The heavy wooden coach lumbered over the rutted and pocked path known as Bumbletoad Way. Bumbletoad Way served as the road between London and Castleway to the south. Along the way it wound through the lea and forest of Castleway Heath.
The driver clucked to the horses and slapped the reins on their wide backs to urge them into a trot. He did not like this section of the trip because of the dangers many travelers had encountered in Castleway Heath. His aim was to speed their journey through the thick trees that they might avoid meeting that scourge of the roadways, the highwayman.
His good intentions were short-lived. When one coach wheel rolled into a deep hole, severely jostling the occupants, and then lurched fearfully as the team pulled the wheel back onto the road surface, the owner of the coach, Lord Sutton, shouted at the coachman to slow their pace lest they all be killed.
The coachman did as ordered, but kept a wary eye on both sides of the rough dirt path. Though he was loyal to his employer, his greater loyalty lay with his own wellbeing and that of his family. He had heard the tales of coachmen who refused to stop or worse, attempted to drive their team directly at the robber. All had been shot or run through with a saber, and most had died of those injuries.
The coachman had a wife and two children in London. Were he to resist in some way, it was likely he would be killed or severely injured and the highwayman would then still rob the passengers of whatever coin and jewelry they carried.
Such was the wealth of Lord Sutton, a loss such as this would cause him little pain. His life and the life of his family would continue to be one of ease and splendor. He would, though, begrudge even a smaller amount as compensation to the coachman’s family should he be killed. They would be left to fend as they could.
The coachman had decided that, were a highwayman to suddenly ride into the road to stop the coach, he would immediately comply. His employer and family would be relieved of their valuables, but he would remain healthy and strong. Doing so could possibly end his employment, but he would remain well and able to seek another employer and continue to support his family.
In the coachman’s concentration upon the near, he failed to notice the far. On a hill overlooking the road, a figure dressed all in black and wearing a black mask sat astride a black stallion of magnificent proportions. The figure stroked the arched neck of the stallion.
“Alcazar, my friend, fortune smiles upon us at this very moment. ‘Tis the coach of none other than Lord Sutton. Likely he is traveling to visit his manor south of Castleway, and if so, will be accompanied by his wife and two young children. Lord Sutton will surely have ample coin upon his person, and Lady Sutton is known for her love of fine jewelry. A gentleman and his lady should not be burdened by such a great weight. Pray, let us pay a visit and relieve them of that burden.”
So saying, the figure urged the stallion to a lope, and descended into the trees at a point where Bumbletoad Way rounded a huge oak.
The coachman lost sight of the road when it turned to the right to avoid the large tree which blocked a straighter path, and only heard the snort of a horse some way ahead. A chill ran down the coachman’s back, though he did not yet halt the team. If fortune was with him, it would only be another traveler, perhaps another wealthy man going to London in his carriage. That chill turned into the icy feeling of fear when the coach rounded the bend. There, standing in the center of the road was a black horse and upon that horse sat the highwayman he had feared to meet. The highwayman lifted two pistols, pointed them at the coachman, and ordered, “Stop your coach and dismount”.
The coachman halted the team and after looping the reins over the brake lever, rose from his seat and then climbed down. As his right foot touched the ground, the coach door opened and a man descended down the single step. Upon spying the figure in black, the man cursed.
“Who is this damnable scobberlotcher who dares to stop my coach?”
The lips beneath the black mask smiled.
“Tis no scobberlotcher who meets you today, Lord Sutton. I am very employed in the relief of travelers from the weight of their coin and finery. “Tis a quite difficult and trying employment this, perhaps an even more difficult task than sitting upon one’s arse and counting coin all day. It undoubtedly requires a more significant effort as evidenced by that tallow ketch that pushes your trousers down under the bulge. Alas, I have not the same with which to demonstrate my riches for I have nought save what travelers so graciously donate to ease my plight.”
Lord Sutton smiled a cruel smile.
“By God, you are but a boy. I will not be robbed by a mere rantallion. Go back to your mother’s teats, boy, until your beardsplitter grows longer than your sack.”
The smile behind the mask became a firm line.
“Do not underestimate me, Lord Sutton, lest a ball from my pistol pierce your breast. You may believe my young age to diminish my ability, but be assured, you shall regret such an error. It shall be your money, or it shall be your life. Remove your purse and throw it to the ground unless you desire Lady Sutton to dress in black for her remaining days in this world.”
Lord Sutton blustered and cursed, “You son of a whore. I’ll have you hunted down like the vermin you are and see you hang from the gallows at Sutton Common”, but he removed the leather pouch on his belt and dropped it at his feet.
The face behind the mask then chuckled.
“Well and good, Lord Sutton. I would now ask your fair lady to step from the coach. I would see if she might perhaps have a bauble or two to add to your purse.”
Lady Sutton opened the coach door and after gathering her skirts and underskirts, stepped carefully on the single step between the coach and the ground. Lord Sutton offered his hand, she took it, and then alit with somewhat of a jar. She straightened her skirts, then looked in fear at the highwayman.
“Sir, I beg you to allow me to keep my necklace and the rings upon my fingers. The necklace belonged to my late mother, and the rings were especial gifts from my father, may he rest in peace.”
The highwayman laughed.
“Lady Sutton, you know perfectly well your mother is far from sleeping in an eternal bed. She resides in her house in London with your father, who is also still very much alive, though he has an unusual condition caused by his love of gin. He spends his afternoons and evenings tipping the cup until he has rendered himself into a stupor and falls to the floor in his library and his manservant is obliged to assist him to his bedchamber. He wakes only when the pain in his head requires another cup or two to relieve the ache.
“As a result, his rooster no longer crows and your poor mother was forced to hire herself a manservant. He is a young man who is said to be very adept at the game of rumpy-dumpy, and I am told your mother rarely wears any other expression than a broad smile.
“It could be that your baubles were given to you by your parents, but I rather suspect them to have been a gift from your husband in exchange for his wife allowing him the pleasure of being entertained by one of your housekeepers, a Miss Penny Jones, I believe is her name.
“In any event, I would still have them as a memory of our meeting today. Now, remove them and place them in your husband’s purse, lest I give your husband a good and proper excuse to take a new, younger wife. Perhaps he would not need the attentions of your housekeeper then.”
Lady Sutton trembled as she removed her necklace and rings, and then put them in Lord Sutton’s leather purse.
“Ah, you show excellent judgement, Lady Sutton. Now, bid one of your children to bring me that purse.”
“Oh please, no. Do not harm my children”, cried Lady Sutton.
The highwayman smiled.
“Lady Sutton, I am a knight of the roadway, not some evil demon who delights in causing grief to children. Your children will not be harmed, though if you do not do as I wish, I might see fit to render Lord Sutton incapable of siring another. Perhaps your mother’s manservant would take his place, though I fear your mother keeps him in such a state of fatigue you would find him unable to prick the pear, as it were. Now, be quick about it.”
After the small boy had carried the purse to the highwayman, the highwayman bade them good day, wheeled the stallion, and galloped off through the trees.
Lord Sutton was beside himself with anger, and berated the coachman for yielding to the highwayman’s demand.
“Have you not the least trace of manhood left in you? You should have run the bastard down with your team and trampled his arse into the dust.”
The coachman lifted his head.
“Lord Sutton, I sought only to protect you and your family. Only last week, another gentleman was pierced through the heart by a highwayman’s ball because his coachman attempted such. The coachman whipped his team and charged at the lone rider, but the rider only rode to the side and then fired his pistol into the coach. The gentleman died on the spot, and he and his wife were still robbed of all they carried. Surely, you would not wish I had caused you and your family the same fate.”
Lord Sutton shook his head.
“I too heard this tale, though I did not believe it up until now. Up on your perch, coachman, and continue our journey. What I have lost can be replaced, though it irks me greatly that such a thing has become common.”
Lady Sutton was disturbed by losing her necklace and rings, but more upset by how much the highwayman appeared to know about them and her family.
