April, 1635, Western Pomerania

Joe Plotz could barely hear himself think over the hissing and honking of the geese in the pen before him. It was the loudest and most bellicose display he had ever heard, and he was pleased. Back up-time in West Virginia, his grandfather searched for years for birds like this, but American breeding practices had created a so-called “saddleback” version of white or grey or both. Decent birds, certainly, but not like these: pure stock, perhaps three or four generations from the classic Greylag. These were true Pomeranians. What luck that Grantville had been thrust back in time! He chuckled to himself at that notion. It was the kind of luck he could have lived without, but while he was here, why not make the best of it? And it didn’t hurt to stick it to his sorry son-of-a-bitch grandfather either”¦ the Lord rest his soul. Joe looked down at the geese as they spread their wings angrily, jutting their heart-shaped breasts defiantly forward. In their beautifully bright blue eyes and pink red bills, Joe Plotz saw dollar signs.

“These are the best I’ve seen today, Herr Plotz,” Hermann Schurz said quietly. “Lots of them too.”

Joe winced at Hermann’s foul breath. The down-timer was a good old boy who had moved next to Joe’s farm in Grantville and helped out from time to time. He didn’t have many teeth and didn’t practice effective oral hygiene. But he could speak the language, and he wasn’t above a little deception to make a few bucks. He was pretty good with a shovel, and a gun, as well.

Joe nodded, cleared his throat and began as Hermann translated. “This is a sorry lot, I must say. Not much definition in their chests. Thin musculature. Inconsistent plumage. And look at that one: it’s got knobs at the base of its bill. That’s a clear sign of poor breeding. What are you trying to pull, sir?”

He waited for Hermann to finish speaking and then listened to the farmer as his eyes grew as large as goose eggs at the affront.

Hermann spoke. “He resents the implication that his stock is poor. He says that this is the breeding stock that he’s had for years and that if you don’t like them, you can—.”

“Yeah, yeah, yeah,” Joe said, waving his hand, “I can shove it up my ass. I’ve heard it all before. Tell him I’ll give him ten guilders for the whole pen. And I’m being generous for taking the knobby-billed one off his hands.”

Hermann spoke with the farmer, then turned and said, “He wants twenty.”

Joe laughed and shook his head. “You’ve got nerve, buddy, you really do. But there ain’t no sum-bitch in this timeline or my own that would put down that much for these rotten carcasses.” Joe grabbed Hermann by the shoulder and proceeded to walk away. “Let’s go. This guy’s more interested in cracking wise than doing business. We’ve got plenty of other places to go, and we can—”

He saw the cage out of the corner of his eye. He blinked and looked again. The noise and display of the others must have kept him from noticing it before, but now that he saw it, nothing else seemed to matter. He jumped the fence and went to it. It was rather inhospitable to come onto a man’s property without permission, but who cared? Hermann had a sidearm. Let the farmer make a move. Joe did not care. All he cared about was getting a better look at the one in the cage.

It was the biggest and most beautiful gander he had ever seen. Perfect eyes and bill. Perfect distribution of feather color and thickness. Almost twice the size of any of the others. Joe stuck his face near the cage, and it hissed at him, long and deep, its wings ready to extend. Joe reached his hand between the slats and imagined his fingers curled around the bird’s prominent, powerful neck. It would take two hands to break that neck.

The gander struck out, nipping hard at the exposed fingers. Joe pulled his hand back in pain. He stuck his bloody finger into his mouth.

Perfect.

“I’ll give him fifteen,” he said. “And that includes this one.”

Hermann had a lengthy conversation with the farmer. “I’m sorry, Herr Plotz,” he said finally, “but that one is not for sale. That’s why it’s separate from the rest. That’s his main breeding gander. It’s been in the family for twenty years, and his children are quite fond of it. He can’t sell you his entire stock, you understand, for he’d have nothing to replenish what he sells.”

Joe stood up, still sucking his sore finger. He stamped his foot. “Seventeen! For the entire pen, this one, and a half sack of meal for the trip home. Seventeen, and that’s my final offer.”

He stared at the farmer, his own deep blue eyes piercing through the gruff and scarred face of the man as he considered Joe’s offer. Joe gritted his teeth harshly as he waited.

He could kick himself for such a price, but what choice did he have? There were no other farms to visit today. There were no other farms at all that Hermann knew of, and Joe knew nothing about Pomerania. This was it. If this didn’t work, everything would be lost. Last year’s crops had had a poor yield, and the bootlegging business was less than successful. His wife Margaretha had wondered aloud where their savings had gone. He wasn’t about to tell her the truth of booze and whores and bear-baiting pits near Magdeburg on his and Hermann’s last “business” trip. She was a decent woman and so were their two little girls. But his wife wanted another, and hopefully this time it would be a boy. They needed the money and now. What other choice did he have?

The farmer agreed.

They loaded the geese into cages in the back of their wagon. The farmer let them keep his prized gander in the same cage. Joe loaded it onto the back of the wagon and then paid out the agreed money. They shook hands, and Joe climbed into the back of the wagon and secured the cages with an old piece of blue plastic covering and bungee cord. Hermann got the horses moving and guided them through the farmer’s front gate and down the road.

The geese were still giving Joe the business as they rolled out of view of the farm. He poked around the cages until he found the knobby-billed one, opened the cage, and grabbed it tightly around the neck. It gave out a nasty hiss. Joe squeezed the bird tightly against his side, clamped the bill shut, and plopped down beside Hermann.

“Wouldn’t it be better, Herr Plotz, to just sell these birds to people in Grantville? You know, as cooking birds for stews or something. People might buy them for their eggs also. You’d wind up getting a nice profit from it.”

Joe squeezed the bird tightly and shook his head. “I don’t want just a nice profit, Hermann, I want big money. Real spending money. And with these birds, I’ll get it.”

“Are you sure it’s legal, Herr Plotz?”

“Legal? This isn’t America of the twentieth century, Hermann. This is Germany, 1635. The rules are different. Besides, what I’m planning will be the biggest thing to hit Grantville since the Ring of Fire itself. People will go mad for it, and if we play our cards right, it might be an annual thing.”

“Can you tell me again what we’re going to do? I don’t understand what you mean to do with these birds.”

Hermann was a fine fellow, but a little loose with his tongue. It would not do to give him too much information until they were back in Grantville and everything was in place. Joe tightened his grip around the bird’s neck. “Don’t worry about that, Hermann,” he said, closing his fist in full and giving a good yank. He heard the snap of the neck and waited until the bird’s thrashing stopped. “Trust me. I know what I’m doing.”

Joe Plotz let the dead goose fall between them. He smiled and winked as he rubbed the soft chest of the dead bird. “You just find us a nice place to stop for the evening. Then get your plucking gloves on. Tonight, we eat like kings.”

