The Highwayman's Footsteps (8 page)

BOOK: The Highwayman's Footsteps
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He could not be Bess's horse. Bess's horse would still be saddled and bridled from when she had fallen, and this horse was not. He simply had a rope halter with which to guide or tether him.

So whose was he? And where was his owner? I was still in danger, I knew, but I needed shelter. If I did not take the shelter offered here, I would be a frozen corpse by morning.

Through instinct, I did as I would have done with any horse: I ran my hand down his legs to check for soundness. It comforted me as much as it might the horse. It was while doing this that I could just make out the white coronets around both front feet. Could he be Bess's horse after all? She had told me of his markings, so that I would know him if I found him wandering. She also told me of a ridged scar on his near fore knee. I ran my hand around this knee – and there it was. He must be Bess's horse!

So, where were his saddle and bridle? Did Bess ride without tack? Was she so skilled? I put the thought aside: the important thing was that I had found Bess's horse, and, I assumed, her home.

How had I had such good fortune? How had I lost my way so severely and then found my destination in so unlikely a fashion? It was as though the mysterious horse and its rider had led me there. What a foolish thought! How could the rider have known where I wanted to go? It must, after all, have been luck.

Already I was doubting my memory. Perhaps I had
seen a horse and rider. Perhaps the light had been in my imagination, the thoughts of a wishful mind. Surely I had found my way here by chance alone? And why not? I had been dogged by misfortune thus far – surely my luck must change at some time and perhaps that time was now.

The horse must be hungry – he could not have been fed since Bess fell from him perhaps three days ago. He might have found some scraggy winter grass before the snow fell, but I knew he should be hungry now. As I stumbled past him, I kicked over a bucket and heard the water splash across the ground. The horse was lucky there had been any left – no doubt the water trough outside would be frozen.

I was in sore need of dry clothes, and a fire, and shelter for the night, but the horse must come first. I had been taught that, but I felt it in my heart too.

I searched around, my eyes seeking shapes in the darkness. It was not long before I found a large rack with stored hay, and a box with meal that was only slightly damp. A scuttling in the corner spoke of mice, or rats, but they could do me no harm.

Having given the horse his feed, I scraped the snow from his trough outside and broke the ice, before carrying a fresh bucket of water to him. He drank only a little and ate nothing. It crossed my mind fleetingly to wonder why. He should be hungry. But I did not stop to think for longer than a moment.

Shivering again, suddenly noticing how deeply the chill had settled into my bones, and how wet my clothes were, I made my way over to the small dwelling, my feet crunching in the thin snow. There were no lights. It did not occur to me to consider that there might be someone there. This was Bess's home and Bess lived alone. How might anyone be there?

I should have considered.

I should have had my pistol in front of me. Or my knife. I should have been prepared.

I knew this the moment I opened the door and stepped over the threshold. But by that time, it was too late.

Chapter Seventeen

or the second time in less than the space of two days, a gun was pointing towards me. This time, however, it was a full-size musket. Worse, a deadly bayonet was attached. True, it wavered slightly, but a wavering musket is as deadly as a steady one at such close quarters.

I could not, at first, see the shadowed man who held it. I looked only at the barrel and the steel blade. My mouth felt dry and my knees began to quiver like petals in the wind. I told myself it was the bitter cold and wet, but I knew it was not. I forced my knees to be steady.

A dim lantern on a table sent an eerie light around the dwelling. The thick curtain draped over the window had prevented me seeing this from outside. How could I have been so heedless? I cursed my lack of caution.

I backed away. “Stay! Put your hands in front of you!” cried a voice, surprisingly young and light. Surely this was not another girl? Surely I was not destined to have my life twice threatened by a girl? But as soon as I looked at him fully, I saw the dirty red of a soldier's coat, the white of his breeches. I saw, too, his small size, his thin legs, and as my eyes travelled slowly upwards, I realized that this was no more than a boy. Younger, probably, than myself.

Nevertheless, if he was dressed in His Majesty's uniform, he was deadly and well-trained. Yet, I reasoned at the same time, my thoughts working fast, if he was in His Majesty's uniform, what was he doing here? Was he a deserter?