“How would such an uncouth person know our names and be privy to such information? Few save you and I know of Father’s affliction and Mother’s arrangement with her manservant, and those who are would never breathe a word of it. That I allow you to see Penny is known only to you, I, my mother, and Penny.”
Lord Sutton shook his head.
“I know not how the rascal obtained the information about your mother and father. I would suppose one of the servants has witnessed Penny coming to my library and as you know, servants’ tongues wag at the slightest thing. I will speak to Penny, though I do not see how the rogue could possibly know any of our servants. It is enough that he did, and for that and his crime today, he shall pay the dearest price.”
The coach trundled along for another two miles. The coachman congratulated himself on avoiding a sudden demise, and smiled at the confidence of the highwayman. He was indeed just a boy, for while his voice had not the high pitch of a child it had not yet matured to the lower tones of a man. A boy with such pluck would no doubt become a strong and powerful man were it not his ultimate fate to be that of swinging from the beam of a gallows. Lord Sutton would see to that.
The coach was rounding another bend and nearing the end of Greenway Heath when the coachman was shaken from his thoughts by another masked and mounted highwayman in the middle of the roadway.
The highway man shouted, “Stand and deliver”, then aimed his pistol at the coachman.
The coachman immediately halted his team, then held up his hands.
“You’ll get naught from this coach, you bastard, for you are the second of the day, and the first relieved us of all we possessed.”
The highwayman smiled.
“An interesting tale, but a tale which I find difficult to believe. You, in the coach, take to the ground lest I send in a ball to urge you on.”
When Lord and Lady Sutton stood beside the coach, the highwayman threw a leather sack at their feet and bade them place their valuables inside. Lord Sutton laughed.
“We have nothing left to place in your sack, for as my coachman said, another of your ilk has already taken his pleasure with us in that respect. Be gone with you and good riddance.”
The highwayman again smiled.
“I know of no other save myself who collects tolls on this road. You must therefore be lying. Sir, I would have you remove your coat and blouse and drop your trousers to reveal the secreting place of your purse. I would have your lady remove her skirts and dress as well. Women are known to conceal their valuables in their undergarments, and I shall take great delight in seeing where she has hidden hers. Do as I say, or this place shall drink of your lifeblood.”
Lord Sutton cursed under his breath. Were it not sufficient anguish to be accosted once and then again on the same journey, now the highwayman had ordered them to disrobe in full view of the coachman and their children.
“Sir, if we must disrobe, spare our children the shock of seeing my wife and I in that state. They are mere babes of six and four, and such a sight will mar them for life. I would have the coachman also turn away as well. ‘Tis not proper that a servant, save a personal manservant or womanservant, should see his employer in a state of undress.”
The highwayman chuckled.
“I shall not ask your children to view your fat belly and the stick and stones that dangle between your legs, nor shall I ask them to watch as your lady’s bubbies bounce when she bares her love nest. Your children shall remain in the coach.
As for the coachman, what say you, coachman? Would you see your employer’s cock and tiddles, or would his lady’s bubbies and furry cunt capture your interest more?”
The coachman shook his head.
“Nay, Sir. I have no interest in either.”
“Then turn your head lest the sight shock you. Now, let us proceed with the undressing. I must be on my way shortly.”
As the highwayman rode over the lea and then into the trees, he was both confused and angry. The man and woman in the coach had disrobed and in doing so had proven their prior denial of any valuables. It was not possible anyone traveling in such a fine coach would have nothing of value, therefore, their tale of being robbed by another must be true.
Who was this interloper into the realm from which he earned his income? He would know this intruder’s name and know it quickly, for such could not continue. As the second son of Lord Dunwoody of Strathmore, he had received no inheritance upon the Lord’s death. His brother, Winston, believed the stipend he gave to Harrison to be sufficient given that Harrison lived at the manor and took his meals with Winston’s family. The stipend did furnish Harrison’s daily needs, but left nothing for the future.
Harrison did not enjoy his life of ease without purpose, and longed to leave the manor for a residence of his own, but the small amount of the stipend would not allow him to do so. Harrison was not seeking a grand house in London as well as a manor in the country. He had never been one to enjoy the lavish dinners and parties that his father and now Winston hosted almost monthly. He had no desire to join the others who basked in their wealth and position in society.
Harrison had always been a lover of the fields and forest, and had often dreamed of a simpler life, a life outside the pompous and posh into which he was born. He wished a life filled with challenge but rewards for meeting those challenges, a life with a wife and children, a life in which he was master to none save himself and beholden only to his family and friends.
While Winston had eagerly absorbed the teachings of the volumes in their father’s library, Harrison had just as eagerly absorbed the knowledge of the woodcutters, huntsmen, and gamekeeper who lived on the estate. Winston spent his day in the management of the family business in London and in the management of the estate. Harrison spent his days hunting, fishing, or just taking a ride through the leas and forest. He had turned to the occupation of highwayman in order to accumulate sufficient wealth to pursue his dream of striking out on his own. Now, an upstart was robbing him of the ability to do so.
Harrison knew that just as was his practice, another highwayman would likely confine his raids of the roadway to a small area. This was because it would not do to be observed riding into his residence dressed all in black and with a purse of coin or a sack of gold and silver jewelry. A highwayman required a cache in which to secret the means and the results of his efforts. The coinage would remain there to be spent as needed. The jewelry would await a journey to London and the merchants there who paid well and asked no questions.
Such a hiding place would have to be somewhat near the point of the raid, for though a man on horseback could travel across country much faster than a coach or a man on foot, a horse could run only for a limited distance before requiring a rest.
Lord Sutton’s coachman had identified the location of the prior robbery. Harrison would watch that place over the coming days and upon seeing the interloper, follow him to his cache and then take his loot and drive him from that area of the country.
That evening, as was his custom, Harrison rode a bay mare named Bess the four miles from the manor to the small inn with the name of “Boar’s Head Inn”. His excuse was the fine ale brewed by the innkeeper. His reason was to determine if any coaches or carriages would be traveling through Greenway Heath on the morrow.
The wealthy travelers, the travelers who would yield much in return for the effort of separating them from some of their riches, would send a servant ahead that the innkeeper might be prepared for their arrival. The wealthy had their preferences, be it a chicken stew instead of the usual pease porridge or the availability of a bed for the comfort of a lady. The servant would relay these requests to the innkeeper and then proceed to the next stopping point, be that an inn in Castleway or the ultimate destination, the manor or country house of the man and his family. Some friendly conversation with the innkeeper would usually reveal that information to Harrison.
It was this information that allowed Harrison to surprise an unsuspecting coach or carriage and make off with their valuables. It was also this information that would allow Harrison to observe and then follow the rogue highwayman. To his chagrin, he learned that no servants had called at the inn that day.
Only on his third evening visit to the Boar’s Head Inn did he learn of a coach traveling Bumbletoad Way the next day. A manservant had informed the innkeeper that Lord Kent and his new wife would be traveling the road and would stop at the inn for noon victuals. The innkeeper was to prepare a fine stew of lamb with potatoes and carrots and have it bubbling in the pot by noon. The Lady Kent would also require a room with a basin of water and cloths that she might refresh herself.
The following afternoon Harrison rode the same mare to what appeared to be a decrepit stone farmhouse at the edge of the manor grounds nearest Bumbletoad Way. Half an hour later, he was dressed in black, sitting on his hill and holding the reins of Zandar, the tall and fast bay gelding he used in his adventures on the roadway. Zandar had been bred for racing, and had proven himself to be surefooted and fast. The horse had cost Harrison a pretty penny, but he needed such a horse to make his exit from the site of his escapades, and would also need such a horse to follow the other highwayman.
From just after noon until the sun began to stretch the shadows of the trees upon the ground, Harrison watched the area before seeing a coach enter an opening in the trees about a mile away. It rumbled and rocked over the road at a cautious pace and would arrive at the other highwayman’s apparent favorite spot in less than an hour.