May, 1635, Grantville

Joy Valencia caught Elmar Keller staring at her again. When he noticed that she noticed, he turned away quickly and continued the conversation he was having with her husband, Clayton Harr. Clayton and Elmar were good friends, or so Joy hoped. It was difficult sometimes to read these down-timers, their motivations, their intentions. She was Filipino and in Germany of the seventeenth century, that made her stand out like a brown thumb on a white hand. She’d had enough trouble up-time getting small town folk in West Virginia to take her seriously; it had been equally difficult here, although she had to admit that life had been, for the most part, decent. She and Clayton had married a couple years ago. Their first child, Michael Thomas, had been born recently, and her training in veterinary medicine was going well. That was why they sat in the Sycamore Street Pub, waiting for their other student friends to arrive. The time of constant study and stress would be coming to an end soon. She and Clayton—and even Elmar—would be full-fledged veterinarians in a short time, and they were here to celebrate. But Elmar’s stares unnerved her sometimes, despite her husband’s assurances. “Don’t worry about Elmar,” he said. “He’s harmless.”

She hoped that were true.

“Where is little Michael tonight, Joy?” Elmar asked.

Joy finished the last of her beer and set the glass down. “Giselle Masaniello is watching him for us.”

Elmar nodded, took a long drink of his beer, then wiped his mouth. He looked around the pub. “Where are the others?”

Clayton laughed. “Anxious, Elmar?”

“About what?”

“Lindsey will be here soon, don’t worry.”

Elmar seemed to blush and poked Clayton in the ribs with a firm elbow. “Watch your tongue, Clayton. Not in front of a lady.” He picked up his glass and tipped it toward Joy.

“Will you two stop it!” Joy said. “We’re here to celebrate our success, not act like children.” She flashed a rueful face toward her husband. “Clayton, I swear, if you get drunk tonight, I’ll—”

Paz, Senorita, paz!”

She glared as they giggled at her across the table. She had a good mind to curse them both in Tagalog or Cebuano, more traditional Filipino languages than Spanish, but she resisted. It was strange enough for her to hear all the German being spoken around her all the time; what would the natives think if she suddenly broke into something that they had no knowledge of whatsoever? But she really was not upset at them for their playful banter. Truth be told, she wanted to join in with them, but she had promised herself that she would remain sober tonight. They had not left little Michael alone that many times since he was born, and no matter how much she wanted—needed—to relax and unwind, she was not about to pick up her son in a drunken stupor. Let Clayton and his buddy unwind tonight, she thought. I’ll celebrate in secret.

She looked toward the window that looked out on the parking lot. She had to admit, she was a little worried about their friends as well. They should have arrived already. Where were they?

She pushed her glass away and got up. “I’m going to have a look outside and see if they’re here.”

“Why wouldn’t they just come inside then?” Clayton asked.

A valid point, indeed, but Joy ignored the question and kept walking.

Outside, a group of people huddled around the back of a green pickup. Julia O’Reilly and Lindsey Clinter had arrived, and they stood near the open tailgate, their eyes fixed upon something lying in the bed. Joy walked over to them and was about to say something when she looked down into the truck and saw what they were staring at.

Three goose carcasses lay there. Beautiful, fat birds, excellent plumage, with distinct reddish orange legs and feet. “Whose are these?” she asked Lindsey.

Lindsey pointed at a man who stood near another group of down-timers. She did not recognize him, but they were back-slapping each other and money was changing hands.

“These are Pomeranians,” Julia said, placing her hand on the one nearest her. “They’re beautiful.”

“How did they die?” Joy said.

“Look.”

Joy looked and saw that they were headless. While their owner was going on about something, she knelt down and lifted up one of the necks. She brushed the down feathers aside and studied the place where the head had been cut—no, torn—away. The ripped muscle and flesh of the neck was still tender, the blood on the feathers still moist.

“What the hell is going on here?” Joy said, looking up at Lindsey.

Lindsey shook her head. “I don’t know, but that guy over there has been going on about Gänsereiten, Gänsereiten.

“What does that mean?”

“I know what it means.”

Elmar and Clayton had come outside and were standing next to the truck. Elmar placed his hand on the goose nearest him.

“What?” Joy said.

Elmar looked at Joy, all frivolity and youthfulness gone from his expression. “Someone in town is running a goose pulling.”

****

Joy sat across from Laurie Koudsi at six in the morning. That wasn’t very early for veterinarians, but apparently it was for lawyers. Laurie looked tired and ragged, sitting there in her beige bathrobe, clutching her Pittsburg Steelers coffee cup and trying to fiddle with a pen and pad of paper. Joy had considered going to another lawyer, perhaps Mary Kat or Cary Dean, but she and Laurie were good friends, and she hadn’t seen her since the premature birth and death of her son.

Laurie spoke through a yawn. “I know I owe you a favor, Joy, but couldn’t this have waited until I got to the office?”

Joy shook her head. “No, I’m sorry, but I have to go to Manning Booth’s this morning. He’s opened up new grazing land, and now some of his goats have the bloat. We need to talk about this now.”

Laurie flipped open her note pad. She wrote a couple things down. Joy craned her neck to get a look at what she was writing but couldn’t make it out.

Laurie cleared her throat. “After your phone call last night, I reviewed West Virginia statutes pertaining to animal cruelty, so I have some notes I’d like to discuss with you. But before that, let’s go over again what we talked about last night. You were very upset, and I’m not sure I understood everything you were saying. Tell me again what exactly is gander pulling.”

” Gander pulling or goose pulling,” Joy said. She sat rigid in her chair, her voice rising. “No matter what you call it, it’s a cruel, terrible blood sport that’s being played right here in Grantville.”

Laurie waved the pen as if she were casting a spell. “Describe it for me, please.”

Joy sighed. “You take a goose or gander, string it up by its feet over a road. You grease up its neck and let it hang upside down. Then, riders on horseback run underneath it, try to grab the greased neck, and yank off the head. The grease, of course, makes gripping difficult, and therein lies the sport. It can take quite a while for someone to finally get a good enough grip to rip the head off and put the poor bird out of its misery. A live goose is most preferred because of the added noise and wild, thrashing movement it makes. But as soon as the bird’s strung up, it’s dead. It will, in time, tire and just hang there waiting for the end.

“It used to be a pretty popular sport during the American Civil War, but it fell out of favor due to its obvious cruelty. Many states banned it altogether. It’s still practiced up-time, though most often in European countries, but they usually euthanize the birds first to make it less of a sport and more of a ceremonial activity”¦ for Shrove Tuesday and the like. Either way, it’s terrible.”

“And who is allegedly doing this?”

“Joe Plotz. An up-time farmer. The men I spoke to at the pub last night said he’s planning on doing it again. Apparently he and some down-timer have gone into business on the matter. They even went all the way to Pomerania to get a special breed. Six birds strung up for the first run. Many more to follow, from what they say.”

“And where is he allegedly conducting these goose pullings?”

Joy shrugged. “I assume on his farm. I didn’t ask specifically, but I can’t see where else he’d do them.”

Laurie nodded, wrote a few more things on her pad, and said, “Okay, thank you for clearing some of that up for me.” She took another sip of her coffee. “As I said, I took a look at the West Virginia statues for animal cruelty, and as you may or may not know, it’s pretty much accepted that Grantville maintained the laws that it brought with it through the Ring of Fire. Of course, in reality, nothing is ever that cut and dry. We no longer live in the Unites States, nor are we in West Virginia. But the first step is for law enforcement to investigate the matter.

