March, 1626, Darmstadt, Germany
Nina Weiss watched the soldiers assemble in the Schlossplatz from a safe place behind her father’s crates and barrels. Not soldiers really, but boys, many of whom were not much older than she. Children playing at war, with their pikes and muskets and arrogant ways. She huffed and shook her head. Somewhere amidst that youthful rabble was her Stefan, cleanly shaven, fresh clothes, a bandoleer of powder charges across his chest, and his uncle’s old gun, the one that couldn’t shoot straight, strapped to his back. She squinted to see him better, but the light of early spring blocked her view. She pushed up on tip-toes, put her hand over her eyes, and craned her neck.
A strong arm grabbed her waist from behind and a powerful hand covered her mouth. She tried to scream as the assailant pulled her off her feet and pushed her against the side of her father’s shop. She struggled, but the weight of the man and the strength of his hold could not be broken. She kicked towards his crotch but only grazed the inside of his thigh.
“Ouch!” the man said, letting her go and pushing her away.
She turned. Before her stood the young man, a large mischievous smile across his face. Locks of light-brown hair fell out of a small dark cap fixed to his head. He smelled of blackpowder.
“You fool!” she said, beating his chest gently. “Don’t ever do that again.”
Stefan Thalberg pulled her close and they kissed, much longer than she expected in the light of day. Stefan was not one to show his affection in public. She did not resist, however, taking him close to feel his warmth one last time. He picked at the lacings on the front of her dress. She smacked his hand away. “No, no. You get no more of that,” she said, “until we’re married.”
Stefan pulled away and shook his head. “How will that happen? Your father doesn’t like me.”
“Well, can you blame him? What can the lowly son of a silversmith offer the daughter of a great merchant like my father?”
They both laughed, but the seriousness of the moment returned. “Don’t go, Stefan. You don’t have to go. No one is making you go.”
“I have to,” he said, straightening his shirt and bandoleer. “Wallenstein needs men.”
“Wallenstein is inexperienced. Mansfeld will destroy him.”
“My,” said Stefan, putting his fists on his hips, “don’t you know a lot today.”
“My father talks and I am capable of listening.”
Stefan grabbed her arms and pulled her close. “Yes, you are. So listen to me now, sweet. Wallenstein marches for God, and when this war is over, we must be on the right side of it. The winning side.”
Nina stared into Stefan’s deep brown eyes. There was a devout Catholic behind those eyes, though you would not know it to look at him. He seemed so secular, so simple in a way. His smooth skin, his pleasant eyes. Nina had fallen in love with those boyish eyes at first glance. But now they seemed more serious, adult, distant and anxious. Her father would never see what she saw in those eyes; he would never allow her to marry this Catholic boy . . . no matter what.
But it was too late for that now.
She pulled away and tried to hide the tears. “Then go. Go meet your friends and march off to Wallenstein.”
They stood there for a long moment, saying nothing. Then Stefan reached into his pocket and pulled out a small package. He held it to her. “I want you to have this.”
“What is it?” she asked, taking it from his hand.
“Something I made for you.”
She held it up to the light. It was a medallion, perfectly shaped and smooth, pure shining silver, with the image of Mary holding baby Jesus and looking at a cross in the sky. It was beautiful. She smiled. “Did you do the etching?”
Stefan looked embarrassed. “Well, no. I had Uncle help me with that. But I shaped and polished it for you. And I did the inscription on the back.” He reached for her hand and turned it over. “See what it says? Whenever you feel lonely or afraid, whenever you have doubt, I want you to look at that and remember me. That is my promise to you, and when I return, we will marry, no matter what your father or mine will say. I promise.”
He kissed her hands. They hugged and he kissed her forehead. “Goodbye,” he whispered, then turned and walked away.
Nina watched him go from the safety of her crates and barrels. He disappeared into the crowd of soldiers. “Goodbye, Stefan,” she said. “I will be waiting for you.” She reached down and held the medallion tightly against her belly.
“We will be waiting for you.”
August, 1635, Grantville
Ella Lou Rice sat quietly in her living room. She had removed her black veil and had finished the cup of tea that her son, Clyde, had given her. Now she was alone, while somewhere in the house, Clyde and his wife Bettina were saying thank you to the last well-wishers that had stopped by after John’s funeral. She smiled at the memory. It was a pleasant funeral, and all things considered, a reasonable one given the nature of their situation. Many World War II vets had attended, and one even blew “Taps,” though it sounded a bit flat. Someone had brought an American flag and had draped the coffin with it, then presented it to her in the standard fold. It had not been the planned funeral that she and her husband had discussed, but what could they do? The Ring of Fire had left few options.
The original plan had been to bury John at Arlington Cemetery, surrounded by his children, all six of them, with grandkids in tow. A twenty-one gun salute, while somewhere in the distance a trumpeter would blow the notes that would carry John’s sweet soul into the afterlife. But only Clyde had come through the Ring of Fire that day. Molly and her children were visiting her husband’s family in Michigan, and the rest were scattered from Kansas to Georgia. If Ella Lou believed in a God with any true vigor, she might have counted her blessings, giving thanks that most of her children had been left up-time in a more “civilized” environment. But as she studied an old portrait of her husband, one taken outside of Boston right before his deployment, she could feel nothing but anger and regret. She ran her fingers over his face and whispered, “You should have been buried with all your children there. Now they will never know what happened to their daddy.”
She felt the tears return and slammed the picture down on the coffee table. The tea cup rattled, dropped to the wooden floor, and shattered.
“Are you okay, Mama?” Clyde asked as he walked in.
Ella Lou raised her head, wiped her tears away, and nodded. She smiled at her son’s concerned expression. Clyde was a good boy, if not a little preoccupied with business most of the time. The Ring of Fire had affected him as much as it had his mother and father, though he rarely spoke of it. He was quiet and very professional. The sixth of the bunch, but he had always been the most serious of all of them, given over to entrepreneurial pursuits, or, as his father might say, “pipe dreams.” At the time of the event he had owned a storage business and had tried to maintain it, but around every corner, he saw another opportunity, another way to make money. He had gone into partnership with a down-timer from Jena and had given the management of the storage facility to him in order to pursue other, more lucrative, business ventures. Clyde was not rich, but he wasn’t poor either. I should at least be thankful for that, Ella Lou thought.
