1635: A Parcel of Rogues – Snippet 28

Chapter 14

“Leebrick, do you see them?” Alex Mackay murmured into the walkie-talkie.

“I do. They’re coming right toward me and Stephen. We’ll have them in full view when they get to the bend.” Leebrick’s voice had the calm-but-tense air that all professional soldiers got with action in view. “Have I mentioned how much I love these things?” he added.

“Repeatedly, and no more than I do,” Alex said, grinning. Being able to communicate instantly, undetectably and reliably across hundreds of yards with no line of sight? Professional soldier heaven, as far as he was concerned. The Ring of Fire could have brought nothing else back at all and he’d have been satisfied with the matter of radio alone. Of course, for him to be happy it had to bring him a wife —

“Tell him to marry the thing,” Julie said, fussing at her scope with a cloth. “Gonna have to go to iron sights, I think, this drizzle’s not agreeing with the scope. Wind’s shifted into our faces and we don’t got enough shelter to keep the lens dry.”

“I’ve the case for it here,” Alex said, passing it over and elbowing up on the tarp they’d spread to peer out from under the hedge they were using for a hide. Waterproof, lightweight tarps. Och, you could keep your internal combustion engines for another day, dry above and below in this weather? Marvellous. Of course, they had to poke their faces out at the enemy and that meant a little cool, refreshing rain on those faces. Quite pleasant, actually. But even the superb optics Julie had brought back from the twentieth century had their limits and shooting in the wet was one of them. A proper hide would have solved that handily, but they had neither time nor reason to build one, and it would have had to be deep to keep out the swirling drizzle of this otherwise-mild English summer morning. It would be glorious sunshine by eleven, but right now it was two hundred yards, if that, of swirling grey shite. His binoculars and spotting scope were handling it fine, but he didn’t need to pick up precise detail with those. Didn’t need them at all for all the ranges he could actually bloody see, come to that.

Naturally, whoever this was coming down the road from St. Ives had picked this moment to show up. Julie, who was working rapidly but carefully to get all of the screws on her scope rings loosened — and re-zeroing the thing was going to be a tedious bastard of a job — muttered “the enemy shows up at one of two times…”

“When he’s ready and when you’re not,” Alex capped the quotation. “It’s like you read ma’ mind, love.” One of his old regimental lads, one of the ones who’d studied for his literacy certificate, the one they all called their ticket of letters, had come across “Murphy’s Laws of Combat” that someone in Grantville had saved from the internet of mystery and legend. Not a single professional soldier who’d heard the thing hadn’t laughed himself puking over the thing, and Alex could quote the bloody lot. He’d seen at least half of them happen with his own eyes, and knew some old sweats who’d let on that the whole thing was nothing but flowery optimism.

Mirth didn’t distract him, though, and he kept watching. “Leebrick, is that someone coming oot frae the Hall?”

“Yes,” came the response, “And he’s armed.”

“Shite,” Alex murmured. “I’ll no’ hurry ye, love, but I think someone’s about t’be very, very stupid up at the hall.” There were four of the presumed enemy moving up the lane; they’d passed Alex and Julie’s position entirely oblivious. Towson and Welch had spotted them first, from the spot they’d taken in a couple of trees, with the other two pair of binoculars they had. They were the two who’d actually met their presumed enemy. At least one of the mounted foursome they could see looked familiar. They’d been spotted coming up the lane, it seemed, and someone from the Hall had wandered out to the road. Slepe Hall wasn’t one of those manor houses with a long drive, but stood about twenty yards back from the road. It wouldn’t take much of a watch to be kept to see someone coming. Some oldish fellow, probably one of the house servants, had wandered out, with what looked like a middling-length fowling-piece under his rain-cape, the lock tucked away dry and a plug of rags keeping the charge at least in the barrel if it slipped out from where it was wadded. Not, when all was said and done, a particularly unusual thing to do, and in fact with a river full of ducks less than half a mile away, there was every possibility he’d picked just that moment to go out and administer a hearty dose of birdshot to today’s lunch. From the size of the thing, probably a couple of meals over the next couple of days while he was about it. The fact that he had a dog with him, plainly pleased to be off out with master, might have suggested as much. Of course, with four out-and-out scunners coming up the lane, doubtless armed to the teeth and expecting trouble, carrying a fowling-gun was not going to help.

