1635: A Parcel of Rogues – Snippet 36
“Stop!” Finnegan realised he’d not managed more than a wheeze. Louder, “Stop!” Another series of explosions, then, and shots, and he yelled again. “STOP!”
He kept up a walking pace. The boyos that had heard him had converged on where he was, and some of them had run on a way, and besides, if he just stopped he’d never get going again. He took deep lungfuls of cool night air, trying hard to get his wind back. He positively burned to pull off the cuirass and open his coat, but it was suicide to do that if there was a single one of them hiding close enough to get a shot off, or to throw one of those grenadoes they were using. There was a miracle for you, those things going off and nobody on either side hurt. There wasn’t anything to like about them, either, outside of a siege, and wasn’t that a reason Finnegan was glad he’d never got into one of those? Take an iron pot and stuff it full of powder and gravel and birdshot and let it off, there wasn’t really any way it was going to end well for anyone. Frequently, not even the gealt that was flinging the bastard thing.
One of the Cooley brothers, of infamous memory, had positively loved the infernal devices, the bigger the better, and had once thrown one in to a cottage they were trying to evict. The family within had got out in a hurry, but everything they owned, including a half-grown pig, had been wrecked by the blast and shards of metal in such a close space. For a finisher, the blast had dislodged the turves under the thatch and half the roof had slid off in a sodden heap. Comical, in its way, but Finnegan had had to dock the cost of re-roofing the place from Cooley’s pay. Not least to stop him doing to people what he’d done to the pig, which wasn’t even any use for bacon after the grenado was finished with it.
No, those things gave Finnegan the shivers, and facing them was like to freeze his piss. It was a definite mark against the fen people that they had even brought the things. They were planning on more, too, because the distinctive scent of slow-match was still trailing around in the night air. And certainly not from his own people. None of his lads even had the slow-matches to burn, what with all being armed with wheel-locks. Now that the Cooleys were dead, of course, nobody had any grenadoes at all. Finnegan had put his foot down at the suggestion of anyone else learning to use the things.
“Go steady, lads,” he said, setting a brisk walking pace. “Smell that?” He took a deep whiff. “Slow match. Follow the scent of it, we’ll keep them with us.” Up ahead, there were occasional glimpses to be had of their fleeing quarry. Maybe three hundred yards, now he’d slowed the pace of pursuit, and gaining all the time. Gaining in a straight line and leaving plenty of sign, though, he noted. He could afford to be patient with them. He counted five, maybe six, judging from the trails and the hints of movement ahead, now he stopped to look.
Tully lumbered up, visibly laboring with some hurt or other. “Will we not be giving them time to form an ambush?” he asked.
“Perhaps, but they’ve to stop for an ambush and no great range for it in this country. We’ll be on them when they spring it, so we’ve only to rush through a first volley and we’re in. And if the smell of that slow-match gets stronger, we’ll know to be ready.”
Tully nodded. “Those pistols they’ve brought have a power to them. I’ve a hole in my cuirass, now. The coat stopped it after, mind, but I’ll have a bruise. And some burns, where my pistol fired when I fell. Still, I’ve something to remember it by. Queer-looking balls they shoot.” He held up a little lump of metal that looked like it had been squeezed through a small hole.
Effect of going through the breastplate, Finnegan supposed. Not usual for a pistol-ball, which would account for the unusual shape. “Could have been worse, then,” he said.
“It could, at that,” Tully acknowledged, pocketing the spent ball. “When we catch them, I want one of those pistols for my own, mind.”
“They’ve at least two,” Finnegan said, shrugging away the question. “maybe more. And I’ll be after the earl for ordering the like from Germany, surely there’s someone selling the things there that doesn’t mind a little fast freight. We might even get a rifle or two. Failing that, we’ll find a gunsmith that can copy them.”
Toole jogged up then. “O’Halloran. He’ll live,” he gasped out. “They getting away? I heard grenadoes.”
“They’ve got a Cooley back from the grave with them,” someone growled in the darkness, to a round of laughter. The Cooleys’ antics had not been popular.
Finnegan snorted, as much mirth as he had breath for. “They have, at that. Did anyone see of those three Englishmen were with them? The ones that killed the Cooleys?”
“Thought I saw Leebrick,” someone called out.
“Haven’t seen Mackay, if that was Mackay that I rode down the other day,” Tully added. “But I’m pretty sure that was Cromwell with the other one, him that shot me.”
Finnegan grinned. “Then we’re chasing the right prey,” he said. “Toole, how bad’s O’Halloran?”
“Not at all. He’d a ball go through his coat, and it creased the side of his belly. Burnt out maybe a spoonful of the lard of him. Not even bleeding much, but he’ll move slow for a time. I sent him back to the horses and told him to have the boys ride them down to Ely. I saw you headed this way and thought, well, better to press on and have the horses than have to walk back for the beasts.”
