Life and Debt

By Virginia Sue Foreman All Rights Reserved ©

Mystery / Adventure

Chapter 9

The guards half dragged a stunned Mike out of the courtroom, and back toward his cell. Through the tall windows of the corridor, Mike could see the gallows. They stood ominous, and seemed to be calling his name. The haze of his stupor began to clear, and was replaced by panic. A tremendous strength and ferocity suddenly surged through him, and he began to struggle against his captors. He slammed the wrist shackles into the face of the guard on his right, sending him reeling. He then elbowed the guard on his left, knocking him to the floor. But, they staggered back to their feet quickly, just as Mike lunged forward, only to find more men running towards him.

Mike kicked and struggled with the fierceness of a wounded bear, and it took five men to drag him back to his cell. In a final attempt to stop them pushing him in, he managed to brace himself against the jamb. But, in the end, all his struggling was vain. With a monumental unified surge, they loosed his limbs from the doorframe, and thrust him headlong into the cell. Sprawling on the stone floor, he slid to a stop half way across the cell. The abnormal strength left him as just suddenly as it had come upon him, and he lay limp and lifeless. When they were sure the prisoner’s strength was finally gone, the guards entered the cell, removed the shackles, and quickly left, slammed the door and locked it. Broken, Mike remained, unmoving, on the stone floor for hours.

Father John entered the cell just before sunset, and found Mike still lying on the floor, his knees drawn to his chest, arms wrapped about them. Eyes glazed, he trembled uncontrollably. Father John knelt beside him, and placed Mike’s head on his lap. Mike seemed not to notice as Father John stroked his hair, and murmured consoling words like a father to a child injured at play. Finally, after long minutes passed, Mike sat up, dragging his dirty hands down his face to wipe the last of the fog away. He took a deep breath, and let it out slowly.

“I’m not ready to die, Father. I don’t know how to prepare myself,” he said into his limp palms as they lay in his own lap. “I’m frightened.”

“Death is nothing to fear, Michael. But you won’t be facing it just yet.” Mike looked up sharply at him. “Mr. Smythe is looking into what he can do to get the sentence reduced or dropped. We should know in another day or so. Barring that, Henry plans to rescue you,” he whispered.

“How? There’s no way to get me out of here.”

“I don’t know all the details. But, it may not be necessary. With any luck, Mr. Smythe will be able to do something. Just be calm and wait. Either way, you will not be here much longer.”

By the next afternoon, it was clear that Jacob Tolabert had managed to influence everyone in the court who could affect a change in the sentence. The prisoner would hang that evening.

Father John met Mike inside his cell just before sunset. He stepped close and whispered his news so that the guards could not hear.

“When they take you out, be ready to do as the actions of any of your friends indicates. I’m afraid that is all they could tell me when I saw them last,” he told Mike quietly.

Mike considered this message. It was strange, and he was not sure what it meant, but he trusted Henry. He looked at the little ventilation opening high in the wall of his cell. Through it, he could see the setting sun as it sank below the edge of the tiny opening. His gut felt like it was twisting into knots, and he wished he could hide.

“Father, I’m so sorry for the things I’ve done. I fully intended to go somewhere, and find honest work when I left home. But, when I met Henry and the others, the life they taught me was … easier. I even found I liked it. After a while, nothing shocked me. Mind, we never stole anything we didn’t need. And, only when there was no work to be had.” He paused, unsure if he should confess the rest. “There—there were women—”

“You don’t need to tell me these things, Michael. God is the one from whom you must seek forgiveness. I’m not the one who will judge you in the end.”

“But—I thought—you’re a minister …”

“True, I am a minister. But, I am also a man. And, above all that, I’m your friend.”

“Thank you,” Mike swallowed a lump in his throat, “for the way you have always stood by me.”

The guards rattled the key in the lock, and flung open the cell door. They entered cautiously, prepared for another struggle, but were relieved to see the prisoner calm. They bound his hands in front of him with a short length of cord. There would not be a chance for him to use the heavy iron shackles against them again. One guard took each arm, and they walked out of the building into the darkening courtyard, now crowded with spectators waiting the evening’s entertainment. The crowd parted as the guards made their way towards the gallows with the prisoner. Father John followed close behind, praying quietly as he walked.

The last of the crowd cleared, and before them, just behind the building, stood the foreboding scaffold at the far side of the courtyard. It stood in a grassy patch, and people of every description stood all around it, jeering, and laughing as they pointed at him. All Mike seemed able to look at, were the steps leading up to the platform, where his life was about to end. A hooded man, dressed in black stood atop it, holding the noose, which would shortly be around his neck.

