Life And Debt
V. S. FOREMAN
Life and Debt
Written by V.S. Foreman
Published by Virginia S. Foreman Publishing at Smashwords
Copyright 2015 Virginia S. Foreman
Another book by this author
State of Deception
Written By V. S. Foreman
Copyright 2014 Virginia S. Foreman
All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used, or reproduced in any manner whatsoever, without prior written permission of the author/publisher, except in the case of brief quotations embodied in reviews.
All characters and circumstances in this book have no existence outside the imagination of the author and have no relation to anyone bearing the same name or names. Any resemblance to individuals known or unknown to the author are purely coincidental.
Life and Debt/V.S. Foreman
People have doubted over many years that this book would ever be finished, and whether it would ever be published (including me). I want to say thanks to all who kept encouraging me and asking when it would be done. You have been a great help to me. And, I want to offer a special thanks to writer/instructor Steve Alcorn, without whom I would probably still be struggling to get it right.
To everything there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven:
--Ecclesiastes 3:1 (KJV)
In the churchyard just outside Cambridge, England, the sound of the scraping shovels brought a pall over the magnificent fall day in 1775. As the gravediggers pushed the soil back into the two yawning holes in the earth, sixteen year-old Mike Harrington wrapped his arm tighter around his younger sister, drawing her close to ward off the chill only he felt. He stood a short distance back from the edge with his eyes fixed on the dirt falling into the graves, but not seeing it. The soft thudding sound and the smell of the freshly turned earth drove home the awful truth he had not wanted to believe—both their parents were dead.
Since their parents were well known in the social circuit, several important people had come to the funeral. Their brutal deaths had caused shock and outrage among their friends. Even some of the employees of Gerard Harrington’s mercantile company who came appeared struck with the same foreboding.
During the proceedings at the cemetery, Gerard Harrington’s partner, Jacob Tolabert, stood like a dark harbinger at the back, with a look of superior disdain, clearly not as devastated as the rest of the mourners, while Father John Osborn performed the rites.
Mike heartily wished all morning that he could wake up to find it had all been a nightmare. Yet, the scene had played tediously on. He watched as his own hand reach down to toss a handful of earth onto the two gleaming walnut coffins, while workers lowered the two boxes into the graves, one after the other. Janny did as he did, and then turned desperately to him, weeping pathetically into his shoulder. The minister’s voice droned on and on through the scriptures and words meant to comfort the mourners, but Mike did not hear them. He was numb, lost in his fog of disbelief.
The mourners filed somberly by, each pausing briefly at the graveside to toss in a bit of dirt, or a flower, and to wipe an appropriate tear from the eye. Mike heard himself saying “Thank you” and other similar words to each who offered words of condolence, as they moved quickly on, back to their lives.
Finally, there was only Mike and Janny left standing with Father John. As if bound there, they stood watching the gravediggers working to fill the graves. Then a gentle arm around his shoulder guided Mike away from the graves, towards the waiting carriage.
“Come children, I’ll see you home.” Father John Osborn’s voice was the only sanity left in their suddenly chaotic world. Adulthood stood like a ravenous wolf ready to swallow them whole, and Father John could shield them for only a little while longer. He had made all the arrangements, leaving the children nothing to do but grieve for the few remaining days of their stolen youth.
With a gentle touch, Mike smoothed Janny’s golden curls from her wet cheeks, and then handed her up into the carriage. She looks frail and lost, he thought. She needs her mother. Janny was not yet a woman, and would need guidance in the days and years to come. Mike felt he was a man, after all; he might be able to handle the business well enough, but what about Janny? How would he care for her?
Father John followed Mike into the carriage, and as if sensing Mike’s building resentment, anticipated his question.
“Michael, I don’t know why your parents were taken this way. Only God knows. Nevertheless, there is a reason for it. If you listen to your heart, God may show you some day. But, you must try to resist the bitterness.”
“Why shouldn’t I be bitter?” his voice was full of sarcasm. “Our parents are both dead for no good reason. There was no need for them to die. They gave the highwaymen what they asked for, and they killed them anyway. Why shouldn’t I be bitter over that?”
Mike repented immediately. “Father, it’s not fair. I can manage well enough. I may even be able to continue Father’s company. But, Janny … what about her? She’s still just a child, and needs her mother. She needs the security of her family. But, now she has neither.”
“Janny isn’t the only one feeling the loss,” said Father John gently. “You’ve lost them, too.”
“I’ll manage without them,” he said with his head raised, doing his best to look braver than he felt. “I’m a man. But, she can’t … she shouldn’t have to.”
From behind her linen handkerchief, Janny sat listening to them speaking of her as if she was not there—deciding for her what she could, or could not do without.
“I’m just as able to carry on as you are, Mike. I certainly don’t like being an orphan, but we still have each other, and I can manage if you can. We can do it together.”
Mike swallowed the lump that was growing in his throat. Of course, he still had her, and she certainly had him to count on. Yes, they would survive. They would care for each other. She was all the family he had left. He had never realized before, how much he loved his sister. Janny was precocious, and sometimes wiser than her years. He would pull himself out of this stupor—if she had that much determination, he did too.
One day he would find out the reason their parents died. Yes, he would find out, and then he would—what? Mike’s thoughts turned to the things that had led up to this day. He knew who had made Father angry that night, but just feeling resentment for the man and suspecting he had a hand in the death of his parents was very different. If there was a connection, he would find it—and make him pay.
“You and Janny could come and stay with me for a time, until you are more able to handle things,” Father John said as they rolled back into town.
Mike smiled wanly, “Thank you, Father, but Janny’s right. We can make it together, and the sooner we face things, the better.” He saw a worry crease form on the minister’s brow. “We’ll be fine, Father John.”
They rode on in silence, and Mike looked more closely at their friend. When had Father John become so gray? The lines entrenched in his tired face must have been there for a while, but Mike could not remember when they had appeared. This man was about the same age as Gerard Harrington, yet he seemed to have aged years in just a few short days. Or, was it just that Mike had never looked beyond his caring before?
Father John had always been there. He had been like a second father to Mike and his sister for as long as Mike could remember. He had been present throughout their lives, at many birthday and holiday celebrations, as well as numerous everyday events. He comforted them through the loss of pets, and children’s taunts. He had counseled them through decisions of faith and life. Mike mused absently that he had never questioned his presence in their lives, but now he was thankful for it. Now that both their parents were gone, Father John was the only one left who truly cared about them.
“Don’t worry about us. We’ll be fine.” Mike smiled hoping he showed the confidence he did not quite feel.
“Ah, Michael, I suppose you will be at that,” he sighed. “But, remember. If you ever need anything, you can come to me. I’ll always help you in any way I can.”
Only a few months ago Mike had thought himself quite the young man of the world. Cambridge seemed like such a small, cramped place for a young man of the merchant wealth society. He was, after all, nearly a man. What else could there be to learn of the world?
He could only vaguely recall snatches of conversations at the dinner table about the state of England, the rebellious colonists in America, and their effect on Harrington Mercantile. Those things were unimportant to a young man who preferred to fill his time with carefree days spent with his friends. Besides, he had begun to notice the simpering, giggling girls at the dreadful socials his mother insisted he attend, and they seemed much less repulsive to him in the last year.
So, why should he care about the foolishness of the old men at Parliament and King George, who wanted to force the American colonists into submission? Why should he care about crazy old Farmer George? The actions of the King had little to do with him and his life. He had his secure little world in which he, and everyone he cared about, was immortal. Father could worry about all those other things. Perhaps, someday, he would learn of politics and business, but there was no hurry to learn them—there was plenty of time for that.
Faced with running the Mercantile, Mike realized he knew even less of the company business than he did of the world outside his home in Cambridge. Now, the world seemed a huge unknown and frightening place.
The company Gerard Harrington built was a solid business, built on integrity and honesty. The reputation of Harrington Mercantile Company was sound, and stood for superior quality, and fair prices. The clientele trusted Gerard to deliver what he promised, and they knew they could depend on his generosity to extend credit if they needed it. Because of this, it was seldom that Gerard had to pursue payment forcefully. More likely than not, Gerard would write off the debt, rather than hound a man he knew was in trouble and could not pay.
Gerard’s employees knew him to be fair, kind, and understanding. In return, they gave him their loyalty. But, a rat can turn up in even the cleanest kitchen, and such was the case when one Jacob Tolabert came along.
Gerard hired Mr. Tolabert as bookkeeper at the recommendation of a business associate. Tolabert had an uncanny way of ingratiating himself to Gerard, and before long, he had convinced Gerard to make him a partner in the business. It was, with only a little reservation, that Gerard finally consented to make him a partner in a small way.
Changes began slowly and quietly. At first, they seemed to be unimportant. However, as time passed, Tolabert began to take more and more liberty in the ordering and distribution of goods, convincing Gerard that he was only trying to relieve him of his more burdensome tasks, thereby easing some of his stress, and allowing him more freedom. Gerard hardly noticed when the good and loyal men, who had worked for him for years left, and men who were neither quietly replaced them. Over the course of only a few years, the quality goods Harrington’s had always provided were replaced with things of lesser quality, and sold at the same prices. Yet, the profits, instead of increasing, declined.
The explanation Tolabert offered for the decline seemed plausible, and Gerard wanted to believe it. They had done a brisk business with the American colonies until recently. With the troubles over there, the British goods were in less demand than they had been. Surely, after they settled that little problem, the demand would increase again, and things would pick up.
On Mike’s fifteenth birthday, a small group of family and friends had gathered for a celebration. Winter had finally released its grip on the city, and the day was warm enough to have tea served in the garden, where the colorful spring flowers were in bloom. Mike and his young friends gathered at the table, filling their plates for a third time while Gerard stood a few steps away talking with some business constituents. When he heard his father mention his name, Mike’s ears perked up.
“I intend to take Michael into the company with me,” Gerard said. “He’s old enough now to start learning the business. It’ll be good for him to have something more to do with his time than just his studies, and wasting time with his friends.” The other men heartily voiced their agreement and approval.
Mike felt pleased by his father’s confidence in him, but he was not sure he was ready to give up his youth and freedom just yet.
“Bad luck, Harrington,” said one of his pals.
“Looks like you’re in for it,” said another. Mike set his plate down on the table, his appetite suddenly evaporating.
Over the next weeks, Mike learned the operation of the mercantile business, learning first things first. He put in the same long, hard days in the warehouse as the other employees. He loaded and unloaded the drays and wagons, moved crates and other stock around in the warehouse, and counted inventory. He learned the required tasks quickly, and after the first few days of aching muscles and unfamiliar weariness, his body began to adjust to the demands, by developing muscles in new places.
The first thing he learned was that he did not like Jacob Tolabert. The man was always polite and business like when Gerard was around, but the minute Gerard was out of sight, he demeanor changed. He did not waste his smarmy grin, and mocking politeness on Mike.
One beautiful spring day when the air was warm and clear, Gerard sent Mike into the warehouse to count the bottles of a large shipment of wine that had just arrived from France. Mike longed to be outside with his friends instead of inside the musty warehouse. When he went to the back of the building with his tally sheet, the lure of an open window was stronger than the call of duty. He stepped behind the stack of crates and leaned out of the window, breathing deeply of the warm spring air. He watched the puffy clouds floating slowly by above the roof of the next building that blocked the view of everything else, and was lost in a daydream when he heard hushed voices from the other side of the stacked crates.
There would be a reprimand if they found him dallying around instead of doing what he was supposed to be doing. Quickly he stepped back and pressed himself against the stack of crates, and stood still. Hopefully, they would be gone soon, none the wiser.
“When I hired you, you said you could do the job right.” Tolabert’s voice was condescending and scolding.
“Aye, and we did. The likes of you ain’t gonna tell me how to do my job.”
“I pay you; I will tell you what to do,” he hissed.
Mike’s curiosity got the better of him, and he stole a peek around the edge of the crate. The big man was dressed like a laborer, and unshaven with a day or two worth of a scruffy beard.
“Well, perhaps you’d like to take care of it yerself,” he said as he crossed his arms over his big chest and glared at Tolabert.
“That’s why I hired you two in the first place. But, I need men I can trust to do what I say. If you cannot do that simple thing, then I will find someone else smart enough to do it.” He tucked something into his waistcoat pocket, and leveled cold eyes on the man.
“Now—now just a minute. You promised to pay us to haul them crates, and we did it. We took ’em where you said—” piped in the shorter, weasel like little man.
“Yes, but you did not do it as I told you. You moved them in broad daylight! Suppose Harrington had seen you? What could we have done? You would be in it as deep as me, and probably received the worst of it, too,” snarled Tolabert.
“And, what if he did see?” demanded the short man. “He’d just think we was moving the stuff for one of his customers.”
The big man put his fists on his hips, and took a firm stance in front of Tolabert. “You wouldn’t be thinking of not paying us for the work we done for you, would you?” He stepped closer, and poked his thick finger into Tolabert’s chest a couple of times. “Cause we sure would hate to have to take a piece of your hide to collect our payment.”
Tolabert held his gaze, but Mike saw a slight tremble in his fingers as he reached into his waistcoat pocket, removed the coins he had placed there a moment earlier, and tossed them to the floor.
“There. This is the last of it. I’ll think long and hard before I hire the two of you for anything again.” He turned on his heel and walked out quickly.
The two men snatched up the coins from the floor, and examined them closely before pocketing each his share. The larger man watched Tolabert with a smirk.
“He’ll send for us again. He can’t afford to let no more in on his little business than’s already in. You’ll see.” The shorter man nodded with a knowing grin, as they both left the warehouse.
Mike stood frozen in disbelief. Jacob Tolabert had hired these men to do something suspicious. It sounded like they were moving something they were not supposed to move. Else, why would they be afraid Father would notice? What little business were they all in together? This could not be good. He should tell his father. But, tell him what? That he had overheard a dubious conversation between Jacob Tolabert and a couple of laborers? Tolabert would deny any wrongdoing, and would probably have a plausible explanation. He decided he would have to learn more before he told Father about this.
From that time, Mike watched Tolabert closely. He began to notice things he had not noticed before. Tolabert spent a lot of time in the warehouse talking to a select few men. Mike could not remember when these men had come to work for Harrington’s.
In late summer, when his father decided to have him begin learning the workings of the office and the paperwork of the business, he found opportunities to compare the counts of the shipments with the records in the office.
A few times, he found what he was sure was a discrepancy in the count, but when he went to the warehouse, and counted the cargo again, it was the same as the records. Maybe he was chasing a wild hare. Maybe his dislike of the man was coloring his view. He wanted to be sure, though, and decided to make a test, and find out if he were right or wrong.
A new shipment of dishes had come in from Holland. Mike had been expecting it, and had looked up the orders, dunning notice and shipping records. He carefully copied down all the figures from the papers before replacing them all in the file. While the workers unloaded the shipment, he counted the crates, opening each one and checking for breakage. The shipment they received agreed with the figures he had written down from the records. He counted twice to be sure he had not made a mistake.
The next day, Jacob Tolabert finished his records, and entered all the information into the books. When Mike found a moment alone in the office, he compared what he had recorded earlier with what Tolabert had put into the book. The figures were off by two crates. Mike went over the figures again. Still two. Here could be the proof. His heart raced as he went directly to the warehouse where they had stacked the crates and counted them. There were two less than what he had written down. The inventory agreed with Tolabert’s paperwork. Mike knew he had counted correctly the first time. There were two crates missing. And, he thought he knew what had happened to them. If the records agreed with the inventory, how could he prove there were things missing?
It was getting late when Mike finished his work that day, but he was determined he would go to his father before they left for the day. He had to tell Father or burst, and he did not care anymore whether or not his story was believable. Father could do what he would with the information.
As he came from the warehouse toward the office, he heard angry, raised voices coming from within. One of the voices belonged to his father. He knew that angry tone even through the closed door.
As Mike reached for the doorknob, the door burst open, and Jacob Tolabert stomped past him, his face red and contorted in wrath. Mike stared open mouthed at him as he stomped deliberately out of the building, slamming the door behind him. Stepping into the office, Mike found his father livid, and pacing back and forth between the two desks. He had never seen Gerard so angry.
“Father?” Mike ventured timidly.
Gerard stopped his pacing. When he saw Mike, he took a long deep breath, and let it out slowly. The anger turned to sorrow as he wearily sat down at his desk.
“Michael, you’re ready to go home?”
“I need to talk to you. I’ve been doing some checking, and I think I’ve found something you need to know about.” He fingered his papers as he stood before his father, shifting his weight from foot to foot.
“Michael, I just can’t think about anything else just now. Perhaps tomorrow I’ll be in a better mind to look at it.” He pulled out his watch and opened it. The fob made by childish hands dangled between his fingers. Mike remembered the year he had made the fob, and presented it to Gerard for his birthday. Gerard had acted so pleased, and attached it to his watch immediately. He had never removed it.
“We best get along home. Your mother will think I’ve forgotten we’re to go to the Byron’s dinner party tonight.”
Mike respected his father’s wishes. Perhaps, after Gerard had dressed for the dinner party and had his brandy, he would be more inclined to listen. But, Gerard’s mood did not alter until he saw Sarah Harrington standing in the doorway of the drawing room, dressed in her party gown. The frustrated, haggard look he had worn home from the office, melted into obvious love and appreciation for the beautiful woman before him. Mike would remember his mother in that emerald green, satin gown whenever he thought of her in years to come.
Gerard took her gloved hand, and kissed her fingers where they folded over his hand. “You will out shine the hostess this evening, my dear.”
She smiled warmly into his eyes, and took his extended arm. “You are sweet to say so, but we are still going.”
“I would follow you anywhere, my love.” He kissed her cheek, and released her to go to the children.
“You both go to bed on time,” she said, hugging Janny. “Don’t wait up for us. It may be late when we come back.” She kissed Janny, and smoothed her curls back from her forehead, then kissed Mike’s cheek and ran her fingers across the creases in his brow. “You’re working too hard. You need to get more rest.”
“I will, Mother.”
Mike stayed in the drawing room after Janny went to bed. He sat in the big leather chair by the fire, and waited. He had to tell his father what he had learned about Jacob Tolabert, and tomorrow would not do. Surely, after a relaxing evening with friends and good food, Gerard would be ready to hear what he had to say.
Hours later Higgins, the butler, wakened him by gently touching his shoulder.
“Master Harrington? There’s a constable here to see you.”
Mike focused his sleepy eyes on Higgins standing before him in his nightshirt and dressing gown. “What? What did you say?” he yawned groggily.
“A constable to see you, sir.”
“To see me? Are you sure? What time is it?”
“It is very late, sir. Shall I show him in?”
“Yes, of course.” Mike stood up and saw the man standing in the doorway of the room, turning his hat in his hands, looking ill at ease and apologetic.
“Are you Master Harrington?”
Mike rubbed his eyes with the flat of his hands, and then rolled them behind his closed lids to remove the lingering sleep.
“Yes, I am. My father is out for the evening, though. He should be back soon if you care to wait—”
“No, sir, it’s you I come to speak to.”
“Why me?” Mike was beginning to get uneasy.
“Well, sir, it’s about your parents—”
“What about my parents? Has something happened?”
“Yes, sir. Something has happened. I’m sorry to have to tell you, but … well … they’ve been killed.” The man’s voice was kind, and he shifted his weight from foot to foot, as he stood fingering his hat brim.
Mike thought his heart had stopped beating. He seemed unable to breathe, and his knees felt like they had suddenly turned to jelly. The constable reached out and took his arm, easing him back into the chair. Thousands of questions raced through his mind, but none seemed to be coming out of his lips. Killed? That was impossible. He must have heard wrong. They were just here a few hours ago, leaving for a dinner party.