Harrison scanned the surrounding area for another few minutes before seeing a figure dressed in black and mounted upon a black horse as large and tall as Zandar. The horseman rode to the top of a low hill, then looked to another opening in the trees that lined Bumbletoad Way.
Upon the coach entering this gap in the leafy canopy, the horseman rode down the hill and to a point where Bumbletoad Way made an abrupt turn to the south to avoid a particularly large oak tree. Harrison smiled as the rider entered the trees. The highwayman was about to spring his trap, and shortly, Harrison would spring his.
Harrison listened carefully for any sound. At his distance from the site of the ambush Harrison heard only a few muffled shouts, but knew the highwayman was in the process of robbing the coach passengers. Several minutes later, his assumption was proven valid. The highwayman galloped his black horse from the trees and onto the lea. Harrison swung into Zandar’s saddle and urged the big horse down the hill and into the trees.
Harrison lost sight of the other rider until he likewise entered the lea. He spied the galloping horse just before the rider made a turn back into the forest. Marking the spot by a the canopy of a large yew, Harrison galloped over the lea and upon arriving at that same large tree, looked for the trail left by the highwayman.
Most people would not have noticed the slender branch snapped from a low-growing maple, but as a result of his many conversations with the huntsmen, Harrison did. He followed the trail of a snapped branch here and there and the darker colour of leaves on the ground disturbed by the hooves of the highwayman’s horse. So intent was he in searching for these tiny indications of a horseman passing, he did not see the small river until he exited the trees that lined the bank.
The river, in actuality more large stream than river, flowed from an opening in the rocky hill some distance upstream. There in the middle of the narrow stream was a young girl. She was turned away from the direction of his approach and her bare shoulders and slender waist made it obvious she was undressed. The long, wet mane of bright red hair that clung to her back told Harrison the blood of some Irish ancestor flowed in her veins.
Harrison approached quietly, but at the instant he arrived at the bank of the stream, Zandar snorted.
The girl started and then turned toward the sound. Upon seeing Harrison, she shrieked and plunged down into the water to her neck, but not before he caught a fleeting glimpse of her full breasts and softly rounded belly. He rode Zandar out onto a slab of rock that formed the bank at that point and grinned at the girl.
“Good day to you Miss, for this has certainly just become a good day for me.”
Her face looked fearful, but her voice did not quaver.
“Who are you and why do you disturb my bath?”
Harrison grinned again. The water was as clear as the air, and he could see the girl’s breasts bobbing gently beneath the water.
“Who I am is of little importance and my reason for being here has nothing to do with your bath, though the sight of such a beautiful young woman bathing is a welcome one. I am in search of a friend I was to meet near here. I believe he must have ridden into the forest for I found indications of such. I have been following the path of his horse and that path exited the forest at this very spot. Have you seen a rider on a large black horse?”
The young girl raised her right hand to brush a strand of hair from her eyes, and in doing so caused that breast to rise from the water. Harrison could see a darker pink area on her soft skin but not the nipple that he knew rose from that pebbled surface.
“Yes, Sir, I have. I was behind a thicket removing my clothing when he burst from the trees. I remained behind my thicket lest he see me and do me some harm. After turning to look behind him, he rode into the stream over the rocks where your horse now stands, and then rode away with the flow.”
Harrison frowned. In order to find where the highwayman had left the stream, he would have to ride downstream while watching both banks. Even then, he might not find it. The stream seemed to flow mostly through rock banks, as if some ancient, giant plowman had dug a jagged furrow in the stone. If the highwayman had chosen to exit the stream over one of the rock slabs, it would be very difficult to again sight his trail. He looked at the girl again.
“Did you see his face?”
“No, Sir, I did not. The man wore a mask of black, the same colour as his clothing, and did not remain here but for a very short time. He seemed to be in a great rush.”
So, thought Harrison, this highwayman spied me in my pursuit and has eluded capture this time. No matter. There will be another time. I need only continue my evening visits to the inn for a glass of ale until another coach is expected. He turned to the girl and smiled.
“It would appear I shall not join my friend today. Perhaps, though, we could become better acquainted as a result. I do not know the area well, but unless I am mistaken, this stream is on the grounds of Brumley Manor. I know of no commoners who reside on these grounds. Lord Brumley prefers to keep his lands free of fields that the hart and grouse may thrive for his hunting pleasure. I am certain your presence would capture his interest.”
The girl hung her head.
“Oh, please, Sir, if you have even an ounce of compassion, do not speak to Lord Brumley of my presence here. I am but the poor milkmaid who milks Lord Brumley’s cows of a morning and evening that he may have cream for his morning oats and butter for his daily bread. If he should learn of my baths in the stream, I will be discharged and cast out of the estate. I know not where I should go or how I should live were that to happen.”
Harrison smiled. It was possible she was telling the truth. Lord Brumley was known for his small herd of jersey cattle. He had imported them from the Isle of Jersey for their rich milk, and it was logical that he would have a milkmaid to milk them.
“If that is so, how is it I find you in this stream naked instead of caring for Lord Brumley’s herd?”
“I do care for them, Sir, and very well if I do say so. Every morning before the cock crows, I rise and empty their udders, then turn them out into the lea to graze. Every afternoon, most come back to the estate, for their udders are again full and the pressure must be relieved or they suffer. There are two, Esmerelda and Bossie, who did not calve this year and feel no such reason to leave the rich grass of the lea. I must go in search of them to bring them home.
“It is not a lacking in dedication to stop for a few minutes to rinse the stench of the cow barn from my skin and hair. Esmerelda and Bossie graze the lea behind me. When I complete my bath, I shall lead them back to the stable and then commence with the milking. No time has been lost and no work will have been left undone. Please, Sir, I have done nothing wrong and I beg you - go in search of your friend and leave me in peace.”
Harrison found this girl to be more forthright than most women he knew, and not nearly so modest. She used her hands and arms when she spoke almost as much as she used her lips. With each lift of an arm, a soft, pale breast would rise from the surface and one time, he saw a taut nipple sitting upon its wrinkled nipple bed. The girl seemed to not take notice, though Harrison was certain she would have felt the tightening and extending.
“It would seem I have two choices from which to choose in searching for my friend. I can ride down the stream in hopes of finding him, or I can return home to find him another day.”
Harrison grinned then.
“I believe there to be a third choice for my afternoon activities, however, and one much more to my liking. I can continue to stand here until you exit the stream to dress and then take your cows to the barn.”
The girl shook her head.
“Sir, I beg you. Leave me in peace or I will be forced to remain here in the stream in order to preserve my decency. In doing so, I will be late arriving at the barn for the milking and the cows will be in a frightful state. If not for me, please leave that those poor cows may find the relief they require.”
Because of her knowledge of cattle, the same understanding of their needs and moods Harrison himself had acquired by living at the manor, he believed she was the milkmaid she claimed to be. Part of him wished to remain in order to see how long it would take before she arose from the water and showed him the rest of her young body.
That would be a sight he would absolutely enjoy, though he would not attempt to take any liberties with her. His personal beliefs would forbid that even were she not of significantly different social status. In Harrison’s quest to be as he wished – master to none but himself – imposing his desires upon a milkmaid would have dashed that wish and made him just another man of higher social class forcing himself upon a woman less fortunate.
He was puzzled by her logical way of speaking. Most women were fairly scatter-brained when discussing topics other than the running of a household or raising children. This woman spoke more as a man would speak, explaining in clear terms why her bath did not constitute a slacking of her duties but was merely a way in which to rid her body of the smells of the cow barn.
“Very well, my fair young maid. I shall leave you to your bath and return home. May your cows still await you and may you not be punished if you are a bit late. I bid you farewell.”
So saying, Harrison turned Zandar back into the trees, and a few minutes later was traveling at an easy lope in the direction of his hide.
