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"Hello? Anybody there?"
Paul Santee took off the holstered .45 when he heard the call. It came again, nearer. "Hello, the house!" No sense in scaring someone who probably meant well. He tucked the .45 behind his belt in the small of his back. No sense in being stupid, either. Stupid tends to kill people, and he was still alive. Something strange had happened last weekend, and he didn't know what it was. It was good to hear another voice, especially one that seemed friendly.
"Hello! Mr. Santee?" The caller turned out to be a kid, a gangly blond teenager who stood at his gate. Santee stepped out on his porch and waved the boy in.
Eddie Cantrell carefully closed the gate behind him. He wasn't too happy about finding this cabinhe'd secretly hoped it was outside the Ring of Firebut when Mike Stearns asked about war veterans, Santee's name had come up, and Eddie had been asked to go see if his backwoods cabin was inside the Ring, and if he was still alive. Obviously, yes to both. Eddie walked up the path carefully, slowly, trying to figure out how to explain things. He'd heard that Paul Santee was a survivalist, a loner, mean as hell. The man in front of him was small and wiry, grizzled, graying. He didn't look particularly mean, or particularly anything, except for his piercing eyes.
Santee stared at the kid appraisingly. "What can I do for you?" he said gruffly. The kid looked alarmed. Should have made some small talk first, Santee thought. That was a bit abrupt. I'm sure out of practice.
"Mr. Santee, do you know what happened?"
That was what Santee wanted to know. Give the kid some minimum information and see how he responds. "Well . . . Five days ago, thunder and a big flash of lighting from the clear blue sky. Path to the road disappeared about a hundred feet down the way. Weather's been strange. Phone is dead. My bedroom window faced south, but not any moremaybe the earth's axis of rotation shifted. There's a big wall of dirt that seems to go on and on." A long pause there, as he looked at Eddie. "And some damn bird was out there yesterday that sounded exactly like a cuckoo clock. Do you know what happened?"
"Uh, well, Mr. Ferrarahe's my science teachersays we were moved to Germany, in the year 1631. And that there's a war on, with us in the middle of it."
Santee looked hard at the kid, trying to find some sign of repressed mirth that would indicate a joker. He saw none of it, just an anxious teenager repeating what he'd been told.
"Who is 'we'?"
Eddie was confused at first, then figured it out and responded. "About a six-mile circle around Grantville. Everybody insideeverything insidemoved here. Gas wells, coal mine, power plant, everything." He looked up the path on the other side of the house. "I guess your driveway leads off to Butterchurn Road. That didn't make it."
"Oh. Okay. Damn. Shit. Take some thinking on." That story was totally unbelievable, but so were the plain facts all around him. Goddamn it. The kid clearly had more information, but it would take a while to get it, and Santee didn't like standing for long stretches. "Would you like something to drink? I just have water, but it's clean and cold."
Eddie nodded. "Thanks. That sounds good, but then I've got to get back." Santee still scared him a little. "Mike Stearns is the head of the committee. He said if you were here inside the Ring, he'd, uh, like to meet you."
"What's your name, son?"
"Eddie Cantrell." He paused, wondering if he should add "sir" to it, but it was too late.
Santee held his door open. "Come on in, Eddie. My name is Paul, but everybody just calls me Santee. It's real neighborly of you to come out here to tell me." He wondered if that sounded as hokey as it felt saying it.
They sat at Santee's table and drank cold spring water. Eddie told about the tumultuous day of the Event, and the town meeting and what the people were doing to cope with the war they found themselves in. They were going to fight, of course. They'd sent him here, he said, because they were trying to find every American within the Ring and gather them in Grantville to help with defense. Santee didn't betray any surprise, just kept listening and asking occasional questions. After a while Eddie relaxed a bit and decided Santee was just trying to be nice, even if sociable chitchat came hard to him. At Santee's subtle probing, Eddie explained that he was on his own now, since he was on a different side of the Ring of Fire from his home, including his father (who he said was "okay, when he had the time") and stepmother (who he admitted he wouldn't miss much).
The talk returned to more immediate matters. "How did you get here?" Santee asked him.
"I rode my dirt bike up that hill"he pointed across the canyon"and saw your smoke, and then your cabin. Lots of Germans running from the war around here, but they don't make smokestacks like that. No way to ride here, so I just walked. Brush got thick in places, but no problem."
"Good job. You must move pretty quiet when you want to." Santee even gave him a brief, crooked smile. "None of my business, but what are you going to do? I don't mean the town, I mean you."
"Well, I've been drafted, I guess. Frank Jackson's running the army; I'll do what he tells me to. He's a Vietnam vet." Eddie sounded a little impressed at that. Then he looked at his watch and quickly stood up. "Uh, I have to get back. I'm late now. Thanks for the water and all. Hope to see you in Grantville. . . ."
On impulse, Santee said, "Just a second, Eddie. You say there are armed Germans out there. Do you have a gun?"
"Uh, no. I had a .22 and a shotgun, but now . . ."
"Just a sec then. Be right back."
Santee disappeared through a side door and came back in a few minutes with a pistol in a fully enclosed holster.
"This is a Russian Nagant revolver. Seven shooter, not the usual six shots. Damn ammo costs forty bucks a box, so the pistols are cheap. Uh, 'were.' Damn."
Eddie smiled. "Everybody's doing that. Weird for everyone."
"Yeah. I suppose so. You know about gun safety?"
"It's loaded. Don't point it at anybody. Know what you're shooting at." Eddie repeated it mechanically; it had been drilled into his head a thousand times.
Santee nodded and handed the pistol to Eddie. "You know it; just remember it. Take this outside and dry-fire it a few times. Trigger pull is god-awful. Cylinder moves back and forth front to back; that's normal. I'll go round up the ammo."
Eddie did as he was told and found that Santee was right. His forefinger got tired right away, the sights were terrible, and the gun was uncomfortable in his hand. But he was fascinated by the various moving parts and was peering closely at the mechanism when Santee rejoined him with the ammunition. Santee showed him how to load and unload the gun, then opened a box and took out some ear muffs and safety glasses.
"Ready to try it?" Eddie nodded. "Shoot at that metal gong by the woodpile over there. The hill will catch anything that misses the woodpile."
Eddie shot seven times, and missed all but the last. The ringing gong made them both smile. "You'll do," was all Santee said to Eddie as they moved back toward the cabin.
Santee briefly showed him how to clean the revolver, and Eddie said again that he had to get back. It was going to be dark soon. "Thanks for letting me borrow this gun, Mr. Santee."
"Not borrow. It's yours to keep. I don't need the damn thing. I was going to trade it off for something else, and I'm glad to see it go to someone who can use it. Just keep it clean and it'll last a long time. Ruskie guns are butt-ugly but hell-for-strong."