Finally, he heard his own voice, thin and weak.
“No—no, you must be mistaken—”
“ ’Fraid not, sir,” he said as he hovered close by, concerned by Mike’s sudden weakness. “There’s a gentleman identified ’em. Said he’d been at the same party with ’em. He said they was Sarah and Gerard Harrington of this address. He also said there was folks here as should be told. So, they sent me along to see you.”
“But—how, what …?”
“Well, it seems they was robbed on their way home—there was no money, or jewelry on either of them. They was both shot—the hack driver, too. Near as we can figure, they must a decided to give the robbers a fight, so they shot ’em.”
“That’s ridiculous. My father had nothing that he would risk his life to protect … except Mother. Was she—I mean did they—”
“Oh! No sir, no. There wasn’t nothing like that done to the lady. It just appears to be a robbery.” Mike closed his eyes as if to shut out the whole thing, shaking his head. “Well, sir, if you got no more questions, I need to get back on duty.”
Mike nodded. He was too stunned to remember manners. What now? He was unprepared for what he now faced. And, Janny. How would he tell her? He rested his elbows on his knees, and covered his face with his hands. He could not face this. It was too hard.
As if in answer to a wish, Father John was kneeling beside him. “Michael! Higgins sent for me. He told me what has happened. How are you?”
Mike raised watery eyes to meet his. “They can’t be gone.”
The minister took his hands in his. “Michael, I am here for you and Janny. Has she been told?”
Mike bowed his head, and allowed the tears to burn their way down his cheeks. “No. I couldn’t wake her to tell her this. What am I going to say? How can I tell her that her mother and father are dead?”
“There is no easy way, but it has to be done. She has to know. I’ll tell her if you like.” Mike nodded. “I sent someone for the bodies, and I’ll take care of everything else. You don’t need to worry about anything now.”
Mike drew his knees up to his chest, wrapped his arms around them, and sat in the big chair, staring into the fire until it died in the early morning light.
After the funeral, while Mike went to work at the company, Janny took on the duties of running the household. They had never had many servants, but those they did have were loyal and had been with them a long time. It was painful when she had to let nearly all of them go because there was no longer money to pay them. As the new mistress of the house, she was to choose the menus, and oversee the shopping, the cleaning, and the laundry, as well as keep the household budget. And, she felt it was her responsibility to keep up Mike’s spirits.
That was the hardest. Mike was becoming like a stranger to her. He was preoccupied with trying to run Harrington’s. But, Janny never complained. He was working so the two of them could stay together. The least she could do was make him comfortable when he got home.
The money Mike brought home was not as much as Father had brought home, and it seemed that each week it was a little less. Janny cut the budget to the bone. She eliminated anything that was not a necessity, and she closed up the rooms that they did not use so as not to have to clean them regularly.
One day a few months after the funeral, she stood, trembling like a frightened rabbit before two of the remaining servants. She loved each of them, since they had been part of her life nearly from birth, and she was loath to lose any of them.
“I know that you both have been very kind since Mother and Father died, and I am sorry I can’t continue to pay you as before,” Janny said at last. “I’m afraid I could only afford to pay you each for a few hours a day. Would you be agreeable to that?”
“Oh, missy, I’ll do what I can for as long as I can,” said Cook in her thick Scottish accent. She twisted her apron and chewed on her lip. “But, I may ha’e to look for somethin’ else. You know ma husband is nae able to work like he used to.”
“I know, and I am sorry.” Janny bit her lip. “If you could just come in and make the evening meals until you must take something else that would be wonderful.”
“Aye, I can do that for a while. I may even be able to find something else to fill in of a morning,” she said with a sigh and a nod.
“Miss Harrington, I would gladly do what I can, but like Cook, I will need to either supplement, or find something else,” said the housekeeper, as she stood towering over Janny in her stiff black uniform.
“I do understand. But if you could come in and help me with the heavier work a couple days a week, I would be most grateful.”
“Well, I will do what I can.” The tiniest quiver twitched the corner of her mouth. Her stiff British formality was always present, but her soft spot for these struggling children was stronger.
Higgins, the butler, would be the only one to remain, and continue to live in the servant’s quarters full time. He voluntarily gave up most of his salary, working for his room and board. He was elderly, had no family left, and did not mind staying. He took his meals of leftovers from the evening meals, leaving as much as possible for the children. And, he managed to make breakfast for them from the meager items Janny brought from market.
“Miss, you really need to eat more,” he insisted one day a couple of months later. “You are going to become ill.”
“Mike is the one who has to go out to work every day, and he needs the food more than me. When I know he has enough, then I eat more.” She lifted her chin, determined to show no weakness, either to Higgins or to her brother. She would be strong for Mike so he would be free to concentrate on rebuilding the company.
“But, you have become so thin, and you don’t look well. You must eat.”
“I’m fine. It won’t be long before Mike is able to bring home more money, and then everything will be as before. Until then, saving as much as possible is the least I can do.”
“Why don’t you let me ask Father Osborn for help?”
“No, Mike would not allow that. He’s too proud. He wants to do this on his own. And, together, we can do it, I know we can.”
Mike did not notice the gradual changes in her. She kept up her cheerfulness, and the deplorable condition of the household budget was a well-guarded secret. Not until Janny developed a severe cough did he suspect there was anything different.
“Janny, you seem to be getting a cold. You should stay in bed for a day or two until it passes,” Mike told her one evening as he ate his dinner.
“It’s nothing, Mike. I’ll be fine in a few days. It’s nothing to worry about.
“Cook seems to be trying some new dishes lately,” he said as he took a small bite of the unfamiliar looking stew Higgins had ladled onto his plate.
Janny’s cheeks turned pink and she quickly chewed a bite of her own stew. “Yes, but I think it’s very good. It’s nice to have something different from time to time.”
Mike tasted a larger bite, and gave a little shrug before digging into his meal. “It is different, but it’s quite tasty.” He did not notice Janny’s little sigh of relief.
Mike struggled, from day to day, to learn what his father did not have time to teach him about running the company. He got no help from Jacob Tolabert, who barely retained his smirking politeness after Gerard’s death. Mike was sure Tolabert was still stealing from the company and was on a mission to ruin it. Still he could find no real proof, and nothing with which to accuse him openly. He could not understand why Tolabert was doing this, and it made him angry with himself for not understanding, as well as with Tolabert for doing it. If the company went under, Tolabert would lose just as much as Mike. He had to figure it all out and find a solution.
A late spring was finally trying to force its way out of the winter ground again, slowly warming, and brightening the grayness of the city. One evening, as Mike left the office to walk home after work, he noticed a man walking just ahead of him. He could have come from Harrington’s warehouse. Mike studied the man as he walked, thinking there was something familiar about him. Then the man turned to glance into a window he was passing. The light was beginning to fade, but Mike saw his face clearly. He was shocked to realize he was one of the men he had seen talking with Tolabert in the warehouse that day last year.
On an impulse, Mike began to follow him at a cautious distance. He stayed behind him by at least a block, pretending to be interested in the shop windows whenever the man looked back over his shoulder. At last, the man stopped in front of the tavern. Mike had never been inside the tavern before, but he was curious and determined to see what this man was up to. If he went inside, Mike decided he would follow him.
The man looked up and down the street as if looking for someone, then pulled a watch from his pocket and opened it. Mike gasped when he saw the watch. The fob, which dangled between the man’s fingers, was the one he had made for his Father. Mike would know that fob anywhere—there was no other one like it.
Shock and numbness at seeing the familiar object brought wild thoughts speeding through his mind. He needed to get away from here, and think things through—to understand what he had just seen. He turned up an alley, and made his way home as quickly as he could.
After a dinner he hardly noticed, Mike closed himself in the drawing room. What did this mean? Why did that man have Father’s watch? Mike first noticed him just outside the warehouse today. But, he had not seen him around since that day last year. Was Tolabert doing business with him again? How did that fit together with him having Father’s watch? The constable had said that the robbers took his parents’ jewelry and money. If the robbers had taken the watch, how did this man get it? Did he get it from the robbers? Or … could he be the robber? He did not look bright enough to have thought up, and carried out any plan to commit the robbery and killing by himself.
After hours of pondering the same thoughts repeatedly, a new theory began to take form. What if Jacob Tolabert had hired those two men to rob Gerard? But, why would he do that? Then he remembered something he had forgotten. Tolabert was arguing with Father that afternoon. Gerard was angry with Tolabert. Could he possibly have found out Tolabert was stealing from the company, and confronted him? Would Tolabert have retaliated by hiring these men to kill his parents, and the coach driver as well, over the argument? Was he sly enough to make it look like a robbery to hide his true intent?
If he could do such a thing to Sarah and Gerard, what would keep him from doing the same thing, or worse, to Mike and Janny? It was a chilling thought. Mike would have to be more careful in his investigating. He was going to need help if there was to be any justice.
The fire had burned low, and the candles had burned down to stubs before Mike gave up and decided to go to bed. He took the candlestick, and climbed the stairs of the silent house. He had not noticed before, how mausoleum like the house seemed now. As he was passing Janny’s door, he heard her coughing, and quietly sobbing between each jag. He opened the door and peered in. She lay on her side in the large bed with her back to the door. Mike crossed the room, and set the candle on her bed stand. The flickering light cast odd shadows, making her face look pale and cadaverous, as she continued to sob, unaware of him.
“Janny,” he whispered as he touched her gently on the shoulder. “What is it? Why are you crying?”
She quickly wiped her hand across her face to dry the tears, before turning to look at him. “I wasn’t crying, Mike.”
Recrimination stabbed at his heart as he realized how little time he had spent with her since the death of their parents. After tugging the covers up under her chin and smoothing them, he sat down beside her with a tender smile.
“It’s all right if you cry for Mother and Father. I did, and I am much older than you.” He took her hand and wondered when she had become so thin.
“I know, but I wasn’t crying for them.”
“Then what? You can tell me. I want to help.” He covered her hand with his other hand.
Her face grew serious. “I—I was crying for you.”
“Me?” he said in surprise. “Why me?”
“Because, you’ll be all alone when I leave. Who will take care of you then?”
“Janny, you aren’t going anywhere. I’m going to find a way to get the business back up, and no one will separate us. You’ll always be right here with me, and I’ll take care of you.”
She reached up and touched his cheek, holding his eyes with hers.
“Oh, I know you’ll work everything out, but I still have to leave.”
She was so earnest in her insistence that it was beginning to unnerve him. “Janny, I don’t understand what you’re talking about.”
“Mike, I’m so sorry, but I have to go. Mother and Father are waiting for me.”
He touched her forehead. It was hot, and she looked so pale and thin. She was very ill, but when had this happened? He had not noticed anything out of the ordinary about her before.
“Janny, stop this. You’re frightening me. You aren’t going anywhere. I’m going to send for the doctor.” He stood up.
“No, please don’t leave me. I want to say good-bye before I go.”
Mike ran to the door and called Higgins, who came stumbling into the room in his nightshirt moments later.
“Send for Father John, and the doctor!”
He went back to Janny’s side. “Don’t worry, Janny. I sent Higgins for the doctor, and Father John.
“I won’t need the doctor, but it is good Father John is coming. He’ll help you.”
Mike could think of nothing else to say that would comfort her. He sat down on the bed stroking her hair. Why had he not noticed how ill she was sooner? He sat, reproaching himself, and promising he would do better, until the sound of a horse clattering to a stop before the house alerted him to the arrival of the doctor, nearly half an hour later.
Janny stirred. She looked sadly at her brother. Her voice was small and weak, and she seemed to be delirious.
“Mike, Mother and Father are here.” She pointed to the empty air at the foot of her bed. “I have to go with them now. Give me a hug before I leave.”
“Janny, it is only Father John and the doctor. You aren’t going anywhere, you’ll see.” He leaned into her outstretched arms, and gave her the requested hug. She kissed him on the cheek and squeezed him tightly.
“I’m so sorry that I can’t help you anymore.”
She closed her eyes, and grew limp in his arms. In panic, he shook her, trying to waken her. He called her name, but she would not stir. She could not be dead. He would not allow it. She was only sleeping, and when Father John came, he would make her wake up. Mike held her close, rocking her in his arms.
Father John stepped into the room, and placed a gentle hand on Mike’s shoulder. “Michael how is she?”
“She’s very tired, Father. I think she’s gone to sleep.”
Father John carefully eased Janny out of his arms, and back onto the bed, then touched her forehead. His eyes widened, and he quickly took her wrist, searching for a pulse. Finding none, he placed his ear on her chest, straining to hear even the faintest heartbeat, but there was none.
“Michael, Janny’s not sleeping—she’s dead,” he said quietly, his voice breaking.
Mike’s eyes were wide with hysteria.
“Of course she’s sleeping,” he said calmly. “She’s been very sick and working too hard around here. She really needs to rest. We should leave her alone.”
Father John took Mike gently by the shoulders, and pulled him to his feet.
“Come along, and I’ll have Higgins fix us a brandy. There’s nothing more that can be done for Janny.”
“No, the doctor can make her well. You’ll see.”
“Mike, Janny’s gone. There’s nothing anyone can do.”
Mike jerked away from the gentle grip.
“No! She can’t be dead. I won’t allow her to die, too.”
Father John breathed a prayer. The realization slowly began to grip Mike, and he sank to his knees by the bed, burying his face in the woolen blankets.
“It’s not fair … it’s not fair,” he said softly. “Why should they all be taken from me? Janny shouldn’t be dead. I should have stopped him before this happened.”
In the drawing room, Mike sat in stunned silence, an empty glass in his hand. He stared unblinking into the fire. He was barely aware that Father John sat opposite him, patiently waiting.
During the night, people had come and gone, preparing Janny, but Mike did not stir. He seemed unconscious of anything around him. Father John had quietly slipped in and out of the room all evening, attending details, and at last, he dozed in his chair. The hours passed, and dawn began to lighten the windows of the room around the heavy drapes. The candles had burned down long ago, and the fire was cold.
When Mike stirred in the cold gray of morning, Father John wakened and sat up, waiting for Mike to speak if he would. Seeing the minister, sitting in his drawing room in the half darkness, brought a quizzical look to Mike’s face, before recollection changed it to sorrow. His sister was dead. He was truly alone, now. What was the point of going on? Who was it for? The feeling of futility brought with it resentment, which he directed at the only person in sight.
“Why are you still here?” he snapped.
“I’m here to help, Michael. I’ve taken care of Janny. The funeral will be this afternoon.”
“Is that soon enough? Why not this morning?” Mike accused as he crossed the room, and jerked open the heavy drapes, allowing the first dim rays of the shrouded sun to radiate into the room. The day was going to be as dismal as he felt.
“Michael, I haven’t taken Janny from you,” he said quietly. “There is no need to postpone the burial.” His quiet answer wrenched Mike’s heart with shame.
“I know. I’m sorry. It just seems that everyone I love has been taken from me. There’s no reason to continue. What’s left for Tolabert to take from me now?”
“What do you mean?”
Mike sighed, and decided that, perhaps, it was time he told someone of his suspicions.
“Jacob Tolabert was my Father’s partner.”
“Yes, I know. But, what has he taken from you?”
“He’s been stealing from the company for a long time. I discovered it last spring, and was trying to find enough proof to take to Father. I finally decided just to go to him with what I knew, but that day when I got back to the office, Father and Jacob Tolabert were arguing. After Tolabert left, I tried to talk to Father, but he was so angry. He said he would talk to me tomorrow when he was not so upset. That was the same night he and Mother were killed. I waited up for them, but they never came home.” He raised his hand to his tired eyes and dragged it across them.
“Yesterday, I saw one of the men I know had been working for Tolabert then. I followed him for a while. When he stopped, he took out a watch. It was Father’s watch.”
“But, how could you know that?” Father John asked, pointing out how foolish it was to imagine such a thing at a glance.
“I know because of that silly fob I made for his birthday six or eight years ago. It was still on the watch. I would know it anywhere. There’s no other one like it.”
“Did you go to the authorities?”
“With what? I don’t know his name. Tolabert would deny knowing him. I have no solid proof of any of my suspicions.”
“But, what does all this mean, Michael?”
“I think that Tolabert hired that man and his friend to kill father, because he had discovered what Tolabert was up to. I think that is what they argued about the day he died.”
“Why didn’t you tell someone before now? You may be in great danger by continuing to work at the company.”
“Very likely. But, as long as he thinks I’m ignorant of his doings, he won’t bother me. In the meantime, he has been stealing more and more. The company is on the point of ruin. That’s why there has been so little money to run the house on, and most probably, why Janny became so ill. I was so engrossed in my efforts to find proof, that I just didn’t see what was happening to her.” He threw himself back into the chair and closed his eyes, which were starting to sting.
“You mustn’t blame yourself for Janny’s death.”
“If I hadn’t been so busy with things at the company, I would have seen the changes taking place in her. I hate Tolabert for what he’s done to Father’s company, and to me. And, for what he’s done to my family.”
Father John bit his tongue, instead of rebuking Mike for his feelings of hatred.
“I have to find a way to stop him. And, I will stop him someday, one way or another,” he vowed.
“Be careful, Michael. I care about you, and don’t want to lose you to this man as well.”
With a lump in his throat, Mike allowed Father John to pull him up and embrace him. The good Father’s strength would enable him to make it through the funeral, and continue his mission. Perhaps, he was not as alone as he thought.
Much as Mike wished it would not, life went on. A few weeks after the second tragedy, Jacob Tolabert entered Mike’s dingy, cluttered office without announcement. His usual smirking politeness was gone, replaced by overt contempt as he held his head high, and sneered down his nose at Mike. Obviously, something had changed, and Tolabert no longer felt it necessary to disguise his scorn. Mike was a little surprised by this behavior, and was apprehensive when he drew a chair up to the desk, and sat down pompously. Mike looked up from his work and fixed a cool stare on him.
“You wish to speak to me, Mr. Tolabert?”
“No, but I will. Harrington, I have come to make you an offer. I am here to buy out your share of the company.”
“Buy me out!” Mike said in surprise. It took all his strength to stay calm. “Indeed, why would you want to do that? We can barely make payroll. We’re not going to be able to stay open for business much longer. Surely, a dying business is not worth purchasing.”
“Perhaps. However, the fact is that selling to me is the only thing that will save this business. Your creditors are no longer willing to sell to you without payment first, and some of your customers are even harder to collect from. I know in truth that you cannot produce enough cash to set things right.”
Mike sucked on his lower lip thoughtfully.
“Well, if you are interested in buying, perhaps there are others, also willing. I should probably place it on the open market, and see if there is anyone else who would want it. It might fetch a better price for us both. You are, after all, only a small partner. Surely you don’t have enough capital to buy me out.”
“I am prepared to offer you a thousand pounds for the whole thing … debts and all.”
“One thousand! How generous,” he scoffed with open sarcasm before changing his tone to accuse him. “You know that it’s worth at least ten times that.”
“True enough. But, it would take a long time to find a buyer willing to give that for it in its present condition. And I, being a partner, small though I may be,” he sneered again, “am not about to give my consent to sell to anyone else. So by the time you find someone fool enough to try, the company will be bankrupt.” His eyes were cold and malicious. Any trace of cordiality was gone.
“Take the offer! One thousand is quite a lot of money. You could live comfortably on it for many years if you’re careful.” He leaned back in his chair and crossed his legs as if in challenge.
The man’s brazen proposition astonished Mike. What he said was true, and he knew that Tolabert’s offer, small though it was, might be the only way out. Yet, somehow, it seemed disloyal to his father, and all he had been struggling to accomplish. If he sold out to Tolabert, there would be no way he could prove Tolabert’s connection to the death of Sarah and Gerard Harrington. And, once he had the business in his possession, Mike knew it would make a remarkable recovery. The business community would hail Tolabert a genius, instead of thief and murderer.
