1635: A Parcel of Rogues – Snippet 05
Northeast of London
“That’s Romford?” Darryl stood up in the wagon bed for a better look, and then wished he hadn’t. There was the usual haze that hung over every town in these pre-clean-air-act days, perhaps a little thicker than the ordinary, and the wind had backed easterly. A gust brought a billow of the small town’s haze and even at most of a mile it made his eyes water. “What’re they doin’ there, burnin’ turds?” He sat down again, trying manfully not to retch. Even in an age when the concept of below-ground sewerage drew blank looks from most, the place reeked.
“Famous for leatherworking,” Towson said, “and the tanner’s trade uses stuff to make a man puke. Nightsoil’s the least of it, and you don’t want to know what the scrapings bins smell like when they’re near full. Be thankful it ain’t high summer, mate.”
“We’ll be upwind soon enough,” Hamilton added. He’d sampled the wagon’s suspension briefly and announced he’d rather walk, and wasn’t horseman enough nor light enough to inflict himself on any of their elderly nags. He’d set a stoical pace that he looked like he could keep up around the clock for a week, and given the impression he really wasn’t much more than idling. Darryl himself had no idea what his endurance for a long walk might be like, and announced he wasn’t going to test it until they either had to or he could do it without risking anything. Oddly, that had got him more of an admiring look from Vicky than anything he’d ever done in the way of more traditional showing off. Okay, turns out she likes smart. He’d spent some uneasy time mulling that before he decided he’d just have to do the best he could and hope.
“There’s a left just here,” Alex Mackay called back. He was standing in his stirrups and using his spotting scope to check the country away to the left. “Looks like it might could take us to the Cambridge road, too.”
“Take it, then,” Darryl said, “If we get lost, the king’s guys won’t be able to find us either, right?”
That earned a round of chuckles.
“I like your thinking, Darryl,” Leebrick said, “and comes to worst we can always just use farm tracks and cut across fields. I’ve slogged enough military carts through the shite to know how it’s done, and Mister Cromwell’s a farmer so he’ll know better than any of us the tricks of it. After that it’s just compass work to find our way. And your up-time compasses are excellent pieces. The trick you have of making such good ones so cheaply is a fine one.”
He pulled the instrument Harry Lefferts had given him out of his pocket and flipped the cover open. It was down-time made. There had been some guys in Magdeburg making small quantities of Bakelite for things like this when Darryl left, and doubtless there were more guys at it now with the coal gasworks there turning out coal tar by the bargeload. Getting a compact, durable compass of that size and accuracy down-time meant paying an instrument maker for the results of a lot of hard, skilled work. Harry had been able to bring enough for his whole crew to have a spare and a few to give as presents. They were, after all, not just useful for travelling. Leebrick was inordinately pleased with his — liquid compasses were unknown in the 17th century, even as simple a thing as a notch-and-wire sight was the province of expensive surveyors’ instruments, and getting a compass that didn’t have a sundial gnomon getting in the way of using it for navigation was a lost cause. On some level he knew it was a lot cheaper than it had any right to be, and a perfectly reasonable small, practical present from someone he had helped. Mostly, he kept taking bearings with it because the novelty had yet to quite wear off. Darryl suspected that, up time, he’d have been one of those guys who had to have the new gadget the minute it came out. What he was going to be like when he got to the USE where things like that were increasingly common and getting cheaper all the time was anyone’s guess, but Darryl could see, somewhere in Leebrick’s future, a headline like Englishman Found Dead Under Huge Pile Of Gadgets: Starved Self To Buy More Toys.
Two hours later and Darryl was wishing Harry’s presents had included a lot more rope — on principle, they didn’t have enough, too much was just plain impossible — and some decent winching gear. Hell, a tracked bridge-laying tank would’ve been ideal, there was bound to be some clever guy working on something like that back in Magdeburg. As it was, the river that Romford stood on was still in their way even after skirting the place; they needed to get across to cut over to the road that led north to Cambridge. It wasn’t a big river — they had the horses walked over, laden with most of the wagon’s freight, in fifteen minutes, and penned up in a nearby field alongside some cows that nobody seemed to be minding for the moment. While the horses goofed off in best equine style — ambling about, taking a moment to roll, sampling the local weeds — it was left to the humans to figure out getting the wagon over without wrecking the thing. The horses could always be brought back when there was heavy pulling to do. And, of course, there was a late lunch to have.
