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1635 The Papal Stakes: Chapter Six
Last updated: Thursday, July 12, 2012 00:13 EDT
The north-leaning shadows of the Bregaglia Mountains were starting to crawl across the Mera River: the sun was moving swiftly down toward the alpine peaks in the west, Chiavenna already lost in the gloom at their feet. Tom paused, let Rita move abreast of him. She glanced up — way up — at him, quizzically. “Honey,” he whispered to her, “you set the pace. I’m going to the rear. To push ‘em along and keep us together.”
Rita turned as she strode ahead with a longer gait, inspecting their ‘column’. “Yeah, we’re starting to straggle out a bit.”
You, wife, have a talent for understatement, thought Tom as he peripherally saw Melissa and Cardinal Ginetti lagging yet again. Worse yet, the two of them slowed the group down even more by eliciting excesses of solicitousness. James Nichols was capable of a better pace, and, as an ex-Marine, he certainly knew how crucial it was that they maintain one. But the primal call of protecting one’s mate trumped training and logic, and Melissa, given her feisty personality, was neither the easiest nor most receptive person when it came to assistance.
The Cardinal was simply not cut out for even this modest hike. They were two miles east of Chiavenna, well within the mouth of the Val Bregaglia and passing the thundering cataract of the Acquafraggia which was perched over them to the north. The upward slope of the narrow valley was modest, here: not more than a five percent gradient. But the road meandered around copses and over meadows, rather than sticking close to the straight, rocky banks of the Mera, which had already narrowed considerably.
Tom had considered leaving the road at the small village of Piuro, but ultimately decided against it. The group needed speed more than stealth, and the open pastures reached all the way from the river to the steep slopes on the north side of the valley. Although the pastures presented rolling contours to the aesthetically-inclined gaze, they looked like an extra aerobic workout to Simpson’s utterly practical eye.
His eye had proven to be as accurate as it was practical. Even the winding country lane became more taxing when the river road joined with it shortly beyond Piuro, where the three locals they encountered all stared in surprise at James (and the rest of the group too, for that matter). Now, only ten minutes into the countryside, Melissa and Ginetti were already fighting to keep up — and failing. Tom, his long strides cut in half as he assessed the situation, had now fallen back to the rear of the group.
Melissa looked up, annoyed, a sweaty grey-brown bang hanging down across her severely straight Boston-Brahmin nose. “Yes, Tom, I know: I’m going to get everyone killed.”
“Now, Melissa –”
“Don’t ‘now, Melissa’ me, Tom. It’s true. James gave up denying it about half a mile ago. Now, he just tries to change the topic.”
Ginetti panted out his own opinion “I mean no offense in contradicting you, Signora, but it is clear that I am the cause of our troubles, not you. I walk even more slowly. Let us be frank: if I had not met you in Chiavenna, you would have been allowed to pass over the Alps unmolested. As it is, I fear we are lost.” Shivering, for he was clearly not a particularly brave man, Ginetti presented his solution in a rush: “If I am to fall into the hands of Borja anyway, at least you might escape. I might be able to draw them off by taking a different course –”
Melissa stopped and stared down at the cardinal. “With respect, Your Eminence, that’s ridiculous.” Ginetti stopped and stared back: quite possibly, he had not been addressed in such a firmly remonstrative tone since his boyhood. “Firstly, they will not stop following us just because they capture you. I wouldn’t stop, if I were them. After all, we are murderers in the eyes of Chiavenna’s authorities. And if the confidential agent following you — the one Tom decked in the crotto — has played his cards right, he’ll be following along, too. After all, if his masters only wanted your head, Cardinal Ginetti, they could have collected it long before you reached Chiavenna.”
“You overlook that I had four guards. The agent in the crotto may not have been courageous enough to –”
“Counting the agent they sent into the crotto to keep any eye on you, there were five men following you. So they had you outnumbered. Had they wanted, they could have eliminated one or more of your guards during a night ambush and finished the job on a subsequent day. No, Cardinal, they want us, too. Dead or alive, perhaps, but I suspect they’d prefer alive. We’d be much more useful — and informative — that way.” She raised her head, breathed deeply, accelerated her flagging stride again. “No, we are all in this together. And that means you and I have to step lively, Your Eminence, because escape is our only acceptable option.”