“I’m fine, Honcho,” she said, using Clyde ‘s nickname. “I just wish your brothers and sisters were here to say goodbye to your father. He would have liked that.”
Clyde nodded and scooped up the broken tea cup. “Yes.” He held up the pieces and smiled. “You’re rough on these cups, Mama. This is the third you’ve broken since we’ve been here.”
“The first wasn’t my fault,” she said. “It was that damned Ring of Fire that broke it. I was drinking tea at the time, and your father was napping. A big flash happened, and I thought I was having a heart attack. I dropped the cup and yelled to John. Once we realized that I wasn’t having an attack, we knew something bigger, something more serious, had happened. We didn’t realize what exactly had happened until many days later.”
Ella Lou rose slowly and walked over to a glass cabinet that contained a few porcelain frogs, a couple Hummel figurines, and a small cedar box. She opened the cabinet, took the box out, then returned to the couch. Clyde helped her sit down.
She placed the box onto the coffee table and opened it. On a small piece of velvet lay two medals. Ella Lou reached in and drew out John’s Purple Heart.
“We were terrified,” she continued. “We tried calling you all but couldn’t get through. The lines weren’t working. Then you showed up and we were glad you were safe, but we kept trying to call the others . . . with no luck, of course. John just paced back and forth all day, and with his arthritis no less. We thought maybe it was some kind of dream, that we’d wake up and everything would be back to normal. But weeks went by and it didn’t right itself, this so-called cosmic event that people were beginning to assign to divine providence.” Ella Lou huffed and shook her head. “Divine, my ass. No God in heaven—if there is one and I’m not so sure there is—would ever do such a terrible thing to His children. If there is a devil, this is his doing.”
Clyde laughed. “They don’t call it the Ring of Fire for nothing. But we can’t do anything about it, so we might as well—”
“I want to go home, Clyde !” Ella Lou said, interrupting her son. “I want to go home. I hate it here! I hate this goddamned place. We don’t belong here. We’re not German. We’re Americans, not United Europeans or whatever the hell they want to call us. I want to see my skies, my clouds, my stars. I want to watch CNN and go to the movies. I want—”
Clyde took her in his arms and rubbed her back gently. “I know, Mama, I know. I do too. But we’ve had this conversation before. We can’t go back. Whatever happened cannot be changed, at least as far as I can tell. This is Germany, 1635. We’ve been here three, four years now. So,” he said, pulling away from her and giving her a big, warm smile, “let’s not talk about it anymore. This is Pop’s day. Let’s talk about him.” He motioned to the Purple Heart in her hand. “Tell me how he got that.”
“I’ve told you before, haven’t I?” she asked, wiping away tears with her small, frail hand.
“Yes, but I like how you tell it. Dad always left out the gory parts.”
“Well, he lived it, and I suspect that that’s much different than hearing about it secondhand like I did. It was painful for him to talk about.” She sniffled and cleared her throat. “But he got this in 1944 during the Elsenborn Ridge battle. He said the Germans hit the ridgeline hard, but were thrown back in chaos. It was the only place along the entire line of attack in the Ardennes that held. He was very proud of that fact.”
“And how did he get that?” Clyde said, pointing to a silver medallion resting inside the box.
Ella Lou’s eyes lit up as she put the Purple Heart down and pulled out the medallion, running the red leather cord tied to it through her fingers. “Oh, this thing? You know exactly where he got this.”
Indeed he did, but it was a game they played. All the children played it. Every year on the vigil, their father would put it around his neck and wear it proudly, and the Rice kids would all say, “Where’d you get that, Daddy?” And he would tell them, his face beaming with delight, his eyes wet with tears. It was a great story, a painful story, and John Thomas Rice made sure his children heard it every year.
“He got this during that very same battle,” Ella Lou said. “It’s an old family heirloom.”
“How did he get it?”
Ella Lou leaned back on the couch and held it to her chest. She closed her eyes and told the story, as she remembered it, from her husband’s own words . . . .
December, 1944, near Wahlerscheid, Siegfried Line, Belgium-German Border
John Thomas Rice hated recon duty, especially in the frigid wind that now cut across his vision, blinding him in a bitterly cold white mist. Why he was out here was anyone’s guess. Hadn’t the 2nd Infantry Division cleared this area once already? But reports of heavy German movement near the Siegfried Line had spooked HQ, and Lieutenant Colonel McClernand Butler wanted a peek. The lieutenant colonel had reconstituted part of his own 395th Infantry Regiment, combined with elements from the 393rd, to form a new regimental combat team, and had loaned it out for special duty. The Second shits and the 395 scoops, was the saying among the men. Rice could not argue with that. He growled and spit into the rising snow.
“Spitting into the snow? Onto God’s green earth? For shame!”
Rice recognized the high-pitched, impetuously youthful voice. He smiled. “Stow it, Davis. We ain’t in Kansas anymore.”
“You know I’m not from Kansas,” Davis said in his best country boy drawl, picking up a handful of snow and casting it toward Rice. It scattered in the wind. “I’m from the greatest place in the world. Wild, and wonderful, West Virginia.”
Davis was no older than eighteen by Rice’s estimation. Perhaps even younger; it didn’t happen often, but once in a while a sixteen- or seventeen-year-old faked papers and got in. This West Virginia boy had the unmistakable exuberant immaturity of youth, coupled with a sense of faith that both impressed and annoyed Rice. He’d never been religious himself, and never intended to be. But it would be nice in times like this to give oneself up to some higher power, to not worry about what lay on the path tomorrow, or what lay beyond the tree line before them today.
What did lie beyond those trees? Rice did not know. The world was quiet, deathly so, and Rice would give anything in the world to be back in Höfen, bundled up in some foxhole, smoking a cigarette and drinking black, bitter coffee. The small German village was just a few miles behind them; not very far at all, but a world away in terms of safety. That’s what Davis did not understand. None of the young men around them had that much combat experience; their regiment had just recently been put into the field. But Rice was twenty going on twenty-one, and Davis was . . . not. A big difference there as well.
They reached a narrow road that wound its way through the woods. They stopped, went prone and held their rifles forward, watching the sparse tree line, a line that had already experienced heavy fighting, tree bursts, downed foliage, and abandoned bunkers. ” West Virginia, eh?” Rice said, keeping the mood light while he fumbled through his coat pocket for a smashed pack of Luckys. “Where from?”