“The law says that the sheriff, and in this case our chief of police, Preston Richards, may appoint one of his deputies as a humane officer. That person then has the authority to investigate charges of animal cruelty. If through the investigation, it is determined that cruelty has occurred, then the humane officer can seize the poorly treated animals.”

“Does the law specifically define cruelty?”

Laurie nodded. “More or less. I won’t go through the legal wording with you right now, but the gist of it is”¦ cruelty is defined as treating an animal cruelly, such as bringing physical harm to it, withholding food, shelter or medical treatment, leaving it to die, or forcing it to mistreat other domesticated animals, such as through dog fights, cock fights and the like.”

“Good,” said Joy, “that settles it. We’ll go and get the geese out of that son of a bitch’s hands.”

Laurie put up her hand. “I want to caution you, Joy, about getting too excited about the letter of the law. Just because the chief has the authority to make a seizure does not mean he’ll be able to do so. My gut tells me it may be difficult for anyone to determine animal cruelty in this matter.”

Joy wrinkled her face. “Why?”

“Because for the most part, all up-time state animal cruelty laws were derived from the federal Animal Welfare Act of 1966, which established a set of acceptable animal welfare standards. Unfortunately, many kinds of animals were exempted from the law, including birds. Now, amendments to the bill did eventually include all warm-blooded domesticated animals, but laws on this matter have always been fuzzy when it comes to livestock. Why? Because how do you define cruelty to animals raised for food or fiber? Up-time, billions of chickens are slaughtered annually for food. Hunters shoot scores of ducks and geese for sport. Exceptions to the law run a mile long. Is it cruel for a farmer to go out into his own chicken coop, drag a bird out by its legs, and lop its head off for his evening meal? And up-time, I remember seeing some farmers break the necks of chickens under their own boots when a hatchet wasn’t available. What’s the difference between that and gander pulling?”

“Don’t hand me that crap, Koudsi! There’s a big difference between a farmer killing a chicken to feed his family and some redneck jack like Plotz stringing up a goose against its will and having people try to rip its head off. And he’s gambling as well. Surely we can get him on that.”

Laurie set aside her coffee and nodded. “Perhaps, but I can’t speak eloquently about that this morning. I’d want to talk to Mary Kat on that first; she’s wiser on those matters than me. But you make a good point, and if the time comes, I can certainly make that argument in court, but—”

Joy shook her head, interrupting. “I have a good mind to go over there and string up his sorry butt and yank his head off. Let’s see how he likes it.”

Laurie chuckled. “I’m sure he would not.” She cleared her throat again and poured herself more coffee. She offered it to Joy who declined. She set the coffeepot down and said, “Have you ever seen the movie Anatomy of a Murder?”

“No.”

“You should see it sometime. I think the library has a copy. It’s an old Jimmy Stewart movie, late 1950s I believe. In it, Stewart’s a lawyer trying to defend a man accused of murder. At one point he’s talking to a potential witness, and he says, ‘As a lawyer, I’ve had to learn that people are not just good or bad, but they’re many things.’ I have a feeling that Joe Plotz is many things.”

“Are you trying to defend him?”

Laurie shook her head. “No, Joy, no. But I’m a lawyer, and I cannot bring to this matter the kind of passion that you are showing me right now. You’re a veterinarian, and by the law, you are obligated to point out any mistreatment or cruelty to animals that you see or perceive. You have done your duty, and I respect that. But first things first: First, we go to Richards’ office and submit a complaint, then let them begin the investigation. Let me throw on some clothes and then we’ll go, okay?”

Joy nodded. “Okay, Laurie. I’m sorry I’ve been short with you. There have been reports of blood sports like this all across the USE: dog fights, cock fights, bear-baiting pits. I read about Harold Baxter’s recent death and the rumor that he was betting on bear fights near Magdeburg the night before. And so you may ask yourself why now? Why make such a stink now after we’ve been here in this timeline for so long? The answer is easy: I’m a mother now, and I want my son to grow up in a world where people do not go out of their way to harm animals. We brought our improved technology through the Ring of Fire. Did we not also bring better sensibilities as well?”

They stared at each other for a long while, and Joy immediately regretted pulling the mother card. It was a mistake and far too soon after Laurie’s own personal tragedy. As always, Joy had let her emotions get the best of her. Perhaps that was the nature of those who loved animals like she did. Animals did not have a voice of their own, and so those that spoke for them roared and thrashed and bellowed like animals themselves just to be heard. Up-time, she had considered joining PETA on many occasions, but had refrained due to their sometimes less than elegant tactics. But perhaps someone like Joe Plotz only listened when faced with a bucket of blood tossed in his face. Those geese on his farm deserved a voice, and Joy Valencia was going to make damned sure that they had one.

Laurie nodded and tried to show a thin smile. “Okay, Joy, I’m with you. But promise me one thing. You let Richards’ office handle this. You don’t get involved.”

Joy shook her head. “They’ll need a veterinarian to go out there and look around. No matter whom he sends, they won’t know how to spot cruelty.”

“Okay, you can argue that point with him when we get there, but you don’t go!” Laurie pointed her finger harshly at Joy’s chest as if she were scolding a child. “Not you. You are my friend, and I love you, but not you. You’re too hot right now. You go about your business, take care of Booth’s goats, and let someone else handle it. Promise me.”

Joy wanted to fight back, but she could see that it would do no good. Laurie had a temper of her own, and she was not above pulling legal rank to get her way. If Joy pushed too hard, she’d find herself slapped with a restraining order. The “Koudsi” was not above playing hardball.

“Okay,” she said, smiling her answer but crossing her fingers in her mind. “I promise. I won’t get involved.”

****

From the comfort of his living room, Joe Plotz watched two horsemen ride up his driveway. Instinctively, he reached for his old Colt 45 and placed it securely at the small of his back. He hated cops. At least one of the men riding toward his house was a cop: young and sturdy and comfortable on his ride. He sported a holster with a sidearm, a dust jacket, and a badge of some kind. The other he had never seen before, but judging from his light hair and Germanic features, he was a down-timer. Perhaps an officer trainee, but probably not. He looked less comfortable in the saddle, weary and ready to fall.

“Who is it?” his wife Margaretha asked as she came up behind him from the kitchen.

“Nothing to worry about,” he snapped, shaken by her sudden appearance. He scowled at her and flicked his hand toward the kitchen. “You just keep the girls inside. I’ll take care of it.”

Gretel huffed and disappeared back into the kitchen. Joe closed the window and pulled the shades, then stepped outside onto the porch. He put on his brightest smile.

“Good afternoon,” he said, waving politely at the two men.

They stopped before reaching his gate. They dismounted and tied their horses to a post. The officer waved. “Good afternoon, sir. Are you Joseph Adam Plotz?”

He winced at the sound of his full name. He hated it. His mother used to call him that when she was angry. Whenever someone said it, it sounded shrill and full of petty wrath. He nodded. “That’s me. What can I do you for?” He stepped out into his yard to greet them, the warm barrel of the gun rubbing his spine.

“I’m Officer Stephen Tito, mounted constabulary for the State of Thuriniga-Franconia, West Virginia County.” He motioned to the other man. “And this is Elmar Keller, veterinary assistant to Les Blocker. May we come in?”

