St. George’s Ghosts

December 1635, Tetschen, near the border between Saxony and Bohemia

 

John “Puss” Trelli walked up to the stall where his mount had his head over the door. Thunder locked his eyes on Puss’ hands, looking for the usual treat. With a smile Puss pulled an apple from his pocket and broke it before offering his horse half.

Thunder snaffled the half presented on Puss’ hand, but instead of immediately trying to get the other half, he searched beyond Puss, and emitted the horsy equivalent of a whine before butting his head into Puss’ chest.

Puss wrapped his arms around his horse’s neck and rested his head against Thunder. “You miss him too, don’t you?”

They were still standing like that when Corporal Michael Cleesattel turned up quarter of an hour later. “You ready for patrol, Sarge?”

Puss patted his horse and gave him the other half apple. “Yeah, I’m ready.”

 

Grantville

 

“What does it take to be bullet proof?”

Felix Trelli looked up from the book he was reading. “Could you be a little more specific?” he asked his daughter-in-law.

Sveta Andreyena settled down in a chair opposite Felix. “I’ve been reading some of John’s notes for a second Erik Zeetrell story, and well . . .”

Felix smiled. “Does this have anything to do with the movie we watched last night?”

Sveta nodded. “Would a piece of boiler plate really stop all those bullets?”

“You’re worried about ‘Hollywood Physics’?”

Sveta nodded again. The original Erik Zeetrell story, as written by her husband, had contained several fight scenes that owed a lot more to Hollywood than to reality. When she’d rewritten the movie script as a novel she’d had to change a lot of the action sequences to maintain her own suspension of disbelief. After all, she’d learned a thing or two about fighting growing up with four older half-brothers.

“I’d call that scene in A Fistful of Dollars plausible.”

“What about period armor?”

“They didn’t have much armor in that period.”

Sveta rolled her eyes. Papa knew that wasn’t what she meant.

“Okay, sorry,” Felix said. “The easiest way to find out, and to keep your sensibilities intact, is to run some tests. I’ll see if the materials lab is interested.”

Sveta smiled. The measles epidemic that had confined her to the house had not only closed the schools, it had also closed the technical college where Papa worked. With no students to teach, the staff were essentially sitting around twiddling their thumbs. With her own experience of being incarcerated in the house for weeks, she could see them jumping at the chance to actually do something. “Thank you.”

 

Tetschen

 

“It’s strange not having that pesky mutt of yours walking under my feet,” Corporal Michael Cleesattel said.

Puss just nodded. He was still missing Yorick.

“You planning on getting another dog?”

“No!”

Puss’ terse monosyllabic response silenced Michael, and they continued their patrol to the sounds of daily life in Tetschen as the day slowly turned into night.

The townsfolk actually smiled at them as they walked past. Some of them even stopped to chat. This wasn’t how townsfolk normally treated soldiers garrisoning their city, but the Hangman Regiment was different from most garrisons. For a start, they paid for everything. Sure they paid with divisional chits, but the Third Division’s chits, known as beckies, were as good as real money. Secondly, they were disciplined. Of course, there was still some drunken fighting and a bit of damage to property, but to date that had been controlled and the perpetrators punished. Catching the perpetrators was Puss and Michael’s job. They were Military Police. They stood for something the townsfolk appreciated, security.

“Help! Thief!”

The cry was almost lost in the sound of leather-soled footwear on cobbles. Puss quickly located the source of the noise. As a general rule, when someone yells “thief” the person running away is usually the person to stop. Now, Puss could have reached out to grab the young dandy’s clothes as he went past, but they could so easily rip, letting him get away. That left some form of tackle. Puss could have jumped on the guy, wrapping his arms around his legs to bring him to the ground, but a guy could get hurt doing something like that. Instead, Puss took advantage of his near six-foot frame and hung out an arm. In some sports it is called a “stiff-arm tackle”; in others it is called a “coat hanger.” Whatever one wanted to call it, Puss collected the probable thief across the neck with his forearm. It stopped the youth dead, and dropped him on his back.

Puss took advantage of the stunned state of the youth to gain a restraint hold. With the suspect secured he looked up to see what Michael was doing. True to the procedure they’d developed, he had a hand on the merchant. It wasn’t so much to stop him running away as to stop him attacking the thief, as the concept of due process tended to escape people who’d just been robbed.

Puss assisted the youth to his feet. “What seems to be the problem?” he asked the merchant.

Andreas Fürgang pointed at Puss’ captive. “He stole my purse!”

“You ruined my jacket.” The youth tried to pull his arm free from Puss’ grip, but Puss just applied a little more torque. “Ahhhh!” the youth protested as he squirmed in Puss’ grip. “Do you have any idea who I am?” he demanded.

“You’re the miscreant who stole this gentleman’s purse.” Puss turned to check on the merchant, and caught a sudden change in his countenance. Just for a moment, before he realized Puss was looking at him, Andreas looked scared. Puss took a mental note of that and concentrated on the problem at hand. “Could you describe your purse?”

“Here it is,” the youth said, as he tried to reach into the top of his jacket.

Puss, however, was having none of that and applied more torque to the youth’s right arm while he reached under his jacket and pulled out a heavy drawstring purse. He hefted it, trying to estimate the value of its contents.

“It was just a joke,” the youth said.

Andreas stared intently at the purse in Puss’ hand. “I have my purse back, so there is no damage done. Put it down to youthful high spirits, Sergeant.”

“So you don’t want to press charges?” Puss tossed the purse to Michael, who also hefted it as if trying to judge the value of its contents before handing it to Andreas.

The merchant, after a quick check of the contents of his purse shook his head. That left Puss with little choice but to let his captive go. The youth rubbed the arm Puss had been holding and glared at Puss. “You’ll pay for this!” he said before stalking off.

“You want to be careful, Sergeant,” the Andreas said. “His father is a very important man.”

“And who might his father be?” Michael asked.

****

A few days later Puss was once more walking through the streets of Tetschen, this time accompanied by Corporal Thomas Klein. In the distance he heard the tell-tale sound of breaking glass. Someone was going to be facing a big bill for damages in the morning. He exchanged a wry smile with Thomas and altered course.

They were in no hurry to get to the fight, as the first few minutes were when the protagonists were at their most aggressive. Experience had shown that if they let them work out their aggression against each other for a few minutes, the fighters were usually a lot more willing to have the fight broken up, rather than combine forces and turn on the interfering policemen.

They arrived at the bar to see just what they had expected. The multi-pane front window had lost a pane, probably to a thrown mug, and two men were exchanging blows. Naturally, rather than try to stop the fight, the patrons had drawn back, forming a ring, and were egging on their preferred combatant. Puss had no doubt that at least one person in the crowd was taking wagers on who might win.

Not wanting to be killjoys, and coincidently become a target for the crowd, Puss and Thomas sought out the manager. They found him standing to one side of the bar with a cudgel in his hand, keeping an eye on the fight. “You need any help?” Puss asked.

Augustin Rappold broke his glance away from the protagonists to smile at Puss. “So far the only breakage is the window, and I know who did that.”

Neither of the fighters, who were surprisingly enough still slugging it out, were soldiers, but some of the crowd were. “A soldier?” Puss asked.

“No, some foreign worker.” Augustin used his cudgel to point out a man in the crowd.

The man was difficult to identify in the poorly lit room, but the style of dress definitely shouted foreign worker. As he was obviously not a soldier, he was no concern of Puss’. “You seem to have everything under control, so if you’re happy, we’ll leave you to it.”

“Thanks for checking.” Augustin leant close and whispered into Puss’ ear. “You want to be careful of that Frederick Hoffmann. He’s a nasty piece of work. He’s the apple of his father’s eye, and Ludwig won’t hear a word against him.”

“Thanks for the warning,” Puss muttered before drifting off to pull Thomas away from the fight. He’d been getting a lot of warnings since he tackled the young dandy.

“You learn anything?” Puss asked Thomas.

“The word is Frederick Hoffmann is trying to hire some muscle to have you beaten up.”

Puss nodded. Master Frederick Hoffmann, the seventeen-year-old eldest son of Ludwig Hoffmann, was beginning to look like trouble. “Someone’s going to get hurt.”

“Just as long as it’s not one of us,” Thomas said.

Puss wholeheartedly agreed with that sentiment. It was time to ask their friends in Charlie Company for help.

****

Captain Casper Havemann’s tent was toasty-warm when Puss and his patrol entered. It wasn’t just the pot-bellied stove that was keeping it warm. There was also the presence of not just the captain, but two of his lieutenants and the company clerk. “Come on in, find yourselves somewhere to sit,” Casper directed. “Corporal Schlegel, you have the floor.”

The company clerk flipped open a notebook, glanced at it for a moment, and looked around the tent. “My sources suggest that Frederick Hoffmann has employed Martinus and Christoff Gubka for the purpose of administering his revenge attack against Sergeant Trelli.”

“Why would he want revenge?” Lieutenant Conrad Scheel asked. “All Sergeant Trelli did was detain him for a moment.”

“In a most humiliating way,” Corporal Schegel said. “Or at least that’s what he believes. He has been heard saying he wants to spill Sergeant Trelli’s blood.”

“Well, Charlie Company isn’t going to let that happen. Sergeant Trelli will be safe in camp,” Conrad said.

“Except I can’t afford to be confined to camp just because someone wants to have me beaten up,” Puss said. “That would send a signal that such threats work.”

“So what are you going to do?” Conrad asked. “Any time you step out of camp you’re going to be a target.”

“Precisely,” Casper said. “Which is why Sergeant Trelli has asked for our help.”

“How can we help?” Lieutenant Marcus Trautermann asked.

Puss turned to Corporal Schlegel. “Corporal, the map please.”

Corporal Schlegel pinned an accurate aerial view of Tetschen on the board. “This is Tetschen,” he said, rather redundantly. “The red dashes are the route Sergeant Trelli and Corporal Klein will take on their night time patrols for the rest of the week.

“It is expected that the Gubkas will be in a hurry to collect their payment, and on seeing a regular pattern of movements will pick a location on this route to launch their attack.

