A PINCH OF SNUFF
V O L U M E VII
|Dawn was just a glimmer
in the murky eastern sky. The night lay thickly in the sunken lane. A carriage and a
farmers cart sat waiting in the darkness. A shuttered lantern gave the only light.
The open cart was piled with hay. The driver had a shabby, scarecrow look. He sat with the reins looped round his hands and a rifle propped beside him. A sombre scarf was wrapped around his face.
The carriage blended with the dark, its velvet curtains drawn. The driver and his mate were masked as well. The coachman was a flinty former soldier with pale eyes. The guard beside him was a girl, wearing funeral-black clothes and leather gloves.
A blunderbuss was in its boot beside her. She idly massaged her gloved hands, but kept them close to the protruding butt. The coach lamp glimmered like a single candle. Her dark eyes gleamed above her mask as she glimpsed a shadow moving on the road.
"Theyre here," she called back softly to the passenger inside. The carriage stayed as silent as a hearse. She watched more shapes emerge out of the hedgerows. Some moved down into the lane while others lay in wait with muskets aimed.
A tall man ventured up beside the carriage. The guard pulled down her scarf and smiled. She had a hard young face. "My mistress is expecting you," she said, her accent foreign. "We have the shipment here, just as she said."
The man moved on to the coach door. It was opened by a graceful lace-gloved hand. A woman in a widows veil sat in the dim interior. The man wore field clothes, scuffed and stained, but her offered her a gentlemanly bow.
"How goes your brave revolt?" she asked him calmly. Although her French was perfect, he detected the Sicilian tone of it.
"The whole of the Vendee is aflame. Those godless revolutionists cant hold it. And with these guns youre bringing us, well break their grip at last. I bless you for your faithfulness, Madame."
Some of the men had gathered round the back of the old cart. They pushed the hay aside and found the polished stocks of muskets underneath. "It matters not," the widow said, "that this is not my country. We are all Catholics under God. The will of Heaven cannot be defied."
"You do this for our faith, Madame," the man said fervently, "but I know one must buy guns with more than prayers. Please, therefore, accept our thankful payment. A hundred golden crowns, as we agreed."
He gestured, and a woman came to join him. Her bobbed hair was as blonde as corn, and her winsome face had a determined look. "This is Danielle, my eldest girl. She loves to ride and hunt. In this revolt, shes bagged a dozen Bluecoats " The blonde held out a moneybag. The widow took it with a grateful nod.
The weapons were concealed again, and the cart was driven off along the lane. Some of the rebels followed it; the rest withdrew into the murky fields. Their leader kissed the widows hand. "God speed you to the coast. This land is famous for its wines: well raise a glass to you."
The widows smile was hidden by the darkness and her veil. "I hear the vines grow well," she purred, "and bear a strong variety of grape ..."
* * *
The skyline brimmed with liquid gold as they came towards the farm. A dog barked in the misty dawn. The buildings stayed unlit. The hay-cart creaked at walking pace along the muddy track. The band of rebels followed it on foot.
"Well hide the rifles in the barn," the grey-haired leader said. "Danielle will spread the word around the parish." He gave his daughter a proud look. Her green eyes glinted as she smiled at him. She wore a short coat and close-fitting breeches. A hunting gun was slung across her back.
A younger girl with long dark hair was walking at her side. Her pale face had an almost elfin cast. Shed started out as Danielles maid, but now they were companions. She was chewing idly on a shaft of straw.
The hay-cart turned into the yard. A hen went flapping clear. The rebel captain raised his voice. "Wake up, Pierre! My brave band want their breakfast!"
Danielle sensed a vacuum in the moments pause that followed. It seemed to draw the air out of her lungs. Then a cannon blasted from the shadows of the barn and sprayed a load of grapeshot at the group.
Men flew backwards like straw dolls. The cart was smashed and crippled. A rail fence splintered in the squall, and clods were kicked up from the field beyond. The survivors tried to flee, but there were more troops by the pigsty. Their muskets cut the rebels down with a smoky crackle like a burning wood.
Danielle ducked a whooshing ball that ruffled her blonde hair. Instinctively she clutched at her maids hand. The two girls dodged behind the cart as gunfire raked the farmyard. The driver stood up on his seat, still trying to cock his gun as he was shot.