Mike glanced nervously about him in an effort to spot at least one of his friends, but there were so many people pressing in, he recognized no one. Had something gone wrong? They walked closer to the steps, and sweat trickled down his face and into his shirt, which seemed clammy and damp, clinging to his back.

He jumped with tension, when the executioner pulled the lever up on top of the platform, releasing the trap door under the noose. It made a horrible banging noise, and a sickening screeching as it swung freely back and forth on its hinges. Some of the crowd nearby, cheered and applauded as the men reset the door. Fearful his friends had failed in their plan, Mike began to pull back feebly against the strong grip of the guards, as the realization he was actually going to die set in.

Lamplighters were lighting torches and street lamps around the square against the approaching darkness. The flickering light in the growing dusk was spawning grotesque shadows in the corners of the courtyard. Mike could see there were only a few more steps and he would have to start the climb to his death. His friends had failed after all. The guards tugged harder at his arms. His heart pounded so hard he thought it would burst inside his chest.

Suddenly, a young woman with a shawl clasped around her head, pushed out of the crowd, and flung herself at Mike. She attached herself tightly to him, as she wailed loudly and mournfully. The guards grabbed her and struggled to loosen her, and push her back. Stunned, Mike looked in wonderment where they pushed her back against the crowd. She lifted the corner of her shawl from her face, and Tom winked at him from beneath it, and looked down at Mike’s hands.

Mike glanced down, and realized his wrists were free of their binding. Tom allowed them to push him into the crowd, and then he slipped quickly out of sight. Mike saw him reemerge, a moment later, without his skirt and shawl, close to the scaffolding where few people were standing. That close to the structure, the view of the hangman and the noose was poor, so there was an empty area, about three or four feet wide, all the way around the scaffolding.

The guards jerked Mike forward impatiently. Just as they reached the clearing at the foot of the steps, Henry burst out of the crowd, and with a fierce shout, he knocked down the guard on Mike’s left arm. Mike turned, and with his freed hands, gave the other guard a powerful shove, sending him sprawling backwards to the ground. Although, it only took seconds for the other guards to recover their senses and run to assist, Jericho had already stepped into the clearing with four horses in tow. Tom pulled and pushed bystanders into the path of the on-coming guards as he worked his way toward Jericho. Mike and Henry bolted toward the horses.

The people thrown into path of the guards, scrambled to recover and get out of the way. The crowd parted, as the mounted horsemen urged their mounts forward. The horses, with eyes wide in excitement, were snorting and jerking their heads anxiously, chomping at their bits. The fugitives spurred the horses to a gallop just as one of the guards leveled a musket at them and fired. But, the riders did not halt.

The sound of gunshot riled the crowd further, stirring their angst and excitement into a brawl with each other, and with the officials. The last thing the four fugitives saw of the tumult was the guards fighting to free themselves of the crowd so they could get horses of their own.

The fleeing group quickly disappeared into the dark streets of the city, weaving in and out of alleys, mews, and closes, making it more difficult for those in pursuit to tell which way they had gone. Mike’s head pounded as hard as his heart as they rode. He was free! But, unless they got out of the city and far away, they would be caught, and they would all hang.

At last, they broke free of the city, and rode hard into the dark countryside. It felt like it had taken hours, but in reality, it had only taken a portion of an hour to reach the open. As soon as they could, they left the road that skirted the marshy areas, heading into the safety of more wooded areas. Once concealed far outside the city, Henry pulled his horse to a stop. The others reined in their mounts close beside him, the horses panting and tossing their heads in their excitement, lathered from the hard, fast ride.

The men were also huffing from their ride, yet surprisingly exhilarated. Their banter and chatter was excited as they exchanged spotty details of their heroics. Henry dismounted, and began looking around for any sign of pursuit. Tom nudged his horse close to Mike.

“Mike! We did it! We got you out. I bet you thought we’d never do it.”

Mike nodded, but was strangely quiet. Henry stopped his searching, and came close to the others, who had remained mounted. The quarter moon had risen, and even by the pale light of it, he could see that Mike looked odd. As he watched, Mike swayed slightly in the saddle, and then suddenly pitched forward onto the horse’s neck. Henry lunged forward and caught him, holding on to him until Jericho could dismount. Together they lowered Mike to the ground, and laid him on grass, already dewy in the early evening air.

Henry pulled his arm out from under Mike gently, and then saw the large, dark stain on his shirt.

