone suffering from frostbite because they have no gloves or holes in their shoes? You all know that we really are living much less precarious lives than we used to. And what are we doing with the Lord’s gifts? Arguing, fussing and fighting over who bought what that they shouldn’t have. That they wouldn’t have, I am quite sure, if they had known what it might mean.

“No one has accused me yet so it falls to me to accuse myself. I bought a new cassock and several books that weren’t, strictly speaking, necessary. What we have to do is make sure that no one defaults on their loan. Whatever their intent, the people of SFC have facilitated our gaining of the tools we need to pay the debt. We will use those tools. We will find new things to make and sell. We will work together as a community in God, as we always have.”

“I’m sorry, Pastor, but we need to be careful,” Johan Keller said. He didn’t sound particularly apologetic, but then he never did. “We have wasted a lot of time, energy and money on harebrained schemes. Like the giant vegetable garden. We’ve more vegetables than we can eat and we can’t sell them because putting them in the freezer ruined them. We could have increased the number of chickens instead. Eggs always sell. So does meat, so we could raise more goats.”

Greta Schultz looked at Johan’s rather ample belly and sneered. Johan Keller liked meat, bread and butter. He didn’t like cabbage, squash, pumpkin, snap peas . . . the list went on. “We made mistakes last year,” Greta pointed out. “We were figuring out what worked and what didn’t. It takes an extra layer of waxed paper around the little box. That we didn’t want to use because of the extra expense, but we learned. We should have very little freezer burn this year. Granted, the waxed paper costs, but if we use it properly, we can expect to sell all of the garden that we don’t want for ourselves. We should grow more fruits and vegetables this year, not less.”

The upshot of the meeting was that everyone in the village was put on a strict budget. Everyone, even those few who hadn’t given in to the urge to buy on credit.

****

“Shh,” Peter said. “It’s time for Consumer Reports, again.”

“Well, Herr Gottliebe, what’s the latest on the credit scandal?”

“The big news today is that Anna Katharina Schuster appears to have left her, ah, friend in Halle and taken off for parts unknown. Meanwhile, Heinrich Schuster denies all knowledge of his sister’s whereabouts. He has turned over all of the company’s paperwork for audit and hired the firm of Hardegg, Selfisch and Krapp to represent him in the suit that Hermann Weisel filed this morning.”

“Is there some legal action that victims of HFC and SFC are able to take?” the reporter asked.

“There may be,” Gottliebe said. “In the case of HFC, where there was extortion involved and often the goods weren’t delivered, there are a number of options. However, in the case of SFC, it’s going to be more difficult. Certainly, the customers can’t just stop paying. Whoever ends up owning SFC will own the debts owed to them and effectively that means that they will own the products sold. Still, I certainly urge anyone with one of these punitive contracts to seek legal advice. There is another option that may be available to customers of SFC, and this is going to sound weird. Get another loan. A consolidation loan, then pay the entire value of the products you bought.”

****

“What are you planting, Mama?” Marie asked.

“I’m not sure what all of it is,” Greta admitted. “These big beans are pretty, though. We ordered several packets of seeds from The Plant Ladies, out of the Burke Wish Book. And seed potatoes from the Grange, since they store well. Those green beans that are supposed to be so good for you and that you can eat really soon after planting, and those little orange carrots. A different cabbage, just to see how it did. Anyway, they included this ‘bonus summer surprise’ packet, it’s called. It’s a bunch of different looking seeds, anyway. I figure it can’t hurt to plant them. We might get something useful and we’ve got to weed the garden anyway.”

“I’ll say.” Marie looked around. The fields dedicated to vegetables were much more extensive than usual.

“We’ve got to produce a lot this year,” Greta said. “We’ve just got to. I know the frozen vegetables will be a success this time.”

“I hope so, Mama. Right now, I’ve got to go see Johan. I’ve got more radio guts ready for cases.”

****

“Here you go, Johan.” Marie placed the four crystal sets on the work bench. “These are rea . . . what are you building?”

“A really fancy radio case,” Johan said. “Inlaid with different woods, all that stuff. Value added, like they talk about on the radio. It ought to sell for more than the usual radios do. Every pfennig helps.”

****

“Well, sigh, it’s that time of year again, isn’t it, ladies? You all know what I’m talking about, don’t you?”

