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BOOK: The Highwayman's Footsteps
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A few more strides, a few more paces, and with one last effort I gathered the horse up and flew with him as he surged bravely into the air. The bare hawthorn branches tore at his flesh as we passed. But he did not falter! I wanted to shout aloud – we were over!

We landed with a stumbling thud but did not fall, and I turned him sharply to the left, following the line of the hill now, no longer trying to force him upwards.

My happiness was short-lived.

Within a moment, a scream and a terrible cry ripped the air behind us. Two noises, merging into each other. I wheeled round, pulling my horse to a halt, and opened my eyes wide with horror. Everything seemed to happen slowly, and in a strange order, an order that did not make sense. Did I hear the screams first or did I see the officer fly through the air and land twisted on his neck? Did the man crumple to his death or did the horse land on its knees first, with that terrible splintering crack which I will remember till my dying breath? Did the man die instantly or did he writhe first or was the writhing simply part of how he twisted through the air, knowing he was about to die?

And did I leap from my horse before I knew the man was dead or did I sit motionless, struck dumb, for as long as I seem to remember? And did the horse scream in terror and pain and did he bleed and try to rise from those broken front legs? Did I see or did I imagine the eyes wide in shock or was that merely my own horror? And when the horse looked at me, as I ran towards him, ignoring the dead man, did that beautiful creature truly seem to plead with me to do what I already knew I must?

As if in some terrible nightmare, as if directed by some stronger power, I ran to the dead man and pulled a pistol from his belt, not looking at his still-staring eyes. A double-barrelled pistol, I noticed. Fully primed. Half-cocked. I ran to the horse, as it lay struggling. I placed my hand on the side of the warm neck, to soothe him, but further than that I did not, could not, hesitate: through my tears, I placed the mouth of the gun against the side of his temple, cocked the hammer, and shot him.

He crumpled instantly. But I shot him again with the other barrel, blindly, angrily, desperately, the force sending me lurching backwards. And I wished it was that traitorous, gap-toothed old woman whom I shot. In my anger I wished that more than anything.

A scream was welling up inside me, and I felt a terrible need to collapse, to give up there, even to reload and use the pistol on myself. What sort of life was I leading? Brutal. Lonely, and without control or hope.

But I did not use the pistol on myself. It was not honourable to give up and although many things about my new life were not honourable, that was no reason to sink to the lowest depths. I may have been a coward in my parents' eyes, but I would not yield. I did not know where I was going or what the future held, but I would not give up my life, until life was dragged from me.

I walked slowly to where my own mount stood, its head drooping, its flanks white with sweat, its nostrils wide, all strength spent. I looked at the pistol in my hand. I had a horse and a pistol. I was better placed to survive than I had been only an hour before.

Yet I knew I could not keep them. The soldiers would be looking for a boy with a horse. Stealing a horse was a crime punishable by death. If I were lucky and found myself before a lenient judge, or a corrupt one, I might escape with a lesser punishment, but I had also caused the death of an officer and his horse; add to that the fact that I had stolen money and taken an officer's pistol, and I would be fortunate not to find myself hanging slowly from the Three-Legged Mare after the next York Assizes.

I had seen it happen. I had even seen one gibbeting. My father had made me watch with my brother – he said it was right that a man should watch a hanging, that it was good for a boy's character to see justice done. It seemed that my brother did so with greater pleasure than I could ever feel. As for my father, he had watched without emotion – the victim was a man he had sentenced to death himself and I marvelled at the power my father wielded. It was not a power I would have desired. Could he be sure of the man's guilt? I hoped so. Was he ever unsure? Would he sleep easy in his bed if he was not sure?

I had not believed, until I saw it, that an executioner could be so skilful that the condemned man would survive hanging, castrating and disembowelling, before losing his senses with the beheading. The cutting into quarters had barely been necessary, except to serve as a horrifying deterrent to those of us who watched.

