1635 – The Papal Stakes — Snippet 42


“Exactly. This means that each of the chambers is designed exactly like a self-contained barrel and breech. They are arranged in a pentagram, as you see.”

“There you go: witchcraft for sure.”

“Hardly,” smiled Connal. “Just as with the up-time revolvers you’ve seen, when you pull back the weapon’s hammer — or, in this case, a larger crossbar — it rotates the cylinder.” He demonstrated; the weapon made a monstrous clacking sound as the cylinder turned. “The percussion cap of a new barrel has now moved into the position occupied by the last one. When the trigger is squeezed and the hammer falls, it ignites the charge in the new barrel. You can fire five times before reloading.”

Owen nodded. “But I’ve heard Dutch clockmakers complain that when they try to copy up-time devices like this, they can’t make the springs strong enough. How did you avoid that problem here?”

“The gunsmiths used larger, cruder springs, which led, in part, to the cumbersome size of the weapon. The only spring that still has a great deal of resistance upon it is the one that turns the cylinder. And if that breaks — ” He manipulated a small knob protruding from the end of the cylinder, as if unlocking it, and then turned the entire unit by hand. “Still quite a lot faster than having to reload after every shot.”

John was clearly working at keeping the scowl on his face and his growing interest off. “Sure and it’s the seventh wonder of the world, Dr. Connal, but you’ll not get me to use one of these monstrosities.” But Owen knew otherwise: he could hear the reluctant fascination in the earl of Tyrone’s voice.

“That will be as you wish, Lord O’Neill. But you might wish to reconsider. The hammer is large and heavy so that a rider can manipulate it easily, even with a gauntlet on.”

“So that’s why it has a crossbar all the way across, rather than a single hammer?”

“Exactly. It’s easier to get a hold of. And given the springs used, it is easier to cock the weapon with a whole-hand pull on the crossbar.”

Owen considered carefully. “Yes, and it would also be useful if you’re trying to cock the weapon on horseback. You could even snag the bar on a saddle-hook and push the whole weapon downward to prime the action.”

“True enough, but there’s a more important advantage to the crossbar. Look at the vertical thumb tab at the center of the bar. What do you see?”

John squinted. “Hmmm. There’s a small hole, right where the tab and the bar meet.”

“Precisely. Just before it meets the crossbar, the vertical tab splits into two parts, rather like a Y standing on its head. The resulting triangle — the space between the arms of the upside-down Y and the top of the crossbar — is left open. If one aims through that aperture — what the up-timers call a ‘peep sight’ — you’ll see a small bead at the end of the barrel that is ready to fire.”

Owen nodded. “So when the bead is on your target, and also in the center of the peep-sight –”

“You are properly aligned.”

“And how accurate is it?”

“Like comparable flintlock pistols, its accurate aimed range is just under ten yards. However, if loaded with a charge of four single-aught pellets, the odds of scoring at least one hit on a target at twenty yards is almost fifty percent.”

“Useless until you’re almost at sword range,” griped John, even though he hadn’t taken his eyes off the weapon for about a minute.

“Aye, but most useful in trenches. Or in a city,” emended Owen. “Particularly with five barrels. So it’s a smoothbore then, Doctor?”

“Yes; the bore is almost half an inch. Properly charged — the craftsmen are still experimenting with ‘sabots’ that the up-timers use to increase the velocity of smaller bullets — a shot from this weapon will routinely penetrate a steel cuirass at ten yards.”

Eubank approached from the wharf. John raised his chin. “What’s the word, Turlough? Will we be walking to Rome, then?”

“Only if you get seasick sailing upriver on the Tiber. Imagine my shock when the last bargeman said he could take our custom.”

“Sounds too good to be true,” speculated Owen with a long look at Turlough.

“Well, Colonel, on my mother’s grave I swear it’s true. But it’s none too good.”

John cocked his head sideways. “And why would that be?”

Eubank shifted his feet uncomfortably. “Seems the bargeman’s most recent passengers left the boat a bit of a mess.”

“Ah,” exhaled Owen. “Gypsies?”

“Sassenachs?” asked John.

“Goats,” Eubank replied. “Far too many goats.”


Harry Lefferts peeked out from under the hood of his monk’s habit as the wagon rocked and then jolted sideways. The yellow-tan dust settled long enough for him to see green fields. In the middle distance, those expanses gave way to vines and olive trees that straggled up a low, rocky ridge. It was the same scenery that Harry had been watching for two days now, ever since they began their westward travel on the Via Prenestina. At the start, near Palestrina, the land had been less flat, so there had been more trees and vines, and occasional expanses of scrub given over to goats.

But other than that, not much to see. One or two of the Wrecking Crew had perked up when they passed near the old Roman aqueducts. Sherrilyn had been particularly enthusiastic. Gerd had counterpointed her exclamations with sharp, snorting snores from the rear of the wagon. Disguised as a motley assortment of clerics, farmers, and teamsters, their load of wheat and rice provided an effective layer of concealment under which they had secreted their equipment and weapons. And those who did not look at all like the locals had to keep themselves more completely concealed most of the time.

In Harry’s case, this meant nearly head-to-toe covering around the clock, since, having been the visual as well as behavioral inspiration for Rome’s lefferti, he was conspicuously recognizable in this region. Which meant that he had come to learn that monks’ habits were not comfortable; in addition to being itchy and rough, they were beastly hot. It had taken a while for the slight increase of traffic to register through the heat-drowsy boredom into which Harry had sunk. He leaned back toward the driver’s seat and drawled. “Are we there yet?”

He could hear Sherrilyn’s grin as she interjected, in a shrill hausfrau voice from the other side of the wagon. “Zip it; we’ll get there when we get there.”

Romulus, who clearly did not understand the up-time reference to admonishing whining kids in the back seat of a car, did not find Sherrilyn’s retort humorous. He merely shrugged. “See for yourself.”

Harry turned and tipped up the rim of his habit’s hood. In the distance, so flat on the land that the Tiber was invisible from this modest height, the greater edifices of eastern Rome rose up through the city’s own mid-morning haze like a gang of hunched gray giants. Red tiled roofs tilted this way and that around their bent knees. The road they were on apparently led toward the lap of one of the closer stone edifices. Harry nodded at it. “That’s the gate?”

“The Porta Maggiore,” muttered Romulus as he pulled the wagon to the side of the road and coaxed the pair of rickety old horses to a halt, “or the Porta di Santa Croce, as some prefer. At any rate, now that I can see it, I have reached the point beyond which I may not be seen.” As arranged earlier, he handed the reins and long switch over to Matija.

Harry nodded his thanks to their taciturn guide, and smiled. “Not welcome in Rome?”

“Not until the occupiers leave. I will remain at the appointed place for four days. If I have not heard from you by then, I will return to Palestrina, presuming you have no further need of my services.”

“Yeah, we may take a boat straight back.”

“Or you may be dead,” added Romulus philosophically. “Arrivederci.” Hat pulled well down beneath his eyes, the man whose real name they had yet to learn walked back the way they had come.

The wagon rumbled into motion again, setting up a drift of dust that hung in the air for a few seconds. When it settled, Romulus was nowhere to be seen, although the road ran on so straight and far that it seemed to disappear into the infinity of its own vanishing point.