1635 – The Papal Stakes — Snippet 13

Donald Ohde shrugged. “Ah . . . I’ve smelled worse, I have.” They all looked at him. “Can’t think where, though.”

“Matija’s drawers,” Felix sneered.

“Your obsession with my drawers — and their contents — is ungodly, you sodomite.”

Gerd, not to be left out, looked up, sleepy-eyed as ever. “Get a room, you two,” he advised. Then he sent a questioning glance toward the up-timers of the Crew: “I think that line is from a movie we have seen, ja?”

George Sutherland, one arm around his wife, the other gesturing grandly at the white-fanged Alps surrounding them, exclaimed. “It’s a fine day to be flying, here over the very roof of the world, with all my friends.” He sucked in a great lungful of the noxious fumes. “And so refreshing, too.”

Miro wondered if the banter ever — ever — stopped. Sometimes, it abated, but rarely and not for long. It seemed to be an essential part of the social glue that held the Wrecking Crew together. Which, he supposed, made it a good thing. But he was outside of it, just as he was outside of their circle.

Franchetti shouted at Miro over his shoulder. “Don Estuban, look ahead.” He cocked his head toward the horizon. “Do you see it? The Lai di Marmorera?”

Miro squinted, saw a smooth curve of deep ultramarine nestled between close-set mountains some miles ahead. He pointed at it over Franchetti’s shoulder. “In that valley, you mean?” Frankly, it wasn’t a valley so much as it was a flat-bottomed gorge.

Si; we head there. Then south to the Septimer Pass. We have gone more than half the way. Almost two-thirds.”

Harry had come to stand alongside Miro. “What are we looking at?”

Miro pointed again. “The Lai di Marmorera. Beyond that lies Bivio and the Septimer Pass.”

“‘Lake Marmorera’?” Harry’s brow wrinkled, one eyebrow shot up, and in that moment, Miro saw why the young rogue had so scored so many amorous victories across the Continent in the past two years. “I thought we were going over something called . . . eh, the Marmelsee.”

“Same thing,” shouted Miro. “The names change from language to language up here. French, German, Italian. Some rarer languages, too. And dialects mixing them all together.”

“Chaos,” pronounced Harry. Then with a smile: “Sounds like my kind of place.”

* * *

Thomas North peered out through the trees; two primitive carts creaked over a low rise to the east and were lost to sight. He waited a moment, then waved the first squad forward: the men advanced just beyond the edge of the tree line but stayed well within its lengthening shadow. No sign of reaction from the outskirts of Soglio, which was upslope to the north. Behind them, less than thirty yards to the south, was the Mera. Pine-lined at this point in its course, it chattered over rocks down toward the next town: Castagena.

“It’s fortunate we’re moving so close to dusk. Easy to stay hidden, this way.”

North turned to looked up at the very tall, very broad-shouldered Hastings. “Fortunate for movement, perhaps. Hardly ideal for a rendezvous, though. You have the crossbow ready?”

“Yes, sir.”

“And the signal bolts?”

Hastings nodded, watched as the first squad started trotting down slope, slipping beneath the sleeping brows of Soglio. “Shall we follow, sir?”

North, chewing his lower lip lightly, nodded. “Pass the word; weapons out, but no firing except at my orders. We’ve only got two miles left: let’s not cock it up by having someone mistake a squirrel for a Spaniard.”

North, up-time 9mm automatic in his right hand, signaled with this left to the second squad. Along with him, they emerged from the black shadows of the woods into the grey shadows beyond its margin and moved quietly down the hill after their comrades.

* * *

The approach of hooves told Tom Simpson that he had been right to remain behind and lay in wait: if he didn’t slow the Spanish down here, they would overtake the group within the hour. Now, if only he could keep his separation from the others from becoming truly permanent…

Tom eased open both frizzens of the double-barreled fowling piece that, in any self-respecting Western, would have been called a ‘coach-gun’ and checked the powder in the pans. It was still dry, despite the mists generated by the cataract thirty yards further along the track to the east. Working around to his right, which was also the upslope side of the immense tree that he was sheltered behind, Tom leaned out for a quick peek.

Four horsemen, coming in a one-two-one sequence. Not as dispersed as bred-to-the-saddle cavalrymen would have been: the two in the middle were all but riding abreast. But the arrangement did suggest the competent training that was the norm among Spanish troops, which these were, judging from their helmets.

Tom leaned back behind the tree — no sudden motion now — and took a deep breath. He had been in several memorable gunfights over the past few years: the most recent involved shooting his way out of the Castel Sant’Angelo while rescuing the pope. However, this time he was alone and heavily outnumbered. As the first horseman drew abreast of his position, lazily riding point toward the dull thunder of the alpine cataract, Tom took consolation from the fact that the noise muffled other sounds like a great, audile blanket. This, along with the shadows in which Tom was hidden, amplified the efficacy of his one great advantage: surprise.

Timing the approach of the next two riders by recalling their separation from, and projecting back from the current position of, the first, Tom now leaned slowly around the down-slope side of the tree. The Spanish riders, about 12 yards away, did not see him. He counted through two more seconds, brought his weapon up slowly, waited for the pair to reach a range of about eight yards. When they did, he aimed low, and squeezed the first trigger.

The weapon sounded like a small cannon going off. The far horse, the one on the right hand side of the road, caught the great mass of the shot in its chest. The creature screamed, went down front-wards, spilling the rider roughly onto the road. The second horse, hit by two, maybe three, balls in the breast and the foreleg, staggered then reared desperately.

Aiming slightly higher, Tom squeezed the other trigger.

The second blast did not seem as loud, probably because he expected it. This charge of shot caught the same, stricken horse in the side as it was wheeling in panic, its rider hauling at the reins in an attempt to control it. The ribcage of the animal rippled under a spatter of bloody eruptions; a similar splatter of red appeared between the rider’s hip and kidney. Together, man and beast fell sideways.

Tom did not see them hit the ground: dropping the shotgun, he leaned back behind the immense tree-trunk, and snatched up his waiting cap-and-ball revolver. His back covered against fire from the rearmost rider, he drew a two-handed bead on the point-man, who had pulled his mount around and had his wheel lock pistol already in hand, looking for the source of the attack.

Tom fired, resteadied, fired, resteadied. Just before he triggered off a third shot, he saw that he had hit the target with his second bullet: the rider flinched as a dull red puff momentarily obscured his right clavicle. Probably aiming at Tom’s muzzle flash, he discharged his own weapon in unison with Tom’s third shot.

Which cut through the Spaniard’s diaphragm and dumped him out of his saddle: his return shot hummed into the upslope forest to Tom’s left, snapping twigs as it went.

A moment later, Tom heard the report of another wheel lock: he simultaneously felt and heard a thump deep in the tree behind him. No time to waste.

Tom leaned around the darker, upslope side of the tree, drew a bead on the last horseman, who had already yanked a second pistol from his saddle-brace. Tom fired; the Spaniard fired: they both missed. The horseman reached for his next pistol; Tom fired again. Another miss — but it grazed the horse’s flank, causing the creature to rear and the rider to consider the rate of fire he was obviously facing. He pulled his mount around and sped back the way he had come, riding low and forward in the saddle.