Eddie thanked him awkwardly but profusely, then headed off through the brush, leaving Santee alone with his thoughts.
He lit a fire in the wood stove and found a pan to heat up some canned stew. He normally tried to cook dinner, but tonight was a night for thinking, not cooking. He had moved to this small cabin in 1990, and hardly ever left it. It had a spring on the hill above, so it had running cold water, and a septic system, but no power. The power company would have been happy to bring him power at two dollars a foot from the road, but he didn't have the five thousand or so dollars that would take, nor really need the power. But he did have a friend with the phone company who'd made a "mistake" and got him telephone installation for sixty bucks. A generator provided power when he needed itmostly to run power tools and check his e-mail dailyand his jeep took him on monthly trips into Fairmont or Wheeling or Charlottesville to get supplies. He had a garden, his hunting, his pension, his collection of old guns, and plenty of time. Most of his old friends were dead or had gone all domesticated, and most of his new friends he'd never met except online. He'd been fairly happy, semi-retired, living the life every ex-sergeant says he dreams of . . .
He'd rarely been to Grantville. It had been out of his way from the roads he could reach, and too small a town for good prices, but now it was the only town he could get to. And from what Eddie had told him, it was at war, for chrissake. He'd left the war back in Vietnam, and it had taken him quite a few years to get it out of his mind and sleep soundly again. Ever since then, he'd tried hard to never let any of that mindset back into his life. That kind of thinking, war thinking, really fucked you up for living in the real world.
But the real world had just changed, hadn't it? Snap to, he told himself. Good survivors don't waste time trying to play the old game when all bets are off. If he'd been dealt a new hand, he'd better take a close look at the cards.
Eddie had said that Mike Stearns, the head honcho, wanted to meet him. Like I'm going to go take tea with the fucking governor! Who I need to talk to iswhat was his name, Frank Jackson?the guy who's running the army.
The next morning, Santee walked into Grantville. There was no real path, just some game trails, so it had taken him two hours to go down the hill and into the town and would probably take him three hours to get back. Far from the sleepy town he vaguely remembered, the town seemed to be buzzing with activity. No cars, though; people were walking everywhere. Smart, save the gasoline for the army. The thought came to him with surprising ease, worrying him a bit. Damn it, I'm a civilian now. Have been for twenty years. No need to examine everything as if he was still a platoon sergeant. But he couldn't help noticing that lots of the men were wearing pistols, perhaps even most of them. The .45 on his own hip fit in nicely.
Asking around, he found out that the new army commander, Frank Jackson, was big in the Mine Workers union. Eddie had said he was a 'Nam vet; if he hadn't been just a desk jockey, he might do. Santee headed for the cafeteria where people said Jackson usually had lunch. Lunch sounded good after his long walk, and he was pleasantly surprised to find the food abundant and free. After eating, he found Jackson surrounded by a dozen miners, deep in a spirited discussion. No time like the present.
"Frank Jackson? Can I talk to you after lunch? Alone?"
Frank looked up, annoyed. "And you are . . . ?" His tone said "Who the hell are you?"
"Paul Santee. Tunnel rat. We ate some of the same bananas." He kept his tone flat, almost careless.
One of the miners next to him started to say something blustery, "Well, you can just . . ." but stopped when Frank interrupted. "Sure. I'll be with you in, say, five minutes?" Santee nodded and moved away to wait.
Frank held up a hand to the questions that came from all sides. "Vietnam. The tunnel rats went down into those little VC tunnels with just a knife and a flashlight, maybe a small pistol. There were booby traps, and spiders and scorpions and snakes, and a bunch of gooks who wanted them dead. Anyone who did it has twice the guts I ever had, and anyone who made it back has twice the luck I have, and was very, very good at it. Think about it." He wolfed down the last of his food. "I've got to go talk to this guy. Keep on trying to figure out what sort of problems we'll have once we open the second shaft, and then figure out what to do about it. I'll talk to you when I get back." Still chewing, he walked away from the miners, who were buzzing in low tones.
He and Santee stepped outside. Frank said, "Before yesterday I thought I knew all the vets around here. And you being a Rat, well, if this was a bar I'd buy you a drink. So what can I do for you?" His tone was affable and open; Santee relaxed a little.
"Oh, I've lived here for years; up in the hills west off of Butterchurn Road. I guess my mailbox is still back in West Virginia, but my cabin's on this side. I haven't been to this town in five or six years, because my road used to go off toward Fairmont."
"And now it doesn't go anywhere?"
"Right. The kid you sent to hunt for me told me what happened, so I came to see what's going on heresince it looks like we're all in the same little boat together."
"Yeah, Eddie told me he'd found you yesterday. We'd be glad to have you join us. We're putting together an army of self-defense, or the nearest thing to it we can manage. We need everybody we can get, and it would really help a lot to have somebody else with combat experience." He looked at Santee expectantly.
He thinks I'm going to re-up right here on the spot! Fuck him. "I'll think about it. I need to know more. What are the chances, what are the plans, who's supposed to be in charge, who's really in charge."
Frank nodded. "Sure. Sensible questions. Listen, I've got to get back to my Mine Workers committee right now, but I want to talk to you some more. And to get your questions answered, you probably need to see Mike Stearnshe's the guy we elected to run things for now. Mike's easy to talk to. How about if I make you an appointment with him this afternoon, and then I meet you for a beer after work?"
Santee nodded warily. Frank seemed decent, he thought, but so what. He'd go meet Stearns, and then talk to Frank again, and then maybe decide what to do. He followed Frank back toward the building.
That evening, working on their third beer, Santee and Frank had gotten through discussing Grantville's defenses and started talking about the warthe old one. Frank had talked about what he'd done in Vietnam, and Santee closed his eyes and let some of the memories flood back. "Let's see," he said, "I got out in '79. Twelve years and I was back at corporal, and lucky not to be in the fucking stir. We cleaned out some tunnels out by Dim Noc, then just sat there for three days while the surface troops tore us up. After a while, I just melted into the jungle. I don't know if I was the only one alive at that point or not, and I've still got shrapnel in my hip. I sat there and watched my buddies get shot, and there wasn't a fucking thing I could do about it. I got back to our camp two weeks later. I found the motherfucking full-bird who ordered the choppers away from the pickup area and busted his jaw and both elbows."
He glared at Frank, who passed the unspoken test when he nodded emphatically. Bad officers were common enough in 'Nam; good men died when they did stupid things. "I'd just made E-7 and was breaking in some new guys. 'Piece of cake,' I told themthe tunnels weren't big and we went through them fast . . . Bastards." The last was said almost under his breath.