James nodded. “And so far, luck is with us.”
Tom couldn’t figure that one out. “Seems today the only luck we’ve had has been bad.”
“Look, Tom: if the local garrison back in Chiavenna were seasoned pros, they’d have caught up with us by now. Sure, our trail ended at the Mera, but they must know we didn’t head west: to do that, we’d have had to double back past the crotto itself. And what for? To go straight up a big-ass mountain, through pine forests and toward god knows what? That’s not a bad plan; it’s no plan at all.
“And I doubt it took them more than ten minutes to figure out that we hadn’t crossed to the other side of the Mera: we’d have been seen going over the bridges. Besides, that’s the more densely populated side of town: lots of well-trafficked piazzas. Where we don’t exactly blend in. Particularly me. And certainly not when we’re running for our lives.
“So ten, maybe fifteen minutes after they found your cloak, they would know that we either fled to the north or the south. So maybe they had to split up into two search parties, but any way you slice it, we’re lucky we’ve gotten this far without any sign of –”
Over the stony roar of the plummeting Acquafraggia, Tom thought he heard a faint prapf! — and the next moment, he felt a burning stripe across his left buttock. Damn it, he thought as he staggered, more from the pain than the grazing rush of the musket ball fired at long range, hit in the ass again?!
Grinning because he could still find humor in the situation, Tom did not fall, thanks to the ready hand of Matthias, their geekish down-time radio operator. Who asked solicitously, “Can you travel, Herr Kapitan?”
Tom nodded, saw Matthias’ relieved smile — and then another musket ball went neatly into the down-timer’s right temple. It came out above his left ear in an eruption of bone and brains at the same moment that the weapon’s report reached them. Which meant that some of their pursuers were much closer than they had thought.
“Run!” Tom shouted at the top of his lungs. “Everyone! Now!”
On the one hand, Miro was glad for the tail-wind out of the north. Keeping a good distance from the alp known as the Tscharnoz to the west, Franchetti was catching at least seven miles per hour of free forward speed. That made it possible to throttle back the four, thirty-horse-power up-time mower engines propelling the dirigible, and thereby, save a considerable amount of fuel.
The downside of this situation was that it put Miro, along with two thirds of the passengers, downwind of the motors. Along with the burner, these engines left little doubt as to the origins of their fuel.
“Damn,” said Sherrilyn, wrinkling her nose. “Smells like a dead sheep. Being cremated in its own rotting fat.”
“Yeah, a sheep that died eating codfish,” Harry expanded.
“Who washed it down with the nastiest rotgut ever brewed from Satan’s own piss,” added Juliet, with a punctuating shriek of disgust and despair.
Donald Ohde shrugged. “Ah . . . I’ve smelled worse, I have.” They all looked at him. “Can’t think where, though.”
“Matija’s drawers,” Felix sneered.
“Your obsession with my drawers — and their contents — is ungodly, you sodomite.”
Gerd, not to be left out, looked up, sleepy-eyed as ever. “Get a room, you two,” he advised. Then he sent a questioning glance toward the up-timers of the Crew: “I think that line is from a movie we have seen, ja?”
George Sutherland, one arm around his wife, the other gesturing grandly at the white-fanged Alps surrounding them, exclaimed. “It’s a fine day to be flying, here over the very roof of the world, with all my friends.” He sucked in a great lungful of the noxious fumes. “And so refreshing, too.”
Miro wondered if the banter ever — ever — stopped. Sometimes, it abated, but rarely and not for long. It seemed to be an essential part of the social glue that held the Wrecking Crew together. Which, he supposed, made it a good thing. But he was outside of it, just as he was outside of their circle.
Franchetti shouted at Miro over his shoulder. “Don Estuban, look ahead.” He cocked his head toward the horizon. “Do you see it? The Lai di Marmorera?”
Miro squinted, saw a smooth curve of deep ultramarine nestled between close-set mountains some miles ahead. He pointed at it over Franchetti’s shoulder. “In that valley, you mean?” Frankly, it wasn’t a valley so much as it was a flat-bottomed gorge.
“Si; we head there. Then south to the Septimer Pass. We have gone more than half the way. Almost two-thirds.”