Elizabeth waited until she could no longer hear the steady clop-clop of the horse’s hooves as the man rode back to the lea. Even then, she waited still for another several minutes lest he trick her and come back. After satisfying herself he was truly gone, she rose from the water, picked up the long sharp dagger she had held under her right foot, and then walked out of the stream and into a thicket on the other bank.
When she had galloped from the trees after robbing the coach, she had seen another horseman from the corner of her eye. He was dressed in black, as was she, and after another glance, she knew he was following her. To what end he was following her, she did not know, but were he to catch her and find the pouch of coins and jewelry tied to her belt, her situation would not be for the better. At best, he would steal the results of her robbery. At worst, he might discover she was a woman and do with her as men often did with women, then turn her over to the authorities.
She had spurred Alcazar to maintain his rapid gallop until she entered the trees near the stream. After splashing across, she arrived at a small clearing some distance from the source of the stream. She had lept from Alcazar’s back and tied him to a sapling, then raced back to the stream. As she quickly removed the black shirt and trousers, her black hat, mask and boots, she heard the galloping hooves of the other horse approaching.
Elizabeth picked the long sharp dagger from her belt and waded into the stream. After placing the dagger under her foot lest she lose it, she sank down into the water and awaited the man’s approach. The man would assume the rider he was chasing was another man and would never suspect a young woman, especially if that young woman was naked.
She chuckled to herself. Men were such slaves to their desires they had only one thought once they saw even so much as the curve of a breast in the low neck of a dress. The man dressed in black had done as she anticipated. She had seen the light in his eyes when she absently let one breast or the other rise slightly from the water as she spoke.
Yes, he was no different than the monster she had escaped. Just a brief sight of her left nipple had turned his mind from catching a horseman in black to desiring a young girl squatting naked in a stream.
Her only fear had been the man would act upon that desire, and hence the dagger beneath her foot. Were he to approach, she would take the dagger and thrust it into his heart before making her escape.
Elizabeth donned her shirt, trousers, and heavy boots, then picked up the rest of her clothing and her pistols and walked to where Alcazar was tied. She had hoped the stallion was far enough from the stream he would not scent or hear another horse, and when he hadn’t made his presence known with a loud neigh, she was thankful. She patted the large horse on the neck after placing her belongings over the front of the saddle.
“Alcazar, my friend, you have saved me from a terrible fate. I have no other friend but you, and after my experiences, doubt I ever shall.”
As Harrison exchanged his black shirt and trousers for a shirt and trousers befitting a gentleman of leisure out for a ride, he reflected upon his lack of success. The highwayman had determined Harrison was chasing him, and had resorted to the same trick he himself had used upon occasion. Once on a rocky surface, a horse and rider left no trail to follow. It was the same once the horse entered a stream. Hoofprints in the bottom of a stream were nearly instantly washed level by the flowing water.
In order to catch the thief of his robbing ground, Harrison could not hope to overtake the scoundrel on the lea. His black horse appeared to be as fast as Zandar. Harrison would have to lie in wait for the highwayman to enter the trees. He now knew the location of the man’s entry point, and he would be at that point the next time the highwayman struck.
After two more nights of traveling to the inn for a glass of ale, Harrison learned of a coach arriving at the inn in two days with the family of a wealthy banker from London on the way to examine the progress on his new country house east of Greenway. It was nearly certain the banker would travel with a significant purse, for the workers would expect to be paid regularly for their efforts.
It was an opportunity Harrison would not have allowed to pass him by, and he doubted the other highwayman would do so if he knew. The man had somehow known about the prior coach, and it was likely he also knew of this one by the same means, whatever those means might be.
This time, Harrison would wait on his hill until the highwayman appeared, then ride to the path in the forest the highwayman had taken after his last robbery. When the highwayman appeared in the trees, Harrison would drag him from the saddle and threaten him with his life if he did not give up his booty and agree to seek other grounds for his ambushes.
After a lunch on the day the coach would travel Bumbletoad Way, Harrison rode his mare to the ruins of the farm house, changed his garments, and then saddled and mounted Zandar. Half an hour later, he was sitting on his hill and watching the road.
Just as had happened previously, the highwayman rode to a small hill overlooking the road, and when the coach trundled into view, took up the same position after the bend.
Harrison rose, mounted Zandar, and loped across the lea to the opening in the forest. After tying Zandar some distance from that opening, he climbed the oak nearest the trail and waited on a limb that overhung the path.
Presently, he heard the sound of galloping hooves and then the soft rustle of a horse walking upon the leaves that littered the forest floor. A moment later, the highwayman appeared, riding slowly and looking behind him as if suspecting he was being followed. Harrison waited until the highwayman was directly below the branch upon which he crouched, then sprang down and pulled the man from the saddle.
Harrison was prepared for a strenuous struggle, but instead found the slender body lying under him offered little in the way of a fight. He felt small fists pummel his back, but the force was not that of a man. He rose slightly and pulled the hat and mask from face that snarled at him. When the long locks the colour of polished copper spilled out onto the leaves, Harrison laughed.
“I thought to catch the thief who is robbing me of my income. Instead, I have caught me a milkmaid who dresses as a man and bathes in a stream. What ever should I do with you?”
The girl spat her reply.
“Only a coward would drag me from my horse and then hold me to the ground. Let me up that I might properly defend myself.”
“I do believe the lady would enjoy shooting me with the pistols I feel in her belt.”
“Shooting you would be a better fate than you deserve. I saw your eyes when you looked at me in the stream. I would relish cutting off your manhood more than shooting you.”
Harrison chuckled again.
“My lady, if I may go so far as to give that name to one be behaves quite the opposite, any man seeing the soft curves of a naked woman’s body would react in the same manner.”
The woman screeched and tried to gouge out Harrison’s eyes, but he caught her wrists and pinned them to the ground, then smiled at the green eyes that glared back at him.
“I do believe ‘lady’ is much too civilized a title for you. You are more mink than maid. I shall hold you down until you yield or grow too tired to resist. Then, we shall go to where you hide that which was rightly mine to steal.”
The woman snarled, “Never, never will I give you anything of mine.”
Harrison squeezed her wrists tightly until she yelped in pain.
“I did not ask you to give me anything. I said I would take what I want from you. As you can plainly feel, I would have no difficulty doing with you as I wish.”
She attempted to kick him in the groin with her knee then, but Harrison deflected the kick with his thigh, then spread her legs with his.
The girl screamed at him, but Harrison heard fear along with outrage.
“If you do this, I will hunt you down and kill you, and I will do so that you die as slowly as possible.
That statement caused Harrison to frown quickly before again smiling.
“You believe I intend to force myself on you? I assure you that no matter who the woman, I have never and would never do such a thing. I only seek to protect myself from your feeble, but very irritating assault. If you cease your struggles, perhaps I could be convinced to release you.”
Elizabeth looked up at the man’s face. He was laughing at her, but there was something else in his eyes. He held her at his will, and could have taken her there on the forest floor, but his eyes told her he would not. There was a softness in them, a softness that belied their steel-grey colour.
Elizabeth had no intention of yielding to his demand to give him that for which she had risked life and limb over the past weeks, but the man could overpower her any time he wished. She had forced herself to become strong over those weeks, much stronger than at Coventry Manor, but that strength was of her mind, not her body. Now, she felt as weak as a newborn kitten.
Perhaps if she feigned submission and agreed to take him to her hiding place, she could discover a means of escape along the way. If not, she would enter her hide first, take the sabre that hung on the wall just inside the opening, and run the man through before he could react.
Elizabeth looked up at those grey eyes again.
“I will stop my struggles if you swear you will harm me no further.”
The man chuckled.
“Your struggles tell me I have harmed nothing save your pride, but I so swear. I warn you, though. Should you attempt to flee or to attack me, you will quickly find yourself pinned to the ground again and I shall not be so careful about injuring you.”
