1637 No Peace Beyond The Line – Snippet 30

Again, O’Rourke nodded. “Aye, you’ve the right of all that.” His voice became dark and regretful. “But those past days of Ireland are not these days. And kings now must tread a different, more careful, path. In those elder days, to lead and to govern was much the same thing. Those ancient kings knew almost every chieftain and person of note in their realm. But now” — the gruff Irishman shrugged — “a king cannot know but a handful of the most powerful persons in his kingdom. And if he falls on a battlefield, chaos follows. So if he is to govern long and well and consistently, he must not risk himself by leading on a battlefield. And that means he lives — unavoidably — at greater remove from the people of his land.”

“Yes, his ‘subjects’,” O’Donnell almost spat. “What a hateful word. To be ‘subject’ to another person is too close to being their ‘thrall,’ if you ask me. And as for a modern king governing from a palace but not leading on a battlefield — well, it seems that Gustav of Sweden’s successes in both domains give the lie to that theory.”

“Do they?” O’Rourke shook his head. “How many times have his larks, leading charges and gallivanting about in disguise, almost killed him? Mark my word, his fine personal courage will be his undoing. But it will be the countries of which he is the sovereign that will pay the price in confusion and contention among a sudden spate of successors. No, Lord O’Donnell, in this age, kings should not die quickly on the battlefield, but slowly, in their own beds, with their chosen successor close at hand. They owe their nations no less.”

 Hugh shrugged. “I’ll not say your words are unwise, O’Rourke, but I’m also not sure the wisdom they hold is the only kind that matters. Perhaps a measure of both, as in so many things, is the best approach. But I’ll not suffer to be held at remove from my men.”

“No one’s asking you to, though the Lord above knows well how much I’d like to. But He’s fond of his mysterious ways, he is. Even when it comes to dealings with our newest friends.”

“The up-timers?”

“Aye, and the Dutch. They’re cagey and thick as thieves, if you’ve not been paying adequate attention, m’Lord. As clear as avarice gleams in a tinker’s eye, it’s been plain from the moment our paths crossed and aligned with Tromp and Cantrell that we’re not to be confidantes in all their plans.”

“You mean the scuttlebutt that one of the up-timer’s ships went its own way just before the flotilla arrived in the Caribbees?”

“That’s the one. And still no word of it, you’ll note. Neither of its whereabouts or its business.”

Hugh smiled. “Any guesses, O’Rourke?”

“Not a one, except that it’s something that neither the up-timers nor the Dutch want us to know about.”

Hugh glanced up at the green slopes rising steeply to their left: the foothills of the mountains that marked the northern extents of Trinidad. “I’m not sure that they don’t want us to know about it. It may be that they don’t want anyone else to know about it.”

“And that’s supposed to make us feel better, that we can’t be trusted to keep a secret?”

“I don’t think we should feel one way or the other about it, myself. If they want to make sure the Spanish don’t hear about it, the best way is to let as few people know as possible, whoever those people might happen to be.”

“Aye, there’s sense enough in that. But what would be so secret that it shouldn’t be shared? Maybe the up-timers know where the fountain of youth — or El Dorado — really is?”

Hugh grinned at the waggish speculation. “I’m thinking the matter may be a bit more earthy than those fantasies. Indeed, it may be about something in the earth, itself.”

“As usual, m’Lord, you’ve lost me. Nice to see we’re back to the regular state of affairs between us, with you confusing me and not t’ other way ’round.”

“And with you being perpetually insolent. At any rate, while I was in Grantville, I had the opportunity to read fairly widely. And when I didn’t have my nose in their damned small-typeset books, much of our talk concerned the up-time world and their New World homeland, America. Seems that country had a great deal of oil in it.”

O’Rourke glanced sideways at Hugh. “Did it, now?”

“Oh, yes. And most of these immense deposits are located near the Gulf of Mexico. Which was the general direction in which it was said the other steamship, the Courser, was heading.”

