The Highwayman's Footsteps (6 page)

BOOK: The Highwayman's Footsteps
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“No,” she replied, quietly but with certainty. “That was many miles away. Besides, it was a poacher, not a soldier.”

I was glad of that. The thought of becoming caught up in her crimes was not one I relished.

We waited – I crouching, she lying on her back but leaning slightly to her uninjured side, each with our weapons pointing towards the door, mine held as steady as possible. I could hear her breathing, hard and fast from pain and fever; her bottom lip was caught in her teeth as she struggled to keep her pistols steady. The noise of hoofs changed: no longer was it a rhythmic trotting, but the scuffling and clanking sound of horses stopping, bridles chinking, muskets tapping against metal. Shouted orders. Footsteps, coming closer, the sound now of spurs clacking on stones. Or muskets being primed? Still the footsteps came closer and I could hear men's voices too, laughing and joking.

I felt something sliding along my neck. Sweat, I thought at first. I wondered why sweat was sliding sideways, and then upwards, creeping towards my ear. A leech! I flung one hand up towards it with a yelp. The girl glared at me and I could have cursed at my own foolishness. There was silence outside the door. The footsteps had stopped.

We waited – waited for the door to burst open and the redcoats to rush in with their muskets firing. We could hear some voices further away, and the jumbled clattering of horses shifting position, perhaps still at the road, or perhaps going round to the back to cut off our escape, but whoever was outside the door stayed silent.

A clatter and a shot! A curse. But still the door did not open. The girl looked at me again, the fever giving her eyes a strange light. “Do not fire!” she mouthed. I glared at her – I did not need to be told. No person of good sense wastes a pistol shot, even if his weapon does have two barrels. One shot in each barrel and no time to reload. And how many soldiers outside the door? Too many.

After the shot and the curse, there was only silence. I strained every sense, tensed every muscle, ready to fire my four shots at whoever came through that door. Wait! Now I could hear something. Rustling. Followed by a hiss. And then I realized what it was. And so did the girl. She smiled. I blushed. The stream of piss went on for many moments as we waited there, our pistols still pointing in front of us.

At last, the men finished and soon we heard their footsteps moving away again. Within a minute the horses were all trotting into the distance.

All the girl's strength was spent and I had to remove the pistols from her hand and uncock them for her. I laid them on the ground nearby. She rested her head on the makeshift pillow and closed her eyes again.

The leeches were still feeding on her arm, now engorged and five or six times bigger than before. Just when I was wondering when to remove them, one fell from her arm, having drunk its fill. Within a few more moments, the other one too had fallen. I picked them up, replaced them in the jar with the others and tied it up as well as I could with a cloth. I would dispose of them outside. I did not want to share my home with such creatures and decided henceforth to use only the other remedies the apothecary had given me. And to put my faith in God, if God chose to hear me.

Telling the girl I would be back soon, I left the hovel, taking the leeches and a pistol, and hefted the door shut behind me.

Chapter Thirteen

O
utside, snow was beginning to fall and the sky was like new steel. I looked around at my new home. It was a bothy – a small hovel standing alone, with a lean-to byre against one side. A pile of split, mildewed logs lay in the lee of the building. Nearby was a pump. I lifted the handle and lowered it. Its rusty squeak was loud in the surrounding silence, but there was no one to hear and I pumped the handle a few times. The water that came from the spout was pure and fresh, for which I was more than thankful. An ancient bucket sat beneath the pump, with black ice at the bottom. I rinsed it out before filling it with fresh water and washing my face in it, gasping at the cold.

We had water, firewood and enough food for a few days. No other cottages were near, though on a distant, dark hill I could just make out another squat dwelling. The village where I had had my narrow escape was out of sight. If we stayed inside and watched for passing soldiers, we were as safe as we could be.