With that, the man released his grip upon Elizabeth’s left wrist, pulled the pistols and dagger from her belt and stuck them in his, and then stood and offered her his hand.
“Up with you. We must find your secreting place before you are late for your milking. I would not wish your precious cows to suffer.”
Harrison allowed the woman to mount her horse, but kept the reins in his hand. After walking to where Zandar was tied, he mounted the gelding and handed the woman the reins.
“Lead the way, but do not attempt to escape. I would never shoot a woman, but though I would feel great displeasure at ending the life of such a fine animal, I would not hesitate to shoot your horse.”
As they rode at a walk, neither said so much as a word to the other for a while, each being absorbed in their own thoughts.
Harrison was watching the woman carefully, for he did not trust her not to attempt an escape. She was also an intriguing riddle, this girl. She would be a beautiful woman if dressed in the garb of London society. Even in anger, the soft features of her face, the arched brows, the small nose, and the sensuous lips fairly beamed her beauty. Most men would have turned their head at the sight and she would have no difficulty in finding a fine husband, yet she was still unmarried.
He wondered how such a woman, even though a common milkmaid, had turned to robbing travelers. Surely she did not need money, for servants were paid a small amount in addition to being furnished with a small apartment in either the house or in another building. Servants ate of the same pantry, albeit with less variety, as the Lord and his family. Being a commoner, any money in excess of the wages of a milkmaid would raise suspicion so even were she to have more than most, she would not be able to spend the excess.
He smiled at the courage she had shown when he held her to the earth. Most women would have either swooned or succumbed to a fit of tears. This woman had fought him with all the strength she had. Though he had told her the blows were merely an irritation, Harrison had felt the pain caused by her small fists and knew he would continue to feel those blows for another day or so.
Elizabeth was thinking of the route they traveled and trying to remember if there were any obstacles that might slow the man long enough for her to dash away. She was confident that Alcazar’s swift hooves and her knowledge of the area would allow her to escape. The problem was those first few moments before she disappeared into the trees. If the man was able to draw his pistol, he would surely fire it at Alcazar. If she lost Alcazar, it would be as if she had taken the ball in her own heart.
She sighed when she realized she had specifically chosen a path free of anything that might impede her progress through the forest. She would have to wait until she could enter the stone entrance to her hiding place, retrieve her saber and hold the man with the point at his breast while she retrieved her pistols.
In spite of thoughts of murder and telling the man she would kill him, Elizabeth knew she could not carry out that threat. It was one thing to wring a chicken’s neck or to slit the throat of a bullock. It was quite another to take the life of a person, and from her birth she had been taught that doing so was the most unforgivable sin one could commit. She would only hold him at bay with her saber and when she once again had her pistols and dagger, she would order him to ride away.
Were Elizabeth to continue in her efforts to relieve travelers of their coin, she would have to find another area in which to lie in wait for carriages, but though Bumbletoad Way was long and the bends in the road were many, she did not fancy this approach. Doing so would mean once again leaving that with which she had a bed and a meal every day and entering upon another journey of sleeping in the forest and eating what she might find along the way.
She would be forced to again be just a milkmaid. There were worse occupations, but she did not wish to do this until she grew too old and feeble to do so. Elizabeth knew not what she would do once this man had taken what little wealth she had. Her thoughts upon this matter were interrupted by the man riding behind her.
“Girl who dresses as a highwayman, I am Harrison Dunwoody if it pleases you.
What is your name?”
Elizabeth looked at his smiling face and forced herself not to smile as well.
“Is that all, just Elizabeth? You have no surname?”
“I have a surname, but I see not how that is important to you.”
“I am merely curious. It is unusual to find a woman relieving travelers of their wealth. I though perhaps you to be the daughter of another highwayman and to have taken up his occupation.”
Elizabeth shook her head.
“I have no such relations, not father, brother or any other relative who is so employed. Is such the case with you? Was your father a highwayman? Your dress would seem to indicate you are the same.”
Harrison smiled. Many women he knew would have launched into a sobbing defense of their actions. This Elizabeth was not so easily led, and had instead turned the question back to him.
“No, my family has always been very obedient to the laws of society. It was only my misfortune to be born second to another brother that brought me to this state. He now has title to the family estate and I have only what he deigns to give me. As such, I am caught between two situations. I would rather leave the manor and strike out on my own, but it requires coin to do so, more coin than my meager stipend.”
“So, you steal from the wealthy that you may in turn become also wealthy?”
Harrison shook his head.
“I seek no great wealth. Wealth is both a blessing and a curse. It is a blessing in that it enables one to do as one wishes, but also a curse, as wealth demands a certain conduct of one’s affairs. I seek a simpler, but more enjoyable life.”
“And what would that conduct be? Do you not enjoy dancing with the women at your grand parties and hunting grouse and hares?”
Harrison found he’d inadvertently returned her smile and quickly corrected that.
“I do enjoy hunting, fishing as well, but the grand parties are a bore. I might dance with many women, but those same women have their fate selected by their fathers. It is a useless exercise to attempt to impress one for I have not the status her father requires, and she is quite likely already betrothed by handshake and only awaits attaining a certain age before marrying the husband of her father’s choice.”
“I know of such goings-on”, said Elizabeth. “It would seem to me that some fathers treat their daughters as no more than an item to be sold to the highest bidder. It is as if those fathers look upon their daughters with the same eye as they do a prize carriage horse.”
There it is again, thought Harrison, a logical statement made with the confidence of certain knowledge, and yet it comes from the mouth of a woman.
“You appear to have knowledge of this matter. Pray tell me, how would a milkmaid learn about the marriage practices of her employer?”
“Perhaps I was not always a lowly milkmaid, but of course that thought would never enter the thick head of a man born into wealth.”
Harrison smiled at the insult.
“I was born into wealth as you say, but that wealth is not mine, so I do indeed think of things other than counting my coin and enumerating the herds of cattle and sheep. If you have not always been a milkmaid, what were you? I doubt you are a wealthy man’s daughter, for a wealthy man’s daughter of your age would be married and suckling a child by now.”
Elizabeth wondered if this man might understand her situation. His own was not at all like hers, but the result of his situation had driven him to the same occupation as had hers. She had nothing to lose by telling him of that situation. He would take her coin and jewelry whether she told him or not. If she could win even a little sympathy, he might leave her with at least at little.
“Yes, such was the situation deemed to be my fate, in exchange for an hundred sheep and a dozen milk cattle. That was my dowry, an hundred and twelve animals. I had rather though I was worth at least a small amount of gold, but apparently not.
“My husband was to be Lord Coventry of Suffolk. I did not wish to be his wife. The man was thirty-four years senior to my eighteen, and I feared he would not be able to sire the children I wished to bear. It was with great distress I –“
Harrison interrupted her.
“Lord Coventry?…and your name is Elizabeth?…you claim to be Elizabeth Wynn, of the Wynn family of London?”
Harrison shook his head.
“I know this to be a lie. Elizabeth Wynn is dead. My brother Winston was in attendance at her funeral and saw her casket lowered into the grave.”
Elizabeth chuckled then, the first time Harrison had heard her do so.
“Such is the tale Lord Coventry told everyone, but did your brother see Elizabeth’s dead body?”
“No. Eight days were required to inform and assemble the funeral guests, and her body had begun…as you may understand, it was not possible to open the coffin to view the body.”
Elizabeth chuckled again.
“I would suppose there was an odor as well.”
“Winston said as much, though it was somewhat lessened by the burning of heather and sage at the grave site.”
Elizabeth chuckled again.
“If you were to dig into my supposed grave all you would find is a wood coffin containing half a side of a bullock and that well rotted. I heard of Lord Coventry’s ruse from a friend of a friend of his carriage driver. Lord Coventry created this illusion as he could not endure the embarrassment of admitting I had run away. Had he done so, he would have had to explain the reason was because of his perverted ways and he would have suffered being shunned by London society.”