O’Rourke nodded thoughtfully. “Fair enough. But if that’s what the up-timers are playing at, why keep it a secret from us?”

“As I said, they may simply be worried about someone telling the Spanish, which would be particularly ticklish, since their silver fleet sails past the Gulf coast on its way to Havana and then on to Seville.”

O’Rourke’s nod was vigorous this time. “So if the Spanish were to find out, it would be two stallions in one paddock. But if they can be kept in the dark, then the up-timers can go after the oil there without having to worry about any unwelcome visitors.”

“And to make their presence in the paddock known at a time and place of their own choosing. Of course, the up-timers would have to confide in the Dutch, with whom they seem to be coordinating almost all their naval movements. If I was Admiral Tromp and learned that there’s another one of those steamships somewhere about, I know I’d insist on knowing why it wasn’t available to help the larger, allied fleet.”

As they neared the top of yet another gentle slope, the senior of their Nepoia guides/protectors held up one long-fingered hand and ventured over the crest.

“Smell that?” O’Rourke asked, leaning toward Hugh.

O’Donnell nodded. “Not a cooking fire.” Burning houses always sent up a mix of odors, many unctuous, that were heavier than the scents produced by wood alone.

The Nepoia leader reappeared at the top of the slope and nodded. The scouts behind them flared out to either side, crouching a little as they walked.

“I’m thinking –” O’Rourke started.

“– that it is time to dismount,” Hugh finished for him. They did so and led their horses over the lip of the rise before them.

About four hundred yards ahead, a low, sprawling town emerged from the flatland at the bottom of a lopsided valley. A sparsely wooded southern ridge rose slowly to the right. Thickly forested mountain sides soared on the left. Several houses close to the town were throwing up fresh smoke plumes, flickers at their base indicating that the structures were not yet fully gutted. Perhaps midway to the town, Hugh could make out a rough ring of natives, many of whom were carrying firearms. However, there was no sound of gunfire, and no sign of bodies.

It appeared that the Nepoia had decided to exert their own force against the Spanish colony on the same day their friends’ ships did the same from the sea.

Following the leader of the escort, Hugh and O’Rourke led their mounts away from the cart track and closer to the northern slopes, keeping buildings between themselves and the town as much as possible. Just because there was no shooting going on presently, and the range was very long, there was also no reason to tempt fate.

Within a minute, they were approaching what first struck Hugh as a shabby, open-air pavilion, but then he recognized it — by sight and smell both — for what it was: a sorting and pre-drying shed for tobacco. Seated in the shade of the spatulate leaves which were its roof, and surrounded by a group of younger, musket-armed warriors, was a well-muscled, squarish man of medium height and youthful middle age. The leader of the escort went ahead and spoke to him, nodding respect when he started his report.

The older man returned the nod gravely, and although he did not move his head, Hugh saw that his eyes shifted to O’Rourke and himself. After a moment’s consideration, he signed assent, and gestured for them to approach. Then he rose to his feet.

This simple act clearly caught his warriors off-guard. They scrambled to follow their leader’s example, exchanging surprised looks. Hugh nodded his thanks to the leader of his escort, who returned that gesture deeply before taking his leave. Well, if this isn’t Hyarima, he’s doing a most convincing job of acting the part.

When Hugh approached to within ten feet, the older native stepped forward briskly and proffered his right hand. It was an awkward, slightly stiff gesture, but unmistakable. Hugh shook the wide brown hand. It was calloused and very hard. He inclined his head slightly in respect, was gratified to see the nod returned. Just as Hugh wondered whether to start introducing himself in Dutch or Spanish, and unsure of the fellow’s facility in either, the choice became moot.

“I am Hyarima, cacique of the Nepoia,” the older native said in almost completely unaccented Spanish. “If you are O’Donnell, cacique of your people, I have been told you speak Spanish. That is good, for our speaking must be quick. If my warriors do not attack soon, we will not have killed all the Spanish by night-fall.”