Greta had no idea what the woman was talking about, but Fanny Farmer was her favorite cooking show, so she kept listening.

“Yes, that’s right. The zucchini and summer squash are coming in, aren’t they? Now, don’t groan. I know, I know. It won’t be long before your co-workers and neighbors are bringing in piles and piles of it!”

What the devil was the woman talking about, Greta wondered. Nothing really grew in ‘piles and piles’ in her experience. Well, cucumbers could be pretty prolific, yes. But you could always pickle cucumbers.

“Well, don’t despair. There’s all sorts of things you can do with those baseball bat-sized zucchini. Pickle them, fry them, grate them up and make zucchini bread. Cover it with cheese sauce, slice it up for the freezer. One thing about it, you can never run out of zucchini. Remember Cora’s zucchini quesadillas?”

Greta went out to look at that plot of surprise plant seeds. Just in case.

****

“Maybe we were better off in the old days,” Karl grumped.

Greta gave him a very old-fashioned look. Then she pointed to the dish he was eating from, the Torberts Joseph was wearing, Marie’s work table with its soldering iron and even to his shoes. “I don’t think so, dear. Now, just eat your supper and hush.”

Karl stared down at the green and white mess in his plate. “But what is it?”

“Zucchini au gratin is what Fanny Farmer calls it.”

****

“We’re not going to make it,” Peter said. Then, at the look from Greta, he added, “Yes, I know there is much less freezer burn this year and you will be able to sell frozen fruits and vegetables all though the winter. That’s all well and good. But the debt isn’t due in March of next year. It’s due in October of this year. And that’s when the penalty rate will kick in.”

“What about the consolidation loan that Herr Gottliebe talked about?”

“I sent a letter to a money lender in Dresden.” Peter shook his head. “He wants twenty percent.”

“What about Grantville?”

“Wouldn’t work. By the time our letters got there and their answers got back and we sent someone there to sign the papers or whatever you do, it would be October.”

“Then just go,” Pastor Althus said. “Take the forms and receipts. Go try to get one of the consolidation loans if you can. If you can’t, we aren’t much worse off. And if you can, you will be right there, so you can pay off the receivers for SFC.”

“I can’t go. I have to be here for the harvest.” Then Peter looked at him. “I think you just volunteered, Pastor Althus.”

****

“They’re both better with English than I am,” Pastor Althus explained. “And they’ll be company. As well, if we’re stopped, I can always explain that I’m escorting them to the University at Jena. Johan is a bit old for it, but I’m told that all sorts of younger and not-so-younger people are attending Jena these days.”

Traveling through what might become a battle zone at any moment was nervous-making for Greta and Karl, but Marie’s face had lit up at the thought of actually seeing Grantville. Peter’s son Johan was practically jiggling on his stool in excitement.

“Oh, please, Papa,” Johan said. “I can take the camera and have the pictures developed. Probably learn a lot more about it, too.” He paused a moment. “And I’ll bet that Marie can get some really good ideas for new products, too.”

As an apparent afterthought, he added, “I bet the prices are cheaper there. We could pick up more seeds and stuff. Books. We’re going anyway, so we might as well bring stuff back with us. If we can afford it, of course.”

The upshot of it was that Marie and Johan would go with Pastor Althus, walking to Grantville, then possibly buying a small wagon to bring back as much as they could with them. The pastor was authorized to ask for a bit more money than was needed, in order to buy more seeds.

Just before they left, Johan Keller approached Marie privately. He pressed a few coins in her hand. “I want chicks. I want to start a real chicken operation, now that we’ve got the freezer. Buy me as many chicks as you can find. The White Leghorns. They’re good egg producers.”

How they were going to transport live chicks—and keep them alive—for a hundred and fifty miles through a war zone wasn’t addressed. But Marie promised she’d try.

****

Greta looked at the giant zucchinis and sighed. There was no way that Karl and Joseph were going to put up with yet another squash dish. She didn’t want to freeze any more of the things, either. Listening to Johan Keller complain all winter wasn’t something she cared to do.

Then she looked at the family’s sow and her litter. Well, why not? So she chopped the thing up and placed it in the trough.

The pigs didn’t seem to mind it at all. Greta grinned, then went off to tend the garden. The peppers were ripe and she intended to pickle as many as she could. That little bright orange pepper looked really good. Pickled whole they would make a bright addition to winter meals.