Davis held his rifle forward, his hands bone white from the cold but his face brilliantly lit with the thought of home. “Oh, a great little town. Best of the bunch. Grant—”
“Quiet!” Sergeant Greene said, waving his hand down. “No talking!”
Rice shook his head, chagrined. Greene was a pain in the ass, but soon the wisdom of the order became clear.
The ground began to shake, lightly at first, like the impact trees might make in falling. Along the road, the snow danced and spread down the bank in tiny avalanches. Rice let the cigarette he had placed to his lips fall, unlit.
The quiet and cold air made the echo of German tanks ring loudly through the wood and down the winding path, but how many wasn’t clear. Rice tried to squint through the relentless snow, tried to pick out some motion, some flash of a barrel or the shaped hull of a Tiger or Panzer IV. It was a game the men played, trying to figure out the composition of the enemy armor by sound alone. He tried but could not make an accurate account.
“The Germans mustn’t be too happy with the ass kicking they got from the 2nd,” Davis whispered. “They’re sending a few tanks our way.” He said the last words as if here were disappointed, as if he wanted more. Poor young fool.
Rice nodded but wasn’t so sure. This wasn’t just a few tanks. This was many; more than he had ever heard before. And where there were tanks, there was infantry, Grenadiers, half-tracks, and artillery. He gripped his rifle tightly and tried to think of Ella Lou, his beautiful girlfriend.
The muffled boom of artillery filled the air, and Sergeant Greene screamed, “Back! Back! Take cover!”
The men were moving before the order was finished. Rice tucked his rifle close to his chest and rolled down the bank. He disappeared under the snow and felt the hard stomp of a boot on his shoulder as another man bolted for the tree line. He came out of the snow, shook his face clear and fell again, this time from the impact of young Davis against his back. Rice fell forward, further down the bank and under a pile of broken limbs. He paused. This might be a good place to hide, he considered. But no. The Germans were moving forward fast, too fast. Stay here and they’d be found and killed.
He pushed Davis away and got up. “Get off!”
“I’m sorry,” was all Davis could say, his face bleached with fear.
Rice grabbed him by the collar and pulled forward. “Stay with me.”
Through the artillery barrage, they ran. Trees burst apart as each strike pounded the space around them. It was foolish, really, to be running through the forest. It would be more sensible to stay in the open. Among the trees, an artillery barrage was far more deadly with nasty chunks of wood flying through the air. But surely somewhere nearby lay a vacant foxhole, an abandoned bunker in which to crawl. The Germans had held this line efficiently for a long time. Rice kept running and looking for cover.
Davis was about ten yards behind. Rice turned to tell him to get his ass on the move, but the boy stumbled on a root and planted his face square into the snowy mud and leaves. Despite the situation, Rice couldn’t help but smile. It’s not a winter wonderland anymore, is it, boy? You’re getting a real education now.
“Get up, you country bump—”
A shell burst behind Davis and blew him apart, scattering his body into a dozen bloody pieces. Rice screamed and fell away from the impact. The sting of hot shrapnel pierced his right arm and chest, cutting through layers of clothing and striking his neck as well. A wince of pain cut across his cheek. A warm trickle of blood ran down his face.
He panicked. He had promised himself when he had disembarked at Le Havre, France, that he would not do so, that he would keep his cool no matter the circumstances. But this was a far cry from the comfort of a transport ship, and he had never been struck in battle before, had never felt so much pain.
He ran, and ran, and ran. Was he going in the right direction, toward Höfen ? He could not say; he had changed course a couple times, trying to avoid the incessant shelling. He kept running and in time, the sound of the guns tapered off until they seemed leagues away. He stopped, his heart racing, his blood pounding in his ears.
He leaned against a tree. He panted heavily and looked left and right. Where were his men? Where was Sergeant Greene? Had they all died? Sweat filled his eyes and his neck felt wet and mushy. He reached in and drew his hand back. Blood, a lot of it. He squeezed his eyes shut and shook his head. I’m going to die . . . alone. He fought the urge to cry, stood upright and turned around the tree to run again.
And there they stood. Two of them: German soldiers dressed head to toe in winter camo, difficult to see even this close with the wind and snow and sweat in his eyes; forward observers, perhaps. Rice put up his rifle and pointed it at the closest, the one screaming, “Runter! Runter!” The man motioned down with his rifle, while the one behind trained a pistol at Rice’s chest.
Rice couldn’t understand the order, but the motion was clear. Slowly, he lowered his rifle and bent his knees as if he were going to sit down. Then he moved quickly, as he had been trained, bringing his rifle forward and pulling the trigger. The rifle kicked back against his shoulder, knocking him off balance, but the bullet hit the German square in the chest and put him down. One shot. One kill.
The other fired his pistol but missed, as Rice fell back into the snow. He put his hand down to keep from falling all the way. He pushed himself up and aimed his rifle again. This time, he spoke.
“Get down! Down, you fucking Kraut!”
He had never screamed so loudly in his life, had never felt such anger and fear. The German must have felt it too, for he dropped the pistol and fell to his knees, arms in the air. “Bitte nicht schießen!“
On weak legs, Rice moved forward until he was but a few feet from the man. No, not a man. A boy. He saw that now. A mere child, much younger than Davis. His small, red-chapped face peeking out from underneath a thick, padded helmet. His frail, tiny arms raised in the air, thin and girlish. On his knees he didn’t even come up to Rice’s waist. He was a boy.
But still a killer. And as Rice stood there, looking down at the boy, anger overtook his fear. He raised his rifle, aimed it carefully at the boy’s chest, and fired.
September, 1635, Grantville
Mary Jo Blackwell and Sandra Sue Prickett sat in Ella Lou Rice’s living room, sipping tea and sharing pleasantries. Ella Lou didn’t know these women very well, but they came highly recommended by the Grantville library. “They know their stuff,” the librarian told her. She would find out the truth of that soon enough.
“More tea?” she asked, holding up the teapot with mildly cold hands. A month after John’s death and the air already had a chill of autumn in it. Her old bones could not take the changing weather anymore, but she had opened the window a crack to oblige the hot-blooded youngsters sitting before her.
“Please,” Mary Jo said, holding up her cup.