The officer reached for the gate latch, but Joe stopped him with a meaty hand. “I’m sorry, but my wife is not feeling well. And my girls are taking their naps. Best stay out here. What do you need?” He unlatched the gate himself and stepped out.

Officer Tito backed up a step, cleared his throat, and said, “Mr. Plotz, Chief Richards’ office has received an official complaint that you have been conducting a gander pull here on your premises.”

“A what?”

“A gander pull,” Officer Tito said again.

Joe shook his head. “No, I’m sorry. Nothing like that happening here.”

“Are you familiar with the term, sir?”

Joe nodded. “Yes, I’m familiar with it, but—”

“Herr Plotz,” said Elmar Keller, stepping forward, “I saw with my own eyes three geese laid out in the back of a pick-up outside the Sycamore Street Pub, their heads ripped off. The owners of those birds said that you were running a Gänsereiten.

“I don’t give a damn what they said,” Joe said harshly, crossing his arms and staring angrily into Elmar’s face. “I ain’t running nothing.”

“Do you deny, sir,” said Officer Tito, “that those geese came from your property?”

As if on cue, the geese in their pen near his barn began to crank. Joe smiled and cocked his head toward the loud display. “Well, obviously, I cannot deny having geese.”

“The geese in question were Pomeranians,” said Elmar. “Are your geese Pomeranians?”

“They are, and yes, I did sell a few to some boys who came up the other day, but I can assure you that they left here alive”¦ and with their heads.”

“Mr. Plotz,” Officer Tito said, flashing a warm smile, “I have been appointed by Chief Richards to serve as the West Virginia County humane officer. I’m charged with inspecting your geese to ensure that they are being treated humanely. Mr. Keller is here to assist me in this matter.”

Joe placed his hands on his hips and stretched his fingers across the small of his back. He rubbed the trigger of the gun through his shirt and smiled. The beady, disrespectful stare of the veterinarian’s coal-black eyes annoyed him. Joe had a good mind to pistol-whip the little shit. My home, my property, my rules! What the hell did the law think it was doing coming out here and disturbing him about this? Couldn’t he do whatever he wanted with his property? What good was living in a place like West Virginia, out in the country, if “The Man” was going to reach out and squeeze his balls? He shook his head. And I thought all the bleeding-heart liberals were left up-time.

“Do you have a search warrant, sir?”

Officer Tito nodded and reached inside his jacket. He unfolded a piece of paper and handed it over. Joe read it word for word, taking his sweet old time. He glanced up periodically to catch the annoyance of the two men. He let them stew for as long as he figured he could, then handed the warrant back. “Okay, let’s go.”

He motioned them through the gate and escorted them across his lawn. Out of the corner of his eye, he scarcely dared look at the men as they followed him, keeping pace and looking around as if this were their land. It was Joe’s for certain, and no Ring of Fire could take that away. The land lay fallow right now, indeed, but the money that he had secured through the first pull had gone a long way to fix some of his financial woes.

They stopped in front of the goose pen he had built right before leaving for Pomerania.

He turned and offered it up as if it were a gift. “Inspect all you wish,” he said. “It’s a good pen, and they’ve got a lot of living space.”

Three geese were out and about. A fourth scampered into the pen from a hole in the side of the barn. It flared its wings and moved threateningly toward the fence. It hissed like a viper and thrust its chest forward, begging for a confrontation. Joe beamed. “That’s my bull gander right there. The finest of the bunch. I had to pay a pretty penny for him, let me tell you. He’s going to be my breeding stud. A pure Pomeranian. I call him Fritz.”

They watched as all the geese followed the gander’s lead and struck up such a fuss that it was difficult to think. Joe smiled. Let them find abuse, he thought. I dare them. How stupid did they think he was? They knew nothing about gander pulls. It served no purpose to mistreat the birds prior to the event. He learned that from his grandfather. The key was to fatten them up, keep them clean and healthy, make them even more desirable for the participants. Oh, and how the money would flow!

Joe talked over the ruckus. “Please go into the barn and take a look around. That’s where they stay in the evenings mostly, plus where the geese can lay their eggs.”

The veterinarian was the first to the barn door. Officer Tito followed. Joe let them go alone. He waited beside the fence. He looked up at the loft door that swung open from the inside. Up there, hiding behind a few old hay bales, was his partner Hermann Schurz. Hermann waved and brandished a pitchfork, motioning with it as if he wanted to stick it into their visitors’ backs. Joe sympathized but shook his head and motioned with his hand to keep hiding. There would be no bloodshed today. Unless, of course, they foolishly wandered into the woods behind his barn.

Soon they returned, and Joe produced a grand smile. “Well, what do you say?”

Officer Tito turned to the veterinarian. “Elmar?”

The down-timer looked disappointed. He rubbed sweat from his forehead. “Your geese look good, Herr Plotz.” He paused, then said, “No signs of mistreatment.”

“Are there any other entry points onto this farm, Mr. Plotz?” Officer Tito asked. “Roads or paths?”

Joe’s heart caught in his throat. He swallowed it down. “No, none at all. As you can see, I’m surrounded by thick woods. The only entry is my driveway, and of course across my field out there, which ain’t very large I hope you noticed.”

Officer Tito nodded. “Okay, I want to make it clear, Mr. Plotz, that in the eyes of the law, a gander pull would be considered animal cruelty, and if such an event were occurring, the perpetrator would be subject to steep fines, a confiscation of said geese, and potential jail time. Do you understand?”

Joe smiled and shrugged. “Officer Tito, I’m just a simple farmer trying to make a living. I can assure you that my geese are well-treated and well-fed. I do sell some of them to folk as required, which is my right. What they do with them afterwards is not my problem. I promise you”¦ nothing like that is happening here on my farm.”

“Okay, Mr. Plotz,” said Officer Tito. “We need no more of your time today. Thank you.”

Joe bid them goodbye and even shook their hands. He gripped the veterinarian’s hand very tightly and smiled the grandest smile of the day. The young boy tried to hide the pain, but pulled away quickly and followed the officer through the gate. They mounted their horses and left.

Joe returned to the barn. He went inside, and Hermann was standing there with the pitchfork at his side. “I covered the entry to the path into the woods as quickly as I could before they got to the barn,” he said. “They didn’t notice anything, did they?”

Joe shook his head. He pulled a packet of rolling papers from his shirt pocket, pulled a tobacco pouch from his pants pocket, and began rolling a fresh cigarette. He wetted the paper with his tongue and rolled it tightly into place. He placed it in his mouth, and Hermann lit it for him. He took a long drag and looked out across his field to the horsemen who finally disappeared around the corner.

He blew smoke. “No, Hermann, they didn’t suspect. They’re about as bright as that broken bulb in the loft. But we’ve run out of time. More sons of bitches will come snooping soon.”

“Maybe it’s not a good idea to run another, eh? Maybe we should wait awhile. I didn’t like the look of that Tito fellow.”

Joe pulled the pistol from his back. He opened it and spun the chambers. He closed it again. “No, Hermann, I’m not going to let the law scare me or tell me what to do. You spread the word: The next pull is Friday.”