“Working as fast as I can, here, honey,” Julie said, through gritted teeth.

“I ken richt enow, love,” Alex said, easing his .45 up to where he could grab it for the fifty-yard charge he’d need to get amongst the bastards. “It’s only that circumstances are conspirin’ good an’ quick, here.”

“One word and we’re at ’em,” Leebrick’s voice came from the radio speaker. Leebrick and Hamilton were closer. Alex was where he could cut them off. Towson and Welch were out of the fight — by the time they got out of those trees, it’d all be over one way or the other.

“Wait until you see me close enough,” Alex replied to Leebrick. “I’ve more experience with a modern pistol than either of you two. Charge the back o’ ’em when I’ve fixed their attention firmly to the front.” A quick check of sword and pistol. “Have my back, love, I’ll stay to the left o’ the road.”

“Gotcha,” Julie said, a little distantly as she got her rifle back into battery and began picking aiming marks for iron sights. They’d paced the road in the half-light of dawn, and noted clumps of flowers, easily-spotted rocks and so on. With that much preparation and over these ranges, Alex knew he was tits on a bull as a spotter, and stayed with Julie for her close protection. His wife was lethal past fifty yards. Inside that, there wasn’t a man to touch a Mackay with his blood up. Ahead the foursome had turned on to the flinted forecourt to the front of Slepe Hall, and looked like they were talking to the old fellow. If there was to be trouble, it would be starting soon, so he eased himself out from under the tarp and began feeling under the hedge. It took half a minute or so, during which time he had no idea what was going on at the hall, but time enough to look again when he got up.

He was halfway to his feet when the first shot punched a shot of lightning through his veins and propelled him five yards down the road with barely a thought in his head.

“Clear my shot!” came a sharp yell from behind him and he jinked hard left. They’d picked a spot on a slow right-hand bend that gave Julie a good view of the Hall; as long as he kept to the outside of the bend he’d only be obscuring hedge.

He dropped back from the sprint, taking it at a fast walk. A second shot. Heavy pistols; dragoons? The smoke cloud about the front of the hall was thick and probably reeking. Cheap powder, at that, and Mackay had already grown used to smokeless. Swift check of pistol, left hand, ready to fire. Sabre, check, even though he’d no memory of bringing the weapon to hand. As natural as breathing to fill his right hand with steel.

The drizzle washed some of the smoke away and a puff of breeze did for the rest. The old man was on his knees, clutching at his belly, or possibly one of his legs, it was hard to tell. Alex’s heart sank. They’d shot the puir bloody dug. There were some things that just were. Just. Not. On.

Julie had seen too. One of the riders jerked upright in his stirrups, back arched and a heavy pistol — dragoon, yes — flew from his hand. The puff of blood from the front of his chest washed out almost immediately in the drizzle. Almost as an afterthought Alex was conscious of the sound of the round passing him and the muzzle report from behind. ‘At’s ma girl, he thought, with a grin.

Time enough for three more brisk paces, his breathing falling into a nice, steady cadence, and another shot. A second saddle emptied, this time the shot going high and to the left, taking the side of the bastard’s head clean off. Alex hoped that was the one that’d shot the dog.

Not breaking stride, he barked over his shoulder, “Prisoners!” Julie would get the idea. He’d want to take one of them no more seriously wounded than he had to be, and two-for-one odds with their morale already shot? Difficult, but he could manage the business. Besides, all he had to do was hold them while Stephen and Kit caught up from the other side. Stephen had brought a quarter-staff, really only the pole of his halberd with the blade taken off, and a little singlestick practise against him with it had Mackay entirely happy the man knew what he was doing with it.