A splash of blood hit Danielles cheek as his body tumbled past them. A pall of noxious smoke engulfed the yard. Gunfire flickered through it. Murky figures spun and fell. The smutty cloud blew over them, and both girls scurried clear and went to ground.
The black carriage had halted on the slope above the farm. The coachman stared down at the smoky yard. "It seems our friends have had a heavy breakfast."
"A hard one to digest," agreed the guard.
A mounted Bluecoat officer came spurring up the slope. The coach-door opened as he reached the road. "Citizen." He touched his hat. "The Revolution thanks you. Accept this with the Colonels compliments."
The widow took the proffered purse. "I only did my duty. Though this is not my country, I salute your noble cause."
The officer seemed moved. "Your dedication shames these traitors. Now we must find the criminals who sold those guns to them."
"I wish you luck," the widow said. "But I seek other enemies of France. A turncoat and an English spy. I hear that they are somewhere in this district."
The soldier peered at her, intrigued. "Why make our quarrel yours?"
The widow raised her veil as if in answer. Her beauty made the soldier catch his breath. She had dark eyes full of hatred, and a scar on one smooth cheek. "This quarrel is all mine," said Monica.
* * *
A knock came on the bedroom door. "Whos there?" called Martine thickly. It was light outside the shutters, but she sensed the pregnant stillness of the dawn.
The voice was muffled, diffident. "Its Sylvie, from downstairs. My ladies, is there anything you need?"
Martine twisted in the sheets and snuggled up to Nell. "Theres a chamber pot to empty, if you want to."
The landlords daughter ventured in and smiled sheepishly. "Im sorry that you had to share a bed. This was the only room we had "
"We managed to get comfortable," said Nell.
Her shoulders were bare above the sheet, and Martines were as well. A blush crept into Sylvies rosy cheeks. She had a mass of russet curls and a plump, impressive cleavage. Embarrassed, she glanced off around the room.
Martine yawned and raised herself, already more alert than she appeared. Though she was nude beneath the sheet, she wore a lace cravat around her neck. Her mane of chestnut hair spilled to her shoulders. She watched the girl with lazy kohl-rimmed eyes.
Nells red coat was hanging in the corner. Her blunderbuss was propped against the stand. Sylvie didnt try to hide her curiosity. Nell sat up against the bolsters, pushing back her long straw-coloured hair.
Sylvie nibbled at her lip. "Have you come to fight the Bluecoats? Or just to rob their coaches on the road?"
Her voice was low but husky with excitement. Nell smiled at her indulgently. She saw the girl had loosened her tight stays. "Would you rather we were common whores?" she murmured, and let the sheet slip clear of her bare breasts.
Sylvies cheeks grew crimson, but she couldnt look away. Nell beckoned with a sly look in her eye. The girl came over timidly and sat down on the bed. Her panting cleavage begged to be unlaced.
Nell stroked her glowing cheek instead. "You reckon its romantic, for girls to follow where their fortune leads?" She shook her head. "Dont fool yourself. The beds are sometimes soft. The roads are hard."
Her pale blue eyes searched Sylvies, then she tugged the bodice open. The girls large breasts revealed their swollen tips. Nell and Martine pounced on her like greedy alley cats. She sighed submissively and let them feed.
* * *
The yard was still deserted in the limpid morning light, but Sylvie ventured out with guilty stealth. Her russet hair was tangled and her bosom was still tender. Shed laced her stays as loosely as she could.
She realised that the smug smile was still plastered to her face. She licked her lips and tried to look composed. The pair of highwaywomen had been generous to her, and anyone could see that shed just come.
She was savouring the feeling when hands seized her from behind. She glimpsed dark shapes appearing round the yard. Before she could do more than gasp, they had hauled her to the horse-trough. Her squeal was muffled as they plunged her in.
She wriggled but they held her down, then pulled her head back up. She coughed and spluttered, wet hair in her eyes. A group of girls in long black coats had gathered round the horse-trough. They grinned at her like a malicious gang.
"We found two ponies in the stable. Which room are their owners staying in?"