“Come, come, Harrington. My generosity may disappear at any moment, and I could leave you to sink with your business.” He shoved the already prepared documents across the desk at Mike.
“You—you’re—” Mike lost all his composure and restraint. “You’ve been planning this for months, haven’t you? This is what you and Father argued about.”
He shrugged. “Gerard was a fool. He honestly believed he would be able to save this crumbling company, alone. He wouldn’t hear of selling out to me, or anyone.”
“So, you took more drastic measures to get it.”
Tolabert expression sobered, and his eyes narrowed.
“It was rather convenient for you, that Father was killed when he was.”
“I can’t help that. And, at this moment, it doesn’t matter. If you don’t sign this paper, my offer shall shrink considerably on a daily basis.”
Mike smoldered. He knew he had no choice. Tolabert had outsmarted him for the moment. Perhaps with some luck, he could find a way to retaliate, later. With a scathing look, he snatched up the quill and dipped it into the inkpot.
“Do you have the money with you?”
“Of course.” He removed a pouch from his pocket and tossed it across the desk in front of Mike where it landed with a metallic clunk.
Mike quickly signed the paper, and thrust it back at Tolabert, snatching the pouch of coins at the same time. Tolabert rose and folded the paper gently. He opened the door of the office and turned, any semblance of friendliness gone.
“Now, get out of my office, and never let me see you here again,” he snarled.
Mike ground his teeth, and squared his shoulders. All hope dashed, he would have to bide his time for revenge. After taking his hat and coat from the hook on the wall, he stopped in the doorway, and turned to Tolabert.
“One day you will pay for this, and all you have done to my family. I promise you that.” Tolabert slammed the door after him.
The afternoon was passing as Mike made his way toward home. In his humiliation and anger, he failed to notice the figure following him in the shadows. He passed from the bustling, grimy business district of the city into the quieter residential area, not so far removed from the area of the colleges. The farther he walked, the fewer people there were moving about on the streets.
The figure drew closer behind him. In the deepening afternoon shadows of the trees and shrubs in the park near his house, the man seized Mike’s arm, and spun him around. Mike saw nothing of the man’s disheveled appearance, his scruffy two day growth of beard or his grimy old coat and breeches. All he saw was the open barrel of the pistol, which seemed to be pointing right between his eyes.
“Wh—what do you want?” came Mike’s startled response. He could feel the fear rising from the pit of his stomach in a sickening wave.
“What do you think? I want your money. All of it.”
He could not allow this man to take all he had left. Mike tried to pull his arm free, which brought a sharp blow to his jaw from the butt of the pistol. The crack on his jaw resounded like thunder inside his head, and little lights appeared to swim before his eyes. The pain was bad enough to convince him his jaw, surely, must be broken. His knees buckled, and he was on the ground. Mike rolled over drawing his knees up and covering his head with his arms, trying to protect himself from further abuse. A sharp kick in the ribs was his reward.
“Hand it over!” barked the burly attacker.
Mike weakly protested, “I have nothing to give you.”
But, the man bent and jerked him over onto his back. He yanked open Mike’s coat, reached inside and took the pouch of coins Tolabert had just given him. One more kick for good measure, and the ruffian fled quickly from sight, leaving his victim in a crumpled heap.
Mike lay there in pain for several minutes, clutching his injured ribs. As the pain began to lessen, thoughts of Jacob Tolabert formed in his mind. It was obvious he was going to ruin Mike. Why had the man not just killed him, and been done with it? With a groan, Mike managed to stand. He could not straighten up, but he must get home. He summoned all his strength, and stumbled the last few blocks to the house.
Safely inside, Mike leaned his back against the locked door. His ribs throbbed, and he could feel his jaw beginning to swell. He regretted that he had dismissed Higgins. Help would be useful just now. There was still a little of Gerard’s brandy left. Nearly fainting from the pain, Mike managed to reach the table where the decanter stood. He poured, and downed a large glassful, then dropped onto the divan. Slowly, the alcohol eased the aching of his body, but he refused to allow it to numb his thoughts.
Without the money, he could not stay in the house. He had very little money left, and now he had no way to make more. Tolabert would see to that. With a groan of pain, he lay back on the divan. The only way he could survive, would be to leave and go to another city. Perhaps, he could get an apprenticeship or something. With a trade or skill, he could work and save up some money. In several years, possibly, he could come back and set things right.
When he was able to move more easily, Mike got up and wrote a letter to Father John explaining what he could, and asking a favor.
“… Please take charge of the house and all the furnishings. Sell them for as good a price as you can. I will write, as soon as I can and tell you when I am settled, and have a place for you to forward the money.”
The letter written, Mike packed some personal belongings, and Gerard’s prize pistol, and the few coins left in of the household money into saddlebags. Then he mounted the only horse left in the carriage house. Astride the horse in the drive, he took one last, long look at his home. The sadness deep inside him was almost as painful as his injuries. With a sigh, he turned the horse and cantered toward the westering sun.
Mike rode for a long time, fearing neither the approaching darkness, nor the dangers it presented a lone traveler. It was long after sunset, when he knew he could go no further without rest. The nearest inn was probably many more miles away, and the ride was causing him as much pain and the beating had done. He had not seen any houses for some time, and as he began to look along the sides of the road into the dim, moonlit countryside he saw a structure. Set far back off the road was a lone, ramshackle barn. If it was deserted, it might be a good place to pass the night. No lights burned within, and no sound but the night creatures reached his ears. He approached the structure cautiously.
The door stood open, and Mike looked in, calling out, “Anyone there?” No answer came. He relaxed and pulled a candle stub from his pocket, lit it, and glanced around quickly. He led his horse into a stall in the rear, where he found some old hay for its dinner. An old bucket of rainwater set outside the door, and he carried it into the stall for the horse. He then took several handfuls of straw from the floor, and brushed the sweat from the animal while it ate the meager fare.
At last, finished tending the horse, Mike realized that he had brought nothing to eat. The pain in his ribs and jaw, coupled with exhaustion, was more overpowering than any pangs of hunger he felt. So, he eased himself onto the musty old straw of the next stall, pulled the saddle blanket over himself, and fell asleep.
Mike wakened with a start to the sound of voices. Opening his eyes, he raised his head and peeked through the slats of the stall. Light from a lantern cast large shadows as the owners of the voices moved about. Fearing that Tolabert had sent men after him, he lay very still, listening, and praying they would not notice his horse or him behind the wall of the stalls.
“You be sure to rub down that horse good before you get comfortable there,” came a raspy reply.
“I will, I will,” was the impatient reply of a much younger voice.
“Look what I got from the cook tonight,” came a different voice, a man of perhaps medium age.
“And, what treasure have you charmed out of that silly woman now, Henry?” asked Raspy Voice.
“A real treat tonight. Cold fowl and some fresh bread. I even managed to obtain a bottle of wine for a mere kiss. However, it is only a part of a bottle, probably left from his lordship’s supper table.”
“Sure, there ain’t nothin’ mere about it to her!” teased the young voice.
“Aye, true enough,” said Raspy. “She fancies you’re in love with her, you know. She’ll be right miffed when we finally leave.”
“Well, I don’t see that happening for a while yet. ’Til then, it can’t hurt to have a friend with a generous heart, when it comes to food and drink.” There was the sound of a cork squealing from a bottle, and congenial bottle passing.
“We should be able to go to an inn to sleep and eat soon. We been working for his lordship a few weeks now, and we’re due some good money,” said Henry.
“True. This’s the best job we’ve had in a long time. I hope it lasts for a while,” was the youthful reply.
The aroma of meat and the sounds of their partaking caused Mike’s stomach to betray him, and it growled noisily. Instantly, the voices ceased. Mike immediately began fumbling in his bag for his pistol, but before he could withdraw it, the light from the lantern suddenly flooded the stall where he lay. The three voices became substance and stood above him, holding pistols of their own.
The apparent leader was handsome in a rugged way. He was tall with thick black hair and ragged stubble on his face. An older man stood behind him, his hair a dirty gray and he had a grizzled face. Behind him stood a gapping boy, filthy and a few years younger than Mike. Their savage faces showed no sign of the good humor they had just been sharing.
“Well, well. What have we here?” asked the dark man. “What are you doing in there?”
Mike trembled from head to foot, sure he was about to be killed. The best he could hope for was postponement.
“Nothing! Just sleeping.”
“And, why you sleeping here, Mate? You wouldn’t be spying on us would you?” His voice was gruff and menacing.
“No! No! I don’t even know who you are. Why would I spy on you? I just needed a place to spend the night, and this was deserted—I didn’t know anyone used it.” His words rattled out quickly and urgently.
“A fellow, dressed like you, ought to be sleeping in a nice bed. Why’re you sleeping in this old barn?” he stepped closer. “Who you hiding from?” he demanded.
“No one. I’m not hiding from anyone.” In spite of the coolness of the night, Mike felt a trickle of sweat slide down his back. His ribs throbbed painfully, and he wished if they were going to kill him, they would get it over with, and relieve his pain.
The man handed the lantern to the old man, and grabbed Mike by the arm to pull him to his feet. A yelp of pain answered the grip, and Mike flung his free arm across his ribs.
“Hush, you. I ain’t got hold a you that hard,” he said and jerked him up, causing an even louder cry. Mike squeezed his arm about his ribs harder. His eyes closed in misery. He did not see his captor’s expression change from menace to concern.
The man motioned for the other man to bring the lantern closer. The light revealed the very large, swollen, purpling bruise on Mike’s left jaw. Mike heard a low whistle, and the man released his grip.
“I hope you got in some good licks for that one,” he said, as he gently touched a finger to Mike’s face.
Mike whimpered, and pulled away.
“Afraid not,” he said in a shaky voice. “He had the advantage—as now.”
“Ah, you don’t need to fear no hurt from us. Not like that anyway. That why you’re hiding here?” He asked in a kinder tone.
“Partly,” was Mike’s curt answer.
“Well, anyone on the receiving end of that, and can still get out here, must be a kin to us. You’re welcome to stay here long as you like.” Mike hesitantly took the hand extended to him.
“Ain’t much can be done about that jaw, but you best let Jericho, here take a look at them ribs.” He pulled an old keg out of a stall, and set it down for Mike to sit on.
With surprisingly gentle hands, the older man helped remove Mike’s coat, waistcoat, and shirt. Jericho touched and pressed all around the two enormous bruises on either side of Mike’s ribcage. With a grunt and a snort, the old man found an old blanket and tore it into strips, which he then used to wrap his patient’s ribs. The stench of the rags was sickening, but after he was done, it was less painful than his unwrapped ribs had been.
“Thank you,” Mike said as he put his clothes back on.
“No need of thanks. Glad to help. It don’t appear them ribs is broke, but it’ll be a day or two ’fore you can move normal.”
Mike noticed the boy had been watching silently, with a scowl on his face, while the old man worked.
“Tom!” The dark man swatted the boy from his lethargy. “Get our guest some food.”
“He ain’t nothin’ special!” the boy snarled and went back to grooming his horse.
The tall dark man turned away with a huff at the boy, and came back with a chunk of bread and a piece of meat. He watched as Mike gobbled them down hungrily.
“You ain’t ate in a while?” He sat down on the ground beside Mike.
“Not regularly,” said Mike as he wiped his mouth with the back of his hand.
“Well, we can remedy that soon enough. What’s your name?”
“Mike,” he nodded. “I’m Henry. That’s Jericho, what helped you, and there’s Tom, sittin’ over there, watching you like you just dethroned him.” Tom scowled, and went back to his horse. “What is it you’re running from Mike? Is the law after you?”
After a moment’s consideration of his present situation, and new acquaintances, Mike decided it would not hurt to confide in him.
“No. The law isn’t after me. But, you are right. I am running, I guess. I believe someone is trying to kill me.”
“That right? Looks like they had a good go at it already. What for?”
“It’s a long story,” Mike said as he moved, trying to ease his discomfort.
Henry shrugged, took a sip of wine, and offered the bottle to Mike. “I got no place to go ’til morning.”
Mike sighed and began his tale. “Last year I discovered my father’s business partner was a thief, and had been stealing from the company for years. Before I could tell my father what I knew, he and Mother were killed in a robbery. They said that the robbers probably shot them because they resisted. I don’t believe it. I believe Jacob Tolabert had them killed, because Father discovered his illegal dealings.”
“Jacob Tolabert! Is he the one who’s after you?” Jericho looked up from tending his small fire when Henry spoke.
“I’m sure of it. He forced me to sell my share of the company to him today. Before I could get home with the money, I was attacked and robbed. That’s how I got these injuries.”
“I hope you put up a good fight!”
“Afraid not. I hardly got a chance to speak. He just knocked me down and took the money. Then, he kicked me a few times for good measure. I figure it was one of Tolabert’s men. I was afraid if I stayed, he would find a way to get the house and everything else I had left. He would, no doubt, have me killed the way he did my family.”
Henry seemed agitated. “Why didn’t you go to the law?”
“With what? I can’t prove any of it. He covered his tracks very well. I spent all last summer trying to find something to show Father. After his death, I tried even harder. But, there was nothing. Just my suspicions.”
“Sounds like the blackguard!” spat Henry.
“Do you know him?” Mike’s eyes widened.
“Aye. I knew him once, long time ago. He took something from me, too.” Henry grew thoughtful and quiet. As if commanded to action, Jericho suddenly was helping Mike to his feet and urging him to bed down near the fire. Henry drained the last of the wine from the bottle, and threw it against the wall. The loud thud made all of them jump, and brought snorts of protest from the horses.
Mike turned to Jericho, and spoke in a hushed voice. “Did I say something wrong?”
“No, lad. Your story just reminded him of some painful memories, that’s all. When he gets like this, it’s best to let him alone for a while. He’s a good man with a heart of gold, but he don’t forget his old hurts easily. It usually takes a lot of drink to help him.”
“I’m sorry. But, he asked me to tell him—”
“He’ll be fine tomorrow. No need to worry. Just stay clear of him tonight. You need sleep anyhow. In a few days, when you’re able, you can go on to where you were headed. Where are you going?”
“I don’t know. I thought I might go on to some large city and try to find an apprenticeship or something. I need to find a way to earn some money.”
Jericho rubbed his chin thoughtfully. “I suppose you could come with us and work if you like.”
“For the Squire. He just bought some new horses, and he hired us to work with them, and in his stables. Once he pays us, we can move up to the inn in the village, but ‘til then, since he didn’t offer us lodgin’, we have to sleep where we can afford.” He gave a sweeping gesture with his arm indicating the interior of the barn.
“Would he be willing to hire another man?”
“He won’t care. He just wants the work done. He can afford to hire as many men as he likes.”
Mike thanked him and agreed to join them when he was able. “I need a job, and that is as good as any, I suppose, until I can get to a large city, and find a good occupation.” He lay back in the straw, and drew the blanket around him. It would be nice to have some friends for a change. Sleep was a welcome anesthesia, and it came quickly.
“Mucking out stables,” groaned Mike as he wrinkled his nose in disgust and held the pitchfork at arm’s length by two fingers. Though grateful for the job, this was not what he had imagined doing for a living.
“What’d you think you’d be doin’ in a stable?” sneered Tom.
“I don’t know. I guess I didn’t think about it much.”
Mike took off his coat and waistcoat, and rolled up the sleeves of his shirt thinking he did not have appropriate clothing for this type of work. He stepped carefully, trying to avoid getting dung on his shoes and stockings. Gingerly he poked at some soiled fodder, lifted it from the floor with the fork, and gave it a halfhearted toss toward the pile outside the stall. It did not take long before there was grime all over him. Mike frantically brushed at it, trying to get it off his clothes. Tom found his behavior amusing, which frustrated him even more.
“That’s the price you pay when you join the working class,” taunted Tom.
Jericho cuffed Tom and sent him off to do another task elsewhere, even as he stifled his own chuckle. However, he was a little more sympathetic than Tom and Henry, and took Mike in hand.
“It’ll wash off,” he said, as he stood, hands on hips, watching Mike brushing at his pants. “Come along, and I will show you how to do that right.”
He patiently taught Mike the best way to do each of his duties. And, in spite of his initial distaste, Mike quickly learned all aspects of their job. After a few days, his ribs no longer hurt, his muscles adjusted to the new demands, and he was no longer exhausted at the end of each day. He also discovered he had a natural ability with, and understanding of the general workings of the Squire’s stables. After a short time, he knew there were several ways to improve the way they handled things that would save the Squire some money, if he ever had the chance to tell anyone.
As the days passed, Tom began to accept Mike, and stopped ignoring his attempts at friendliness. Mike found Tom was a rich source of information about his new associates, and at night around their campfire, Mike found him eager to talk, and tell all he knew.
“I think I’m about twelve or thirteen years old. I’ve been an orphan since before I can remember, but I managed to survive,” he said raising his chin defiantly as he tossed a few faggots onto the fire. “It was pretty hard, but I got what I needed, where I could.”
“What do you mean?”
“Sometimes you have to help yourself, when no one offers, you know?”
“You mean steal?” Mike asked in hushed surprise. “They hang thieves!”
“Yeah. So, I was clever, and outsmarted ’em. Being so young, I could play on the sympathy of some of the ladies. Just looked pitiful, and told ‘em how I thought they was beautiful, and how they reminded me of me dear ol’ mum. They’d go all slobbery and give me near anything.”
“But, that is still dishonest.” Mike considered him with a bit of awe. “And, it always worked?”
“Well, not on everyone. In fact, I thought I was done for one night about six years ago. I tried to take some food from an old man I thought was asleep. I never seen an old man move so quick. He was like a cat. Grabbed me and held on with a grip of iron. I tried to get away until I was spent. Thought I was done for.”
“What happened? Did you finally get away?”
“Not exactly,” he said with a little smirk, and a sidelong glance toward Jericho, who had been quietly sitting on the other side of the fire listening to their conversation.
“That’s right. He didn’t get away,” interjected Jericho. “I sat him down and fed him. I thought he’d pop from all he ate,” he said with a sniff and a shake of his head.
“You? He tried to steal from you?” Mike chuckled.
“Yeah. When I knew I was caught, I thought it wasn’t the smartest thing I ever done. But, I was glad of the food. Even after he fed me, he still wouldn’t let me go.”
“He needed looking after, whether he thought so or not,” said Jericho, as he stretched out on his blanket. “I tried to break him of stealing, and teach him better ways to earn a living.”
“Yeah, yeah. I learned some things,” Tom said obstinately. “But, it ain’t easy to forget what you been born to. And, it ain’t easy to trust folks the way Jericho and Henry do. I’d been done wrong by too many people.”
“But, I’m as stubborn as you, and I’ll teach you yet,” laughed Jericho.
Tom grinned. “Go on! You ain’t me ol’ dad, are you?”
“Nearest you got.” Jericho tossed a pebble at him, and they laughed.
“Was Henry with you then?”
“We was together then,” Jericho said pensively.
“Henry was another of Jericho’s foundlings.” Tom shook his head.
Mike gave Jericho a quizzical look that said he wanted to hear all about it.
“Well, to tell that story I have to tell another first,” said Jericho, sitting up and crossing his legs in front of him.
“We’ve got nothing but time. Go on then,” Mike prodded.
“Back in ’62 I was a miner. There was a bad cave-in that year. Not many of us survived, and those of us who did, had some bad injuries. My arm was broke, and my leg was twisted pretty bad. The ganger was not a sympathetic man. He couldn’t use me down in the mines no more, and he refused to let me do anything else topside. In my condition, I wasn’t able to get work anywhere for several weeks.