****

Pastor Althus sat in a comfortable chair in the tavern in Riesa to listen to tonight’s VOA broadcast. It was illegal to listen to the radio in Saxony these days, but that didn’t stop anyone. “Ladies and gentlemen, forces under General Lenart Torstensson are massing near Dessau for the liberation of Saxony.” What? how? Until they reached Riesa, Pastor Althus had not been worried. While they were nominally traveling through a war zone, the truth was that most of the time the army was over the horizon somewhere. Armies are pretty small things compared to whole countries. Besides, hostilities hadn’t actually started yet and Pastor Althus hadn’t really expected them for at least another month. Also armies moved slowly.

Now this general’s forces were on the Elbe, which meant that he, Marie and Johann were right in their path as long as they stayed in Riesa. And, as the report continued, it became clear that the enemy army was moving fast. The plan, from the radio reports, seemed to be pretty straightforward, precisely what you would expect. And the counter was equally obvious, at least according to the military commentator. The forces in Dresden would proceed down the Elbe to meet General Torstensson. They had to. If they stayed in Dresden they would be effectively ceding control of Saxony to the USE. If John George did that, he might as well abdicate.

The problem was that one of the most likely places for the two armies to meet was Riesa.

****

The next day found Pastor Althus, Marie and Johan going west from Riesa to Grimma. They had considered turning around and going back but two things had stopped them. First, they really needed that consolidation loan and they need it quickly. Second, they wouldn’t be much safer back home on the Schwarze Elster, a tributary of the Elbe than they would be on the road.

The next day they walked twelve miles to Osthatz. There was no word on what the armies were doing. Pastor Althus presumed they were staying on the river, which meant that by now the armies ought to be approaching Tordau. That was where Pastor Althus guessed the battle would take place. He wished, heartily, that this town had a radio. They did hear, through village gossip, that General von Arnim had had troops in Leipzig. They would bypass Leipzig. The next night they camped in the woods north of Wermsdorf. The next night, in Brandis, they heard that the USE Army was still several days away but wasn’t, as they had thought, staying with the Elbe. It was going overland. The good news was that two more days would get them to the Saale river and the railroad.

****

“Don’t forget the tablets, Marie,” Johan said. He reached into his pouch and plopped two water purification tablets into the bucket she’d drawn from the stream and carried to their campsite. They had shifted a good ten miles south of Leipzig and were camped by a little stream near the village of Zwenkau. “We don’t have any idea how good the water is here.”

“Nag, nag, nag,” Marie muttered. “Yes, Johan. I fully intended not to purify the water because I’m such an idiot.”

“Children,” Pastor Althus warned. They both blushed. “That’s better,” he said. “Getting along together is important. I know Johan didn’t mean to treat you badly, Marie, and you know perfectly well that he doesn’t think you’re an idiot.”

Marie waved her hand at him. “I know. I’m just grumpy today.”

When Marie stood up and walked to the bushes, Pastor Althus took the opportunity to speak to Johan. “Back off a bit, boy. She doesn’t need you mother-henning her right now.”

“But what did I do?”

It turned out that Johan hadn’t paid much attention to the women and girls back home. As well, his mother had died when he was about five and his father hadn’t remarried. There were lots of things about the female of the species that Johan didn’t know. Pastor Althus enlightened him as best he could. It was not an easy task.

Besides, they were all tired from the trip so far. Pastor Althus shook his head and left Johan to contemplate female necessities while he went to visit the necessary.

****

Pastor Althus was digging the hole when his foot slipped on a damp rock and his ankle twisted. He called out and both children came running. Trying to put his weight on the foot simply demonstrated that he couldn’t support himself on that foot. By morning the ankle was swollen and multicolored, mostly purple and blue. The pastor wouldn’t be walking any distance for several days. They discussed going back to Zwenkau but the reason they were camping by the creek in the first place was that the people of Zwenkau had an exorbitant notion of the proper rent on a piece of floor in the barn.

****

Two days later and Johan had constructed a crutch out of some limbs and twine using his eating knife. They were discussing when they should leave when they heard the noises. The children wanted to go see but Pastor Althus had a bad feeling. “Stay in the trees, Johan. Don’t let yourself be seen. Pretend you’re hunting with your papa.

