Bess sighed to herself, leaning her forehead against the glass of the carriage window. The other passengers were returning from town also, having purchased their necessities and flogged their wares. Bess was quite worn out by the towns busy market place, and by the idol gossip insisted upon by the wives of the many shop keepers. They insisted on speaking to Bess, telling her of all the fine, single gentlemen staying in town. At sixteen, it was customary for Bess to find a husband, and be settled down with a baby by her eighteenth.
She had yet to find a man who struck her fancy, however, and she laughed off the judgments and opinions of the kind older women in the town. She was happy to serve at the Inn, for the time being. Taking care of her father, no longer in his prime, took precedence over finding herself a new man to look after. Though she could not deny she enjoyed the innocent flirtations with the more handsome young men she met. Whether they were patrons of the Inn, or merely passing through town. Perhaps she was lucky to have not found them worthy of wedding, for each in turn would break the heart and spirit of the beautiful young women they eventually did make a wife.
So Bess found herself in the carriage back to the Inn, a few miles East of town. It made stops along the road where people waited, and a few of the regular Inn customers got on. She smiled and nodded at them, knowing she'd be serving them ale in abundance later that evening. The carriage moved at a steady speed, pulled by a pair of old and reliable carthorses. They were about three miles from the Inn when the passengers heard the driver yell from up front,
"A highwayman! A highwayman! We cannot out run him!"
Sure enough, through the window Bess could see the man on the back of a chestnut stallion, which had a look of madness in it's eyes. The beast was moving at a pace that the old carthorses had never been capable of, even in their younger days. It took perhaps a minute for it to tear down the lane behind them, and pull up alongside the driver.
"Pull over, sir." A brisk voice could be heard, shouting over the rumble of hooves. The driver did not attempt to outrun the man, and Bess felt a shiver of fear as the carriage was slowed to a stop. The poor, concerned passengers strained for the sound of a pistol shot, meaning the death of their driver and friend, but none came. They sat in a fretful silence for a while, until the door of the carriage was opened, and a man in a mask peered in.
"If you would all be so kind as to exit the carriage, and line up along it's side please? Do bring your belongings. Thank you."
They did as they were told, despite the man's polite tone, they knew he had to be a threat. They found that the driver had been tied up beside the carriage, sat on the dusty road. The highwayman had gagged him with a strip of cloth, but had not been unkind with the ropes. They were tied to restrain, not to harm.
"Now, ladies, gentlemen, please keep calm. I have no intention or cause to wish harm upon any of you, but if I must, I will. I wish only to collect a small amount from each of you. Think of it as a toll for taking this road. A single crown from each, if you please."
He swept his three cornered hat from his head in a flourish, revealing a head of well kept brown hair, that he had tied back in a short ponytail that only just touched the collar of his jacket. He smiled, and nodded in thanks as he went down the line, collecting the coins from the wary travelers. Bess had placed herself at the very end of the line, and avoided looking at the rouge, until he reached her, and she had no choice. She glanced up into his eyes in an accusatory fashion, that quickly softened to something more tender.
His eyes were a pure blue of the morning sky, dotted with the odd cloud, the two mixed together to create a storm of greys and blues that she felt she was getting spun together with them. There was a sparkle of honest amusement in those eyes, a rough, unbridled passion that lead her to believe that this practice of robbing was nothing but a sport to him. The emotions changed when his eyes met hers, the passion was suddenly directed in a drastically different direction. His charming, playful smile faltered, and the two became locked into a moment that, though truly lasted only a second or two, seemed to span on through lifetimes.
Finally, Bess stirred herself, and held out her hand containing her crown. The thief moved his hat, however, and spoke in a hushed tone,
"I could not bring myself to take from a young woman such as yourself. Your beauty, and the chance to gaze upon it, are worth much more than any amount of riches I can steal."