“He’s shot!” He cursed.

Jericho ripped the front of Mike’s shirt open, and searched for the wound. There was blood oozing from the wound in his left side. He pressed his handkerchief to the wound. “We have to stop the bleeding. He’s lost a lot of blood already.”

“We can’t stop here,” Mike whispered hoarsely. He was barely conscious.

“He’s right,” said Henry. “They’re no doubt on our trail by now. It won’t take ’em long to find us here.”

“He’s in no condition to ride any further,” protested Jericho.

“I know, I know. Just let me think.” He paced around the little clearing, deep in thought. At last, he came back. “You remember that old barn we lived in when we were here before?”

Jericho and Tom nodded. “It ain’t far from here. If we cut ’cross country, we could make it in about an hour, even if we go slow.”

Henry and Jericho helped the very weak, and nearly fainting, Mike to mount Henry’s horse. Henry mounted behind him, grasping Mike firmly around his chest to hold him. Jericho and Tom followed as Henry led the way. Mike slipped in and out of consciousness during the ride, and it took all of Henry’s strength to keep him upright.

The barn was about four miles away across country, and it took more than an hour to reach it. Jericho and Tom left Henry and the horses in the woods across the road, while they inspected the structure for signs of inhabitants. When they were satisfied, Tom signaled Henry to come while Jericho set about making a bed for Mike in the straw of a secluded stall.

By the time they laid him down on the blanket, Mike was barely hovering on the edge of consciousness. Henry and Tom found some lanterns and lit them as Jericho examined Mike’s wound. The ball had pierced his side, and lodged there.

“That has to come out, but I don’t think I can do it. I don’t have what I need,” Jericho said as he continued to press his bloody handkerchief to the wound. “Tom, bring a pail of water.” Jericho washed the wound and bandaged it with strips he had torn from the bottom of Mike’s ripped shirt. The bleeding had stopped for the moment.

“He needs a doctor, and medicine. All I have in my pouches are herbs for stomach ailments, and cuts and scrapes. I got nothing to help his fever. We don’t even have any whiskey to pour on the wound.”

“How bad do you think he is?” Tom asked, as he squatted nearby.

“Bad. That ball has to come out. We have to get him to a doctor.”

“It ain’t possible. Too risky.” Henry growled. “The nearest doctor’d be in Cambridge. There’s no way we can go back there. ’Specially with him. We’d all hang.”

“Then we have to bring one here.”

“How do you propose we do that, Jericho?” he snapped as he stood and paced. “Same risk in that! Anybody who comes here’s gonna turn us in at first chance.”

Henry continued to pace, Tom sat and chewed his nails, and Jericho fretted over Mike.

“How long do you think he’ll last without a doctor?” Henry finally asked.

“Not long. He’s hurt bad, and without medicine, I can’t do no more for him.” Henry paced again. “And, there’ll be search parties out by morning. We need to find a better place to hide.”

Henry nodded. “Tom, get up there in the loft and look around. See if there’s any way we can take cover up there.”

In a short time, Tom reported from the top of the ladder.

“There’s a corner back there that’s still sturdy enough. If we heap up the straw and hay just right, we could hide behind it well enough if someone was lookin’ up from down there.”

“What about the horses?” Jericho asked.

“There’s a pasture behind the barn. I seen some animals there the last time we were here. We could put ’em out there on tethers, and it would look like they belonged.”

Tom and Henry busied themselves carrying their saddles, belongings, and anything they could find up the ladder to help create a camouflage in front of the safe corner. When they were ready, they set about the task of how to get Mike up into the loft.

“Well, there ain’t no other way to do it. I’ll have to carry him up. Jericho, get up there, and be ready to take him. Tom, you steady the ladder while I climb.”

Jericho climbed up, and waited at the top of the ladder. Henry took Mike by the arms, pulled him up on his feet, and bending over, lifted him onto his shoulder. The pain shooting from his wound caused Mike’s head to swim and he had to fight to keep from passing out. He was sure this was his punishment for all he had done, and had caused his friends to do. Perhaps it would be best if he just died from this wound. Then they would be free to leave and get away.

It took determination and strength, but Henry made it up the ladder. Jericho pulled Mike up, off Henry’s shoulder, and held him, until he and Henry could carry him to the bed they had prepared. Shortly, they had Mike bedded behind the makeshift wall of loose straw. Tom brought up a fresh pail of cool water from the stream behind the barn, and Jericho swabbed Mike’s face with it. Then, he turned his attention to the renewed bleeding of Mike’s wound. Behind the mound of straw in the dark loft, they settled down for the night.

