1635: A Parcel of Rogues – Snippet 33
“True, but on the bright side, if I’m right about that American bitch with her rifle, the closer the cover, the less she’ll shoot at us, I’m thinking.” Even in the full daylight of the evening, the long shadows made the fen a riot of patchy shadow and plentiful cover.
Tully nodded. “Probably as well to be down off this bank before long, I’m sure. Even a regular fowler would be good around here. Sure and you’d see the smoke of a regular piece, but getting there after, through that shite?”
“True enough. You watch over the lads covering the north-and-west side, there. We’ll work north-and-east bit by bit, see what we don’t flush out, so.” Finnegan was already into a pattern of looking over the undergrowth, thinking about how he’d be best to send men into it to probe the denser patches. Whoever was out there, they and Finnegan’s men would have to stumble over each other, and in that he’d have money on his own gang of brawlers any day of the week. No easy way to see where they’d be coming from, either. The embankment he was on stood maybe six or seven feet above the ground it was dug from, no more than a linear spoil-heap either side of the cut that, even without being connected to the river, was knee-deep in water already. Outside the cut, the country continued flat for miles. Somewhere a couple of miles away he could just see the smoke and church spire of a village on a slight rise of ground. There was another hamlet a little closer on the side he’d given Tully, but apart from that he and his boyos could be the only men in the whole world.
In other words, prime country for a man after being an English tóraí. A man could vanish, here, and give the authorities the devil’s own work to root him out. And so, for the next few hours, it was the devil’s work for Finnegan’s band, as they scouted, and hoisted themselves up as much as the trees would allow, and swore at the patches of bog that sucked at boots. Twice shots went up as a man, spooked by the shift of light and shadow in the brightly-moonlit fen and the silence they were all maintaining, thought he saw something and emptied a wheel-lock into the shadows.
Twice, not a trace of human passage did they find either time.
Around midnight, Darryl McCarthy was perched in the top of a willow tree where Stephen Hamilton had boosted him and scanned the distant earthworks with binoculars. “They look like they’re having fun. They’re going up and down from that levee and beating the bushes. They’d surely find us if we were there.”
“No need to shout,” Hamilton replied in a definite indoor voice. “And better not to, sound carries at night. I learned that the hard way, poaching, when I was a lad. Nearly got caught.”
“Gotcha,” Darryl said, lowering his voice a little. “So, are we sticking with leading them through the night?”
“I think it best. They’re more likely to make stupid decisions in the dark.”
“Like chasing armed men through a swamp?”
“Just like that. I’ll use the radio now and get the others on our position. Sting them and fall back, and when we have them moving draw them back toward Ely and Colonel Mackay’s position. Then it’s into the saddle and hell-for-leather for King’s Lynn, and hope someone there has managed to arrange a ship. I don’t want to be stuck there when that lot catch up, I want to be able to give them two fingers from the stern of a departing ship. The aim is to show them that we’ve all left the area, and hopefully, the country, so they leave the locals alone. Not, and I think we’re all agreed on this, get stuck in a fight with children to protect. There’s precious few ways for that to end well.”
“Julie and Gayle and the kids’ll be there hours before us, you saw how fast that barge went.” Darryl had been surprised as all hell by that. He’d seen barges towed by horses before, the things were common all over Europe. He’d been expecting that for any kind of speed you’d need a rowed boat, though, and Hamilton, Londoner born and bred, had assumed the same. It turned out that they had different ideas on the fens, and the river towpaths were also home to fast trotting horses that pulled boats at a speed that left a substantial wake, pulling the boat up onto a kind of bow wave. Once the horse got the boat moving, it was off at a smart pace quicker than it could have pulled a cart. Passage on the thing had cost far more than just riding or taking a regular barge would have, but it was a smooth ride and a quick one and there was every possibility that even if the menfolk went from Ely to King’s Lynn at a dead gallop, they would still arrive hours behind the advance party.
They’d finally gotten rid of the wagon, donating it for the use of Ely’s Committee of Correspondence, who didn’t have any pressing need for a wagon right now — they were nearly all river bargees, for a start — but would more than likely come up with something. Nothing else, it’d make it possible to steal more tools from the earthworks for Bedford’s River. Darryl was kind of in two minds about that one. He’d done some reading up on England before he came, and knew that in the future this was going to be some of the best farmland in England, where right now it was — pardon the language — nothing but a fucking swamp. He could appreciate good hunting country as well as the next man, especially if the next man was a hillbilly, but hereabouts was good for fowl and that was about it. Especially, apparently, snipe, and he’d had one pointed out to him earlier after he’d expressed suspicion. Cromwell had laughed at that and informed him that they were indeed a byword for being hard to spot, shy birds that skulked in reed beds and undergrowth.
Still and all, good hunting was a nice thing, but a lot of the folks hereabouts would be doing better with some good farmland to work.
While they waited for Cromwell, Welch, Leebrick and Towson to move up to their position, Darryl mentioned as much to Hamilton.
“Well, I’m not from around here. I was born in Kent and settled in London, but I don’t think it’ll be too different. A lot of that farmland will come from enclosing common land that most of these poor bleeders depend on for their living. And people get very angry about that kind of thing. There was a revolt about it up Northampton way about twenty years ago. I was a green young soldier back then, not doing much more than substitute enlistments in the Trained Bands for fat old merchants who didn’t want to drill, before I took to wandering abroad to find a fight. They had trouble with some bastard of a landowner fencing off the common lands and this mad fellow as called himself Captain Pouch started a revolt. They pulled down the hedges and fences and filled in ditches, and there weren’t many going to stop ’em, since the militia refused to muster for it. So the word went out they wanted hired soldiers to put down the revolt. Well, by the time I got there it was all over. Captain Pouch had been saying he had this magic pouch that would protect everyone with him from bullets and swords, and that worked about as well as you’d expect. When they hanged him, all he had in it was a bit of mouldy cheese.”
Darryl tried to take that in, and at the same time figure out if he was having his leg pulled. “Cheese?”
“Cheese,” Hamilton affirmed. “I was there for the hanging, when they finally opened it and showed it to the crowd. Didn’t even look like good cheese. Can’t remember the bugger’s real name, now, and that’s going to nag at me, it surely is.”
“And you went to join in with puttin’ down that revolt?” Darryl said, wondering how he was going to express this tactfully.
“Oh, I ain’t proud of that,” Hamilton said. “But I ain’t ashamed neither. It was shovel shit for a penny a day or drill for fourpence, and I was good at the drill. Saved me a few times in the Germanies, all that training I got paid to do, as well. Way I saw it, there was going to be a fight, and I could get maybe sixpence a day and mustering bounty into the bargain if I got there fast enough. I didn’t, end of story. Northamptonshire wasn’t worth sticking around for, so I came home.”
There was a soft hoot from the darkness. Darryl answered it, they having found out earlier that Hamilton’s bird noises were comical at best. Cromwell and Welch drifted in out of the night — and hadn’t Darryl smirked about that, when it turned out that pairing the Irishman with Cromwell made sense, as they paired off for raw muscle and ability to get up trees to spy out the country. Leebrick and Towson came in shortly after.
It was time to start the entertainment.