1635 – The Papal Stakes — Snippet 16
* * *
Tom ran, limping, to join the rest of them at the edge of the fuming torrent that swirled down into the Mera at the northeastern edge of Villa.
Rita and Arco, supporting Ginetti on either side, ventured into the swift current, stumbled, righted themselves, and then fell again, going down to their knees.
“Shit,” swore Rita, grabbing after the limp cardinal.
“Merde,” echoed Arco.
A light came on in a second story window of the largest house in Villa.
reflected Tom, things are likely to get very interesting.
* * *
As the airship passed over Castagena, Franchetti started leveling out from his descent. The Val Bregaglia was almost flat here, allowing the Mera to fan out. Miro, hand upon the covered bull’s-eye lantern that was to serve as a landing light, started looking for the prearranged extraction zone, a meadow just north of where the river widened —
* * *
Melissa, forgetting her own infirmities, jumped over to help the cardinal back to his feet; James scrambled into the water after her —
A musket discharged from within the confines of the town: the ball struck one of the rocks flanking the ford, pieces of stone spalling upslope. The miss had been well wide of the group that was struggling over the shallows in the dark, but it was close enough to be worrisome. Orders were shouted in Spanish. From back along the upslope path they had followed to get here, a whistle shrilled in answer.
Tom dropped into a crouch, exhaled through the sudden flare of pain that blossomed as his right buttock hyperextended. The Spanish were coming from two directions. One group had followed the upslope trail, which put them due west. The other group — probably the larger of the bodies of troops — had stayed on the wider, better track that wound through Villa: they were approaching from the southwest. Probably at a good clip.
Tom pulled out his revolver, checked that the priming caps were snugly seated. Not long now.
* * *
Having just settled his squad within the trees one hundred yards west of the extraction zone — about a third of the distance to Villa — North tilted his head to listen. Yes, that was a musket report, which came across the sluggish water like a sighing pop! “Damn it.”
The colonel’s batman, Finan, scuttled over. “Sir, what is it?”
“Did you hear that?”
“Hear what, sir?”
North closed his eyes, remembered a particularly apt American exchange, reprised in so many of their movies. “I have good news and bad news.”
“The good news is that Captain Simpson and his party are still alive, and are, in fact, quite close.”
“And the bad news is –?”
“That we’re not alone. Send a runner to Hastings: positive target identification before firing. It’s going to be close.”
As Finan disappeared into the murk, another two shots came faintly over the water.
Very close indeed.
* * *
Harry Lefferts stood. “Okay, that wasn’t ‘just my imagination.’ Did you see the flashes?”
Miro nodded. “At the western end of the wide part of the river, near the Piz Gallegione cataract.”
Harry turned. “Listen; we’re not going to be able to run over there in time to save them, not if we land here at the extraction site.”
Miro nodded again: Lefferts’ assessment was inarguably correct. “So where’s Colonel North?”
“If he’s here, he’ll be somewhere between the extraction zone and the anticipated contact point.”
Miro peered at the thin woods. “I don’t see anything there.”
“Of course not. North is good: you won’t see him until he wants you to.”
“So what do you recommend?”
Harry frowned, considering. “North will stay under cover until we signal. But with a firefight in progress, we’d be stupid to follow the original plan to hover out over the river. And he’d be stupid to give away his position before seeing us. So we have to change the plans. We have to send the first signal: we shoot the first whistle-bolt.”
Miro met Harry’s eyes, saw eagerness but no berserkergang, no indication of a battle lust that might impede judgment. He looked over Lefferts’ shoulder at Matija. “Shoot the bolt.”
* * *
Tom couldn’t see the Spanish approaching, but he could hear them. Muttered orders, whispered acknowledgements, occasional rustling and soft footfalls: the sounds of a stealthy platoon advance.
The only other two shots the Spanish had fired were blind misses, meaning that the first shot’s proximity had probably been the result of luck, not skill. Probably a hail-mary discharge in the general direction of the voices heard at the ford.
Which the last of the group had almost traversed. The cardinal had cleared the rocks on the other side, hanging like a drowned rat between Rita and Arco. Melissa was finally picking her way out of the churning white melt-waters, too — and then she went down, quick and hard, with a most improper and biologically implausible oath.
The timing was unfortunate: James had just turned to start back and help Tom across. Hearing Melissa’s sharp cry, Nichols spun and caught her arm before the rush of water could carry her under and away. Pretty damned spry for a guy in his sixties, thought Tom. But as James helped Melissa hobble up out of the frothing current, he glanced back over his shoulder. His eyes — desperate and apologetic — met Tom’s.
Tom Simpson nodded his understanding and approval: a man’s first duty was to his woman. Nichols faded into the trees on the far bank, working as a human crutch for Melissa. It was obvious that her ankle was at least sprained, maybe broken.
Tom looked at his black-powder revolver, wished it was any one of a half dozen up-time weapons he had used in the past three years. But that kind of armament had been deemed both unnecessary and too unsubtle when they set out on this journey. Back in safe, sunny Padua. Back before they were given the additional task of rendezvousing with a renegade cardinal who had the physique of a couch-potato.
Tom hunkered down behind the largest rock he could find, took the cap-and-ball revolver in both hands — and heard a strange bird call over the water. Wait: was that –?
* * *
North held up his hand. “Was that a –?”
Finan nodded. “Sounded like a long-winded whip-poor-will to me, Colonel.”
The signal. The dirigible was here.
“Fire our bolt,” he hissed urgently at his batman. “Right now, out over the water.”
* * *
Lefferts was focused in a way that Miro had never seen before. Now he understood why, despite his swagger and reputation for occasional impulsiveness, Harry had been so successful on operations like these. “Franchetti,” the up-timer said, “keep us close to the slope, inside the shadows if you can.”
“Si, but where am I –?”
“Look dead ahead, due west, just upslope of where the cataract hits the river. You see that small pasture?”
“Near the abandoned farmhouse?”
“Yeah. Can you put down there?”
“Well, yes, but –”
“Do it. Now.” Lefferts turned to the rest of his Wrecking Crew. “Well, folks, it might be a hot LZ. Ready for some fun?“
* * *
Tom Simpson heard a second strange birdsong — the whistle-bolt countersign — respond promptly to the first and allowed himself a small smile: well, I just might get out of this alive, after all…
Four shots sputtered from between the buildings in Villa; two more came from upslope, flashes marking their sources within the tree line. Most of the balls missed by a reasonable margin: one thumped into a decayed tree trunk laying in front of the rock behind which Tom had taken cover.
might get out of this alive. But then again, I might not.
* * *
North stood as the runner he sent to the front rank returned. Before the winded fellow could speak, the colonel gave new orders. “Back you go. Tell Lieutenant Hastings that he has a new relief force coming in on his right flank.”
“A new relief force? Where from, sir?”
North pointed upward. “From thin air.” He motioned for the rest of his squad to get their rifles out of their all-weather hide cases. “Ready on the line,” he ordered, as he readied his up-time nine-millimeter pistol.