And what of the pistol? Should I keep it? If I were caught with it, my punishment would perhaps be the greater than if I went unarmed, not least because I might be tempted to use it. I should leave it in the officer's hand. Then it could be assumed that the officer had shot the horse before succumbing to his own injuries or the cold. I would be nowhere to be found and it would be viewed as a terrible accident.

I looked once more at the weapon in my hand. To take it or not to take it? I made a decision. Stooping, I placed it in the dead man's hand, closing his gloved fist around it. I had not had cause to touch a dead man before and I avoided looking at his face. He would have killed me, I reminded myself. He would have done it with pleasure.

Tying my horse's reins so that he would not trip on them, I led him a little way along the track until we came to a gate, which I opened, leading him through. I pointed him in the right direction and gave him a hefty thump on his hind quarters to send him on his way. At first, he trotted, before slowing to a walk and then a standstill. He turned his tired head and looked at me. For all his beauty he was a fool: he should have known he would have no life with me. He should have known, and galloped away to his own master.

Wishing I could take him but knowing I could not, I retraced my steps to where the dead man lay next to his broken horse. I had made a new decision. As sleeting snow began to fall from a granite sky, settling on the bodies like a soft, natural blanket, I now took the gun from the man's hand, along with his leather shot bag and his copper powder flask, and the matching pistol from his belt. Sheltering it with my body, I took a measure of powder and placed it in the cup, rammed a paper-wrapped shot down each of the two barrels, replacing the rod in its place under the barrels, all as I had been taught many times. I did the same for the other pistol and then put them both, uncocked for safety, in my belt, covered by my jacket.

Who knew when I might be glad of them?

As I walked away, I turned back once and saw the horse again. He was standing there, head hanging, sniffing at the dead horse's body. I had no choice – I picked up a clod of earth and threw it at him. Bewildered, he looked up and, casting one long look at me, he turned and trotted away.

Never had I felt more lonely than I did then. I did not look again at the dead horse. I could not. I simply walked away with a heart as heavy as it had ever been.

Chapter Eleven

A
t last, I came back to the hovel where the girl was. I reckoned I had been away for more than three hours. The day was now as light as it would become, this dreary February, hung with grey, veiled in a watery gauze which swung between snow and rain.

Fearful about the state in which I would find her, I called out softly as I approached the door. I hoped she had heard me, that she was not waiting with her pistols ready.

I need not have worried. She was lying where I had left her and her breathing sounded worse than before. The pistols were still on the ground beside her. There was a smell of dankness in the air, and the damp could not have been of benefit to her condition.

Hurrying to where she lay, I touched her shoulder. She jerked awake, and tried to sit up, wincing as she did. Too late, she reached out for a pistol, before realizing who I was.

Grabbing it before she could touch it, I moved them both out of her grasp. “Be calm: it is only Will. I have brought physic for you.” I felt her brow. It was no cooler than before. I offered her water.

I will spare the details of her wound and how she suffered when I bathed it in the apothecary's potion. I could only imagine how it must sear her flesh. I bound it in a clean cloth and tied the knots as tightly as I could.

Picking up the other bottle, I raised her head and helped her take a mouthful from it. I could not tell whether she took the right amount but the time for fretting about such things was over – she needed the remedy and too much would make no difference.

It was time now for the leeches. I would not place them on the wound, even if the apothecary were standing over me.

As I lifted the jar from inside my bag, I knew something had broken. I could feel the crunch of rough-edged pottery. Carefully, I laid it down on the ground. The lid was in several pieces, although the container itself was intact. I had no hope of keeping leeches without a tight-fitting lid, as they could squeeze themselves through even the narrowest cracks, their boneless bodies capable of extraordinary escapes. There was no choice – I must use them now and then dispose of them. Without enthusiasm, I selected the thinnest two of the oozing black creatures, guessing that the thinnest must be the hungriest. They immediately tried to attach themselves to me, sliding wetly up my fingers towards the fleshy parts of my hand. I used my other hand to scrape them back into the container, which I placed on the ground beside the girl. I gently shook her shoulder.

