Between books, what do I do?
Between books, I write: short stories, more books… I love writing. I keep going back to things I haven’t finished. I get new bits of inspiration every now and then. Since I last posted, I have written a short story about what Billy Rhys did between the end of Highwaypersons Book II, The King’s Justice, and the start of Highwaypersons Book III: The Stallion Man . I have also written a sequel to Stallion man, yet to be given a title, and a short story linking books III and IV. Here is the first of these shorts.
Between the Books – a short story.
“I am.” The tall man turned from watching an ostler feeding his horses. “Who wants me?” His surly expression changed to one of surprise as he saw the beautiful lady.
A maidservant, in her late teens, said to a manservant of a similar age, “See! I told you it was him.”
Billy said, “Oh! My lady! It’s a pleasure to see you.”
Lady Arabella Whyte smiled. “I regret that I must impose upon you.”
“I’ve been imposed upon by worse folk than you, my lady. What do you need?”
“My coachman has disappeared. I have no idea why. He has been in my employ but a short time, but I had thought he was more reliable than this. Perhaps you have seen him?”
“Are these your horses?” He waved a hand to the five fine spotted coachhorses in the stalls beyond his three ill-matched animals.
“They are, but what difference does that make? And why is one missing?”
“I saw your coach come in last night. I remember the man and wondered why he rode off on one of them early this morning.”
“Oh, this is terrible!”
“If we’re quick, we might get a constable to after him. Perhaps he’s not gone far.”
“You could be right. But my concern is time. I am en route for Cardiff. Well, a place just beyond there, called Cowbridge. I intend to be at your wedding the day after tomorrow and o visit a few friends while I am in Wales. If I make it so far. I can hardly get there without a coachman.” She paused and looked at her horses and at the empty stall. “I believe you have experience of driving a coach?”
“I have and would happily offer you my services, but I have seldom driven a team of six and am unused to such fine animals. They seem spirited.”
“Would you try?”
Billy walked along the stalls and studied the coachhorses. “Hmm. I dunno. I’m not used to that sort and you’re right. Three won’t be enough. Not once we get into the hilly country.”
“Oh, Billy! Could you not try?”
As soon as Billy hitched the five horses to the coach he knew things were not going to go well. Perhaps they were being fractious because he was a stranger, or perhaps they were unused to being driven without a sixth. The one in the lead was certainly the least happy. Before allowing Lady Arabella to board, Billy had driven erratically around the inn yard and a short way down the road. When he came back she could not say whether he or the horses were the more upset. He climbed down from the driver’s seat and stood dejectedly before Arabella.
“I’m sorry, my lady. I fear it wouldn’t be safe for me to try to drive you all that way if I can’t be sure of controlling the horses.”
They all stood looking at each other. After a minute or so, the maidservant, Sian, said, “My lady, may I make a suggestion?”
“I would welcome one. I am running out of ideas.”
“Could Mr Rhy’s own horses pull the coach?”
They all looked at him.
“We could try it.”
Since he had only three horses, Billy tried various combinations of his animals and the others. Nothing worked. They seemed to take an instant dislike to each other. In particular, none wanted to be paired with the grey Percheron stallion, Louis.
Finally he tried driving only his three, with Louis alone in the lead. Although his bay cob, Merlin, was smaller than his grey former coachhhorse, Caledin, they managed to move in step. Above all, all three horses behaved themselves, and together they managed to cope with the weight of the large vehicle. In other words, it worked. When they set out at last, most of the morning was gone.
That evening, the only inn they found, despite carrying on after dark, was crowded. Arabella took the only decent room left, for herself and her maid, whilst Michael knew he was expected to sleep in the coach. Billy had not given much thought to his accommodation, as he was concerned for the welfare of his horses. He had to insist on their being placed in adjacent stalls rather than being separated. He also demanded they were given quantities of hay commensurate with their size. If that meant an extra cost, sobeit.
The innkeeper heard some of this conversation and commented, “You do care for your charges, don’t you? Anyone would think they were your own animals.”
“They are mine.”
“Forgive me, sir. I assumed you were the coachman.”
“Ah, well. You see…”
The innkeeper was no longer listening. He was giving instructions to his servants, one of whom turned to Billy and said, “When you are ready, sir, I will show you to your room.”