Sylvies head was wrenched around towards the purring voice. The speaker wore an elegant black gown. A widows headdress framed her haughty features. A scar defaced the smoothness of one cheek.
"I dont know " sobbed Sylvie, and the widow jerked her head. The fist in Sylvies tresses forced her down. The stagnant water smothered her: she bucked despairingly, then whooped as she was dragged back up once more.
Her stays had come unfastened and her breasts were dripping wet. She panted, trying to fill her aching lungs. One of the girls watched calmly as she gnawed a chicken leg. Another sniggered like a spiteful child.
The widow sauntered into view. Her eyes were pitiless. "I want the brunette and the blonde. Ill only ask once more."
"Oh please " said Sylvie wretchedly. "Theyre upstairs, in room three " The widow studied her, then smiled. She nodded carelessly.
Sylvie tried to wail as she was dunked a final time, but a bubbling sound was all the others heard. She squirmed until the water flooded deep into her lungs. Her mind filled up with darkness and she drowned.
"You heard the slut," said Monica, as Sylvies body slumped. "Go up and get those bitches out of bed. And make sure that they stay alive, you hear me? Theyve got a lot of suffering to do."
* * *
"Come on, lazybones," said Nell. "The suns over the yard-arm, as we say."
Martines cheeks were still flushed from her climax. She gave her friend a mock-reproachful look. "You English are all puritans," she murmured. "In France, we take our comforts seriously ..."
Nell sat up, the feather mattress creaking. "Shes gone to put some coffee on for us." The thought of Sylvies body brought a wry smile to her lips. And then the bedroom door was booted in.
The girls recoiled in shock against the bolsters. Three figures in black coats came through the door. Young women with hard faces and sun-darkened olive skin. One levelled a blunderbuss; the others pointed pistols at the bed.
Nell realised her breasts were bare and quickly pulled the sheet up. Martine cringed behind its folds, as if the linen could protect her flesh. The three intruders leered at them. Nell glanced across the room. Her own gun was still propped against the coat-tree, out of reach.
The tall girl with the blunderbuss stayed waiting in the doorway. Her friends came to the foot of the big bed. Their large-bore pistols gaped towards the lovers. One girl leaned across the frame. "Get dressed, you pair of guttersnipes," she sneered.
Martine pouted back at her, and then the sheet bulged outward like a sail caught by a sudden gust of wind. It split, and smoke burst through it with the thud of an explosion. A spray of buckshot hit the black-clad girls.
The one whod spoken caught the heavy pellets in both breasts. Her smirk became an agonised grimace. The girl beside her clutched her chest and felt her sternum splinter. Her pistol thundered blindly as she somersaulted backwards with her friend.
The stray shot blasted plaster from the wall above the bed as Martine rolled and rose onto one knee. She fired the second barrel of her sawn-off fowling piece. The blast lifted the third girl off her feet.
Nell had tumbled out of bed and landed like a cat. The acrid haze of gunsmoke made her cough. She was wearing her white stockings but was naked otherwise. She snatched up her Twigg pistol from the floor.
Lowering her shotgun, Martine knelt up on the mattress. Her cravat trailed between her panting breasts. The three Sicilian girls lay where theyd landed. The dingy wallpaper was splashed with blood.
Nell was pulling on her boots. She glanced over her shoulder. "I wondered why we always had to sleep with that damned thing!"
Martine gave a twisted smile and groped for her own boots. Nell shrugged into her English soldiers coat. Still naked underneath it, she went over to the doorway. She swung into the passage as she heard the staircase creak.
Another bandit girl had reached the landing, and she and Nell fired simultaneously. Their pistols belched a fog which filled the passage. The Sicilians shot hummed past Nells cheek, but the English girls clipped her opponents ribs. The girl in black lurched back, and Nell discharged her second load. It blasted the Sicilians chest and kicked her through the windowpane behind her.
A fifth girl made her move before the fourth had hit the ground. She knew that Nell had fired two shots, and guessed the blonde had nothing in reserve. But Nell just turned the catch to activate the lower barrels, then cocked the gun and opened fire again. A coin-sized hole exploded in the shocked Sicilians brow. The girl slid off the bloody wall and tumbled down the stairs like a rag doll.