“Money was scarce, and creditors cruel. My wife stood about all she could, then found herself a man who could take care of her. Seemed like my whole world came crashing down the day that mine caved in. Some of my mates started calling me ‘Jericho’ because they said all my walls came tumbling down around me. It kind of stuck.” He became pensive again.
“I wondered how you came by such an unusual name,” Mike said.
“Well, it wasn’t meant as all that kind, but it was true. I didn’t care what people called me. I guess I just let it be ’cause I didn’t care no more. Anyway, everything I cared about was gone.
“For a while, I drifted around looking for work, and begging when I couldn’t find an odd job.” He rubbed his stubbly chin thoughtfully before he continued. “It was during one of the times when I had managed to get enough work to afford a room that I stumbled on Henry.
“He was dead drunk, passed out in the street, and nearly froze from the cold. I got him up, and took him back to my room. After some strong coffee, in front of a roaring fire, he began to resemble a man again. Once he sobered up, he managed to find us both a better job, and we was able to get a better place to live for a while.” They were quiet for a moment before he continued. Henry’s a natural leader. When he stays away from the drink, he can figure his way through ’most anything. I trust him to keep us working.”
Mike found that when he chose to be, Henry was a jolly enough person. But, at other times, he retreated into a hidden world of his own, where he nursed his brooding memories with a bottle. It was during one of Henry’s retreats that Mike quizzed Tom further about him.
“What makes him get like that?” Mike asked quietly, as he and Tom sat well removed from Henry’s reach and earshot.
“I overheard Jericho and him talking about a woman once,” Tom confided.
“Jericho told me later it was Henry’s wife. She died of consumption nearly a year before Jericho found him. When she died, Henry got drunk, and stayed that way until the day Jericho found him. He don’t talk about her much. I guess he still misses her a lot. Probably why he does that,” he said thrusting his chin towards where Henry lay, already dozing in his stupor.
The day arrived when the Squire was to give them their wages. They packed up their belongings before they left for work, anticipating that they would not have to return to the barn that evening.
“Tonight, we sleep at the inn, in beds. And, we’ll have a hot meal, and good ale to wash it down!” laughed Henry. They were all in high spirits as they rode to the estate in the early morning mists, and growing sunrise.
However, their excitement faded quickly, when the Squire met them at the front gate with two other men bearing muskets.
“That’s far enough,” called the Squire when they were a few yards off.
Henry was calm, as they pulled up their horses. “Morning Squire. What’s the trouble?”
“One of my new mares is missing.” The Squire sat casually astride his horse, staring at the four men before him with lazy half interest.
“Missing? Did she bolt? We’ll be off to look for her. Which way?” he said, sitting up in his saddle, and preparing to turn his horse for pursuit of the fleeing beast.
“She won’t be found, now. I think she was stolen.” His drawling tone was matter of fact, as though this was of little importance.
“Stolen? How could that happen? Ain’t you got boys what sleep in the stable?”
“I think you, and your thieving friends took her.”
Mike’s mouth dropped open in disbelief. How could the Squire accuse them of such a thing? The horses had all been in the stable when they left last night. But, they sat on their horses quietly, while Henry shifted very slightly in his saddle.
“Why would we do that? It’d be foolish of us to come back here if we’d stole her. We wouldn’t need your wages then. Ain’t we done good work for you? Why would we steal a horse? ‘Specially when you’re fixin’ to pay us our wages today.”
“I don’t pretend to understand the minds of criminals. Perhaps, the food my cook has been slipping to you wasn’t enough. Perhaps, my fine wines she so generously handed over wasn’t enough. Perhaps, you thought I wouldn’t notice a horse missing, any more than I noticed those things.”
“Well, we didn’t take her, and there ain’t no way you can prove otherwise. Now, if you’d be so kind as to pay us what you owe us, we’ll be on our way. We don’t want to work for you no more.” He made a move to advance with his hand out, but the other two men raised their weapons, and leveled them at him.
“You may be right about not proving it was you who took the horse, but I can see to it you don’t work in these parts again. The value of that horse should more than pay for your work. I owe you nothing else. Now, get out of here.” He sat between his armed escorts with a self-satisfied smirk on his face.
Henry’s jaw clamped tightly as his face reddened. Mike thought surely, he would do or say something that would change the Squire’s mind. Instead, he gave the Squire a scathing look, turned his horse, and spurred it into a gallop. Frustration and disappointment churned Mike’s stomach as he turned and followed the others in Henry’s wake.
Miles down the road, well out of sight of the Squire’s estate Henry reined his horse to a stop. When the trio reached him, they dismounted, and walked their animals into the shelter of a budding oak tree. Henry leaned on his hand against the tree, and stood silently poking a clod of dirt with his foot. The others stood waiting, but waiting for what? It was strange the way no one spoke about what had just happened. Mike wisely did not ask why.
Without warning, Henry shouted a curse, and slammed the heel of his fist into the trunk of the tree with a force that Mike thought should have broken his hand.
Mike’s heart jumped to his throat, as Henry struck the tree again, but with much less ferocity, then turning, he slumped to the ground, his back against the tree.
“I can’t believe I let it happen again! You’d think I’d a learned better by now,” he said to the new leaves of the tree.
Mike sat down on the ground where Tom had stretched out.
“Why would he accuse us of stealing that horse?” Mike asked quietly. “There were no horses missing when we left last night. How could we have taken it without someone seeing us?”
“They ain’t no horse missing,” Tom said flatly to the clouds floating overhead.
“I don’t understand.”
Jericho gave Mike a pat on the shoulder, and sat down on the grass.
“The Squire just said that so he wouldn’t have to pay us. His kind hire on men to work, promising to pay at the end of the month. Then, when it’s payday, he accuses ’em of stealing from him. That way he sends ’em on their way without a farthing, and his work is done for free. It’s usually pretty sure the workers won’t go to the law, because most men hired for this kind of work are criminals in some way or other. It’s their word against his, and he carries more weight with the law than they do. All he’s out is some scraps of food that would have gone to his dogs anyway.”
“But it’s not fair. We ought to do something about it.”
Jericho cackled quietly. “Life ain’t fair for the likes of us. He ain’t the only one who’s done it to us. That’s why Henry’s in such a state.” He leaned back on an elbow, and wiped his face with a dingy handkerchief. “We had it done to us before, and like as not it’ll be done to us again. Henry thinks he ought to be able to tell when a man’s as good as his word. But, there ain’t nothin’ we can do about it. Not that’s right, anyway.”
Henry’s face lost its flush, and his voice lost it edge. He was all business again.
“I guess we better get us some wages, and leave these parts for a while.”
Jericho and Tom nodded. Tom took the saddlebags from each of their horses, and distributed them around. As Mike watched, they each withdrew a bundle from their bag, and carefully unrolled it on the ground. From the oily cloths, shiny pistols emerged. The men examined their weapons, and loaded them carefully.
“We’ll head back toward Cambridge, where travelers are more generous.”
Without discussion, they mounted their horses and rode back toward the city Mike had so recently fled. He was not certain what these men intended to do, but he knew he could not go back to Cambridge. He was sure Tolabert would be upon him within an hour of his arrival. The risk was greater than he wanted to take. If they intended to go into the city, he would have to part their company, and go his own way as he had originally planned.
A few miles outside of town, where houses and buildings were scarce, they reigned in their horses in the thick foliage of a wooded area near the road. No one spoke, but Mike understood he should stay quiet. He watched as they drew their pistols from their belts, and sat motionless, waiting.
Not long after, the sound of hooves on the afternoon road roused the three. Pulling scarves over their lower faces, they spurred their horses onto the road, just as the lone rider drew abreast of their position. Mike sat in the foliage astride his horse, watching as if in a dream, powerless to move, or change the scene before him. What he witnessed horrified him. Questions and fears whirled through his mind, and he was sure the law would pounce on them at any second from among the thick foliage.
Henry relieved the rider of his purse, and sent him galloping off in a terrified frenzy. When they returned to the woods, Mike found his voice.
“What have you done?”
“We just got us a payday,” laughed Tom.
“But it’s robbery. We’ll be arrested! And hanged!” He could feel his hands trembling as he gripped the reins, and his heart pounded as if he had just run all the way from Cambridge on foot.
“We’ll be long gone before any law comes looking for us,” Tom drew himself up, squaring his shoulders importantly.
Henry counted the money in the purse. “Don’t worry, Mike. We only take what we need to live on until we can find another job. You’ll get used to it.”
“You’re wrong! I can’t do this sort of thing.” He was still in shock and was ready to turn his horse and flee.
“They’d hang you same as us, if they catch us now. You’re part of the gang. That makes you guilty.” Henry’s face was solemn. “Sorry.”
“Sorry! I just left Cambridge to keep from being killed. Now, I find out I’ve joined a gang of highwaymen. If I had wanted to die, I would have stayed at home!”
Henry gave him a cold stare. “You joined with us of your own free will.”
That was true. He had even welcomed their company. Somewhere in the depths of his heart, he must have known they would not be living in an abandoned barn if they were law-abiding men.
“I—I was just unprepared for what just happened,” he said in a quieter tone, dropping his eyes.
Henry extended a hand for Mike to shake. “Apology accepted. Now you know. So get ready. You help this time.”
“This time? I thought—I thought you said you only take enough to get by on, and leave.”
“Three shillings won’t last the four of us long. We need a bit more.”
The next victim yielded a more lucrative purse, and Henry decided they had enough for their current purposes. Mike followed behind as the little troop turned, and cantered their horses down the shade-speckled road. Mike could not help wondering what Father John would think if he could see him now. Father and Mother would be mortified. But, it was too late to worry about that. He hoped the uncomfortable feeling in his gut would go away with time. He would just have to make the best of the situation until the opportunity for something better came along.
By nightfall, they were miles away from Cambridge, and the threat of discovery. A busy little inn was a welcome sight, as they watched the last rays of the setting sun disappear behind the horizon.
“What say you, men? Shall we treat ourselves to an evening of comfort?” said Henry as they walked their horses towards it.
“Aye, that sounds good to me,” said Jericho.
“I could use a piece of beef and a pint,” said Tom.
Mike was sore and aching from the hard ride. As he dismounted, he watched Jericho stretch and twist, working the kinks out of his bones, and did the same. Tom gathered up their belongings from the horses, and they turned over the reins of their weary horses to the livery boy. Henry strode directly into the inn without further comment.
The inn was old, and not well cared for, but it was a palace by comparison to the tumbledown barn in which they had been sleeping. There were dozens of patrons seated around the fire and in the rest of the room. Most of them were in conversation, but a few were singing a drinking song while they stood with an arm around a friend’s shoulders, adding to the noise of the room.
Henry had already seated himself at a table and called to the landlord to bring him ale. Within a few minutes, they were all eating platefuls of roasted beef and potatoes, and washing it down with strong, dark ale. There was activity going on all around them as they ate and relaxed, and the young girls who kept bringing more ale to fill their cups were of particular interest to Mike.
He found everything around him fascinating. He had never been in a place like this before, and he wanted to know what everything was, and what all the activity meant. It seemed a miracle that Jericho had time to eat his own meal while answering all his questions.
Later in the evening, when Henry was well into his cups, he began to look around, and then strode across the room to a comely young woman. He bent and spoke into her ear and the girl giggled and turned to look him up and down with a sly look on her face. Henry sat down and pulled her onto his lap, pushing his face into her neck. She giggled again and turned to place her arms around his neck.
Mike had never seen so much familiarity between men and women before. The ladies and gentlemen he had known, never touched in public, unless they had been properly introduced, and certainly never like that. Here, people touched each other in ways that sent Mike’s blood rushing, and caused sensations he was not sure he should like. He watched as the girls squealed and giggled when the men pawed them, as if delighted by their actions. He was marveling over this, when suddenly in the corner, the sound of a smack brought a yelp from a drunk, who had offended the wench filling his cup. Several of the patrons around him guffawed and made crude remarks while he rubbed his cheek and grinned stupidly at her.
Mike gulped down the last of his own ale to hide his astonishment. He did not especially like the taste of it, and he wrinkled his nose as he wiped his mouth with the back of his hand. He set down his tankard and turned back to watch Henry. After a certain amount of snuggling and whispering, Henry and the girl stood and left the room. Mike was surprised to find that Jericho and Tom took no particular notice.
“Where’s Henry going?” Mike asked Jericho as he watched them stroll from the room, arms around each other.
Tom howled with laughter, pounding his palm on the table as he bent over in his merriment. Jericho suppressed his own inclination to chuckle, and patted Mike’s arm. “We’ll see him in the morning, lad.”
“Don’t you know nothin’?” panted Tom between giggles. “Don’t you know what they do up there all night?” He jabbed his thumb over his shoulder toward the stairs at the far side of the room.
Mike blushed deeply as it finally dawned on him what Henry and his new friend were about to do. How could he be so stupid? He hated that he had again allowed Tom to see how ignorant he was about such things.
“Of course, I know what they do. I—I just didn’t think …” he stammered and looked into his empty mug and set it down again.
Jericho shook his head at the two of them, and then went in search of the innkeeper to get them rooms for the night. Tom was still giggling over Mike’s embarrassment, when a young woman plopped down on the bench beside Mike. She placed her hand on his knee and then began to slide it up his leg. Mike gasped, and grabbed her hand, pushing it off him. She leaned close, and whispered in his ear. The scarlet shade of Mike’s face, and his startled look told Tom what she had said.
When Tom regained his composure after nearly falling off his seat in laughter, he said, “You’ll have to lead the way, Dearie. Our friend here ain’t learned yet.” He gave her a wink and slid a coin across the table to her. “He needs some learnin’.”
She gave him a nod and a wink, and gently took Mike by the hand, pulling him to his feet. Wide eyed, Mike looked from her to Tom and back to her. Her sly smile turned his resistance to curiosity.
Tom gave him a shove. “Go on! She won’t bite. You might even like it.”
All sorts of confusing questions tumbled around in Mike’s mind as he followed the girl from the room.
Mike woke with a start. The little room was bright with morning sun, and the bed was empty beside him. He rolled over at the recurrence of the sound that had wakened him. Tom stood at the other side of the bed, with a less amused expression than the one he had worn last night. Mike rubbed his eyes, and sat up slowly. He wanted to stay in this warm bed, and remember last night in drowsy privacy. Not with Tom watching him.
“Jericho said I was to tell you I’m sorry for what I done to you last night.” He pushed at the corner of the tattered rug with his toe. “He cuffed me good when he come back, and found out.”
Mike stretched lazily. “I’m not angry. It was no worse than anything else I did yesterday.” He gave Tom a crooked grin. “No harm done, I guess.”
As they went downstairs, Mike found courage to bring up what had been bothering him for a while.
“Tom, why can’t you and I be friends? It looks like we’re going to be spending a lot of time together. I’d rather you were my friend and not my enemy.”
“You ain’t my enemy … I guess.” He thought for a moment. “It’s just that since you come along, Jericho and Henry don’t treat me the same, is all.”
“What do you mean? They treat you pretty well from what I see.”
“It’s—well, they just spend more time with you—teaching you stuff. I reckon that’s why I done what I done last night. They never said nothin’ about how you acted so shocked at what we done. So, last night, I figured I’d give you a real shock. Then maybe …” He shrugged.
“They still care about you, the same as before. And, I like you. I don’t want to take your place. I just want to be your friend, same as them.”
Tom smiled. “I’d be honored to have you for a friend.” Mike clapped him on the shoulder. Tom then managed to quiz him thoroughly about his encounter of the last night before they reached the table, where Henry and Jericho were eating sausages and fresh bread.
The innkeeper was grumpy as he dropped plates of food before Mike and Tom. “What kind of place do they think I run here? Why would the King’s men think I know anything about highwaymen? This is a decent inn!” he huffed and grumbled as he stomped away.
The four exchanged silent knowing glances, and quickly finished their meal. Discretely they took their leave, and were on their way within the hour.
The end of the day found the hard riding travelers far from the little inn, exhausted from their ride, quiet and absorbed in thought. That night they made camp deep in a forest, as far off the road as they dared. It was best if passing travelers did not see their campfire, and the fewer questions asked about their presence, the better. After quietly sharing the bread and cheese they had purchased from the innkeeper, they washed in the nearby stream and made ready to get some sleep.
Although it was spring, the nights were still cold. The added warmth of a friend was necessary and welcome, especially when sleeping in the open as they would be tonight. Mike spread his blanket near the fire, Tom placed his at Mike’s back, and within minutes, they were asleep.
The long ride had given Mike too much time to think, and though bone weary, memories crowded into his restless thoughts as he tried to sleep. The memories and hurt he had pushed aside with all the hard labor, and experiences his new life produced refused to stay silent.
When he finally fell asleep, grim specters filled his dreams, accusing him of all the guilt he felt. His parents came, huddled before him, their eyes sad, seeming to ask, Why didn’t you do something? Then a sneering Jacob Tolabert replaced them, and stood with arms crossed over his chest in triumph.
He faded into darkness and Janny’s thin pale face appeared, accusing him without words. He reached out, grasping at her, wanting to keep her with him, but her limp body slipped from his grip, falling into a chasm of darkness and swirling mists. He reached for her, clutching, straining to stop her decent—
The gray light of the dawn was creeping through the new leaves overhead, when an oath, and a hard smack across his face, brought Mike back to the world of the waking. His eyes focused on Tom, who was squirming frantically beneath him, trying to free himself from Mike’s iron grip on his coat.
“What’s the matter with you? Are you mad?” hissed Tom as he swatted at him again.
Mike suddenly released him, pulling his hands back to his own shoulders. He rolled off Tom, and sat up beside him. It had been a nightmare. His brow glistened, his clothes felt damp and clammy, but his breathing began to slow. Tom’s gyrations and protests had stilled the early morning creatures, but had not yet wakened the others sleeping on the opposite side of the fire.
“I’m sorry. I guess I was dreaming. I didn’t know it was you.”
Tom sat, and straightened his clothes. “Well, it was. What’s the matter with you anyhow? I said I was sorry for puttin’ that girl on you last night!” said Tom indignantly.
“I was dreaming about my sister.” Mike pulled his hands down his face and sat hunchbacked with his legs crossed.
“Sister? You never said you have a sister.”
“She died ... It was my fault, what happened to her.” He lay back onto the blanket, and took a deep breath and let it out slowly. “We were very close. I miss her.”
“How was it your fault? Did you do something to her?”
“No, just the opposite. I didn’t know she was sick. I was trying to do something about Jacob Tolabert, and I just didn’t see how she was changing. If I had looked closer, I would have seen that she needed a doctor. If I had just called him sooner, she wouldn’t have died.”
Tom poked at the embers of the fire, nursing them back into flame. He placed a few twigs then sticks on the tiny flames. “You can’t stop folks from getting sick, and you can’t stop what happens to ’em when they get sick.”
Perhaps he blamed himself for not dying, too—he should have died instead of them—he should have had the power to prevent everything. Mike weighed the wisdom of Tom’s statement. He knew he really was not to blame for Janny, or his parents dying.
“How did you get so smart?” Mike said with his eyes closed against the growing light.
“I seen my share of death.” Tom shrugged. “And, I seen what it done to Henry and Jericho. Why should you be different? It hurts, but you live. You can’t blame yourself, ’cause if you do it eats you up inside and you begin to die, too.”
Though this salved Mike’s conscience a little, the anger was still there. One day, he promised himself, he would return, and deal with Jacob Tolabert in a fitting way. He was the one who was truly to blame for all this misery.
Wakened by their quiet conversation, Henry and Jericho got up, and after a meager breakfast, they packed up the camp.
