Rounding a corner in the afternoon, Noon was surprised to find their path blocked by a dead horse lying in the middle of the road. No, it wasn’t quite dead. One leg was moving. A large pool of blood was still seeping from its neck. The dusty ground was thirsty and Noon could see the patch oozing through the dirt like a cloth dropped to mop spilt wine. From where he sat, balanced on top of the caleche, Noon couldn’t see a broken leg, or ankle that might have caused these four men to put their beast out of its misery. Further down the road, he noticed that they had tied their other horses on short tethers, and pointed them away from the scene of butchery.
Cesare slowed the caleche to a stop before them.
“Friend,” cried the man closest to him. He was a thin figure with arms so long that Noon wondered if he might leave finger trails in the dust when he walked. “Will you help drag our horse from the road?”
Noon stared at Cesare, not knowing whether this was commonplace, or unusual. Cesare looked at the men, seemed content and leapt from his seat. Noon followed. Jelborne was leaning out of the window, but the inquisitive Stilwell emerged, not with the intention of dragging an animal’s carcass even a foot, but to watch this strange event from a closer position.
The thin man took the position of a foreman and ordered the others, including Noon and Cesare into position around the dead beast. The skinny figure waved the punctured sole of his boot over a blanket of flies that had settled on the horse and they hummed away a dozen feet and returned. Noon took his position about a leg. He had his hands on one fetlock and Cesare on another and they pulled together and the horse moved not one inch.
Noon looked up to see a smile and a pistol leveled at him. Cesare and he dropped the horse’s legs and stood there dumbly. Jelborne had emerged from the carriage and was also frozen, with his hands on his hips, as if he were about to give a great yawn to relieve the discomfort of the carriage. Stilwell had perched himself in the driver’s seat and had one of his note books and an ink pen sitting across his lap. His eyebrows had moved up towards his hairline, a caricature of surprise.
Noon and Cesare were ordered to lie flat against the ground, just a yard from the dead horse. Noon tilted his head so that he could keep his master and Jelborne in sight. He could feel the dust stick to the sweated side of his face. An army of ants scurried past him, on their way to the mountain of horseflesh. The thin man, his pistol still leveled at Stilwell, had begun to raise his voice.
“They asking you to get down,” translated Cesare for his master, still atop the caleche.
One of the two men with the pistols pressed his boot against Noon’s throat and whispered something to the servant. For the first time, Noon felt panicked. The boot weighed against his wind pipe and Noon squirmed in the dirt, trying to breathe. It made the anxiety spread through his body and he inhaled a desperate mixture of air and dust and began to cough. The boot lightened for a second and Noon spat into the dust. His eyes were streaming and he could barely see, could still make out Stilwell’s figure on top of the caleche, Jelborne standing beside it, their horses still.
Noon was horrified by his helplessness. He knew his heart beat faster than a bird’s and was ashamed of it. The man above him knelt down, so that it was the hard bone of his knee now lying across Noon’s neck. He could smell the man, strong and unwashed, a dirty musk. Noon was amazed at himself. His hands were shaking and he could not stop them, not with the deepest breath. He clenched his fists so that the trembling stems of his fingers would not be seen.
I am a coward
, he thought, all these years inside my own skin, and here I am, a damned coward. Worthless man, and his eyes were leaping face to face to see if he might share his fear, worthless man and he wanted to confess his terror to his companions, to stagger to his knees and press his head against the soil and find comfort, to weep in front of these strangers. Who are you?
Stilwell had not even looked at the pair of pistols that sat to his right. He could see Noon and Cesare pressed against the ground. There were only four of these men, with two pistols between them. Perhaps they were primed, perhaps not. Stilwell concentrated on the one man, this puny ghoul speaking to him. Are they bandits, or does this run deeper? Despite his poor Italian, even a fool could understand the rapid gesticulations of the man’s empty hand. He wanted Stilwell off of the caleche immediately. In a moment, thought Stilwell, you are going to look at Cesare and ask him to translate your words to force me from my perch.
And then I will have you, thought his Lordship, I will have you first and the rest shall scatter. I will have you like a rabbit. I shall move my right hand and I will draw it fast and level it and breathe out and I will have you. I am here to see, to collect and to return. You are tomorrow’s tale.
Jelborne’s hands were still sitting on his hips. Despite his racing heart, he was at least pretending a familiar nonchalance. He had, after all, been robbed before, been beaten, been nicked by knives and had bottles broken over his skull. Being robbed was by far the least painful instance. One stood by, surrendered, went on one’s way poorer and soon recovered. In Venice they would find the Marquis’s banker and sit with gold again. Unless this brigandage was premeditated. What could the thieves hope to achieve with such bluntness? The acquisition of letters, notes of introduction?
Jelborne looked at the carriage to his portmanteau, then turned his head upwards to his Lordship intending to nod in a comforting, avuncular fashion when he noticed the young man’s hand move quickly to his left and raise a pistol. The single report was deafening. Back fell his Lordship, unfired pistol in his hand, held impotent before him, the right eye gone, the entire side of his face mutilated by the blast. Long dead before he dropped to the dirt from the caleche.
Noon pushed suddenly upwards against the knee and catching the man off balance toppled him backwards. The servant brought his boot down firmly on the wrist that had held the pistol and kicking the weapon from the road, he ran. Not towards Stilwell, but at the thin man who had fired the shot. He threw himself, his shoulder leveled into the man’s rib cage. They fell together, Noon astride him, heart still rattling like a regimental drum and thinking of childhood play, falling together with Stilwell amid mock cries of horror. His right arm reached out and grabbed the pistol by its barrel. He had time to bring it down twice. The first blow shattered the nose, the second seemed to flatten the side of the man’s skull. Brittle bone showed its ivory shine. Then Noon, in turn, received a blow, so unexpected to him, as if it came from the stars. He had forgotten there were others alive, and his last sight, as he fell backwards, was of the horrified figure of Jelborne, his hands raised in an attempt to distance himself from the proceedings.