1636: Commander Cantrell in the West Indies – Snippet 07
Grantville, State of Thuringia-Franconia
Hugh sighed, sipped his bourbon again. Michael McCarthy Jr., having shrugged into O’Donnell’s heavy, distinctively embroidered cloak, thumped through the front room and out the front door.
Hugh let his head lean back on the sofa and closed his eyes, savoring the smooth aftertaste of the bourbon and letting the faces and voices of the past fade away. In their place, he let the utterly mundane sounds of the guttering fire and Michael Jr.’s progress fill his mind. Over the hissing crack of logs rapidly breaking down into embers, he heard Michael trot down off the porch and around to the garage-become-stable. A moment later, Hugh’s charger greeted the up-timer with a congenial nicker.
And then, Hugh heard a fast, sliding patter of stealthy human feet: the almost liquid sound of an assassin closing on his target.
Hugh bounded out of the McCarthys’ sagging sofa. He landed next to the coat-closet, hip-pinned his sword’s scabbard against that door, and drew the saber in one, clean sweep, still moving as he did. He was already sprinting through the abbreviated foyer when a crossbow quarrel — almost certainly a blunt, from the sound of it — smashed loudly through the garage-side window closest to the front door. Someone had seen him moving, had taken a shot.
But why a blunt quarrel? wondered Hugh. That fleeting puzzlement didn’t slow him any more than the front stairs. He leaped down all five, already running as he landed. As he approached the corner of the house, he heard a dull thud, a grunt, and the muffled bump of someone bouncing off the pliable up-timer wall-shingling that they called ‘vinyl siding.’
Hugh went low as he snaked around the side of the house, saw Michael Jr. face down on the ground, a cloaked figure over him, club ready, reaching toward him —
But not trying for a quick kill — a split–second observation which, again, did not delay Hugh. Trusting that the unseen crossbowman had not had time to both reload and aim his weapon, he leaped forward, saber whirring back and then forward with the speed that only a trained wrist can deliver.
The cloaked assailant looked up, quickly raised his club: a reflex more than a purposeful parry. Hugh’s Toledo blade clipped the wooden truncheon at an angle. The wood stripped back and then splintered.
Michael’s attacker was thrown back by the blow, alive only because his club had absorbed a cut that would have gone through his collar-bone. But, rebounding from his own collision with the house’s vinyl siding, the thug turned his momentum into a sideways barrel-roll that brought him back up to his feet in a moment. He sped into the darkness —
And I’m out of time, Hugh thought — and dropped prone just a second before a crossbow bolt sliced through the air where he had been standing. The quarrel impaled the vinyl upon the wood behind it with an almost musical throoonk. Hugh did not need to look up to know that this bolt had not been the kind used to stun small game. He jumped to his feet, sprinted along the reverse trajectory indicated by the quivering tail of the quarrel. He found the weapon which had fired it abandoned on the ground twenty yards away, in the lee of the neighboring house’s shed. The dark night was quiet all around.
Staying low — as a lifetime of habit and training had taught him — Hugh frog-trotted back to Mike Jr., who was already raising himself up on his elbows. The displaced earl of Tyrconnell put an arm on his friend’s not-inconsiderable bicep. “Here. Let me help you, Don Michael.”
For a moment, Hugh thought that his middle-aged host was going to refuse. Then he felt the arm sag a bit as Michael grunted his gratitude and allowed Hugh to roll him into a sitting position, back against the house. But he was evidently not too stunned to speak. “So now I’m ‘Don Michael,’ too? What does that make me — royalty?”
“Aristocracy,” Hugh corrected gently, wondering how the up-timers could command such wonderful knowledge of machinery and the physical sciences, and yet make social errors that would mark even a five-year-old down-timer as slow, perhaps simple. “I should have used the title before now.”
“Before now, you were using it only on my Da. I figured that was because he’s almost eighty. So am I really ‘aristocracy’ — or just another old coot who can’t defend himself any longer?”
The answer came from the corner of the house. “Speak for yourself, sonny boy.” Michael McCarthy Sr. was there, on his feet and unaided, but with one hand firmly clutching the corner-board for support. The gnarled fingers of his other hand were wrapped around the grip of a .45 automatic.
Michael Jr. goggled. “Da — you shouldn’t be walking on your own. And is that your Pop’s old service pistol? I didn’t know you kept — “
“Plenty you still don’t know about me, Junior,” interrupted Michael McCarthy Sr.. He tried to suppress a wry grin, almost did, but then his efforts were undermined by a bout of violent, pleghmy coughing.
Hugh was over to the ailing father in a moment. Michael Jr. following only a second behind, remonstrated, “Dad, you shouldn’t be up — “
“Someone was shooting at my son and my guest — and damn if he didn’t bust a window, too. So yes, you’re God-damned right I got up, and brought a little bit of persuasion with me.” He shook the .45 for emphasis — just as his wheezing phrases became a spasmodic coughing fit that was painful for Hugh to hear. He’d heard similar sounds often enough. War-time camp conditions in the Lowlands had killed almost as many of his men as blades and bullets. Now, lessons learned from up-timer books had begun to change that. Dramatically. But for a chronic condition such as Michael Sr.’s, there was little to do but delay the inevitable.
As they helped Michael Sr. back around the corner of the house, the door banged open and spat out the old man’s German nurse, Lenna. Her fierce glance conclusively damned the two younger men for all the martial (and therefore male) idiocy that plagued the world. She almost shoved them aside in her outraged urgency to help Michael Sr. up the stairs, but at the top, he stopped, turned, snapped the .45’s safety into place, and tossed the weapon down to Michael Jr.
Who stared at it, and then him.
“You’re going to need it,” the old man said, almost apologetically, and then disappeared into the darkness of the unlit doorway.