He aimed the gun at the large gander as it waddled into the barn, all flared up in rage, all piss and vinegar. He pulled the trigger and felt the click of an empty chamber. He winked.

“And the grand prize will be you, Mr Fritz.”

****

Joy covered herself with a towel before Steve and Elmar entered the house. This was the first time all day that she had had a chance to nurse little Michael. She was engorged and in pain. She was not about to stop no matter who came knocking. Clayton greeted them at the door. Steve walked into the living room, politely averting his eyes. Elmar came in staring as usual.

“Well, what did you find?” Joy asked.

Clayton offered them chairs, and they sat down. Steve sighed. “He’s clean, I’m afraid. He’s got Pomeranians for sure, but they’re pretty well kept. What did you think, Elmar?”

Elmar nodded reluctantly. “Ja, they are. Nice, fat birds, I’d say. Well fed. New, though. The pen they were in was freshly built, and to be honest, I’m not sure about the nests that he’s made in the barn.”

“What do you mean?” Clayton asked.

“They’re just old crates with a little straw tossed in,” Elmar said. “They’re not permanent structures. He’s got one really big gander that he claims he’s going to use for breeding. If that’s true, you’d figure he’d be building a more permanent pen and breeding space. There’s no sign of that.”

“Yeah, but he just got them,” said Steven, “so that’s no evidence of wrong-doing. Perhaps he just hasn’t gotten around to it yet.”

Elmar shook his head. “Maybe, but I don’t know.”

Joy shifted Michael beneath the towel to a more comfortable position. “What do you think, Elmar?”

Elmar sat upright in the chair and refocused on Joy. “I think he’s lying.”

Steve huffed and shook his head. “What evidence do you have? We certainly saw none on his property.”

“Come on, Steve,” Joy said, “what other evidence do you need? Joe Plotz begins raising Pomeranian geese, and all of a sudden, three show up mutilated in the back of a pick-up. You’ve got the guys who had the geese saying they were at the pull on Joe’s property. What more do you need?”

“I need real evidence, Joy,” Steve said, his voice rising. “Not hearsay and second-hand accounts. I need to see signs of abuse. I need to see posts with wire or rope strung up across a road. We saw none of this. I’ve been appointed humane officer, but I cannot confiscate property without proper evidence. If I did, Plotz would sue the county, and he’d win too.” He motioned toward Elmar. “I took Elmar out there for the sole purpose of proving abuse. He saw none. There’s nothing more I can do at this time.

“But I can say one thing that may put your mind at ease. Before we left, I made it clear to him the legal ramifications of conducting a gander pull; I exaggerated a bit, true, but he understands the consequences. I’m sure it sunk in. He’s got a wife and two girls. He can’t possibly be that stupid.”

Joy opened her mouth to protest, but Clayton put up his hand. “Okay, Steve. That’s all for now. Thank you for coming by and filling us in. Extend our appreciation to Chief Richards as well.”

Clayton hurried Steve out the door, leaving Joy alone with Elmar. They looked at each other, and Joy was about to burst. There was much she wanted to say, but she waited until Steve was out of the house. She pulled Michael away from her and laid him on a pillow nearby. She began buttoning her blouse.

“Watch him for a moment, will you?”

Elmar nodded. He walked over and knelt in front of her baby, making sure he didn’t shift on the pillow.

Joy finished cleaning up. When Clayton walked in, she said in her best Steve Tito voice, “He can’t possibly be that stupid. Bull! He can be that stupid and more. Steve has obviously forgotten how many dumbass rednecks came through the Ring.”

“Hey, don’t bust on Steve,” Clayton said. “He did all he could.”

Joy pointed to the door. “Richards sent that child to investigate a crime scene.”

“Steve is not a child, Joy. He’s a fine officer, and more than qualified to investigate the matter.”

“Yeah, he’s qualified to screw it up—”

“They’re just geese, for Christ’s sake!”

Clayton’s shout woke the baby. The boy began to cry. Joy stepped back from her husband. “They’re just geese, eh? Just a bunch of stupid birds, is that it? This coming from a man who wants to be a veterinarian. How dare you? How dare you speak like that in front of our son, in front of—”

Clayton threw up his hands. “You know what? I can’t talk to you when you’re this way. Just—just go, just get out of the house. Go out in the back, feed the chickens, feed the dogs, go take a walk, I don’t care”¦ but get a grip! I’ll take care of Michael. Go!”

Joy bit back tears and flew out of the house, letting the screen door pop off its hinge like it often did when pushed too roughly. She didn’t care. She wanted to scream. She wanted to wrap her fingers around Clayton’s neck and—

Oh, God, listen to me. Wanting to do the very thing I’m accusing others of doing. She pushed the gate open and ran into the backyard. Their chickens scattered; their dogs howled. She fell against their fence and breathed deeply. She let the tears come.

Life was too tough these days. Their first child had just been born. Their veterinary training was coming to a close, but the stress of the final push and their ramped-up fieldwork was too much. Lack of sleep, lack of physical contact; lack of everything. And Laurie had lost her son; the emotional strain of that alone, the drive to be a good friend for her, a compassionate, understanding friend, was just too much. And now this business with the geese. They’re just geese! Joy rubbed her face clean. Was Clayton right?

Joy shook her head. Clayton was a good man, a good father. He prided himself on his intelligence and wisdom, but on this, he was wrong. It wasn’t about the geese per se; on that, she agreed. But here they were in Grantville, right smack-dab in the middle of seventeenth-century Germany, surrounded by countries that would like nothing more than to destroy them. There were, indeed, more important things to worry about than a few geese. So why was she so upset? Because it wasn’t about geese. It was about something more, something bigger, something”¦ eh, what’s the use? “No one understands me,” she whispered under her breath.

“I understand you.”

Elmar had snuck up beside her. She jumped at his voice.

“Elmar,” she said, wiping her face. “I’m sorry, I didn’t hear you come up.”

“That’s all right, Joy. But I do understand you. And don’t worry. We’ll get him.”

Joy shook her head. “It’s too late. He’s covered his tracks. He’s on alert now.”

Elmar grabbed her shoulders and turned her towards him. He smiled, but Joy did not see happiness in those eyes. All she saw was danger.

“And do you know why we’re going to get him?”

Joy waited for an answer.

“Because he shook my hand.”

****

Elmar knelt quietly behind a tree near Joe Plotz’s driveway. It was almost ten o’clock in the evening, and the only light was from a smattering of stars, a partial moon, and a faint bulb on the porch. Somewhere out there in the dark was his friend Poldi Vogt, circling around Joe’s house, making sure they were asleep, ensuring that the way forward would be uneventful. Elmar smiled. There was no one like Poldi for a little night work, a veteran of the wars and someone who was not afraid to wield a blade”¦ if it came to that.

Elmar waited in the dark and rubbed his sore hand. He liked a good, confident handshake, but not one that nearly crushed his fingers. That was Joe Plotz’s mistake. “One may smile, and smile, and be a villain.” A line from a Shakespeare play, Elmar remembered, from his reading time in the Grantville library. A villain indeed. Old Plotz had smiled and smiled and had crushed Elmar’s fingers in a grip that gave away his true nature: smug, arrogant, overconfident in his duplicity, and just plain stupid. A truly confident man (or one at least with a little drama training) would have given a friendly shake with nothing to hide. Joe’s shake revealed his anger and fear: Don’t mess with me, is what it said. That was a challenge Elmar could not ignore.