Santee took a deep breath, let it out, and started again. "Anyways, I don't talk about it 'cause it just pisses me off. I getgotsome disability and some money from some stocks and such. I do okay. I live up on the hill, and I hunt and fish and garden . . ." He paused a moment. So, am I going to tell him? Yeah, he's going to find out anyway. "And for fun, I have an Oh-Three FFL." Frank looked puzzled and he explained. "I'm a licensed collector of Curio and Relic Firearms. I can get guns in the mail, legally, if they're over fifty years old or on the special list. So I buy 'em and trade 'em, and keep a few I like."
Frank sat up with renewed interest. "Uh, if you don't mind my asking . . . how many guns do you have?"
"Oh, say fifty or sixty or so long guns, and maybe twenty pistols." The actual count was higher, but you didn't lay all your cards face up. "The thing is, lots of them are oddballs." At Frank's quizzical look, he went on. "I got German and French and British rifles from World War Onethey all have different calibers, and they keep changing calibers too. For instance, I went hunting last year with a Turkish Forestry Carbine in 8mm Lebel. It started life as a French Berthier infantry rifle from World War One, and the Turks cut it down to a carbine in the forties. I'll bet I have the last boxes of 8mm Lebel ammo in . . . hell, in the whole world." Of course, the world had a different meaning now. "And some old rolling-block rifles, and Mausers, and Carcanos . . ." He stopped at Frank's lack of recognition and waved his hand dismissively. "A bunch of 'em, anyway. I gave Eddie Cantrell an old Russian revolver. I figured he'd be safer with it."
Frank grinned. "Yeah, he showed it to me. He was real proud of it. I'm glad you did that; Eddie's basically a good kid." Frank closed his eyes and tipped his head back a moment, thinking. "Your arsenal may be screwy, but most of what we've got is screwy, and the whole Ring of Fire is screwy. If you'd be willing to contribute some of it, it could make a huge difference in our war effort."
So here it was. Santee had to make up his mind now. He kind of liked Frank Jackson, and Mike Stearns had seemed competent during their brief meeting that afternoon, but he still didn't like the choicescome join their army and give them all his guns, or tell them to fuck themselves and go back and defend his cabin and guns by himself. He decided on compromise: give them some of his guns and help them out a little but stay independent. He'd long ago promised himself he wasn't going to take orders ever again, and that still held.
"I'll tell you what," he said slowly. "I'll do an inventory and see what I have that I don't need and you guys could use, and I'll let you know."
Frank looked deflated, but he said, "Thanks a lot. We'll appreciate any help you can give us."
They talked on for a while, but it was getting late. Too late and too dark for Santee to walk back to his cabin, even if there hadn't been marauding Germans around. He warily accepted the spare bed Frank offered him for the night, but he left early the next morning and chewed over his choices all the way back.
It was a cold shock to see his front door half broken, hanging open on its hinges. Santee froze, then stepped silently back behind some brush, drew his .45, and listened intently. Nothing. From where he stood he could see tracks in the dirt, coming and then goingbig odd-looking, flat footprints. Germans! Three of them, he decided; two tall and one short. He waited a long while, then flicked a pebble onto the porch. Nothing happened. Very quietly, very stealthily, he crept up on the porch and entered the cabin.
He was shocked at the devastation. It seemed as if everything that could be broken was broken, and everything loose was on the floor. Dishes, books, lamps, pieces of computer equipment, food. Even the stovepipe had been knocked loose, and greasy black soot had fallen all over the mess. A few papers rustled forlornly in the breeze from the open door. But he gave the scene in the front room only a glance. Sick with apprehension, he stepped quickly over the piles of debris and through the open side door into the spare room. The storage boxes there were dumped and things were thrown around, but the floor seemed unbroken. With a huge sigh of relief, he pushed aside an overturned box and flipped an almost invisible catch that released an almost invisible hatch cover in the floor . . . Thank God they hadn't found the guns!
Later, after he'd tacked up plastic sheeting over the broken door and windows, unearthed his futon from the mess to sleep on, and found enough food still intact for a cold supper, Santee was still shaking, but hot rage had turned into simmering anger. If I knew who did this I'd kill 'emwith my bare hands! Stealing his stuff would have been bad enough; trashing it was pure malice. But if the culprits had been a party of Germans, as seemed likely from their tracks, killing them bare-handed was a tall order for a little guy in his fifties with shrapnel in his hip. If they decided to come back, he'd have a tough time with them even if he was well armed, even if they didn't bring any friends along. And he'd have to stay up nights pulling his own sentry duty. And eat what? Most of his food stores had been trashed. They hadn't found his Jeep, but there were no roads he could take now to replenish any supplies. . . .
Suddenly he realized just how alone he really was. He shook his head, almost in despair. He'd been wondering if he really needed to get involved with the people in Grantville. Obviously the choice had been made for him. Goddamn it.
Santee found Frank Jackson again the next day, in the office that had been created for him in one of downtown Grantville's vacant buildings. "I told you I'd bring you a list of the guns I could spare for the army," Santee said, "but I've got a problem. Two problems."
"Shoot," Frank said.
Santee told him what had happened to his cabin.
"Oh, God," Frank said. "I was afraid that kind of thing might start happening. Single isolated cabins are just too tempting a target. Can we send a squad out to help you chase them down? We can spare"
"No need," Santee interrupted, rather bitterly. "Much as I hate to have the decision made for me, I've decided I can't live out there any more. Not just dangerous; no way to get supplied. Got to move."
Frank looked sympathetic. "Shit. I'm sorry. Do you want me to see about finding you a place to stay here in town?" Santee nodded. "And will you have a lot of stuff to move?"
Santee fidgeted. "Well, that's the other problem. The personal stuff that I can salvage probably won't amount to muchtwo or three backpack loads ought to do it. But then there's the guns . . ." He fished out a rather crumpled handwritten list and handed it to Frank.
Frank quickly scanned the list. "Pretty impressive looking. I don't know half these names, though." He looked up at Santee. "You mean you're donating these to the army?"
"What the hell else am I going to do with 'em? Can't sell 'em, can't shoot 'em all myself, sure as hell can't eat 'em. Maybe your guys will go out and kill the bastards who trashed my cabin with 'em."
"This is quite a list. They're going to be a big help . . ." He stopped, seeing Santee's sardonic expression. "But first we've got to get them here, right?"
"How long do you think we have before the Germans find them first?"
"Oh, they're pretty well hidden. If the bastards didn't find them when they tromped all through the cabin, I doubt if they're going to find them now. Unless we advertise they're there by making constant little trips carrying two guns at a time."
"Yeah, I see what you mean. Since we don't have to rush, let's think about how we can get them here more or less safely." Frank thought a moment. "Are you going to be around this afternoon, like three-thirty or four?"
