Bath, England – March 1796
The two horses were blowing hard as they raced down Bathwick Hill. Crossing a small stream, the riders turned the steeds off the road and cut across fields, heading for the centre of town. They knew the horsemen in pursuit were not far behind so were willing their mounts with every ounce of strength they had left.
The dark of the night and the drizzly rain were hampering visibility and making it difficult to ride, but they worked both ways and were the only allies the runaways had. Would they be enough?
They still had some work to do to hide from the chasing pack, but were hopeful that the tight corners in the streets of Bath might provide a chance to slip out of sight.
A straight run over the Pulteney Bridge and they were nearly there. One of the fleeing riders took the opportunity to look over his shoulder and could see the group had reached the road. Their breath, and the billowing steam from their bodies, showed up clearly not quite a hundred yards back. He turned back to face the front and called to his companion,
“They’re closing, push on!” The other rider didn’t turn to check but trusted the warning implicitly. They lowered their heads and raced across the bridge.
Passing the closed shops on either side, the horse’s heavy steps echoed noisily off the gauntlet of brickwork. Just as they cleared the river, they could hear the clatter of hooves arrive at the other end. The chasers were nearly upon them and must have been closer than they had guessed.
The racket was so loud it would surely wake the locals.
The two cantered on through the streets, turning left, then right, continually looking to slow the pack down with their frequent turns.
They approached a stable yard and, striding across the cobbles nosily, jumped down at a run, almost before they had stopped. They dashed to each door in turn, trying to find one that might be unlocked.
“Here! Quickly!” one called out, having found an open door. Together they yanked it free and led the animals to cover, pulling the door shut as the chasing men entered the yard.
Inside the barn, they didn’t need to listen at the door; the horses’ hooves and the men’s shouts, as they were so frantically searching, were creating such a clamour the sound of their progress easily carried through the thin wood.
“Check in there! Hurry, man!”
Cowering in the stable, they could hear the orders clearly.
Doors were being broken and flung open, and the voices were ringing out.
“Come on out! Come out and we’ll think about clemency!”
They backed further away from the door, not trusting the offer and looking to hide within the shadows of the barn.
“Hey! You there!” another voice called down from a window overlooking the yard, the groom most likely. “What’s the meaning of this?”
“It’s the King’s business, go back to bed!” That was the man in charge of the group.
“What? Where are your papers?”
“Cum down ’ere and I’ll stuff ’em up yisser smeller!” one of the other men threw back at him.
The conversation went back and forth, and still the ransacking of the stables went on. The men were held up by having to take their time to check inside each one to make sure no one was hiding within.
“Here!” One of the gang had arrived at the unlocked door and gathered the rest of the men, ready to burst in.
They flung the doors open and strode confidently in with their pistols cocked and held at arm’s reach. Four men fanned out across the space, circling the two heavily panting horses who were huddled together, while a fifth man came limping in behind.
He was tapping his cane loudly on the cobbles as he hobbled between the men and right up to the steaming, sweating beasts standing exhausted by the back wall.
The armed men came around on either side and moved the horses away. The man with the cane walked further in.
As the animals parted, they revealed the route the two runaways had taken. A couple of planks swung to and fro, revealing a gap that was too small for any of the burly men to take, unless they wanted to knock more slats out, of course.
The man hobbled closer to look and tightened his lips angrily. One of the men stuck his head out and reported that it was as black as pitch and they could have gone in any direction from there.
Turning away, the man shuffled out of the barn, calling back over his shoulder to one of his companions, “Get a list of all the stables and coach services in the town. Let’s pay them all a visit.”
“Anythin’ else, sir?” It was sarcastic, but the man either ignored it or didn’t notice.
“Send word to London, say we have them pinned down in Bath and now it’s just a matter of time. Tell Locke we’ll have them in custody before the week is out.”
The man whacked his stick against the door in frustration as he left the stable and spat with venom at the groom, who had finally arrived in the yard, “Get out of my way!” He lifted the head of his cane to the man’s face in a warning not to challenge him.
The groom looked at the adornment at the end and noticed it was made of shiny metal in the shape of a beast with its maw open, snarling and bearing sharp teeth. Not unlike its owner. He decided not to interfere and backed away, watching the man limp his way out of the courtyard.