Until now, I had not liked the harsh landscape of these moors, the vast rolling swathes of rock and heather and dead gorse, the sudden precipices, holes and deep-cut streams. Everything was coarse and cold, nothing soft, nothing welcoming. The moors stared, uncaring, unknowable. They had frightened me when I heard tell of them as a child: the nursery stories of ghosts and wolves and treacherous marshes and wandering madmen and highway robbery had woven their dark threads through my mind until the moors were a place I had hoped never to pass through. Now, though still afraid of their dangers, I was strangely glad of their loneliness and their emptiness.

I walked a distance from the building and, after removing the cloth, cast the leeches and their jar into a ditch. Returning, I picked up an armful of firewood and pushed open the door, calling out as I did so.

The girl lay where I had left her. There seemed no improvement in her condition, as far as I could say. She was shaking, with cold or ague I did not know. I removed my jacket and laid it on top of her, and spread my cloak upon her too. She stirred slightly but neither opened her eyes nor spoke.

We needed a fire. There was a risk, I knew, that someone might see the smoke. But the snow was falling outside and the girl needed warmth.

Collecting tiny dry sticks and pieces of straw from the corners of the room, I began to build the fire. I had seen a flint and steel in her bag and I did not ask her permission but fetched them now. I was not accustomed to making fire like this – fire had always been available at home, and servants to bring it to me. It took me many strikes before the burning sparks lit the straw. When the first small flames begin to crackle and lick and spit, I smiled.

As the morning passed, the girl mostly slept while I busied myself to make our shelter better protected from the weather. I constructed a means of placing boards across the two small windows, though I left them open now to allow the light in. I filled our water bottles and wrapped our food so that no vermin might reach it. I checked the priming of our pistols and put the powder and shot where I could grasp them easily if I had need of them.

From amongst the bare trees behind the building, I searched out a fallen branch and used my knife to strip the small twigs from it. With only a small adjustment to its width, it fitted into the slots behind the door, making a sturdy barrier if we should have an unwelcome visitor.

Once I woke the girl to give her physic but I did not change her dressing, preferring to leave it a while longer.

In all, I was pleased with my preparations. All that could be done, I had done, and the girl and I would be comfortable here until she was well enough. I had not forgotten about her horse and how I had promised to fetch it. But I did not choose to remind her. Secretly, I did not want to go. It was safer here, and warmer, and I had company. Not, I grant you, that a half-conscious girl was much company, but any company is better than none.

But nor had she forgotten her horse. She woke with a start at around midday, trying to sit up, but quite unable to do so. “I must go!” she gasped. “My horse! I have to fetch him. He needs me.” I helped her to sit and she passed a hand over her forehead, pressing her temples between finger and thumb, closing her eyes for some few moments.

“I said I would go, and I shall,” I said, with more confidence than I felt inside.

“No, I must go. Help me up. Hurry!” she snapped.

Well, we would soon discover how strong she was, I thought to myself. I helped her up, supporting most of her weight, and she swayed against me.

Her teeth were clenched as she slowly straightened. “There!” she said. I let go and she clutched me tight.

“Very well,” I said. “Are you ready? You will need to carry your bag.”

Her knees crumpled and she slowly sank to the ground, breathing heavily. “It is better,” she insisted. “I will be as good as new. Soon.”

“Two or three days. If you do not first worsen,” I added for good measure.

She did not reply and I took her silence for agreement.

“Help me outside,” she said. “Please.”

“No!” I was exasperated by her stubbornness. “You cannot move from here. You draw a map and I will fetch your horse. I ride well. And if you still do not know whether you can trust me, remember – I could have killed you, or left you, at any time since yesterday.”

“No, you misunderstand,” she said, that slight smile again as she looked directly at my eyes. “I need to go outside.”

“I … oh! Of course!” I realized what she wanted and blushed hotly as I did so. A lady would never … but then a lady would not find herself in such a position. I moved over to the door and hoisted it open. A gust of snow blew in and we both shrank from its chill. I helped her to her feet again and we made slow, painful progress towards the entrance. I could only admire her fortitude. She made no sound, except the slow, strained noise of her breathing. She seemed to become stronger as she moved and although she was still hunched over, with one hand holding her side, by the time we were in the open air she was walking by herself, though slowly. She turned to look at me, still smiling, though with a white face. “Thank you, kind sir,” she mocked. “I can manage on my own now.” And, blushing again, I went back into our refuge and busied myself noisily doing nothing in particular.