“Why ca-” Marie started.

“Enough.” Pastor Althus wasn’t having any rivalry right at the moment. He didn’t like the tenor of the sounds he was hearing. “Johan will go and be careful. You will stay with me.”

A few minutes later Johan was back. “There’s an army forming up on the far side of the creek.” The creek, as they would learn later, was named the Pleisser River. Where they were camped the Pleisser was about ten feet wide and a foot and a half deep. And, precisely where they were camped, the Pleisser had few trees on either bank. Just a clump of trees suitable for gathering firewood, which no doubt the good people of Zwenkau were charging considerable rent on. Which was why they had made their camp inconspicuously within the clump of trees, rather than beside it.

Now Pastor Althus wished they had paid the rent for the floor of Zwenkau hay barn. They couldn’t move. There was an army just across the river and if they popped out of their little clump of trees, they were just likely to get shot on the assumption that they were enemy scouts. Laboriously, the pastor made his way to the edge of the creek where he could see the army—no, armies—forming up into lines of battle. It had taken awhile. By the time he got to where he could see, the armies were a confused mass of pennants and marching men, with bugles and cavalry thrown in. It wasn’t quite as bad as he had feared. The battle looked like it was going to take place perhaps a quarter mile away. Which meant no one should notice them unless they called attention to themselves. Then he noticed Johan running off back to the campsite.

“Johan, what are you doing?” Pastor Althus hissed.

****

“I’m getting my Brownie,” Johan said. Unlike the time he’d tried to build a radio, Johan had read the instructions that came with the Brownie camera. It used chemically-treated paper on a roll. Twenty-four exposures per roll and then you sent the roll back to the factory to be developed. And they sent you the pictures. The camera cost twenty-five dollars, the rolls two dollars each and the developing ten dollars a roll.

It was really weird what went through your head when you were scared. Johan had buck fever and he knew it. He had a number of exposed but undeveloped rolls, and two precious un-exposed rolls. They could afford the rolls, but not the developing. He had realized that they were stuck on the edge of a battle and it occurred to him that he might actually be able to sell pictures of the battle.

“What!” Pastor Althus hissed again.

“I’ll be with you in just a minute.” Johan slipped back to the camp and grabbed his pack. Then rushed back to the river. “I can take pictures of the battle and maybe we can sell them!”

The pastor was hissing again, but Johan ignored him as he made his way across the creek and snuggled down behind a tree with a good view of the battlefield. He was just in time to see what looked to be about a third of one of the armies change direction and head what seemed right for them. They would learn later that it was General Stearns’ Third Division.

Battles take a long time. It took a while for the Third Division to march out ahead of the rest of the USE Army, and even longer for the Saxon army to respond. Long before the Saxon army had started to move, Marie had joined him behind the tree and was hissing at him

Pastor Althus was annoyed with him, she informed him and apparently Marie was royally pissed. Johan wasn’t sure why but, oddly, it seemed a good sign. He pointed the camera at a group of officers riding out ahead of the troops that had moved toward them. He waited for the officers to stop riding around in front of the army, and then snapped a couple of shots, figuring that they must be important.

“Pastor Althus wants you to come back where it’s safe,” Marie insisted.

“You go. I’m getting some really good shots here.”

“You come back right now!”

“All right. All right.”

They crawled back into the trees then waded across the little creek.

It took Johan several minutes to explain to Pastor Althus what he was doing and more time to convince the pastor that he was just as safe in the trees on the far side of the river as in these trees. Then Marie had to jump in and claim that if he was just as safe on the other side of the river, so was she.

He tried to argue that Pastor Althus needed her to take care of him and for a moment it looked like that might work. But Pastor Althus said that if it was really just as safe, then he would be fine here by himself.

That brought Johan up short. Was it really as safe if Marie was with him? He almost gave up on the whole deal then. But the more he thought about it, the more it seemed that it really was as safe there as here. Not that either place was safe but, really, a stray round was as likely here as there.

