A Highwayman's Tale


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“A Highwayman’s Tale”

by

Michael Bannister

The white ball of the moon lit up the autumnal forest that night.  In a clearing, beside the dirt road, a man dressed in black with a scarf covering his lower face, sat upon a large black stallion. Jack Croft was the local highwayman, and as he sat on Beauty he strained his ears to hear every sound the night forest made. The clatter of wheels against stone was soon detected coming in the distance.  He reached down and opened a large leather pouch that hung down Beauty’s side.  He drew out two flintlock pistols. He could now see the carriage coming towards him.  With a pistol in each hand, he rode out to meet the carriage. “Stop there,” shouted Jack to the driver of the carriage.  The carriage came to a halt in front of him. “This is a hold up.  Get down from there,” Jack commanded the driver.  The driver did as he was told. “Now walk fifty paces down the road, stop, and stand still till I’m finished here.”  The driver began to walk, counting each step under his breath.

“Out of the carriage,” Jack shouted. “What is the meaning of this?” said an elderly lady, dressed in finery, as she got out of the carriage.  Soon to follow behind her was another lady dressed in finery, but this time she was young and pretty. “I’m robbing you madam that is the meaning of this.  The both of you give me your valuables.  Put them in this,” he said, throwing down a small sack. “I’ll see you hang for this,” cursed the old lady as she put her purse into the sack. Jack laughed, “And don’t forget that necklace you’re wearing, I can see it sparkling in the moonlight from here.” When all valuables were safely in the sack, he got the young lady to give it to him.  “You don’t say much for a person who’s just been robbed,” he said. “You’re a cowardly brigand who robs defenceless women.  What more can I say?” she said, walking back to the old lady.  An owl screeched in the night and made her jump. “Farewell to you ladies.  By the way, you can tell the driver to return now.”  And with that Jack thundered off on Beauty. 

***

Alone in the light of the stables, Jack emptied the small sack on the table.  There was jewellery and two purses containing ten gold sovereigns.  He slapped Beauty on the rump and then headed for the noisy tavern. “Landlord, ale for me,” demanded Jack, striding up to the bar.  He threw a gold sovereign on the counter. “There’s been mischief in the forest tonight, Jack,” said the landlord.  “The highwayman robbed those two poor ladies over there, less than an hour ago.” Jack turned and saw the two ladies sat in a booth in the corner.  He thought he’d have some fun, so he strode over to them. “I hear you two ladies were robbed tonight.”  He swilled down some ale. “He took everything but our clothes,” complained the old lady. “Consider yourself lucky, the last victim had his trousers removed,” joked Jack. The old lady didn’t look amused. “And what about you?” Jack asked the young lady.  In the poor light he still could see she was a beauty. “I told him what I thought of him,” she replied. “Have the both of you eaten, yet?” Jack asked. “We’ve got no money,” admitted the old lady. Jack roared at the landlord to bring them both food and wine.  They accepted it kindly.  Jack sat down with them and ate as well. The old lady introduced herself as Margaret and the young lady as Jannet.  Jack told them his name. “Tell me, Jack,” began Jannet, “what do you do in this forest to earn a crust?”  She looked up from her roast chicken and into his dark, deep eyes. “I’m a forester, like my father before me.  I know this forest like the back of my hand.” Margaret poured some more wine into her empty glass.  “If you know this forest that well, then maybe you could tell me where that blasted highwayman lives?” “He’s a clever brigand.  He only comes out on moonlit nights.  I’ve never known him to hurt anybody though,” said Jack. “Anyway, thank you for this delicious food and wine, kind sir,” said Margaret. “What are you two ladies going to do with yourselves for the rest of the night?” Jack asked. “We’ll have to both rely on the landlord’s hospitality for tonight.  Then in the morning send the stable boy to Forest Manor where Lord Eaton awaits us.  Do you know Lord Eaton?” asked Margaret.  “Jannet is to be his bride before the end of this month.” “Everybody knows Lord Eaton, why, he practically owns half of this forest,” confessed Jack.  “Look, I’ll see you have a room and bed each, tonight.” Jack had words with the landlord and the two ladies went up to their rooms for the night. 

***

The next morning voices coming from the stable courtyard woke Jannet up.  She got out of bed, went to the window and looked down into the courtyard. There was a stable hand feeding oats from a small sack to a large black stallion.  The stallion and the sack looked familiar to Jannet, she remembered the night before. Intent on telling Margaret of her suspicions, Jannet left her room and went down the corridor to Margaret’s room.  She knocked on the door. “Who is it?” came Margaret’s sleepy voice from within. “It’s Jannet, I’ve got to talk to you.” “Come on in, the doors not locked.” Margaret was sat up in bed, peeping over the covers like a little mouse.  Jannet sat on the edge of the bed and told her what she had seen. “Then we should get dressed and tell the landlord what we suspect,” said Margaret. A short while later they went down stairs and found the landlord wiping down the tables. “Excuse me landlord,” began Margaret, “but we have reason to suspect that the highwayman who robbed us last night has something to do with this tavern.” The landlord didn’t appear shocked or in any way flustered.  “I know madam, I’ve sent for Captain Smart in the nearby village.  He’ll be here shortly.  I have a good idea who the rogue is as well, Jack Croft.  He was spending gold sovereigns last night like nobody’s business.” Both ladies were visibly shocked. “The very same Jack who helped us last night?” asked Margaret, unable to believe it. “The very same,” said the landlord. “Where is he now?” asked Jannet. “He’s got a little cottage in the forest.” “Thank you, landlord, you’ve done the right thing,” said Margaret.  She turned to Jannet.  “Let’s find out who owns that horse you saw.” They went out to the courtyard and approached the stable lad who was sweeping the stone yard. “Who owns that magnificent black stallion I saw you feeding out here earlier?” Jannet asked him. “Why miss, that was Beauty, he belongs to Jack Croft,” answered the boy. Suddenly the loud clatter of hooves filled the courtyard.  Margaret and Jannet turned round to see Captain Smart and four dragoons’ ride in. “Landlord,” shouted Captain Smart, not bothering to dismount. The landlord came out, looking the worse for drink. “Where is this Jack Croft now?” Captain Smart asked. “He’ll be in his home, just follow the road into the forest and it’ll be the first building you come to,” said the landlord. Captain Smart and his dragoons’ rode off. “I can’t help but feel a little sorry for the poor fellow,” admitted Jannet, as they walked back into the tavern. “He brought it all upon himself,” condemned Margaret. “Landlord, have you sent word to Lord Eaton yet about our predicament?” asked Jannet, when the landlord appeared. “Yes madam, he’s sending a carriage right away.” At that moment they heard the carriage outside. “That sounds like it now,” said Margaret. They thanked the landlord and got into the carriage.  The carriage drove off.  They hadn’t ridden for ten minutes when they heard shots fired off in the distance. “Sounds like those soldiers’ have caught up with our highwayman,” said Jannet. “Ghastly business,” remarked Margaret. They rode a little further and saw a clearing where a cottage stood.  As they drove passed they saw two soldiers lug a body onto a horse. “Ghastly business.”

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