These up-timers were smart in many respects, and very clever with all their gizmos and gadgets, but Elmar was amazed at how foolish they acted sometimes. In the three hundred plus years from this moment until the Ring of Fire had occurred, what had people really learned? They sat around all day discussing the “legal” options before them. Clayton was ever so cautious with everything, though he did have a point about the geese. The law wasn’t going to do anything to Joe. The most they’d do is simply fine him or take the birds away. Who cared? The money that he had most assuredly gotten from the first pull was more than enough to replenish the stock; and if they ever got around to actually making it illegal to run gander pulls, by that time, Plotz would be a much richer man. No. A guy like Joe Plotz only understood decisive action.

Elmar placed his sore hand on the gasoline can at his side. I’ll give him all the action he can stand.

His thoughts drifted to Joy. God, what a beauty! Surely, she was the most exotic, most perfect thing that had come through the Ring of Fire. Clayton teased Elmar about Lindsey and she was good looking, but no other Grantville woman was as perfect as Joy. Like a dark jewel that sparkled whenever she opened her mouth to show those brilliant white teeth. He’d never seen such perfect teeth in all this life. He had almost lost it when he had walked in on her earlier in the day nursing baby Michael. He knew he shouldn’t stare, but he couldn’t take his eyes off of her. His clear infatuation for her made him a “perv” as the Americans might say, but he didn’t care. All he wanted was to touch her softly, her face, her neck, the small of her back, her”¦ ah, but she was married to Clayton, his friend, and that would likely not change. Then again, married women had affairs all the time, and it was clear that she and Clayton were having problems. Thrown out of her own house! Elmar would never throw her out of anything. He would always treat her like a queen. But in her eyes, he was just a creepy colleague and a friend to her husband. That had to change. He had to prove to her that his love for animals was as strong as her own.

Tonight would prove that.

Poldi burst through the brush and slid across the ground beside Elmar. His rough entry shook the gasoline can and spilled some. “Watch it, you damned fool,” Elmar whispered, grabbing the can and tucking it underneath his right arm. “We don’t have any to waste.”

“Sorry,” said Poldi in his hoarse voice. The war had damaged his vocal cords. “But I thought you’d like to know that the way is clear. No dogs, no traps of any kind.”

“What about the house?”

Poldi shook his head. “No signs of anyone. All asleep I guess.”

“The barn?”

“I didn’t risk it. I didn’t want to disrupt the geese.”

Elmar nodded. “Yes, well, they will cause a stir if we don’t move carefully. I know my way around livestock, so you stay outside and get around to the back of the pen and start tearing it down. Quietly. I’ll take the gas and get in the barn. Once I light the fuel, we have to get the geese out into the pen and scattered. In the dark, it’ll be hard for Plotz to find them in the chaos of the fire. Oh, and there’s one very large gander that I want. You can’t miss him. His name is Fritz. I doubt he’ll come to you if you call, though. If I can grab him, fine. If not, you have to once he’s out in the pen. He’s a mean bastard, but don’t worry about that. A man like you, with your war record, shouldn’t worry about a few love bites from a bird. Understand?”

Poldi nodded. “I understand. But I don’t know why I let you talk me into these things.”

Elmar smirked. “Because I’m paying you a lot of money. Now let’s go.”

They moved quietly together across Plotz’s driveway and through his open field. The gasoline sloshed in its can beneath Elmar’s right arm. There wasn’t much he could do about that, but he squeezed it tighter anyway. The knife at his side felt comforting. He hadn’t used it on a person since before the Ring of Fire. He hoped he remembered how. Slashing was okay, but stabbing was the best. He shook his head. It was hard to think, hard to breathe. His heart was racing, his mind full of confused, inconsistent thoughts. Should I or shouldn’t I?

They stopped at the fence that lined Plotz’s front yard. For a moment, Elmar thought about turning back, forgetting the whole thing. Then Poldi touched his shoulder and motioned to the barn. “I’ll go around there. You head that way.”

Elmar nodded. Here we go.

Poldi jumped the fence, and Elmar paused for a moment, watching his friend disappear in the darkness. The smell of gasoline burned his nose. He sniffled, gripped the can tighter, and moved over the fence. It was more difficult since his right arm was busy, but in the few brief years that he had been a veterinarian student, climbing fences had become second nature. He scaled it carefully and dropped down on the other side.

He ran across the front lawn, feeling the evening’s dew on his bare ankles. The shoes he wore were a pair of low-riding up-time sneakers given to him as a gift. It had taken a little while for his flat feet to get accustomed to them, but now he wouldn’t part with them for anything. There was nothing better than sneakers for running.

He crossed the yard quickly. He found a path around the side of the barn. Once on the side, he moved beneath the open-faced garage connected to the barn where Plotz kept his tractor and various other pieces of farm equipment. When he and Tito had been out here earlier in the day, Elmar had made a point to study the inside of the barn. He had to be cautious about it, though; he didn’t want to attract attention. From the inside, he had noticed a door on this side of the barn. It looked like one of those fancy up-time models, with nine small panels of reinforced glass and a solid bronze-colored lock. But it had stood ajar and hopefully it hadn’t been shut.

Elmar ran his left hand along the barn wall, carefully stepping over piles of tools, hoes and rakes, broken wooden stools, and a flat tractor tire. He placed his feet cautiously, careful not to step on any stray bits of plank with rusty, upturned nails. Sneakers were nice, but they weren’t sturdy enough to stop a tetanus-riddled nail from going through his foot.

He found the door and sighed with relief. He pushed carefully, and the door creaked open an inch. He didn’t like the noise, but it was better than pushing open the big double doors on the front of the barn, in sight and sound of the house. He stopped for a moment and just listened, leaning over and placing his ear against the door. He heard nothing coming from inside, and thankfully he heard nothing outside it either, save for the squall of insects, the wind, and the far off wails of a few dogs. Had Poldi started tearing down the fence? Elmar listened for any sounds of cracking or splintering wood, ripping metal, yanking nails. Nothing. That was either good or bad. Either Poldi hadn’t started yet, or was being quiet as directed. Either way, Elmar could not wait any longer.

He pushed open the door and crept inside. The sound of the rusty hinges disturbed the sleeping geese, but only slightly as Elmar paused momentarily inside and waited for them to settle again. Their pen was on the other side of the barn. Plotz had put up fencing inside as well, blocking off the geese’s access to the entire barn. That was good. When the fire started, they would have no choice but to flee through the hole that had been made for them. Elmar removed the cap on the gas can.

The smell of hot, dusty hay mixed with goose shit and gasoline as Elmar spread the flammable liquid liberally around the barn. He pitched it like a bucket of water, splashing bales of hay, wooden cabinets and the barn wall itself. The noxious smell was beginning to affect the geese as they stirred. Elmar didn’t like that, but what could he do? He let the last drop of gasoline fall to the barn floor, then tossed the can aside. He stepped back a few paces and looked at the hole in the barn wall inside the goose pen. It was small, but a man of his thin stature could squeeze through in a pinch. Hopefully.