When she returned, ashen-faced and with a dusting of snow on her hair, I helped her settle down again onto the ground and I shut the door, placing my heavy branch across it. A few more logs on the fire made it burn more warmly, though I did not wish to make too much smoke.

“Clear a space on the floor,” she ordered. “So I can draw a map.” And she did, using a stick in the dirt. The journey would take perhaps three or four hours, she said. If I did not get lost, or if I did not give up, she added with a contemptuous tilt of her mouth. I wished to tell her then how I had risked death for her that morning, how a horse had died as the price of curing her, the price of her returning strength and sharp tongue. I wished to tell her that, for a coward, I had faced danger more bravely than I had expected.

But I held my tongue. After all, perhaps she would say I had not been so very brave and perhaps she would be right – all I had done was to run away. The horse – well, how brave was it to shoot a horse which would die anyway? No, I had proved nothing except that I did not give up easily.

“I will not get lost. And I will not give up,” I said simply, looking straight back at her. She looked down to her map and she could not know how afraid I felt inside.

I wanted to propose to set off in the morning at first light. But I did not say it – I knew that the horse, if it was not sheltered, might not survive the night if the cold grew too intense. A native pony, thick-haired, stocky and long-maned, could survive the worst the moors could muster, but her thoroughbred, as I guessed it must be, might not. And even though it was not my horse, I could not take that risk either.

When she was sure that I had understood the map, and when I had packed what I needed in my bag – food, water, and my knife – I slid my two pistols into my belt, and tied the shot bag and powder horn to it. I saw her settled as comfortably as was possible, leaning against a wall, everything she needed within easy reach. I placed two more logs on the fire, setting three more beside it, and made ready to leave.

“What is your name?” she asked suddenly. In her fever, she had forgotten that I had already told her.

As I opened my mouth to answer, something prevented me from saying my full name. I had been accustomed to know myself as “William de Lacey, younger son of Sir George de Lacey, High Sheriff and Member for Parliament,” but now I said only, “Will. Will.” I said it twice to convince myself. I liked the name Will; I liked its simplicity. It was better than William, and better by far than William de Lacey. I did not change my name in order to deceive her. I did it for myself, choosing to be free of William de Lacey, to be plain Will, with no burdens, no expectations.

But I admit, too, that it suited me that she did not know more.

“What is yours?” I asked her.

“Bess,” she said.

Will and Bess. Bess and Will. I was glad that she would know me as Will. I knew nothing about her and she would know nothing about me until such time as I was ready.

Two things only I remember as I went through the door: her black eyes looking at me, deep as a well; and her voice, weakened again by her fever, saying, “I'll look for you by moonlight.”

What did she mean? Was it her confused mind, the fever talking? Perhaps that was not what she said. Perhaps her real words had floated away onto the whistling of the wind outside. Who knows?

I did not have time to wonder. I plunged into the thinly swirling snow, pulling my hat down tightly and gathering my cloak around my body. I tried not to think how much I would rather be sheltered and safe in that ruin with her, than out here, alone.

As fast as I could, I marched down the road and away from the village. I knew I must walk some six or seven miles along this road, perhaps for an hour and a half if I kept up a steady speed. Indeed, when I had been walking for what I reckoned must be such a length of time, and with a twilight gloom beginning to fall, I came to a crossroads, with just the signpost Bess had described. I took the left turning and continued up the lane, towards unfamiliar hills.

In the winter afternoon, the ghostly silence of the moors wrapped me up and drew me into their dangers and mysteries. I shivered and hunched my cloak more tightly around me.

Would I find Bess's home, and her horse? Or would a passer-by find me some days later, a stiff corpse, and wonder who I might be?

BOOK: The Highwayman's Footsteps
4.34Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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