1635: A Parcel of Rogues – Snippet 34
“Sure I saw something. Gleam like a Dutch-glass, chief. They’re after spying on us.”
Finnegan raised an eyebrow. O’Halloran was definitely in the shallows in matters of scholarship and wit, and while there were a lot of telescopes in use around Europe, they were generally not used much in military business except by artillerymen, a trade O’Halloran had almost certainly never been near.
“Don’t look at me like that, chief. There were plenty of the things about when I was with Wallenstein back in ’28, at Stralsund. There were great guns going off all the time and the gunners all had them. There’s a glint to them, and I just saw it again. And is it not that that woman has a Dutch-glass on her musket to see what she’s shooting?”
“I’ve heard enough, O’Halloran, and well done with all the thinking. Go you over the cut, there, and tell Tully to bring his lads over and fall in on me. I’ll be here and gather the lads ready.” There might have been some sense in going over himself and leaving O’Halloran to watch out for that glint, but Finnegan decided he could recognise a glint for himself and there was no way he was going up on that bank in the plain moonlight for a legendary shooter to see. He settled in and began scanning further afield, looking in the treetops where O’Halloran said he’d caught sight of the fateful flash. Too much to ask of the silly bastard to actually remember which stand of trees it was, of course.
Not half an hour later the bushes around him were full of his men, and Tully had joined him. “Be damned,” Finnegan said, “if O’Halloran wasn’t entirely right. I’ve caught sight myself, not that I’m going to point if they’re watching, but I’ve an idea of distance and direction and give it but a moment and we’re off a-skirmishing.”
“Be hard to keep even open order in this shite,” Tully remarked.
“You’re not wrong, but we’ll do what we do. Pass the word. We’re to move slow and low and give a cry if we come on anyone. Pile on the bastard, get a prisoner, and we’ll pull back.”
“Not chase. Remember those bastards we made bones of in the Slieve Mishkish a couple of years ago? They’d a plan for it, and both times we went hooring in after them? We had to cut our way out, and this is far better country for that kind of work than a lot of bare-arsed mountains. All we got back then was some cuts and hurts, here we’ll have corpses come morning if we’re not careful.” Finnegan still had a spot under his left shoulder that ached in wet weather from that. The throwing dart that was the traditional weapon of most cattle-thieves — much of Ireland’s militia levies, come to that — wasn’t likely to kill a man outright if he’d any armor at all, and a buff-coat would answer that need. Getting one stuck in a man’s flesh, even the inch or so that Finnegan had briefly suffered, hurt like the very devil, though.
“Not on horse, either, I take it. Bad country for it.”
“Bad indeed, and fuck my arse if I’ll sign a man’s death warrant by putting him in front of that rifle on horseback. We’ve enough bush and sedge to have a chance of going unseen, which is a fighting chance. Pick three lads to mind the horses, no, better, three lads to string the horses back to Earith. They’ll not expect that, and our beasts will be the safer for it. They might even have a plan to take the horses while we’re chasing them into this. It’s something I’d have thought to do.”
Tully grinned back. “I’ve done the like myself. It’s amazing how fast cattle thieves give up if you steal their ponies. A man is like to stay at home and abide the law if he has to walk all the way to the stealing he’s after doing. I’ll be back in two shakes.”
With the horses sent back along the relative safety of the cut, Finnegan got the boyos moving out across the fen. For all they made as much effort as they could to go silently, not a one of them having missed out on the traditional country sports of poaching and stealing livestock, they still didn’t know this country as well as they might and there were constant small splashes, the sounds of bushes being caught, and the other minor noises of a party of men on the move. If nothing else, the sedge-grass came up to the hems of their buff-coats, so off the few narrow tracks through the stuff, it was impossible to move without a hiss.