He reached into his pocket with shaking hand and pulled out a box of matches. He marveled again at the simple, yet ingenious, inventions of the Americans. He had enough fire in his hand to bring down an entire barn, and then some. Matches were a marvelous invention indeed, but what the Americans had really done was invent easier ways for bad people to do bad things. Am I a bad person? Elmar wondered as he drew a match and set it against the box’s rough side. Was it wrong to burn down the barn? No, it was not wrong to do it. People like Plotz, assholes both up- and down-time, who harmed innocent people and animals for no good reason needed to be taught a lesson. Those soldiers who had burst into his home and killed his mother and father and burned their house to the ground, they needed to be taught a lesson. I do this for all men and women who have died at the hands of bad men.I do this for my mother and father. I do this for Fritz. I do this for Joy. For Joy”¦

He ran the match down the side of the box, but before the flame ignited, a shovel came out of the dark and struck him across the head.

Elmar lay there in the dark, the foul breath of his assailant barking German obscenities at him as rough hands grabbed his jacket and drove his head back into the barn floor. Elmar felt like closing his eyes and sleeping, but the sharp pain in his head raddled his mind clear momentarily. He pushed back, knocking the man aside. Elmar scrambled backwards, reaching into the darkness for the spilled matches, but found none of them. He rose to his feet, his head turning round and round. He stumbled further back and leaned against the main beam of the barn. He could see the man more clearly now. A down-timer, old and frail, hefting a shovel like a battle axe. The man came at him again, screaming, “Herr Plotz! Herr Plotz!” Elmar met the man’s attack, raising his arms and taking the shovel strike across his forearm. Skin slashed, and blood flowed. But the man was not strong enough to take Elmar down again. Elmar lashed out with his knife and struck the man in the face, knocking him back and clearing a path to the goose pen.

The geese went crazy, honking and hissing and flaring their wings in mad display against the noise and foul smell of blood. Elmar stumbled to the pen and tried climbing over it, to get to the hole and away.

The main door opened, and Poldi ran in, holding his knife forward. He saw the old man on the floor and tried running to him, but Elmar blocked his way. “No,” he said, pushing the knife away. “Don’t kill him. Let’s just go.”

“But he’s seen us. He’ll tell them and we’ll—”

“I can’t see!” Elmar screamed. The blood from his head wound was flowing into his eyes. “It’s over. Get me out of here before I bleed to death!”

Poldi growled, tucked away his knife and grabbed Elmar before he fell. The old man was still screaming Plotz’s name as Poldi burst through the main door, half-dragging, half-carrying Elmar across the dark lawn.

The front door of the house opened, and shots were fired. Elmar heard the buzz of rounds fly past them as they reached the fence. I’ve failed, he said to himself as Poldi fell over the fence and then reached back to help Elmar across. I’ve failed you, Joy. I’ve

Elmar felt the blinding sting of pain as a shot rang out and a bullet tore through his shoulder.

****

Joy screamed when she saw Elmar shambling across Manning Booth’s property. He looked like a zombie with a patchwork of bloody rags wrapped across his head and shoulder. He limped badly and even from this distance, she could see the swelling of his face and neck. He’d disappeared for two days, and now here he was, like some resurrected corpse come out of the woods to feed upon goats.

Joy dropped her bucket of meal and ran across the barnyard towards him.

Julia and Lindsey were already running. They reached him first and laid him gently upon the ground. Joy knelt beside him and placed her hand gently upon his head.

“He’s burning up,” she said, trying to wipe away sweat and grime.

“He’s been shot too,” said Julia, peeling away his wrappings to reveal a nasty, black wound lined with greasy pus.

“Dammit, Elmar!” Joy said, ripping off a part of her shirt and wiping his face. “Where the hell have you been? Who did this to you?”

Elmar coughed and tried rising, but they held him down. “I—I did a bad thing. Poldi and I, we”¦ we”¦”

“Did Joe Plotz do this to you?”

Elmar nodded, closed his eyes and laid his head back down.

“That son of a bitch!”

“Joy,” Lindsey said, “We need to get him to the hospital. These wounds”¦ he’s not going to last much longer.”

Elmar shook his head and coughed loudly. “No, no, don’t. I’m okay. I can’t go to the hospital. I’ve done a bad thing. Joe”¦ he’s going to do another pull. I know it. He”¦ he.”

Joy threw down the tattered rag of her shirt and stood up. “That’s it. I’ve had it. He’s threatening human lives now.” She turned and walked away.

“Where are you going?” Julia asked.

Joy shook her head. “I’m going to put a stop to this right now!”

She did not look back or stop at Julia’s pleading. Let her and Lindsey take care of Elmar, she thought. They were capable. All she could see now was the face of Joe Plotz in her mind. She did not know what he looked like, but this face, this maniacal redneck’s grin came to her as she reached Les Blocker’s old pick-up, climbed in to the cab, found the keys on the dashboard, and cranked the engine. She ignored Manning Booth’s pleas to stop as well and did not even notice Clayton’s arrival from picking up Michael from daycare. She could see nothing but a crazed farmer’s face and a fat goose hanging from a rope.

She gunned the engine and sped down the driveway in a cloud of gravel and dust.

****

The horseman galloped down the gentle path as the crowd that lined his way cheered him forward. Above his head, he held his right arm rigid, his hand open and ready. His eyes were fixed on the writhing goose that hung upside down from the wire stretched across the path. The goose honked and flailed its wings, but already it was growing tired, having survived three unsuccessful pulls. The man kicked his horse again, giving it a short burst of speed, and as the horse flew beneath the erratic bird, the man kicked up in the stirrups and grabbed the outstretched, greasy neck.

The goose’s thick body stretched like rubber as its neck held firm. But then a small, subtle snap occurred and the horseman dropped back in his saddle, smiling wildly and holding the severed head in his fist.

The crowd cheered their approval as the headless goose snapped back like a sling shot, its blood pouring out of its mangled neck to the dirty path below.

Joe Plotz clapped generously, happy that another successful pull had been conducted. Money literally fell into his hand as the betters paid their dues and lined up for the best and final pull. Joe looked at his watch as he gladly accepted both guilders and USE dollars from up and down-timers alike. This was indeed a royal blood sport fellowship, but it needed to be done quickly. The attempted burning of his barn two nights ago had proven that time was running out. Hermann had spooked the assailants and had foiled their plans, but not without cuts and bruises. And who were they? In the darkness of the barn, Hermann could not quite make them out, but he was almost certain that one of them was the young veterinarian who had come out with the law that same afternoon. The other was unknown. They had both gotten away, but not without a little lead in their sorry asses. Which one had he shot? It hardly mattered. No one comes onto my property and tells me how to live. My farm, my property, my rules!

One more pull and it would be over.

