Life and Debt

By Virginia Sue Foreman All Rights Reserved ©

Mystery / Adventure

Chapter 5

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.

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