“There are three alleyways that we think are prime ambush locations. Here, here, and here.” With each “here” Corporal Schlegel circled the alley in question.

“Just because you think they’re likely locations doesn’t mean the Gubkas will pick them,” Marcus said. “There’re too many possible ambush sites for your men to cover.”

Puss nodded. “That’s why I’m asking for your help.”

****

In early January, Puss and his men prepared for yet another night patrol. Just as they had for the last few nights, they set the cuirasses and full-head helmets Lieutenant Scheel had liberated from the Tetschen armory near their tent’s potbellied stove to warm them before they put them on. While that was happening, Puss cleaned and checked his new H&K Army cartridge revolver, which had been a Christmas present from his parents, while the rest of his patrol cleaned and carefully checked their service H&K Remington cap and ball revolvers.

In the hour before sunset, they started to prepare for patrol. First, each man inserted a groin protector, then they helped each other secure an infantry cuirass over their regular clothes. The armor was warm now, which made up in part for the weight. Over the cuirass went their regular greatcoats. In the light of the slowly setting sun, nobody looking at them would notice the added bulk of the armor. Topping it off was a helmet that protected the head, ears, and neck. The helmets were completely covered by large fur hats.

Before they left, each man strapped on his gun belt, slid a side-handled baton through a loop in the belt opposite the gun, and collected the close-in fighting weapons of their choice. The last piece of equipment each man attached to their webbing was a pea-whistle. This was standard equipment, and could be used to call for assistance. This time, though, such assistance would not be limited to fellow policemen. Trusted members of Charlie Company had agreed to respond if they heard a whistle.

Puss and Thomas left first, with Michael and Lenhard following at a discreet distance, but close enough to respond quickly if and when the expected ambush happened.

****

They paused at the entrance to an alley, and immediately Puss went on high alert. It wasn’t just the out of place hoot of an owl—an agreed signal with members of Charlie Company—that told him that Frederick and his paid muscle were probably waiting for them somewhere in this alleyway. There was also the lack of the normal sounds and traffic one would expect to hear in this area at this time of night. “This is it,” he muttered just loud enough for Thomas to hear as he pulled his hands out of his pockets and closed his eyes.

Thomas responded by stopping to light his pipe. The flare of the match was a signal to Michael and Lenhard that they thought the trap was about to be sprung.

Thomas dropped the match and the sound of his boot scuffing against the cobbles told Puss it was safe to open his eyes. He laid his left hand on his side-handled baton and tightened his grip on the collapsed expanding-baton in his right hand as they stepped into the alleyway.

There were four men waiting for them, which was at least one more than they’d been expecting.

“Well, well, well. Right on time, Sergeant Trelli, or can I call you George?” Frederick said. “Do you like my pets?” he asked, gesturing to three large men, each armed with a cudgel. “Get him!” he ordered.

It was every man for himself as Frederick’s “pets” charged Puss and Thomas. One came at Puss with his cudgel raised. Puss had his side-handled baton drawn and held firmly against his left forearm as a parrying tool just in time to block the strike aimed at his head with a classical martial arts high block. Normally that was not a good thing to do, because it exposed the weak ulna bone (rated, if Puss remembered correctly, to a breaking strain of eight pounds, against the radius’ twelve) to the full force of the downward strike. However, he was using the side-handled baton like a tonfa, and that distributed the impact across his whole forearm. His assailant wasn’t so lucky.

The man was swinging a heavy cudgel with potentially bone-crushing force when his arm hit Puss’ up-raised arm. The entire force of his impact was concentrated on the small area of his ulna that impacted the side-handled baton Puss was holding. There was a sharp crack that echoed down the alleyway as the ulna broke, and the man’s cudgel went flying over Puss’ shoulder.

The impact must have come as a surprise to the bully boy, but Puss, who’d learned the defensive move in his training, had been prepared for the jarring impact. He took advantage of the momentary distraction of the man to thrust his collapsed steel baton violently into the man’s solar plexus, disabling him immediately.

Naturally, Puss was only human, and could only deal with one opponent at a time. That allowed the third man to take an unimpeded swing at his head. The blow glanced off his helmet, dislodging the fur hat that had been covering it. Puss’ head was ringing, but he was still on his feet. Then the cavalry announced its arrival as Michael and Lenhard charged in, blowing their whistles as they ran.

“It’s a trap!” Puss’ assailant cried before taking to his heels.

“Look out! He’s got a gun,” Thomas shouted moments later.

Puss had regained his balance and was busy watching the man who’d hit him run into the welcoming arms of members of Charlie Company, and had completely forgotten about Frederick until Thomas cried out. He reacted immediately, dropping his steel baton and swinging round counter-clockwise while his right hand went for his revolver.

Most American men would, if pressed, admit to having at some time in their lives practiced fast draws. As a child Puss had done it with toy guns, and when he started Cowboy Action Shooting, he’d graduated to using real guns. Needless to say, the Ring of Fire hadn’t stopped him practicing and he was, even if he did say so himself, quite good at it. Muscle memory took over. However, even Superman wouldn’t have been fast enough to get a shot off before Frederick could fire.

“Die, bastard!” Frederick Hoffmann screamed as sighted along the top of his revolver.

There was a blinding flash and a cloud of smoke bellowed out of the revolver, and Puss felt a hammer-blow to the chest. Throughout this, his right hand had continued its well practiced path. It had hit the butt of the revolver, and even as the revolver was drawn, it thumbed back the hammer. The impact of Frederick’s shot interfered with Puss’ muscle memory. A convulsive contraction of the trigger finger resulted in a gunfighter’s equivalent to premature ejaculation. Fortunately, the revolver was well clear of its holster; otherwise the bullet might have made a mess of Puss’ right leg. Instead, it went into the cobbles, sending a spray of lead and stone fragments into Frederick’s legs.

Puss recovered from the shock of impact to find his revolver cocked and aiming at Frederick as he lay bleeding and whimpering on the ground. He thought for a moment of firing, but only for a moment. He lowered his revolver and holstered it.

Thomas and Lenhard ran up to him. “Are you all right, Sarge?” Thomas asked.

“You were lucky he missed,” Lenhard said.

“He didn’t miss.” Puss poked a finger through the hole in his coat. “It seems the armor stopped it.”

 

Grantville

 

The dinner things had been put away and everyone was heading for the living room to relax, and maybe watch television. Felix Trelli tapped Sveta on the shoulder. “I’ve got the preliminary results from the materials laboratory.”

“You have?” Sveta let herself be led back toward the kitchen. “I thought you’d forgotten about it.”

Felix grabbed a folder before leading Sveta to a chair at the table. “No, but we got some interesting results that needed to be checked.”

“Like what?”

“Like the fact that even at a range of ten feet, the standard service rifle couldn’t penetrate a cavalry cuirass.”

Sveta whistled. That was definitely news. “I thought there were plenty of casualties amongst the French cavalry at Ahrensbök.”

“That’s what the newspapers said,” Felix agreed. “And that’s why we retested everything.”

“And . . . ?” Sveta prompted.

“The SRG still couldn’t penetrate the armor with a standard bullet and charge. We even tried different rifles and different breastplates without success. Our current theory is that the casualties at Ahrensbök were the result of hits to lesser armored parts of the body, or they weren’t caused by rifle fire. We’ve sent off a request to the Medical Department in Magdeburg for a complete breakdown on the nature and location of injuries so we can test that theory.”

Sveta thought about the amount of paperwork the department would have to wade through to satisfy that simple request. “They’re going to love you for that little job.”

“Nah, it’ll give them something to do.” Felix grinned. “Anyway, back to your results. You’ll be interested to learn that even the most powerful standard black-powder pistol cartridge we tested, the .45 Long Colt, fired from an H&K Army with a seven-and-a-half-inch barrel couldn’t penetrate a fifteen gauge pikeman’s breastplate.”

“What? Not even at point blank range?”

“Nope. Not according to our tests. That’s not to say the person wearing the armor won’t be hurt by the impact, because the impressions in the clay backing we used suggest they would have been.”

“What about a down-time pistol?” Sveta asked.

Felix smiled. “That’s something else altogether. Using a wheel-lock smoothbore cavalry pistol we were able to penetrate the breastplate out to thirty yards.”

Sveta blinked at that. It didn’t make sense. “I thought up-time guns were supposed to be better than down-time ones.”

“With up-time ammunition they often are. But you’ve got to remember that a cavalry pistol is a pistol in name only. Some of them have barrels over twenty inches long. The one we tested had a fourteen-inch barrel.”

One couldn’t live in the Trelli house long without learning something about guns. Longer barrels tended to mean higher velocities, which meant more muzzle energy. As she’d discovered when she read the data sheet that accompanied the new H&K Dragon she had bought recently—the short barreled revolver had less than half the muzzle energy of her H&K Army. And besides, with no cylinder chamber limiting how much powder you loaded behind a bullet . . . Yes, she could definitely see a cavalry pistol generating more energy than a revolver.

“I don’t suppose down-time muskets can penetrate the cavalry armor where the SRG failed?” Sveta wasn’t hopeful, but the idea that a supposedly-inferior weapon could be used by her hero to take out an armored opponent appealed.

“You suppose right, but only out to about forty yards, and they only achieve that because their muzzle velocity is up around fifteen hundred feet per second, compared with the SRG’s nine hundred.”

Sveta smiled. Forty yards was long range for a gun fight in the Erik Zeetrell world. “What about loading multiple charges into the SRG? Would that give enough energy to penetrate the armor?”

Felix shook his head gently. “That’s not advised. The SRG’s rifling is optimized for the existing powder charge. You start increasing the bullet’s velocity, and you start losing accuracy.”

“But what if you really needed to be able to penetrate the armor? Couldn’t someone empty the powder from, say, two cartridges down the barrel, and would that be enough to penetrate the armor?”

“Probably,” Felix reluctantly conceded, “but only if you could hit the target.”

“That’s good enough for me,” Sveta said as she made a note in her notebook. The reduced accuracy could even be a plot point. “Out to what range?”

