THE RIDER sat pensively listening upon the bay horse, knuckles clenched tightly upon the reins. Violet eyes behind the velvet mask narrowed with concentration on the country lane blending into darkness below.
The horse nickered, shifting its feet and tossing its head with sudden restlessness. As the sound of approaching hoofbeats reached the rider’s ears too, the wide mouth lifted into an impulsive smile of satisfaction.
‘So we are to strike lucky after all, Pye.’ An answering quiver rippled through the horse’s flanks, revealing it had read the signals of excitement in its rider and was eager to be away. ‘Stand, boy. Hold till I say.’ The kid gloved fingers curled firmly upon the reins, shortening them still further to hold the animal in check.
Stars winked in the clear April sky, while trees like swaying ghosts poked black bony fingers into the deep blue canopy. Rider and horse waited as one, completely motionless.
Vibrations from the oncoming hoofs now registered with every other night creature and all seemed to grow still. Even the night breeze rifling through the new grasses held its breath. ‘The only movement was that of a tiny shrew blindly scurrying homeward perilously close to the waiting animal’s great feet.
‘Timing is all important, Pye.’ Move too soon and the unsuspecting victim would be warned. Delay too long and an easy escape could be affected. One fine-
The hoofbeats were growing louder, vying with the creak and clack of carriage wheel and spring. Yes, a small vehicle indeed. As expected. The sickle moon hanging low in the sky lent insufficient light to identify the vehicle as yet, nor those that lay in wait for it, praise be. But the smile widened with anticipation. It was he. No doubt of it. Bowling self-
‘This will be the best caper yet. We’ll set him in his place at last, and do ourselves some good at the same tune.’
The carriage was almost upon them. Booted heels dug into the glistening flanks and the horse sprang forward, clattering out on to the open lane directly into the path of the oncoming vehicle. The very air seemed charged with excitement.
‘Stop!’ The voice rang out clear in the still night. ‘Hold, or I empty my pistol into your head.’
Brakes screamed, harness jangled, and two perfectly matched greys skittered to a lathering halt, snorting their furious protest to the heavens. Contrary to plan, the highwayman was compelled to retreat a pace or two as the flying vehicle lurched sideways, its momentum carrying the huge yellow wheels right off the road and into the muddy ditch.
‘By the oath, what is this?’
With a click of the tongue the highwayman’s horse was urged forward. ‘Hand me your purse and watch.’
‘I do not carry a watch.’ The reply came in a low growl and for a second the pistol quavered the slightest degree. You are not he. The words almost popped out of their own volition but some instinct, survival perhaps, held them back. The single occupant of the doomed curricle, though by no means the gentleman he appeared if the oath he now emitted was anything to go by, was as unlike the intended victim as he could possibly be. Even so, it was too late now to retreat. The deed must be concluded, for good or ill.
‘Your purse, then, sir.’ The gloved hand stretched out, flicking impatient fingers. ‘Make haste, I have not all night.’ Eagerly the highwayman leaned across the spinning wheel, anxious to get the business done with.
‘And if I refuse?’
Violet eyes widened in astonishment. What uncommon bad luck that this fierce-
‘You are either brave or a fool to challenge the pistol, sir.’
‘Or perhaps both,’ came the deceptively soft reply. As the weight of a satisfactory purse filled the ready palm, the highwayman breathed again. Perhaps too much pity should not be lavished upon this unsuspecting victim after all. He might well be another such as Ezra Follett who fed himself like a carrion crow from the mouths of babes. Experience had proved that riches usually went hand in hand with dishonour.
A stray cloud blotted out the moon, and the world went black. And in that instant a band of steel fastened itself inexorably around the vulnerable wrist, pulling it relentlessly forward. But almost as swiftly, the long nose of the pistol was brought into direct contact with one lean cheek, imprinting its violent promise just below the prominent cheekbone.
‘Pull me from my horse, sir, and I’ll take your jawbone with me.’
The grip at once loosed its hold, likewise the errant cloud mimicked the action by abandoning lady moon. One large hand snaked out and the velvet mask was whipped from its place, leaving violet eyes gazing mesmerised and unprotected into swirling green, dark with anger.
‘By all the saints!’
Then the hat followed the mask to be trodden into the mud as slithering hoofs turned to flee.
Raul Beringer watched in open-
Just returned from the Napoleonic wars Raul Beringer discovers that as well as contending with the enmity of his brother, Maynard, the legacy of his late father’s wine business in Madeira must be shared with a penniless orphan, Coriander May. Whoever makes the most profit from their inheritance in a year will win control of the company. But is more than money at stake?