Johan and Marie got back into position in time for the charge of the Polish hussars. Actually, it was the charge of the Saxon cavalry including a small contingent of Polish hussars. But Polish hussars are . . . extravagant. The wings on their horses are attention-getting. Johan took three pictures of the Saxon cavalry charge, all of them centered on the Polish hussars even though they were nowhere near the middle of the cavalry. They had missed the advance of the Count of Narnia’s flying artillery and wouldn’t have recognized it even if they had seen it. The sound of the volley guns came as a shock. The Saxon cavalry and the Polish hussars were still moving slowly when Johan and Marie heard the unusual sound and looked back at the USE Army.

There they were, fronted with white smoke but still quite visible from their angle. Johan snapped a shot centered on the horseman commanding the guns. Then another as the billowing smoke started to obscure them a little, adding an unreal, ghostly tinge to the scene. When he finally saw that picture he would be amazed because, by some trick of fate, the only truly clear bit of the image was Thorsten Engler pointing at the Polish hussars, surrounded by mist and shadowy volley guns. Johan turned back and snapped another shot of the hussars. That one would prove to be so blurred as to be useless.

They stayed at their little nest though the battle. They saw the infantry under Captain Jeff Higgins, the famous husband of the even more famous Gretchen Richter. But, though they took several pictures of the infantry firing, they never got a recognizable shot of Jeff. Which was a shame. It would have brought a pretty price. They got a couple of shots of the APCs bringing the Saxon cavalry to rout, and used up every bit of film Johan had left, but every picture of the APCs came out blurry. Two of them sold because the APCs were still recognizable, but they didn’t get paid nearly as much for them.

****

The battle was over. Johan and Marie had retreated back across the little creek and were talking about what they had seen, the horror and glory of a battle, when the soldiers arrived. The USE Army had left a part of its supply train to police up the battlefield. The wounded needed treatment. Dead bodies had to be buried, dropped equipment and supplies had to be collected. And in the process of doing that, troops that hadn’t had time to look for them during the battle, now saw them and wondered what they were doing there.

“Ahem.”

They spun.

“And what brings you folks to the battlefield?”

Pastor Althus explained their situation. The soldiers in USE uniform listened politely but took them into custody. Just in case.

“Well, Pastor, I think we can help you out. Considering you were going to Grantville anyway.”

That was how they ended up taking river barges upriver to the TacRail head and were given a free ride on TacRail from Penig to Gera. Where they caught a train to Jena and on to Grantville.

At least they let Pastor Althus ride on one of the wounded wagons. They were taken to Tollwitz, which took till after dark, even though it was high summer. The next day they were ferried across the Saale River to Wengelsdorf, where they caught the train for Grantville. All while under the eye of a polite young soldier whose job, as best Johan could tell, was to make sure they really were who they said they were.

****

“Well, all right, the houses are different,” Marie said. “The buildings don’t look as sturdy, though.”

Grantville was a bit of a disappointment in some ways. Marie had imagined tall buildings, gleaming metal, golden streets.

That wasn’t what she got. Instead, there were gray and black streets and, good grief, the place was crowded. There were some buildings that were tall, but not so tall as the cathedral in Dresden. And plain. Many of the buildings were hopelessly plain.

But the people were nice, mostly. The prices were outrageous, and they had no idea of where to stay. The Higgins Hotel was a bit intimidating.

“There it is,” Pastor Althus said. “The Abrabanel Bank. Just where we should go, as near as I can tell. They’re down-timers, just like us. Even if they are Jews.”

****

“That’s where I need to go,” Johan said. He pointed to the sign, which said Grantville Free Press, then to another that said Grantville Times. “I wonder if I can get a bidding war going?”

“Or at least get them to develop all the pictures,” Marie said. “Or sell some photos to each of them.”

It worked out very nicely, actually. Johan got a very nice price for the photos of the battle from both newspapers, since they could both have different photos. There was an article on the battle that discussed the tactics and along with the pictures they sold their eyewitness account. The Count of Narnia picture made the cover of the Free Press and a blown-up, blurry, and touched up picture of General Stearns and his staff made the cover of the Times.

****

The interior of the bank was about as plain as anywhere Marie had ever been. But it was sparkling clean, with polished wood desks and counters, as well as with some kind of floor covering she’d never seen. It wasn’t a rug, since it was too big. How would you ever take it out to beat it clean? Still, it was kind of pretty, with its grey and faded-purple swirls. And the glass walls were amazing. Everywhere she looked, people were sitting at desks behind glass walls.

“May I help you?” someone asked.