“I think we put enough distance between us and the law for now. We don’t need to ride as fast and hard today as yesterday. We’ll stay off the roads, though, and stick to trails for as long as we can,” Henry said as they mounted their horses.
The forests were renewing from the winter. Leaves and grass were new and green, and the spring wildflowers were growing in profusion in the clearings, giving the woods a fresh fragrance that covered the usual loamy smell of the woods, as well as giving everything a clean new look. Mike thought it would be very pleasant to ride in this peaceful isolation for days, with none of the problems that had haunted him for months. But, by afternoon of the second day, they had reached the edge of the forest.
“We’ll have to take the road now. We best take a rest here in the shelter of the trees before we go any further. We may have to ride hard without a stop for a while. Just depends on where we are and how far it is to a safe place.”
Henry dismounted, and loosened the saddle of his horse, and the others followed. He was content to stretch out on the cool new grass, and examine the passing clouds while Jericho took the opportunity to forage in the woods for herbs and roots for his medicine bag. But, Tom was restless.
“We’ll be here for a while, and I don’t need a nap,” Tom said as he tethered his horse near the small brook. “Come on, Mike, let’s go see what we can see.”
Mike’s exuberance did not match Tom’s, and he soon tired of racing at Tom’s pace. With an exaggerated groan, he threw himself to the ground beneath a large oak tree and rolled over on his back, panting.
“You can’t be tired already,” chided Tom as he dropped to his knees beside Mike.
“If you keep running, we’ll end up back where we just came from!” He groaned.
“Ah, you’re just lazy. Come on, then, let’s climb that big tree.” He pointed up at a huge spreading chestnut tree overhead.
“No thank you! I don’t care to have a broken neck. You go climb it if you want. I’ll watch while you break yours.”
Tom made a rude noise to mock him, and leaped to the lower branches of the tree overhead. Mike laughed as he watched Tom scamper up the tree like a squirrel. In moments, he was in the swaying top branches of the tree, calling down to Mike as he sat like a bird, looking around at the varied greens of the forest around them.
Suddenly his antics ceased, and he shaded his eyes to watch something in the distance. All playfulness gone, he descended more rapidly than he had climbed, and with a leap from the lower branch, he hit the grown with a thump, landing on his feet.
“Come on!” he yelled to his companion as he raced off in the direction of the others.
This sudden change of mood startled Mike.
“Tom! Wait! What’s the matter?” Mike called as he ran after him. They burst through the foliage into the clearing where Henry and Jericho were quietly going about their own activities.
“Here! What’s chasin’ you two?” growled Henry.
“Soldiers! Comin’ this way!” panted Tom.
“Soldiers?” Henry and Jericho were on their feet simultaneously.
“Yeah, I seen ‘em from the top of a tree back there. They’re not far, but they’re riding’ slow.”
Immediately, without further word, they gathered their possessions and prepared to leave.
“We’ll have to ride hard and long to out run them, or find a place to hide until they pass,” Henry said as he tossed his saddlebag over the back of his horse. “Which direction are they?”
Tom pointed out past where they were planning to ride after their rest. “That way. They don’t look like they’re in a hurry, but they are heading right for us.”
“I saw a cave back there,” Mike said, pointing back the way he and Tom had just come. “It’s behind some brush, not far from here. There’s plenty of brush. It should hide all of us well. I think there’s enough room for all of us and the horses inside.”
“Good. Gather up this stuff, and show us where it is,” Henry commanded. He took the reins of Tom’s horse and the bag of belongings from his hands.
“You like to climb so much, get up this tree, and see where they are now. I’ll take the others and the horses to the cave, and come back for you.”
With a nod, Tom climbed to the top of the tree beside the creek. He watched as his friends disappeared into the woods, and then strained his eyes looking for the soldiers. In minutes, Henry was back calling up to him.
“They’re just over the rise,” Mike heard him call down to Henry when he went back to stand under the tree. “They turned into the woods, and they’re heading this way, get out of sight!” he said, trying to keep his voice from carrying to the approaching men as he started down.
Henry ran for cover, but before Tom could reach the ground, the soldiers were within sight of the clearing. As quietly as he could, he climbed back up into the new leaves of the chestnut tree. On a sturdy limb, he made himself comfortable, and settled in for the wait. His only hope was that the soldiers did not look up.
The two intruders dismounted beneath the very tree in which Tom was perched. The riders were in no particular hurry, and seemed bent on remaining where they were. They watered their mounts and themselves in the brook then loosened their saddles. Amidst cordial conversation, the men removed their hats and uniform coats, making themselves comfortable.
Henry mouthed a silent oath from his hiding place. With his heart pounding in his ears, Mike could only hear parts of their conversation, but he heard enough to know they were looking for him and his friends. The men talked and laughed together for nearly an hour. Mike could imagine Tom’s legs must be starting to ache, and he feared he could not remain quiet much longer. Then suddenly, the two men got up, and brushed the grass from their uniforms.
“Those scoundrels are probably in Scotland by now, but I suppose we’d better at least act like we’ve been looking for them a while longer.”
“True enough. The Cap’n will have us for supper if we come back too soon.”
They gathered up their things, tightened the cinches of their saddles, then mounted and rode away slowly, talking and laughing as they went. Mike let out a long sigh, and a few moments later, Tom ran into the brush to join his friends.
“They’ve gone,” he said, heaving a heavy sigh and plopping down on the ground outside the cave.
“Tom! I was afraid you’d had it when you couldn’t get down,” said Henry.
“So did I. But, it’s good I couldn’t. I heard ‘em talking. They think we’re long gone, and they’re just wastin’ time ’til they can go back to their unit.”
“Well then, we can stay right here for a spell. They won’t look for us after dark, and they won’t come back here again, either. They’ll give up altogether in a couple more days.” Henry thought for a minute. “We could stay here for a couple days. This cave looks to be plenty big enough for shelter. Then we’ll move by night. We can rest during the day, and take turns on watch. A few days of traveling like that, and we should be far enough away, so even if they don’t quit looking for us, they won’t find us.”
By the end of the week, they had reached the city of Hull, on the eastern coast. This had been a favored city of King Edward, and subsequent kings who had it improved in architecture as well as government. In preparation for possible siege a few decades earlier, in 1745, the Crown repaired, and restored the gates and walls of this port city. The fear, at that time, was that the Pretender’s army might come to take the eastern side of the country. Fortunately, that never happened. So, there she stood before them, a proud monument to the past, and a stronghold for the present.
With the small amount of money they had left, the travelers took a room at a reputable inn. As important as this town was in the kingdom, Henry was sure they would be able to find work right away, and he inquired of the innkeeper about opportunities.
“There’s always work on the ships puttin’ out to sea, or that not being to your taste, there’s the mint. ’Course, there’s always a need for stable hands and the like,” said the innkeeper as he set a tankard of ale on the table.
“Well, my friends and I ain’t seamen, and I doubt we’d be any good at the mint. We’re seasoned stable hands though, and, I see you’re shorthanded. We can do a good job for you. Even here in the tavern.”
After a little thought, the innkeeper agreed. “Room and board, and one shilling a week for each.” Henry shook his hand in agreement.
Jericho and Henry served tables in the tavern, and did any other task the landlord had need of, while Mike and Tom swept floors, chopped wood and worked in the stables. Weeks passed quietly into months with nothing more exciting or threatening than an occasional brawl in the tavern, and they began to feel secure in their new home.
Hull was a busy town, and the tavern was no exception. The tavern and inn had a good reputation, and a good class of people, frequented it. Eventually, anyone who traveled often, found his way to this well-known tavern. One day the innkeeper served a well-dressed man at a table in a far corner of the room. The man quietly ate his meal, and glanced around at the other people in the room. When the innkeeper set down another pint in front of him, and picked up his empty plate, the man asked him a question.
“Who are those two men?” said the customer, nodding his head towards the other side of the room.
“Which two would that be, sir?” he asked, as he turned to survey the room.
“The dark one there, and the gray one over there,” he pointed to Henry and Jericho, going about their duties.
“They’re my best workers.”
“How long have you known them?”
“They’ve been here for some time, now. Why do you ask?”
“I was robbed a few months ago.” He rubbed his chin thoughtfully. “Those two look like two of the men.”
“I don’t believe it of these men, sir.” The innkeeper shook his head as he glanced back across the room. “They been nothing but honest, and hard workin’ since they been here.”
“Did they come separately or together?”
“Well now, they was together, but they weren’t alone. They had a couple of boys with them.”
“That sounds like the men who robbed me. Where did they come from?”
“Afraid I don’t know. I never asked ’em.”
“I’m certain they’re the ones. Send a boy to fetch the authorities. They can get the truth from them. If they’re innocent, they have nothing to fear,” he said as he handed the innkeeper a halfpenny for the boy.
Reluctantly, the innkeeper agreed to send a boy on the errand.
“Harry!” he called to the boy who was sweeping out the hearth. “Here. That gentleman gave you this to go fetch the law.”
“The law? What’s he want with them?” Harry said, casting a suspicious eye at the man.
“Ah, he thinks he seen some thieves,” said the landlord dismissively.
The child dropped his broom, snatched the coin. He ran wildly out of the room, and out the front door, right into Mike who was sweeping the steps. The force of his charge bowled Mike over, and the boy landed on top of him.
“Slow down Harry! Where’re you going in such a hurry?” Mike scolded as he extracted himself from the tangle.
“I been sent to fetch the law! A man in there gave me a ha’penny to go get ’em. He says he seen some thieves.”
Mike paled, and the boy went scurrying on his way. It could be nothing to do with them, but again it might. He stepped in at the door, and motioned for Henry to come out. After a glance around the room, Mike saw the man sitting in the corner. He recognized him in an instant, and frantically motioned to Henry. When Henry came to him, he pulled him outside the door, into the entrance hall.
“What’s the matter? You look ill.”
“Look at the man over there in the corner. Don’t you know who he is?”
Henry looked in and quickly turned his back. “Looks like that fellow who so generously gave us his purse a while back. We better duck out of here ’til he leaves.”
“It’s too late. He’s sent for the law. We have to get out of here now!”
Henry pulled Mike away from the doorway into the shadows of the entry hall. “Go get Tom, and gather up our belongings. Wait for us in the stable. When you get there, get rid of any of the other boys who’re around. Send ’em off to do something, or just give ’em a farthing to disappear for a couple hours.”
Mike immediately turned to do as Henry bid, but instead of going to the stables, he went back to the hall to see what Henry would do. He was still trembling slightly as he watched from the shadows, so terrified that he could not move. He watched as Henry casually approached Jericho, who was serving another customer. “We have to leave now,” he saw him mouth to Jericho.
“What’s the matter?” Jericho’s voice was low, but Mike could just hear them.
“The man in the corner recognized us. He sent Harry for the law. Walk out like usual to the back. Meet us in the stable. Mike and Tom are already there.” Henry turned, taking the broom, and went back the way he had come in.
A moment later Mike saw Jericho leave the building, and Henry go up the stairs. Mike ran to the stable and told Tom what was going on and what Henry said to do. But, he could not stand just waiting. He ran back to the tavern and peeked in just as Henry returned to the tavern room with his hands rolled beneath his apron. He approached the man in the corner with a congenial smile.
“It’s a lovely day today, isn’t it sir? Won’t you please join me outside?”
The man was flabbergasted. “I most certainly will not! I intend to sit right here until the authorities arrive.”
Henry, still smiling, lifted his apron just enough to reveal the pistol he held beneath it. “I think not. Come quietly if you please, sir.”
The man’s face paled, and then reddened with anger. Visibly fuming, he rose, and walked in front of Henry toward the door. Mike found his feet and raced back to the stable. Behind him, he could hear Henry directing the man out the door and around the corner toward the stables, where he ushered him into the dank darkness.
The door shut behind them, blocking out the sunlight. A lantern flared, revealing Tom, Jericho, and Mike standing in the shadows. The man breathed a quiet oath for his stupidity at not having raised the hue and cry inside the tavern.
Henry stepped in front of him, and took his hands and pistol from beneath his apron. He was very solemn, with no trace of the smile that had just been there.
“So you think you know us?”
The foppish plume in the man’s hat was trembling, but he managed a coherent response. “I do indeed. You—you robbed me of three shillings a few months ago. I never forget someone who takes something from me.”
Henry held out his hand to Jericho, and the man flinched. Jericho handed Henry a small pouch with a drawstring.
“Well, I think you loaned it to us of your own free will.” The man was livid with rage, even as he trembled in fear. “I think you just need to be reminded.” With a grin, he nodded to Jericho.
Jericho took a rope from the peg, and wrapped it snuggly around and around about the man, fastening his arms tightly down at his sides with several loops of the rope. When he was sure the man was secure, Jericho drew the rest of the rope up through all the rounds of rope at his back, and tied it. Then he tossed the end of it up, and over the beam above their heads. Henry then opened the little pouch, removed three shillings, and with a grin, he shoved them into the man’s mouth. To the man’s further surprise, they then hoisted him high above them, secured the end of the rope to a post and left him dangling and kicking.
“We have just repaid our debt to you, kind sir, and thank you for the loan of it!” Henry made a deep sweeping bow. Tom led their horses out of the stalls. And, after they mounted, Henry turned to the humiliated man above them. He was kicking and mumbling, afraid to call out for fear of losing the coins in his mouth.
“I wouldn’t squirm so much if I were you. It’ll just make you dizzy. The boys will be back after a while and find you. No use making yerself sick afore they come.” With a hearty laugh, the four rode out of the stable, and headed for Monument Bridge at a swift trot.
It was already late, and they knew they had to cross the bridge before the gate closed for the night. Unless they crossed before dark, they would be have to stay, trapped within the city walls until daybreak. If that happened, the law would surely meet them at the gate in the morning. But, if the boys stayed away from the stable long enough, the alarm would not be raised before the gate closed. And, once it closed, it would not open again until morning for any reason. They would have the whole night to put distance between them and the city.
Cambridge was a college community. There were no less than six colleges in the town of nearly seven thousand, and a full third of the people were students. Industry in Cambridge was mainly dependent on the colleges, and so there were no large factories like in many other cities across England. The town had risen up out of a boggy area, and a great many willows surrounded it. The river was a major means of transporting goods in and out of town, because the colleges shunned the possibility of the newly discovered railways coming near their city. They did not want the atmosphere of learning disturbed by the crowds and industry they were certain would follow if this new means of transportation came into the academic world. There were, of course, the usual shops, the large market, and a few other tolerated large businesses like the Harrington Dry Goods Company.
For more than two years, Mike, Henry, Jericho, and Tom had worked their way, back and forth across England, taking jobs where they could, resorting to robbery only when they could not. Eventually, they found themselves once again near Cambridge. When they arrived in the narrow streets of the town, the four took rooms at a boarding house in the rundown area of the city where most of the tradesmen lived. Eventually, Henry found jobs for them in one of the livery stables near the business area.
Mike had grown, not only in skill at a variety of jobs, but in stature. He was handsome and muscular, and even his now shabby attire could not hide it. He was not the same gangling young man who had fled home in fear of his life. He had grown into a confident man, with a desire for justice.
One afternoon, as Mike stood at the open door of the livery, leaning on his fork, gazing across the busy street, Tom came up beside him.
“What is it you keep looking at over there?” he asked as he searched the other side of the street for what was holding his friend’s attention more than his work.
“The reason I’m here.”
“You see that place over there?” He nodded his head in the direction of Harrington’s. “That was my company. My father built it, and when he died, it was mine. Jacob Tolabert nearly ruined it before he stole it from me. It seems to be doing quite well, now, though,” he said as he rubbed the back of his hand across his bearded chin. He watched the men working inside the wide open doors of the warehouse across the street, with the old anger smoldering inside him.
“Why don’t you get it back?”
“I could never get it back now,” he said in bitterness. “But, I plan to repay him for what he did to my family.” Mike’s voice was low, and filled with hatred.
“And, how you plan to do that? You going to get the law involved?” he asked suspiciously.
“No. I’ve been planning this for over two years, and the law has nothing to do with it.” His voice was nearly a whisper. Tom rolled his eyes from Mike to the building across the street and back again.
“Henry told you ’afore we come here, that you had to be careful. You ain’t no match for him. You know that don’t you?”
“We’ll see.” Tom began to watch him closely from then on.
One evening not long after that, Mike was walking home from work, his head bent in his usual contemplation of sweet revenge, oblivious to all around him, when a man stepped from a doorway into his path. They collided, nearly knocking each other down. Mike came back to his senses, and touched the brim of his hat in apology.
“I beg your pardon, sir. I didn’t see you.”
“Not to worry! I’m quite unharmed. It was as much my fault as yours.” The man chuckled amiably.
He, also, touched the brim of his flat, wide brimmed hat. Mike felt even more apologetic when he saw the man wore clerical garb. He bent and helped the man pick up the items he had dropped when they collided, and handed them back to him, still apologizing.
“Please, no further apologies are necessary. Are you unhurt?”
“I’m fine, thank you.”
The warm, kind manner of the minister reminded him at once of Father John. He had been in town for weeks, and had not yet called on him. Mike suddenly wanted to see his friend very much. Perhaps, a visit to Father John could help ease the burning hatred that was consuming him so much these days. Perhaps, Father John could convince him that he was not justified in wanting revenge. Perhaps, it would just be good to see a friendly face from his past.
The next day, Mike did not have to work. He washed, and put on the best clothes he had. As he examined himself in the mirror, he realized how tattered his attire had actually become. It had been a long time since he had bought new clothes. Doing the various jobs they did, current styles and new clothes were not a necessity. The little money he earned was spent on food and lodging, with precious little left for other things.
He combed his hair, which had grown long, and tied it at the back of his neck with a rumpled piece of black ribbon. His beard had grown in full, and streaked with red. He combed it and trimmed it as neatly as he could. Then, placing his hat on his head, he made one final inspection in the streaked mirror. Satisfied he was as presentable as he could make himself, he stepped out into the afternoon sunshine to walk to the small vicarage that he remembered so well, on the other side of town.
When he knocked on the door, a young clerical student ushered Mike into the drawing room. Surrounded by the cleanliness, Mike was even more aware of how grimy he had become. The furnishings gleamed with wax, and the fabric of the chairs was so clean, Mike nervously felt obliged to stand to wait.
At the sound of footsteps behind him, Mike turned. Father John Osborn looked the same as when Mike last saw him, but his robes indicated a new rank. Father John, now inches shorter than Mike, was beginning to thicken about his middle, but he still had the same kind face.
Used to greeting weathered, seedy strangers in need of a meal and a bath, Father John approached the visitor with a kind smile and outstretched hand.
“Good afternoon, sir. How may I help you?”
Mike cautiously took the outstretched hand, and felt a wave of uncertainty. He was relieved to know that he was so different, even his dearest friend did not recognize him, but he was sad at the same time.
His voice was quiet with sadness, “Hello, Father John.”
Father John’s eyebrows went up and he mused, “No one has called me that for a long time. Especially, since I became Bishop.”
“Sorry—Your Grace.” Mike’s eyes sought the floor.
Recognition dawned on Father John, “Michael?” Mike’s eyes came back to his. “Michael! It is you!” He reached out and embraced him deliberately.
“Forgive me for not knowing you at once!” He held Mike at arm’s length, and examined him up and down. “You’ve changed so much. You’re so much taller! What happened to you? Where have you been? I waited for letters.”
“Sorry I didn’t write. I meant to, but things happened, and I just never got around to it.” His embarrassment was clear, and he could scarcely look the minister in the face.
“Well, you’re here now! Come in. We’ll have tea, and a long visit. Tell me all about where you’ve been, and what you’ve been up to. Did you find work as you hoped?”