Of course, the same went for their opponents, and so neither side would be able to hear the other unless they stopped and listened. With only eight lads following him, Finnegan was able keep them close enough together that he could have them in command with hand signals. Every forty paces he was stopping and just listening, mouth wide and eyes closed to pick up every little sound. Night-birds, the sounds of insects, the faint hiss of the tiny breeze. Nothing so far, but they were more than half way to where O’Halloran reckoned the spy had been with her glass.
Two hundred yards away, Darryl was just as stopped, just as frustrated with how hard it was to stalk in this kind of undergrowth. From the sounds of it Finnegan’s men were having a harder time, since they were wearing armor and had much clumsier weapons than the modern pistols and small bags of improvised grenades Darryl had equipped everyone with. The bitch of it was going to be getting close enough to start Finnegan’s men chasing, but not so close they were ever in a position to actually catch or hurt anyone.
And do it without killing or hurting more than maybe one or two of them — too many casualties and they’d break off pursuit. And, assuming there were still outlaws in the county, come back with a regiment and make life purest hell for the fen folk. That would leave Sir Henry no room in which to organise a proper resistance. Being as he was a local gentleman, any serious attempt at repression would be looking right over his shoulder if not outright demanding he join in.
Another bound forward as Cromwell hooted softly. His owl-hoot wasn’t just realistic, it sounded like the local owls. Which made sense, since he grew up less than fifteen miles from here. From the sounds of it, Finnegan’s mob were on the move as well. Now they were getting closer, and with the wind blowing the right way, Darryl was getting able to pick out the sounds of a dozen men moving together. With only six in their own party, and Cromwell having shown them that a man made a lot less noise if he was walking behind another, and from the few glimpses Darryl had caught of moonlight gleaming off helmets — seriously, helmets? It was like they wanted to give their position away and ruin their hearing into the bargain. He’d a warm woollen cap on and that was going to have to be enough. The down-timer guys had gone for wide-brimmed felt hats, obvious ancestors of cowboy hats. Another glint up ahead, the distance was down to maybe a hundred yards. Cromwell hooted again and Darryl dropped into the sedge. They’d not be moving again, and it was going to be up to whoever made first contact to open the party.
Finnegan’s nerves were stretched taut. He couldn’t show it in front of the boyos, no more could he. But they were nearly a mile into the fen and nothing to show yet. Once it started he’d be a lot —
The words were out of his mouth before he’d even realised he’d seen a face amid the grass — “fucking get him!” — and he had his wheel-lock levelled and discharged.
“Prisoner, chief!” Tully yelled, bounding forward, a stick he’d cut earlier out and brandished.
Whoever it was that Finnegan had shot at jumped up himself, fired a pistol twice with no smoke — definitely one of the Americans, by God! — and started to running away. Finnegan blew a whistle of relief — after all the ranting he’d done about the need for a prisoner, if he’d hit the fellow he’d have looked a prize amadan — and strode out to bring up the rear of his men. Time enough to start running when he had his pistol away. He inhaled the brimstone reek of his own powder smoke.
Time to chase! He felt so much better for the whiff of gunsmoke. No more nervous waiting for him!
“Two of them!” There were more shots. The crack-crack-crack of the American pistols, and a deep, throaty bellow as someone gave fire in return with a wheel-lock.
“Fucking PRISONERS!” Tully yelled into the ear-ringing silence after the wheel-lock shot.
Finnegan made note of who had fired, the smoke hanging ghostly in the moonlight behind him. O’Halloran, as might have been known, the soft-headed fool. He’d have words with that one, after. He’d fired a signal shot, sure, but O’Halloran was just returning fire because he was too stupid to see that over fifty yards even if a man in buff and cuirass were hit, he’d not be harmed beyond perhaps a bruise.
Finnegan broke into a fast trot behind his men. Ahead he could see their quarry — two of them — leaping and hurdling over hummocks of sedge, dodging about bushes.
“‘Nother!” someone yelled, breathless. Now there were three. Finnegan grinned as he loped along. They only had to catch one, after all.