"I could be."
"Good. I have to go to a meeting now, but why don't you come back then and I can spend more time with you?"
"Okay, I'll be here," Santee said. Busy man, he thought as he left, but he was real smooth in getting rid of me.
Santee was back a little before four, and Frank seemed more relaxed. He said, "I've found a place for you to stay, if you want it, a guest cottage a block from the big church. Small, but Ruth Tippett will be happy to let you use it. Her husband was a Korean veteran, and she told me to specifically say she'd be proud to have you."
Santee grinned at him. "Maybe she wouldn't be if she knew some of the shit I pulled."
They talked briefly about the arrangements for Mrs. Tippett's cottage, and then Frank changed the subject. "Listen, I've been thinking. The army's growing. We've been getting more and more raw recruits in, and I mean rawthey don't even know how to stand in line. It would sure be a big help if we could find somebody with military experience who could show them the basics and"
"No!" Santee snapped. "I can see where you're heading, and the answer is no! I appreciate the help finding a house and all, but I'm not going to be a goddamn training instructor for anybody. Keep me out of the fucking chain of command! Remember, when I was in the army I broke a colonel's jaw. And the last time I had a job, I was unloading a truck and the driver about run over me and I whupped his ass. Big sucker, he was, and I'm a little shit, so they believed me when I said he started it, but I still had to go. And the time before that . . . well, I made sergeant three different times. Never mind." He took a deep breath. "I guess I'm saying I'm not cut out for taking orders any more. I just get pissed off when they turn stupid." He glared defiantly.
"Okay," Frank said in a flat tone, "message received."
Santee felt a little bad. "It's not that I don't want to help. Maybe I can do something else. Reload ammo or something. I do know gunswell, rifles and handguns anyway . . ." He trailed off.
"I'll think about it," Frank said.
A week later, Santee had settled into Mrs. Tippett's cottage and Frank dropped by with a proposal.
"Chief Weapons Scrounger? Hell of a title," Santee said.
"Yeah, but we need one. Mike and I were talking. Lots of folks around here probably have hunting guns they aren't using. And there are the gun nuts, too; who knows what they have. Between them there'll be guns in all sorts of different calibers and conditions. So your job would be asking people for their spare weapons and then sorting them out, and the ammo, too. We don't have an armorer or anything."
"Hmm," Santee said slowly. "You said this is an army job? Who would I report to?"
"Just me, if you want to call it reporting. No chain of commandlet's just say Mike and I tell you the job we want done and you do it."
Santee closed his eyes and thought a long moment. "Okay. All right. I can do that." Have to do something; I'll go crazy here otherwise. "When would you want me to start? I still need to make one last trip to the cabin."
"You can start when you're ready," Frank said, looking relieved. "Welcome to the U.S. Army."
"I'll need some help if I'm going to scrounge weapons. Someone who knows the town, and maybe Eddie Cantrell; he seems sharp enough to pick up the job without a month of training."
"There's a map of the town on the wall at the hardware store. Or you might still be able to buy one for two bucks at the mayor's office if they still have any left. Eddie can help you, but we can't spare anyone else. All the adults around here are already trying to do a thousand things at once.
Santee sighed. "Okay. Pass the word, or give me a badge, or whatever."
"Will do. One thing though . . . you'll be dealing with civilians, ladies and such, and your language is . . . uh, colorful."
Santee tried to look prim. "Golly gosh, to think that one of our fighting soldiers might actually say naughty words."
Frank grinned at him. "Mike said, 'Tell him to keep it down in front of the ladies, but teach it to the youngsters. It's part of their military training.'"
"Well, that's one thing I'm expert enough to teach, anyhow."
"We hope you can talk people out of their 12-gauge pumps, and rifles in .308 and .30-06 and .223those are going to be our standard military calibers. And if you can, spend some time teaching anyone who's rusty, or inherited something. Redistribute the nonstandard ammo as best you can; try to make sure everyone has at least a hundred rounds." Santee nodded. "And one last thing: Mike wanted me to emphasize that handing over their weapons is voluntaryreally voluntaryand even if someone offers to give up their last gun, make sure they don't. We need armed civilians as much as an army, and the Second Amendment still stands."
"Absolutely! Couldn't agree more." At least these guys have the right idea. "Okay. I'll not only collect extra weapons, I'll try to make sure every house has at least one gun and some ammo and knows how to use it."
Two days later, after Santee's last trip to his cabin, they talked again. Frank had managed to scrounge up an extra map of Grantville somewhere. It was one of the full-sized maps the town had kept a few copies of in stock, and Santee was glad to get it. The detail was much better than on the computer-generated map he'd been using. Frank also said he'd talked to Eddie, who was proud to be the new Assistant Weapons Scrounger.
Santee said he was ready to start the job tomorrow, after he rested. "I brought down the last of my stuff, plus two rifles, and I'm beat."
"Mrs. Tippett says, until we can get an armory, we can use her front room to store all the guns and ammo you round up. That should make things handy for you. I already know some people who have shotguns to contribute, and pretty soon I guess we're going to have to figure out how to get your guns down here."
"Yeah, I've been worrying about that. When I was up there yesterday I didn't see signs that anybody but me had been there, but we can't be lucky forever. I figure those guns are worth a fortune these days, and we sure as hell don't want any of them shooting back at us."
"You said you've got, what, sixty rifles, plus how much ammo? We could round up some pack horses, I guess, or try to get your jeep through . . ." He trailed off.
"You guys got the kids doing basic? How about a nice Recon run?" That was a long trip in full packs. Army recruits have hated them since the dawn of time.
Frank's face lit up. "I like it! We can get sixty rifles in one trip."
"Uh, I counted," Santee said, a little sheepishly. "It's more like eighty. Plus some pistols."
"Okay, two Recon runs. We can send some armed scouts with them for protection."
"Uh . . ."
"Four. Maybe five. Bullets are heavy." Santee shrugged.
"You're going to be 'That bastard on the hill' to those boys." Frank grinned.
"Won't be the first time privates have cussed me. Do 'em some good, in the end."
"If it's any compensation, remember that Mike says you're allowed to teach them to swear."
"Go up and down that fucking hill enough, I do believe they'll learn all by their lonesome."
"Yes ma'am, I'm sure you should keep your shotgun. You wouldn't want some mo uh, evil person to get past our sentries and into your house without some way of fu uh, sending him to meet his maker. Are you sure you know how to use it?"
"Son, I was shootin' pheasants when you were in diapers, and you ain't a young man. Don't you worry about me none. But my husband's rifles you're welcome to; we lost him back in '93. I'm happy to help out the country."
Eddie spoke up. "Do you have plenty of shells for the shotgun? Sixteen-gauge is a bit out of style, but I'm sure I can round up some more in town."