“You claim to be Elizabeth Wynn, but you have no proof. Words are like shuttlecocks, without much weight, and it is a simple matter to bat them about. Facts are otherwise.”
“You also have a claim, a claim to be Harrison Dunwoody. If this is so, you would know your father’s name was Isaac, your mother’s, Lydia. Your brother is Winston and he is two years your senior. Your mother lives in London still, though your father died three years past from being kicked by a plow horse. I gather his chest was fairly stove in and he lived only a few hours after that. He is buried on the family estate near here under a large yew.
“Your mother’s maiden name was Wayne, of the Waynes of York. Her father is a financier of ships to the Orient and made his fortune in tea and silks. He arranged the marriage of his daughter to Isaac Dunwoody for the dowry of six hundred pounds and a cask of rum. Lord Wayne has a failing where rum is concerned, hence the inclusion of that item. Are these things of which you are also familiar?”
“Anyone living in London could learn these facts easily enough.”
“If they were of social status or could read, possibly so. How many milkmaids have you met who are wealthy or can read? I read quite well, if I do say so, but then, the tutors hired for my education were very competent. Oh…I nearly forgot…when you were three, you fell from a pony and your arm bone was snapped in twain. The surgeon applied a splint and your arm healed, but even today is slightly bent. Would I know this unless I know intimately of your family? You have not once shown me your bare arms.”
Harrison was somewhat bewildered. Everything Elizabeth stated was indeed fact, even the accident that had befallen him at the age of three.
“I can not fathom how you would know these things and especially so since we have never met. I assure you I would not forget a girl with red hair and green eyes.
“I was sickly as a child and was not allowed to attend any events. I spent my youth under the care of one Molly Anderson, a dear woman who is more mother to me than my own mother. Would that I could tell her I still live, but she passed away of grief at the news of my supposed death.
“We did not meet because I was always confined to the house in London. While I was ill, I had little to do and I was not deaf and blind. It is interesting what my mother and father discussed about the members of their level of society. I listened intently to those conversations as well as to those of our servants and I am very familiar with most families of their social status, even unto their most secret of secrets.
“It was because of Molly’s able care I recovered but no sooner was again healthy and strong, I was betrothed to Lord Coventry. Father knew of my reluctance at marrying the man and would not allow me to associate with others lest I take flight.”
“Take flight I did, and thankfully before the clergyman blessed our union. I do believe if I had been forced to marry the man, I should have found a way to end my life, such is Lord Coventry’s treatment of women.”
Harrison was now confused.
“I shall believe you, for now at least, but what is this treatment of women of which you accuse Lord Coventry? I know the man, not personally, but by his actions in London. He donates a portion of his income toward the care of the poor and he treats his servants well. From what I gather after listening to our own servants, they fairly worship the man.”
Elizabeth began to raise her voice.
“They hold him in favor only because he pays them well to present that appearance, though a few are willing participants in his perversion, as I soon learned.
“The first morning, after we broke fast, Lord Coventry asked if I would enjoy a carriage tour of the manor grounds. It would hardly have been polite to refuse. He asked me to meet him at his carriage in front of the manor in an hour.
“It was indeed a carriage and a quite grand, ornate carriage at that. His team was more sickening than grand. Six naked young women I recognized as house servants from the evening before were harnessed to the tongue and traces, each one with a sort of bridle with a bit in her mouth and reins that led back to the driver’s perch. In that station sat Lord Coventry with a whip in one hand and the reins in another.
“I did not see the worst until I was seated in the carriage beside him, and I was truly shocked when I did. Each young girl wore a tail made from the tail of a true horse. Lord Coventry was so kind as to explain its operation. At the end of the tail, the part that would sprout from a horse, was a smooth wooden cone with a narrowing and then a widening near to the attachment point of the clump of horse hairs.
“This cone was thrust into the nether opening of each girl. The narrowing prevented the cone from slipping out. The widening of the base prevented the cone from entering further.
“I would suppose I exhibited the shock I felt, for Lord Coventry leered and told me his team enjoyed the both tail and the harness and bit, and that after we were wed, he would instruct me in the wearing of such a harness and tail.
“Propriety would not allow me to say that which I thought so I did not say anything. I sat rigidly in my seat until his tour had ended, then went to my room and placed my valuables in a small sack. I called the servant girl assigned to assist me and told her I wished to have new clothing made for all the women servants, but did not know their various dimensions. I told her if I had a garment from each, I would take them to London to my seamstress and return with three new dresses for each and every one.
“I stole from the house once everyone was asleep, dressed in the dress of a chambermaid with a bundle of servant woman’s clothing under one arm and an ham from the pantry under the other. By morning I was nearly two miles down the road to London. Once the sun began to rise, I took to the woods for I feared Lord Coventry would attempt to find me and take me back to his manor. I continued through the trees until fatigue forced me to stop for a rest.
“My goal was to return to London and tell my father of my fate. Such was not to be. I had some coin, and upon sighting an inn two afternoons later, I hid my clothes and ham, and stopped there for a proper meal. In the clothing of a servant girl, no one seemed to notice me save one man dressed in the livery of a coachman. It was by speaking with him I learned of my death from consumption and subsequent funeral.
“I thought I should not return to my father’s home, for doing so would cause him a great embarrassment, not because I was still alive, but because of the bargain for my virginity he had struck with Lord Coventry. Instead, I turned onto Bumbletoad Way and walked to the south. I arrived at Brumley Manor a week later and inquired as to the need for additional servants.
“Lord Brumley’s milkmaid had gotten herself with child, and was becoming nearly as large as the cows she milked. She taught me to milk the cows and explained to me of their daily excursions to the lea to graze. It was not difficult to learn, and as most of my mornings and afternoons were free, I had time to think about my future.
“I did not wish to grow old pulling the teats of cows, but knew not what else I could do. I did not wish to return to a life of lady of the manor even were that a possibility, which it was not. My mother grew old, fat, and bored in doing so. Neither did I wish to be the wife of a farmer or shepherd. I wanted a busy life of excitement.
“One day I heard the coachman speaking to the groom. He related the story of a highwayman who had stopped Lord Brumley’s coach and demanded his money. Lord Brumley yielded his purse, the highwayman picked it up, bid them good day, and then rode off through the trees. Knowing what I now know, I would suppose that highwayman to have been you.
“I imagined myself dressed all in black with a mask to hide my face, sitting astride a powerful horse, and demanding the purse and jewelry from the occupants of a coach. Doing such did not appear to be difficult, would certainly quickly increase my fortune, and would be exciting. I determined to at least make an attempt at such, and set about equipping myself as the coachman had described.
I fashioned a shirt and trousers from two of my servants dresses and then dyed them black with walnut hulls collected in the forest. From the scraps, I fashioned a hat that I might hide my hair and a mask to conceal my identity. A final test was required once these items were completed. If my potential victims knew I was but a girl, they would only laugh instead of surrendering their valuables.
”The gardener favored an ale before bed, and often visited the inn near the manor of an evening. One night I dressed in my black togs and went to that same inn. I do not like the taste of ale nor its effect and requested a glass of milk instead. A tall, strapping fellow who was well into his cups stepped beside me and asked my age and to where I traveled. I replied I was but nineteen and was on my way to London at the request of my master.
“He replied that explained my drinking of milk, as a man would never favor milk over ale. I said I was pleased by his understanding and offered to purchase him a draft. That draft became several, and though it nearly exhausted my purse, when I helped the man to his bed in the inn, I also helped myself to the pistols, powder flask, pouch of balls, and dagger on his belt.
“My ruse had proven successful, for the man never suspected I was anything but a young boy. I still lacked a horse, but I had thought of a plan.”
“While Lord Brumley kept a stallion to service the mares in his stable, there were other manor lords who did not. Stallions are much like men and can be a dangerous lot when near a mare in her season. As a result, it was often that stud men, those men who travel the countryside leading a stallion, called at the manor to inquire if there were mares who required breeding. As I resided in the stable with the cows and horses and the plowman was more often than not in the fields, it was often to me this question was asked.