Not long after sun up, a light fog covered the entire area. Voices drifted in to them from out of the mist.

“Robbie! Your wife know you come out on this hunt?” laughed one of the horsemen. Others laughed in response.

“At least she gave me a kiss before I left. How ’bout yours?” countered Robbie. “Bert, how big did you say that reward is?”

“Ten pounds! Tolabert must want ’em pretty bad to put up that much.”

“Yeah,” came the general agreement of the group.

The fugitives could see the search party through the cracks in the old wood of the barn as they approached. The searchers were loud, and clumsy. They tramped about the woods, until they found the old barn. After much noisy shushing, and signaling to each other, they dismounted and approached it. Then, with a shout, they burst through the barn door weapons at the ready, expecting to find the fugitives huddled before them. To their dismay, they found the barn empty. No horses, no riders, and no fugitives.

“They ain’t here!” said a disappointed Robbie.

Henry could see the men clearly from his hiding place, and froze when one of them pointed directly at them.

“Maybe they’re up there,” said another.

“Use your head, man. That rotten old loft wouldn’t hold a cat much less four men.” With the old pitchfork that he picked up from the floor, he poked at the wood just above their heads. It pierced the rotten wood, loosing splinters, and debris that fluttered down on them.

“There, see that? Besides, there ain’t no ladder. ’Course, you’re welcome to go on up there, and have a look around, if you can fly.”

“Go on with ya! I ain’t daft.”

“Well, there ain’t no where’s else they could hide in here. We best keep movin’.”

They left with as much commotion as they had come. To be sure the men were truly gone, the fugitives stayed hidden, unmoving for another half an hour. At last, Henry cautiously lowered the ladder to the ground, slipped down, and peered out and around the barn door. The intruders were gone. There was no sign of them outside the building. He signaled to the others that it was safe. They breathed a sigh of relief, and yet they all stayed hidden for a while longer, just in case someone else came hunting them.

At last, Henry quietly got up and made his way toward the ladder, and slid it down to the floor again. “What are you doing now?” questioned Jericho from right behind him.

“I’m going to go on further ahead and find a doctor.”

“Wait.” Henry turned and looked at him with mild surprise. “I been thinkin’ about that.”

“Is there a change in him?”

“No, no. He still needs help, but I have an idea.” The board beneath his foot cracked, threatening to splinter. “Let’s go down and talk about it.” Henry nodded, and led the way back down the ladder. They both cautiously looked outside before settling on a couple of empty kegs at the foot of the ladder to talk. “There’s no doubt Mike has to have help.”

Henry nodded gravely. “Aye, we have to do something if we don’t want him to die.”

“Maybe,” said Jericho. Henry raised a suspicious eyebrow at him. “We could go to the Bishop. He would help. He could send for a doctor, and no one would be the wiser.”

“I think the four of us ridin’ up to his door, would draw considerable attention. There’s patrols all over the city looking for us by now. And, they know the Bishop knows Mike. They’re probably watching his house, too.”

“Yes, but, just one of us alone wouldn’t bring any special attention. They’re looking for the four of us together. One of us could go to the Bishop, and tell him what’s happened, and see what he can do. I’m sure he’ll be able to think of something.”

Henry mulled it over. “Might work. I’d say it’s worth a try.” He stood up. “I’ll go. You and Tom stay here, and keep out of sight as much as possible. There could be more folk trampin’ about looking for us.” Jericho nodded agreement. “I’ll be back as soon as I can. If I’m not back by evening, you best try somethin’ else.”

“Right.” Henry cautiously went to the pasture and retrieved his horse. After saddling up, he headed back down the road toward Cambridge, nudging the beast to a steady trot. Jericho climbed back into the loft.

“You should get some sleep, Jericho,” said Tom. “I know you didn’t get none last night. I’ll watch Mike for a while.” Jericho gave him a smile that said both, thank you, and I’m surprised to hear you volunteer.

“I’ll do that. But, you wake me if there’s any change. Any change at all.”

Tom just wagged his head, and took up his position beside Mike.

“When will people trust me to be responsible? Of course, I’ll call him if there’s a change. I’m smart enough to know I can’t do nothing for you by myself.”

Mike opened his eyes slightly, and nodded. He was cold, but his clothes were drenched in sweat. He was so weak and tired, but he fought to stay awake. He was convinced they would be discovered if he fell asleep. But, it was becoming harder to keep his eyes open, and his wits about him.

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