If a deserter, then he was on the wrong side of the law. As was I. Yet if he was a deserter he was the more dangerous – because he knew that if he was caught he would be killed, shot without reaching the gallows. So, he had little to lose, and would not spare my life for small reason.

How should I talk to him? Or should I rush him and hope to cross that small space before he fired? But no, the bayonet would halt me and I could not assume I was stronger than he.

Another thought brought a new concern. Were the soldiers pursuing him? If they found him here, it would mean discovery, and perhaps death for Bess. And for me.

“I heard the soldiers,” I lied. “They are coming this way. They will find you here. If you shoot me, they will hear. If you leave now, you have a chance. You could escape, if you make haste.”

His face was clear to me now. I have never seen a face hold such pale terror. His eyes were wide and his lips open, the jaw rigid. He looked like a small boy waking from a terrifying dream; but this was no dream and he knew it.

I took a step towards him.

“No!” he almost whispered. “No! Please!”

A soldier does not say please before he shoots, but I did not wish to frighten him further. I stopped, holding out my hands, palms facing upwards to show that I held nothing. “I will not harm you,” I said. “Only let me make a fire and change my clothes. You can leave and I will say nothing.”

“Why wouldst thou say nothing? Why wouldst thou not give me away? They would reward thee.” His voice sounded thin, pitiful, close to the edge of madness.

I gambled. “I would not risk it,” I said. “I am running from the soldiers too.” It was the only way I could convince him that it was safe for him to leave. I knew it to be a risk but I could think of nothing else.

He kept the musket pointing towards me as he edged towards the door. I turned slowly, keeping him in my sight, holding my hands steady in front of me. If he would simply go, that was all I wished for. Exhaustion began to take over, as I waited for him to leave, thinking of the fire I would soon make, the dry bed I would soon sleep in. For a moment I felt dizzy, just thinking about resting my aching limbs.

He made his way to the open door and through it, out into the veil of snow. The blizzard had eased, and only a few flakes fell now. The yard was almost silent as he hurried away.

I turned into the room, breathing hard, and closed the door firmly behind me. I adjusted the lantern to burn more brightly. Holding it up, I looked around. The room was surprisingly well furnished, with two large chairs, a solid table, and several well-made chests. An open door to the right revealed a deep box-bed with many blankets piled on it. Ahead, to the right of the cold fireplace, a narrow staircase led upwards. On the table in front of me, a tankard and plate held the remains of…

No! I heard the sounds outside, moments before I understood what they were. How could I have been so foolish? I crashed the lantern onto the table, flung open the door and ran outside.

The lantern sent its orange glow pooling across the snowy yard.

The boy was there, one hand on the horse's saddle, the other steadying a stirrup as he placed his foot in it. I hurled myself towards him, yelling, “No!” and grasped him from behind. His musket was slung over his shoulder and he had no time to take it in his hands before I had pulled him away from the horse. The animal reared in fright and I grabbed the reins as I kicked out at the boy, catching him on his shin with a loud crack. Uttering a cry of fury or fear or pain, he fell, grabbing my foot as he did so, his musket falling in the snow. With a surprising strength, he pulled my foot towards him and I too fell to the ground, letting go of the horse's reins.

The boy leapt onto my chest and sat there heavily, his left hand pushing my forehead down, the right hand reaching for his belt to draw his pistol. My arms were pinioned by his legs but with the mighty effort of someone in mortal danger, I wrenched one arm free. I gripped his wrist as hard as I could, trying to hurt him, trying to force him to do anything other than get that pistol. I could hardly breathe and already black spots of dizziness swam across my vision. Fury, terror, anger, desperation, all of these rose up inside me. This boy would not overcome me! He could not!

Chapter Eighteen

t was the sound of Bess's horse galloping away in fright that gave me the strength I needed. With my free arm, I grasped the hand which held my head, dragged the wrist towards me and sank my teeth into the flesh below his thumb. The boy screamed and pulled both hands away, the half-dislodged pistol falling from his belt. Taking advantage of his pain, I whipped around, twisting my body underneath his, onto my side and then onto my front, and thrust myself upwards onto all fours, hurling him violently backwards. His head hit the stony earth where the snow had been swept away by our fight and for a moment he lay stunned.