Father John took him into a private sitting room, and dispatched the young cleric to bring tea. Father John bustled around and made him comfortable. He tried to look casual, but Mike could tell he was assessing him for how the past two years had treated him.
“Michael, I was so shocked, and saddened by you letter when you left,” he said as he seated himself in the chair opposite Mike. “I wish you had come to me before leaving. I might have done something to help.”
“I feared for my life that day, Father. The only thing I could think of was getting out of Cambridge as fast, and as far as I could.”
“But, why? I don’t understand.”
“Tolabert forced me to sell him the business that day.” He dropped his gaze to his hands. “Then, on the way home, one of his thugs beat me, and robbed me of the money. I was afraid Tolabert would send someone else to finish the job.”
“Oh, Michael,” he groaned, “you should have come to me.” After a moment of awkward silence, he changed the subject. “Well, did you find an apprenticeship as you had planned?”
A wry smile lifted one corner of Mike’s mouth. “Unfortunately, I never even got a chance to try. Life just seemed to take hold, and drag me along as soon as I left town.”
“Are you home to stay, then?”
“I don’t think so. We’ve taken jobs across town, but we never stay long in one place.”
“We? Have you married then?”
Mike was grateful for the beard, which hid some of the crimson warming his cheeks. The thought of telling Father John of the immoral lifestyle he had lead did not make him comfortable. At that moment, the young cleric returned with the tea tray and Mike took the offered cup and saucer. When the student had gone, he continued.
“No, I haven’t married. I meant my friends. We have been traveling, and working together where we can. When we combine our money, we’re able to live a bit better than we could on our own.”
“What sort of work do you do?”
Again, Mike found the questions uncomfortable. He should have considered the possibilities of conversation before he came here. His hesitation prompted Father John to ask further.
“Michael, there’s no shame in honest work.”
And, that was the problem—honest work.
“Father, I’ve found myself in less than honorable situations in the past two years. I’d rather not tell you all the details.”
“I see,” was his quiet response. “I’ve been your friend for a long time, and I knew your parents. You know I’m your friend. You can tell me anything.”
“I’ve done things that would make my parents ashamed of me. You, as well.”
Father John took a sip of tea, and placed the cup back in the saucer he held suspended above his lap.
“That’s true of most of us, I think. My family would never have understood why I became a minister. My mother would turn in her grave if she knew the whole of it.”
“Some of the things I’ve done are far worse than becoming a minister. I know I never attended services much, but I remember enough to know right from wrong. Sometimes life forces things on you that you might not otherwise have done.”
“True. I have things in my past that would shock you. But, not all those sins turned out badly. Some good came if it. God does use what we have to his purposes.”
“I doubt any good can come of my sins, Father.”
“Not knowing what they are, I can’t advise you on that.”
Mike brooded over his teacup for a few minutes.
“The friends I mentioned, I met the day I fled Cambridge. They patched me up, and took care of me while I recovered. They got work for me, and we became friends. I stayed with them, because there was really no reason not to. I’ve learned a lot about making my way since then, and about surviving.”
“That hardly sounds sinful.”
“No. That would be the other things … when we can’t find work, sometimes we have to steal to survive.”
“Sadly, in these times, that is not uncommon. There is little condemnation in that, so long as it is not to get wealth, and you at least try to earn your way.” Father John smiled wryly and drank the last of his tea.
“It’s strange, but theft is the very thing that started me on this path. Jacob Tolabert stole my company from me. He took away the livelihood that was rightly Janny’s and mine. I hate him for what he did to my family.”
Father John placed his empty cup and saucer on the tray with a sigh.
“Perhaps, God has allowed you to experience life without wealth for reasons you have yet to learn. There is always a reason for everything that happens in our life. The good of it may come to you, or it may come to someone you don’t even know yet. But it will come.”
“No good can come of what he did to us,” Mike said bitterly.
A servant entered, and retrieved the tray with the tea things. Mike was becoming sullen and moody. Perhaps this visit was not such a good idea. He would have to leave or change the subject.
“Were you able to sell the house, Father?”
Father John rubbed his chin thoughtfully while he watched Mike’s face closely. “Yes. I got an excellent price for it. I can arrange to have the money for you tomorrow if you like.”
“Yes. Perhaps I can use it to recover some of the life I had. Who was the buyer?”
“That doesn’t really matter, does it? The important thing is that the price was far more than I had hoped to receive. All the furnishings sold with it, of course.”
“Is there a reason you don’t want to tell me who bought it?” Mike asked eyeing his friend with curiosity.
“No, not really.”
Father John sighed, lowered his eyes, and said quietly, “Jacob Tolabert.”
Mike’s eyes widened, and his mouth dropped open. Surely he had heard wrong. “You sold it to Jacob Tolabert? Knowing all the things he’s done to my family and me? I thought you were our friend!” he accused.
Father John’s voice was steady and calm, “Michael, I am your friend. I got the highest price I could for you. What difference does it make who owns the house now? You have the money. You can use it to make a new life.”
Mike was on his feet, “He killed my family! He stole our company, and drove me away! Now, he even has our home. There’s nothing left for him to take from me now but my life!”
“Why would he want your life? As you say, you no longer have anything else he wants. He has no reason to continue to hound you.”
“Father, he’s an evil man. You don’t know all he’s done, and is capable of doing. He wants power, and money, and prestige. As long as there is one person who knows what he really is, he’ll continue to hunt him down. I can’t allow him to continue.” He strode to the window, and looked out at the deepening afternoon washing the city in warm golden sunlight.
“Perhaps you should get some rest, and think about what you are suggesting. Michael, of all the things you have done so far, none is inexcusable. But, what you are thinking now—you cannot take the law into your own hands. It is not your place to punish him.”
“You’re wrong. If I don’t do something, nothing will be done to stop him. I have to do something—for my own peace of mind.” He turned to Father John, who had risen and walked to the window beside him.
Mike pulled away from him, and turned back to the room.
“I think I had better leave. I’ll stop by to see you again before we leave the city. Perhaps, we can have a more peaceful visit. I had hoped I’d find a bit of peace today, but that isn’t possible just now. ”
In the squalid little room of the boarding house, Mike lay on his bed, lethargic and depressed. The visit to Father John had not given him the lift of spirits he had hoped. Instead, he had even more fuel for his smoldering hatred.
Tom rapped on the door, opened it, and stepped inside. “You stayin’ in tonight? I thought you was meetin’ that little tart from the tavern.”
“I don’t feel like it.”
“Since when did that matter? She’s a pretty one, too. You’ve done worse.” He grinned as he plopped onto the chair beside the tiny table, and slouched back.
“I said no.” He ran his hand through his tangled hair. “Tell her I had to go out when you see her.”
“Go out where?” he said, sitting up straight and looking directly at Mike. “Where’d you have to go tonight? Back to see that minister again?”
“No. It’s none of your business.” Mike stood and turned his back to Tom, and rubbed the back of his neck nervously.
Tom left with a sniff, snapping the door closed behind him. There was a part of a bottle of wine on the tiny table. Mike rose and poured himself a generous cup full. As he lifted the cup to his lips, he caught a glimpse of himself in the streaked little mirror over the washbasin. His beard was such a good disguise that even Father John had not recognized him. He could safely stay here, and work without fear of recognition by Tolabert or his thugs, for as long as he liked.
But, that was not what would satisfy him. He did not want just to be safe. He wanted his old life back. He wanted to live in a nice house again, and wear clean clothes, and be able to walk about with his head held high, never having to worrying about where and when his next meal would come. And, the only way to get it was to take revenge on the man who had stolen it all from him. He stroked his beard thoughtfully. He could probably go right up to Tolabert, and he would not recognize him. However, Mike wanted him to know who he was when he exacted his pound of flesh.
It was dark in the room, and the one candle on the table did not give enough light for Mike’s task. He lit another candle, and placed them on either side of the mirror on the washstand, poured water into the washbasin and picked up his razor. Carefully, he began to shave off his beard. He was so intent on what he was doing, that he did not notice when Tom came back into the room, sat down, and quietly watched him with curiosity.
When he finished his shave, Mike put on his best shirt and coat, and inspected himself in the mirror. Satisfied with the image, he then opened the top drawer of his chest, and carefully lifted out a bundle wrapped in an oily rag. He opened it, and picked up his father’s pistol, checking it to see that it was in good working order, and then he loaded it. Mike had never liked using the thing, even when it was necessary, but tonight he did not feel the same aversion. He tucked it into his belt and buttoned his coat over it.
“What are you going to do with that?” Tom asked, his eyes narrowing.
Mike turned with a start, and looked at him. “I have some business to take care of.”
“With your pistol? That sounds more like trouble to me. Does Henry know what you’re up to?”
“No. And you’d best not tell him either, if you know what’s good for you.” He glared at Tom until he was sure he understood.
“I’ll go with you, then.”
“No. This is my problem, and I mean to take care of it. I’ll be back when I’ve done what I have to do.” He left, leaving Tom standing in the room looking after him, unsure what to do.
Mike walked deliberately and quickly through the streets, out of the tumbledown district. He did not hesitate when he reached the cleaner area where the wealthy lived. The houses here were large, with manicured gardens, and some of them had a carriage house behind. The plethora of flowers in the front gardens gave a sweet scent to the warm night air, and the windows of nearly all the houses glowed yellow in the darkness, like large golden gems. Still Mike trudged on, not knowing that Tom was in secret pursuit.
Suddenly, Mike stopped in front of a large brick house. He stood, staring at it for several minutes, and then he wiped the back of his hand across his eyes. After heaving a heavy sigh, he crouched, and moved quickly up the little front garden to the lighted window on the left of the big front door.
He looked boldly inside, then turned, stepped off the front step and went around the corner of the house. He tried the handles of the French doors that opened into the house from the large side garden. They gave quietly under his touch, and he entered the house.
Standing just inside the French doors, and looking around the room, Mike allowed the pain of his loss to fill him anew. The drawing room was empty of occupants, but an oil lamp burned on the ornate writing desk near the opposite side of the room. This was Sarah’s drawing room. The same room where Mike had sat waiting for his parents the night they never returned. The furnishings were unchanged. The chairs sat in the same place, waiting silently to receive the beautiful woman who had chosen them with such care. The brandy decanter stood on the same little table, waiting for Gerard to come in for a drop before dinner. The piano waited patiently for the fingers of the little girl, who had made it play so merrily. They waited vainly for ghosts. It was unjust that the man responsible for making them wait should now own them.
On the small desk where the lamp burned, spread out in its halo, Mike recognized documents and ledgers. They were from Harrington’s Dry Goods. Obviously, someone had been working here, and had stepped out of the room for some errand or other. Mike quietly took a seat in the chair farthest from the light, near the fireplace. In the deep shadow, he drew his pistol from his belt, laid it gently across his lap, and waited, like a cat before a mouse hole.
The passing moments seemed like hours, and Mike became more tense as each crawled by. Then, footsteps were in the hall. The door opened, and Jacob Tolabert entered carrying a steaming cup of tea. He placed it on the desk out of his way, and sat down to continue his work. Mike silently watched him. It struck him how like a weasel the man seemed, as he sat fidgeting with the papers and mumbling to himself.
Tolabert gave a little shiver, rose, and crossed the room to the fireplace. The fire had burned down to glowing coals. He poked at them, coaxing a small flame back to life, and tossed in a new log. As the flames grew, the light brightened the room. He was about to turn back to his work when he finally saw the shadowy figure in the chair. He gasped, and took an involuntary step back when he saw the barrel of the pistol leveled at him.
“Good evening, Jacob. Good of you to join me,” said the vaguely familiar voice. In spite of his attempt to regain his composure, Tolabert stammered, “Wh-what do you want?”
“Sit down.” It was a curt command. Mike pointed with the pistol to the chair opposite him at the other side of the fire. He leaned forward into the light. His face was somber, as if carved in stone. The flickering light of the fire cast grotesque shadows, making it hard for his host to distinguish his identity.
“I am here to settle a debt, Mr. Tolabert.”
Tolabert nervously gripped the arms of the chair. Debt? I do business at the office. Y-you should come see me there.” He glanced nervously about the room. “Who are you? How did you get in here?”
Mike gave him an elegant, slow nod of his head, keeping his eyes on his adversary.
“Forgive my manners. I suppose I have changed a bit since you saw me last … Michael Harrington, at your service.”
Even in the dim firelight, Mike saw the blood drain from Tolabert’s face, and his feeble attempt to mask his fear with a surly response was transparent.
“There is no debt between us, Harrington. I paid you cash for your share of the company, and you left,” he snapped, drawing himself up in the chair.
“Oh, the money is the least of it. That paltry sum you gave me didn’t come close to what you owe me—even if you hadn’t had it stolen back the same day.”
Tolabert shifted in his chair. “You’re mad! I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“You know, I remember hearing in church that crimes should be repaid in like manner. You remember—an eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth.”
Cold sweat glistened on Tolabert’s forehead. “I don’t know what you’re raving on about. What do you want? Do you want money? I’ll give you all you want—the thousand—”
Mike clucked his tongue. “Thanks to you, I no longer have use for the money. You can’t pay this debt with gold, because what you took from me was more than money.”
“The company then! You want me to sign it back over to you?”
“No, I’ve learned my lesson there. You’d have me beaten, and robbed of it again, before the ink was dry. Besides, you’ve changed it so much, an honest man couldn’t run it now.”
“What then?” He nearly shrieked from the tension.
“Jacob,” Mike wagged his head, “you took something from me worth more than the company and all the money in the world. You took my family. You had my parents killed, and because of your further misdeeds, my sister died. That is the debt I’ve come to collect.”
Before Tolabert could voice his objection, there was a loud knock at the front door. Mike had not expected him to have callers at this time of night. His mind raced, weighing the possibility of handling another person.
“Who’s that?” he whispered hoarsely.
“It-it’s the messenger I sent for.”
Mike waved his gun, indicating they were going to the door. “We’ll let him in together. Don’t try to warn him, if you know what’s good for you.” Mike held his gun higher, into the light, so Tolabert could see it clearly.
Mike stepped behind the door as Tolabert opened it, the gun pressed into Tolabert’s ribs. Peeking through the crack to see who was on the step, Mike could distinguish two men, in the dim light of the hall candles. As they stepped further into the light, he could see that they were the same two men he had seen in the warehouse so long ago. They pushed their way past without word or hesitation, as if they had been here many times, and went straight for the brandy decanter on the small table in the drawing room, where they helped themselves.
After they had swallowed several gulps, they turned their attention to the man standing behind their host. The smaller one pointed with his glass.
“I thought we was the only ones in on this job. Who’s this, then?”
His nerves taut, and his frustration at the intrusion increasing, Mike nudged Tolabert to follow them into the room.
“Shut-up, you fool!” Tolabert hissed.
Mike again clucked his tongue. “Manners, Mr. Tolabert. That’s no way to address these fine gentlemen.” Realizing his need to keep the three of them together where he could watch them closely, he gave Tolabert a quick shove, and sent him stumbling against his visitors, exposing his weapon at the same time.
“Here! What’s this?” demanded the bigger man, as he caught Tolabert and assisted him to straighten up.
“This is a stroke of luck,” Mike answered. “Actually, I am glad you’re both here. I hadn’t expected to be able to repay the two of you as well.”
“What’s he talking about?” demanded the smaller man of Tolabert, as he gave a nervous little twitch.
“That’s Harrington, you twit,” snapped Tolabert, straightening his smoking jacket and smoothing his hair.
“Harrington! I thought you said you was rid of him.”
“You shouldn’t be so hard on our host. He is only as good as his help,” he said looking directly at the man. “Sometimes you just can’t depend on hired help to do the job as well as you can yourself.” Mike grinned maliciously, but these men were not what he had bargained for. He had to think of something before they overpowered him. If he tied them up, he could deal with them separately. But, what to use for rope?
The flicker of hesitation that crossed Mike’s face was almost imperceptible, but it was enough for the two hoodlums to spring into action. They charged the short length of the space between them and the intruder.
Mike yelled, “Stop, or I’ll shoot!” But, on they came. Mike felt his finger tightening on the trigger and heard the explosion of the powder. Tolabert yelped, and sank to his knees, clutching his arm. But, the two men were on top of Mike wrestling the gun from him, each striking him repeatedly with their work roughened fists. He managed to block some of the blows, but most found their mark. He was sure they would kill him before they stopped.
When his struggling ceased, they stood, and dragged him to his feet. Supported between them, Mike swayed, semiconscious. When Tolabert was sure the struggle was over, he got up, and stepped close. He held his left arm tightly with his right hand, blood oozing between his fingers. Then, with his bloodied fist doubled tightly, he swung with all his might, crushing his knuckles into Mike’s left cheekbone. Mike’s knees buckled, and he went limp.
“Go get the authorities!” Tolabert commanded the small man, and he left immediately.
Then Tolabert and the other man lay Mike on the divan, crossed his hands, and tied them together with the silk scarf Tolabert pulled from around his own neck. Tolabert then managed to bandage his own arm with a handkerchief.
When he finished, he grabbed the brandy decanter and poured some of the brandy on Mike’s clothes, then forced him to swallow some. Mike coughed and sputtered, swallowing some and spitting out the rest all over himself. Tolabert continued to force him to drink, until the crunch of footsteps on the walk outside heralded the arrival of the law.
“Good of you to come so promptly,” Tolabert said to the new arrivals. “This man broke into my house and tried to rob me. When I wouldn’t give him what he wanted, he shot me.” Tolabert showed the constable his wound. “If my friends hadn’t come along when they did, and overpowered him, I’m certain he would have killed me.”
The night watchman approached the nearly unconscious man on the divan, and wrinkled his nose. “He’s drunk. He smells like he’s been swimming in the stuff.”
“Undoubtedly, that is why he thought he could get away with this,” barked Tolabert as he stood back still clutching his wound.
“We’ll take him along, then. You can come to the magistrate’s and make your complaint against him.” The watchman motioned to his companion, and they attempted to sit the very limp Mike upright.
“I’ll be there shortly. I want to see him hanged for what he’s done to me.”
“Most likely he will. You need to send for the doctor, sir, and have that wound tended. We’ll see you at the magistrate’s when you’re able to get there.” He tipped his hat to Tolabert, and helped his fellow pull Mike to his feet. Supporting him between them, they half dragged him from the house.
The alcohol Tolabert forced him to swallow made Mike numb. He was barely aware of the rough treatment the men who had removed him from the house gave him. When they reached the cell, they dropped him onto a hard cot. The sound of the heavy iron grid door closing smartly echoed in his head like thunder.
As the hours passed, the numbing effect of the brandy began to wear off. The cuts and bruises throbbed, his head pounded, and his thoughts were muddled and hazy. The one thing, he did remember clearly, was that he had told Tom to stay at the boarding house. He had not even told him where he was going. No one knew he was here. No one would come to help him.
Despair enveloped Mike like a shroud. He should never have come back to Cambridge. If only he had listened to Henry … if only he had allowed Tom to come with him … if only he had left well enough alone … he would not be here now. He sat up on the edge of the cot, holding his aching head in his hands. Jacob Tolabert had managed to accomplish his goal. He had finally rid himself of the Harrington’s.
The gray light of morning barely lit the dank and filthy cell. Mike could not bring himself to eat the stale bread and dry cheese that someone shoved through the opening under the iron grid door of his cell. There was an indescribable stench of urine in the cell, and some loose pieces of dirty straw scattered on the stone floor. The only furnishings were the cot, covered with a filthy, ragged blanket, and a stool. There was a small opening in the outer wall, which served as window and ventilation. But, the surroundings did not matter. He knew he would hang very soon anyway.