Ella Lou poured then set the teapot down next to the heirloom. “Thank you both for coming.” She cleared her throat. “As you know, my husband John Thomas recently died. He was a veteran and served with distinction, being promoted to sergeant during World War Two, and then to Lieutenant afterwards.” She picked up the silver heirloom and ran her thumb gently over the worn image on its front. “He got this during the war.”
She handed it to Sandra Sue and both ladies studied it, turning it over and over to see the details. “It’s pretty old,” Sandra Sue said. “It looks like the image of the Virgin Mary, perhaps holding the baby Jesus.”
“Yes,” said Mary Jo, “and they’re looking at something in the sky. Perhaps a cross or the face of God? It’s hard to tell. Very religious, though. Catholic, maybe, or Lutheran. But we’re not antiquities experts, Mrs. Rice, so don’t take our word for the gospel. We’re genealogists.” Mary Jo laid it back down. “What exactly can we do for you?”
Ella Lou breathed deeply, then said, “Ladies, in case you hadn’t noticed, I’m quite old, and not long for this world. I’m trapped in this century against my will. I’ve tried to adjust. I’ve tried making friends with down-timers. Some have even moved in nearby and are very friendly. But this is not my world, not my place. My husband has died. Five of our children were left up-time. All that remains is my son Clyde and his wife, my memories, and this.” She picked up the heirloom and held it close. “Before I die, I want to honor the memory of my husband and the time that we had together. I want to make an altruistic gesture, as my son would say. I want to find the ancestors of the German soldier this heirloom belonged to . . . and give it back to them. Can you help me do that?”
There was a long pause as Mary Jo and Sandra Sue exchanged weary glances. Sandra Sue exhaled as if she has just finished off a good bowel movement. Mary Jo finished her tea in one gulp, crossed her legs, and said, “Well, Mrs. Rice. Ella? Can you tell us a little about this German soldier? What do you know about him and his family?”
Ella Lou placed the heirloom on the table and nodded. “I’ll tell you what I know.”
Oh, dear God, I’ve killed a child.
The thought raced through Rice’s muddled, confused mind. The shot echoed through the trees and put the German boy down. Yet, despite the ever growing clangor of approaching armor and enemy soldiers, he could not run. He had to know for sure.
Rice fell to his knees and crawled through the snow to the boy. He pulled the boy close, tugged at his thick clothing and ripped the white coat open at the chest. The bullet had gone clean through the coat, leaving a moldering black hole of torn and scorched fibers. Rice’s numb fingers clawed at the coat, tearing through it, seeking the place where the bullet hit.
He found it to the left of the heart, a neat wound, blood running down the boy’s pale white skin. Rice pushed aside a medallion that hung from a chain around the boy’s neck, whipped away the blood, and found the bullet lodged in a rib bone, just below the skin. He breathed relief. Not dead. Not yet, anyway. The boy moaned and tried moving. Rice held him still and cupped a hand over his mouth.
“Shut up! Don’t move.”
Gunfire erupted somewhere up ahead in the forest. Tank engines, yelling, screaming, orders barked in German. Rice thought he could see a line of figures moving towards them. He turned and looked the other way. Perhaps if he ran, he could outrun the advance. Perhaps . . . if he were lucky. But life had never dealt John Thomas Rice a winning hand. There was nowhere to go.
He grabbed the boy’s arm and dragged him toward a pile of brush and broken tree trunks. The boy winced in pain and yelled something indiscernible. Rice ignored him, fell back to his knees, and pushed his way underneath the debris.
Another push and they fell into the remains of an old foxhole, wet and muddy, stinking with shit. It stunk like death and dried blood too. Rice swallowed hard to hold down the nausea. He shook his head clear. There would be time later for getting sick, if he survived.
He pulled the boy in all the way and pressed his hand over his mouth. The boy’s eyes were open, wide with fear and pain. Rice looked into those eyes. This wasn’t a soldier, he thought. This was nothing more than a boy.
For the next several minutes, all he could hear was breathing, heavy with exhaustion, heavy with doubt and terror. Rice found that he was just as anxious as the boy; perhaps more so, for above them, line after line of German soldiers passed by. One slip of his hand and the boy would cry out, and he’d be dead. Rice realized he was pushing down on the boy’s mouth too tightly, pushing too hard against his nose. “Sorry,” he whispered. He loosened his grip.
The boy gasped for air but kept quiet.
The German soldiers filed away and all that remained were echoes of firefights and far-off artillery fire. Rice removed his hand and lay back. If the boy screamed, it would hardly matter, and he couldn’t very well keep his hand in place forever. Rice was behind enemy lines now; it was only a matter of time before he were found, killed, or died alone like whoever had died in this gross hole already.
“You speak English?” Rice asked.
“Ja,” the boy coughed. “A little.”
“Good, because I’ll be damned if I’m going to speak your language. I don’t know it too good anyway, and every word sounds like shouting. You got a knife?”
The boy coughed again, nodded, and motioned weakly at his boot.
Rice reached into the boot and found a small blade, nicely crafted, slim and sharp. He held it in the faint light bleeding through the dead canopy of leaves and branches above them. He recognized the markings: a swastika on the grip; a Reichszeugmeisterei inscription on a blade with no blood groove. He’d seen a knife like this once before.
The boy nodded slowly.
“I thought your unit was smashed at Normandy.”
“Ja, many dead. But not all.”
Rice huffed and shook his head. “I should kill you now, you brain-washed little fool. But I’ve already lost one boy today; I’ll be damned if I lose another, no matter what color your uniform is.”
Rice leaned over the boy and opened his coat. The bleeding was not as bad as before, but it was still flowing. “I’m not good at this kind of business, but you learn a thing or two about gunshot wounds in the Pennsylvania hills. I’ve got to get that bullet out now or you’re going to die. Do you understand?”
The boy nodded as his eyes closed. He was weak and getting weaker.
Rice reached into a pocket on the inside of his coat and pulled out a white handkerchief, nicely embroidered with tiny red and yellow flowers. He sighed. “I got this in France. I was going to give it to Ella Lou when I got back home, but I guess she won’t mind me using it to save a life.” He placed it near the wound and grabbed the boy’s hand and pressed it against the soft, silk fabric. “Now, you push down as hard as you can, grit your teeth, and try to think about something pleasant. This is going to hurt.”
As Rice began cutting an incision around the wound, he said, “I don’t understand how this bullet got lodged like this. At the range I fired, it should have torn right through your chest like it did your partner.” Rice shook his head. “I don’t know . . . must have had a bad ammo load. That’s happened to me before. You’re one lucky little sot.”
