1635: A Parcel of Rogues – Snippet 03

Spotting the smile on Oliver Cromwell’s face, Gayle asked him: “And what’s so funny?” The expression on her face, however, removed the crossness of the words themselves. Now that she and Oliver had been able to spend a little time together in person, the very peculiar quasi-romance that had developed over months of nothing but conversations on walkie-talkies seemed to be . . .

Coming along quite nicely, she thought. Still very early days, of course.

“Actually, I think your Harry Lefferts is something of a genius at this work.” Cromwell nodded toward the beat-up old wagon and the four nags that drew it. “This won’t draw any attention at all. Not anywhere in the English countryside, and certainly not in the Fens.”

Alex Mackay swung into the saddle of one of the other horses. Gayle thought there was something vaguely comical about the motion. He went into the saddle with all the ease and grace you’d expect from an experienced cavalry officer. Much the way a champion motocross racer might climb onto a tricycle.

Those other horses weren’t quite nags. But she hoped they didn’t pass a glue factory along the way, or the horses would head for it unerringly.

“All right, all right. Oliver — you too, Darryl — give me a hand loading the radio gear into this heap, will you?”

To Gayle’s gratification, “give me a hand” meant that Oliver took one end of the heavy damn thing and Darryl took the other. To her was left the proper chore of giving orders.

“But be careful putting it into the wagon. Be very careful.”

Cromwell grunted, as he helped lift the thing up to the wagon’s bed. “Fragile, is it? You wouldn’t think so.”

“I’m not worried about the radio.”

Cromwell smiled. Darryl kept his mouth shut. The blisters had faded to a dull ache over the last half hour of rowing that had brought them to this little village by the ford, but lifting the radio crate up into the wagon had popped everything open. He wandered off, fishing quietly in his pockets for a handkerchief to clean off the gunk. It didn’t look like it’d be worth unpacking everything to get the aid kit out just yet. He could wait until they got to wherever they were stopping for the night. Get some boiled water, too.

“Darryl McCarthy, you are an idiot,” Vicky said.

He turned round and saw she was watching him. “Isn’t much,” he said, shrugging. “Just some blisters. It can wait until we stop.”

“Infection? Does that up-time word not ring any bells? You spent long enough locked up with the Simpsons, did Rita not teach you anything?” If Vicky had a fault, it was that she had the native Londoner’s love of sarcasm in double measures. Heaping helpings, in fact. She grabbed Darryl by the collar. “Come on, they’ll have salt and hot water and clean rags at the inn here. You’ll sit still while I clean those hands before we ride, it shan’t take a quarter hour. And you’ll not ride well with sore hands. The reins will hurt you and you’ll hurt the poor horse most likely.”

Darryl grinned, trying to put as good a face as possible on getting mother-henned. “Wouldn’t want to hurt those poor horses. They’re very poor horses. So poor they’re like to keel over dead if we’re not real careful.”

“Quite,” she said, steering him into the back door of the inn.

Vicky worked quickly, as she’d promised. A penny had got them all the boiled water and rags and salt they needed, and more than Darryl had wanted on account of that stuff stung, dammit. They were out and Hamilton and Cromwell were conferring.

“Back into town would be a poor move, I think,” Hamilton was saying. “If the hue and cry has gone up, we’ll be heading right into it.”

Cromwell made a face. “I know the way on the North Road, and the Cambridge road. I’ve never been far into Essex. If you can be sure of taking us to Cambridge, I know the way from there.”

Hamilton shrugged. “I’ve been as far as Colchester a couple of times, and I think there’s a road to Cambridge from Romford, which we’ll pass through on the way. Just a lot of simple travellers, heading out to the fens.”

Cromwell chuckled. “Aye, such simple folk. Five plain soldiers, three up-timers as the word seems to be, and one gentleman farmer who’s not seen his farm these eighteen months past. If Romford is a town of any size, we should skirt it, not be seen there. As we change our road, best we not be seen, eh?”

“I think you’ve the right of it. Your wounds all bound up, Darryl?”

Darryl grinned back. So much for hoping nobody noticed. “Not a job I’d ever done, so I got blisters, and Vicky wouldn’t take no for an answer.” He shrugged. “Probably as well I was going to leave it until we stopped, but maybe I’d’ve picked up an infection.”

“Aye, cuts on your hands, they give you lockjaw. Especially in the web of your thumb. So my mother told me, and I never had cause to doubt it. Perhaps it’s the dirt in the cuts, did I understand that right?” Cromwell was looking over at Gayle.

“Sure. It’s tetanus, and that lives in the soil pretty much everywhere. A cut on your hands will let it get into your system if you’re working with the soil, which is where the superstition comes from.” She caught sight of the look on Cromwell’s face. “Not superstition in that sense, silly. Just something that people believe that isn’t so.”

“Ah.” They’d all noticed, in contact with the man during their stay in the tower, that he could be a little touchy on theological matters. Gayle had learned that he’d come to the Puritan faith, and even to serious religious belief, late in life — only a few years previously, as it happened — and he still had all of the recent convert’s zeal. Getting captured and thrown in the tower for something that he hadn’t done yet and never would hadn’t helped steady him down any, either. The associations he’d picked up for the word superstition tended toward fervent denunciations of the Catholic church.

“This is science, as you call it?” he asked.

“Yup,” Gayle nodded.

“Had a tetanus shot before the Ring of Fire,” Darryl added, “on account of if you’re out hunting a cut can get you lockjaw, and a miner always has a few scrapes and cuts. So I figured the few dollars a vaccine’d cost was worth it.”

“How do these vaccines work, then?” Cromwell asked as he mounted his horse, “I think that might make a pleasant conversation as we ride.”