Later in the day, Mike sullenly regarded the strange visitor the guards let into his cell. Mike sat on the cot, leaning against the wall with his knee drawn up, and his arm resting on top of it. The man was dressed in a plain black coat and breeches made of broadcloth. His crisp white shirt and cravat made him look like a vicar or mortician.
“Who are you? Here to measure me for the coffin?” Mike said with a sigh, and looked away.
The man pulled the three-legged stool closer to the cot and sat down.
“Mr. Harrington, I am Sidney Smythe, Esquire. Your friends have retained me to help you,” he whispered.
“Help me—what friends?” Mike asked. His eyes narrowed as he reconsidered the man.
“The names they gave me were Henry and Jericho?”
Mike’s eyes widened, he placed both feet on the floor and sat up. “But, how did they know I was here?”
“They said a young man witnessed your—ah—activities last night, and informed them of your dilemma.” He glanced over his shoulder at the door to see if any guards were listening.
“What young man?”
“Another of your friends, I believe.”
For once, he was glad Tom had not done what he had asked. The smallest glimmer of hope began to burn within him.
“The magistrate ruled last night that you should be held, and tried for the charges against you. I need you to tell me what you can about what happened last night, and why you were there. I will instruct you as best I can on what to do when you are taken to court. I will not be able to speak for you, but I will be able to question Mr. Tolabert, and any witnesses he presents. Hopefully, I shall be able to show the court that the whole matter should be dismissed.”
For a long time, Smythe listened while Mike told him of his history with Jacob Tolabert. He recounted all that he had done in going to the house, and how the unexpected visitors had charged at him, causing his gun to discharge. And, he told how he received his own injuries.
“Mr. Harrington, the charges being brought against you are assault, and attempted murder. Because of who has made them, I know there will be difficulty in convincing the court of your innocence. Tolabert’s influence is very strong, and he has the funds to pay his way through this process handsomely. I believe you are innocent. Whatever you may have intended when you went there, I believe you were provoked, and his men did the attacking. Hopefully, with the testimony of your young friend, we will be able to sway the court in your favor.”
“No,” Mike said emphatically. “I don’t want Tom involved in this. He’s never had any dealings with Tolabert, and he shouldn’t start now. If he testifies, Tolabert will retaliate against him. This isn’t even his fight.”
“He is an eye witness. He may be your best hope—”
“No. Please. Tolabert will destroy him like he did me; if not in court, then afterwards.”
Smythe stood up. “Without a witness, you are asking for a miracle.” He considered Mike for a moment. “You are an educated man, and you have not been in trouble before. We may be able to claim this as a clergyable offense. The judge seldom enforces any serious punishment for such. Of course, with Tolabert involved, he may petition the court to declare it non-clergyable. If that happens, it will not go well for you if they find you guilty.
“How long will it take?”
“Sadly, not long. The trial is set for tomorrow.”
After Smythe left, Mike lay back on the cot. Tomorrow was so soon. These could be his last days on earth. He turned, facing the wall and drew his knees up again, wrapping his arms tightly around himself.
That evening, Mike had another visitor. When he saw Father John standing inside the closed cell door, Mike turned his back to his guest with a groan, resting his face against his arm where it rested on the wall. Seeing Father John standing there with an anxious expression on his face, made him wish he could crawl away with shame.
“You shouldn’t have come. I never wanted you to see me like this,” he said to the wall.
“Where else would I be, when you need me?” He took a quick breath to steady his voice.
“How did you know I was here anyway?”
“Your friend, Henry, came to the vicarage. He told me what happened.”
Mike could not remember telling his friends about Father John, but he was glad now that he had. Even though it grieved him for Father John to see him here, he was relieved he had come. And, yet he held his tongue.
“Michael, I’m sure you know you should not have gone back to the house.” His words were not accusing or harsh, as Mike felt he deserved, which made them all the more painful.
“I know. But, I did.” He turned from the shadows, and when the light of the lantern outside the cell fell across Mike’s face, the Bishop gasped. There was dried blood at the corners if his mouth and nose, and his left eye was nearly swollen shut. “I got what I deserved, though.”
“Did Tolabert do that to you?” he demanded, taking a step closer, reaching to touch his face. Mike jerked away in pain.
“Some of it. His men did the rest.” He lifted his shirt to reveal other cuts and bruises, and Father John gasped again. “I didn’t expect the others to be there. I should have remembered he does his worst deeds in the safety of darkness. And, he always has men close at hand to do his dirty work. Maybe if I had gone in the daylight—”
Father John held his peace, but his face reflected the anguish he felt. Mike knew his condition was due to his own foolishness, and he had accepted that. But, seeing this gentle man with so much pain in his face, made him shudder. He bitterly regretted causing him grief, nearly more than what he had done. Mike dropped to his knees at his feet.
“Father, please forgive me. I never meant to do anything that would hurt you like this. Nothing I’ve done, in the last two years, is worth the pain I’ve caused you. Please don’t hate me,” he barely managed to keep his voice from breaking as he spoke.
Father John dropped to his knees as well, and threw his arms around Mike’s wretched form. Mike felt like a small child comforted by a parent, and almost wanted to stay like that.
“Michael, nothing you can ever do will cause me to stop caring for you. I should beg your forgiveness, for not finding a way to help you fight this man.” He pulled back, and brushed Mike’s hair back from his face before dropping his hands to his lap.
“You didn’t know what I would do. I didn’t know, myself, until I was there holding the gun. I’ve spent two years wandering all over the country, but I just could never forget what he cost me. He took my family, my company, my home, and now my self-respect. I’ve done things that would horrify my mother, and raise the eyebrows of any decent man. And now, I’ve let him drive me to this. I might have killed him, if those other men hadn’t come along when they did.”
They remained on their knees facing each other. “Then, thank God they did come.”
“But, I’ll pay the same price for the attempt, as for the deed … Father, I don’t want to die. I know I deserve it, but I don’t want to die.” His hid his face with his grimy hands.
“Your friends and I will do everything we can to prevent that. Jacob Tolabert is the true criminal. Any good judge will see that, and release you.”
Before he left, Father John prayed and gave him a parting encouragement.
“Michael, you have to trust things will work out. I know it’s hard, but God knows the truth, and He will work things out for the best. You just have to believe.”
Mike sighed. At the moment, faith was hard to come by. Until this ordeal was finished one way or the other, he knew his faith was very weak. He could scarcely hope he would not have to pay for the attempt he tried to make on Tolabert.
Sleep eluded Mike. Near dawn, he rose and paced the cell. Bells calling the colleges to their studies rang at five o’clock. Briefly, their pealing evoked a sweet memory of home and youth, before the reality of his situation returned. Today the bells seemed to be knelling his doom.
A couple hours later, a key rattled in the cell door. A guard bearing a small bundle under his arm stepped in and thrust it at Mike.
“Here. Someone brought these for you. I guess they figured it won’t hurt for you to look, and smell a little more respectable. We couldn’t let them give you a razor. Just as well. You couldn’t shave very good anyway, with your face so swelled up like that.” The guard shook his head.
“It doesn’t’ matter.” He wished this were over. His apathy made him weary. Mike took the bundle of new clothes, washed and changed in silence. He was clean, but his defeated spirit persisted.
At eight o’clock, the guards took him in shackles to the court. They shoved him roughly into place at the bar, and stood at ease a step behind him. Mike glanced around the crowded room. Henry, Jericho, Tom, and Father John sat in the gallery, looking anxious. Mr. Smyth, dressed in his long black robe, sat shuffling his papers at a polished table, which was in front of the judge’s lofty seat. Various clerks and other officials, seated at other tables before the judge, surrounded him.
Waves of nausea sweep over Mike as he caught sight of Jacob Tolabert. Why could he not just close his eyes and wake up from this horrible nightmare? Indeed, most of the proceedings paraded before his glassy eyes as if they were a dream.
A clerk stood and read the charges against him.
“Michael Harrington stands before the court accused of assault and attempted murder of one Jacob Tolabert …”
After the lengthy reading, the judge addressed him without even looking up at him.
“How do you plead, Mr. Harrington?”
Mike cast a bewildered look around the room, and finally at Sidney Smythe, who nodded at him.
“Ah—not guilty,” he said tentatively.
A guard led him to a seat where he watched as, first Jacob Tolabert, and then the men who had helped beat him, stood before the court, and told an elaborately embellished story of what had happened the night before. Tolabert stood with an air of confident boredom while he coolly related his version of the event.
“I was surprised to find Mr. Harrington in my house,” he concluded. “And I feared for my life until my friends called, unexpectedly.” He did not even bother to look at the judge, but rather fanned himself from time to time with a lace edged handkerchief, and fidgeted with his coat sleeves.
Mr. Smythe questioned him over every detail, doing his best to show how distorted his story was.
“Mr. Harrington did not attempt to strike you?”
“No. He held his gun leveled on me the whole while,” he said in the same bored tone.
“And, when the gun discharged, was he intentionally aiming at you?”
“I can only assume he was, since he had pointed it at me from the first.”
“When he fired, was he standing alone, or was he being attacked by your men?”
“I have already told the court, that he had fired before the men charged him.”
“And yet, at that close range, he did not inflict a mortal wound, while supposedly aiming deliberately at you?”
“I do not know how accurate his aim usually is,” he said curtly. “It was only luck that he did not kill me.”
Smythe questioned him on his every statement, but could not shake his cool countenance.
When the big man, who said his name was Jackson, had finished his tale, Mr. Smythe stood from behind his table in front of the judge and addressed him.
“Mr. Jackson, why did you say that you were present last night?”
“Mr. Tolabert asked me, and my friend to stop by. He had an assignment for us. We do work for him from time to time.”
“What type of work would that be?”
“We do whatever he needs doing,” he said and shrugged.
“Does that include assaulting people, or worse?”
“Ye—I mean no!” snapped Jackson, flustered by the bold question. “That wouldn’t be right. We don’t do nothin’ that ain’t right, for him,” he said screwing up his face and giving the lawyer a dark look.
“You and your friend interrupted a meeting between Mr. Harrington and Mr. Tolabert?”
“Yeah. But, it weren’t no meetin’.” He grinned slyly.
“You were aware of their business, then? Before you intruded?”
“It were pretty obvious what was goin’ on when we got there.”
“Did Mr. Harrington strike you?”
“No, but he—”
“Did he strike Mr. Tolabert?”
“No, but he—”
“Did he actually harm any of you in any way before you attacked him?”
“Well, no, but he—”
“He only discharged his weapon, by accident, when you and your friend assaulted him?”
“Well,” Jackson hesitated unsure how to make this statement seem more damning to Mike.
“Is that a true statement?”
“Yes.” His answer was less confident than before, and he hung his head. Mr. Smythe questioned him, and his companion on every point of their statements, showing that it was they, who had done the assaulting, not Mike.
When Mike stood at the bar again, he heard someone asking him to present his evidence that proved his innocence. According to his discussion with Mr. Smythe the previous day, Mike recounted his story.
“Mr. Tolabert has unjustly persecuted my family for years. He was responsible for the near ruin of my father’s company, and after Father’s death, Mr. Tolabert forced me to sell the company to him, at an extreme loss. I believe he was responsible for the death of my parents, and my sister. Because of him, I lost my livelihood, my family, and my home. I wanted him to understand what his actions had cost me. I didn’t intend to do him bodily harm when I went there. I just wanted to frighten him for a while. I wanted him to feel some of what I have suffered at his direction. When his hired men arrived, I was confused. I had not expected to meet anyone else. Then, when they attacked me, the gun went off while I was trying to defend myself. I was not trying to shoot Mr. Tolabert. He just happened to be standing in the wrong place when they jumped me, and made the gun go off. It was purely accidental.”
Most of what happened after that was lost to Mike. He understood none of the court activity, and knew nothing else until the judge charged the jury to reach a verdict. The men of the jury conferred together where they sat for what seemed like all too short a time, and then signaled they were ready.
Mike’s eyes sought Father John, who had his fingers tented under his nose as if in prayer. His knees felt like jelly as the guards stood him back up at the bar to hear the verdict.
In the expectant silence of the room, Mike heard the voice of the head juror, which sounded to him as if it were coming from a long tunnel.
“We find the defendant, Michael Harrington, guilty of attempted murder.” The smug glance and nod that passed between the head juror and Jacob Tolabert went unnoticed by most in the room. Mike saw it, but did not comprehend the meaning at the time.
The buzzing in Mike’s ears seemed to increase, and the room spun precariously. When the judge pronounced sentence, Mike scarcely heard it. He knew what it would be; he did not need to hear it. He would hang—there was no hope left. Tolabert had finally won. He was in shock, as the guards took him from the courtroom. The shouts of Tom and Jericho were lost in the shouts of the other spectators. He did not see Henry’s anger, or the tears slipping down Father John’s agonized face, when he slid from his seat to his knees in prayer.
Sidney Smythe managed to reach Henry and Jericho as they made their way out of the gallery.
“All is not yet lost! We can petition the judge for a pardon, or reduction in sentence.”
He explained the procedures to them, and told them he would begin immediately. Within a day or two, they should know if the Judge would alter the sentence or not. Although his words seemed hopeful, his demeanor did not reflect the hope he was trying to hold out to them.
When Henry and the others were finally able to get outside, Mike and the guards were already gone. Henry turned to Father John who had finally made his way out of the court.
“Don’t fret, Your Grace. There is no way I intend to let that devil hurt anyone else I care about.” He turned, and was gone.
Jericho and Tom took the Bishop to the tavern down the street, and ordered Scotch whiskey. They sat in the gloom and drank. Jericho attempted to explain to Father John what Henry had meant by his promise.
“Several years ago Henry’s wife died after a long illness,” he began, after downing the contents of his glass. “At the time Henry was in the employ of Mr. Jacob Tolabert. Tolabert made a habit of sending Henry out of town often, and for long periods of time. If Henry objected, Tolabert would threaten him with unemployment, and other despicable things. When Henry’s wife became ill, he begged Tolabert to allow him to stay, and care for her. He flatly refused. Finally, while Henry was away again for Tolabert, she died.
“Henry quit working for Tolabert, then he left town. He lived in a drunken stupor after that. I found him one day nearly frozen to death in the street, and took him home with me. Sometime after I befriended him, and dried him out, he told me his story. He’s been living with that anger for a lot longer than Mike has. But, he’s been a little wiser about it until now.”
“I am truly sorry for Henry’s loss, but how can he possibly do anything now to stop the hanging?”
“I don’t know for sure, Your Grace, but when Henry says he’ll do something, he does it. We best go find him, and see what he’s planning. I’m sure the two of us are to be part of his plan.”
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.
Although Tom had not taken kindly to Mike at first, they had become friends. Their bond was akin to brothers. Mike was vaguely aware of Tom’s words as he fought to stay awake.
“I think I told you I never knew my actual family. Jericho and Henry were the closest thing to parents I ever knew.” Mike was closer to his own age, and Tom eventually discovered it was easier to talk to Mike than to the older men about some things. “You know,” he said as he leaned back against the wall of the barn, “it took me a spell to warm up to you. I got real good at not showin’ it bothered me what people said. I didn’t care for nobody else but Henry and Jericho. In fact, until you came along, I didn’t think I needed no friend.” If the light had been better, Mike might have seen his cheeks coloring at this confession.
Tom sat staring at Mike in silence for a while. From time to time, he refreshed the cloth on his forehead, and if Mike thrashed about, he checked carefully to see that the bleeding had not started again.
“You better get well,” he whispered close to Mike. “I think I’ve got used to having you around.” He checked the cloth again for coolness, and then continued to chat quietly. “Hey, you remember when you taught me to swim? I was such a ninny in that lake. But, you never got mad at me. You just kept telling me I could do it. You never paid no attention to Henry and Jericho hootin’ at us from the banks. Nobody else would a’ done that,” he said as he lifted his head, remembering that summer day.
Tom leaned back against the rough wall of the barn. Then he leaned close again to check his fever. “You know, Mike, I never really did say how sorry I was for what I done to you, when you first joined us. You remember? At that tavern? I just wanted to see what you’d do when I put that girl onto you. Jericho told me I shouldn’t a done it. I guess maybe he was right. I’m sorry.”
Mike stirred, moaned in pain, and his eyes opened. His brow creased as he slowly looked around.
“Jericho!” Tom jumped up, and shook the sleeping Jericho.
Jericho was up in a flash. He placed a rough hand on Mike’s flushed face.
“The fever’s still there, but he don’t seem quite as hot as he did earlier,” he said, shaking his head.
Mike tried to focus his eyes, but they would not focus on anything for long. Jericho held a water flask to his lips.
“Here, drink this.” Mike allowed the cool water to enter his mouth, and managed to swallow down a mouthful or two.
“Where are we?” came the faint whisper from his parched lips.
“In the loft of that old barn. Don’t you remember?” He exchanged a look of concern with Tom.
“We can’t stay here—we need to keep moving—” Jericho gently pushed him back, when he attempted to sit up.
“You ain’t in no condition to go nowhere. We’re safe for now. Just lay back and be still, so you won’t start bleeding again.” He rinsed the cloth and mopped Mike’s face.
It was nearly sundown, when Henry returned alone and unhappy. “I couldn’t get through. There’s search parties everywhere. I had to do some tall talking when some bloke said he thought he recognized me.”
“How long do you suppose they’ll keep looking for us?” asked Tom, biting his lip.
“No tellin’. I thought they might a give up by now. Maybe think we was long gone.” He sighed as he sat down and handed Jericho the small bag he had brought with him. “I managed to get a bit of food. It’ll have to do for now,” he apologized as Jericho extracted the meager fare. “I guess Tolabert won’t call off the hue and cry ’til he’s good and certain he can’t get to Mike no more.”
Mike listened to them, Regret churning in him, and wishing he could make things different. If they had not done this for him, they would not be in this danger.
“This is my fault,” he said in a low voice. “Put me on a horse, and let’s get out of here. We’re all in danger if we stay here much longer. I won’t be the cause of harm coming to you.”
“What the devil do you think you’re going to do on a horse? You can’t even sit up. How you going to ride?” snapped Henry.
“I’ll do what I have to—”
“Just hush,” he said in a kinder tone. “The ride’d kill you.”
“It’s no worse than hanging. Please—”
“Ain’t nobody dyin’. Not today, anyway. Just settle down and rest. Leave the planning to me. We need to get you some help. That’s first.”
Arguing was pointless. Mike lay back, feeling useless and even weaker. But, even so, he found it strange that he no longer had the fear of death he had when he thought he was about to hang. True, he was sad at the thought of never seeing his friends again, but there was a peace now—a resignation to it. He even welcomed it as a way to end the pain he was feeling and causing his friends.
In the dim moonlight, beaming through holes and cracks of the barn’s dilapidated structure, Mike could see Tom crouched beside him. “Tom?”
Tom was instantly closer. “Yeah, I’m right here, what you need?”
Mike reached out a hand to take Tom’s. “You’ve been a good friend. I’m glad I had a chance to know you.”
Tom was glad it was so dark, and Mike could not see his face. “You’re a good friend, too, Mike. I’m glad you’re here.”
“I need you to promise me you’ll do something for me—later.”
“Sure, Mike. I’ll do anything you say.”
“Later, when this is all over with, and it’s safe for you … I want you to go to Father John, and tell him that I—that I’m grateful for all he did for me, and my family. Tell him I’m sorry for the way things ended—”
“Nothin’s ended! You heard Henry. You can tell him all that yourself, when you’re better.”
Mike smiled weakly. “Tom, it’s all right. I’m not afraid anymore. Don’t be sad for me.”
Tom was again grateful for the darkness that hid a tear slipping down his cheek. He managed a quivery response. “You ain’t goin’ nowhere. You’ll see. You’ll be just fine.”
