Know Your Enemy, Or Pay The Price
Robert allowed the horses to warm up, and then let them extend themselves to a leisurely pace they could keep up until he arrived at Penfield.
His mind was soon caught up once more, in the personal problems he had just been handed. The life he was familiar with was behind him now and receding further into the distance, both in terms of the miles travelled as well as in the changes he knew he would encounter at his destination.
There were the steady hoof beats of a horse slowly catching up to him. Someone was making a slightly better pace than he was; a messenger of some kind. Not highwaymen. They would wait ahead of him and would drag a tree across the road or block it in some other way to force him to a stop. They would be unlikely to try to shoot from cover without the carriage being stopped. A moving target was the very devil to hit, and it was worse from a moving horse.
He slackened his pace to allow the man to go by him on the narrow road, so that he could continue the pace he had been travelling. As the man pulled level with him, Robert recognized the man from the stable yard, and at the same time saw the man bring a pistol up on him. There was a malevolent smile on his face as he tried to level his pistol for a shot, but from the back of a fast-moving horse it was difficult.
Penfield was not entirely unprepared, having been warned by Stephenson, and from overhearing the conversation in the Inn. The man had made assumptions about who he was up against from the character of his dress, or possibly because he had known Bascombe, but he had assumed more than he should have. He was not facing Bascombe, but a battle-hardened captain with ten years of bloody combat under his belt, and there would be a price to pay for that mistake, and that assumption.
Robert snatched up his saber, still in its scabbard, swung it, and saw it knock the gun out of the man’s hand even as he fired. The man began fumbling for another pistol by his saddle. Robert tossed the scabbard into the back of the carriage, and as the rider brought up a second pistol, he swung the naked blade and saw it bite deeply into the man’s neck and shoulder.
There was a strangled cry of pain, as the second gun discharged, and the man fell off his horse, mortally wounded, almost wrenching the saber from Robert’s hand.
Robert reined in, coming to a complete stop after twenty or thirty yards. He could see the man lying still at the side of the road and saw the man’s horse come to a stop in the grass at the side, not sure what to do now that there was no rider to control it, but nervous at the sound of those gunshots.
He looked at him lying there. Yes, it had been the same man he had seen at the Inn.
That was when Robert heard other horses approaching along the road behind him. The wounded man was lying still, probably dead from the angle of his head, though he would have bled to death with his head half removed. Robert dropped his bloody sabre at his feet. He saw one man appear round the slight bend behind him, with a gun leveled in his direction. Another one! He could hear others behind that man. The man’s gun would be useless at that distance, and from a moving horse, but his own would not be. The horses remained still, despite the sudden noise of those earlier shots. Robert picked up his pistol from the seat beside him, feeling a slowly rising anger, cocked it, and calmly took his shot as the man fired off his own.
With that gun, and from a steady position, Robert did not miss at this distance. He shot that second man through the head more by luck than intent, and as three more riders appeared he shot off the remaining barrel, seeing the front man reel in the saddle as the ball hit him. He dropped the empty gun on the seat and picked up his second pistol. The other riders had reined in when they saw that he was still on his feet, and two of their companions were lying in the road, likely dead, and one of them, wounded in some way, cursing at the pain of it, and here he was with another gun. How many guns might he have? The element of surprise had been lost. They were obviously up against far more than they might know.
Robert leveled his second gun and took his shot, ignoring the man he had already wounded, and who had lost all interest in the proceedings. He saw one of the two remaining men begin to lose his seat and then recover it, as the ball entered his shoulder. Still, it had been a long shot. His horses became restless after so many shots. Robert spoke softly to them, though they might not be able to hear his voice. He had difficulty hearing it himself. He would wait and see what those men might choose to do, if they were capable of assessing the situation so quickly. They had heard maybe five or six shots (two of them might have sounded as though they had been one) if they had counted—they probably hadn’t. They could see two of their friends, dead or wounded. The man who had been their intended target was still standing, unruffled, and with a pistol in his hand.
The three riders, two of them wounded, turned and rode off in fear of their lives, having seen two of their comrades felled, probably fatally, and the man who did it calmly bringing another one of those damned guns into play. They were out of range by then and feeling glad to be alive.
Robert spoke to his horses to calm them as he patiently reloaded both pistols. At least he had the time to do it here, where he never did in the melee that prevailed after he and his men had boarded the enemy ship. Any others coming up on the scene would have thought that he was clearly a mad man to be so calm. He was chuckling to himself and talking to both the horses, which seemed attentive to his calming voice, as well as to himself.
“Well, Gilbert Bascombe, whoever and wherever you are, I am beginning to think it was not such a wise action on my part, to be so readily persuaded to wear your clothing, or to drive your horses and carriage. What enemies might you still have out there that I know nothing about? No matter. I am ready for them again. No wonder you were in such a haste to leave England if this is what you expected, by remaining.” Except, Gilbert Bascombe had shuffled his own troubles onto another, by dying as he had; and onto one who had not known that he might face any kind of trouble, until now.
Robert put both pistols on the seat. He could hear nothing approaching along the road, but he would not remain here long. It was doubtful that the remaining men would have enough courage to return just yet, not with two dead, and another two of them nursing their own wounds. He continued to speak to the horses as he set the brake, dismounted the carriage, and walked to their heads. He checked them over but could see no marks on them. They soon calmed down, hearing his voice, speaking with a soothing tone they understood, and feeling his hands move over them.
He shook his head. These horses would never see the inside of Tattersall’s auction. They would never leave his possession if he could help it. They were also well-used to gunfire. He began to feel more than just curious about the late Mr. Bascombe and his reasons for wanting to leave England in such haste. There had been papers belonging to Bascombe in some of his trunks, and he resolved to go through them when he had chance. Others had already gone off with The Daedalus. He must write to Stephenson and see if they might indeed have been put ashore with the pilot, and if so, if he might be allowed to go over them.
What trouble might Mr. Bascombe have had, to see such a determined effort to end his life? Undoubtedly the same trouble that had seen him try to find an early passage out of England.
Now, wearing Bascombe’s clothing, and driving Bascombe’s horses and carriage, Penfield seemed to have inherited and invited a continuation of that trouble. He would need to learn much more about Mr. Bascombe as soon as he could, before he saw any continuation of it.
Robert decided that he would leave those two bodies where they were. However-much he might have liked to have known more about them, he would not choose to leave the horses and carriage unattended for long. There might be others attracted to those shots, and he preferred not to wait for trouble to find him. He would send someone out as soon as he arrived home.
He returned to his carriage and drove on, taking a more cautious pace this time and keeping his eyes and his ears open. It would not do to be so distracted again as he had been. Trouble might still lie ahead of him.