The boy gritted his teeth against the pain. “Ja, maybe.” He reached feebly for his chest and grabbed the medallion that lay there. He held it forward with thumb and index finger. “But this helped.”
Rice stopped cutting and took the medallion. It lay somewhere between the size of a silver dollar pancake and a silver dollar. An heirloom of some kind, maybe, tarnished and worn in many places. He squinted to try to make out the pattern on the front of it: some religious symbol with a cross and the faint outline of a face. He turned it over and saw what the boy was talking about.
The bullet had hit it near the bottom, chipping away a piece and leaving a gash that cut through some phrase that had been etched into it years ago. Rice tried to make out what was left of the words, but he could only discern Ich.
“I . . . what?” Rice asked. “What did the rest of it say?”
The boy did not answer. He had passed out.
The Black Dragons roared all night.
Rice heard the distinctive sound of the American 240mm heavy artillery, and it was music to his ears; that is, until some of the shells strayed into their area and rocked the ground below them. Rice did everything he could not to scream. Mighty flashes of heat and light broke through the lattice-work of tree limbs that covered their foxhole. Rice shook with fear, but held himself close to the boy, giving him as much warmth as possible. He had covered them both with a thin blanket he had pulled from his pack and had even piled up old, dried leaves over their legs for extra protection against the night freeze.
The boy lay at his side, moaning quietly, feverish and fitful, but alive. The bullet had come out easier than expected, and Ella Lou’s handkerchief, which he had placed tightly against the wound with the aid of a bandage from his med-kit, had stopped the blood. Nothing now but uninterrupted sleep could do the rest. Rice had checked the pockets of the boy’s coat for anything else: matches, a flashlight, an extra blanket, a morphine syrette, food. Nothing. The boy didn’t even have a satchel. His commander had put him in the field with nothing more than a coat, a gun, and a knife. Rice huffed. This war was over; the Germans just didn’t know it yet.
The next morning the boy awoke and was hungry. Rice gave him some rations. He gave him a drink from his canteen too, then checked the wound. The area around the broken rib was red, raw, swollen, but for the most part clean. “I think you’ll live,” he said, lying back. He winced. The shrapnel bits in his neck were beginning to hurt badly. The blood had stopped, but the skin was tender and smelled awful.
“Would you like my blade?” The boy said, holding up his youth knife. “You have something in your neck. It looks infected.”
Cautiously, Rice took the knife and wiped it against his pant leg. “What do you know about it?”
“My grandfather was a surgeon in the Great War.”
“Hm. My grandfather was a pig farmer from Ohio.”
Rice pushed against one of the larger pieces lodged in his neck. He then placed the knife blade beneath it and yanked quickly. The piece burst through the skin and flew out. He pushed the collar of his coat against the blood and said, “What’s your name, boy?”
“Oswin, sir. Oswin Bauer.”
“John Thomas Rice. Don’t call me sir. I’m a private like you, and not much older I guess. How old are you anyway?”
Jesus! “Well, Oswin, when you get back home, you can tell your family and friends that you bested an American, left him for dead in a foxhole. You can embellish the story if you like. I won’t tell.”
That got a smile from the boy. “Thank you, sir—I mean, John. But I don’t have friends or family anymore. They are dead.”
“What do you mean? Where are you from?”
Rice shook his head. “Don’t know it. Is it close?”
Oswin nodded. “It is not too far away, I suppose, but it is gone now. British bombers set a fire in it. A fire that would not stop. It destroyed almost everything. My mother, father, my little brother. All are dead.”
Rice had heard of this kind of bombing. First, incendiaries were dropped around the city. Then, high explosives were released, which ignited the incendiaries and created a self-sustaining fireball that grew and grew as winds were sucked in to feed the flames. It was a terrible, brutal way to wage war, and rumor had it that more of these kinds of attacks were coming.
Oswin stopped talking and turned his head away.
From his coat pocket, Rice pulled a black-and-white wallet sized picture of a girl. He smiled and ran his fingers across her bright face, trying to remember the color of the dress she had on. Red? Green? It hardly mattered. She looked good in anything.
“Is that your wife, sir?”
Rice ignored the “sir” and shook his head. “No, but I’d like her to be. I promised myself that when . . . if . . . I returned, I’d propose. But she’s young. Not much older than you. Her father doesn’t approve.” He laughed. “He doesn’t like me very much, and frankly, I’m not sure she likes me all that much either.”
Oswin clutched the heirloom tightly. “My mother used to say that love is like the weather. There are many rainy days, and sometimes winds blow so strong that you can’t stand it anymore. But you put your head forward and push through, and eventually, you will find the sunlight.”
Rice picked another fragment from his neck. He gritted his teeth and hissed. That one stung. “She sounds like a smart lady. Did she give you that thing?” he asked, motioning to the heirloom.
“Ja. She got it from my grandfather. He used to wear it during his surgeries. He said it brought him good luck. He got it from his father, who got it from his mother. They say it’s over three hundred years old.”
Rice chuckled. “And you believe that?”
“Why shouldn’t I?”
He picked another shard from his neck, wiped the wound clean and handed the knife back to Oswin. “Son, I hate to tell you this, but it’s probably not that old. More likely than not your grandfather, or his father, got it from some shop second hand. I’m not even sure it’s real silver.”
At those words, Oswin seemed to deflate. He dropped the heirloom and lay back. Rice saw the hurt in the boy’s face and immediately regretted the words. Damn, my stupid mouth! But it was his mother’s fault that he was like this. She never filled his mind with romantic notions of love and perseverance. She never had any family trinkets passed down from his grandfather, no good luck charms given to him from his father, a man who drank too much and got himself killed in a card game. No, Mama Rice spent her idle time trying to figure out how to keep a family alive during a depression. She worried herself to death over it. Love was the furthest thing from her mind.
Rice rubbed his face, cleared his throat, and said, “Okay, then, tell me about this heirloom. Tell me about your family.”
The boy sat up slowly, still in pain, but the hurt was gone from his face. He began to talk, and as he did so, Rice laid his head back. Oswin’s voice soothed him and he thought of home, of Pennsylvania, of his mother and his sisters, and of Ella Lou in the soft green dress. Soft red dress. I promise, sweet girl, when I return, I will ask. I promise.