Only for a moment. With a snarl of fury, almost like a wild animal, he scrambled to his feet. Seeing that he was about to attack me again, I snatched the pistol from where it lay, twisting my body round again, so that although I lay on my back, I had the pistol firmly in my hands. Pointing directly at him.

By then, I had faced death often enough. It would not overcome me now and I knew that if I had to fire a shot then I would do so without hesitation. I would kill him if I wished. It was a good feeling. A feeling of power.

I wanted him to come at me. With a sudden, horrible urge, I wished him to come at me and then I would shoot him. He had tried to kill me! He would have stolen Bess's horse. He was a deserter from His Majesty's army. I would do my country a service if I shot him, would I not? I was exhausted, frightened, angry, and I held a gun in my hand.

I cocked it with my thumb. I was ready. Come at me! I challenge you! The words were silent in my head, but I willed them to reach him. Come on! Deserter! Coward!

But he stood there. He did not move at all. I could see his wide eyes staring, frightened. And exhausted, as I was myself. How could I shoot him?

But if I did not, I would not be safe. Bess would not be safe. And she would lose the horse, which it was my duty to save.

I tensed my finger on the trigger. It softened and prepared to spring beneath my touch. Still he stood there. His chest rose and fell, his breath smoky in the cold dark air.

I did not know if he had another pistol in his belt. I could see nothing beneath his red coat but that meant little. If he so much as moved one hand a fraction towards his belt – if he perchance seemed as though he were going to – then I would shoot him. I would not wait to be sure.

Yes! A movement! A faint flicker. Perhaps I had imagined it. But whether I had or not, my own finger had moved.

I fired. Straight at him. Only a few feet away, at point-blank range. He did not stand a chance. I could not miss him. The flash from my gun spread sideways and the hollow crack shattered the air.

He crumpled to the ground.

Chapter Ninteen

hat had I done? My first thought was to wish I had not fired the gun. He had not been reaching for his pistol – suddenly I knew that. It was merely an excuse I had sought. What a coward I was! The gun had made me feel brave. Brave? I had been facing an unarmed boy who had only been fighting me because I was trying to stop his terrified escape.

Who had been the more frightened? He or I? Was I any better than he? Would
have been brave enough to stay in the army? He must have been brave to run from the soldiers, knowing that capture meant shame and certain death. I had not even dared to join them.

Scrambling to my feet, I went to him where he crouched on the ground, his head hanging down, limply. I flung the pistol aside. With its single barrel, it was useless now. When I touched his shoulder, he looked up. Tears were pouring down his face. I saw this with distaste.

But as he raised his head, I saw that there was no blood on him. Had I missed? I could not have done at such short range. The bullet must not have fired. It was then that I remembered: there had been a sideways flash from the pan – a noise and a flash but no effect, no deadly bullet fired, no harm done. It was a common happening, I knew. In those conditions, and with a pistol loaded by an inexperienced boy in a blind panic, it was not surprising. His own lack of competence had saved his life. I could have made the same error myself.

I held out my hand to help him to his feet but he took it in both his hands and shook it, up and down and up and down, as if he would never stop. My hand felt enormous inside his smaller ones. He looked as though he would fling his arms round me in gratitude. Disliking his tears and because he little knew how much I had wanted him dead – and for no honourable reason – I stepped away from him.

“We must find the horse,” I said, to cover my confusion.

The horse could be a mile away by now, though it was much more likely that he had not gone far from his own shelter.

“I am sorry.” His voice was shaking and weak.

“No matter,” I said, hurriedly. For I was the more sorry. And ashamed again of my cowardice. “Fetch the lantern,” I ordered. And a few moments later the boy came back with the lantern, which he handed to me. I understood then that he must think this was my home. It would do no harm for him to continue thinking so. My home, my horse, my hospitality that he had abused. I knew then, too, that it was he who had unsaddled Bess's horse and fed him.

BOOK: The Highwayman's Footsteps
7.86Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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