“Most of these stallions were heavy horses and only fit to breed to likewise heavy working mares, but one stud-man who traveled up and down Bumbletoad Way had a magnificent beast, all black with but a single white star upon his forehead. The stud man had once explained this stallion had been bred for the track, but had proven not so fleet of foot as others and had been sold for a pittance to the slaughter house in London.
“The stud man had made a habit of visiting the slaughter house in hopes of finding a stallion to replace his current one, had spied this horse, and had purchased him for little more than the slaughter house had paid. He began traveling to various locations in hopes of finding carriage mares to breed, but was not so successful as he hoped, for as you know, while many horses are required for the fields, only few are required for the carriage. He lamented this fact and said he would purchase a heavier horse were he to find a purchaser for the black.
“When he walked down the lane after stopping by the manor, I followed until he was out of sight and then ran to overtake him.
“It is not usual for a milkmaid to have a horse, and that was his statement when I asked his price. I replied that my brother had grown tired of plowing Lord Brumley’s fields, fancied becoming a stud man himself, and had asked if I might watch for just such a situation. I explained that my brother had little coin, but that he had given what little he had to me and I was prepared to add my own in order to help him achieve his aim.
“The stud man’s price was more than I possessed, but I knew that was merely his first price. I stated I could only pay a fourth as much, and would be hard pressed at that. The stud man asked the size of my purse, and upon my telling him, though I understated by half, he smiled and handed me the halter rope. As he walked away thinking he had duped an ignorant milkmaid into paying more than that for which he had hoped, I led the black into the trees.
“I could not keep him there, of course, but I knew of a secluded place that would serve as his stable as well as a place I might keep my black clothing and any fruits from my labors. It was the mouldering remains of what some said was a structure built by men who came from Europe in hopes of conquering England. While most of the building had collapsed over time, two chambers were still standing with mostly good roofs, and a stout stone wall still surrounded the place.
“People, not even the huntsmen and gamekeeper, would go there, for there were rumors of strange sightings and odd sounds in and about the place. I had been there during searches for my cows, and had seen nor heard either. By my estimation, the supposed ghosts were merely the fear of ignorant and superstitious commoners of odd places. I had no such fear, so upon reaching the edge of the woods, I mounted the stallion and rode to the place.
“Elizabeth smiled and patted the horse on then neck, and he answered that touch with a nicker. She chuckled, “I named him Alcazar and he is the horse I ride today. His saddle and bridle are courtesy of Lord Brumley, though he is not aware of his generosity. It is difficult to imagine him becoming aware as there are more saddles and bridles in the stable than horses and these had sat in a corner and covered with dust for months.
“I now had all I required to embark upon the career of highwayman. I only needed to know when a coach or carriage might travel near enough to become my target. That information was furnished by the gardener. Upon returning from the inn after his glass of ale, he told me the tale of a rich man traveling by carriage to Greenway on the morrow. I resolved to meet that carriage and begin my new trade. I was successful in that first attempt and have been so since, until you threw me from my horse and held me to the ground.”
Harrison had been listening quietly and thinking at the same time. This girl had suffered greatly for one so young, but that suffering had made her strong and confident. He could not allow her to steal that which he felt was his for the taking, but felt badly that driving her away might hurt her yet more.
“Elizabeth, if I may call you by that name, now that you have accomplished the goal of becoming a highwayman…or rather, highway woman, what will you do with your fortune?”
“I have, as of yet, no fortune with which to do anything. I have a few pounds in gold and silver and a small amount of jewelry. My capture of a purse today will add to that significantly, judging by the weight, but it is still not a fortune.
Elizabeth then frowned.
“Of course, should you take it all, I will again have nothing.”
“You will still have Alcazar and your pistols. You could move to another roadway.”
“Yes, and I have thought of doing so, but I would not know of a place more suitable without considerable searching. I would suppose I will continue to be a milkmaid and one day be mother to a plowman’s children. It is not the future for which I hoped, but it is better than starving and sleeping in the open while walking from one place to another.”
“Are you certain you can not return to your mother and father? Such would seem to be a better course of action.”
Elizabeth’s eyes flashed and her words came sharply.
“And what would I tell them - that I ran away because I loathed Lord Coventry and then set out to become a highwayman? They could forgive my leaving Lord Coventry, given the circumstances, and they might forgive me for not immediately presenting myself to prove I still live, but they would never forgive me for stealing from the same people they call friends.”
Elizabeth sniffed then, and her voice was broken.
“No, as much as the thought pulls at me, I can never return to them. To go back would mean explaining the unexplainable and unforgivable, and neither I nor they could bear it. I may as well be truly dead, for that is what I would be to them should I return.”
Elizabeth wiped the tears from her eyes and then pointed to a stone wall in the distance.
“There. There is the place where you will take my coin and jewelry and leave me a lowly milkmaid again.”
When Elizabeth led Harrison through the door of the stone building, she paused momentarily and glanced at the sabre hanging just inside. If she were quick enough, perhaps she could end her troubles with this man and then get on with her life. Then, she reconsidered that course of action. Should she fail, and he was so close behind her that was more than likely, he might decide to return the favor with a ball from his pistol.
She hoped beyond hope that her tale had caused enough sympathy he would allow her to keep at least some of her prize. Instead of grasping the sabre, she walked to a small heap of linen sacks and leather pouches.
“Here is all I possess save the clothes on my back and Alcazar.”
Harrison watched as Elizabeth sank to the floor. Her shoulders were shaking a little, and he knew it was only the force of her will that prevented her from bursting into tears. A woman could present the image of crying, even to the tears, but not the tremors he saw in Elizabeth. He felt her sorrow and was somewhat ashamed that he was the cause. She had used her wits and courage to achieve what few, if any, other women could have achieved. That achievement was only as was his own, the occupation of common thief, but her pride in doing so was evident in the way she had described her means to that end.
He could not allow her to continue, of that he was certain. To do so would upset all he had planned, but neither could he find it in himself to dash her hopes into shards as one might throw a cup into the hearth.
Those conflicting thoughts surprised him. He had never abused a woman, but neither had he taken especial pity on one who suffered misfortune. As that thought entered his mind, he realized that happenings the women of his acquaintance thought to be a catastrophe were in reality only a minor inconvenience. Those women expected their lives to be without any such interruption, and when such occurred they were beyond themselves. That is why he usually ignored them.
Elizabeth had taken the worst and used her mind to create opportunity from misfortune. Surely she was unique, and he found himself wondering if he would ever meet another woman so blessed. He had hopes of someday fathering children, but he did not hold out any hope of finding a woman of equal status to take as a wife, for women did not suffer from being born second as did men. They were all of the status to which they were born and their marriages were always arranged to men of like status.
He had heard of a place where status was of little concern. A man could be what he was and a woman could be with him without the concern of wagging tongues that chastised her for doing as she wished. Harrison longed to leave England for such a place in order to begin a new life and for one other simple reason.
While the common folk viewed the highwayman to be somewhat the hero, the wealthy who were forced to give up their valuables considered them to be guilty of crimes nearly so evil as murder. Winston had recently returned from London and had brought rumors of the establishment of a constabulary to patrol the highways and bring the highwaymen to justice. That justice meant a swift trial and a swifter drop to the end of a gallows rope.
While he had seen no such men accompanying a carriage or coach, he believed such would quickly be the case. The wealthy wielded the power of their riches over the realm as a farmer wields his hoe, digging out that which they believed did not belong and casting it away to die. If he did not soon end his career, it would be ended for him.
Perhaps an answer to both their problems lay in the new place of which there was much talk. If she would agree to what -
Harrison’s thought were interrupted by Elizabeth’s voice.
“If you are to take all I own, please honor me one single request. I ask that you put a ball in my breast and end what will be my continued suffering.”