Felix rolled his eyes. “Call it a hundred and fifty yards, but your chances of hitting are probably worse than using a regular smoothbore.”

“That’s okay,” Sveta said as she added that morsel to her notes. “Now, assuming you hit your target, is there anything that can stop a double-charged SRG?”

Felix sighed. “Your best bet would be one of the new flak-jackets Tracy Kubiak is making. One of the steel-plate inserts she offers is supposed to give protection against a .30-06.”

 

Tetschen

 

Frederick Hoffmann had been carried to the medical department’s clinic to determine the extent of his injuries, which, from what Puss had overheard while another medic treated his own injuries, were much worse than first thought. A large chunk of lead had ricocheted off the cobbles and torn its way through Frederick’s left calf. That’d been the source of all the blood, but most of the whimpering was because Frederick had somehow managed to break the fibula in his right leg. Puss wasn’t sure how much of a problem that was going to be, but back up-time his friend, Chris Drahuta, had managed to break the same bone playing tag football. He’d had to have a titanium plate inserted and the bones screwed together. Somehow Puss didn’t think medicine had progressed that far down-time. He said as much to his companions.

“He might lose the leg,” Michael said. “Mind, the regiment’s medics know what they’re doing, so he should survive the surgery.”

“He’s facing the death penalty,” Thomas said. “You really think they’re going to waste their time doing more than stabilizing his condition?”

“It’s all good practice,” Lenhard said.

Puss winced. It wasn’t that his colleagues were particularly bloodthirsty, because by local standards they weren’t. But there was a certain callousness about them that Puss hoped he never developed.

Michael pulled a large cap-and-ball revolver from under his coat and held it up. “This is the gun Frederik Hoffmann used. It’s a Bittner 10mm, made in Karlsbad.”

Puss held out his hand for the weapon, which looked like a Colt Navy. Closer examination revealed it was an almost direct copy, and that in spite of a lack of a safety notch, all of the remaining chambers were still capped. Mentally cursing wannabe Darwin Awardees, he gingerly pried off the five remaining percussion caps. “He’s a bigger fool than I thought.”

“Why do you say that?” Thomas asked.

“Because he carried it with the hammer over a loaded chamber.”

Lenhard patted the revolver in the holster at his hip. “I do that all the time. So do you.”

“Sure, but we’ve all got Hockenjoss and Klott revolvers. They use a transfer bar safety. This thing doesn’t.” Puss passed the Bittner to Lenhard.

“I knew the kid was mad, that just proves it,” Lenhard said as he examined the Bittner. “You could have saved everyone a lot of time and effort by killing him when you had the chance.”

“I tried, but my first shot went low. By the time I was ready for a second shot, he was on the ground and disarmed. Killing him then would have been murder.”

Lenhard turned to Thomas and Michael. “Can you believe this guy?”

****

Puss stood with Lenhard back at the shooting line at a makeshift range while Thomas and Michael set up a well used breastplate against a bank. He could have helped them, but the gunshot he’d taken the other day had left bruising that still hurt.

“Who wants to go first,” Puss asked when Thomas and Michael got back.

“I will,” Michael said. He picked up the Bittner and after fitting a single cap took aim and fired. At a range of ten yards they could all see the dent the bullet made.

Thomas was next. He took aim with his H&K Remington and fired. It too only left a dent. “Your turn, Sarge.”

Puss’ revolver was a new H&K Army double-action revolver in .45 Long Colt—just like the weapon his wife had used recently to kill a home invader. The bullet was heavier than the simple balls Michael and Thomas had fired, and it had at least twice the muzzle energy of their revolvers. He thumbed back the hammer and took aim.

Boom!

Puss holstered his revolver before leading the group forward to check that he was really seeing what he thought he was seeing. He’d fully expected to penetrate the armor. After all, he was shooting from close range, and the ballistics of the ammunition he was using were little different to the ammunition he’d used up-time, and he’d many a time shot holes in old car bodies.

“It’s a bigger dent,” Lenhard said as he fingered the latest impact.

“And I’m sure it’d hurt whoever was wearing the armor,” Thomas said.

“But it still didn’t penetrate,” Michael said.

“Do you still want to try the wheel-lock?” Lenhard asked, gesturing to the weapon left on a barrel a few yards away.

Puss thought about it. He was paying for these tests out of his own pocket, but he had to know if what had happened in that alley had just been a fluke. So far it seemed that the armor he had been wearing was bullet proof. “Do it,” he instructed Lenhard.

The pistol Lenhard loaded was an old smoothbore cavalry holster pistol with a bore of about half an inch. It was over twenty inches long, and had a barrel of fourteen inches. He took aim and fired.

The sound of the impact was completely different, and Puss was sure it’d gone straight through the armor. That impression was confirmed when the four of them examined the damage.

“You were lucky Old Man Hoffmann’s so rich his son can afford a revolver,” Michael said as he pushed a finger through the hole.

Puss had to agree. If Frederick had been using a period pistol, he would most likely have died in that alleyway.

“You won’t see me swapping my H&K for one though,” Lenhard said, waving the wheel-lock. “This thing weighs over four pounds, and it’s only got a single shot.”

“That’s a pretty good reason to stick with a revolver,” Michael agreed. He turned to Puss. “Is there any way to improve the penetration of our revolvers?”

“I’ll write home and ask.”

 

A few days later, Grantville

 

“Mailman’s been,” the housekeeper said as she entered the living room.

Sveta looked up from the up-time gun magazine she was struggling to read and smiled at the house keeper. “Anything for me?” she asked.

Magda sorted through the small bundle of envelopes and handed three envelopes to Sveta, who put the letter from her husband to one side to look at last and broke open the letter from her doctor. As she read her eyes lit up.

“Good news?” Magda asked.

“I’ve been given the all clear to go back to work on Monday.” A measles epidemic had hit Grantville in the last days of November and Sveta had been confined to the house ever since because of the risk to her unborn child. There had been only Magda and Hero, the family cat, to talk to most days, and she would have been bored to tears if she hadn’t been able to write a book based on the script her husband had written for the movie On His Majesty’s Secret Service.

Speaking of books, Sveta carefully picked up the next letter. It was from Schmucker and Schwentzel, the publisher to whom she’d sent her manuscript. She chewed on her lip as she stared at the heavy bond envelope.

“Come on, open it.”

“I’m scared,” Sveta said. “What if they didn’t like it?”

“I liked it,” Magda protested. “And so did your friends.”

Sveta smiled. Magda and her friends weren’t exactly unbiased critics. Reluctantly, she broke the seal and opened the letter. Her spirits skyrocketed when she saw the smaller piece of paper that had been enclosed. She’d seen similar pieces of paper in the hands of Elisabeth Müller, the eldest of a pair of sisters who boarded at the Trellis’, and a published author in her own right. “They like it,” Sveta said as she turned the check over. It was for four thousand dollars, which was what she’d been promised as an advance if she provided them with a publishable manuscript before the New Year. The letter went on to say the book would be published soon.

That left the letter from her husband. She opened it, and a few lines later was lost in the world John “Puss” Trelli described. She knew enough about the realities of garrison life to treat most of it with a pinch of salt, but she had to smile at some of the things John claimed the people in his community got up to. Her smile vanished when she got to the bottom of the last page. “Someone shot John!”

Magda appeared at the door. “What was that? Someone shot your husband? Is he badly hurt?”

“No. Apparently he was wearing some armor.” She continued reading. “The fool set himself up as bait to catch a criminal.”

“But he’s okay?”

“Yes. A few bruises, but that’s all.”

“Did they catch whoever shot your husband?”

“He doesn’t say.”

“That can’t be good.”

“No, and he’s asking questions about what guns can penetrate armor,” Sveta said. She was going to have to talk to Papa.

****

Sveta made the mistake of bringing up her letter at the dining table. Mama, of course, was quite horrified that someone would shoot her son, but Papa was more pragmatic.

“He was lucky the person who shot him wasn’t using a regular muzzle-loaded pistol. That would have gone right through.”

Felix! How could you?” Sue protested. “You’ll upset Sveta.”

Sveta wasn’t upset by Papa’s comment, but only because the same thought had been running through her head most of the day. “I’m worried that the person who shot him will try again, but with something more powerful.” She turned to Felix. “Could we get him one of those new flak-jackets you said Frau Kubiak is making?”

“We could, but they’re expensive, and John wouldn’t wear something like that unless his men had them too,” Felix said.

Sveta digested that thought for a moment. It would be so like the man she was getting to know to insist on taking the same risks as his men. Her thoughts moved to the check she’d received, and she patted her baby bump. She wanted her baby to know its father. “I got a check for four thousand dollars from Schmucker and Schwentzel today, would that be enough to pay for one each for John and his patrol?”

“I’ll give Tracy a call,” Felix said.

 

Tetschen

 

It was late on Wednesday afternoon when Puss and his patrol walked out of the courthouse. Ahead of them, already down the steps and on the street, were the wives and children of the Gubka brothers and Hans Seidl. They were walking in a tight group, and if the good people of Tetschen weren’t exactly spitting at them as they passed, they certainly weren’t making them feel welcome.

“Come on, we’d better see them safely to their homes,” Puss said as he started down the steps.

A hand landed on his shoulder. “It might be better if you didn’t, Sarge. Me and Thomas will look after them.”

Puss looked from the hand on his arm to Michael’s face. He saw the look on that face and remembered that those women had just seen their husbands convicted of attempting to kill him and been sentenced to death. “Okay.”

He stayed on the steps and watched as Michael and Thomas hurried after the families, and wondered. “They don’t seem to be very popular,” he muttered.

“Yeah, well, what do you expect?” Lenhard asked. “Their husbands didn’t try to kill just anyone, they tried to kill a member of the Third Division; the goose that’s laying the golden eggs that’s making them all rich.”

Puss continued watching them until they disappeared around a corner. He didn’t like the idea that they were being punished for the sins of their husbands.

****

Back at camp, Puss sent Lenhard on while he dropped in for a few words with Corporal Schegel.

“Georg, what do you know about the Gubka brothers and Hans Seidl’s dependents?” he asked when he found the company clerk in his office.