Mike slipped back into a fitful sleep, as Tom sniffed and wiped his face on his sleeve.
Mike felt so peaceful and incredibly light. It was as though he were floating, drifting aimlessly along with no worries, no goals. There was no pain in his side, and when he opened his eyes, Mike found he was standing alone, surrounded by a thick fog. There were no shapes in the swirling gray light—no trees, buildings, or people.
Suddenly, remembering his wound, Mike slapped his hand to his side. There was no pain. He looked down at his shirt. There was a ragged little hole where the bullet had pierced him, but there was no blood, and most wonderfully, no pain at all. It was wonderful not to hurt. He was mildly confused, but he felt no great fear.
He moved his hand in front of him, fascinated by the patterns it made in the mists. Then, he heard a deep chuckle. Another and another followed it, until they turned into long, hideous, and sinister laughter. Mike opened his mouth to call out, but no sound came. He walked a few steps in what he thought was the direction of the sound, but it seemed to be everywhere, yet nowhere. Between the laughter, he thought he heard a man speaking. At first, the words were unclear. He strained to hear the whisper that grew slowly louder.
“I’ve won. I’ve beaten you.” The words repeated between the laughter. A chill tingled down Mike’s spine. The voice belonged to Jacob Tolabert.
Mike flailed at the mist, trying to find a way out, to get away from the sound, and the one making it. And, then suddenly, it stopped. The ensuing silence was deafening, and still there were no shapes in the fog. Mike walked, looking from side to side, hoping to see something that would tell him where he was, and how to leave.
Light was intensifying behind the mist. It was an eerie light, and it seemed to shine on nothing but him. There was nothing else except him, and the endless fog. The fog began to brighten, and thin to his right. He turned, and walked in that direction. From beyond the disappearing curtain of mist, came a sweet familiar voice.
“Michael. Michael?” It seemed an irresistible force drawing him onward. The mists continued to thin, and as they cleared, a lush green valley spread in panorama before him, resplendent with flowers and trees, a babbling brook, and birds of varied and beautiful colors. He marveled at the beauty. He could remember nothing like this place.
At a sound, he turned his head and saw a figure hurrying toward him, arms outstretched. As she neared, he saw that the smiling girl was Janny! He tried to run to her. He wanted to scoop her up and hug her tightly, but his feet felt like they were deep in mire. He could barely lift either foot, and forward movement was impossible.
Janny stood still then, waiting patiently for him. Behind her, two more figures stepped forward into view. They came up beside Janny, and stopped. Mike could hardly believe his eyes. Sarah and Gerard stood with Janny. Sarah, in her emerald green gown she had worn the last time Mike saw her, her hands clasped at her chin expectantly, and Gerard with one arm around her and the other in his vest pocket. The sight was so peaceful, and he wanted to get to them so badly, but his feet just would not move. As he struggled, from the mists behind him a different voice called to him with urgency. It was such a commanding call he knew he had to answer it. With a little wave to his family, he turned. To his surprise, when he turned to walk back toward the voice, his feet moved easily, no longer bogged down.
Janny called gently after him as he walked, but he could not turn back. “We’ll wait for you, Mike.” Then the mists swallowed him, and the valley was gone. The euphoric feeling was fading, and with the insistent voice came a jarring sensation.
“Mike!” Jericho’s voice penetrated the mists.
Mike opened his eyes with effort, to see Jericho bent over him, his hands gripping the front of Mike’s shirt, shaking him. It took all of his strength to speak.
“Jericho.” The thin raspy sound came from his tight throat.
“Thank God,” he whispered. “I thought we lost you,” Jericho sighed, and eased him back onto the blanket. “You gave us a scare.”
Mike became aware that he was breathing heavily, and that he was wet with sweat. To his disappointment, the pain was still in his side. But, he was too weak to do more than manage a whisper.
“Why? What happened?”
Jericho wrung the excess water from the cloth, and placed it back on Mike’s forehead.
“You got restless, tossin’ around and callin’ to someone. Then all of a sudden, you just stiffened up, and quit breathin’. Tom started bellerin’, and I grabbed you, and started shakin’.” Mike lay still, allowing Jericho to check his wound and fuss over him. “You rest now. This gunshot has left you weak. You need to be still, and let your body try to fight it.”
The morning sun was glowing in through the cracks where the moonlight had shone before. Faintly in the distance, the bells of Cambridge rang, calling students to their studies. Tom rose, climbed down the ladder, and began quietly to saddle his horse. Henry had seen him go down, and followed him on cat’s paws. When he reached out and grabbed his arm, Tom jumped, as if shot.
“What do you think you’re doin’?”
“I’m going for help,” Tom turned back to the saddle cinch.
“And, just what makes you think you can get through, if I couldn’t?” Henry stood towering over him with arms crossed over his chest.
“I don’t know. But, someone’s got to get a doctor. Mike won’t last much longer like this.” He turned back to his task, frustrated that Henry did not seem to understand.
Henry watched Tom finish his preparations. “Actually, there’s a possibility you could make it. But, you can’t go chargin’ in there like a mad man.”
Tom glanced at him from the corner of his eye. “Then what?”
“I been thinkin’ ‘bout it all night. They won’t be looking for a boy alone goin’ about his business. You get to town, and then you slow down to a walk. No one’s going to notice you if you look like you’re just doing what everyone else is doing—getting ready for the day. You go on to the Bishop’s house and ask to speak to him. When he comes you make sure there’s no one else around, then you tell him what happened, and ask him if he has any ideas how to get Mike a doctor.” As soon as Henry had finished instructing Tom, he was galloping toward the city.
Several hours after Tom had left the barn, a carriage pulled up, and the driver pulled it into the open doors of the barn. Henry and Jericho moved stealthily to the edge of the loft, weapons at the ready. To their amazement, Father John looked up at them, and waved as he climbed down from the driver’s seat. He was not wearing his usual clothes that marked him as a man of rank in the church. Instead, he was dressed as any other minister. Then Tom stepped out from inside the covered landau, holding a satchel. The most amazing thing was that Tom was dressed the same way as Father John. He wore a black suit with a white collar, and a wide brimmed black hat. They were stunned to silence as the newcomers made their way up the ladder, and behind the barrier.
Father John knelt beside Mike, who appeared to be asleep, and was very pale. Sensing his presence, Mike opened his eyes and smiled weakly.
“Yes, Michael. I’m here. How do you feel?”
“Very tired—my side hurts—Father, I saw Janny.” Father John looked up questioningly at Jericho and Henry, then back to Mike.
“Yes. Mother and Father, too.” He closed his eyes. “They’re waiting for me, you know. They looked so happy…”
“That’s—that’s wonderful, son, but you need to rest now. We’re going to take you out of here, and get you some help. You’ll be well again in no time.” He did not sound as convincing as he had hoped, but Mike did not seem to notice.
“Thank you, Father…” was all he managed, before sinking back to near unconsciousness.
Henry had looked on, his face a dark cloud. It took great effort not to scream at the Bishop.
“And, just how do you propose to take him anywhere? Even if he wasn’t at death’s door, it’d be too risky to take him back into the city. And, not just for him and us, but for you as well.”
“Don’t worry about me. I’ve made arrangements already. In that bag you will find garments for each of you … if you wish to come along,” he said as he began to take Mike’s shirt off. “Those clothes will allow you to travel anywhere you wish, without question.”
Tom yanked open the satchel, and pulled out three black outfits. Henry’s eyes widened, and his fists went to his hips. “You want us to wear those?”
“Those clothes are all anyone will see, if they give you a second glance. They’re searching for criminals, not clergy. You’ll find all the things you need to shave and dress. I’ll take care of dressing Mike while you change. I want to make sure you are properly attired before we leave.” He began to undress Mike, and then cautioned them. “You had better hurry, from the look of him.”
Father John took the bottle of Scotch whiskey from Tom’s hands as quickly as he had pulled it out of the bag.
“That is not for you. I brought it to put on Mike’s wound. And, to help ease the pain of the trip for him.”
He placed the bottle to Mike’s lips, and coaxed him to swallow a mouthful. Mike coughed and sputtered, trying to turn his head away, but Father John held him tightly, and coaxed a bit more down him. When he was satisfied that Mike had drunk enough to sufficiently make him numb, he tipped the bottle over the bandaged wound, and blotted up the excess, before he finished dressing him.
Henry carefully carried Mike back down the ladder, the same way he had brought him up, while Tom packed all their gear into the boot, and covered it with the canvas. They seated Mike inside the landau, Tom and Jericho holding him between them. Jericho kept checking Mike’s wound, hoping all the activity had not caused it to begin bleeding again.
After attaching the reins of the other two horses to the back of the vehicle, Henry mounted his horse.
“If anyone questions us, let me speak to them,” Father John said with authority just before mounting the driver’s seat again. “Our story is that our brother has taken ill, and was unable to ride. That will explain the extra horses.”
Moments later, they were on their way back into the city, looking like a solemn little group of traveling holy men.
The trip from the barn to the vicarage seemed interminable, but by very late in the afternoon, the five men arrived at the back door.
“Speak to no one when we go inside,” Father John cautioned. “Once Michael is settled, and the doctor is with him, I will instruct you in the proper behavior while you’re here. Until then, I’ll tell everyone you’re in seclusion and prayer for your sick friend. The others in the household will respect that and not bother you.”
With Mike supported between them, Henry and Father John carried him up the steps, and into the vicarage. He was awake, but very weak as they half carried, and half dragged him upstairs into the Bishop’s own room. They laid him on the bed, and undressed him. Mike wondered why they were doing these things when he was about to die. All he wanted was for the pain to stop and be left to die in peace.
When the doctor came in, he waved everyone away from the bed so he could examine the patient. Father John called a young student to take the others to the kitchen and feed them, then show them to their rooms.
“Our guests have traveled a long way, and are tired. They wish to be in seclusion and prayer as much as possible until their companion is on the mend, so please respect that. I will answer your questions later, after the doctor leaves.” The young man nodded, and motioned for them to follow him to the kitchen. Father John closed the door behind them as they went down the hall behind their guide.
An hour later, the doctor opened the door of the room to find the Bishop, seated outside, watching it intently.
“Your Grace.” He motioned to him to come into the room. Once they were both behind the closed door, he continued. “I don’t know how this man came to be in this condition, but it is a good thing I got to him when I did. A few more hours, and he would have been dead.”
“He will recover?”
“Honestly, I’m not sure. I’ve done all I can for him. The rest is up to him—and God.” He pulled his coat on and adjusted his collar. “I removed the ball, and put on clean bandages. He has lost a very large amount of blood. It will take him a long time to recover from that alone.”
“What can we do for him?”
“Keep the wound clean, and change the bandages as often as they need it. Keep him warm. Keep the cool cloth on his head until that fever breaks. I left some salve for the wound, and some laudanum for pain.” He shook the Bishop’s outstretched hand. “Give him broth and water whenever you can until he wakes and is able to eat. Call me if you need to.”
“Thank you, Dr. Weston. I am very grateful for all you’ve done.” He placed a coin in the doctor’s hand.
“I hope what I have done is sufficient.” He hesitated at the door. “Your Grace, who is he?”
A sad smile pulled at the corners of Father John’s mouth, “He is a child of God in need.” His eyes locked the Doctor’s, communicating that he was not about to tell him anything more.
“It would be greatly appreciated, if you did not mention to anyone that you have been here, or what you have done.”
Dr. Weston pursed his lips in thought. This request went against his better judgment and his duty. “I have known you for a very long time, John. You wouldn’t ask such a thing of me if it were not important, I suppose.”
“No, I wouldn’t.”
He nodded, more to himself than Father John. “You secret is safe. I hope your friend recovers.”
“So do I. You can see yourself out. I want to sit here with him for a little while.”
Alone at last and the door closed, Father John knelt beside the bed. Mike opened his eyes slightly and tried to smile before slipping back into unconsciousness. Holding Mike’s limp hand, Father John bowed his head, resting his forehead on their clasped hands.
Wakened by the morning bells Jericho quietly opened the door of the room, and found the Bishop asleep in a posture of prayer, still clinging to Mike’s hand. At the touch of Jericho’s hand on his shoulder, Father John jerked awake, looking first to Mike’s face. Mike’s eyes fluttered open briefly at the sound of movement. Then Father John realized someone was beside him.
“Jericho. I didn’t hear you come in.”
“You were asleep. How long have you been here?”
“I don’t know. All night I suppose.” Jericho took his elbow, and helped him to his feet. Father John touched Mike’s face, and changed the cloth, then crossed the room, and sat down near the window. Jericho sat opposite him on the extra chair by the little candle table.
“What did the doctor say?”
Father John took a deep breath and let it out. “He said he did all he could do. The rest is up to Mike.”
“Then he’ll be fine. Mike’s a good lad. He has a strong will to live,” he assured the Bishop.
“I pray you’re right.” Father John covered his face with his hand, pulling it down over his chin, feeling his morning stubble.
“Why not? Look at all the things he’s been through up to now. God wouldn’t spare him through all that, if he was done with him.” Jericho leaned back into the chair, and rested his elbows on the arms of the chair.
“I suppose you’re right. It’s just so hard to be objective when it’s your own—” He stopped abruptly, his face reddening.
“Your own?” Jericho asked quietly.
“When it’s your own friend.”
“Mike’s a fighter. He’ll get through this. So will you.”
Father John nodded to his hands in his lap. “Thank you, Jericho.”
Jericho stood and held out a hand to the Bishop. “Come on. You need to get some real sleep. I’ll sit with him now.”
A visit from a guard of the lock-hold disturbed the peace of the afternoon at the vicarage. The clerical student announced him to Father John while Henry, Jericho, and Tom were with him in the room with Mike. Mike groaned and moved in an effort to get up.
“You lie still! This is something I can handle. The rest of you stay here and be quiet,” he cautioned. Father John left the room, and they quickly opened the door a crack. Their hearts pounding, they listened as he greeted the visitor. With only an occasional bold peek out of the door to see what was happening at the bottom of the stairs right outside the room, they could hear every word clearly.
Father John descended the stairs to find the man standing with his hat in hand staring out the little window beside the front door. He turned when the Bishop reached the bottom step. “Sorry to disturb you, Your Grace, but I wondered if I might ask you a few questions.”
“Questions? Certainly! I am always delighted when people want to know more about God.”
“Oh! I’m sorry, I didn’t mean that sort of questions.” He was obviously flustered.
“Forgive me. Then what do you want to know?”
“Well, that man you were called to the lock-hold to pray for a few days ago—the one that escaped before he was hung—”
“Wasn’t that astounding? I was right there when it happened. Did you see it, too?”
“Yes—well no, not exactly. I was there after it all happened.” He shifted on his feet. “Your Grace, you knew Harrington, didn’t you? Before the incident.”
“Well, yes. I knew his parents. They were a fine family. I was shocked to learn of the trouble the boy had gotten into.”
“You didn’t have anything to do with the escape, did you?”
“Me! Sir, may I remind you that I am a man of God? I am bound by God to do right.”
“Yes, I know, but I still needed to ask … Have you seen Harrington since he escaped?”
“Where would I have seen him? They all rode off at a gallop, as I remember. I’m sure they were bound for parts unknown.” Father John sounded amazed at the question.
“It was reported to me that there were five men arrived at this address yesterday.”
“Oh, yes, fellow clergymen from London. Old friends. They were on their way to their new parish assignments. They stopped by to rest and visit before continuing on.”
“It just seemed odd that a group of men shows up here just after the escape, and it was a group of men involved in the escape—” The man’s words were suggestive.
“My good man, have you nothing better to do than spy on the comings and goings of the clergy? Did my friends look like criminals to you? Did they resemble those men in any way? I can assure you, that you will not catch those criminals here in this vicarage!” Father John was obviously finding it hard to stay calm and steady.
“I’m sorry if I’ve offended you, Your Grace, but it’s my job to look anywhere Harrington might turn up. You will notify us if he should?”
“If the man comes here seeking asylum, we will be in touch with you.”
Henry ventured a bold look beyond the crack of the door and saw the man as he placed his hat on his head, bowed slightly to the Bishop, and walked to the front door. “Thank you, and good day, Your Grace.” He left quietly. Father John held his breath until he saw the man turn the corner at the end of the street.
Mike slept most of the next few days, waking only occasionally. Whenever he was awake enough, one of his friends would spoon broth into his mouth, or tip a cup of water carefully to his lips, until he either fell back to sleep or refused more. He was barely aware of anything around him during those times. They took turns sitting at his bedside, ready to meet any need.
Even after several days, Mike still slept most of the time, and his fever was nearly gone. The Bishop and Jericho were sitting quietly in the room, late in the afternoon when a stirring, and weak murmur from the bed interrupted the quiet.
Mike moved his head back and forth on the pillow, and then sleepily opened his eyes, trying to focus. The room was washed in late day sun, and it was unfamiliar. He was confused. Where was he? How did he get here? Two black clad figures came and stood expectantly beside the bed, looking down at him. After a moment, he recognized the one as Father John, but the other seemed odd to him. He was a minister, but—
“Jericho? Is that you?” he asked in a weak voice.
“It is! How do you feel?” He touched Mike’s face, and found it cool. The fever was finally gone.
“Hungry.” He still tried to puzzle out his vision. “Why are you dressed like that? Where are we?”
“We’ll get to that in good time. First, I’d best get you something to eat. This is the first good sign we’ve seen in days.”
“Days? How long have we been here?” He made an effort to sit up, but found he was very weak.
“You’ve been sleeping in the Bishop’s own bed, for the better part of a week.”
The Bishop? Father John, of course. But, he lived in Cambridge. They had fled from there. How could they be in Cambridge, and yet be free. They had been going somewhere else.
“The last thing I remember is going to the barn. How did we get here?”
“It’s just as well you don’t remember most of it. You was in a lot of pain. And, it hasn’t been real easy on the rest of us, either. But, that’s not important just now. I’m sure, Tom will be happy to tell you all about it. I’ll send him in on my way to the kitchen.” He turned and left practically with a skip in his step.
Father John sat down on the side of the bed smiling broadly. “It is good to see you awake. You worried all of us.”
“I’m sorry. I don’t really remember much of what happened. Right now, my dreams seem to be jumbled together with truth. I thought I was talking with Mother, Father and Janny. They were waiting for me to join them somewhere, but then they told me to go back. They said, ‘you have to go back now. Father John needs you. You have something more to do.’ Isn’t that strange? I can’t imagine what that could mean.”
Father John cleared his throat. “I don’t know what that could mean, but I am glad you’re back with us.”
Tom bounded into the room, ending their conversation. “Mike! You’re awake! I thought you were going to sleep forever.”
From that point, Mike’s recovery was quick. Tom happily told him of all their adventures since the trial, and Henry began making plans for them to move on, as soon as Mike was able to travel. Father John managed to obtain some new clothes that would help them look different from the fugitives they were, and supplied them with provisions for their journey.
Finally, the day of their departure arrived. As they packed their saddlebags and prepared to mount their horses, Father John gave them his blessing and bid them good-bye.
“Michael, promise to let me know when you are safe. Find a way to let me know where you are. I would like to keep in touch with you. You have been a part of my life for a long time. I don’t want to lose touch with you again.”
“He will do that, Bishop. I promise, now that I know how important he is to you,” said Jericho with a wink as he mounted his horse, then they waved to the Bishop as they turned their horses and rode away.
Time would dim their faces from the memory of most, but there was always a chance someone would remember the prisoner, and the men who helped him make the spectacular escape from the hangman. Even though it had been weeks, there were still people looking for the fugitives, eager to collect the reward. They had to get away from Cambridge, and the farther, the better.