1635 – The Papal Stakes — Snippet 14

Rather than waste a shot, Tom ran into the road, pistol up and ready. The first rider who had gone down was dead: the open eyes, staring almost straight back over his shoulder, bore witness to his snapped neck. The lead rider — the third Tom had shot — was not moving, nor was he making any noise audible over the perpetual rumble of the cataract. Although neither of the point-man’s wounds had been instantly fatal, the odds were good that his fall from the horse inflicted a concussion. Which was a lucky bit of mercy, since the gut wound inflicted by Tom’s third bullet promised a long and miserable death.

But the second rider Tom had shot, the one who had gone down sideways with his mount, was pinned under his dead horse, groaning and bleeding heavily.

Tom approached, then stopped. For a long second, he could not form any thought other than: this is not how it’s supposed to end. This wasn’t part of the plan. They were supposed to die. Or, if I was unlucky, flee. But not this.


The Spaniard had evidently heard Tom’s movement; he struggled to turn his head, to see who might be coming. That attempt to turn had evidently required a reflexive twisting of the lower back: the cavalryman screamed in agony.

That shook Tom out of his stupor. He reached the wounded man in two long strides. Careful not to look him in the eyes, the up-timer snuggled his revolver’s barrel under the soldier’s chin and pulled the trigger.

Tom did not hear the report; did not stop to look at the body; did not remember clambering up the slope and on to the game trail by which he had doubled back to set up this ambush. Up until now, he’d always felt like a soldier. Now… he tried not to think of himself as a murderer.

* * *

The complement in the gondola had grown very quiet. Alps this big, when seen close up, were no longer scenic, were no longer even majestic: they were ominous gargantuans. The figure in the hooded clerical robe stood very still at the rear of the gondola, watching the towering monsters slide slowly past.

Angling to enter the north of the Sur Valley from the east, Franchetti had swept around the Piz d’Err with about one thousand yards to spare, and well under the level of its 11,080 foot peak. But as he drew closer to the Marmelsee, he seemed to be struggling to maintain a steady course.

“What’s wrong?” Miro shouted above the engines.

“Nothing, Don Estuban.”

“Virgilio –”

“Well, the air currents are — are hard to predict here. The drafts around these mountains, they can speed up very quickly.”

Miro looked up at the next alp in the line of snow-and-stone giants arrayed in a frozen, southward parade: this one was even taller, more jagged. Miro pointed. “And that one is called?”

“Piz Calderas.”

Grey horns and fangs protruded from its upper reaches; lower down, where they were, the topography was less forbidding.

“And isn’t that one the Matterhorn?” Sherrilyn pointed across the valley and the Marmelsee, where a great monolith of stone was now framed by the rapidly setting sun. She sounded almost giddy; she seemed to be the last passenger whose enjoyment of the trip was undiminished.

Miro smiled. “No. That is Piz Platta.”

“What?” Sherrilyn sounded personally affronted. “That’s a rip-off! It’s a, a . . . a damned look-alike. A fake.”

Miro’s smiled widened. “Can God steal a creative property from himself? A worthy question for Talmudic scholars, though I suspect –”

Franchetti’s “Don Estuban!” was uttered in the very same second that the gondola seemed to plummet away from under them. Miro fell to the deck, glad not to be falling further. Franchetti was giving orders to Gerd and Donald, who were his assistant engineers on this trip. Donald opened up the burner, which sent a hoarse, bright roar of flame up into the dirigible. A wave of sultry warmth washed over the gondola. At the same time, Gerd was adjusting the engine pitch for a steep climb.

Between the two adjustments, Miro expected the blimp to shoot higher. Instead, it laboriously crawled upward. Miro rose, crouched behind Franchetti, and smelled the sour stink of sudden, panicked sweat. “Virgilio, what is our situation?”

“I — I am not sure, Don Estuban. One minute I was correcting for side draft. The next a slight updraft, then a gust came down off the peak, hard. It is the air over the lake, near dusk. With the temperatures changing this quickly –”

“– wind directions and speeds are changing just as quickly.”

Harry Lefferts spat over the side of the gondola. “Damn it. I knew this was a lousy idea. Flying just before sunset: it’s nuts.”

Miro watched the steep sides of the Piz Calderas come closer. “Virgilio, is it wise that we — ?”

“Don Estuban, the air is calmer here, further away from the surface of the lake. I think we can probably –”

Then, they were shooting upwards, rapidly closing with the Piz Calderas. “What the fuck — ?” shouted Sherrilyn.

Miro knew better than to interrogate Franchetti, who was trying to both save their lives and adapt to conditions he had never encountered in the more predictable flying conditions of central Germany. Besides, Miro had a pretty good idea of what the problem was.

They had entered a fierce new westerly draft. Glancing across the valley, Miro guessed it was produced by the funneling effects the two immense alps he saw there: the Piz Platta and its northerly partner, the Piz Arblatsch. Winds from the west were pinched between the peaks and accelerated, as would a stream of water that is forced to flow through a narrow tube. Entering the valley, the airship had been north of the draft. And later, until it struggled up out of the downdrafts over the lake, the balloon had remained under the air current. But rising up had brought them square into the blast, which had not only removed the downdraft effect, but was pushing them sideways, toward a high-altitude impalement upon the snowy spikes of Piz Caldera.

Except not all those lethal projections were clearly snow-marked, Miro realized. “Virgilio –!”

Franchetti saw the dagger-like horn of dark-grey rock that jumped out of the shadows at them. Probably the morning sunlight had melted it clean, allowing it to lurk, camouflaged, in the shadows of dusk. As they sped sideways to meet its disemboweling slice, sure to shred the gondola and drop them thousands of feet to their collective deaths, Miro watched Franchetti struggle to get the airship down and out of the cross-valley draft. And that was when he realized that, instead, they had to —

“Climb!” shouted Miro. “Pitch engines for rapid ascent; throttles wide open!”

“Wha –?”

“Do it!” roared Miro, who leaped over to the burner and opened its choke to full burn.

No longer trying to fight back down into and through the cross-current, the sudden increase in both lift and upward thrust pushed the dirigible suddenly higher with what seemed like a hop. Piz Calderas’ granite claw reached out for them —

— and bumped lightly against the bottom of the gondola, before they soared up beyond it. They were still angling toward the higher reaches of Piz Calderas, but without the same powerful side draft; they had also climbed over the most intense core of the winds. Behind Miro, people began to breathe again.

Franchetti turned; his brow was as wet as if he emerged from the lake they were now angling back toward. “Don Estuban, I — thank you. Merde: just thank you.” At the other end of the gondola, Miro was pretty sure he could hear the robed passenger murmuring what sounded like a prayer of thanks.

Miro sank back into a seat and then felt something thump against his back. He turned around just as George Sutherland’s big, meaty paw landed for a second friendly pat: “Not half bad, Don Estuban, not half bad.”

Harry, too, was smiling at him. Indeed, they all were. Miro nodded, smiled back and stared once again across the valley at the alps that had almost killed them.