“What do you want to know, Sergeant?”

“Do they have jobs and a roof over their heads?”

“Now why would you want to know that, as if I didn’t know?” Georg made a note in his ever-present notebook. “I’ll look into it, and if they don’t, I suppose you’d like me to do something to remedy the situation?”

“Please!”

Exasperated, Georg sighed. “If it was anybody but you, Sergeant Trelli. . . . Okay, I’ll see what I can do, but they won’t thank you for it, you know. That kind of people never do.”

“I don’t expect to be thanked, but poverty is a major reason people turn to crime. If those families can survive on what they earn honestly, it means they won’t turn to crime to survive.”

“And if I believe that, you’ve got a bridge you’d like to sell me.” Georg shook his head. “You’re too soft for your own good, Sergeant Trelli.”

“Maybe, but at least I can sleep at night.”

 

Late January, Tetschen

 

Market day was usually one of Puss’ favorite days in Tetschen, but this market day was different, as was the crowd. A lot of people had come to town for the show, and Puss wasn’t happy to see them, because the show they were coming to watch was the execution of four men.

Beside him his patrol were enjoying the carnival atmosphere. Lenhard was stuffing his face with a hot sausage in a bun, while Michael and Thomas were eating pies.

Michael gestured into the crowd. “The Gubkas’ and Seidl’s families are over there.”

With Michael pointing, Puss was able to quickly locate the group of women and children. The women looked about as happy as you’d expect, as did the older children, while the youngsters seemed to be enjoying the occasion.

“There’s a rumor going round that you helped them get jobs with the Third Division Exchange Corps, Sarge,” Thomas said.

“Yeah, well . . . you know what they say about rumors.” Puss couldn’t take his eyes off the three families. They looked so isolated there amongst the crowd. “Things could get nasty for them later. Maybe we should move closer to them just in case.”

“I think it’s safe to say there’s a lot of truth in this rumor,” Michael muttered.

Aware something had been said but not what Puss turned to Michael. “What’d you say?”

“You shouldn’t be let out without a keeper, Sarge. Come on! Let’s find somewhere to watch over your new pets.”

“Pets,” Puss muttered in disbelief as he followed his companions.

“Pets,” Lenhard confirmed. “You’re worrying about them just like you worry about that mangy nag of yours.”

****

Throughout the show—and Puss had to consider it a show—his patrol gave him a running commentary on their opinion of what was happening, and how the crowd seemed more interested in the event than the recent execution of the two men who’d murdered Corporal Behrns, the bodies of whom were still hanging from their gallows.

“It’s because Frederick Hoffmann is to be hung,” Michael explained. “Everyone was expecting him to be executed by the sword.”

“What’s the difference?” Puss was curious in spite of his best efforts to ignore what was happening.

“Hanging is a much more disgraceful punishment, Sarge” Thomas explained. “It not only takes the life and honor of the person being executed, it also brings shame to their families.”

“You can’t help but wonder if maybe Herr Artner had a score to settle with Herr Hoffmann, can you?” Michael asked.

“The old man or his son?” Lenhard asked.

“Ludwig,” Michael said. “Or maybe he just didn’t like Dr. Berlich. Not that I would blame him, he’s a nasty piece of work.”

“A judge can’t impose a punishment just because he doesn’t like a defendant’s lawyer,” Puss protested.

“Maybe they couldn’t do that up-time, but here and now?” Thomas smiled. “They can do anything they like if there’s enough public support for the punishment.”

“And I bet half the argument for hanging is because the offences were committed against members of the Hangman Regiment,” Michael said.

“But we aren’t part of the Hangman Regiment,” Lenhard protested.

“Tell them that,” Puss muttered, gesturing to the crowd in general. He was starting to catch on. “And I suppose there’s some special significance to the fact that instead of hanging them all from the same beam there’s also a single much higher scaffold?”

“Correct, Sergeant,” Thomas said. “The higher anyone is hanged, the more humiliating the punishment.”

Puss sighed. “I was kind of hoping you were going to tell me it was because Frederick instigated the crime.”

“That’ll be part of the official justification.”

All four condemned men, their arms tied securely behind their backs, were marched up to the gallows and positioned under a noose. The first man climbed the ladder backwards. The hangman looped a noose around his neck and carefully positioned the knot. There was a brief moment of silence and then the hangman pushed him.

The man had obviously known what was happening, because he wasn’t so much pushed off the ladder as he jumped. There was a huge cheer from the crowd as the man dropped, and was left hanging lifelessly by his neck.

“More up-time magic,” Michael muttered as the next man was backed up the ladder to his noose. “Those new formula’s are taking all the fun out of a hanging. Many’s the time I’ve seen a hangman forced to add his weight to strangle the condemned man when the fall didn’t break his neck.”

Puss winced. It was bad enough see a man executed cleanly. Watching a man slowly strangled would have turned his stomach, but no doubt that was what some of the audience wanted to see.

The last man to climb a ladder was Frederick, and he resisted all the way, much to the joyful amusement of the crowd. The hangman had to call upon his assistants to pull Frederick up high enough for him to place the noose over his head. When it came time to be pushed off the ladder Frederick took his resistance to a foolish extreme. Instead of jumping like the men before him, and letting the fall break his neck, Frederick fought it all the way. His maneuvering reduced the carefully calculated amount of slack in the rope, and when a huge shove from the hangman finally managed to dislodge him, his fall wasn’t enough to break his neck.

The crowd roared their approval as Frederick struggled in the tightening noose and booed when the hangman wrapped his arms around Frederick and jumped off his ladder. Slowly, life left Frederick’s body.

Puss was just about ready to throw up. He gave the four fresh bodies swinging in the morning breeze a final pensive look before turning to check out how the wives and children of the Gubka brothers and their cousin were coping.

Unfortunately, Puss was so intent them that he missed the approach of Frederick Hoffmann’s father.

“You murdered my son!” he yelled at Puss as he confronted him.

There was nothing Puss could say that wouldn’t inflame the situation, but considerations like that had never stopped Lenhard. “Your son was legally executed for trying to murder the sarge.”

Ludwig snorted loudly. “They hung him. They hung my son. They treated him like a common criminal.”

“That’s because he was a common criminal,” Lenhard shouted back.

This could only get worse, so Puss intervened. “Your son was a spoiled little monster,” he told Ludwig.

“My son . . .”

“Thought his daddy would protect him from the repercussions of anything he did, and he did plenty. Well, this time he went too far, and not even your money could save him.”

Ludwig lifted his fist and waved it under Puss’ nose until Puss grabbed it. “Don’t do anything stupid, Herr Hoffmann. Your son was what you made him. Don’t make the same mistake with your younger son.” He turned Ludwig and pushed him toward his wife and surviving son and daughter who were watching. He waited to make sure Ludwig wasn’t going to turn on him before turning himself and walking off. Michael, Thomas, and Lenhard hurried after him.

“You sure know how to make friends,” Michael said when he caught up.

“He had to hear it from someone,” Puss muttered, still angry at the waste of lives.

“You really think Herr Hoffmann bought his son’s way out of trouble before?” Thomas asked.

Puss nodded. “A person doesn’t just decide one day to go out and murder someone. They build up to it. According to Georg, Frederick’s been getting away with petty theft and minor assaults for years because his father was buying off the complainants. That positively reinforced his behavior, and so it escalated. A couple of months ago he’s rumored to have brutally beaten a prostitute. His behavior was only going to get worse.”

“How do you know all this?” Lenhard asked. “And what’s ‘positively reinforced behavior’?”

“I’ve read about similar cases.” Puss didn’t feel he had to tell them the cases had been fictional, as the stories fitted nicely with what he’d read in his sisters psychology textbooks. “It’s sort of searching for boundaries. A child does something they know is wrong to see if they can get away with it. If they get punished, they know there’s a limit.”

“And if they get away with it, they do something a little worse to see if they get away with that?’ Lenhard asked.

“That’s right.”

“And so you decided that if his father wasn’t going to impose limits, then you would?” Lenhard asked.

Puss raised his brows in astonishment at Lenhard’s thought process and smiled. “Very clever, Corporal Poppler.”

“And you feel rotten that in order to stop him, the Gubkas and their cousin had to die too.”

Puss smiled grimly. Lenhard was definitely on a roll. Sacrificing the Gubkas and their cousin in order to stop Frederick made him feel dirty, but he’d felt it had to be done.

“Which explains why you wanted to help their families,” Thomas said.

There was nothing Puss could say about that, so he said nothing.

 

Early February, Tetschen

 

Puss and his patrol were getting ready for their usual morning patrol of Tetschen when Captain Casper Havemann announced his presence and walked in with Lieutenant Marcus Trautermann and Corporal Georg Schlegel close behind.

“Is that the new body armor I’ve heard about?” Casper asked upon observing the flak-jackets Puss and his men were wearing. “Do they really offer more protection than a cavalry cuirass?”

“Only where the steel plates are,” Puss said as he tightened the flak-jacket’s laces. “The layers of silk will stop a bullet penetrating the jacket, but it can still go in a long way.”

Casper nodded. “Talking about steel plates, I understand you have two sets of plates per jacket?”

“That’s right. The twelve gauge ones we’re wearing, and the three gauge ones that are supposed to be proof against modern rifle rounds.” Puss gestured with his head to where his spare plates were sitting.

Markus pounced on to them. “It’s not much thicker than a cavalry cuirass. Are you sure it’s proof against modern rifle rounds?”

Puss shrugged. “It’s possible. A .30-06 can go through O gauge mild steel at close range, but those are some kind of fancy heat-treated steel alloy.”

“We’d like to borrow them,” Casper said.

“Pardon?” Puss looked toward his colleagues to see if they knew what was going on. He got three shaking heads in reply.

“We’ve got a plan of how to take the Königstein,” Casper said.

“Oh?” Puss was all ears, as were Michael, Thomas, and Lenhard.

“We’ve discovered a weakness to the security,” Casper said. “They get regular supplies by wagon from the local town. The guards know the driver, and open the gates for him without checking the cargo. We intend taking over the usual supply wagon and driving straight into the Königstein.”

