Life and Debt

By Virginia Sue Foreman All Rights Reserved ©

Mystery / Adventure

Chapter 3

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.”

“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.”

“Where?”

“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.

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