He closed his eyes and slept.
September, 1635, Grantville
Ella Lou paused to let the ladies absorb what she had told them. They sat there, blank-faced, mouths opened slightly as if she had just sung them a dirty limerick. She smiled, proud of herself, proud of her good memory. John had told her everything, and more than once. Surely, with these details, they’d be able to help her. They must.
“Well, what do you think?”
They did not speak for a few moments, then Sandra Sue cleared her throat and said, “That’s quite a story, Ella. I can’t imagine being in such a terrible situation. Your husband is to be commended for his honorable service.” She shot a glance at Mary Jo. “But, I have to be honest with you. Good genealogy requires good and obtainable records. Birth and death certificates, census data, marriage licenses, diaries, even criminal records. Do you have anything else from this German boy? Any further details?”
Ella felt her heart sink. “No, I’m afraid not.”
“Then I’m sorry to say that it will be impossible to find this boy’s ancestors.”
“Why? Can’t you people trace lineage through oral histories, stories?”
Mary Jo nodded. “Yes, and if we were still up-time, we’d probably be able to do it. But in this alternate timeline that we live in, Ella, we are missing the intervening centuries. They haven’t happened yet. Your story took us back to about 1850, give or take, before your husband passed out, and apparently the heirloom was handed down from father to daughter, daughter to son, son to son, and so on. I didn’t quite catch all of the surnames you mentioned, but there were many. Based upon what you told us, we can’t be sure at all that it’s as old as the boy claims. But even assuming that it is, there’s been so much displacement from wars and famine and sickness—the wars going on right now, the time of Fredrick the Great, Napoleon—there is no research material, no body of evidence, that we can build upon. I’m . . . I’m sorry, Ella. It’s not possible.”
Ella crossed her arms and tried to look away. She was angry, but not at Mary or Sandra. It wasn’t their fault. It was the fault of a foolish old bat who should have known better. How could they possibly help her with such slim details? She should have thought it through better, should have consulted Clyde first. She was making a rash decision based on emotion. She needed the cold practicality of her son, the calm calculations of her husband. Oftentimes, those qualities in her men were maddening, giving her no small amount of grief. But what she needed now was her children to help her through this. She needed her family.
She laid the heirloom down and stood slowly. “Well, thank you both for coming. I appreciate your time.”
She walked them to the door. As she opened the door, Mary Jo said, “Ella, didn’t you say that the boy was from Darmstadt ?”
“Yes, that’s what he said.”
“Well, Darmstadt is just south of Frankfurt am Main. It’s not that far from here. You could, I suppose, give the heirloom back to the town. You know, as an altruistic gesture, like your son says.”
Was it possible? Would it be the same? Ella Lou wondered. No, it wouldn’t be the same, but it would be something. Honoring the town, and its citizens, for the service of one of its own, even if that person did not exist yet. Owsin Bauer was a phantom in this timeline, a non-person, a figment of the wild imagination of some up-time witch. But the gesture didn’t have to be a big, elaborate affair. It could be a small presentation, a few people, perhaps only the Burgermeister, a council member or two, nothing fancy. Just the way John would have preferred.
Yes, I will give the heirloom to Darmstadt, she thought as she bid them goodbye and returned to her tea. That would be a nice thing to do.
October, 1635, Grantville
Three weeks later, Ella Lou greeted her son at the door when he arrived on a Sunday afternoon for their weekly checkers match. “Good afternoon, Mother,” he said as he bent down to hug her. She pulled away, angry and agitated.
“What is this?” she asked, holding up a piece of paper with a broken wax seal.
Clyde smiled. “Ah, you got it. I was hoping you wouldn’t open it until I arrived.” He reached for it. “Here, give it to me. I’ll read it to you.”
“Don’t bother, Honcho. I had a neighbor translate it for me. What have you done?”
He shrugged and put up his hands in surprise. “Nothing. What are you talking about? I just did a little prep work before we leave for Darmstadt on Wednesday.”
“Prep work? You’ve told the whole goddamned world about this.”
Clyde shook his head. “No, I haven’t. I just contacted Jason Waters in Frankfurt am Main and had him post a little announcement in the newspapers around there. And I had Rolf contact a few of his merchant buddies in Darmstadt. Word just got around a little. It’s no big deal.”
“No big deal? Clyde, I wanted a small affair. Maybe just the Burgermeister, perhaps his wife if he has one. I just wanted to drop by his office, or wherever it is these people do their business, and give it to them.”
Ella Lou could hear the frustration growing in her son’s voice, but she didn’t care. He had disobeyed her instructions.
Clyde took a deep breath, then exhaled slowly. “You can’t just waltz into town and say, ‘Here I am, look at me, I have a present for you.’ No, you have to plan for it, make appointments. Yes, we are exotic up-timers and these Germans will stop whatever it is they’re doing to look at us, but as far as that goes, we’re just commoners like most everyone else. We had to tell them we were coming.”
“Okay, fair enough. But you’ve taken it too far, Clyde. Look here,” she said, holding up the letter with clenched fists, “you have the entire town council attending, and the Landgrave, this George II. The Landgrave! And it’s going to be a public presentation in their . . . Schlossplatz?”
“Yes, their market square. Rolf tells me it’s a lovely place. Very spacious. It should be a great day, assuming it doesn’t rain.”
Ella Lou shook her head. “That’s what this is all about, isn’t it? A business venture. What are you going to do when we get there? Hand out business cards? How about t-shirts saying, ‘I saw a wild West Virginian’? Or perhaps mugs with a picture of the heirloom saying, ‘I survived Elsenborn Ridge’? Or—”
“Stop it, Mama! I don’t appreciate the accusation. You’re the one who wanted to do this. And he’s my father, don’t forget. I have a right to see that his memory is respected just as much as you.”
“Yes, he was your father, but he was my husband. My husband!”
Crying, she turned her back to her son and stumbled into the living room. There, she fell into one of the chairs that she had set up for their game, and placed her hands on the table. She sniffled. “He was my husband, and I wanted to do this my way.”
