Serpent Daughter – Snippet 32
“Was Hannah reckless, or was she bold?”
Calvin Calhoun was packed to leave in three minutes. It was easy enough — rifle, powder, shot and accouterments; a second set of clothing, rolled up in a bedroll; done.
Logan Rupp, on the other hand, took hours.
“Come on, Logan!” Cal bellowed from the entry hall of their rented Philadelphia house. “Jerusalem, iffen you can’t git a little pepper in your step, we’re gonna miss the Feast of the Ascension and have to wait for the actual resurrection!”
There was no one to laugh at his joke, the Donelsen boys all being out with Charlie Donelsen. The Electors of the Ascendancy who were in town met often to eat, and generally in taverns in the seediest parts of Philadelphia, which required them to bring along armed kinsmen.
Cal went ahead and laughed by himself. Lord hates a man as can’t appreciate the humor of a good joke, no matter who tells it.
Rupp bellowed down the stairs, voice echoing off the peeling blue wallpaper in the stairwell. “If I only had to bring a coonskip cap and a pair of moccasins, I’d be ready too!”
Coonskin cap? “I ain’t e’er worn nor owned a coonskip cap!” Cal called up the stairs. “You callin’ me a chawbacon?”
“I’m only saying I have books to pack!”
“You plannin’ on appearin’ in a Youngstown court?” Cal snorted. “No one cares what you’re wearin’, Rupp, and we’re a-comin’ back!”
“My formbooks!” Rupp called. “If the Elector wants a legal document drawn up, I’d rather not have to rent a form from some local practitioner.”
Cal blew a raspberry and retired to the drawing room. This was a spare room next to the bottom of the staircase, furnished only with three high-backed chairs that had all sprung leaks and were slowly losing their cotton batting.
Cal was being careful with the Elector’s money — Iron Andy and Charlie Donelsen split the rent on this house. Cal knew how far a shilling would go, and how hard it was to rustle a heifer and get her to market, and how many Calhoun mouths there were to feed.
He threw himself into one of the soft chairs and sat watching the street through cotton curtains. A breath of air lifted the curtains, bringing in the leafy smells of spring along with the earthy reek of horse droppings, to mingle with the odors of sweat and tobacco that were deeply impregnated in the rented house’s wood.
He was ruminating on what the Elector might want from him and on the general direction of the impeachment proceedings when a man climbed the wooden front steps of the house. Cal had been distracted by his own thoughts and had missed the opportunity to get a close look at his face, and then there was a knock at the door.
If the Donelsens had been there, one of the boys would have answered the door. In the event of mischief, three or four big-knuckled Donelsens always stood between Charlie and danger, which meant that they often stood between Cal and danger.
Cal decided to be careful.
He took his rifle with him and slipped out the back. That took him through the blocky parlor and then the rectangular kitchen, and then he lifted the latch on the kitchen’s door.
The visitor knocked a second time as Cal let the white-painted door carefully shut.
He vaulted over a wooden handrailing to drop off the porch into the thick green grass, dark green with the flush of spring rain, and then crept around the side of the house.
He checked his firing pan but then shifted the long rifle into his left hand, taking his tomahawk into his right.
Peering around the front of the house, he saw the lightly trafficked street, with its elms, cherries, and dogwoods. A mule cart with three large barrels marched slowly along the street, and a portly, dark-skinned man stood at the door. Irritation and curiosity showed on the man’s face as he knocked again — he was short and tended to the rotund, with a black vest and white sleeves, stained with sweat. Sweat stood out on his temple, and as Calvin looked at him, he had the feeling he’d seen the man before.
He didn’t look armed, and he didn’t look like a Polite. Still, it never hurt to make a good impression.
Cal threw the tomahawk.
He sank it neatly in the flaking white paint and dry wood of the handrailing, and at the same time raised the rifle. He didn’t quite point it at the stranger, but he didn’t really point it away from him, either.
“Evenin’,” Cal said.
The stranger laughed. “I see that New Orleans has nothing on Philadelphia for danger!”
