1635: THE CANNON LAW – snippet 94:



            "They will escape," Quevedo said, but his tone made it a question.


            Don Vincente silently thanked God and all his angels and saints for the minor miracle of a reasonable Cardinal’s agent. "I can put all forty muskets across this road in two ranks. Or I can charge six horse against twelve. Faster this way. More haste, less speed, yes?"


            Quevedo nodded. "All possible speed, if you please," he said, and reined in as they came to a hundred yards.


            Not wishing to waste the gift of the rationality of this man who accompanied them in the stead of their paymaster, Don Vincente sacrificed pretty drill and good order to get the men lined up. Only thirty-five, by the time all the horses were being held, but two well dressed ranks that hardly wavered at all as his sergeants moved them forward. Cardinal Barberini's guard seemed pretty well-schooled in what they were doing. Don Vincente peered to see if he recognized anyone. If they were contractors rather than household troops, he might know -but the moment was upon him.


            "Halt," he said, idly flicking his sword side to side. He was conscious that this was highly irregular, but then he was away from anything he could have called a proper battle formation. He'd heard the Swedes were doing something like this with extended lines and many more muskets than pike. Doing it like this, with hardly any melee weapons at all—the sergeants' poleaxes, and the musketeers' knives and a few swords—was sheerest suicide on a real battlefield. But a stout volley before mixing in would make the odds even more favorable. And he was being paid to win, not piss about.


            The Cardinal's rearguard was looking more and more like household troops, now, and good ones. The sensible thing to do at this point was for them to run, for they had made Don Vincente's men dismount and bought time for their charge to get further away. But they were going to buy every minute more they could. Don Vincente stared at the four musketeers opposing him, willing them to fire and get it over with. Four men, if they were lucky, at this range. Were they going to—?


            Don Vincente couldn't keep himself from flinching as the ragged, four-shot volley came. He heard a grunt of pain, and felt his hat fly off. He could pick it up later. The man beside him was clutching at his belly with the hand that wasn't holding his musket. "Front rank, kneel!" he called out, and the sergeants repeated the command. A swift glance to see that all was ready, and then the guards ahead that remained mounted spurred forward, lowering their swords.


            "Fire!" Don Vincente tried to bellow the command, half-swallowing the word in his surprise, and then "Fire!" again, this time with feeling. The volley was ragged, but at twenty paces, not a single horse and only two of the guardsmen were unhurt. "Forward!" he yelled, and the rest was a foregone conclusion.


            For a wonder, the guards stood their ground. In some cases, they had no choice, and Don Vincente noted with approval that his men were granting them grace without needing an order. The rest were cut down where they stood, or knelt, or lay.


            "We must be swift," Quevedo said, as Don Vincente's men finished their hurried searches of the bodies for any small valuables. Again, they were quick, being all seasoned professionals.


            "As you command, Signor." Don Vincente got his sergeants about the business of remounting the men. The cardinal had gained perhaps five minutes on him, and was almost out of sight over a low rise in the middle distance.


            "At the canter, please," Quevedo said.


            The Cardinal's men used their lead well. By the time Don Vincente and Quevedo caught them, they had found, occupied, and hastily forted-up in small house by the wayside. Don Vincente detailed two men to climb a tree and make sure that the Cardinal was not escaping while this defense caught their attention. The man's mule was in evidence, but if he had abandoned it and escaped on foot he might make his escape without raising too much of a tell-tale dust cloud.


            The men reported no sign of a fugitive cardinal anywhere in the vicinity, and the land was flat enough that Don Vincente felt he could take it as good coin. "We have no grenades," he remarked to Quevedo.


            "Unfortunate," he agreed. "A direct assault, if you please."


            Don Vincente grunted his assent, although he was none too happy about it. He examined the building carefully. Two, perhaps three rooms inside. No upper floor, nor rooftop that a man might stand on. A tiled roof, pitched. Windows on all four sides and a door to the roadside and the rear. A fenced-off yard with a dung heap and chickens, low stone walls on two sides. An ordinary house, of the more prosperous sort of peasant. The like could be seen the length and breadth of Italy.


            "Smoke, signor?" sergeant Ezquerra asked.


            "Good idea, see to it." It would have to do. There wasn't much to make a fire with, although there was a modest stack of firewood under the eaves of the house. Firing that would be a challenge if there were many firearms within the building—as he watched he could see a loophole appearing in one wall—but it might serve, with enough brush thrown on it, to raise enough smoke to force the defenders out. There were certainly no better options. He left sergeant Ezquerra to it, watching from the back of his horse. The animal seemed to be holding up quite well, despite their having pressed the pace all morning. It was a little past noon, now, and if watered and allowed to cool down the horses ought to be good for the ride back, barring mishaps.