“We could take the gates without a shot being fired,” Markus said. “But just to be on the safe side, it’d be nice if the assault team could borrow your armor.”

Lenhard wrapped his arms protectively around his flak-jacket. “All of it?”

Casper smiled. “No, just the plates you aren’t using, please. Oh, and if I could borrow your old cartridge revolvers, Sergeant Trelli?”

“My Rugers?” They’d been a sixteenth birthday gift from his sisters and wasn’t sure he wanted to let someone use them. On the other hand, having them could save the life of Captain Havemann or one of his men. Regretfully Puss moved toward his footlocker.

“You can borrow one of my H&K Remingtons,” Lenhard offered. Michael and Thomas quickly chimed in with the same offer.

“That’s very good of you,” Casper said, “but I was looking forward to using Sergeant Trellis’ cartridge revolvers.”

“But Sergeant Trelli’s family sent each of us a pair of conversion cylinders for our Remingtons when they sent the flak-jackets,” Lenhard said as he drew his Remington and removed the cylinder to show everyone.”

“Thanks, guys, but I don’t mind lending the captain my Rugers.” He unwrapped the two stainless steel revolvers and placed them on the bed. “You’re welcome to borrow them, Captain . . .”

“But you want them back as soon as I finish with them. I’ll take good care of them,” Casper said.

Puss pulled a green and a red plastic cartridge box out of his footlocker. After weighting up the situation he put the green box back and passed Casper the red one. “You’ll probably want these.”

Casper accepted the box and opened it. “What was wrong with the ammo in the green box?”

Puss nodded toward his footlocker. “Those are just normal .45 Long Colt bullets, whereas those,” he gestured to the box in Casper’s hand, “are as powerful as a .44 Magnum, and at close range should go through cavalry armor.”

Casper and Markus weren’t the only ones to whistle at that. “You didn’t offer us any of those rounds,” Lenhard protested.

“It’s a smokeless round, Corporal Poppler, and the cylinders on your Remington’s won’t take the chamber pressure they generate. Heck, only a handful of up-time models can take the pressure these rounds generate.”

“And your Rugers would be one of them?” Casper asked.

“And my Ruger Vaqueros are definitely one of that handful,” Puss confirmed.

“Thank you very much,” Casper said as he put the cartridge back in the box. “Is there anything we can do to repay you?”

Puss didn’t want to say anything, but he couldn’t keep envious eyes off the new white winter uniform Casper and Markus were wearing. It looked like they were wearing insulation filled jackets and trousers, which had to be warmer than the woolen uniform he and his men had. Lenhard, of course, wasn’t so reticent. “Those new winter uniforms as warm as I hear they are?”

Corporal Schlegel grinned. “I could probably arrange for you to be issued a set each from company stores.”

“I appreciate the offer,” Puss said, “but our flak-jackets won’t fit over the jackets.”

“I wear an extra large, see if mine will fit over your body armor,” Casper offered as he started to take his jacket off.

Casper was a big man for a down-timer, but Puss was nearly six feet tall, and filling out. Casper’s jacket didn’t fit. Puss handed it back.

Casper turned to Georg. “Corporal, can we have some made for Sergeant Trelli and his men?”

Georg sighed as he pulled out his notebook. “I’ll send someone around to take measurements.”

“Then if that ‘s all, we’ll take our leave and let Sergeant Trelli and his men get back to whatever they were doing,” Casper said as he collected his booty.

There was a bit of a hiccup when it came to picking up the eight steel inserts. Casper looked from his arms full of guns, and ammunition to the steel plates, then turned to Puss. “I don’t suppose . . .”

“We’ll follow you,” Puss said as he picked up two of the heavy steel plates.

****

A few days later Corporal Georg Schlegel turned up with four kitbags bearing the names and numbers of Puss and his patrol. Georg shooed off the men who’d carried the bags and distributed the bags, which were immediately pounced upon by their recipients.

“What goes around comes around, Sergeant. The wives of the men who attacked you made these garments themselves especially for you and your men.”

Lenhard stopped pulling his new winter uniform out of its kitbag. “Are they safe?”

Georg nodded. “Regina inspected them personally.”

Regina was Georg’s wife. On a good day, if he was soaking wet, she’d only make two of him. A more mismatched pair Puss had never met. However, they were devoted to each other, and if she told Georg that the uniforms were safe, then they were.

“So it’s true that the sarge helped them get resettled?” Thomas asked as he went back to pulling his new uniform out of his kitbag.

“He asked me to see what I could do, and much against all my expectations, they wanted to show their gratitude.”

Puss smiled at Georg. He hadn’t expected any gratitude either. Still, one didn’t look a gift horse in the mouth. He happily continued putting on his new winter uniform. There were a couple of sets of fine woolen long johns, a couple of wool shirts, a woolen sweater, and a large padded winter jacket with matching padded trousers that came up above the hips like ski pants and were held up by shoulder straps. The jacket fitted nicely over his flak-jacket. When he was finished dressing Puss looked at his men, who’d reached a similar stage of trying on their uniforms. The uniforms looked as if they’d been individually tailored to fit. They also made them look bigger and more impressive, which was always a good thing for military policemen.

“We should be a lot warmer in these. Tell the women thank you, please, Corporal,” Puss said.

The rest of his patrol added requests that their thanks also be passed on, and Georg left the tent shaking his head.

“Everyone ready to see how our new uniforms work in the real world?” Puss asked.

 

A couple of days later

 

Puss sat on his cot reading the local newspaper’s coverage of how Captain Havemann and his assault team had captured the gate of the Königstein using a stratagem straight out of Virgil’s Aeneid. He snorted at the flowery language and tossed the paper to one side. “There must be something we can do,” he complained. Since the bulk of the regiment left town, a lot of the action had gone with them.

Across the tent, Corporal Michael Cleesattel rolled off his cot to add some wood to the pot-bellied stove that was keeping them warm. “Don’t wish for trouble, Sarge. It might turn up.” While he was up he filled a mug from the pot simmering gently on top of the stove. “Don’t you have a story you can write?”

Puss sighed. His writing had started out as therapy while he was being dragged around from city to city as part of Dylan Pence’s dog and pony show to promote the sale of war bonds. Sveta, who had been his minder at the time, had passed his scribblings on to Jabe McDougal and his partner, Gino Bianchi. Puss’ mind hit a blank wall there for a moment as he remembered how Sveta had thought herself in love with Jabe. It wasn’t a good feeling to know you aren’t the man your wife wanted to marry, but they’d created a baby together, and naturally they’d married. He just wished it hadn’t been because of the baby. Still, in the months since Sveta had moved in with his family, they’d exchanged a lot of letters, and he was starting to get the impression that she might be starting to like him. With that thought in mind he dug out her latest letters so he could reread them.

“Sergeant Trelli! Sergeant Trelli! There’s an urgent message from Königstein.”

Puss lowered the letter he’d just started to look at the tent flap where Private Günther Kühn, one of Corporal Schlegel’s junior clerks, was busy untying the ties on the tent flap so he could get in. “Who’s it from?” he asked, expecting to hear it was from Captain Havemann or Corporal Schlegel.

“Major Eisenhauer,” Günther answered as he finally gained entry.

“What?” Puss erupted from his cot and just about landed on Günther to relieve him of the message he was carrying. Major Eisenhauer was the commanding officer of the Third Division’s 19th Battalion, the first of two battalions forming the Hangman Regiment.

“What does he want?” an equally curious Michael demanded.

“Give me a chance,” Puss muttered as he broke the seal on the soiled envelope. That it needed to be sealed wasn’t a good sign. The fact that it was so badly soiled meant the message had traveled from Königstein by messenger rather than by radio—that was an even worse sign. “We’re to get to Königstein with all of our equipment statim.” Puss looked up. “What does statim mean?”

“It’s Latin, Sergeant,” Günther explained. “It means at once, or immediately.”

“Well why can’t he just say so,” Puss muttered. “And why couldn’t he have sent that message by radio?” He turned to Michael. “Do you know which tavern Thomas and Lenhard favor with their business?”

“Yes,” Michael said as he grabbed his padded jacket and gun belt and dashed out of the tent.

“Private Kühn, I need you to go to the stable block and ask the stable hands to get our horses ready.”

Günther froze. “Carl Schaffer’s stuck in the infirmary with a broken leg, and no one else will go near your horse, Sergeant.”

“You mean they haven’t been looking after Thunder? Why on earth not?” Puss demanded.

“They’re afraid of him.”

“Afraid of Thunder?” Puss shook his head in disbelief. “He’s a gentle little lamb.”

“Only with you and Carl, Sergeant. I’ve seen him try to take chunks out of people.”

In Puss’ experience with horses, that kind of behavior usually meant someone or something had upset the animal. “If anybody’s been mistreating Thunder . . .”

“Oh, nobody has mistreated your horse, Sergeant. I’ll tell the stable hands to get your patrol’s horses ready and to lay out Thunder’s tack so you can saddle him.”

Puss watched Günther run off. He’d certainly never seen the private run that fast before. He spared a thought for the idea that stable hands—people used to being around horses—could possibly be scared of Thunder, before turning to the task of dressing for the outdoors and packing the rest of his gear. There was no telling how long they’d be away, so they probably had to take everything they could carry.

 

Königstein

 

They were met on arrival by Captain Casper Havemann, his opposite number from 19th Battalion, Lieutenant Markus Trautermann, and a few men from Casper’s headquarters unit. “Captain Havemann, Captain Kirchmann,” Puss said as he saluted the officers.

“Thank you for arriving so promptly, Sergeant Trelli,” Casper said. He turned to the men behind him. “Corporal Amsinck, see to their horses.”

“You have an apple for Thunder, Sergeant Trelli?” the corporal asked as he approached.

Puss smiled as he pulled an apple from his jacket and passed it to Matthias. He and the corporal had a lot of mutual respect for each other. Puss had saved Matthias’ life when he dragged him and Captain Havemann back to their lines when the Poles counter attacked back in Zielona Góra, and Matthias had repaid the favor by killing a man who was intent on murdering Puss a few days later. “I’ve heard that some people are scared of Thunder,” he joked with Matthias.