“Do I know you?” Cal asked. “We got business?”
“We met in a casino.” The man’s accent was thick and French. “You were with Sarah, queen of the Eldritch. You came to see my boss, Etienne Ukwu.”
Cal frowned. “You’re the accountant.”
The man grinned, his teeth shiny white. “Monsieur Bondí. I hold the proxy of the Bishop of New Orleans. And I am also prepared to give testimony.”
Cal lowered the rifle. “I expect I might have to leave the lawyer here with you, then.”
Ahmed Abd al-Wahid spent weeks observing the Mississippi. He watched the basilisks rolling in the warm mud, slithering over each other, and zipping through the air.
He requisitioned cattle from the chevalier and his Spanish allies and drove them to the river, watching the big beasts die slowly as Abd al-Wahid tried to count how many basilisks were sinking their teeth in. He saw that a snake that bit could bite again and again, its fangs apparently venomous each time, with no reduced potency.
He noted that there was no time of day or night that was free from the possibility of encountering one of the bad-tempered, highly venomous creatures, but that they were more active at night. They hunted at night, killing the little rodents, frogs, and bats that lived along the shore of the river. A basilisk that killed then swallowed its prey whole and sank itself into the mud to digest. The basilisks flew as high as the bats did; Abd al-Wahid saw bats snatched a hundred feet above the river.
He experimented with temperature, covering a calf with cold mud and sending it down to the water’s edge to see whether the mud would conceal the calf from the snakes; it didn’t, and the calf died in horrible spasms of pain, foaming at the mouth. He experimented with scents, and they all failed to camouflage creatures from the snakes. He experimented with noise, borrowing a three-pound cannon and firing it very close to trees where he knew the flying snakes nested — individual snakes fled their sleep-place and a few even came to investigate the source of the sound, causing the mameluke to take shelter behind a lightning-shattered oak, but by and large the serpents were unfazed.
He watched for alligators and wild cats and other venomous snakes, and noted that basilisks seemed to be the only killer on this stretch of the river. Perhaps the serpents ate the other predators’ food, causing them to leave. Or perhaps they had driven the other predators entirely into the bayous and the Pontchartrain Sea, which made these flying snakes the deadliest and fiercest predator of all.
The bishop had chosen his defenders well.
Finally, Ahmed Abd al-Wahid resolved upon a plan. It might fail, but as the Prophet said: No disaster strikes except by permission of God. And whoever believes in God — He will guide his heart. Ahmed Abd al-Wahid let God — as filtered through his own wit and science — guide his heart, and if what God led Abd al-Wahid to was lethal, it could only mean that God wanted the mameluke dead.
For a week, he paid bored Texians to collect vermin for him. Bats were hard, but mice were easy to catch, and frogs were easier still. The Texians relished a good contest, and something they called bragging rights — the right of a contest winner to boast — so he offered to pay them by the creature, as well as a barrel of whisky for the winning platoon.
For a week, they brought him critters and varmints. He kept them alive with insects he paid the Tonkawa and Comanche to bring to him, and with grain.
He reported his findings to the Chevalier of New Orleans, who was amused by the contrast between Ahmed Abd al-Wahid’s effort to think through the challenge of the basilisks, and the Spanish approach. The Spanish, apparently, were building a bridge up the river, and they were doing it at a staggering cost of life, and forcing the builders to cooperate by using slaves and by killing those who refused to work. It was the difference, the chevalier said, between the caress of a lover’s bare fingertips and a punch to the face from a gauntleted fist.
Abd al-Wahid demurred that at times, it was the fist that was needed, and left.
He built a small trebuchet. This was medieval learning, but it was part of the science of war, and he had studied it along with the tactics of Salah ad-Din and Richard the Lion. He built it a hundred feet back from the river’s edge, which was fifty feet farther from the water than he had seen any cow standing as it was bitten. He threw stones with the trebuchet, and if he couldn’t throw them all the way across the river, he could throw them about half the distance.