“This,” Cromwell said, “is going to be a right pig.”
“It’s the steep banks that do it,” Leebrick said. “We could do with fascines for this, but that’d leave too much trace.”
Hamilton emerged from under the wagon. “We should be able to get the axles off and then it’s just britches’ arse power to get it over the stream.”
“I was afraid of that,” Darryl put in. “I ain’t afraid of hard work, I’m a miner. Don’t mean I have to like it.”
“The man that does is a bloody fool,” Towson said, “but standing about griping about the business won’t get anything done. Who’s going under to get the axles off?”
“Best be Darryl, I think,” Hamilton said, “I think Captain Lefferts has done some fettling under here, nothing you can see from above, but the ironmongery’s … odd-looking.”
“Yeah?” That was definitely worth a look. When he got under the wagon, he had a low whistle to let out. You could certainly not see any difference from up above, but under the cart the usual blacksmiths’ work — ranging from nearly as good as a twentieth century machine shop to brutal and slapdash, but usually massively overbuilt — had been replaced with machined parts. Bearings, bolts, axle bushings, all were distinctly modern with thin timbers screwed in place to hide anything that wasn’t immediately obvious. The suspension was 17th-century design — not much more than some metal hanging straps, and those only enough to give a bit of flex over rough ground — but the steel was machined, up-time style. Whether Harry had brought a kit of parts on the off chance or a small set of portable machine shop tools, Darryl had no idea, but it was a hell of a feat of forward planning. It looked like a seventeenth century English common carrier’s wagon, standard issue, but it was a hell of a lot lighter and more reliable.
“You coulda told me, Harry,” he complained under his breath, and then, louder, “gonna need some light under here, and the small red toolbox, the one with my socket set in it. I’ll yell out when I need stuff lifted.” If Harry hadn’t had his guys alter this thing to be taken apart easily, Darryl was going to have a quiet word with that boy about tricks and the missing of same.
It turned out to be even easier than his first guess. The bed came off in one piece and was an easy, if cumbersome, lift between four guys. The frame and tongue came off in three parts after a few seconds of swearing at each lock-nut, and the wheels turned out to have metal bushings around the axle and be suspiciously heavy for plain wood. If there weren’t steel reinforcing rods in there somewhere, Darryl would be very surprised. And the axles were split, the split cunningly hidden in a turned wooden sleeve that kind of looked like a repair to the axle-tree from a distance. Each side could rotate independently on, yes, sturdy roller bearings rather than the standard-issue bit-of-wood-between-two-pegs-with-a-ladle-of-tallow. There was even a block of wood fitted in each, bearing on a discreet metal sleeve, that provided an authentic squealing noise to hide the fact that the axles had proper bearings. Darryl had just assumed that one of Harry’s guys had thrown some extra grease in there to make sure the thing wasn’t quite as bad as it looked. Turned out Harry’d had a whole bunch extra done, out of sight.
“Harry’s getting to be a real sneaky son of a bitch, ain’t he?” Darryl remarked to Gayle as he was loading his tools on the wagon when they were over. “You’d never know but that weren’t a perfectly ordinary wagon.”
Gayle grinned. “She might not look like much, but she’s got it where it counts?”
“Something like that. We get time, and if it looks like we’re going a long way in that thing, I can think of a few improvements. I think Harry tried too hard to be sneaky. He missed a few places he could’ve got away with some more things. We find a good carpenter’s shop, maybe get some parts from a blacksmith, we can put some four-bar suspension links in there, which wouldn’t look much different to what the frame’s made like already. Some leaf springs, we could get a real smooth ride, even better wheel wear than we’re getting, and a lot more speed if we could just find some better horses. Be pretty obvious if we had to take off fast — it’ll go faster and smoother than any wagon got any right to, but by that time we’re not gonna be worryin’ about sneaky.”