“I’ll come now.”
As soon as he entered the room, he realised there was a mistake. Arabella was already there and Sian was attending to her hair, into which her eyebrows almost vanished as she saw Billy.
When he explained how he came to be there, she laughed. “I expect the innkeeper assumed you were my husband if you owned the horses pulling our coach.”
“Well, I’ll be going. I’d best sleep in the coach with Michael.”
“Hmm. Perhaps not. It’s very rowdy in here. I’m feeling nervous. Some drunken fools tried to enter this room not long ago. I’d feel safer with you here.”
Billy thought many women would have felt unsafe sharing a room with him, although not all wanted to be safe in such circumstances. He resolved to behave, as she indicated a chaise longue and a pile of spare blankets. However, when he lay down, many parts of him protruded and Arabella said, “That won’t do. We’d better change places. Sian will fit better there. I can have the cot in the adjoining servant’s room.” Billy agreed but felt awkward. However, he accepted the offer. As he lay down, he struggled to forget how near he was to two particularly attractive women.
Unknown to Billy, Arabella was likewise fighting her feelings. Her lover, Major-General Sir William Jones, had been dead but a few months. There were many things she missed. Having a strong man in her bed was one.
Billy was almost asleep, when the bedclothes moved to admit a blast of cold air. They also admitted Sian. He was too drowsy to think what to say or do before she took the initiative.
“Do you remember me, Billy Rhys? I remember you. I was a maid at The Mermaid in Cardiff, before I went to London. It was your sister, Bethan, who told me to go to Lady Arabella. Like I said, I was a maid, not a whore. But a lot of men didn’t think there was a difference. You did. You were one who treated me well. Like your pal, John Aris. Some said you two were a couple of highwaymen. I don’t care. You were more like gentlemen than most of those who said they were gentlemen.”
As she spoke, she was pressing against Billy. He said, “Do you really want to do this? I remember Megan, who I’m about to marry, rescuing you from some man who was trying to force his way with you.”
“I know. But I’m eighteen now. I know what I want. I’d have had you before, sooner than half those men. Megan’s lucky. But she deserves some luck. I know.”
Billy said, “I’ve not been taking other women to bed since Megan and I decided to get married.” He turned his back on her.
She said, “Another one I liked was your nephew, Llewellyn. He’ll be a man soon. I wish he was here.”
“He’s only thirteen.”
“Really? He seemed older.”
“Well, he’s quite a man in a lot of ways. He can handle horses almost as well as any I know. I’ll tell him you remember him fondly.”
“Give him this from me.” She kissed Billy gently on the neck. At last he got some sleep.
The next day they made good time and were at Newport when they stopped for some lunch and to rest the horses. When they were about to resume their journey, three rough-looking fellows approached. The biggest hailed Billy, who studied him for a moment before saying, “Do I know you?”
“Arr. Well, we know you. Me and me brothers, Andrew and Paul.” He indicated his two companions as Arabella’s manservant joined them. Simon Parker continued, “We didn’t allus get on. But things might be looking up.”
Arabella and her maid got into the coach. “Come along, Michael, time to be going. Are you ready, Billy?”
Simon said, “You two best get in there too.” He motioned to the door of the coach. Billy was about to mention that his place was on the driver’s seat, when he saw one of the brothers was pointing a pistol at him and the others were holding cudgels.
Simon nodded. “Andrew ain’t as good as me with ’is fists. He’s better wi’ a gun. Get in!” As they did so, another man tied a spotted horse to the back of the coach and joined them. Arabella gasped, first at the sight of the pistol, and again at her missing coachman.
Inside the coach, Andrew became the brothers’ principal spokesman. “You led us a merry dance. We thought to join you when you didn’t ’ave a coachman nor a full team. Never thought ye’d find a knight in shining armour that quick.”
Michael said, “Yeah! I didn’t think you’d catch up before we got to Cardiff or wherever we was going.”
Arabella and Sian, stared at the young man. Andrew began to chuckle, then to cough. The youngest of the three brothers, Paul, said, “Poor Andrew’s never been right since you put a piece o’ lead in his chest. Arr. Billy and yer sister give us a lot o’ trouble, time after time.”