She pointed to the closet. "Twelve boxes should be more than enough, plenty of buckshot and slugs, too. Now you get along, take those back to the army, then go visit the Bradleys next door. Owen used to brag over his hunting rifle something fierce, and Grace won't know what to do with it."
Santee practically bowed his way out of the house, followed by Eddie. "Yes ma'am. Thank you, ma'am."
As the door closed, Santee wiped his brow, though it wasn't a warm day. This was as hard a job as he'd had in twenty years. Talk sweet and mind your tongue around the ladiesenough to drive a fucking preacher to swearing!
"That went well." Eddie said. "She's a little oldfashioned, isn't she?"
"Yeah. Nice, though. Let's hope they're all that easy." They carried the rifles back to Mrs. Tippett's front room (now an arms depot) and planned their next sortie.
Santee said stiffly, "Well, okay, Mr. Jones. We're only supposed to pick up what guns there are to spare."
"Fine. I got none to spare." Bobby Jones was a loud, fat, redneck-looking man in a dirty T-shirt who (according to Eddie's friend Jeff) worked as a mechanic and handyman and was the person to call if you wanted it cheap and didn't care if it was done right.
Eddie was absolutely sure that Jones was lying. "Okay," he said, turning as if to leave. "Say, when did you shoot that deer? Nice rack on him." He pointed to the stuffed head on the wall.
Thus primed, Jones went into a long, boring description of the hunt. " . . . Anyways, Coop and me and Doug went there the year before, scouting around for sign . . ."
Santee looked impatient, but Eddie listened attentively. Once, when Jones was looking away, he signaled Santee to stay quiet.
" . . . Anyways, I finally got him down to the car and got old Dickey Estes to stuff him for me."
Eddie nodded. "Great. Thanks. Well, we gotta go now . . ."
Santee and Eddie stepped outside, and as Jones stood in the doorway, Eddie turned and said to him, "I think we'll go talk to Coop and Doug next. Is Dickey Estes still around?"
Jones suddenly stopped as he was closing the door on the Chief Weapons Scrounger and his young assistant. He realized what Eddie had done and tried to think of a way around it. Mild panic washed over his face as he looked at Eddie.
Eddie carefully kept his face blank, showing nothing that could directly challenge the large man. Jones' hunting buddies would surely tell them about the guy's gunsand Eddie was sure he had several to spare. That's why he'd put up with the long story, of course. Now that the trap was sprung, Jones could only admit he had some rifles to donate, or be disrespected as a hoarder by his friends.
Jones looked at Eddie, then slumped his shoulders. "Wait a minute," was all he said as he went.
Ten minutes later Santee and his assistant were struggling back to Mrs. Tippett's with eight rifles and assorted ammo. "Slick, Eddie! Good job. I didn't see how you could really be interested in that stupid long-winded story of his. . . . We've got to get a wagon or something!" He'd almost dropped a box of shells and had to reposition his load. "So, what made you think of that?"
Eddie grinned bashfully "I learned it playing Dungeons and Dragons. We had a similar problem back in Bloomtree, but it was with one of the Elven blacksmiths. Worked out about the same, except for the cursed gauntlets we got stuck with."
Santee chuckled. "Well, we better check these rifles. I bet some of them don't work. From the look of that guy's house he knows nothing about cleaning."
"So we have a total mishmash." Santee had just handed his written report to Mike Stearns and Frank Jackson, who were standing in Mrs. Tippett's crowded front room among piles of firearms and ammo. "A bunch of deer rifles in, by my count, fifteen different civilian calibers, and no more than a few hundred rounds of ammo for most of them. A bunch of foreign military rifles, mostly German 8mm. The thing we have the most loaded ammo for is the SKSeveryone who bought a rifle bought a case or two when it was cheap, but we only have a half dozen of the rifles and they're under-powered for long-range shooting. And that ammo isn't reloadable; it's mostly Chinese military surplus crap from the nineties and the cases are steel, not brass. So when that ammo's gone, the damn rifles are useless."
"Shotguns?" asked Mike.
"Those we have, mostly pumps. And three shotgun shell reloading machines." Santee liked how Mike didn't ask stupid questions like "Are you sure?" or "Where did you look?" Let the pros do their job and get out of the way. "The military calibers you asked me to look for, we have more of those than I thought. Mostly hunting rifles, .30-06 and .308. Also some .223 for the mouse guns."
Frank murmured "Civilian M-16" to Mike, who nodded.
Santee continued. "Problem with the .223 is it's a wimpy caliber, made to wound instead of kill, and we've only got a few of the rifles. Some miner got a couple of cases of .308 for his M-14, but he'd loaned the rifle to his brother in Pennsylvania, so we have an extra twenty-four hundred rounds for, well, anything that takes .308." Santee didn't know about Frank's M-60 machine gun, possession of which was a felony (or would be in a few hundred years), but he suspected it from hints Frank had dropped. He'd let Frank handle that his own way.
"A bunch of .22 rimfirerifles, pistols, and ammo. Maybe thirty thousand rounds. Still a drop in the bucket, and .22s won't punch through any armorgood for small game, though. And then there's one real oddball . . ."
He paused, and Mike and Frank looked at him expectantly. "You know that big, huge, ugly house those rich assholes own, out off the highway?" They nodded; the owners lived in Washington D.C. and had only visited occasionally. The house was scheduled to become public property when they had the time.
"Well, I had a hunch, and I got Eddie to sneak in through an upstairs window. They must have been planning one hell of a safari. I found this big motherfucker there." He hauled out a gigantic bolt-action rifle, inlaid with gold leaf, with fancy hunting scenes engraved in the metal. "It's in .577 T-Rex, which is another way of saying 'You didn't need that shoulder.' It throws almost two ounces of bullet real fast. It's meant to stop charging elephants. This sucker probably cost him twenty thousand bucks. He had over a hundred rounds of ammo, too. What the hell he expected to shoot in West Virginia is anyone's guess."
They looked over the rifle and its exquisite workmanship. Frank said, "Dude must have had a small peter," which drew smiles from Mike and Santee.
"I don't suppose we'll have much use for it," Santee said, shaking his head, "but it sure is something to behold."
They discussed which guns to assign to various groups in the army and which to keep in reserve. It wasn't much of a discussion because there weren't all that many guns and most of their army was still unorganized and untrained.