Martine had pulled her coat on too, and was stuffing a valise with shirts and breeches. The air was dense with powder smoke. She heard the sound of shots and smashing glass. The bedroom window gave onto an outhouse roof below. Her breasts heaved as she opened it and threw the valise down onto the tiles.
The field beside the inn was still deserted. She swung one shapely leg over the sill. Apart from her frock-coat and boots, she was as nude as Nell. The morning air felt chilly as she dropped onto the lichen-covered roof.
An open wagon stood next to the outhouse. The bed was full of sacks and bales of hay. Martine peered down at it, then sat on the roofs edge. She was readying herself to jump when a black-clad girl appeared around the corner.
The Sicilian spotted her at once and lifted a horse-pistol, but the sight of Martine made her come up short. A strait-laced girl, shed never seen a woman from this angle. Martine sat with legs apart, her pussy gaping like a ruffled rose.
Before the wide-eyed bandit could collect herself again, Martine had pulled a gun from the valise. She launched her bare rump off the roof and fired as she dropped. The girl cried out in agony and clasped the bloody hole over her heart.
She flopped into the mud as Martine landed in the wagon. The French girl raised her head again and saw Nell climbing through the bedroom window. The blonde threw down her blunderbuss and Martines empty shotgun. Her friend caught each of them in turn, then covered Nells descent from the low roof.
Breathlessly they headed for the stables, their coattails flapping round their naked thighs. Martine led the way into the inn yard. She halted at the sight of Sylvies corpse.
"Bitches " she said softly. Nell brought up her blunderbuss. Then they heard a carbine cocked behind them, and a scraping footfall on the cobblestones.
"Drop your guns," a cold voice said, "or Ill shoot your arses off." A gunshot echoed round the yard at once. The two girls jumped like rabbits, but it wasnt aimed at them. Martine whirled in time to see a bandit flipping backwards through the air.
A dark-haired girl was standing on the far side of the yard. She was plainly-dressed in mannish country clothes. A double-barrelled pistol was still levelled in her grasp. She gestured at Martine and Nell. "Come on!"
The two friends didnt waste time asking questions. They got their ponies from the stable while the scruffy newcomer stood guard. Martine heeled her mount into the daylight, the saddle rubbing at her naked crotch. Following, Nell turned to fire her blunderbuss one-handed, and more pursuers scattered in the smoke.
The country girl had swung astride a pony of her own. The three of them kicked clear of the old inn. Martine risked a glance over her shoulder, and saw one of the bandits taking aim. Then she heard the thud of hooves, and a blonde girl rode to meet them. She reined in, raised a hunting rifle and squeezed off a shot.
The ball struck the Sicilian like a mallet in the head. A gout of crimson spilled across the yard. The black-clad girl went down like a shot scarecrow. The blonde picked up her reins again and spurred her panting horse in Martines wake.
* * *
They took a hunting trail into the forest and dismounted in the silence of the trees. The local girls were edgy, but they gave the highwaywomen space to dress. Martine and Nell retrieved their crumpled clothes from the valise. Martine pulled her linen shirt on, knotting it beneath her shapely breasts. Nell buttoned her calfskin vest over her cleavage. Their rescuers looked on with some disdain.
"My names Danielle," the blonde girl said. "This is Chantal, my maid. If those witches are your enemies as well, wed better talk."
Martine shrugged. "They call it a vendetta. The only way to end it is for us to kill them all."
Danielles eyes were green and cold. "Or blow the Widows head off. The bitch betrayed my father. Now its my turn for revenge."
"The Widows still alive?" said Martine softly. She flicked a glance at Nell. "We thought wed buried her at sea."
Danielle went back to rodding out her rifle. Her surly stare belied her dimpled cheeks. "What brings you to the Vendee, then?" she murmured. "Have you come to join our war against the Blues?"
"Were only passing through," said Nell. She parried the young maids suspicious look. Chantals pistol rested in a holster on her ribs, and her hand was close to the protruding butt.
Danielle tightened her full lips. "A pair of tramps," she said. "But now I guess weve got a common cause."