Hermann helped cut the previous goose from its bindings and handed it to its owner who showed off both the body and the head in separate hands. The crowd approved. Joe slapped the man’s back and sent him on his merry way as a large wooden cage was brought to the center of the path. “And now the final pull,” Joe said, reaching his hand into a can of axle grease and pulling out a thick wad. “Its name is Fritz, and in all my time around geese, I’ve never seen one as lively and as fierce as this one. I doubt seriously any one of you can pull his head off, and I dare you to prove me wrong.”

Hermann and another man pulled the contrary Fritz from his cage. He was indeed a large one, his breast twice the size of any of the other birds: his wings strong and full, his bill broad and perfectly pink-red. Plotz almost regretted stringing him up”¦ almost. But the money laid down on this pull was enough to keep his focus. He smashed the grease between his fingers and began applying it to the gander’s neck.

Once finished, he helped the men tie Fritz’s feet to the wire. Fritz flapped his wings and tried getting away. It took the strength of all three men to keep him settled. When fully tied, Hermann pulled the wire and up the gander went, fighting his bonds aggressively, but unable to break free.

When the gander was in position, Joe wiped his hands clean on a rag, cupped them over his mouth and shouted, “Horsemen, saddle up. It’s time to—”

“Stop!”

The voice came from the woods leading to the barn. Joe turned and saw a woman standing there, just inside the path, her dark skin streaked with dirt, sweat, and anger.

“Stop this right now!” she said again, and the crowd stilled at her command.

Joe took three steps toward her. “Who the hell are you?”

“I’m Joy Valencia. I’m a veterinarian.” She pointed to the gander hanging above her. “This is wrong, Mr. Plotz. It’s cruel and barbaric. That gander doesn’t deserve to be treated like this.”

Joe laughed and shook his head. “He’s just a dumb bird, lady. And he’s my property. I can do with him what I want. Now get the hell off my—”

“I’ll buy him from you. How’s that? Name your price.”

Joe shook his head and pushed past Joy. “No. These people have paid good money to see a show and that’s what I’m going to give them.”

Joy hesitated for a moment then said, “Okay, then let me euthanize him. He’ll feel no pain at least.”

Joe looked to the crowd to gauge their opinion. It was impossible to tell. Some seemed receptive to the idea, others were just as angry and put out as he was. A dead gander would just hang there, limp and soft, and where’s the sport in that? No. A live bird was the key, and one as large and as violent as Fritz could last six, seven good pulls if not more. Multiple rounds of betting. Big money.

Joe shook his head. “I said no!” He turned from her and addressed the crowd. “Now saddle up, and—”

“You’re not going to do this!” Joy screamed, pushing him aside and standing directly underneath the gander. “I’m not leaving until you listen to reason.”

Joe leaned toward the veterinarian and put up his hand as if to strike her. He wanted to badly, to pop that big smug mouth right off her face, to reach out and grab her neck and give a good, hard twist. But no. She’d come for a show? By God, he’d give her a show.

He turned from her and crossed the path toward a horseman. He pushed the man aside and grabbed the reins. He climbed into the saddle. “Fine. If that’s the way you want it. You bleeding hearts come out here and try to scare me with the law, try to burn down my barn, try to kill my assistant. To hell with you!”

He rode the horse up the path about fifty yards. He ignored cries from the audience to stop, cries from Hermann to let it go. He refused to listen. This was not about the bird anymore. This was about his right to make a living and to survive as he chose in a timeline that he had not asked to live in. God owes me big time, he thought as he turned the horse toward the gander.

Ha!

Everything around him was a blur. All he could see now was the gander and the woman standing below it. The horse gained speed. Joe rose up in the stirrups and reached his hand forward, toward the gander’s neck. The woman stood her ground. The gander flapped in the wind. Thirty yards”¦ Twenty-five”¦ Twenty”¦

To his left, Hermann stepped into the path, shouted something that Joe could not hear, raised the Colt 45, and pulled the trigger.

A bullet tore through the horse’s neck.

Its front legs buckled, and Joe Plotz soared through the air, struck the ground hard and came to rest beside a tree.

The last thing he saw before passing out was the veterinarian’s face moving closer and closer to his own.

June, 1635, Grantville (two weeks later)

Joy Valencia and Laurie Koudsi sat on a quilt in Joy’s backyard. They nibbled on potatoes, cabbage, and chicken as they watched their husbands, Clayton and Ricky, toss a Frisbee back and forth. It was a beautiful day. Joy could not have asked for a more perfect day.

“How’s Elmar?” Laurie asked as she cradled baby Michael in her arms.

Joy nodded, patting her lips with a napkin. “He’s okay. He lost a lot of blood, and he’s going to need therapy to get his shoulder and arm working again, but he’ll live.”

“He loves you.”

Joy paused and looked up at Clayton as if he might have heard Laurie’s admission. His back was turned to her and too far away to have heard. But what did it matter if he did? He knew the truth.

Joy nodded. “I know, but I don’t love him.”

“How are you and Clayton doing?”

Joy shrugged. “Okay, I guess. I don’t know. This business with the geese has been a strain. It’s revealed a lot of issues that we need to work out. He’s a good father and a good man, but, I don’t know. We’re taking it day by day.”

They stood up together and walked toward the chicken pen. Laurie held Michael as Joy put her arm around her friend’s waist. They stopped at the fence and watched as Fritz bathed himself in a small pool that Clayton had set up for him. Joy was not sure if putting the gander in the pen with the chickens was a wise move, but it would have to do for now. Joy wanted to keep him; Clayton did not.

“Elmar and his friend Poldi,” said Laurie, “will likely be charged with attempted theft, attempted arson, and destruction of property, assuming Plotz files charges, which I suspect he will once he gets out of the hospital.”

“And Plotz?”

“The county’s weighing its options. For the gander pull, probably a misdemeanor with a decent fine. The surviving geese have been removed, so that’s done. For shooting Elmar, perhaps reckless endangerment or attempted murder. It’s hard to say right now. He’s got a good case for self-defense.”

Joy cleared her throat and said, “Well, let the county do what it will. I want to drop my charges against him.”

“Why? He tried running you down on a horse.”

Joy shook her head. “I’m not going to pile on. That’s not what this was all about. He has two daughters and a wife expecting again. He’s going to have it rough for quite a while without me adding to his family’s misery. My goal was to save the geese. I couldn’t save them all but I saved some. I’m a veterinarian, Laurie. I have an obligation to ensure the welfare and safety of animals whenever I can. I did my duty. I did as my conscience dictated, and I am satisfied. Please, drop the charges.”

Laurie nodded and handed Michael back to Joy. “As you wish. But this isn’t going to end the matter. Plotz may never run another pull, but there were a lot of people involved, Joy. Others will likely follow suit.”

“I know. We need a watch-dog group to monitor these things, to ensure they don’t happen in Grantville, and something expandable to cover the entire USE in time.”

“Like PETA?”

Joy shook her head. “More like a humane society or an ASPCA. I’m sure most of the vets in Grantville will join. I know they will. I’ll make sure of it.”

Laurie smiled, put her arm around Joy’s shoulders and pulled her close. “I’m sure you will. But let’s talk about it later. Let’s just enjoy this warm summer day before it ends.”

Joy nodded and they stood there quietly, enjoying the warm June sun, listening to little Michael gurgle, and watching Fritz frolic loudly in the pool.

****