Spotting the small town he now lived a couple of miles outside of, was one of the best sights Daniel had ever seen. He was beyond tired, he’d fallen into exhausted and hadn’t slept in almost two days, the better part of which he’d spent in the saddle. He was hungry, dirty and wanted a pint or three before sleeping a good solid night. There was no way he was going to be able to cover those last miles home, make dinner and tend his horse before he fell over asleep. Which meant the tavern in the town was the best option. It wasn’t large but it was loyal and safe.
The sack of seed potatoes thumped his back again when he dropped like a rock from the saddle in the stables. Grateful that he’d been friendly with the stable hand and knew the man was capable of getting the saddle off without spilling seeds and potatoes everywhere. It seemed everyone in the small town knew what he really was doing for Robin Roberts and his group of plotting old men and while he’d never willingly admit it to them, it made it easier.
“Back safe?” James, the stable man, asked as Daniel stretched the kinks from his spine.
“All go well?”
He caught the slender man’s eye and he swallowed hard over just asking. Daniel softened his face and gave the man a half grin. “As well as it could, glad to be back. Mr. Roberts make it home?”
“Yes, sir, several days ago.”
“Good.” Which was one less worry he had to juggle. The couple of days had turned into over a week and he was bone weary tired of dealing with all the nonsense. “I’ll be staying the night.” He’d promised the men that hired him he wouldn’t get drunk as often as he had been while still in Dublin and he had kept that promise but tonight, he was going to get so drunk he didn’t have to think. That was something he’d earned.
The chatter in the tavern stopped for a heartbeat when he came in but quickly picked up again as if he had been a born and raised local. The few stares that lingered didn’t bother him, he was used to those and he made his way toward the back corner away from most of the gossip and laughter to a small table that would let him have his back to the wall. He was always armed, the knife strapped to his waist now was larger than the one he carried in his boot but he had been traveling, but a knife only helped if you saw trouble coming.
The woman that brought his dinner and beer smiled warmly at him, she’d been flirting pretty heavily the last time he’d stopped in for a few drinks. Fortunately, he must have looked as worn out as he felt because all she did was smile at him this time. He wasn’t sure his temper could handle her attempts at seduction tonight. It left him to focus on the food and drink she’s brought instead.
Which wasn’t much worth focusing on. The beer was good but the food was greasy even by his standards, no where near the good fare he’d gotten for lunch before he’d left. The beer made up for it and was really more of what he was interested in. As soon as he got the food into his stomach, he’d think about something stronger than the ale.
It wasn’t to be. Just as he was feeling his shoulders unknot and his stomach uncramp from days of worry and stress, James hurried into the tavern. He scanned the room and came quickly over to where Daniel sat. That was never a good sign and the food in his stomach churned.
“Danny,” James whispered.
He glanced up and the stableman fell silent but it didn’t scare him off.
He shrugged. “Not my concern.”
“But, it’s the courier.” James hissed lower, glancing to the door way.
“Not my concern.” He repeated slower.
“But, Danny, Mr. Roberts and the others? They’re in meetings, the kind the likes of us ain’t supposed to know about.”
He knew he was going to regret it but he asked anyway. “What’s wrong with the courier?”
“Billy O’Mally? He’s a drunk, aye, but an honest one. He was stumbling across the fields, he seen Jakey Finn and some of the boys he runs and he goes quiet and listens in to their bragging. They’re going to lay an ambush for the courier tonight, in Mr. Robert’s region. We figured, since you’re his man, you could do something.” James half nodded to the knife Daniel wore.
The woodsman downed the last swallow of his current beer. “I haven’t slept in nearly two days, this is the first solid meal I’ve had in three or more. I’m worn out, James, and besides, Mallory is a good rider and fighter. No thugs are going to spook him, he’ll ride right over them on that horse of his.”
James glanced around nervously. “That’s just it, ain’t Mallory tonight. His wife, she gone into labor early, he had to ride over to fetch old lady Jenkins to act as midwife.”
That put a sick feeling that wasn’t just the greasy food hitting his empty stomach. “Who’s taking the run?”
That was the last name he expected. He tried to picture the frail man making the long run and couldn’t. When he added in an ambush he knew it wasn’t going to end well. “Who’s fool ass idea was that?” He snapped back at a whisper.
“His and he were the only one with a horse strong enough and skill enough to make the run during the dark moon.”
He swore under his breath. “Get my horse ready and where is this ambush supposed to be? Lots of places along that road good for jumping a lone rider.” He let James hurry him outside where he shrugged into his coat and smashed his hat down onto his head. The spring night time rains that had been threatening were just starting to drizzle a little and it wasn’t looking to be a pleasant or restful night.
James pulled the bridle of the horse away from the boy that worked with him and shooed the young man away. When word reached him he had the boy get Daniel’s horse ready, knowing the quiet, dangerous man would be wanting to ride out without delay.
