“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.