Finally, Santee summed up. "Bottom line, here's what we can do. We can shoot up all our ammo. We can also reload for most of the center-fire calibers we have. Only enough powder for twenty or thirty thousand rounds of rifle, and maybe that much pistol. Sounds like a lot, but you'll have a lot of shooters, and you can only do so much with dry-fire practice. Then we go to the local black powder, if we can get it." Frank and Mike nodded, they had thought of that themselves. "We lucked out with primers, I found a couple of cases of old ones in the back room at the hardware store, and they store pretty well. There are about fifty thousand there, and lots more in basements and workshops all around town. A bunch of folks around here reload; I'm trying to get all the spare equipment brought together so we can set up a reloading workshop. Bullets we can make from lead if we have to. But once those primers run out, that's it. Flintlocks, if we live that long." He looked disgusted. "I played with flintlocks once. They fired about eight, maybe nine times out of ten. Not good enough. Not fucking good enough."
The others nodded soberly. He knew his report wasn't too encouraging, but they'd have to make do. The alternative . . . well, there was none.
Eddie Cantrell was in the reloading shed, carefully pouring powder into brass rifle cases. It was a tedious, fussy job. Santee had been with him most of the afternoon but had gone outside to talk to Mike Stearns and Frank Jackson. The three were now standing in the shade outside the window, talking loudly.
Like most of the town, Santee was hung over, but was nonetheless close to yelling. "No fucking way. Uh-uh. Not me, Frank, not me. I'd shoot one of the stupid bastards, and then where would we be?"
"Come on, Santee. Those young recruits need to be trained by the folks who know what they're doing."
Santee looked tense and nervous, the opposite of his blithe confidence at the Battle of the Crapper, where he hardly got to fire a shot. "Frank, I'm an old, crotchety bastard. I know it. I have no patience for fools. I don't speak any German and I don't think my whorehouse Japanese will help. I'm an old relic. Find some other stupid fucking idiot about twenty years younger than me. I'm going to go get me some aspirin and then I'm going back to the reloading shed. Shoot me if you want. No." He turned and stomped off.
Mike and Frank stood there, watching the receding Chief Weapons Scrounger. Frank shook his head. "He's a relic, all right, and a curio, too. Fits that damn gun license of his."
Mike was philosophical. "Some people will either work alone or not at all. You can't push a rope."
"Yeah, I suppose. He's happy and productive in a job the army needs doing. I guess it's better to just leave him alone."
Ten minutes later Santee joined Eddie in the reloading shed. "Stupid fuckers still want me to be a drill sergeant!" he said. "Can you imagine me teaching a bunch of stupid pissant kids? Shee-it. How are you doing there?"
By now, Eddie knew Santee well enough to kid him, just a little. "Mr. Santee? You're teaching me. Does that mean I'm not a stupid pissant?"
Santee barked laughter. "You can't be all that bright or you wouldn't be here. Humph. Now how much powder are you putting in those cases? And where are the bullets we'll be using?" Eddie showed him both, to Santee's approval.
"Say Eddie, I noticed you had to go help with Driscoll's computer when all the other privates were policing up the fired brass. How did you swing that?"
Eddie trusted Santee enough by this time to let some of the truth out. "Well, I'd been asked to help them when I had the time. I just sort of decided having the time then was the best way of not freezing my fingers and getting torn up by the briars." Eddie glanced up a little apprehensively, checking for Santee's reaction. He needn't have worried.
"Good thinking. A smart soldier avoids the grunt work if he canas long as you're there at the fight, I mean. And you were. I saw you do some stupid things in that battle, but Jeff did 'em even stupider, and you have to back up your friends sometimes."
Eddie just nodded. He didn't like to think of how close it had come to a bloodbath, down there by that outhouse. If the converted coal truck hadn't come in when it did, he wasn't at all sure he'd still be alive.
"Fight when you need to," Santee said, "just don't be a hero. They die too quick."
"Not me. IdiotI mean Jeffcan be the hero." He turned back to the loading bench. "Get us all killed next time," he muttered.
The next day, Santee heard voices inside the reloading shed. He hesitated, then stood outside to listen. It sounded as if Eddie had two younger boys there and was showing them around. "We're keeping the loads down to minimum levels so the brass will last longer and we use less powder. We can't do that for the machine gun, and we're loading Julie's ammo specially."
"Cool!" said one of the younger boys. "Can we try it sometime?"
"Well, I don't know . . . Mr. Santee is in charge of things here."
"Pleeease?" came the wheedling reply.
Santee had heard enough, and walked in the door. He said sternly, "Hello, Eddie. Hello, boys. Eddie, can I see you a minute?"
The "uh-oh" looks among the boys were priceless. Santee managed to keep his face straight.
"Uh, sure." said Eddie. "Don't touch anything," he said to the boys.
Outside, the two walked far enough away from the shed to be out of earshot.
Santee finally let loose the grin he'd been hiding. "So, it's not every day you get to whitewash a fence, eh, Tom Sawyer?"
Eddie beamed, relieved that he wasn't in trouble and rather pleased that Santee realized what he was doing. "Yeah."
"Okay then, time for a command lesson. If one of those kids double-charges a round and blows up a rifle, or worse yet a person, who's to blame?"
Eddie thought a second, and his face got serious "Me, I guess."
"Yep. So if you want to make this work, you better watch them. Keep the shifts short so they stay interested. Come up with safety checks for each round you loadafter you put the powder in, a wood dowel should drop to the same level in each case."
"I'd thought of something like that. One caliber and load at a time, too."
Santee nodded. "Make a schedule. That shed is too small for a bunch of boys in there. I'll try to get Frank to talk up how important reloading is when he's around any teenaged boys. That should get you all the help you want." Eddie nodded, his face earnest.
"Now I'm going to go back in there and give you and those boys the safety lecture of your life, and read you the riot act on letting anyone in there unsupervised. That should scare them into taking this seriously . . . Tom Sawyer."
Santee picked a beautiful day a few weeks later to try out their hand-loaded ammunition. He and Eddie took two hunting rifles, a .30-06 and a .308, along with a few hundred rounds of ammo loaded to various speeds. The idea was to find a mild but accurate load for each of the two main rifle calibers, and then try some full-power loads for the M-60 and Julie's wickedly accurate sniper rifle. (One of Julie's targets was hanging in the reloading shed, so all the shooters in town knew what itand shecould do.)
To keep the noise from disturbing the townspeople, they'd picked a shooting area far out of town, down a lane that led past the area of the Battle of the Crapper. They tied the rifles, ammo, and various spotting scopes and shooting gear to a primitive, unsteady cart they'd cobbled together and towed the whole assembly behind Eddie's dirt bike. Eddie rode slowly and carefully, shutting off the motor and coasting downhill whenever possible to save precious gasoline; Santee walked alongside.
On the far edge of the battle site they passed a small clearing. "Look at that," Eddie said. He stopped the bike and pointed. "Germans have been out here with wood-axes. I wonder how long it took to chop that big tree down?"