“And that’s a bottle of good brandy for you, Toole, when I get a moment. These bastards are faster on their feet than I expected.” It was so good to have a band well-leavened with bright lads who could think for themselves. Especially the ones with the tact to cover his own mistakes without trying to make a show of him over them.
They carried on another ten minutes. From the few glimpses they could catch — of a hat bobbing over low spots in the undergrowth, puffs of slow-match smoke hovering ghostly when the breeze lulled, Cromwell’s party had eased their pace as well, maintaining perhaps four or five hundred yards of gap. If the night was a whit less clear there’d be no tracking them at all, but with the moon so big and bright and right above, things weren’t much worse than daylight. He’d been abroad on winter afternoons with no more light.
“Road ahead,” one of the boyos up front, Toole by the sounds, called back, soft so as not to carry too far. The ground was rising slightly, the horizon that way shortening visibly, and although there wasn’t anything you’d call a hedge there it was creating a fine area of dead ground behind it. And, yes, it looked like a road ran along the top of the slight rise. Perfect for an ambush, and assuming they’d been careful about skylining themselves, they could have been up there for minutes already, with a clear view. Nothing for it but to get in there and do it quick. The cover they were in was good and thick, but would thin out as soon as they started up the upward movement.
Finnegan nodded, pulled out a loaded pistol and checked the priming by feel. He had a lot more wind now, and called out, “Good spot for an ambush. Smell for slow-match, boys. As soon as we catch sign, give ’em a pistol volley and in through the smoke and the flash-blinding. We’ve, what, eight to their five? Cudgels to put the fight out of them. I want prisoners for the earl to hang. Spread out, see if we can’t find a flank while we’re at it.”
The smell of burning match got stronger and stronger, the banking that the road ran on closer and closer. The sweat was running down Finnegan’s back, now, chilly on the base of his spine, and he relished the cool of it. The front of him was like an open oven door was pressed against his chest, the hard steel over leather trapping his body heat horribly. Pistol in his left hand, bata in his right, he strode quickly through the sedge, shouldering bushes aside. Let them think he and his lads were coming in stupid, let them think their ambush was working. He wanted to slow down, deep in himself, let the lads get in first, but to do that would give them leave to slow down as well, and the slower they were going the greater the temptation to drop and hide when they made —
Those damnable American weapons. Winking like glow-worms in the dark. Well, for this night’s work he had better. “Fág a’ Bealach!” and a flare of wheel-lock fire, ragged in the darkness and without command, but with one eye shut he kept his night vision as he charged up the bank and across the road.
BLAM! BLAM-BLAM! More fucking grenadoes and he heard screams. Oh Jesus and all the saints let that have been quick for whatever poor bastard it was. But now Finnegan, with someone at his left, was falling on a pair of the ambushers, whipping his stick forward in a simple strike that would have a slow man’s teeth out and his head rung like a bell.
It was Cromwell he’d gone for, he saw as he recovered from the lightning-quick parry that knocked his blow aside. More shots. A round-strike and again parried, and the counterstrike came out of nowhere overhead and the double-handed block he fumbled up stung his hands even through his gauntlets.
“You’re quick,” Finnegan snarled, lashing out a belly-strike while Cromwell was recovering the bounce of his murder-stroke, feinted it back and went for the teeth again.
“Me too,” came another snarl and he had to sway back as a huge knife with a wicked claw-point came in at him. A backstep, and then another, merely knocking aside the blade as it licked at him again and again like a serpent’s tongue. Whoever this was he was fast, but had no great store of tricks. Toole was in on Cromwell now, his bouncing, swarming style of stick-fighting putting the bigger fellow onto his back foot, and Finnegan could put all his attention on the knife-man.
Who was growling out some truly bizarre insults as he stabbed away. What in the devil’s name was a pinkerton? No matter. One more thrust and he had the fool’s measure. A sweeping parry and the knife went out of line, the backstroke rapped the fingers that the idiot hadn’t so much as put a glove on. As the knife spun away he snapped a kick up to try for the kneecap, or failing that the balls, and split the difference with a firm hit in the meat of the thigh. Then he could stamp in, and another snap-strike with the heavy end and —
The world flashed purple and rang loud as a bell.
“Chief?” Someone was lifting him by the elbow. How had he ended up on one knee? “Just a belt to the helmet, chief, you’ll need the dent hammered out. Toole’s the same.”
And then he was back. Only the space of a few heartbeats, he’d been knocked to his knees. His vision snapped back into focus and a bite of pain took his forehead in a pincer grip. “Who’s down? Who’s that?”
“Tully, chief, I went on my arse from a grenado, I’m a touch sick but I’ll live. Toole’s on his arse with the teeth out of him, three more lads hurt, they’re running again.”
Rage filled Finnegan, rage like he’d not felt — no. Enough. Clear thought, that was the thing. “Any dead?”
