1635 – The Papal Stakes — Snippet 17

* * *

Franchetti screamed, “Pitch the engines down! Full braking thrust!”

Miro complied, yanking the engine angling bar up sharply: the props rotated into an earth-aimed attitude, slowing the descent. The gondola came to an unsteady halt, a mere four feet off the ground.

Juliet — a short, round woman — looked dubiously at the gap that Lefferts, Gerd, and Sherrilyn had already jumped down.

“C’mon!” hissed Lefferts, before disappearing into the down slope tree line, the Gallegione cataract roiling and crashing on its downward tumult about thirty yards to his right.

George Sutherland hopped to the ground — lightly for a man of his size — and held up his arms for his wife. “Down you come, dear.” He said it as if she were descending from a coach after a ride in the country — which is how she exited the airship.

Franchetti glanced back. “Don Estuban, we should –”

“Yes — yes, Virgilio; take us back to the extraction point.”

As Miro and Franchetti swiveled the engines into a down-draft position again, and throttled the burner up, the dirigible rose and swung away from the small meadow.

In the back of the gondola, the one remaining passenger started praying in Latin.

* * *

Tom let the first tactical probe get within twenty-five yards before he fired four times, quickly. Of the three approaching Spaniards, two fell: one, howling and writhing; the other, silently and limp. Having finally given away his position, Tom ducked, just in time to hear a ragged crackle of musketry from both the hamlet and the upslope trail. Perhaps a dozen balls spattered Tom’s sheltering rock, the rotted log, and the ground nearby. Many more hissed into the white, whirling veils of the cataract and beyond, into the trees.

Tom popped up, saw a thin horizontal line of gun smoke diffusing slowly in his direction. He also saw the last Spaniard advancing on his flank, hunched low, pistol and sword at the ready. Tom fired twice at the skirmisher, turned and jumped into the stream, hopping and struggling his way across. The Spaniard’s pistol, and a more distant musket, discharged behind him: either Tom was not hit, or did not feel it. Either way, he continued his uneven progress across the ford, wondering how long the gun smoke would obscure the vision of the Spanish line, and how long it would take them to reload.

* * *

Harry Lefferts was so focused on finding a way to get closer to the cataract that he was completely surprised by the buff-coated man who rose up in front of him. Jerking to a startled halt, Harry squinted into the near-dark: the man’s weapon was an immediate giveaway as to whose side he was on.

Harry moved the barrel of the down-time box-magazine Winchester away from his belly. “Wondered where you guys were,” Lefferts drawled.

“Waiting for you.”

“Oooo, snappy. I like that. You also just about scared me out of my pants.” He looked the mercenary up and down. “You’re pretty damned good. Wanna work for me?”

The man shrugged. “I like my boss.”

“I pay better.”

“I doubt it. And I’ve got a family. Lieutenant Hasting is just down the slope.”

“No time to find him. How are you deployed?”

“Loose skirmish line from here to the river to cover Captain Simpson’s group as they come up the track.” As if to emphasize the harried approach of that group, a clatter of musketry rose above the dull thunder of the cataract.

“Any force closer to the ford?”

“No: none to spare. We’ve only got two squads.”

“You’re only one squad, here. Where’s the other?”

“Landing zone security and uncommitted reserve.”

Harry scowled a little. Frequently, the word “reserve” translated as the hiding place for cowardly commanders. “I see Colonel North is sitting this one out.”

“That’s not how we see it.”

“Well, we can debate that over a beer some time. We’re going in.”

“In? In where?”

Harry pointed in the direction of the recent fusillade. “In there.”

“You’re going to attack the Spanish?”

Harry smiled, waved for the Wrecking Crew to follow him southwest, angling to follow the upslope limit of the woods. “Not directly.”

* * *

Tom reached the other side of the ford just as the muskets started sporadically barking at him again. However, from the sound of it, most of the Spanish were giving chase, not stopping to reload: in the dark, any gunfights at ranges greater than ten yards were pretty much pointless.

Feeling solid ground under his feet, Tom up and sprinted forward, following the cart-track. The pain of his reopened wound returned sharply, now reaching up into his lower back. When the shooting had started, adrenaline had swept the discomfort away, but that relieving rush was gone: soon, he’d start limping, stumbling —

He heard movement upslope, some yards beyond the trees linking the track.

Impossible. There had been no way to cross the cataract higher up: how could the Spanish have anyone on his northern flank?

Desperate, and experiencing true panic for the first time in many years, Tom Simpson found another surge of strength which sent him dashing forward along the track.

* * *

Lieutenant Hastings watched the man and woman help the little priest stumble past his position, and right behind them, an odd couple indeed: a fit, yet clearly older woman with a useless, dangling foot, being almost dragged along by a fit, but equally aged Moor. And, still further back along the track, another very large silhouette was emerging from the darkness . . .

* * *

Corporal Eugenio Morca de Torres clambered out of the frothing current, cocked his miquelet musket, aimed after the fleeing figure, then lowered his weapon. Coño, the big American was fast, even when wounded. He waved for his men to follow and ran in pursuit.

* * *

Harry skidded to a halt, five yards from where the woods ended at the cart track, saw a figure running down there, heading towards North’s forward skirmish line. A big figure. Tom Simpson. Had to be.

Catching a tree branch to slow himself, George Sutherland readied his up-time shotgun, tracking back along the route of Tom’s retreat. Troop sounds — a platoon or more moving quickly — were growing loud enough to rival the cataract back there.

Harry shook his head. “Not yet.”

* * *

Lieutenant Hastings saw that the approaching figure was the large up-timer, Tom Simpson. He was limping and staggering, now: probably both wounded and exhausted. And behind him, only twenty yards or so, the first of the Spanish were visible. And one, in the lead, was stopping, raising his arms…

…drawing a bead?

Lieutenant Hastings brought up his Winchester and yelled, “Get down, Simpson. Squad, fire at will!”

* * *

Tom heard the British accent, almost sobbed in relief, and dove forward with the same gusto and abandon that had propelled him into Ohio State’s end zone when it had been fourth quarter, two minutes left on the clock, and fourth-down-and-goal-to-go from the three-yard line.

* * *

Corporal Torres felt the men on either side of him go down, discharged his musket in the direction of the small and ominously rapid muzzle flashes. Up-time weapons or copies: no doubt about it. But the range was close, and he had fifty men. And since one of their quarry was obviously a Moor, it seemed only right to cry, “Santiago and at them!” Dropping his spent firearm, Torres sprinted forward. Drawing his sword, he swept it back in readiness . . .

* * *

“Now,” said Harry calmly.

Five yards beyond the upslope trees that lined the cart-track, the nine members of the Wrecking Crew unleashed a near-uniform volley from their trademark pump shotguns. With the center of the ragged enemy column now directly abreast of the Crew, the carnage was startling. More than a dozen Spaniards sprawled, blood black in the early moonlight.

The lethal, hollow-tube sound of the shotguns’ cycling actions — the dull ker-throonk of rounds being fed back and up from under-barrel magazines — offered a faint counterpoint chorus before they roared again. Other sounds of twentieth century slaughter added to the waves of sound, echoing off the rocks of the Val Bregaglia several more times before giving way to absolute silence.