“Stupid, foolish idiot.” Daniel muttered and tried not to picture pale skin and blood. “Where’s the exchange supposed to be?”
James shook his head. “Half way cross the county, no way you can make it there before lessen you’ve learned to fly.”
“Damn it.” His horse was tired too and the short hour of rest wasn’t going to do either of them much good. “Where’s this supposed to happen?”
“You know where the stream grows close to the road? That sharp bumbling corner, the blind one right before the road widens?”
He’d made it a point to know the roads in Mr. Roberts’ region and ways to get around the countryside that avoided them. “Aye. You keep this quite, James, you hear me? If I hear a whisper of this I’ll know it’s from your lips.” He didn’t have to try to make himself sound threatening to make the stable hand swallow hard and nod.
“Aye, sir. Won’t whisper a word!”
He glanced up to the cloud heavy night sky and shook his head before hauling himself into the saddle and forcing tired man and beast back down the road.
It was a careful balance between rushing in the dark and arriving too late and Daniel pushed as hard as he could. He knew he was going to be out numbered and most likely out armed as well so he pulled up a good half mile from the bend in the road James had mentioned and hitched the reins around a tree branch. Just to be careful, he wrapped them loosely. If the worst happened and he didn’t come back for the animal, it would be able to pull free and find a warm stable again.
The trees gave good cover and he moved carefully, slowly, between them. Creeping foot by foot long the high edge of the embankment the road cut into. It wasn’t necessary, he heard the whispering of the pair on his side of the road a hundred feet back. He shook his head in the darkness and moved slowly, stalking the voices in the slick green woods.
Closer now and he was able to make out the shadowy forms of two men crouched down within a few feet of each other. That posed a problem, should be at least one, most likely two more on the far side of the road and too much noise would draw them over. He knelt down near a tree and waited, thinking, feeling the press of time upon him. Teagan was riding toward them, at the very moment he was getting closer, and there wasn’t time to just sit and wait for the proper moment to act but neither could he rush in foolishly.
Daniel backed off a dozen or more paces and looked around in the dark. He found a broken branch, as thick around as his wrist and almost too long but it was better than nothing. Carefully, so slowly it made him ache to count off the seconds he was wasting, he eased back closer to the pair. Any sound he might have made was covered by their own whispering as they discussed a woman Daniel didn’t know.
He stood a moment, back to a tree and steadied his breathing, calmed his nerves. When he moved it was without hesitation, there was no room for doubt or fear. Daniel charged out from behind the tree, suddenly appearing in the darkness, not concerned now with the sound of his approach. The two men startled, one dropped the end of a rope to reach for a pistol and Daniel swung.
The branch arched upwards and caught the second man as he was turning. It cracked hard against the side of the man’s head, the impact vibrated up Daniel’s arm and the man dropped. Unconscious or stunned, it didn’t matter, it dropped the odds into his favor. He swung the branch around again and the second man pulled the trigger on the pistol.
Nothing happened and Daniel would have snorted in disgust. The man had let the charge get wet in the drizzling damp, there wasn’t anything that could make wet powder fire. It was careless and sloppy and it cost the man his life. Daniel fell on the man with his blade drawn and silenced his startled cries as quickly as he could.
“What’s going on over there?” A voice called from the far side of the road and Daniel glanced up from where he was finishing the second man off to see a pair of forms moving on the other side.
Before he stepped out, he cut the rope looped around the tree trunk that they’d meant to raise and trip Teagan’s horse. Now, with one side unanchored, there was no threat of that happening but the low throbbing of a fast approaching horse urged him to move faster. He stepped from the covering of brush at the side of the road and let his arm fling out.
The small blade from his boot flew true and the form standing on the other side of the road gave a startled, pain filled sound as he doubled over. The pair cursed and the one uninjured helped his wounded friend to the road’s embankment. The friend left laying there was moaning now in shock and pain and he pulled the blade from his guts and cried louder as the blood flowed freely.
“Bastard!” The last one snarled and charged across the road toward Daniel. He was holding a rifle but had been smart enough to either not prime it in the damp or clever enough to know it wouldn’t fire.
Daniel didn’t wait for the man to meet him, he charged forward as well. When the last ambusher swung the stock of his rifle over in a fast arc, he ducked inside it and tossed his arm up. The blow was stunning, the heavy wood crashed down on his upper arm and nearly staggered him off his footing in the damp hard packed road. It didn’t break his arm, but it was going to leave an impressive bruise for days to come.
Before the rifle could be pulled back, Daniel wrapped his aching left arm around it’s length and pulled. The man held on and Daniel swung out and punched the man, hard, in the face. It staggered him just barely enough to let the riffle slip from his fingers. Daniel tossed it as far away as he could, his blood pounding in his ears as the man swung at him, a fist with his left hand, a knife with his right. A knife fight didn’t worry Daniel, he’d either win and live or lose and die and he skidded back a few steps to try to sum up his opponent.