Harry had come to stand alongside Miro. “What are we looking at?”
Miro pointed again. “The Lai di Marmorera. Beyond that lies Bivio and the Septimer Pass.”
“‘Lake Marmorera’?” Harry’s brow wrinkled, one eyebrow shot up, and in that moment, Miro saw why the young rogue had so scored so many amorous victories across the Continent in the past two years. “I thought we were going over something called . . . eh, the Marmelsee.”
“Same thing,” shouted Miro. “The names change from language to language up here. French, German, Italian. Some rarer languages, too. And dialects mixing them all together.”
“Chaos,” pronounced Harry. Then with a smile: “Sounds like my kind of place.”
Thomas North peered out through the trees; two primitive carts creaked over a low rise to the east and were lost to sight. He waited a moment, then waved the first squad forward: the men advanced just beyond the edge of the tree line but stayed well within its lengthening shadow. No sign of reaction from the outskirts of Soglio, which was upslope to the north. Behind them, less than thirty yards to the south, was the Mera. Pine-lined at this point in its course, it chattered over rocks down toward the next town: Castagena.
“It’s fortunate we’re moving so close to dusk. Easy to stay hidden, this way.”
North turned to looked up at the very tall, very broad-shouldered Hastings. “Fortunate for movement, perhaps. Hardly ideal for a rendezvous, though. You have the crossbow ready?”
“And the signal bolts?”
Hastings nodded, watched as the first squad started trotting down slope, slipping beneath the sleeping brows of Soglio. “Shall we follow, sir?”
North, chewing his lower lip lightly, nodded. “Pass the word; weapons out, but no firing except at my orders. We’ve only got two miles left: let’s not cock it up by having someone mistake a squirrel for a Spaniard.”
North, up-time 9mm automatic in his right hand, signaled with this left to the second squad. Along with him, they emerged from the black shadows of the woods into the grey shadows beyond its margin and moved quietly down the hill after their comrades.
The approach of hooves told Tom Simpson that he had been right to remain behind and lay in wait: if he didn’t slow the Spanish down here, they would overtake the group within the hour. Now, if only he could keep his separation from the others from becoming truly permanent
Tom eased open both frizzens of the double-barreled fowling piece that, in any self-respecting Western, would have been called a ‘coach-gun’ and checked the powder in the pans. It was still dry, despite the mists generated by the cataract thirty yards further along the track to the east. Working around to his right, which was also the upslope side of the immense tree that he was sheltered behind, Tom leaned out for a quick peek.
Four horsemen, coming in a one-two-one sequence. Not as dispersed as bred-to-the-saddle cavalrymen would have been: the two in the middle were all but riding abreast. But the arrangement did suggest the competent training that was the norm among Spanish troops, which these were, judging from their helmets.
Tom leaned back behind the tree — no sudden motion now — and took a deep breath. He had been in several memorable gunfights over the past few years: the most recent involved shooting his way out of the Castel Sant’Angelo while rescuing the pope. However, this time he was alone and heavily outnumbered. As the first horseman drew abreast of his position, lazily riding point toward the dull thunder of the alpine cataract, Tom took consolation from the fact that the noise muffled other sounds like a great, audile blanket. This, along with the shadows in which Tom was hidden, amplified the efficacy of his one great advantage: surprise.
Timing the approach of the next two riders by recalling their separation from, and projecting back from the current position of, the first, Tom now leaned slowly around the down-slope side of the tree. The Spanish riders, about 12 yards away, did not see him. He counted through two more seconds, brought his weapon up slowly, waited for the pair to reach a range of about eight yards. When they did, he aimed low, and squeezed the first trigger.
The weapon sounded like a small cannon going off. The far horse, the one on the right hand side of the road, caught the great mass of the shot in its chest. The creature screamed, went down front-wards, spilling the rider roughly onto the road. The second horse, hit by two, maybe three, balls in the breast and the foreleg, staggered then reared desperately.
Aiming slightly higher, Tom squeezed the other trigger.
The second blast did not seem as loud, probably because he expected it. This charge of shot caught the same, stricken horse in the side as it was wheeling in panic, its rider hauling at the reins in an attempt to control it. The ribcage of the animal rippled under a spatter of bloody eruptions; a similar splatter of red appeared between the rider’s hip and kidney. Together, man and beast fell sideways.
