1635: A Parcel of Rogues – Snippet 32
“So that’s the Dutchman’s ditch, is it?” Tully looked down from the bridge. Away in the distance, to perhaps half a mile, there was a small settlement of tents and behind that there were earthworks stretching away; from the look of the thing it was more like a pair of embankments than a ditch. “I don’t envy the poor bastards digging in that boggy shite, nor do I.”
“We’ve to talk to the poor bastards, you can ask them what the life is like,” Finnegan answered. “Best way to be sure of who’s causing trouble is to ask the folk who’re being troubled.”
“And if they’ll not answer?”
In the end, there wasn’t any difficulty in getting the various overseers and so on to talk. Mister Lien, the man-in-charge, wasn’t around today and Finnegan could see why not. Canal-building seemed to consist of mud, and lots of it, being carted from place to place by a small horde of laborers. Everyone else had plenty to say, mostly on the subject of mud, but occasionally on the subject of the fensmen who had all manner of clever tricks to play to interfere with the works. Tools stolen, diggings filled back in, cuttings made over the preceding winter in an attempt to flood the works, cart wheels smashed and a whole series of other petty annoyances. Several of the clerks who were on site grumbled about the cost of hiring watchmen.
None of them could put a finger on precisely where the fensmen were based out of, but they were all agreed that there was a positive nest of agitation in Ely. In as much as there was a definite grievance — beyond objecting to the earl of Bedford enriching himself — it was that the change in the Great Ouse navigation would cut Ely off from passing trade, and the increased drainage would turn the fens that the fensmen of that vicinity made their living from into summer-land, pasture that only flooded in winter.
Finnegan waved his commission around a little. The wording of the thing was vague enough that he could use it to elbow his way into the works, follow their line and go hunting for the fensmen and he made sure that he was heard stating he was going to do so. Let him once grab one or two of those and squeeze them a little, they’d get somewhere, and if trailing a little bait to get them to come to him worked, so much the better. The clerks of works were a little disgruntled that the earl of Bedford, whose land this was, hadn’t already sent someone in to investigate the trouble they were having, and Finnegan commiserated heartily. Wasn’t it always the way, that the man in charge didn’t care for the poor souls doing the work? Still, he was here now, with the king’s commission and all, and taking care of business.
“We’ll be a while nosing around here,” Tully remarked after they’d gone back for luncheon at Earith’s meagre alehouse. “A lot of ground to search, and plenty of it to hide in. Remember the trouble we had last time?”
“I do at that,” Finnegan said, chasing the last scrap of his stirabout with a hunk of bread, “but what of it? From what Steward said yesterday, he’s found his children and means to be a bandit here until he can raise a rebellion. He’s got to get us off his back, and that means he’ll come to us.”
Tully grinned. “I get to smiling every time I think of that, so I do. The English, rebelling? Who the fuck will they find for the plantation of them when it fails? The Welsh?”
“Maybe his noble Earlness will move us all over here?” Truth to tell, Finnegan thought that was pretty funny too. “We’ve still a tricky cross-country ride ahead of us. Plenty of daylight, good weather. We’ll have our plates and helmets on, too, whatever the heat. Those slingstones hurt like the devil.”
“They did at that. I’ll see the lads all have their water-flasks full, they’ll be sweating like pigs.” That was, of course, why most cavalrymen preferred a buff coat and a soft hat for riding, and even left the buff off if they weren’t expecting trouble. The sturdy leather of a buff was at least good protection without broiling the poor bastard wearing it alive, which a horseman’s cuirass was prone to do in the sunshine. The linen lining ended up drenched in sweat, which was cooling in itself. For helmets, a few of the boyos had old-fashioned morions, still popular in Munster by reason of being cheap — the Spaniards who fled after the Nine Years’ War had left plenty of them behind — but most of them had picked up German zischagge-style cuirassier’s helmets that provided plenty of protection and were, for helmets, fairly comfortable. Most of their armor had come from at least a short spell of service with the Imperial forces in the German wars and were munition-chest quality at best, but Finnegan had spent the money to get a good one made in London by one of the armorers who supplied the trained band companies. If ever there was a fool’s bargain and a false economy, Finnegan reasoned, cheap armor was the one.
They made easy progress during the course of that afternoon, riding perhaps two or three miles beyond the beginning of the earthworks at Earith. Trotting along the paired embankments was an easy, gentle, pleasant ride with a cooling breeze and a good view of the surrounding greenery, most of which seemed to be at least chest-high if not higher. The clerk of works at Earith had told them there was another encampment at the half-way mark, but after a look at the number of watchmen they had had turning up for duty at the first one, Finnegan had decided that hanging around the camps would be a waste of time. Anyone trying anything there would be doing it by stealth, and definitely avoiding parties of armed men.
“Boyos,” Finnegan said when he judged them far enough from the major work-sites to start looking for a rest spot. “We’re after the shites that are trying to wreck these works, but only so’s we can get after Cromwell. Now, the last thing they’ll be doing is trying anything clever in broad daylight, they leave that kind of thing to ignorant paddies like us.”
That got an ironic cheer. Out of the twelve men under him who weren’t in York with O’Hare, eight had at least some grammar school and they were all literate. O’Hare had taken the two besides Finnegan who’d finished grammar school along with the one illiterate in the band. Which reminded Finnegan; if Mackay was, as he suspected, with Cromwell, there was no reason to leave O’Hare cooling his heels there. That royal commission would come in useful again, permitting him access to the Royal Post to get a letter to O’Hare. A task for the day after tomorrow, if they couldn’t turn up any sign of the malcontents that Cromwell’s son had taken up with. And, of course, there was always the possibility that the father had joined the son.
Realising he was woolgathering, Finnegan collected himself and went on. “We’ll wait here, find a spot of shelter, while the heat of the day dies down. When things get a little cooler we’ll spread out and find what hiding spots there are hereabouts, and poke in them. We’ll likely find nothing, but we’ll know where to look when night falls. It’s a full moon, or near enough, and the promise of a clear night to come. With that we’ll range up and down these works, they’re but ten miles, and sound a shot if we stumble across anything. Remember, I want a captive or two to question, so in with the bata first, if you please.”
A chorus of acknowledgements and they began seeing to horses and looking for shade.
Off the embankments that were eventually going to define the new river, there was plenty of that. There weren’t many bushes or trees, but the soft growth was man-height or higher in places and at least waist-height everywhere else. Worse, if anything, than they had dealt with only a couple of weeks previously out nearer the edge of the fen. Well, this time they were armed and armored for it and expecting trouble. Half the difficulty they’d had the last time was they’d started out expecting to arrest children and ended by enduring slingstones from well-hidden fensmen. This time there’d be more grit shown by all, Finnegan included.
Tully was standing at the top of the embankment on the eastern side, looking down into the fen. The ground was trying to be dry, at least, and overgrown to the height of a man with sedges and low, scrubby trees, hardly more than bushes most of them. There were tracks through it, to be sure, but they were few and narrow and twisting and, if anything, were more of an addition to the hiding places than any means of getting across the country. Anyone with half a mind to move hereabouts, Finnegan decided, would probably do best to ignore the paths and just shove his way through the greenery on horseback.
“Going to be a bastard searching that lot,” he said, as Finnegan walked over.