Matthias broke the apple and carefully offered half to Thunder. “Funny that,” he muttered as his companion took charge of the other three horses and they walked off.

“If you and your men would follow me, Sergeant, I’ll guide you to your quarters.”

They were led into a large room that had been set up for them with four cots, a table and chairs, and most importantly, a roaring fire. Corporal Schegel made for the table while Puss and his men picked out a cot each and dropped their saddlebags and carbines before heading for the fire, where they stood with their backs to the flames and waited to see why they’d been called in.

 “You’re probably wondering why Major Eisenhauer isn’t here,” Captain Kirchmann said. “Well, he’s left me to deal with the problem.”

Puss hadn’t even thought about why the major wasn’t there. “I’m more interested in knowing why we’ve been called to Königstein in such a clandestine manner.”

“All will be revealed,” Captain Havemann muttered.

Captain Kirchmann nodded. “Ten men failed to appear for the last pay call.”

The USE military took pride in the fact that it paid its troops on time. The only thing that could stop a pay call was actual combat. Merely waiting for the shooting to start wasn’t enough. Equally important, soldiers didn’t miss a pay call without good cause. “They couldn’t be missing in action?” Puss asked.

Captain Kirchmann shook his head. “Every man was accounted for after we took the fortress.”

“So they’re definitely AWOL? Puss asked.

“Unfortunately, and if they don’t return inside thirty days, their status will be changed to deserter, and you can imagine what the press would do with that,” Captain Kirchmann said.

Puss nodded. The change of status was a purely administrative action, recognizing that the unit had a vacancy that could be filled. However, that wouldn’t sell as many papers as a headline that the famous Hangman regiment had a deserter problem. “So you want us to find these men and get them to return voluntarily.”

“Preferably,” Captain Havemann said, “but we’ll settle for involuntarily, just as long as they’re back inside thirty days.”

“No pressure then,” Puss muttered.

Captain Kirchmann smiled. “We’ll leave you to get on with it. You coming, Casper?”

“I just want a quick word with Sergeant Trelli.”

Captain Kirchmann nodded and left, leaving Puss and his patrol looking expectantly at Captain Havemann and Corporal Schlegel.

Captain Havemann shoved his hands into his trouser pockets. “Sergeant, we really need this solved quickly.”

“I understand it could be embarrassing . . .” Puss started to say.

Captain Havemann snorted. “It’s already well past embarrassing. Of the missing men, one was my batman and two others were members of the assault team.”

Puss winced. A batman was a personal servant who looked after an officer’s equipment, and as such it was a position of significant trust. And the assault team that secured Königstein’s gate would have been made up of Captain Havemann’s most trusted men. To have these men betray him like this would be a hard blow to take. “We’ll find them, Captain.”

Captain nodded and left, leaving Puss and his patrol with Corporal Schlegel.

Puss pulled out a chair and sat on it astride and rested his forearms on the back rail. “What do we know about the missing, Georg?” With the officers gone he didn’t have to be so formal with the company clerk.

Georg pulled out ten files, each with a photograph paper-clipped to it and laid them out on the table. “These three are from 20th battalion, and these seven are from 19th Battalion.”

Puss pointed to one of the photographs of a man form 20th Battalion. “How much does Corporal Behre have invested in the Third Division Exchange Corp?”

“I’ll have to check the pay records,” Georg said.

“Do that. And find out how much he still has lodged with the pay office.” Puss thought for a moment. “Do the same for all of the missing men.”

“The men from 19th Battalion were recruited locally after the regiment arrived in Tetschen,” Georg explained. “So I doubt they have more than a couple of hundred invested.”

“But they could still have a couple of month’s pay held by the pay office.” Puss did that himself, after all, the pay office actually paid interest on the balance.

“Why do you ask, Sarge?” Michael asked.

“Well, I know how much I have invested in the Third Division Exchange Corp, and it would take something pretty special for me to give that up.”

“Same here,” Thomas muttered.

“So why did these men go AWOL?” Lenhard asked.

“That’s something we’re going to have to find out. Georg, can you get the full pay and service records for these men?”

“I won’t be able to get them until tomorrow.”

“Right, so we start work bright and early tomorrow. Now, if nobody minds, I want to check on my horse.”

 

The next day

 

Puss and his patrol were seated around the table in their quarters reading the records of the missing men when they heard sounds from the courtyard below. Puss opened the window and looked down. He could see men running toward a cone-shaped building. “What’s that building that looks like a cone?” he asked.

“No idea,” Michael said from beside him. “But whatever is going on has to be more interesting that pouring over pay records. What do you say we go and see what’s going on?”

“Anybody want to stay behind?” Puss asked. He got three shaking heads in reply. “Okay, secure the records and we’ll go wander and nose around.

****

“What is this place?” Puss asked the first man they found when they got to the cone-shaped building.

“Sergeant Trelli!” Private Tobias Brandt said as he latched onto Puss’ arm and started to pull him toward the door of the building. “Am I glad to see you and your men.”

“What’s going on?” Puss asked as he liberated his arm from Tobias’ grip.

“We were refilling the cistern when we pulled up a man’s body.”

That sounded weird. “Where’s the body?” Puss asked.

“Follow me.”

Puss followed Tobias through the cone shaped room, where a couple of horses were harnessed to a sweep arm, and into what, for want of a better word, Puss mentally labeled as the “pump room.” There was a massive rectangular wooden water tank occupying the space from the back wall to the lip of a well that had to be ten feet in diameter. Up above there was a round shaft over a foot diameter that ran the length of the room, and around that was wound a rope that looked like three or four inch manila. 

Puss walked over to the naked body that had been laid out on the floor. “Anybody know who it is?”

“It’s Daniel, Sergeant,” Tobias said.

“Daniel who?”

“Daniel Blauermel.”

That was the name of Captain Havemann’s missing batman. Puss turned to his men. “Any of you think to bring the mug shots?”

“I did,” Thomas said as he pulled a packet of postcard sized photographs out of his jacket pocket and sorted through them. He walked up to the body and compared the face with the mug shot. “It certainly looks like Private Blauermel.”

Puss started pacing, and as he paced his eyes kept returning to the well. Historically, wells had often been used to dispose of bodies. They had the advantage of being holes in the ground that someone had already dug. They were also deep and dark, so people didn’t usually look down them without a good reason. He walked up to the well and looked over the lip. It looked a very long way down. “Anybody got a stone?” he asked.

“I’ll get something,” Herman said. He returned a couple of minutes later with a handful of stone fragments.

Puss dropped one and started counting. “One one-thousand, two one-thousand, three one-thousand, four one-thousand, five one-thousand, six one-thousand.”

There was a faint “plop!” before he could start saying “seven one-thousand.” “At least six seconds, that’s . . .”

“A long way,” Lenhard said.

“The well’s five hundred feet deep, Sergeant,” Tobias said.

Puss blushed, and immediately changed the subject. He’d noticed how big the bucket was, and he could easily understand how someone as small as Daniel could have been scooped up as it filled. “I need a volunteer to go down and check for more bodies.”

Puss’s request was met by a complete lack of enthusiasm from the rest of his patrol and the half-dozen men who’d been working the pump. “Then it looks like it’s me. Okay, someone get some rope and a lantern.”

Quarter of an hour later Puss was being lowered down the well. As he got closer to the water he leaned out with the lantern to survey the bottom of the well. The water was clearer than he had expected and he could see down to what looked like the bottom. He located the first of the bodies and after tying the lantern to the bucket paddled over to the body and tied a light rope to a hand so it wouldn’t drift away while he struggled to tie a rope around it in such a way that it wouldn’t fall out on the way up. When he finished with that one he looked for the other body and repeated the action. Then, with both bodies secured to the bucket he called for them to haul him up.

The trip up seemed endless, and Puss’ thoughts turned to who could have killed the three men and why. It’d probably have to wait until they were properly identified, but Puss was starting to wonder about the men who’d allegedly gone AWOL.

****

Back in their room, Puss was pacing around in front of the fire. “How long does it take records to identify three bodies?” he muttered. “They’ve only got a choice of ten.”

“I bet all three are from Charlie Company,” Lenhard said.

“It’d certainly clear up some of the inconsistencies if they are, but why were they killed, and why were they stripped?” Puss muttered.

“The new winter uniforms cost the army a hundred dollars each, Sarge,” Lenhard said. “But there are buyers offering three and four times that.”

“And how do you know that,” Michael asked.

Lenhard shrugged. “I wanted to know how much our new uniforms cost, so I asked Georg.”

“And?” Puss prompted, curious in spite of himself.

“All told, with the tailored fit, and the extra reinforcing plus the reversible oil skins and cavalry cape, it comes to a bit over a thousand dollars each.”

“Ouch. Now I’m really glad I loaned Captain Havemann my Rugers.”

“It won’t have been his own money, Sarge,” Thomas said.

“Of course not, but still, that’s ten times the regular price. I wonder how Georg’s going to bury that in the company accounts.

“That’s not our problem, Sarge.”

A knock on the door silenced them. “Who is it?” Thomas called.

“Corporal Schlegel. I have the results of the body identification.”

Michael dashed to the door and opened it. “Come on in. Who were they?”

Georg walked in with a bag and his usual satchel over his shoulder. He took a seat at the table and pulled some photographs out of his satchel. He laid down pairs of photographs of the dead men and their pay record photographs, naming them as he laid down the photographs. “Corporal Martin Behre, Private Johan Welf, and Private Daniel Blauermel.”

“All from Charlie Company,” Puss said as he walked to the table and looked at the photographs. “Okay, so we’ve got some names, now we need to work out when and why they were killed.”

“I might be able to help with part of the why,” Georg said as he placed the other bag on the table. One by one he pulled revolvers out of the bag and laid them on the table, then he added a single spare cylinder for a H&K Remington cap and ball revolver, a green plastic cartridge box, and a handful of cartridges with red-dyed bases.

“There’re two guns missing,” Michael said as he quickly checked for his revolver.