“By the mercy of God, no. McGurk’ll limp a while, he’s a cut to the leg went through his coat-skirt.”
“How long was I out?”
“Not long, I’ve just this moment come on you. Nor even have I counted all the boys in.”
“They’re heading for Ely!” someone yelled back.
“We’ll have them there, then,” Finnegan said. “Toole sent the horses ahead, we’ll meet them there. For now we’ll stay back from these bastards, they’ve too much fire to give us. And that Cromwell’s a bastard with the bata, so he is.”
“They call it singlestick over here,” Tully said, “and did you spend more time in the alehouses in London you’d have seen it more. There’s some grand matches to be had.”
“Sure I found one,” Finnegan snarled, “and he’d have had my skull broke if I’d no helmet on. Boys! With me! Wounded, follow as you can, be wary. I’ll leave a man with your mounts at Ely and word of where we’re gone.”
Only two men dropped out, McGurk, who averred he could fight, “but not run worth a bollocks” and Toole, who was seeing double and could hardly breathe through a smashed nose. He’d not be running much either, and Finnegan told McGurk to make sure Toole didn’t go to sleep, for it was well known that trying to sleep off a blow to the head was a sure way to die of it.
“Call warning if you smell another ambush,” Finnegan said as he set a fast walk as their pace. “The fight’s more even than I thought and they’ve the defender’s advantage. We’ll not get in among them without guile, I’m thinking.”
As it was, the ground rose slowly from there on, growing drier and clearer as they came within a mile of the town now clearly visible on its slight rise, marked out starkly by the cathedral tower that stood silhouetted against the stars. There were more and more signs of human habitation, more than the few scraps that they had passed earlier, and here and there enclosures and small, tilled patches. Closer still, and they came on another road, following the line of a slight rise in the fen. Finnegan made a quick decision. “If they’ve stayed on the soft ground, we can get ahead of them. If they’re on this, we need to keep up. Fast march, boyos, we’re infantry for the next half-hour.”
That bought him a groan. It wasn’t as though they hadn’t just run five miles or more on foot, but for all the men of Finnegan’s troop were no more than glorified cattle-thieves, they still rather thought of themselves as cavalrymen. They’d walk when walking was to the purpose, but calling them infantry rankled. “My arse is no higher off the ground than yours is, you pack of vagrants, and there’ll be horses waiting in town.”
There were indeed, as Mulligan clattered into town at the trot at the same time they had got down to the river road to look for him and the three with him. All four of the bastards looked horribly fresh and ready, having spent the last hour at the trot from Earith. Even O’Halloran, who had his buff-coat open and a bandage wound about him, seemed fairly chipper.
“Get spread out, you four, and find a livery that’s open. We need these nags rested, fed and watered while we get out and quarter the country. The rest of us will take our mounts and go sit up by yonder church tower and get the feet of me rested.”
Half an hour later Mulligan and O’Halloran rejoined them, grinning. “The bastards have been and they’ve left while we’ve been here,” Mulligan said. “The only livery open at this hour was the one they had their mounts at, in care of a short-arsed Scotsman. Where they sold a wagon, yesterday, one I recognised the description of, having heard it so many bloody times before. They went by the road downriver, for the port of it, a town named Lynn.”
“King’s Lynn?” Finnegan asked.
“Livery man said just Lynn. Might be the same place, you know how towns get their names shortened.”
“That might be it. The port downriver is called King’s Lynn, on the map at any rate. Come to think, it’s a map I got from the king’s people.” A round of chuckles. “They’ll be faster than us, at that. We’ve worked the horses tonight. Did the livery have anything worth the money to hire?”
Mulligan shrugged. “Indifferent horseflesh at best,” he said, “We’ll be best with our own, do we give them water and a chance to rest. Cromwell and his lads will be going slow with the bad light. Do we wait for the first light of dawn, we can take that road at the gallop, the livery man says. It seems he’s no great liking for Scotsmen, nor has he.”
“That’ll be Mackay, will it?”
“Sounded like.” Mulligan shrugged. “But ‘short, unpleasant, freckled, sandy hair’ describes about every other one of the bastards. And before you say anything, no sign of his wife. I asked. No women with the party.”
Finnegan nodded. Mulligan had been at Stralsund with Wallenstein as well, and the Scots regiment there had been, from the sounds of it, a pack of bastard die-hards. And Mulligan hadn’t managed to get an easy job fetching and carrying for the artillery. “We’ll assume it is Mackay. That’s a thing to tell the earl when I next write him. If the Scots are coming back from the Germanies to make trouble, he’ll want warning. Even if it’s not Mackay, the warning’s still a good one, from the looks of it. Who knows, we may even get paid to kill a few of the bastards.”
Mulligan grinned in reply, and they set out for the Livery stable to get the horses right for the ride to come.