Michael Jr. stared after him and then back down at the gun.
Hugh put a hand on his shoulder. “Michael, are you hurt?”
Michael waved the concerns away with his free hand. “Nah. Hell, I’ve caught worse when a spanner slipped off the hood of a car I was working on. But what about you? Are you okay?”
Hugh paused, as he often did when Americans used that strange word, “o-kay.” It had too many meanings, and each had its own maddeningly distinct contextual rules. “I was not injured — this time.”
“‘This time?’ What do you mean?”
“I mean that I must assume that there will soon be another attempt on my life.”
“Whoa — an attempt on your life?” Mike rubbed his head. “If this growing bump and my short-term memory don’t lie, it was me they were trying to kill.”
Hugh smiled, reached up, put a gentle index finger on the cloak Michael was wearing. It was the ornately distinctive one he had borrowed from Hugh just minutes before. “You took a blow that was meant for me, Michael.”
Who stared for a moment before asserting, “Well, then let’s get over to the police station right away and — ”
“It is not necessary that we involve your nation’s public militia, Michael.”
“The hell it isn’t, Hugh. Look, you are a foreign dignitary, and someone just tried to assassinate you on our turf. And worse yet, they obviously had you under observation in my home.”
“Michael, I am no longer a foreign dignitary. I have resigned my rank and titles in Spanish service, and my earldom is attainted. I am, as some of your novels would put it, ‘just a regular guy,’ now.”
“Bullshit. Regular guys don’t attract assassins. I’m taking you to the Army — “
“Michael, your kindness is a great honor, but I must refuse. I am not here in any official capacity. I am but a man visiting my friends.”
“Then — as your friend — I insist that you come back into the house until we can figure out –” Michael ceased speaking as soon as Hugh began to shake his head.
“Michael, would you have me repay your kindness and friendship by bringing death over your doorstep? These two blackguards showed unexpected — indeed, inexplicable — restraint in their first attempt on my life. They are unlikely to do so next time. So, no, my friend, I will not further endanger you and your good father by accepting the hospitality of your hearth again. I must leave. Now.”
Mike stared up at Hugh for three full seconds. Then he looked at the .45 in his own hand and nodded. “Okay. Then I’m coming with you.”
Before Hugh could utter a negation through the surprise and secret gratitude that washed over him, Mike had pounded back up the stairs, across the porch, and through the front door that had changed Hugh’s life. And if the fates were as kind as they were strange, perhaps he and the younger McCarthy would not merely share the road to Amiens, but share professional fortunes as well. After all, any business with Turenne would ultimately be concerned with military matters — and Hugh had a long and varied acquaintance with those. Of course, it was too early to broach the topic of any kind of joint enterprise with Michael just yet, but the journey ahead would afford ample opportunities to casually learn more about the American’s business in France, and if there was any way a displaced Irish earl might help with it…
Mike wasn’t gone long — a minute at most — before he reemerged, backpack in one hand, his other tucking the .45 under his belt. “I’m just about ready to go.”
“But — doesn’t your family have only one horse?”
“Yeah, but she’s my horse. Besides, Mom’s in another city and Dad ain’t riding again any time soon.”
“Are you sure this is a good idea?”
“You mean, because you’re someone’s target?”
“Well, I’ve been thinking about that. Actually, if I come along, it still might put you in danger. I could be the guy those assassins were trying to kill.”
“Michael, admittedly you are a most important person. As a senior instructor at the technical college, I’m sure any number of foreign powers have a pointed interest in you. But you were wearing my cloak when you were attacked. And if anyone wished to assassinate you, they could have chosen a hundred other moments that would be both less complicated and more subtle. I am forced to conclude that I was the intended target.”
“Okay — but then wouldn’t there also have been a better time to get you?”
“In my case, this timing might actually help to explain why they made their attempt here and now.”
“If an English agent got hold of my letter of resignation during its progress to Philip, then they will have learned that I no longer enjoy the relative protection of my official positions and my own regiment. They might very well send assassins — or maybe kidnappers — to intercept me before I can secure the protection of a new patron. After all, John O’Neill and I are still declarable as princes of Ireland. As offspring of royal blood, we remain worrisome to the English occupiers.”
“Yeah, but England seems to have toned down a little bit on the ‘Irish Question’ right now.”
“Officially, yes. And largely thanks to you Americans. But that might be why these assassins tried to use non-lethal methods, at first. King Charles — or factions in his court — might find it less complicated to simply imprison me in the Tower of London.”
Michael nodded. “Okay, so maybe you are the bullet-magnet. But there’s something else you should know, Hugh.”
“It’s also possible there’s been some loose talk about the technology that I’m bringing to Turenne.”
“Others know about it?”
“A few. One is going to have to come with us.”
Hugh did not try to stop his eyebrows from rising.
Mike hurried on. “Yeah, I know: another fellow-traveler is probably not what you were bargaining for. But this guy is part of the package. Turenne is going to need him. At least for the first few months. And if this guy, or any of his friends, talked, and rival powers heard the whispers, then — “
“– then they would want to make sure that Turenne will not enjoy the advantage of this new technology,” Hugh finished for him. “So first they would try to take you hostage and secure the advantage for themselves, but failing that, they might resort to a more ‘permanent’ solution — “
“Right, which would make me the bullet magnet. Again.”
Hugh smiled. “Evidently, we cannot know with certainty who is endangering whom. So we will share the peril equally. Now, you mentioned that we must pick someone up on the way. Who is this person?”
Mike started walking toward his nag. “He’s a toymaker.”
“A toymaker? What kind of toys does he make?”
“Truly? Tell me, Michael, what kind of toy would need to be kept a secret?”
“I’ll tell you as we ride.”