Tom did not see them hit the ground: dropping the shotgun, he leaned back behind the immense tree-trunk, and snatched up his waiting cap-and-ball revolver. His back covered against fire from the rearmost rider, he drew a two-handed bead on the point-man, who had pulled his mount around and had his wheel lock pistol already in hand, looking for the source of the attack.
Tom fired, resteadied, fired, resteadied. Just before he triggered off a third shot, he saw that he had hit the target with his second bullet: the rider flinched as a dull red puff momentarily obscured his right clavicle. Probably aiming at Tom’s muzzle flash, he discharged his own weapon in unison with Tom’s third shot.
Which cut through the Spaniard’s diaphragm and dumped him out of his saddle: his return shot hummed into the upslope forest to Tom’s left, snapping twigs as it went.
A moment later, Tom heard the report of another wheel lock: he simultaneously felt and heard a thump deep in the tree behind him. No time to waste.
Tom leaned around the darker, upslope side of the tree, drew a bead on the last horseman, who had already yanked a second pistol from his saddle-brace. Tom fired; the Spaniard fired: they both missed. The horseman reached for his next pistol; Tom fired again. Another miss — but it grazed the horse’s flank, causing the creature to rear and the rider to consider the rate of fire he was obviously facing. He pulled his mount around and sped back the way he had come, riding low and forward in the saddle.
Rather than waste a shot, Tom ran into the road, pistol up and ready. The first rider who had gone down was dead: the open eyes, staring almost straight back over his shoulder, bore witness to his snapped neck. The lead rider — the third Tom had shot — was not moving, nor was he making any noise audible over the perpetual rumble of the cataract. Although neither of the point-man’s wounds had been instantly fatal, the odds were good that his fall from the horse inflicted a concussion. Which was a lucky bit of mercy, since the gut wound inflicted by Tom’s third bullet promised a long and miserable death.
But the second rider Tom had shot, the one who had gone down sideways with his mount, was pinned under his dead horse, groaning and bleeding heavily.
Tom approached, then stopped. For a long second, he could not form any thought other than: this is not how it’s supposed to end. This wasn’t part of the plan. They were supposed to die. Or, if I was unlucky, flee. But not this.
The Spaniard had evidently heard Tom’s movement; he struggled to turn his head, to see who might be coming. That attempt to turn had evidently required a reflexive twisting of the lower back: the cavalryman screamed in agony.
That shook Tom out of his stupor. He reached the wounded man in two long strides. Careful not to look him in the eyes, the up-timer snuggled his revolver’s barrel under the soldier’s chin and pulled the trigger.
Tom did not hear the report; did not stop to look at the body; did not remember clambering up the slope and on to the game trail by which he had doubled back to set up this ambush. Up until now, he’d always felt like a soldier. Now he tried not to think of himself as a murderer.
The complement in the gondola had grown very quiet. Alps this big, when seen close up, were no longer scenic, were no longer even majestic: they were ominous gargantuans. The figure in the hooded clerical robe stood very still at the rear of the gondola, watching the towering monsters slide slowly past.
Angling to enter the north of the Sur Valley from the east, Franchetti had swept around the Piz d’Err with about one thousand yards to spare, and well under the level of its 11,080 foot peak. But as he drew closer to the Marmelsee, he seemed to be struggling to maintain a steady course.
“What’s wrong?” Miro shouted above the engines.
“Nothing, Don Estuban.”
“Well, the air currents are — are hard to predict here. The drafts around these mountains, they can speed up very quickly.”
Miro looked up at the next alp in the line of snow-and-stone giants arrayed in a frozen, southward parade: this one was even taller, more jagged. Miro pointed. “And that one is called?”
Grey horns and fangs protruded from its upper reaches; lower down, where they were, the topography was less forbidding.
“And isn’t that one the Matterhorn?” Sherrilyn pointed across the valley and the Marmelsee, where a great monolith of stone was now framed by the rapidly setting sun. She sounded almost giddy; she seemed to be the last passenger whose enjoyment of the trip was undiminished.
Miro smiled. “No. That is Piz Platta.”