“We are here to discuss a problem,” Pastor Althus said. “And perhaps find a solution.”

“SFC or HFC?” the dark-haired man asked. “We can’t really help you with HFC. For that you’ll need to get in touch with Hardegg, Selfisch and Krapp. But we are buying out SFC, or so I’m told.”

It turned out that Pastor Althus didn’t really have to explain very much. The Abrabanel Bank was on top of it all and even had SFC’s records. There was one mismatch, but Pastor Althus was able to prove with the parish records that there wasn’t a Hermann Smittel living in their village. Just as well, since if he had been, the village would never have approved the purchase of a gold-cased pocket watch.

“Our terms are ten percent,” the clerk told them. “Compounded annually, of course. And you have several years to pay it off. Which gives you a smaller payment, yes. You will wind up paying more over the long run, but that’s only if you take all the time to pay off the loan. There’s no penalty for early payment.”

The Full Disclosure part of the contract was in print large enough for someone with the worst of middle-aged eyesight to read. And because the payments were so much lower, Pastor Althus felt that he could—very conservatively—request additional funds for additional tools. That, plus Johan’s windfall, would let them buy quite a bit.

****

“I visited the Grange Headquarters today,” Johan said. “After I went to the photography shop and bought more film. They suggested some new seeds for us to try. Soy beans, they called them. And some corn. Along with many others, but they claim that those two will sell particularly well. And I’ve got brochures and pamphlets. Lots of them.”

Pastor Althus nodded. “Good, good. And you, Marie?”

“Lots and lots of brochures and pamphlets,” she said. “Some more equipment, small stuff. And I did find a bargain on chicks for Herr Keller. They’ll be a real mess to transport, but he was very earnest about them. And besides, I like eggs, too.”

Lightweight carts for people visiting Grantville were common these days. So many people came and bought so much stuff that some enterprising soul had figured out a way to supplement his income by building them rapidly. He even bought them back, if the owner decided he didn’t need it.

****

“So, none of that zucchini today, right?” Papa muttered.

“No, dear,” Mama said. “You may not like it, but the pigs are getting fatter than ever. So stop complaining and eat your dinner.”

That sounded like good news to Joseph, because he loved pork sausage with lots of pepper.

Papa sniffed. He did that a lot these days, since Mama had started listening to Fanny Farmer. “What are those?” He pointed to the bright orange fruit that filled a small dish.

“I’m not sure,” Mama admitted. “I’m hoping that Marie brings more information about them. But you can pickle almost anything. So I did.”

“Go ahead, Papa,” Joseph said. Some of the Fanny Farmer recipes were really good, but some of them were yucky, like the squash which had almost no flavor. Still, Joseph liked trying new things. How else were you going to find out if something was good?

“I’m not sure I want to.”

Joseph tried to hide his snicker, but Papa saw it anyway.

Papa took a deep breath and picked up one of the little orange fruits. Joseph wondered what they would taste like. Carrots? They were orange, like the up-time carrots, after all. Joseph liked the carrots.

Aieeeee!

Joseph’s eyes widened as his father jumped out of his chair and danced around the room.

Aieeee!

Papa grabbed his mug and gulped down his beer. Then he reached over and grabbed Mama’s beer and gulped it down, too.

“Good heavens, Karl! What’s wrong?” Mama asked.

“What are those things!” he screeched. “I’ve never tasted anything so vile!”

Joseph was a bit worried, but really, really curious. How could something so pretty be bad? He took one of the fruits, and sniffed it. It smelled like pickles. With a shrug, he plopped it in his mouth and started chewing. Joseph’s mouth was filled with fire. But that was all right. At least it tasted better than the squash. He kept chewing, then swallowed.

He looked at Mama. “Mama, can I have some milk? These fruits are kind of hot.”

Papa sat back down, his eyes as big as the new dishes. “You like those!”

“Well, at least it’s not bland and mushy, like the squash.”

****

Pastor Althus, Johan and Marie were greeted like they were returning heroes. Which, in a way, they were.

Johan Keller was thrilled with the chicks, Greta figured out that the bright orange peppers were called habaneros (she’d already discovered that they were an acquired taste), and the cooks were pleased with the Grantville Extra Fine Sorghum Sugar that their travelers brought back.

It made the zucchini bread taste so much better.

****