To the Far Blue Mountains

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My horse, good beast that he was, stood steady, ears pricked to listen, as were mine.

When a man has enemies he had best beware, and I Barnabas Sackett, born of the fenland and but lately returned from the sea, had enemies I knew not of.

The blackness of my plumed hat and cloak fed themselves in the blackness of the forest, leaving no shape for the eye to catch. There was only the shine of captured light from my naked blade as I waited, listening.

Something or somebody was in the forest near me, what or who it might be I knew not, nor was I a believer in the devils and demons thought to haunt these forests.

Yet the fens had trained me well for we of the fens learned to be aware of all that was happening about us. Hunters and fishers we were, and some of us smugglers as well, although of these I was not one. Yet we moved upon our hidden ways, in darkness or in light, knowing each small sound for what it was.

Something lurked, but so did I.

My point lifted a little, expecting attack. It was not attack that came from the darkness, but a voice.

"Ah, you are a wary one, lad, and I like that in a man. Stand ready, Barnabas, I'll not cross your blade. It is words I'll have, not blood."

"Speak then, and be damned to you. If words are not enough, the blade is here. You spoke my name?"

"Aye, Barnabas, I know your name and your table, as well, I've eaten a time or two in your fen cottage from which you've been absent these many months."

"You've shared meat with me? Who are you, then? Speak up, man!"

"I'd no choice. It is the steps and the string for me if caught. I need a bit of a hand, as the saying is, and the chance to serve you, if permitted."

"Serve me how?"

He was hidden still, used as were my eyes to darkness, yet now my ears caught some familiar note, some sound that started memory rising.

"Ah!" It came to me suddenly. "Black Tom Watkins!"

"Aye." He came now from the shadows. "Black Tom it is, and a tired and hungry man, too."

"How did you know me then? It is a time since last I traveled this road."

"Don't I know that? Yet is not only I who know of your coming, nor your friend William, who farms your land. There are others waiting, Barnabas, and that is why I am here, in the damp and darkness of the forest, hoping to catch you before you ride unwitting into their company."

"Who? Who waits?"

"I am a wanted man, Barnabas, and the gallows waits for me, but I got free and was in the tavern yonder studying upon what to do when I heard your name spoken. Oh, they kept their voices low, but when one has lived in the fens as you and I . . . well, I heard them. They wait to lay you by the heels and into Newgate Prison."

He came a step nearer. "You've enemies, lad. I know naught of them nor their reasons, but guilty or not they've a Queen's warrant for you, and there's a bit in it for them if they take you."

A Queen's warrant? Well, it might be. There had been a warrant. Yet who would know of that and be out to take me? We were a far cry from London town, and it was an unlikely thing.

"They are at the cottage?" I asked.

"Not them. There's a bit of a tavern only a few minutes down the road, and they do themselves well there while waiting. From time to time one rides to see if you are about at the cottage, and I think they have a man in the hedgerow."

"What manner of men are they?"

"A surly lot of rogues by their looks, and led by a tall, dark man with greasy hair to his shoulders and the movements of a swordsman. He seems the leader, but there's another who might be. A shorter, wider man . . . thicker, too . . . and older somewhat if I am to judge."

My horse was as restive as I. My cottage was less than an hour away . . . perhaps half that, but the night was dark and no landmarks to be made out. My situation was far from agreeable.

My good friend and business associate, Captain Brian Tempany, was aboard our new ship, awaiting my return for sailing. It was off to the new lands across the sea, and for trade with whom we could. And perhaps, for Abigail and me, a home there.

A Queen's warrant is no subject for jest, even if he who had sworn it was dead and the occasion past. The warrant should have been rescinded, but once in Newgate I might be held for months and no one the wiser.

Once back in London, Captain Tempany might set in motion the moves to have the warrant rescinded, or my friend Peter Tallis might, but to do that I must first reach London and their ears.

"Go toward the cottage, Tom, and be sure all is quiet there, and along the hedge as well. Then come back along the track and meet me. Lay claim to a boat."

"I'll do it."

"A moment, Tom. You spoke of a favor?"

He took hold of my stirrup leather. "Barnabas, it is hanging at Tyburn if I'm caught, and it is said that you are lately home from the new lands across the sea, and that you sail again soon. There's naught left for me in England, lad, nor will there ever be again. I am for the sea, and if you'll have me aboard, I'll be your man `til death."

There was sincerity in him, and well enough I knew the man, a strong and steady one, by all accounts. To be a smuggler in Britain was to be in good company, for the laws were harsh and many a churchman or officer was involved in it, or looking aside when it was done.

"Think well of what you ask, Tom. It is a far land to which I'll go. There be savages there, and forests such as you've never seen. It will be no easy time."

"Whenever was it easy for such a man as I? The scars I carry speak of no easy times, lad, and however bad it may be it will be better than the steps and the noose and that's what awaits me here?"

When he had gone I sat listening for a time, untrusting of the darkness, but heard no sound for the slow dripdrop of raindrops from the leaves. Black Tom would be a good man in Raleigh's land . . . a good man.

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