There was a long silence. Ella Lou could feel her son’s eyes upon her back, angry eyes that had every right to be so, she knew. Clyde was right: it wasn’t fair for her to sling accusations at him. She had asked him to look into the travel arrangements, had asked that he contact the government there in Darmstadt. She just didn’t realize that he would go further than that. She should have known, though. Clyde was a business man: dot your i’s and cross your t’s. Leave no stone unturned. But . . . “I’m no good at public speaking,” she said, rubbing her face. “I’ll get nervous. I’ll slur my words. I’m not smart like you, Clyde. I didn’t even finish high school, and I don’t know German at all. They’ll laugh at me. They’ll think I’m some old country bumpkin who—”
“Nonsense.” Clyde put his hand upon her back and began to rub gently. “You’re a wonderful speaker, mom. What about that time when you took to the picket line in Dad’s union dispute? I remember you giving the company serious hell. And what about your work in the PTA when we were kids? There were many times when you got up and spoke your mind, and not from a prepared speech either.”
Ella Lou shook her head. “Those days are long, long gone.”
“The days are, Mother, but not the woman.” Clyde took his seat and grabbed her hands. He held them firmly. “You can do this. I know you can. I’ll prepare a speech for you—your words—not mine. And I’ll be there if you stumble. We’ll do this together. Okay?”
What could she say? She could refuse, cancel the whole thing. But if she didn’t do it now, when? Winter was coming, and she wasn’t about to go traipsing through the German countryside in a wagon and be stuck in the mud or snow in the deep freeze. So, if not now, they’d have to wait for next year. And would next year even come? Behind her son’s hopeful remarks, Ella Lou could see concern. He’d just lost his father; would his mother be far behind? He wanted, he needed, closure on this matter just as much as she. It was not right of her to deprive him of the last good memories of his father.
“Okay, Clyde,” she said, wiping off her face, “we’ll do this your way. But I swear, if I mess up, I’m going to beat you around the head and neck until you scream.”
Clyde nodded and smiled. “Good, but not before I get to beat you in checkers.” He got up and went for the board. “And while I’m doing it, continue your story about dad.”
As Clyde set up the board, she began . . . .
The world exploded around them. A full-scale retreat was in progress. Rice could tell from the wave of German soldiers pounding the ground above them, running back in the direction they had come, their voices so close that he could make out some words. Whatever gains the initial assault had accomplished were now crushed, as he kept his head low and prayed that some stupid Kraut did not step right on top of them. Oswin had tried to cry out, but Rice held his hand strong against the boy’s mouth. Oswin wanted to leave and he was certainly capable of doing so. His wound had improved considerably in the last two days. Not so Rice. He had dug out the shrapnel from his neck, but his right arm was swollen from the deep cuts there, and he was having trouble breathing. His rations were gone, his canteen was empty. It was all he could do just to keep the boy quiet.
Then the motion stopped above them, and the canopy moved a little. Rice could hear German voices, whispering. He heard a boot scrape against a thick tree limb. Loosened snow fell on top of them as branches were moved. Oswin struggled against Rice’s hand. The boy was stronger than he looked. Rice tried to keep Oswin from moving, but before he could react, the boy’s knife was at his throat. He tried to struggle against it, but his arm hurt too much, his heart raced too fast. He just didn’t have the strength to fight.
The boy pressed his lips against Rice’s ear and said, “Please . . . Herr Rice. Be quiet, and trust me. You saved my life. Let me save yours. Ja?“
Oswin raised his head toward the canopy and said, “Heil Hitler!“
The bolt action on a Mauser K98 locked in place. “Wer da? Nennen Sie Ihren Namen!“
Rice could understand little of their conversation. His head was stuffy and light, words blurred into words, and they spoke at such a pace that even if he wanted to, there was no way he could keep up. The German soldiers above the foxhole asked a couple questions; that much, Rice could infer by tone and inflection, and Oswin answered with his name, rank and unit. The Germans asked another question and Oswin replied, “Nein! Nein!” An order was barked, and the boy replied, “Jawoll, Herr Hauptmann!” And that was all.
Oswin returned the knife to his boot then grabbed the heirloom and pulled it from his neck, letting the chain snap and fall away. He placed it in Rice’s hand and whispered, “I want you to have this, John. I have no family anymore, and I never will again. I have sworn to defend mien Fuhrer. When he dies, I die. You take it and give it to your Ella Lou when you get back home. Share it with your family. Ja?“
Rice tried to refuse, but before he could open his mouth, the boy was gone.
“Wait,” Rice said, rubbing the place on the heirloom where the bullet had cut out the words. “What—what does it say?”
But no answer came. Only the sound of artillery, gunfire, and desperate, dying men filled his troubled mind throughout that long, dangerous night.
October, 1635, Darmstadt
“A few hours later,” Ella Lou said as they neared Darmstadt, “some GI’s found him, all cuddled up in that thin blanket, half buried, half dead. They rushed him back to Höfen just in time. Another hour and he would have died. They tried taking the heirloom from him, he claims, but he wouldn’t let it go. He clutched it so tight, his fingers bled.” She laughed. “That sounds like your father . . . a dog with a bone.”
They sat in the wagon while Clyde ‘s business partner, Rolf, drove. There was concern about their safety as they made their way across the USE. With the announcement that Clyde had put in the newspaper and his description of the artifact therein, what thief wouldn’t want to get his hands on a trinket from the past, or rather, the future, especially one of pure silver? Rolf had brought his two sons along to ride horses in support, and Clyde had gotten out his father’s old.45 and 10-Gauge just in case. Clyde had also commissioned the USE for assistance, perhaps a gun or two as well to tag along, but with the recent events surrounding Henry Dreeson and the Huguenots, they politely declined. The government’s time, resources, and attention were elsewhere these days. There was no official support from Piazza’s office on this one.
“Did Dad ever try to find the boy,” Clyde asked, “you know, after the war?”
Ella Lou nodded. “He thought about it a lot. The boy had told him that he would die if Hitler died, but you know how boys can talk, especially under brainwashing. He didn’t believe that bull for a second. Yeah, he wanted to find him, and even once looked into travel to Germany, but life kept getting in the way. You kids starting coming and then we moved to Grantville shortly after you were born. Time slipped by.”
“Why did we move to Grantville?” Clyde asked, gathering up his pistol and the small wooden box that contained the heirloom. They were approaching the entrance to the city. “I mean, we had no family there at the time.”
“Well, after work dried up in Harrisburg, your father got this wild hair to move to West Virginia. That boy, Davis, the one he saw being ripped apart by German artillery, would go on and on about how wonderful it was, how beautiful and majestic. He was from Grantville, and so when the chance came, we moved. One of those altruistic gestures you talk about.”
