Beyond the outskirts of Stratford, two men crouched in a roadside ditch concealed by low bushes. Engaged in the lucrative business of robbing travelers on the way to London, the highwaymen used a tall tree at the fork in the road to spot their victims, whose bulging satchels offered a tempting invitation to collect whatever booty they desired.
To dispel the afternoon’s eerie silence, Shaxper whistled Greensleeves as he rounded the bend. Just as he came under the tree, the screech of a crow pierced the tender melody of his tune. The villain hidden in the leaves let out a blood-curdling scream and dropped down onto Shaxper’s horse. His partners leapt up from the ditch and tried to wrestle the reins away from Shaxper. They grappled over the satchel. The terrified horse reared and galloped down the road.
Shaxper felt a searing pain rip through his shoulder. From the corner of his eye, he caught the flicker of a knife’s blade at his back. He felt dizzy, but the thought of losing his satchel and the money he’d earned emboldened him to fight. Roaring with anger, he kicked off his assailant and scrambled into the underbrush like an animal on all fours, frantically searching for a place to hide. With each step, thorny vines scratched and tore at his flesh.
As he stumbled into the brier patch, a shot rang out and a bullet grazed his leg. He could almost feel the thieves breathing down his neck. His shoulder throbbed and he was sure his life was over. He fell to the ground and lay on his back, eyes closed and teeth clenched. He thought of his mother Mary and little Susanna. He gripped his bag as if his life depended on it.
Hearing a rustling nearby, he opened his eyes to see the thieves towering over him.
“What do you want?” he quavered.
“Your money, sir, and quickly.”
“But this is all I have in the world,” he begged, as he clutched the satchel. “Please don’t take it.”
“Kill him, Poley. Let’s take it and be done.”
You might as well be dead, Shaxper told himself. You’ll never get to London now. You’ll never be famous. You’ll never make a name for yourself. No one will ever hear of William Shaxper except as the victim of an infamous murder on the highway . . . if your body is ever to be found in such a place.
“Here,” Shaxper said, thrusting the satchel forward. “Take my money, but please don’t kill me. Leave me in peace, I beg you.”
Someone laughed and yanked the satchel away. Shaxper felt a pistol at his head. He whispered a prayer as he heard the trigger being cocked. He wondered how long it would take for the maggots to devour his flesh once he was dead, and how far across the field the animals would scatter his bones. Would his soul be allowed to enter Heaven without a priest or a proper burial? He was a simple man, and didn’t know the answer to such questions. He prayed for Jesus’ sake that his death would be a quick and painless one.
He closed his eyes and heard his empty satchel landing in the bushes behind him. He heard the mocking laughter of his assailants as their feet crunched through the thicket and into the distance.
He felt a stunning blow to his head. A death-like sleep crept upon him in the warm sunshine.
He rolled over and let it come.
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