1635 – The Papal Stakes — Snippet 12
The north-leaning shadows of the Bregaglia Mountains were starting to crawl across the Mera River: the sun was moving swiftly down toward the alpine peaks in the west, Chiavenna already lost in the gloom at their feet. Tom paused, let Rita move abreast of him. She glanced up — way up — at him, quizzically. “Honey,” he whispered to her, “you set the pace. I’m going to the rear. To push ’em along and keep us together.”
Rita turned as she strode ahead with a longer gait, inspecting their ‘column’. “Yeah, we’re starting to straggle out a bit.”
You, wife, have a talent for understatement,
thought Tom as he peripherally saw Melissa and Cardinal Ginetti lagging yet again. Worse yet, the two of them slowed the group down even more by eliciting excesses of solicitousness. James Nichols was capable of a better pace, and, as an ex-Marine, he certainly knew how crucial it was that they maintain one. But the primal call of protecting one’s mate trumped training and logic, and Melissa, given her feisty personality, was neither the easiest nor most receptive person when it came to assistance.
The Cardinal was simply not cut out for even this modest hike. They were two miles east of Chiavenna, well within the mouth of the Val Bregaglia and passing the thundering cataract of the Acquafraggia which was perched over them to the north. The upward slope of the narrow valley was modest, here: not more than a five percent gradient. But the road meandered around copses and over meadows, rather than sticking close to the straight, rocky banks of the Mera, which had already narrowed considerably.
Tom had considered leaving the road at the small village of Piuro, but ultimately decided against it. The group needed speed more than stealth, and the open pastures reached all the way from the river to the steep slopes on the north side of the valley. Although the pastures presented rolling contours to the aesthetically-inclined gaze, they looked like an extra aerobic workout to Simpson’s utterly practical eye.
His eye had proven to be as accurate as it was practical. Even the winding country lane became more taxing when the river road joined with it shortly beyond Piuro, where the three locals they encountered all stared in surprise at James (and the rest of the group too, for that matter). Now, only ten minutes into the countryside, Melissa and Ginetti were already fighting to keep up — and failing. Tom, his long strides cut in half as he assessed the situation, had now fallen back to the rear of the group.
Melissa looked up, annoyed, a sweaty grey-brown bang hanging down across her severely straight Boston-Brahmin nose. “Yes, Tom, I know: I’m going to get everyone killed.”
“Now, Melissa –”
“Don’t ‘now, Melissa’ me, Tom. It’s true. James gave up denying it about half a mile ago. Now, he just tries to change the topic.”
Ginetti panted out his own opinion “I mean no offense in contradicting you, Signora, but it is clear that I am the cause of our troubles, not you. I walk even more slowly. Let us be frank: if I had not met you in Chiavenna, you would have been allowed to pass over the Alps unmolested. As it is, I fear we are lost.” Shivering, for he was clearly not a particularly brave man, Ginetti presented his solution in a rush: “If I am to fall into the hands of Borja anyway, at least you might escape. I might be able to draw them off by taking a different course –”
Melissa stopped and stared down at the cardinal. “With respect, Your Eminence, that’s ridiculous.” Ginetti stopped and stared back: quite possibly, he had not been addressed in such a firmly remonstrative tone since his boyhood. “Firstly, they will not stop following us just because they capture you. I wouldn’t stop, if I were them. After all, we are murderers in the eyes of Chiavenna’s authorities. And if the confidential agent following you — the one Tom decked in the crotto — has played his cards right, he’ll be following along, too. After all, if his masters only wanted your head, Cardinal Ginetti, they could have collected it long before you reached Chiavenna.”
“You overlook that I had four guards. The agent in the crotto may not have been courageous enough to –”
“Counting the agent they sent into the crotto to keep any eye on you, there were five men following you. So they had you outnumbered. Had they wanted, they could have eliminated one or more of your guards during a night ambush and finished the job on a subsequent day. No, Cardinal, they want us, too. Dead or alive, perhaps, but I suspect they’d prefer alive. We’d be much more useful — and informative — that way.” She raised her head, breathed deeply, accelerated her flagging stride again. “No, we are all in this together. And that means you and I have to step lively, Your Eminence, because escape is our only acceptable option.”
James nodded. “And so far, luck is with us.”
Tom couldn’t figure that one out. “Seems today the only luck we’ve had has been bad.”
“Look, Tom: if the local garrison back in Chiavenna were seasoned pros, they’d have caught up with us by now. Sure, our trail ended at the Mera, but they must know we didn’t head west: to do that, we’d have had to double back past the crotto itself. And what for? To go straight up a big-ass mountain, through pine forests and toward god knows what? That’s not a bad plan; it’s no plan at all.
“And I doubt it took them more than ten minutes to figure out that we hadn’t crossed to the other side of the Mera: we’d have been seen going over the bridges. Besides, that’s the more densely populated side of town: lots of well-trafficked piazzas. Where we don’t exactly blend in. Particularly me. And certainly not when we’re running for our lives.
“So ten, maybe fifteen minutes after they found your cloak, they would know that we either fled to the north or the south. So maybe they had to split up into two search parties, but any way you slice it, we’re lucky we’ve gotten this far without any sign of –”
Over the stony roar of the plummeting Acquafraggia, Tom thought he heard a faint prapf! — and the next moment, he felt a burning stripe across his left buttock. Damn it, he thought as he staggered, more from the pain than the grazing rush of the musket ball fired at long range, hit in the ass again?!
Grinning because he could still find humor in the situation, Tom did not fall, thanks to the ready hand of Matthias, their geekish down-time radio operator. Who asked solicitously, “Can you travel, Herr Kapitan?”
Tom nodded, saw Matthias’ relieved smile — and then another musket ball went neatly into the down-timer’s right temple. It came out above his left ear in an eruption of bone and brains at the same moment that the weapon’s report reached them. Which meant that some of their pursuers were much closer than they had thought.
“Run!” Tom shouted at the top of his lungs. “Everyone! Now!”
* * *
On the one hand, Miro was glad for the tail-wind out of the north. Keeping a good distance from the alp known as the Tscharnoz to the west, Franchetti was catching at least seven miles per hour of free forward speed. That made it possible to throttle back the four, thirty-horse-power up-time mower engines propelling the dirigible, and thereby, save a considerable amount of fuel.
The downside of this situation was that it put Miro, along with two thirds of the passengers, downwind of the motors. Along with the burner, these engines left little doubt as to the origins of their fuel.
“Damn,” said Sherrilyn, wrinkling her nose. “Smells like a dead sheep. Being cremated in its own rotting fat.”
“Yeah, a sheep that died eating codfish,” Harry expanded.
“Who washed it down with the nastiest rotgut ever brewed from Satan’s own piss,” added Juliet, with a punctuating shriek of disgust and despair.