Lenhard was next, leaving Thomas to look at the three remaining. None of which were his. “What happened?” he asked.

“Corporal Behre was issued with your revolver, and Private Welf was issued with one of the late Corporal Behrns’ revolvers. Is it possible they were killed for the guns?”

Puss shook his head. “The revolvers aren’t that hard to buy.”

“If you’ve got the money,” Lenhard said. “And those conversion cylinders aren’t exactly cheap.”

“Or easy to obtain,” Georg said.

“But to kill three men . . . and why did they kill Daniel Blauermel? He didn’t have a revolver.”

“He was Captain Havemann’s batman,” Georg said. “And that red plastic box of ammunition you gave the captain is missing.”

“Why would anybody want to steal that ammunition?” Puss asked.

Georg opened the green plastic cartridge box on the table and showed everyone the twelve empty slots. “Two reasons. One, Corporal Behre was only issued twelve rounds for the revolver, and two, Captain Havemann was seen to shoot an enemy through a door. Those bullets with their bases dyed red are reputed to be able to penetrate any armor.”

“So someone got Daniel to steal the spare cartridges,” Michael said.

“It sounds that way,” Thomas agreed. “What do you think, Sarge?”

Puss had been distracted by the idea that people thought those high-powered bullets had been worth killing for. He heard his name called, but nothing else. “What was that?”

“Michael thinks someone got Daniel to steal the ammo. What do you think?”

Puss thought about it. “Well, as Captain Havemann’s batman he’d have had access to the ammunition. But why would he do it?”

“And why kill him?” Michael asked.

“Because he was an outsider and they couldn’t trust him?” Georg suggested.

“That as good as any reason I suppose,” Puss admitted. “But it doesn’t really help us.”

Puss started pacing again. “Okay, what do we have? There are three dead men and seven AWOL.”

“Two revolvers and about twenty-six super-powerful cartridges are missing,” Michael added.

“But you can’t safely fire those cartridges from either of the stolen revolvers,” Puss said.

“Would they know that, Sarge?” Thomas asked.

Puss had to concede the point. “Probably not. So, twenty-six super-powerful cartridges for one revolver. But why do they need the revolver and ammunition? Why not just desert?”

“And why now?” Lenhard asked.

That question was met by silence.

“What about the armor plates we loaned Charlie Company?” Thomas asked. Don’t tell me you’ve lost some of them too?”

“They’re all safe in my office, Corporal Klein. The men surrendered it as soon as the fortress was secured,” Georg said.

“Probably didn’t like carrying the extra weight,” Lenhard said.

At more than eight pounds per plate, Puss couldn’t blame them for not wearing them when they didn’t need to. The flak-jackets with just the light inserts weighed about ten pounds, but they fitted so well that they didn’t feel that heavy. “Okay, if that’s settled, how about getting back to basics. The three prime motives for murder are money, passion, and revenge. How do they fit?”

“Passion is out,” Lenhard said. “That’s usually just one person getting killed.”

“And revenge against who?” Michael asked.

“Which leaves money,” Puss said. “But why do they need the guns and ammunition?”

“A bank job,” Lenhard suggested.

Lenhard was smiling as he said it, but Puss wasn’t so sure. “Or someone moving with a lot of money or portable wealth.”

“Gerlach Transport,” Georg suggested. “Maybe they want your special ammunition to shoot through the steel bodywork of the truck?”

“But the stuff they carry is hardly portable wealth,” Michael said.

“And besides, why wait until now to act?” Puss asked. “They’re been doing the Grantville-Tetschen run with their pickup and trailer rig all winter.”

Georg shrugged. “It was just an idea.”

“And it was a good idea, Georg,” Puss said. “It’s possible that they are scheduled to carry some special cargo. I think we’re going to have to head back to Tetschen first thing tomorrow morning and ask some questions.”

 

Tetschen

 

Just shy of four hours after they’d set out Puss and his patrol rode into Tetschen, line abreast with their white cavalry capes covering them and most of their horses. It was barely eleven o’clock and people stopped what they were doing to stare at the sight they made. As they rode through Execution Square, Puss tried to avoid looking at the swinging bodies, but something dragged at his awareness. “What’s happened to Frederick Hoffmann’s body?” he asked when he realized one of the scaffolds was empty.

“Probably his family cut him down,” Thomas said. “That’s what usually happens.”

“And the others?”

“Probably nobody cares enough. They’ll come down in another week or so and be buried at the city’s expense.”

Puss shuddered. He knew the bodies were left hanging as a deterrent, but he still didn’t like it. “Okay, let’s find out where Peter Gerlach and his truck and trailers are.”

****

“Herr Gerlach has been unable to make his latest scheduled trip to Tetschen because of a slight mechanical problem,” the Quartermaster Corp clerk said.

“Was he supposed to be carrying anything special this trip?” Lenhard asked.

Puss wanted to kick Lenhard, but since the question had been asked, he was interested in the answer.

Private Mathaus Kress looked around as if to check no one was listening and leaned closer. “We’re supposed to be getting a new shipment of paper for the beckies.”

Anybody stealing paper meant for the beckies would be a step closer to producing forged bills, which meant that cargo would be well worth someone’s while to take. Except, Puss wondered, how would a bunch of soldiers be able to dispose of it? That suggested some kind of conspiracy. Still, it might not be anything they had to worry about right now. “How long before they can fix the problem, do you know?” Puss asked.

“Repairs should be completed in time for his next scheduled trip.”

“Thank you, Private Kress.”

“You’re welcome, Sergeant Trelli, and you’ll be happy to hear that Herr Hoffmann won’t be bothering you any longer,” Mathaus added as Puss made to turn away.

Puss stopped and looked over his shoulder. “How do you mean?”

“He and his family packed up and left Tetschen earlier today. He won’t be coming back for a while. Not until the disgrace of his son being hung for attempted murder has been forgotten.”

“Oh, shit!” Puss muttered. “What’s the bet they walk right into our deserters?”

It was a bet none of his patrol was willing to take.

****

It didn’t take them long to find out that Ludwig Hoffmann and his family had taken the same route out of Tetschen that Gerlach Transport used. That just added urgency to their actions.

The first thing they did was replace their flak-jacket twelve gauge steel inserts with the three gauge ones. Then they checked their weapons. Each man had a Sharps carbine clone and two revolvers. Thomas had one of Puss’ Rugers to replace his stolen H&K Remington, while Puss had his H&K Army and tucked through his belt, the other Ruger. Both the Rugers were loaded with red-base ammunition, and because they were riding toward possible trouble, everyone wore lanyards in case they dropped their revolvers.

With a final check of their horses’ hooves and their tack they set off at a gentle canter. Ludwig’s party had left some three hours ago, which would gave them a six- to ten-mile lead. Puss and his men had just completed a twenty-mile ride, but at a leisurely pace. That meant their horses weren’t blown, but they couldn’t ride them hard in the pursuit.

By alternating cantering, trotting and walking, they would able to average five to six miles per hour, which should have them catching up with the Hoffmanns somewhere between Libouchec and Chlumec, which according to the map they’d been shown, was about the most deserted stretch of road on the route to Teplitz, where Ludwig had a right to reside and run his business.

Just over two hours into the journey, they were walking their horses again. But they weren’t walking beside them. It was much too cold to do that, even with their cavalry capes on over their new uniforms and oilskins. At the pace they were moving, it was easy to keep an eye on the tracks in the snow they were following.

Michael pointed to a dark patch in the trampled snow. “That dung’s still steaming. We can’t be far behind them now.”

Puss looked at the droppings in question. It was barely above freezing, and the wind made it feel colder. So horse droppings that were still steaming had to be very fresh. “Let’s speed up.” He led the way for a few paces as Thunder moved into a trot.

They were moving swiftly when they turned the next corner and saw, less than a hundred yards ahead, the wagons they’d been following. But that wasn’t all they could see. A group of white clad men were pointing guns at the Hoffmanns and their retainers.

Puss wasn’t sure who started it, but as one horse bolted the others followed suit until all four horses were racing neck and neck toward the armed men.

A top human athlete can cover a hundred yards in less than ten seconds. A horse can do it in half the time. Five seconds doesn’t leave time for much, especially when the encounter was so unexpected. The bandits managed to rattle off a single volley at Puss and his men before dropping their muskets and taking to their heels, with Michael, Thomas, and Lenhard in pursuit. Puss stopped near the wagons where a lone man dressed in a Hangman regiment winter uniform was standing with a revolver in his hands.

Puss hauled Thunder to a halt and raised his revolver and squeezed the trigger. There was a dull click of the hammer falling on a spent cartridge. In the mad dash Puss had managed to empty his double-action revolver without noticing. He immediately dropped the gun and started to reach for the Ruger shoved under his belt, but the bandit already had his revolver pointing at him. Puss held out a palm in a futile attempt to defend against the expected bullet.

Boom!

Puss was surprised not to feel any impact, and was almost unhorsed as Thunder spun round and drop-kicked the bandit in the chest, sending the man backward, to fall in a crumpled heap. He quickly dismounted and, leaving Thunder ground tied, hurried over to the fallen man, drawing his Ruger as he went. A moment later he knew his haste wasn’t needed. The bandit might not be dead yet, but the damage Thunder had done to his chest was going to be fatal.

Puss looked around. Three men on horseback were walking slowly toward him, while Ludwig Hoffmann and his family and retainers were popping out from wherever they’d taken cover. Puss pushed his Ruger back though his belt and felt for his H&K army lanyard with one hand while digging a speed-loader from a pouch on his gun belt with the other. With his eyes on Ludwig he ejected the spent cartridges into his hand and reloaded before holstering the gun. “Are you and your people all right?” he asked.

“You! But you saved us from those bandits!”

Puss smiled wryly. “It’s what we’re paid to do.”