“I am awake,” she said, with difficulty. Then, after a pause, “Why do you not kill me? I would have killed you.”

“Would you? I do not believe so,” I said. “Besides, I could not have left you. I could not have left even an injured animal.” No, indeed, I thought, recalling how I had helped the horse escape its mortal agony.

“Animal!” she retorted, but cutting short her laughter as she winced. “I am ill,” she said after a pause, trying to speak smoothly over her pain. “You should go. Take your money and return to your family. It's clear that you are a gentleman's son.”

“I cannot.”

“Why?'

“I will not say. You did not see fit to trust me sufficiently to let me fetch your horse. How should I trust you with my story?” She smiled at that and her eyes opened. Black they seemed, deep and black like coal, yet like ice in moonlight. I had a strange sense of her strength: although she lay helpless and sick and in pain, nevertheless she seemed stronger than I. It was as though she cared little what happened to her and she would meet her fate with that same slight smile. How I wished I might care so little.

“Who are you? Where are you from?”

Her questions seemed small but were more than I wished to answer and so I did not. Glancing at the leeches crawling up the sides of the container, I spoke firmly. “I must let some blood. For the fever. I have leeches.” Her eyes closed again. “I must place them on your arm. Above your elbow.”

She said nothing. She was lying on her back, her head on the bare floor, where it had slipped from the makeshift pillow I had made for her. Refashioning the pillow, I lifted her head to make her more comfortable. For a moment I wondered at myself, how I was touching a girl, how I had seen the flesh of her ribs, how she lay in front of me helpless as a kitten.

But none of this seemed to matter. She was nothing more than an injured person, and I the only one who could help her. When, in the daylight now, I saw her well-made jacket, its silver buttons, the lace at her throat, her warm rich cloak, her dark breeches, I was intrigued by her story, her life, how she came to be armed with pistols, dressed like a man, how she came to steal my money from me by night. I had heard tales of highwaymen, of their bravery and their skill with horse, pistol and sword. How could a girl be so brave and so strong?

How had she come to choose a robber's life? What evils must lurk in her heart? I had come to felony by accident, through no fault of my own. The victim of circumstance, I had not chosen this way, but she perhaps had? What corruption of mind had brought her to this? Would I come to regret helping her, once she was well again and the evil of her ways became clear? What she did was wrong and unnatural. And very dangerous.

Meanwhile, I would help her, unsure whether I did so because I wanted to or because I had no choice.

Chapter Twelve

I
pulled back her sleeve as high as it would go. Her arm was strong and well-muscled, quite unlike the soft white flesh of my sisters or my mother. I placed the two leeches on the fleshy part between her elbow and her shoulder, where they quickly settled themselves, wriggling into position and latching on to her.

Within moments they had begun to suck rhythmically. I watched them carefully and with some distrust, while also keeping an eye on the others wriggling in their container. Every now and then it was necessary to push one back to the bottom.

The leeches swelled before my eyes as they gorged on her blood. How long should I leave them there? With a standing horse, it became obvious when it weakened, but the girl was already lying down, already weak and pale.

She spoke, her eyes still closed. “I shall tell you where I live, where my horse will be. I shall draw a map. Later.” Were her words slurring? I thought they were. “Water,” she said.

I held the leather water bottle to her lips, then drank from it myself.

It was as I placed the bottle on the ground that we both heard it. A noise. Outside. Hoofs. Many of them. Men's voices. We looked at each other. I slipped my pistols from my belt, glad now that I had taken them.

“Give mine to me,” whispered the girl.

I did not hesitate, not for one moment. We were bound together, this girl and I. If I was wrong, she would shoot me, but what would she gain from that? I reached over and gave her the pistols, first cocking them for her. She gave me a furious look when I did that.

“Perhaps they hunt you?” I whispered, ignoring her look. “The man who fired the shot that injured you, is he not searching still?”

BOOK: The Highwayman's Footsteps
5.1Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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