Martine gave the arrogant young lady a stiff smile. She reckoned she could kill Danielle right now. And Chantals bulky pistol wouldnt beat Nells bayonet. But the girl was right: they had a common foe.
"All right, Miss Danielle," she said. "Well join your insurrection. But we dont care about Blues or Whites. The colour of the enemy is Black."
* * *
They lay low in the woods for the remainder of the day. Now and then they heard the snap of branches. Startled birds took flight, and then the trees grew quiet again. The sounds of searching never came too close.
The light was mellowing as Danielle led them from the campsite. She clearly knew this woodland well, and stalked with confidence between the trees. It didnt take her long to find the trail of their pursuers, and track them back to the Sicilians camp.
From a thickly-wooded slope, the girls looked down into a clearing. It formed a hollow in the hill, not far from the woods edge. There was a ruined building right below them. A black coach stood outside it, and a laden farmers cart was nearby.
"This was an old hunting lodge," said Danielle evenly. "I reckoned they might find their way to it." The house was roofless, full of beams and rubble, but there was a stone-rimmed well in front of it. The mules from the cart had been unhitched and were drinking from a horse-trough. The coachs team looked ready to depart.
The western sky was streaked with red. A fire glowed in the clearing. A few black-coated figures moved around. Martine squinted over at the farm cart. "It looks as if theyre smuggling guns," she said.
"Powder kegs and muskets," said the blonde girl bitterly. "Theyll use them to betray another band." She gestured with her ornate hunting rifle. "Ill wager there are guards around but they wont expect us coming through the house."
Martine raised her eyebrow as Danielle moved down the slope. She glanced at Nell, then followed cautiously. The slope became the steep wall of the hollow. The lodge had been built against the rock, and they eased themselves into its gutted shell. One by one they clambered down the rubble-heap within, hanging onto fallen beams and twisted vines. Danielle glanced out through the crumbled doorway. The black carriage was very close. "Theres someone coming," she hissed warningly.
Nell drew the long bayonet from underneath her coat, and moved up to the far side of the doorway. Martine and Chantal withdrew into the smelly dimness. They heard the crunch of footfalls, and a bandit girl came into the old house.
It was clear what she intended. She was undoing her breeches as she walked. As she fumbled with the buttons, Nell pounced from behind her. She clamped the girls throat with one arm and thrust the bayonet between her ribs.
The Sicilian gagged and wriggled as the slim blade found her heart. Her bosom heaved beneath her floppy shirt. Nell held on until the girl had crumpled, then lowered her limp body to the stones.
Chantal darted out into the twilight and squatted in the cover of the well. She raised her head and looked around. One of the waiting horses gave a snort. Italian voices murmured from the campfire. The dark-haired maid crept over to the coach.
There was someone sitting in the dim interior, and Chantal raised her double-barrelled gun. She knew that this was Danielles debt, but eagerness consumed her. Yanking open the coach-door, she fired into the veiled figures breast.
The close-range impact threw the Widow back against her seat. Chantal swung up into the smoke-filled coach. She snatched at the veil and tore it free, then recoiled in confusion. The face beneath was waxy pale a young girl whod been dead for several hours.
She had no way of knowing it was Sylvie from the inn, but she realised she had walked into a trap. Even as she stared, the door across from her swung open. The grizzled driver brought his gun to bear.
Chantal fired her pistols second barrel, and the mans gaunt face became a blur of blood. His head snapped back and he crumpled on the far side of the carriage. Chantal began to back out through her door. Then the coachs female guard discharged her blunderbuss. She was underneath the carriage and her load smashed upward through the wooden floor. Chantal squealed and clutched her groin. Her body tumbled backwards. She landed, wriggling, on the grass as the Widow stepped around the coachs team.
Monica was wearing a black corset and long skirt. Her shoulders and her arms were bare, but she still wore black lace gloves. She raised a German pistol with a thirteen-inch-long barrel and fired it at the writhing, gasping maid. Chantal bucked and arched her spine as blood sprayed from her temple. Her body flopped back down onto the grass.