Billy’s heart sank as he remembered his previous encounters with the Parkers.
Andrew recovered and said, “Now, do as we say and ye won’t get ’urt.” There were murmurs from his brothers. He threw a glare at them before resuming. “Well, Simon and Paul wants you two women, but all me an’ me other two pals wants is yer money. We be sick o’ bein’ poor. We wants to be rich like you. Give us yer money, yer gold, yer silver and I’ll see these two leaves yer in peace.”
The former coachman nudged him. Andrew added, “Oh, arr! Jimmy says ye’ve got a box full o’ pretty things. Jewels. Treasure! We wants that too.” There was silence. “Well? Let’s see what ye’ve got!”
Simon and Paul laughed. Unnerving, dirty laughs.
Arabella emptied her purse onto the seat beside her. The disappointment this produced was evident on five faces. She said, “I am unable to do all that you ask.” Sian looked terrified as the robbers growled and scowled. She explained, “When we left my five remaining coachhorses, the landlord was far from happy. He required some guarantee that we would return and pay what he would be owed for the care of the horses at least. I had also instructed him to report the theft of my other horse to the authorities. He was under the impression that I should remunerate him for such an onerous task.”
There were more murmurs until Andrew asked, “What’s all this got to do with us?”
“I was obliged to place my jewelry box in the innkeeper’s safe keeping as the aforesaid guarantee.”
Jimmy, the ex-coachman said, “Listen, mates! I’ve seen that box and what’s inside it. It’s worth more than this coach and ’orses and all that’s in it. Me an’ Mike only got inter this so’s we could get some of them jewels.”
Michael said, “Yeah! I’ve seen ’em. Not all of ’em, but what I seen was amazing.”
Simon said, “Well, ladies, it’s up to you two to make me and Paul happy!”
The ladies gasped and shuddered. Billy said, “Now, listen, you – and the rest of you. If you take money or jewels or stuff, I’ll not help yer but I’ll not stop you. But you hurt these two women and you just see what you get. I won’t fight as fair. You won’t like it. All of you!”
Andrew said, “Calm down lads – and ladies! This is what we’re gonna do. We’ll drive to that place where yer jewels are and you’ll ’and ’em over. No fuss. Then we lets you lot go. All right?” The ladies nodded. Billy shrugged. Andrew added, “And another thing. No tricks! If the law comes to us ’cos of summat you done, or summat else, we shoot the women and say it was ’im.” He jerked his head towards Billy. “We’ll say it were all his doing. We was tryin’ ter ’elp the ladies. Got it?” They got it.
Billy said, “I suppose I’d better get up on top and start driving.”
Andrew had another coughing fit. Simon said, “Stay put! We got a coachman.” He laughed as Jimmy got out and began to climb to the box-seat.
Billy shouted, “WALK ON!” The coach juddered as the horses tried to move and the brake resisted. Jimmy, who had not reached his perch, fell onto the cobbled yard, where he made no secret of his pain. Billy smirked as Andrew shook his pistol at him.
Sian said, “I can’t stand this, I feel ill and I think I’m going to be sick.”
Arabella said, “Let her out.” They did. She leant on the coach as she vomited. Arabella took a handful of coins from the pile on the seat and handed it through the door, saying, “Go inside and get a cognac. You know it always settles your stomach.” Turning to Andrew, she said, “We’d better wait a while or she’ll be sick in the coach as soon as we start moving.”
Andrew said, “We can’t waste any more time. Leave her here. Let’s go.” Simon and Paul expressed disappointment, having only one woman to share, should things go their way, but Andrew shouted to Jimmy to get them moving. Billy chuckled at the anxious faces as the brothers waited for the horses to obey their new coachman, but they accepted his authority, at least for the moment.
Clattering hooves drew everyone’s attention to a young woman astride a spotted horse, setting off at speed. Paul said, “That girl got over ’er sickness quick.”
Michael asked, “What if she goes to get a constable?”
Andrew replied, “She ’eard what I said. She’ll get ’er mistress killed if she’s not careful. Besides, she could be in fer a long ride. Longer ’an she’ll manage on that lively nag, I’ll bet.”
