1635 – The Papal Stakes — Snippet 15


North watched the light dying in the narrow strip of sky that looked down at them from between peaks that soared up and away like walls reaching to heaven itself. Then he lowered his gaze to peer beyond the edge of their sheltering copse, following the track that descended toward the western extent of the Val Bregaglia.

But before the valley dipped down to where the Mera picked up speed and spread wider and shallower, the wagon track passed before the door of the humble church and cottages that comprised the hamlet of Castagena. Where, evidently, a wedding had run late: a dozen revelers were still milling about. Half seemed to be trying to tidy up the area and hush the other half. Who, for their part, seemed unwilling to realize that the festivities had ended.

North drew a deep breath. “Pass the word: as soon as the last of these bloody merrymakers have cleared off, we travel weapons out and at the trot. We have to move swiftly to the extraction site and establish our defensive perimeter in the dark. Not a simple exercise.”

“And still no way to know if there will be anyone there to be extracted.”

“Yes, a bit problematic, that.”

“How long do we wait at the extraction site, Colonel?”

North gave Hastings a sour look. “Until it’s time to leave. How the hell do I know how long we’ll have to wait?”

* * *

Nichols put a hand on Tom Simpson’s arm. “Hold up, there. Let me look at that wound, again.”

“Doc, we don’t have the time –”

“There’s a lot of things we don’t have the time for. You bleeding to death is on the top of the list. Now stand still.”

The rest of the group moved on ahead. Melissa’s iron determination had kept her going: that and the decreased pace that Tom had set. Rita and Arco were taking turns all but carrying Ginetti as they made their way upslope around a hamlet that made tiny Piuro look like a bustling metropolis.

Tom looked over his shoulder. “Is it bad?”

“Not bad but messy. And unlucky; this musket ball reopened the grenade wound you picked up while rescuing Urban. I’ve got no way to stop the bleeding out here.”

“Can’t you — I don’t know — bind it?” Tom felt idiotic even as he said it.

James Nichols’ long silence made him feel even more stupid. “Tom, just how would you propose I bind a lateral wound on a single buttock?”

“Okay, dumb idea. Look; we don’t have much farther to go. On the far side of the hamlet — Villa, I think they call it — the Mera widens out. There’s a light forest hugging the north bank. When we get beyond that forest, we’re at the rendezvous point. So listen: you go on ahead and –”

Tom felt James’ shoulder muscles, corded with age but still strong, slip under his right armpit and hoist. “Nope. You’re coming with us.” Tom rose to his feet, wobbled.

“Pain?” asked Nichols.

“Naw, just dizzy.”

“That’s the blood loss.”

“Blood loss? What, do I have an artery in my ass?”

“No, Tom. But you’ve been pushing yourself over hill and dale for hours now, and even slow bleeding is going to make you light-headed and weak.”

“Not a good time for those symptoms,” Tom observed, trying to move without Nichols’ help, but not succeeding brilliantly.

James Nichols paused, lifted his head to hear over the Gallegione cataract crashing down from the heights ahead and to the north. “No, not a good time at all.”

Tom had heard it too: the fraction of a shouted order. In Spanish, and further back along the wagon track they had been following.

* * *

It had become so dark that Miro was uncertain how Franchetti was flying. The last light glimmered off the Lunghinsee, far to the left. The lake was the source of the River Inn, a distinction which conjured images of a broad expanse of water, cascading over rocks in a flume that would eventually reach the sea. But in actuality, the Lunghinsee was a puddle compared to the Marmelsee. It was small, stark, and alien: an absolutely unrippled mirror surface, held in the grip of mountains as barren as those of the moon.

The dirigible dipped sharply; Miro and the other passengers braced themselves, but Franchetti’s explanation — shouted over the engines — put them back at ease. “We have gone over the Septimer Pass, which is just above seven thousand, two hundred feet. The last alps of the Oberhalbstein Range are now behind us to the left, the west. We now head down into the Val Bregaglia by turning west at Vicosoprano.”

“And we should be at the rendezvous in how long?”

“I cannot say until we see what the winds are like in the valley. But about half an hour. Less, if conditions are good.”

Miro turned to the Wrecking Crew. “Ready your weapons.”

* * *

North hissed at Hastings as he went past. “Keep your squad away from the banks of the river: there isn’t enough tree-cover there.”

Hastings looked dubiously overhead at the stars what were beginning to shine through the dusty-rose and mauve of late dusk.

North grumbled as Hastings opened his mouth to reply. “No, Lieutenant, it’s not as dark as you think. Not so dark that buckles and barrels won’t catch a bit of light and alert the Spanish: that’s why our men’s rifles went back in their cases for the nonce. The Spaniard is not always imaginative, but he’s a steady, seasoned soldier. If you get lazy, he will teach you the error of your ways: a lesson that might end with you waking up in heaven. Or in slightly less lofty regions, in your case.”

“Yes, sir.”

“No heroics, Hastings. When you get to the edge of the woods overlooking the cataract, set up a loose skirmish line that extends upslope thirty yards from the cart-track.”

“Sir, this being spring in the Alps, there could be several mountain run-offs, so how can I tell which –?”

“Hastings, this is a genuine cataract. Flows all the way down from the peak of that alp” — pointed up at the pink-tinted snow-cap of the Piz Gallegione, towering over them just to the north — “so I don’t think you’re going to miss it. Although, in your case –”

Hastings cleared his throat. “And you’ll be in reserve behind us, sir?”

“Yes, but I’ll be down two men. They’ll be detached to make contact with the airship when it arrives in at the extraction site. And while we’re waiting for Captain Simpson’s group to arrive, do see if you can keep from getting killed, Lieutenant. It would take an unreasonably long amount of time to train someone to replace you. Given the high caliber of your skills, I estimate it might even require two days. Now go — and remember: even with the countersign, it’s going to be difficult distinguishing friend from foe in this light. No eager trigger-fingers.”

“Yes, sir.” And Hastings was gone, a shadow consumed by shadows.

North looked out over the broad spread of the Mera, smooth and quiet here, thought he could make out two pinpricks of yellow light just beyond where the river gathered together and, swollen by the cataract, plunged down once again. Probably oil lamps in upper story windows of Villa, he thought. But five years ago, my eyes were keen enough that I wouldn’t have had to guess. I’m getting old, damn it. Old.

Hell, next month, I’ll be halfway through my thirties.