Bess felt a heat in her cheeks, and knew that a blush had risen in her snowy skin. She saw herself as foolish, charmed by the criminals words and manners. It was incomprehensible, that she should ever be flattered by any of the lies spoken by such a man. But she appreciated the dazzling confidence in which he held himself, and the way his red velvet coat fitted his shoulders in such a flattering manner. She couldn't help but be charmed, she told herself, he's a handsome young man, criminal or not.
Meanwhile, the highwayman had appreciated the colour as it filled Bess's pale complexion, and scooped his collection of coins from the hat and into the coin purse that hung at his belt, beside the holster that contained his rapier. He surveyed the sombre faces of his victims, decided he was satisfied with his humble loot, and informed them they could re-board their carriage, and that their driver would be back in his seat in a moment.
He caught Bess's arm before she could follow the others, and asked in a whisper,
"What's your name, fair lady?"
"That, sir," Bess said, straightening her back and lifting her chin proudly, "is none of your concern, I don't consort with common criminals."
"A shame, my lady, because a beauty as valuable as thine own could make any man a criminal. And any man is common in comparison." These he spoke with such a tenderness that Bess couldn't resist spluttering out,
"Bess. M-My name is Bess." Before turning absolutely crimson, and stumbling back into the coach.
"Bess." The highwayman repeated to himself, as if savoring some sweet taste the word left on his lips. It was with a smile that he untied the driver, who, in his old age, made no attempt to seek revenge against the young scoundrel.
Bess wiped the sheen of sweat from her brow, darting along to the next table, and refilling the mugs of ale. All of the passengers on the carriage had retreated back to the Inn for a healthy helping of warm bread and beer to calm their anxious nerves. Bess's father, the land lord, had been most concerned for all of those the highwayman stole from. For the past few weeks they'd been getting more and more customers with the same reports.
"A young man, polite, well spoken. Only takes what people can afford."
Bess had listened without much interest until that night, when her own encounter had caused her ears to prick up in interest at the slightest mention of the mysterious, masked bandit. Once again she heard a portly gentleman telling her father that the robber never failed to take. She interrupted his story with,
"He didn't take my coinage."
The man stared at her for a little while.
"Why not, did he say?" He asked,
"Yes, he said-" Bess blushed again at the thought, and decided to alter the truth just a little, "-he said he didn't want to take from a young lady who clearly isn't old enough to have husband to provide her income."
"Ah," laughed her father, gazing at Bess affectionately, "and I suppose a pretty smile didn't go amiss either? I ne'er did hear of an honest thief before. But he seems to have some morals to him. He'll be caught, soon enough, though. The town is crawling with troops, on the look out for this young man.
"Do they have no traces?" Bess asked, feeling some inexplicable pang of fear in her heart.
"Not one, he's careful to leave no mess. And not to stay in one place for too long. He seems to enjoy teasing the redcoats with his presence."
Bess nodded, and left the men to their talk and their ale. Slowly but surely the customers either left the Inn or retired upstairs to the rooms that they had been given by Bess.
Bess was wiping down the bar itself when the back door creaked open, and Tim made his entrance.
"There's a sick horse in the stables," he told her, noting that her father had already retired to bed. "Do you think you could find me a bottle of the older brandy? I need to calm the beast down before I can examine her."
Bess did as she was told, and gave Tim the best of her luck for the horse. Tim took it to his soul and placed it with the other sweet things that had ever crossed from her rosebud lips and entered his ear. He went back to the stables feeling rejuvenated and refreshed after drinking in Bess's fair features, when really the age of thirty seven slowly crept up behind him
Finally the bar was clean, and Bess retreated to her room. She sat in front of the mirror, and surveyed herself. Large green doe eyes surrounded by thick, black lashes were a most appealing feature in her face. Perhaps those were the beauty the highwayman claimed to see. Her next crowning glory was perhaps the thick black hair that flowed in waves down to her little waist. She was a fair, young girl. And as she thought back to the highwayman's own handsome, wild looks, somewhere out in the night, he thought of hers.