His brothers laughed. Michael looked worried. He knew Sian often rode out with her mistress in London. But where did she think she was going? She was carrying on towards Cardiff, whilst the coach was turning round and heading back in the opposite direction.
It was getting dark as the road passed through a wood, where Jimmy pulled the coach to a halt and came down to speak to his partners in crime. “Do I look for an inn or shall we sleep in the coach? I don’t fancy driving far in the dark with a strange team. An’ I reckon they’re getting’ a bit jittery now.”
After a brief discussion, a consensus emerged in favour of driving on a little more before sleeping in the coach. Simon and Paul kept eying Arabella. After a few minutes, the coach stopped sharply and the passengers had to cling to each other to avoid falling off the seats. Paul took advantage of being next to Arabella. Simon said, “Wait yer time. We got all night.” He produced another dirty laugh.
Andrew leaned out of the door and called, “Why are we stopping?”
Jimmy replied, “There’s two masked men on ’orses with pistols in the road.”
Billy smirked. Arabella laughed. The others looked daggers at them.
A commanding voice said, “Get down and stand there!”
Jimmy did so, shaking with fear.
The voice spoke again from behind a mask. “Tell the others to come out and be seen!”
Jimmy managed to relay that command, haltingly, and held the door as the others came out and clustered around him.
The voice demanded, “All throw your weapons down. Even those big sticks!” Cudgels, knives and Andrew’s pistol hit the ground.
Paul said to Andrew, “Why didn’t yer say ye’ll shoot the lady if they don’t drop their weapons.”
Andrew sighed. “And what ’appens after I shoot ’er?”
Michael nudged Jimmy and muttered, “Don’t you keep a blunderbuss on the seat?”
“Do you wanna go an’ get it?”
Another masked figure walked out from the trees, collected all the weapons and threw them into the coach, before tugging at Arabella’s sleeve and motioning her to get back in. The masked figure turned and brushed against Paul who exclaimed, “It’s a woman!” As his companions expressed their disbelief, he began to scuffle with the figure.
One of the others dismounted, handing the reins to his companion, and climbed up to the box-seat. As the coach began to move, there were several protests. Billy laughed. “This place is alive with thieves. Nobody’s safe.” Simon, Jimmy and Michael jumped up and clung to the side of the coach. Michael managed to open the door and climb in, but the other two fell off as the vehicle rattled around a bend.
Meanwhile, Paul’s opponent landed a heavy punch, sending him sprawling, and ran off into the trees, pursued by Andrew and Paul, leaving Billy standing at the roadside shaking his head. After a few yards, Andrew began coughing more violently than ever, whilst Paul saw a horse, tethered among the trees. He made for it quickly until a blow to the head rendered him unconscious.
As Jimmy and Simon returned, only Billy met them and was beginning to explain the absence of the others, when Paul and Andrew came out of the trees and were overtaken by a rider on a spotted horse, who galloped off after the coach, leaving them speechless. Paul said, “That weren’t no woman. That’n hit as hard as any man.”
Andrew said, “Harder than you, then?”
They spent some time debating what to do next. They had reached no conclusion when Michael rejoined them, saying, in response to their questions, “There I was shut in alone with ’er ladyship and knowing we weren’t gonna get them jewels or nothing. So I thought I’d have some fun, like you were gonna. She didn’t ’alf put up a fight. I was about to get what I wanted, when the damn coach stopped and we went rolling about. Then one o’ them masked men gets in and throws me out. I landed ’ead first on the road. Then the coach went off again. What a waste of time this has been!”
Billy began walking westwards: towards Cardiff. He was expecting a long walk. The others went off in the opposite direction.
A little later, the coach came back and stopped to collect Billy. The driver, now unmasked, was his nephew, Llewellyn. Sian sat beside him, dressed as a man. She was leaning on his shoulder.
Billy asked, “How did you…” Before Llewellyn could respond, Arabella climbed down from the coach, followed by another former highwayman, Billy’s mentor, John Aris.
Sian leaned over Llewellyn to call out, “That was fun, but you know, my lady, you and I really should learn to take care of ourselves. There won’t always be a couple of highwaymen available to rescue us.”
Still between the Books? Want a good read?
If you enjoyed that, I hope you will read all the Highwaypersons series and think about the questions I posed in a previous blog and watch out for my next short story.