Clyde got up and moved to peek out the front of the wagon. Ella Lou did the same, holding onto her son’s arm. Before them, Darmstadt lay. It was a beautiful place, she had to admit, similar to Frankfurt am Main, but even more pleasant in her eyes. Her heart leapt into her throat. She felt a little dizzy, her stomach queasy at the thought that soon, she would be facing people she did not know, people that did not know her. And how would they greet her? Would they be kind and gentle? Would they open their arms and accept this lady from the future? Would anyone come at all? Were they as upset at the arrival of these Americans, these West Virginians, as she was in coming through the Ring of Fire?
There was ample evidence that with the formation of the USE, the lives of Germans within its borders had improved; or, at least, stabilized a great deal. But would that last? Human nature being what it was, Ella Lou did not think so. And how would they take a story about their lovely city being ravaged by RAF bombers, even if it hadn’t happened yet, and even if it never happened. Ella Lou had not finished high school, but she was smart enough to understand the concept of an alternate timeline. Just because such terrible things had happened in her time, in her world, did not mean that it would happen here. The Ring of Fire had changed everything. Everything, of course, but human nature. And would the kind citizens of Darmstadt greet her as a positive sign of things to come, or a reminder that in all things, life is chaotic and uncertain?
“Are you ready, Mother?”
Ella Lou breathed deeply and shook her head.
It turned out to be a pleasant experience, all things considered. The Landgrave, George II, a seemingly bright young man in his early thirties, presented himself with much fanfare and celebrity, accompanied by his wife Sophia Eleonore of Saxony. They were also accompanied by their small children and various council members and important personages as could be imagined attending such an event. Though Ella Lou could not fully understand the speech that George II gave to introduce and welcome her and Clyde to Darmstadt, Rolf translated for them. The Landgrave spoke eloquently about his appreciation for the USE and the Americans, and how they had helped stabilize the political situation. He also wished for continued prosperity between himself and the USE. He also took this opportunity to take a not so subtle jab at Hesse-Kassel. Apparently, no love was lost between these two states over some dispute with an inheritance line pertaining to Hesse-Marburg. Ella Lou shook her head. This was the kind of thing she wanted to avoid, and what Clyde, with all his savvy and intelligence, could not understand. All he saw were dollar signs; the bigger the event, the greater the circus, the better the profits and exposure. All she wanted to do was to honor the memory of the boy who had saved her husband’s life and be done with it. Now, local politics had been attached to her gesture. And what would become of that in the days and months to follow?
Then she got up to speak to a handsome round of applause from those who chose to attend. The Schlossplatz was quite crowded, despite the cool day, and the hastily constructed podium in its center gave her weak eyes a good view of the crowd. The heirloom itself had been hung from a nail on the front of the podium, and all those who wished could come up and look at it as she spoke.
From a speech that Clyde and Rolf had prepared for her, she told them the story of her husband and how he had met Oswin Bauer, a distant son of Darmstadt, near the small town of Höfen. She told them about how this young boy, though misguided in his politics, had put aside his ideology and had given John his family’s heirloom to hold and cherish and to share with his family. She told them too of their experiences during the Ring of Fire and how John had finally passed away, and how he had always wanted to give the heirloom back to the boy, but time and distance had kept them from meeting again. But now that the opportunity was afforded her, she, Ella Lou Rice, would give it back to the town that had given the world a boy, a man, who would one day meet her John Thomas and help him return home safely, and to one day, give her the best years of her life.
She told them all this and more, and when she was done, she thanked them by bowing low and blowing them a kiss. They treated her fondness in kind, applauding and cheering as she was escorted away from the podium by her son.
“You did good, Mama,” Clyde said, helping her into a jacket. “Dad would have been proud.”
She rubbed her cold arms. “I hope so. I did the best I could.”
He kissed her forehead. “You were wonderful, just wonderful. Now, let’s go find something to eat and—”
The voice was so small that Ella Lou hardly heard it over the bustle of people. The voice spoke again and she turned to see a thin girl standing there in a simple white and brown frock, holding the hand of a young boy, no older than nine or ten perhaps, his head a shock of curly brown hair.
“Yes?” Ella Lou said, looking to Rolf for help in translation.
The girl smiled, curtsied, and said, “Frau Rice, my name is Nina Weiss.” She held up a piece of paper. “I read your announcement in the newspaper. The description of the medallion was so vivid, so specific, that I had to come and see.”
“See what?” Clyde asked.
The girl motioned to the boy. “This is Stefan, my son. I named him after his father who died in Wallenstein’s army near Dessau. Before he left, though, he gave me a promise. Go ahead, Stefan, show the lady.”
Stefan nodded and opened his shirt. He reached in and pulled out a perfectly round medallion, hanging from a piece of rope and shining in the bright sun.
Ella Lou fell to her knees and took the medallion in her shaking hand. ” Clyde,” she said, with quivering lip. “Go get the other one, please.”
Clyde returned with the other and handed it to her. He knelt down beside her and they looked at the medallions side by side. Ella Lou’s hands shook as she ran her fingers over the old, worn etching of the one John had given her, but it was clear that the lines matched the one in her other hand. Mary the Blessed Virgin, holding her son Jesus, looking into the sky at a bright, glowing cross. This is it, she thought, her eyes filling with tears. This is the one. But was it truly? What was on the other side? What did it say? She was afraid to turn them over, for if the words, the phrase, that the bullet had rubbed out was not on the other one, then it would be another disappointment, another failure. She closed her eyes and prayed.
She flipped them over.
“Stefan had etched a promise on the back of it,” Nina Weiss said. “I told my son that if those same words were on your medallion, it would mean that his father had kept that promise, at least in some small way. Is that promise on your medallion, Frau Rice?”
Ella Lou opened her eyes. At the bottom of the heirloom, where the bullet had struck, the word Ich lay. On the other one, in the same place, was the full promise.
Ella Lou held it up to her son. “What does it say, Clyde ?”
“Ich werde zurückkehren,” he said. “I will return.”
Ella Lou could not contain her tears anymore. She let them flow, and as she placed both medallions around little Stefan’s neck, she smiled through those tears, took the boy in her arms, and hugged him tightly. “Yes,” she said, “it does. Your father has kept his promise, Stefan. He has come home . . . and so have I.”