"Hard to tell. I had to chop firewood by hand when I was your age, and it was a Pure-D bitch when the wood was tough. I had a good steel axe, too. The natives here probably don't have anything but bronze or iron axes."
"Miz Mailey would know, I guess, or another one of the teachers." Eddie got off the bike to examine the tree. "What I'm wondering is why they did this. It was after the battlesee here where the axe cut through this bullet trackbut they just left most of the tree here after they cut it down. I'd only go to all that effort if I wanted that wood."
Santee was puzzled too, and scouted around the area. "Can't really tell, I guess. Maybe something scared them off? There are wolves around here; I've heard them at night. Or boars; I know wild boars are pretty mean and run in packs. Still, it doesn't make sensethere are at least four sets of footprints around here, and four people with axes should be able to take care of themselves. Weird."
They shrugged and went on toward their shooting area, which Eddie's friends had helped scout out for them. It was in a valley formed by a small creek, pointing up a gentle slope so stray shots wouldn't escape. They didn't expect this first set of ammunition to be particularly accurate.
Assuming that the point of aim with their lower power ammo would be off, they'd brought large sheets of cardboard with targets at the top, and now they set them up at one hundred yards. Then they put on earmuffs and safety glasses and started systematically testing the ammo, one load for one target, not adjusting for aim, just to see where the bullets were hitting and how they were grouping together.
After the second set of shots Santee squinted into the spotting scope. "Pretty good group there, Eddie. What load is that?"
"What?" Eddie took off his earmuffs, and Santee repeated the question while he took off his own. "Uh, number fourteen. I left the details back in town."
"Not a problem, just keep notes like we talked about."
Eddie scribbled. "Okay, got it. Let's go get the targets so we can measure . . . What was that?"
"What was what?"
"I heard something, like a scream. A long ways off." They paused, making no noise, waiting.
"There!" Eddie said. "You hear it?"
"No, but if you heard a scream, I believe you. I don't have young ears. Where'd it come from?"
"Can't tell. Maybe over that way." He pointed vaguely off to the left.
Santee quickly reloaded the two rifles and gave one to Eddie. Grabbing the spotting scope with one hand, he started up the side of the small valley, in the direction where Eddie had pointed, motioning for him to follow.
When they got to the top of the slope, they could see a farmstead about a half mile away; smoke was coming from one of the buildings. Santee quickly dropped prone and set up the spotting scope, peered through it, and stiffened. "Damn. Shit. There's some bastards down there sacking that farm. The house is on fire, and I just saw a half-naked woman being chased by three guys. Shit."
"I'll go get the ammo." Eddie said, and rushed off before Santee could say anything. In a few minutes he was back with the canvas bag that held all their bullets, and had thought to throw in the canteens full of water. Santee had moved over to a low spot beside a fallen tree. Eddie dropped the bag beside him and began sorting out the ammo, which had gotten jumbled. He found a box of .30-06 for himself and handed a box of .308 to Santee.
"Eddie, put on your muffs. I'm going to try a Julie and at least scare 'em good. They're bringing up a horse and wagon, I guess to haul away their booty."
The first shot wasn't close, but it kicked up dirt where he could see. By the time he'd fired the fifth shot and the magazine was empty, he was hitting near the wagon, and he'd definitely provoked a reaction. The marauders turned the wagon to face him and started whipping the horse. He saw six or eight men run to the wagon as it started across the field toward them.
"They must know there aren't many of us by our rate of fire, and they must want modern guns real bad. We've got to take out that horse." Eddie looked stricken, and he said, "Can't help it. Shame to waste a good animal, but he's their motor. Try that load number fourteen if you have any more. I can't seem to hit the fucker."
They both kept firing at the wagon as it came slowly across the field. It was obviously heavy, and they didn't seem to be having any effect on it. Finally, as it got to the edge of the field where a lane ran in their direction, the horse suddenly dropped in its traces.
"Got the sombitch!" Eddie could barely hear him because of his earmuffs, but understood. He had rolled over and begun fishing for more ammo in the bag when Santee suddenly jumped up and swung his rifle around. Two shots rang out, the second one a deep boom that didn't come from Santee's gun. When Eddie turned to look, he saw a man with a wheel-lock slowly folding, blood on his chest. When he turned back to congratulate Santee, he saw him lying on the ground, on his side, writhing in pain. The gun Santee had been shooting was lying next to him demolished, the stock splintered.
Eddie dropped to his side. A continuous stream of quiet profanity now came out of Santee. "Motherfucker shot my rifle. Shit. I think it broke my fucking leg. Shit. See any blood?"
Eddie looked at Santee's right leg, which was already swelling. "No blood. Maybe just a bruise?
"I can feel the bone grating," Santee's said tightly. His face was white with pain. "Okay, here's what we do. Take a quick look at that wagon."
Eddie poked his head up and quickly ducked back down. "They cut the horse loose. It looks like they're about to get the wagon onto the lane."
"Okay, quick three-sixty and see if you see any movement."
Eddie looked. "I don't see anything. Probably they sent a guy ahead when they first heard us shooting, and you got him."
"What's the range to that wagon?"
Eddie took another quick look. "Three hundred yards, a little downhill. They've turned the wagon around, and I think they're pushing it this way."
"Sight in, bear down, and use the Julie loads. Aim for the center of the wagon. You should be able to punch right through it at this distance."
Eddie did as he was told, while Santee tried to fish through the bag of ammo for the .30-06 cartridges that would fit the remaining rifle.
Eddie had fired all five rounds in the rifle when he ducked down again.
"Santee? My turn to cuss. Shit. I just figured out why they chopped that tree down. They know how to stop our bullets: it just takes enough wood, and the bullet track in that tree they cut down told them how thick it had to be. They put a couple of feet of green wood planks on that wagon, and they go almost down to the ground. Without the horse they only have people to push it, so they're moving slow, but it's coming this way."
Santee handed Eddie some more bullets. "Shoot low, try to bounce one under the wagon."
Eddie shot again, then dropped back. "I think it worked. I saw one fall. I think they put him in the wagon. They stopped moving, for now at least."
"Okay. Now do as I say. Help me get up to the top of this ridge, and put the ammo next to me." Moving was clearly painful for him, and it took them a minute or two to get him set up in a good position, ammo and canteen within easy reach.
"Eddie. Get on your bike and go pick up that big motherfucking safari rifle. Then get your ass back here and blow the shit out of that wagon." Eddie started to open his mouth, but Santee stopped him. "No arguments. This is an order, Eddie. Last lesson in soldiering: sometimes you gotta suck it up and do what you're told."
Eddie swallowed hard, and nodded.
"I'll wait for you here." Eddie nodded again and ran down the hill.