“What?” Sherrilyn sounded personally affronted. “That’s a rip-off! It’s a, a . . . a damned look-alike. A fake.”
Miro’s smiled widened. “Can God steal a creative property from himself? A worthy question for Talmudic scholars, though I suspect –”
Franchetti’s “Don Estuban!” was uttered in the very same second that the gondola seemed to plummet away from under them. Miro fell to the deck, glad not to be falling further. Franchetti was giving orders to Gerd and Donald, who were his assistant engineers on this trip. Donald opened up the burner, which sent a hoarse, bright roar of flame up into the dirigible. A wave of sultry warmth washed over the gondola. At the same time, Gerd was adjusting the engine pitch for a steep climb.
Between the two adjustments, Miro expected the blimp to shoot higher. Instead, it laboriously crawled upward. Miro rose, crouched behind Franchetti, and smelled the sour stink of sudden, panicked sweat. “Virgilio, what is our situation?”
“I — I am not sure, Don Estuban. One minute I was correcting for side draft. The next a slight updraft, then a gust came down off the peak, hard. It is the air over the lake, near dusk. With the temperatures changing this quickly –”
“– wind directions and speeds are changing just as quickly.”
Harry Lefferts spat over the side of the gondola. “Damn it. I knew this was a lousy idea. Flying just before sunset: it’s nuts.”
Miro watched the steep sides of the Piz Calderas come closer. “Virgilio, is it wise that we — ?”
“Don Estuban, the air is calmer here, further away from the surface of the lake. I think we can probably –”
Then, they were shooting upwards, rapidly closing with the Piz Calderas. “What the fuck — ?” shouted Sherrilyn.
Miro knew better than to interrogate Franchetti, who was trying to both save their lives and adapt to conditions he had never encountered in the more predictable flying conditions of central Germany. Besides, Miro had a pretty good idea of what the problem was.
They had entered a fierce new westerly draft. Glancing across the valley, Miro guessed it was produced by the funneling effects the two immense alps he saw there: the Piz Platta and its northerly partner, the Piz Arblatsch. Winds from the west were pinched between the peaks and accelerated, as would a stream of water that is forced to flow through a narrow tube. Entering the valley, the airship had been north of the draft. And later, until it struggled up out of the downdrafts over the lake, the balloon had remained under the air current. But rising up had brought them square into the blast, which had not only removed the downdraft effect, but was pushing them sideways, toward a high-altitude impalement upon the snowy spikes of Piz Caldera.
Except not all those lethal projections were clearly snow-marked, Miro realized. “Virgilio –!”
Franchetti saw the dagger-like horn of dark-grey rock that jumped out of the shadows at them. Probably the morning sunlight had melted it clean, allowing it to lurk, camouflaged, in the shadows of dusk. As they sped sideways to meet its disemboweling slice, sure to shred the gondola and drop them thousands of feet to their collective deaths, Miro watched Franchetti struggle to get the airship down and out of the cross-valley draft. And that was when he realized that, instead, they had to –
“Climb!” shouted Miro. “Pitch engines for rapid ascent; throttles wide open!”
“Do it!” roared Miro, who leaped over to the burner and opened its choke to full burn.
No longer trying to fight back down into and through the cross-current, the sudden increase in both lift and upward thrust pushed the dirigible suddenly higher with what seemed like a hop. Piz Calderas’ granite claw reached out for them –
– and bumped lightly against the bottom of the gondola, before they soared up beyond it. They were still angling toward the higher reaches of Piz Calderas, but without the same powerful side draft; they had also climbed over the most intense core of the winds. Behind Miro, people began to breathe again.
Franchetti turned; his brow was as wet as if he emerged from the lake they were now angling back toward. “Don Estuban, I — thank you. Merde: just thank you.” At the other end of the gondola, Miro was pretty sure he could hear the robed passenger murmuring what sounded like a prayer of thanks.
Miro sank back into a seat and then felt something thump against his back. He turned around just as George Sutherland’s big, meaty paw landed for a second friendly pat: “Not half bad, Don Estuban, not half bad.”
Harry, too, was smiling at him. Indeed, they all were. Miro nodded, smiled back and stared once again across the valley at the alps that had almost killed them.
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