Walking through the mould that was his mind, Jack wasn’t aware enough to realise that amongst the debris and fallout of his actions was the only place he felt at home. Blaming others for his woes, the suffering rage fell across him like a silverfish darted in-between the festering wounds.
His conscience was a double agent, a devious spy surrounding his soul with a raw bleakness. His sense of purpose acted out years of hurt and each moon rise instilled the victim in him.
Beaten to a pulp time and again by anyone who gave him a place to be, slaving himself daily for not a penny more than a beggar, had worn into his being. The injustice had sat in his gut for years, slowly creating a green putrid stench that radiated out first as a flame and then roared into a blaze, making him cruel and pitiless, despairing and miserable; he was bedraggled and always hungry.
Patience, being his closest friend, drove him to sit tight for hours mesmerised by the wind rustling the autumn leaves away and the hoots of faraway owls, wondering if he dare risk the gallows he decided he could and didn’t much care if he left this callous world.
His favourite patch was Hounslow Heath which was crossed by the roads that lead to Bath and Exeter from London. His first offense was a post boy walking a lame horse back to a tavern.
Wrapping a dirty napkin, which he’d found by the side of the road, around the lower half of his face and using the heavy rotten moss strewn branch that he’d grabbed from a stinking ditch and which had taken ages to kick in half, he’d made his decision.
Knobbling a post boy had been a useless waste of time except for the horse which although lame he might be able to sell for 2 shillings to the butcher, if he was lucky. So he took the horse and left the boy knocked out from behind, near a fence by the roadside so he could be found easily.
He slept in a small cave in the woods with ferns and moss layered down as a mattress covered with an old grubby sheet, also found in that stinking ditch. Although he’d washed it in the stream that ran below the cave, he could still smell the perfume of a lady. He lay at night imagining her face. Some nights she had golden hair cascading down her back like a mermaid and on others she looked like Molly from the tavern, but she always whispered his name like the wind pressing through a crack in the rocks.
The horse miraculously, wasn’t lame the next morning when he woke. So he unexpectedly nudged up the ladder from footpad to a highwayman, a knight of the road overnight.
Over the years he’d made so many novice mistakes, he’d fallen off Bess a good few times, once breaking his wrist and having to visit the bonesetter in Hungerford, his new patch. The deposit was manageable but the full payment, once it was thankfully mended, wiped out his whole stash leaving him angry at himself and his wrist.
He was forever alone with Bess finding it hard to connect to people as his skills were more aligned with stealing. Now he was a highwayman with a few good hold-ups under his belt, his name was holding fear for some and gaining respect from others. He went up to the local tavern occasionally, to eat, and drink not to take a girl upstairs but to eavesdrop. He’d sit there with his mug of ale and a whole chicken for hours, listening, observing and working out his next raid. The tavern was a prospect of opportunities. He’d hear which coaches were due when, he’d accost couriers that left the tavern tilting from drink and sluggish from their meals and hear all sorts of news from around the country.
Molly was the only girl who’d serve him as his moody demeanour and dark look frightened the other girls but Molly was from a family who had a stomach for conflict and risk from morning till night.
They were smugglers and outlaws from Cork, wild and burly racketeers who had no fear and few morals. The women, although slight in body, had a substantial hunger for fighting and acted as temptresses to distract the target. It was so effective that the girls got the same cut as the men.
Molly though was done with them all hiding herself away in the shadows of a dark moon, she absconded from her forthcoming marriage, (agreed between her father and uncle), and fled, not looking back until her legsfinally buckled. She was smuggled onto a wool ship sailing to London by her old friend Tam who knew her family well and realised Molly would lead such a miserable life once married to her cousin. He’d given her his sister’s address in London who offered her a room if she would clean and cook. But she had hated everything about London and after one serendipitous event lead to another, she found herself here, in Hungerford.
Her pretty face had got her a job in the first tavern she walked into and since then she’d been slowly taught to read by Will, a private tutor to the local doctor’s son. He had taken a shine to Molly when he saw the curiosity in her eyes as she served his supper beside the huge fireplace and he slid a book out of his battered leather bag placing it on the worn oak table. She hung back a little behind his shoulder he opened the calf leather bound cover to reveal a large woodcut engraving of a beehive that nearly filled the page, surrounded on three sides by various insects and small creatures.
He sensed her intake of breath and continued to flick slowly through the pages of images and intricate diagrams of butterflies and moths, beetles and worms. Her eyes and mouth were agape; she’d never seen anything like it before. “Beautiful” she whispered in her soft Irish lilt.
He motioned for her to sit beside him and they spent a good hour talking and looking. He explaining, her soaking it up. Molly’s mind opened and flew higher than it had ever flown before. Will paid the innkeeper a shilling for Molly’s time and her so lessons began.
One morning, she’d read a newsbook she’d found under a table whilst cleaning. It reported on the troubles that eventually would lead to the Civil War. She gradually read the whole pamphlet stumbling on only a few words, she felt satisfied. She was ready.
When Jack muttered at her, she waited for his eyes to rise to hers before she moved or replied. She did this every time she served him. His ruggedness reminded her of her brothers but sadly she saw clearly that Jack had blockaded himself into loneliness where he was hardly able to look anyone in the eye, especially sweet handsome Molly.
Over the following weeks he began to look her in the eye when ordering and spoke courteously, treating her as a lady and after a more few months he had learnt to smile at her from his thawing heart and bright blue eyes – and mean it.