Eddie ran into Mrs. Tippett's house without knocking, running for the parlor where some of the guns were still stored.
"Young man, what are you doing?" she said, indignant at the intrusion, and followed him.
Eddie pushed the stacks of rifles aside, searching for the big safari rifle. "Santee's been shot. He's holding off the bastards by himself. I gotta get the big rifle and get back there."
He found the rifle, tore it out of its case and slung it over his shoulder, then stuffed his pockets with the big bullets. Mrs. Tippett asked what she could do to help.
"Call the cops and tell them it's out past the Crapper where the battle wasJeff and Larry and Jimmy Andersen will know where. Sorry about this"he pointed to the mess he'd made"I gotta go. You call them right now, okay?" He ran out the door and jumped on the still-running dirt bike.
The trip back to Santee was the longest of Eddie's life. He was no motorcycle racer, and the little dirt bike just couldn't go fast enough. He almost wrecked it once, when the big rifle slung across his back shifted, so he slowed down some, but kept speeding up again whenever the track was straight.
As he got close to the shooting area he heard a shot, which made him speed up even more. He'd only been gone a half hour or so, but the shot meant that someonehopefully Santeewas still alive. He rode the bike up the slope but dumped it when it got too steep. He ran the rest of the way up to Santee, who was still there, shooting over the rise.
Santee turned and grinned. He had a trickle of blood running down the side of his face, and some splinters in his hair. "Good time," he said, a little weakly. "Good timing too. I think they were getting ready to rush me, but they heard your bike. That damned wagon's only fifty yards away now."
Eddie was panting. He didn't answer, just loaded the hotdog-sized cartridges into the big bolt-action rifle. It held only two in the magazine and one in the chamber.
"They're shooting from the back right side of the wagon. I think there are six of them left; they're reloading fast enough to make me keep my head down. I've only got twelve rounds left, but they don't know that."
Eddie crawled up next to Santee with the big rifle and got ready to shoot over the hill, but Santee stopped him. "No, you'll break your collarbone. You have to stand up to shoot that monster. Stand below the ridge bent over, then stand up and shoot right after I do."
"Okay . . . ready."
At Santee's shot, Eddie stood and sighted in on the lower right side of the wagon. When he pulled the trigger on the .577 T-Rex rifle, his world exploded. It felt like he'd been kicked by a mule in his right shoulder. He went blind for a second, and the rifle flew out of his hands. He had no earmuffs this time, and his ears started ringing painfully, but he could faintly hear "Mein Gott!" from the wagon. In pain, he picked up the rifle again and worked the bolt.
Santee was now aiming over the top of the ridge, hoping the attackers would break cover. Eddie's next shot did some damage to one of them, either directly or from flying splinters, because a loud scream of pain came from the wagon. This time Eddie didn't drop the rifle, but his shoulder was so bruised by the recoil he could barely work the bolt. Just the same, he readied his third shot.
"Got the fuckers scared now, Eddie. One more time."
At the third shot, there were more screams from the wagon, and the rest of the marauders broke and started running the other way. There were only four now, and one was limping. One took off uphill into the forest, but the other three ran straight down the lane. Not being used to the Americans' long-range rifles, they thought adding distance was the most important thing to keep them from being shot. They'd made several mistakes that day, starting with raiding a farm near American territory, but this was their last. Santee fired and missed; then with his last shot, two fell downeither one bullet hit two of them, or the limping man couldn't run any further. The last man ran away weaving down the road, then off through some trees, moving away from Santee and Eddie as fast as he could.
Though Eddie's ears were ringing, he still heard the horn from the pickup full of men from the town as it raced up the hill. Santee was now lying on his back with his eyes closed, and Eddie dropped to his side in worry, but then quickly relaxed. Dead men don't alternately grimace with pain and grin.
Santee limped into the downtown office that served as Army headquarters, and with his cane at his side, lowered himself carefully to a chair by Frank Jackson's desk.
"Hey!" Frank said, "Good to see you up and around. Eddie thought they wouldn't let you out for another week."
"Oh, I sweet-talked 'em. How's Eddie doing?"
"He's okay. His hearing's fully back now, and he's been drilling with the other soldiers. And he's started a regular little program, showing the younger teenaged boys how to reload. So, how's the leg?"
"It's healing fine. But I sure had to lie in that goddamn bed a long time. I'd have gone nuts if I hadn't had so many visitors."
"Well, after all, you're a bona fide hero."
"You mean I'm a bona fide dumbass. I got shot. If I hadn't lowered my rifle to see what I shot, like a greenhorn, I'd be called Stumpy."
"Heroes get shot too, you know."
"Bullshit. Heroes get dead. I got lucky."
"No, really. You and Eddie accounted for seven bandits, plus you saved a farmstead. That's not just luck." Santee grunted. "Mike and I think you deserve a promotion."
Santee looked alarmed. "Oh, Jesus!" he said in emphatic disgust. "No, I don't. You'll want me to take on some new job I'll hate. I like what I'm doing! Leave me alone."
"Look, you're wasted just making lists of guns and pouring powder into little shell cases. You know so much more than that." Frank looked him straight in the eye. "Please, Santee, we really do need you. Your experience is just too valuable for us not to tap into. What'll it take to get you to say yes?"
Santee closed his eyes and thought for a long time. "Okay," he said finally. "Here's what I could do. You guys are going to have shavetails, right? Wet-behind-the-ears second lieutenants in your new army, right? Eddie going to be one?"
Frank nodded, silent.
"Well, I could talk to them. Not all the time, not every day, my patience would go, but I'll talk to them. Everyone else is going to be teaching them how to give orders. I'll talk to them about what it's like to get orders, and what happens when they fuck up. Maybe, just maybe, one of them won't get their jaw busted by a sergeant."
Frank sat back and beamed at him. "That's one of the best things you could do! From what they tell me, those kids in our officer candidate class really need it, the Americans and Germans both. Half of them want to be their unit's best friend, and the other half want to be their lord and master. Neither way works worth a damn, and someone's got to teach them that."
They talked a while longer and worked out the details. Santee still refused any official army title, so he'd continue as the Chief Weapons Scrounger, even though most of the actual scrounging was now done. He'd still manage the inventory and oversee the reloading program, but for most practical purposes he'd be a roving instructor for the new officers they'd be training.
"Maybe I'll call the course 'Command Is a Loaded Gun,'" Santee said, thinking about what he was agreeing to.
Frank grinned at him. "I think the Army will still want to call it 'Principles of Leadership' or some such boring thing. Not that much has changed."
After Santee had said good-bye and limped out onto the street, he stopped and shook his head with a rueful grin. "Damn, they roped me in again. I'm lucky to make it out of there without them making me a goddamn officer," he said to nobody in particular, and headed home.
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