Harrison crossed the space between them and held out his hand.
“Stand up, Elizabeth.”
Elizabeth did as he asked. Harrison still held her hand and smiled.
“Having seen you at your bath, I think ’twould be a grievous crime to spoil such beautiful breasts with a ball. Would you not agree?”
“I only know of my feelings at this moment.”
Harrison brushed a lock of hair from Elizabeth’s forehead, then stroked her cheek.
“I had intended to find the highwayman infringing upon my livelihood, take his prize, and banish him. Instead, I found a woman beaten by life who rose above that by her wits and courage. I can not allow you to continue robbing those for whom I wait, but neither can I take what you have and chase you away. On the one hand, I will lose the coin I require to better my life and on the other, I injure a woman who has been injured more than is sufficient for one lifetime. I wish to do neither, and I certainly can not end your life, but there is a possible third path.”
Harrison sat Elizabeth’s face grow brighter.
“What would that third path be?”
“You have heard of the Americas? They say a man can be as he wants there and women are not bound by the same rules of society. If we were to go there, perhaps we would both benefit.”
Elizabeth’s mouth fell open.
“We…you and I…together?”
“Yes. For either of us to remain would surely result in an appointment with the hangman. I could not leave you alone knowing that would be your fate.”
“What would people think…a man and a woman traveling together?”
Harrison cleared his throat.
“Were we to be man and wife, they would think nothing of it.”
“Only a few hours ago you threw me from my horse and threatened to hurt me if I resisted. Now, you wish to marry me? That seems a rather large bite of apple to swallow.”
Harrison looked at the floor.
“I do not assume you would welcome such a proposal given the manner in which I have treated you. It would not be necessary to actually marry, only to present the illusion we were man and wife. Once in the Americas, you would be free to do as you choose, as would I.”
“You know so little about women. Any woman would know we were just pretending, and the tongues would begin to waggle. By the time we stepped off the ship, all manner and sorts of sins would be attributed to us. I for one do not enjoy the thought of being cast in the die of a woman of the streets.”
“Then my third option is of no avail, and I am yet trapped in my situation.”
Elizabeth touched his arm.
“By what logic do you assume I would not accept such a proposal? It would seem to me that my future here, assuming I may avoid the hangman, is to marry a man for whom I feel little to nothing and with whom I have little in common. I could do worse than becoming your wife, much worse, at least to my way of thinking. You are not disposed to pushing horse tails up naked women’s backsides, and while you have not been particularly kind, neither have you been unkind. My mother lives a life with a man who shows her neither affection nor contempt. She has survived, and I would do the same.”
“You would not reconsider at some later date?”
“Were you to suddenly change into some sort of monster, yes, but I doubt that would be the case. As I related to you, I know of your family and know them quite well. Unless you are greatly different from you father and brother, and I would have seen that difference by now, I think I need not fear that happening. All I would ask of any husband is that he treat me as an equal in our home and look to my safety and well being. In return, I will care for him as best I can and bear his children. When do we depart and what must I bring with me?”
It had taken a week to make the trip to London and sell the jewelry both had accumulated, but the resulting amount of money was well worth the effort. The combination of their individual purses yielded enough to pay for their passage, the passage of their two horses, and left a little for their use when they landed.
London had also furnished a clergyman who cared not about their backgrounds. They were married two days before sailing to the Americas, and spent those two days in an inexpensive but relatively clean inn near the docks.
Their first night together was different than either had anticipated. Harrison had expected Elizabeth to change into a nightdress of some sort and immediately go to sleep, for he believed she thought their union to be only one of convenience. Instead, she apologized while pulling her dress over her head and then removing her chemise.
“Milkmaids can not afford a silk night dress. You will have to take me in the clothes in which I came into this world.”
Harrison gazed for a few moments at her firm breasts, wide hips, and the patch of red hair between her thighs as he came to the realization Elizabeth truly considered herself to be his wife, then said, “no night dress would be so beautiful as what you now wear. I would have you no other way.”
“Perhaps you would care to show me the truth of that statement?”
Harrison disrobed and then walked Elizabeth to the bed.
“I do not wish to cause you pain, but I was told a woman’s first time would be such.”
Elizabeth stroked his arm.
“Yes, so said my Molly when she explained the ways of husbands and wives.”
“You will tell me if I should stop, will you not?”
“I shall if I can not bear it, but Molly said it would not be severe and would end as quickly as it began.”
Elizabeth did cry out at the first thrust and then again when the second swept open the guardian gate of the girl and gave birth to the woman. Their coupling did not last long. Harrison found that sinking into Elizabeth’s depths swept away his self control, and after only moments gasped as his essence flowed into Elizabeth.
Afterwards, they lay together, Harrison stroking Elizabeth’s flank and Elizabeth snuggled close with her breasts against his chest.
“Was it painful”, he asked.
“Yes, but only for a moment. After that it was…I can not find the words to tell you. Perhaps we might repeat the act that I shall be better able to explain.”
The ship docked a Philadelphia after seven weeks and four days at sea, and in that time Harrison and Elizabeth became one instead of two people. The difficult passage was plagued by death that separated wives from husbands, mothers from children and indeed, entire families of children from their parents. The Reaper spared them both, though Elizabeth attended to several ailing women and children along the way who were not so fortunate. After paying for their passage and retrieving Alcazar and Zandar from their cramped stalls deep in the hold of the ship, they set out to find their future.
Elizabeth was beside herself with happiness. She thought no longer about Lord Coventry and his strange ways. She no longer wished for the riches obtained by robbing wealthy travelers. She only wished to find a place she could call home, a place where she could live in peace with Harrison, and a place where she would bring his children into the world.
Harrison was likewise happy. He was on his way to a new life, a life where he would be judged by what he did and not by his birth. Any reservations he’d had about marrying Elizabeth had evaporated during the voyage. Elizabeth had been at his side the entire time, clinging to him when a storm raged and tossed the ship like a leaf on the wind, and holding his hand when they stood by the rail and watched the sun dip into the sea, lower and lower, until it was only a yellow glow upon the clouds.
Their journey had begun, but was not yet complete. Harrison needed employment in order to care for Elizabeth, and went in search of the same on the day they disembarked. Elizabeth could not ride with him, for proper women did not ride astride and she had no sidesaddle. Instead, she waited in a lea just outside the city and let Alcazar graze to his heart’s content.
Harrison returned two hours later with a frown on his face.
“I find Philadelphia to be much like London. There are wealthy men here just as in London, and there are commoners who serve them, though most are those who indentured themselves to pay for their passage from England. We will not be welcome among the wealthy because we have little wealth. I will have no wife of mine living in the squalor I saw where the commoners live. There is a third path though.”
“Your first, third path has pleased me greatly. Pray tell, what might this one be?”
“I met a man who is arranging for families to follow him to the south and into a part of America that has yet to be explored. I spoke with the man for only a few moments before deciding he and I think much alike. He is not of any birth of consequence, nor does he proclaim so, and he believes all men should be valued by their actions. He seeks only to live with friends and family who will assist each other in life.
“He is in need of families to join them, and he requires only that a man and his wife work hard and respect the rest of the group. They are assembled at the river south of town, and leave on the morrow. I told him if you were in agreement, we would join them. What are your thoughts?”
“A good wife would obey the wishes of her husband.”
Harrison shook his head.
“No, Elizabeth. I will not commit your life to something in which you do not believe. You must agree or we shall remain here to seek our future.
Elizabeth put her arms around Harrison’s neck and then smiled.
“What I believe is whatever we do, wherever we go, there will be both good and bad. I do not wish to stay where a man’s value is judged by his wealth, for the same judgement will be applied to his wife. I have lived both facets of that life and remember the consequences. I do not know if riding to a place where no one has yet been will be good or bad, but I am certain it can be no worse than fleeing Lord Coventry and then becoming a milkmaid. Now, when do we depart and what must I bring with me?”