1636: Commander Cantrell in the West Indies – Snippet 03
Grantville, State of Thuringia-Franconia
Colonel Hugh Albert O’Donnell, the expatriate Earl of Tyrconnell, slugged back the contents of the small, clear shot glass. The liquid he gulped down burned from the top of his gullet to the bottom of his gut and filled his head with fumes that, he still suspected, might be poisonous. But at least this time he wasn’t going to —
The burn flared at the back of his throat and he coughed. And choked and sputtered. He looked up at his hosts — Grantville’s two Mike McCarthies, one Senior and one Junior — who looked on sympathetically. The older man also seemed to be suppressing either a grimace or a grin. Hugh put the shot glass aside politely.
“Can’t stomach moonshine, eh?” There was a little friendly chiding in Don McCarthy the Elder’s tone.
“Alas, and it pains an Irishman to say it, I cannot. It is not as similar to poteen as you conjectured. And it has not ‘grown on me’ as you Americans say — not the least bit, these past six nights. My apologies.”
“Ah, that’s all right,” said Mike the Younger, who disappeared into the kitchen and promptly returned with a perfectly-cast squat bottle, half-filled with liquid of a very promising amber color. “Want to try some bourbon?”
Hugh struggled to understand. “Is it a drink of that line, of that family?”
“`Of that line — ?’ Oh, you mean the Bourbons of France? No, no: this is American whiskey — uisce beatha — made in some of the Southern States. Interested?”
At the words ‘whiskey’ and its Gaelic root-word, uisce beatha, Hugh felt his interest and even his spirits brighten. He sat a little straighter. “I am very interested, Michael.”
Smiles and new drinks all around. But the small glasses were poured out very carefully this time, as though the ‘bourbon’ was precious nectar — and then Hugh realized that indeed it must be. The label, the bottle, the screw-on cap: all bore the stamp of machine-manufactured precision. This was a whiskey from almost four hundred years in the future. It would be a long wait indeed before any more was available. Hugh resolved to savor every drop. He raised his glass. “Slainte.”
“Slainte,” replied Michael McCarthy Sr. with a quick, wide smile.
Michael the Younger mumbled something that sounded more like “shlondy”. He obviously saw the grin that Hugh tried to suppress. “Maybe you can teach me how to say it later?” Mike Jr. wondered sheepishly.
Marveling at the taste of the bourbon, Hugh nodded. “If my payment is more bourbon, you may consider yourself furnished with a permanent tutor in the finer points of Gaelic.” Hugh felt his smile slip a little. “Well, as permanent as a tutor may be when he must leave on the morrow.”
“Hugh,” began Mike Jr., “I’ll say it again: Dad and I would be happy — very happy — if you’d reconsider and stay a few more days.”
O’Donnell waved his hand. “Forgive me for having struck a melancholy note. Let us not ruin this fine drink with dark thoughts. Besides,” — he hoped his light tone would change the mood — “the name of this whiskey reminds me that I need to practice my French pronunciation. Which, up until now, has usually been employed in the exchange of pleasantries over the tops of contested revetments and abatis.”
The answering smiles were polite, not amused. Michael Sr. rolled the small glass of bourbon slowly between his palms. “Why are you brushing up on your French?”
Hugh sighed. “A man must eat, Don McCarthy.”
“I’d have thought that would hardly be a worry for you.”
Hugh shrugged. “While I was in the employ of the king of Spain, you would have been quite right. But I am no longer the colonel of a regiment, nor a Knight-Captain of the Order of Alcantara, nor may I even remain a servant of my own godmother, Infanta Isabella of the Lowlands, since she remains a vassal of Philip IV of Spain. I am, as you would say, ‘unemployed.’ “
Don McCarthy leaned back. “So — France. You are becoming a true soldier-of-fortune now.”
“You may say the dirty word: yes, I am now a ‘mercenary.’ I have little choice. So too for all us Irish ‘Wild Geese’ in Spanish service. Our employer’s ‘alliance’ with England runs counter to any hope that Philip will make good his promise to liberate Ireland. It is a failure that is anticipated in your own histories — although there, the reasons were somewhat different. Besides, I do not wish to find myself fighting you.”
“Fighting us? How?”
“How not? Spain’s enmity toward your United States of Europe is unlikely to abate soon. So, if I am not willing to become the physical instrument of that hatred, I must take service elsewhere. And that decision reflects not just my loyalty as your friend, but the practicality of a seasoned officer: becoming a military adversary of the USE seems best suited to those who are in an intemperate rush to meet their maker.”
Michael Sr. smiled a bit. Michael Jr. frowned a bit.
Hugh leaned toward the latter. “What is it, Michael?”
“Nothing. Just thinking, is all.”
“Thinking of what?’
Michael Jr. seemed to weigh his words very carefully before he spoke. “Well, Hugh, we might be working for the same boss, soon.”
“You, Michael — working for the French? How could that be? Just last year, they attacked the USE.”
“Well, yes . . . but that was last year. We have a treaty now.”
“Michael, just a few days ago, did your own father not quip that the honor of nations is, in fact, an oxymoron?”
“Dad did, but I’m not counting on French honor.” He snorted the last two words. “I’m thinking practically. My guess is that the French are going to be lying low for a while, at least with regards to the USE. So it should be safe for me to do a short stint of work for the French, just to make some extra money. To handle some extra expenses.”
Hugh frowned, perplexed. Then, through the doorway into the kitchen, he saw Mike Sr.’s German nurse bustling busily at a shelf lined with his many special ointments, potions, and pills.
Michael Sr. spoke up. “Yep, I’m the ‘extra expense.'”
“Perhaps I remember incorrectly, but isn’t your wife –?”
“A nurse. Yes, but she’s needed elsewhere, and there’s not a whole lot she can do for me that any reasonably competent person can’t.”
“And the USE does not provide you with adequate care in exchange for both your wife’s service, and your brother’s?”
“Oh, they provide, but it’s pretty costly, taking care of a crusty old coot like me.”
Hugh smiled, not really understanding what a ‘coot’ was or how it might acquire a crust, but he got the gist by context.
Michael leaned towards his father, subtly protective. “So I found a way to make a lot of money pretty quickly, I think. But it involves going over the border.”
“More specifically, to Amiens.”
Hugh started. “You mean to work for Turenne?”
Michael nodded, looked away.
Hugh did his best to mask his surprise. “Really? Turenne? And his technical, eh, ‘laboratories?’ ”
Michael nodded again. “I negotiated the leave of absence a while ago. My bags are pretty much packed. Literally.”
“And Stearns, and Gustav, will allow you to provide technical assistance to Turenne?”
Michael shrugged, still looking away. “This down-time version of America is still a free country. We brought that with us and kept it. Mostly. Besides, I’ll only be showing the French how to achieve something that I’m sure they’ve already studied in our books.”
Hugh nodded, wondered what this ‘something’ might be, and also if there might be some way for Michael and he to combine their westward journeys. He leaned back, feeling a surge of relief at even this nebulous prospect of having a comrade as he began to seek his fortune in France. It was a good feeling to think one might not start out on a new career completely alone, almost as warming as the fire which threw flickering shadows around the walls and even painted a few on the back of the front door.