Blades flashed and were avoided. The man at least knew what he was doing and Daniel moved carefully, darting away from another slash but his boots slipped and the blade cut in across his side. Not deep, not worrisome, just messy and painful. He pushed it aside and caught the man’s wrist, they struggled for grip and purchase in the dark, damp night. The blood was roaring now in his ears, making it difficult to think over the racket.
When he remembered it wasn’t the sound of his own blood he was hearing, not fully, but also of hoof beats as Teagan raced down on them. He would come around the blind corner into the wider section on the other side and never see them before they were trampled. How good of a rider was Teagan? Could he pull the horse up in time to stop? Would he ever react fast enough? It seemed absurd to be fairly sure he’d survive the fight to die under the hooves of the man he’d been trying to spare.
Then there was no time left to worry or fear. Teagan’s horse barreled around the corner. Daniel thought he might be able to use that heartbeat of surprise in his opponent to pull the man down and over to the side of the road, out of the way of the oncoming horse. He managed to wrestle the man down but he was too stubborn to be moved far. The horse whinnied unhappily and reared and Daniel glanced up to see sharp hooves dancing what seemed like over his head.
They crashed down a hands width from his body and the horse reared and danced and bucked some more. Teagan made shushing soothing sounds and pulled hard to get the horse to back up and into a tight, controlled circle. It took a moment but he got the animal under control and held his seat but when he did he squinted into the darkness of the road trying to make out what was rolling about before him.
He saw the flash of the blades as the two men struggled. To the side he saw the limp form of another man. It startled him, made him uncertain what to do. His instinct was to help but which man to help? Teagan glanced down to the pair straining to kill each other and saw a face he knew. He backed the horse up and began to rise from the saddle to hop down and run over to help.
“Ride!” Daniel groaned out. “Ride you fool!”
Teagan frowned. It didn’t look like Daniel was winning and he couldn’t tell who’s man it was on the side of the road. It made him ill to leave a friend behind, to simply ride away without offering help.
The horse danced in a tight circle. It wasn’t a happy choice but Teagan dug his heels into the beast’s sides and it leapt forwards, safely around the fighting pair, to dart like lightening down the road. The dispatches were more important, the hand off had to be made, the cause was greater than any single person. He didn’t like it but he believed it and he made haste to the drop point, but his thoughts stayed behind, worried over a man he barely knew.
It was dawn before Daniel staggered back into town. He didn’t have the heart to ask his exhausted horse to carry him, even at a slow walk, back to the town. The poor thing had taken the brunt of hauling the bodies down to the deeper part of the stream for Daniel to lash together and sink with rocks. He’d have to go back tomorrow and fish them out and bury them properly but he just couldn’t manage it tonight.
Not that getting wet and freezing cold mattered any, before an hour had passed the drizzle had turned into a hard rain and he’d been soaked through long before he’d gotten the bodies to the stream. Exhausted, half frozen, and wounded, he’d walked back to the town leading his equally worn out horse to the promise of someplace warm to sleep.
James was huddled outside the stable, wrapped in his coat and he sprang to his feet when he spotted Daniel shuffling along. Horse and rider were weary and wet and the rain hadn’t fully stopped the blood from staining Daniel’s clothes. Most of it was his own, the small gashes and the one longer cut on his side, had continued to bleed sluggishly long after stream and rain had washed the blood of the dead from him.
“Danny!” James took the reins from numb fingers. “Was getting worried about you.”
“Teagan….” He swallowed and remembered his place. “Mr. Walsh?” “Safe and sound and tucked up in a room here for the night.”
He nodded and let James lead him and the horse into the stables. He pulled a hand away from the cut on his side and the fresh blood that glossed his fingers. “Need to stitch this.”
“Aye, get you out of the wind first.”
It was too much to protest over and he gave in to James’ gentle nudging. He let himself be pressed to sit on a bench inside the stable and let the boy that worked with James take his horse away to be tended. It didn’t take long for James to come back with needle and thread, whiskey and some bandages but Daniel was too tired to protest letting someone else tend the wound. He gritted his teeth and downed a few swallows of the liquor and tried not to feel the needle pulling the gash back together.
A hand shook him awake and he startled and nearly fell from the bench. It was only James and he stopped drawing the blade from his hip, letting it drop back into its sheath.
“Jesus!” James cursed, eyes wide. “Easy now, it’s just me. You drifted off, can’t sleep here, come on now.”
It wasn’t a room at the tavern that he was nudged and prodded toward but a clean stall right there in the barn. The hay was sweet smelling and the blankets he pulled over him were warm. Daniel drifted back to sleep almost before James could get the stall door shut behind him as he left and in that moment, the most comfortable bed couldn’t compare to what he was laying on.