Danielle made a sobbing sound and brought her rifle up, but Monica went flitting back again. The other bandit girls came running in from all directions. Carbines thudded, belching smoke, their impacts gouging chunks out of the wall. Danielle drew a bead on one of them and squeezed the trigger. A lead ball weighing one full ounce blew the black-coated Sicilian off her feet.
Danielle threw her gun to Nell. "Load that!" she ordered sharply. Before Nell could snap off a retort, the green-eyed girl had dashed out of the house. She was drawing her own pistol as she ran towards the well. Another bandit tried to beat her there. She was aiming on the run when Martine let fly with her shotgun. The girls black coat burst open and she spun around and flopped across the rim.
Danielle rolled into cover on the nearside of the well. Martine ducked back as lead zipped through the doorway. Nell was ramming a fresh load into the hunting rifle. She snatched her pistol halfway through and shot another girl as she rushed forward.
They heard the sound of ripping cloth, and Danielle raised her voice. "Call off your litter, bitch! I challenge you!"
A smoky silence fell across the clearing. Martine and Nell exchanged a wary glance. Then Danielle raised something white and straightened out of cover. She kept her pistol in her other hand.
Shed torn the front out of her shirt to make a flag of truce. Her bosom heaved between her coats lapels. Watching, Martine shook her head. "Wrong colour, girl," she murmured. "The black flags all that they respect. The flag that gives no quarter, and expects none ..."
"Did I hear that Sicilians had honour?" jeered Danielle, uncaring of the muskets aimed at her. "Are you afraid of me, Madame? Are you a coward as well as being a whore?"
There was a pause, then Monica appeared around the carriage. The scar stood out against her pallid face. She gestured with her pistol. "So you dare to challenge me? Would forty paces suit you, little girl?"
Danielle bristled; then she nodded curtly. The Widow sauntered over to the well. Her girls kept Danielle covered or took aim towards the lodge. "My seconds will stay out of it if yours will," Danielle said.
Inside the house, Nell cocked the hunting rifle. She clambered up the rubble-heap and found herself a perch on the first floor. Martine stayed by the doorway with her back against the wall. She risked a glance outside as the two duellists began to move apart.
Monicas skirts rustled as she paced across the clearing. Danielles large breasts pulsated as she breathed. Her pistol pointed at the sky, but the Widow held hers lower. Shielded from the lodge, she was attaching something to the German gun.
One of the bandit girls was counting paces. She got to twenty and the duellists turned. Danielle trained her gun on Monica and pulled the trigger. The Widow seemed accepting of her fate.
The blonde girl had a standard smoothbore pistol. The ball it fired flew wildly through the air. Across the space of forty yards, it drifted from its course, and missed the Widow as she raised her gun.
Monicas pistol had a rifled barrel to spin the ball and keep it flying true. Shed fitted a shoulder stock to the butt, and aimed across the cradle of her arm. She fired in one smooth movement while Danielle just stood and gawked. The ball struck the blonde girl right between the breasts.
Danielle grunted thickly as her sternum was kicked in. She dropped her empty gun and stumbled back. Blood spilled from her cleavage as her green eyes turned to glass. She toppled like a lady in a swoon.
Nell brought up the dead girls hunting rifle. The Sicilians had begun to shoot, and musket balls were zinging through the house. She drew a bead on Monica, then tracked her aim away. Her eyes were cold behind the sights as she gave the rifles trigger a slow squeeze.
The ball struck one of the powder kegs stacked in the farmers cart. The heat of impact touched the powder off. The cart was blown to splinters in a flash of greasy flame, and white smoke filled the clearing like a fog.
Some of the Sicilian girls were blown clean off their feet, while others were cut down by the debris. A splintered rifle stock impaled one girl like a thrown spear. Another screamed in anguish as the spokes of a smashed wheel drove through her chest.
The Widows carriage rumbled clear as its panicked team took off. The coachwork and the curtains were on fire. Martine scrambled up the pile of rubble, and she and Nell climbed through the open roof.
They looked back from the slope above. The clearing was a cauldron. But Martine just glimpsed Monica retreating on the far side of the smoke. There was no way the Widow could have seen them, but her bitter cry came winging through the dusk.
"Ill catch you yet, you bitches and youll rue the day I do!"
But only Martines laughter answered her.