****

Ludwig Hoffmann had been surprised when the white clad men had emerged from nowhere, but he hadn’t been worried. After all, he’d seen soldiers in the Hangman Regiment walking about in the same uniform back in Tetschen. He’d thought it was just a spot inspection by one of their patrols. That was until he recognized Isaac and Jacob Knechtel, the sons of his greatest competitor. He’d realized they intended to kill him and his family, and there was nothing he could do to stop them. And then a miracle occurred. Four mounted men in white, with capes billowing in the wind, appeared on the road and charged down on the bandits, firing as they rode.

Ludwig took advantage of the distraction to dive under a wagon. When he looked up again Isaac was still standing there, with his revolver in his hands, with a handful of his followers, while his brother had bolted with the rest of their men. Isaac’s men had time to fire one volley at the rapidly approaching horsemen. But even at such close range their bullets seemed to have no effect on the horsemen. With the riders almost upon them, they bolted, leaving Isaac standing on the road on his own.

Three of the horsemen continued after the routed bandits, shooting at them as they caught up with them, but the fourth horseman stopped right in front of Isaac and pointed his gun at him. Ludwig wasn’t sure why, but the horseman dropped his gun and held out his hand. There must have been some mystical power at work, because the gun in Isaac’s hands exploded.

The explosion caused Ludwig to duck, and when he next looked up, the rider was on the ground examining a fallen Isaac. Ludwig crawled out from under the wagon and got to his feet. It was only when the rider turned and asked if everyone was all right that Ludwig recognized the man responsible for his eldest son’s death. “You! But you saved us from those bandits!”

The young up-timer just smiled and holstered the revolver he’d been holding and said, “It’s what we’re paid to do.”

****

Puss was standing over the body of the man Ludwig Hoffmann had identified as Isaac Knechtel when Michael, Thomas, and Lenhard returned. Neither the name nor face matched that of any of the men who’d gone AWOL.

“So you finally killed someone, Sarge,” Lenhard said.

Puss shook his head. “This one’s all Thunder’s.”

“So that moves his score to three,” Michael said.

“No, four,” Thomas said. “You’re forgetting that guy in Erfurt.”

Michael nodded. “That’s right. So that’s four he’s killed. You’re falling behind, Sarge.”

“You’re not serious?” Puss demanded, looking to where his horse was sniffing at the ground where he’d dropped his reins, looking for food under the snow.

“Thunder’s a properly trained warhorse, Sarge.”

Puss didn’t need Lenhard to expand on that comment. He knew that the knights of old had trained their horses to fight, and having seen Thunder at work, he was prepared to believe Thunder had been trained to do that by someone. “Why didn’t anyone tell me?” he asked.

All three of his men dropped their heads. “It started as a joke, Sarge,” Lenhard said.

“Give the poor inexperienced up-timer a real horse to ride?” Puss suggested.

“Something like that,” Lenhard agreed. “But you knew how to ride, and you soon had the most vicious animal in the company literally eating out of your hand.”

There was nothing Puss could say about that, so he got back to more important matters. “What happened to the bandits?”

“Shot while trying to escape, Sarge,” Michael reported.

Puss sighed. “It would have been nice to have had at least one survivor to question.”

“Sorry, Sarge,” the three of them chorused.

“Have you identified them?”

“Seven of them match the AWOLs. The eighth man’s a stranger,” Thomas said.

Puss turned to where Ludwig and his family had been listening in. “Herr Hoffmann, would you mind going with Corporal Klein and seeing if you can identify someone for us?”

“Of course, Sergeant Trelli.”

 

A few days later, Tetschen

 

Puss and his patrol were standing at attention in front of Captain Georg-Friedrich von Frankenberg, the commanding officer of MP Company Third Division and his Lieutenant, Heinrich Diefenthaler.

“I can’t leave you alone for a minute, can I, Sergeant?” Captain von Frankenberg roared as he waved a newspaper under Puss’ nose.

“No, sir,” Puss said as clearly and firmly as he could.

“What was that?” Captain von Frankenberg demanded. “Are you trying to be funny?”

Puss tried to be even clearer this time. “No, sir!”

Captain von Frankenberg slumped down into his chair and spread the newspaper out on his desk and started to read aloud.

 

“ST. GEORGE’S GHOSTS GALLOP TO GLORY.”

“Bandits masquerading as members of the famous Hangman Regiment were killed in a short engagement with the equally famous St. George and his ghostly riders.”

 

Captain Frankenberg looked up to see if Puss was listening.

 

“Sergeant John ‘St. George’ Trelli, knowing that a group of bandits were in the area, led his patrol after respected Teplitz merchant Ludwig Hoffmann in a desperate chase, arriving like the up-time 7th Cavalry, in the nick of time, to save the day.

 

“Ambrosius Weineck has a certain way with words, doesn’t he, Sergeant?”

Puss managed to nod agreement, although he could think of other ways of putting it.

Captain von Frankenberg screwed up his paper and waved it at Puss. “Where did he get this pack of lies?”

“I couldn’t say, sir.”

“ ’Couldn’t,’ or ‘would prefer not to say,’ Sergeant?”

“I’d prefer not to say, sir.”

“Very well. Let’s look at your report then.” Captain von Frankenberg placed Puss’ hand-written report on his desk. “How much of this am I to believe?”

“It is mostly supposition, Sir. We know the Knechtels were in Königstein before the men went missing. Their possession of the revolvers and uniforms suggests they were parties to the murders of the men from Charlie Company. We think they went there to recruit a group of local men known to them to attack Herr Hoffmannn when he left Tetschen.”

“And why did they kill three men?”

Puss desperately wanted to shrug. He didn’t know, but he could give his best guess. “For the uniforms, I think.”

“But they only needed two extra uniforms. Why kill three men?”

Puss nodded. “I think . . .” For a moment his mind went blank and he couldn’t remember the third man’s name. “I think Captain Havemann’s batman was just an extra. Somehow they persuaded him to steal some of the high-powered cartridges I gave the captain, and he was killed to silence him.”

“And why would anybody kill for some cartridges?”

“There was a rumor going about that they could shoot through any armor, sir.”

“And why would the Knechtels do this?”

Here Puss was on firmer ground. “Herr Hoffmann was leaving Tetschen with virtually everything he owned, sir. He admits to having had over half a million dollars in cash hidden in his wagons.”

“And no doubt a lot more he wasn’t admitting to.” Captain von Frankenberg nodded. “Okay, I can accept that as a motive. And all this is contained in this barely-legible scrawl you call your report?”

Puss winced. He’d tried to use his best cursive handwriting, but a fountain pen wasn’t his favorite writing implement. “Yes, sir.”

Captain von Frankenberg slid the report across his desk to Puss. “Take it away and type it up. I want something I can read. Dismissed.”

****

The moment the door shut after Corporal Klein, Captain Georg-Frederick von Frankenberg high-fived with Lieutenant Heinrich Diefenthaler. “Our boy did well,” Georg said.

“That story he supplied Herr Weineck was perfect. It tied everything up with neat little bow-ties, and no mention of men deserting the Hangman Regiment,” Heinrich said. “Sergeant Trelli should be working for the Joint Armed Services Press Division.”

Georg shook his head. “That would be a waste of his talents. No, I think I’ll put his name forward for the new War Crimes Platoon that Jena has been talking about.”

“It’s quite a jump from sergeant to captain, Georg. There’re a lot of well qualified officers out there.”

“You don’t want the job yourself, do you?” Georg asked.

“No, it’s not for me, but the competition is going to be fierce for such a plum billet.”

“You’re forgetting something, Heinrich.”

“What?”

“What unit is the War Crimes Platoon most likely to work with?”

Heinrich stared blankly for a few seconds, then, as enlightenment dawned, he smiled. “The Hangman Regiment.”

“And who has just done a considerable service to the Hangman Regiment? None other than our very own Sergeant John Trelli.”

“And his men, Georg. There will have to be something in this for them, or he might decline the promotion.”

Georg sighed. “Sometimes Trelli and his sense of fair play is more trouble than he’s worth. Okay, I’ll add them to the recommendation.”

****

The streets of Tetschen were crowded as the other regiments of the 3rd Division started to arrive. Puss wended his way through the streets until he arrived in Execution Square. He walked past the hanging bodies of Karl Bauman and Peter Diener, and came to a halt under the scaffold where the bodies of Martinus and Christoff Gubka and Hans Seidl were still swinging in the breeze. His part in their deaths still bothered him.

The sound of childish laughter broke through his gloomy thoughts and he turned to watch a couple of children as they chased each other around the scaffolds, laughing and giggling, oblivious to the bodies swinging above them. He’d been like that once.

Once, he snorted to himself. Anybody would think he was ancient. Instead, he was still only twenty-one, although what he’d been through and seen sometimes made him feel old.

His eyes followed the children as they ran to their parents—a couple with a baby in arms. Puss let his eyes settle on the couple. They seemed happy together with their children, and he wondered if he and Sveta would ever be like that. Well, they had the first baby on the way, so they were partway there . . . but what would married life together be like?

He’d counted up all the hours they’d been in the same room together, and it came to under a hundred hours. That wasn’t a good basis for marriage, but maybe the separation hadn’t been all bad. From someone who would barely give him the time of day, Sveta’s letters hinted that she might actually be starting to like him. As for his feelings for her, they had only intensified. He ran his tongue over his suddenly dry lips as he remembered that night . . .

Splat!

The impact was totally unexpected, but he knew almost immediately what he’d been hit by. He dropped to a knee, and even as he looked over his shoulder to try and identify the culprit, his hands were forming a snowball with which to retaliate. He’d expected to see Lenhard, or maybe Michael, but instead there were two boys, one looking shocked, and the other pointing at his shocked companion. Assuming the guilty party was trying to put the blame on his companion, Puss launched his snowball at the pointer, catching him by surprise. The boys wasted precious seconds staring at Puss, who was able to quickly assemble another snowball and catch the second boy, also in the chest.

It developed into a massive battle as children and adults joined in the snow fight on one or other side. A great time was being had by all, until the city watch and the military police turned up.

****

Author’s note:

The execution scene is adapted from descriptions in: Theatre of Horror : Crime and Punishment in Early Modern Germany, Richard van Dulmen ; translated by Elisabeth Neu. Cambridge, Mass. : Basil Blackwell, c1991.

 

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