Chapter Twenty Eight
John never returned from his office. Margaret and Branson departed from the stable area and never passed where John could see she was riding on top.
“You know where we’re going, right Branson?”
“I know exactly where we are going and which cottage. We will park the team at some distance, Miss, so he will not know we’re coming. I will enter first with my pistols in hand. If he goes for a weapon, I will shoot at his toe. I want you to be able to talk to him and give him your doctored whisky. However, if he continues to try, I will shoot him dead, and no one will get a chance at him. Your husband and your brother want this man very badly.”
“That sounds good Branson. Is Branson your first name?”
“It’s my last name, Miss.”
“Can I know your first name?”
“I’d rather not say. I have been with the master over four years, and even he doesn’t know it. I don’t think he knows he doesn’t know it and that’s fine with me. It’s never come up. All right, we’re turning to leave the city. In this coach, it will probably only be another ten minutes before we are close enough to walk.”
Branson reached for a blanket on the floor. Miss, put your head in my lap and hurry. She did as she was told and felt a blanket covering her.
As they drove past the man that was the target, Branson told Margaret what was happening. It looked like he was headed to the cottage. I will make sure he sees us head in the opposite direction when we turn on the road where he will walk.”
“Do what you have to do, Branson. Don’t worry about me.” Margaret’s sounds we muffled, and she felt strange with her head in Branson crotch. It was another five minutes before she could sit up and breathe the air.
“I’m sorry, Miss, I didn’t have any choice.”
“I know that. You probably saved our lives. Are you sure it was Hartford.”
“Yes. I’ve seen that picture plenty of times, and like Maxwell said, he cannot hide the military style haircut for a while.
Branson pulled the carriage into some heavy trees and bushes off of the road. He slipped back to watch the man turn towards the fourth cottage. And he did.
Branson helped Margaret down and back inside the coach until they were under a bit of darkness. Branson collected the pistols, and Margaret held firmly onto the arsenic-laced whisky bottle.
It was about thirty minutes later when the pair trekked quietly through the fallen branches and piles of leaves, heading towards cottage four.
Reaching cottage three, they waited there for twilight to almost disappear. As hoped, a candle was lit followed by an oil lantern. Branson watched intently at the windows. There was no sign of another person, but there was a horse tied to a post behind the house. That was the first that Branson knew about a horse. Hartford was ready for his attack and escape. He was expected to be carrying two pistols and one knife at least, possibly two knives. One would be in his boot. Branson gathered his thoughts and his nerve.
He held Margaret at bay still behind the third cottage while he approached the fourth. He placed her so he could find her in the moonlit night. Margaret understood and obeyed.
Branson crept to the house, silently slipping up to a window edge. Peering through the window, he could make out in the dim light that Hartford was eating bread and cheese at the table. His back was towards Branson and Hartford was facing the door. He had one pistol in a side holster and one lying on the table.
Unbeknownst to Branson, Margaret had walked to the front door but did not enter.
“Grant Hartford, I know you’re in there. It’s Margaret Hale. I’m here for you to kill me or make you a very rich man. I must tell you that pistols are pointed at you right now. So reach for your own if you want to die.
“I only have my driver, but he is an expert marksman. There is no one here to arrest you. You should know I have said nothing about your brutality and violation of me. That’s why no one has come looking for you. I hope you realize if no one knows yet, then they never will. You will have to believe that if you want to be a rich man.
“We don’t want your weapons; just put them up on that mantel behind you. I wish to enter and talk.”
“Margaret, it fills my heart with joy to know you did not go off and kill yourself as you were about to do. I know I am in a spot, so I will listen to you, but I will insist on keeping one pistol within five feet of me. That would put it at the other end of this long thin slab of wood table. That’s about as agreeable as I will be. Otherwise, just shoot me now.”
“Agreed. Place your holstered gun on the mantel. Place the other pistol at the far end of the table. Then take your right hand and shove it down your trousers.”
“Why that, Margaret?”
“I believe that is your favored shooting hand and I do not want it too accessible to the pistol on the table. That’s my deal to save your neck and make you rich. That is what you originally wanted. It can still be yours.”
Branson moved around the building from window to window watching him until he had done what Margaret asked. He nodded to her.
“I am coming in. My marksman said you have completed your end of the bargain, so I am coming to do mine.”
Margaret stepped through the door and Branson followed. He was shaking badly, watching for any twitch by Hartford. He followed Margaret inside, so Hartford knew she was not lying.
“Hello, Margaret. I remember that dress most vividly. I must say it looked better before. What’s that you’ve got in your hand? Whisky? Is that for me?”
“Only as a celebration if we can agree.”
Margaret went to the far end of the table where the pistol was laying, Hartford on the other. Branson was standing about eight feet from Hartford.
Branson had to speak. “Hartford, if you reach for the knife in your boot, I will shoot off several of your toes. I don’t want to be hung for killing you, but if it is self-defense, you’re dead.”
“I believe you, lad.”
“So, Margaret what is this deal to make me go away and not kill you?”
“Originally, you wanted to marry me for money. I am now married to a man I have loved for two years. He is wealthy. He is bringing a gang of men, including my brother, to kill you, possibly tonight or tomorrow. I don’t care what happens to you, but I do care what happens to him. As you can imagine, he would be tried and possibly hung for your murder. I cannot live with that if I have other alternatives.”
Branson saw Hartford’s arm swing down to his side. He was going for the knife soon, and Branson knew he could flick it his way in a split second.
“I can more than double what you would have had if you married me. It will take me a day or two to get it.”
“How did you know where I was?”
“You’ve been trailed for two days. You’ve been seen at Marlborough Mills, checking out the back for your escape. You spent your first night here at a sleazy bed place. Is that enough to know there are others coming?”
Suddenly, Hartford reached for his knife, and Branson fired at his boot.
A curdled scream rang out. While he was bent over cursing, Branson moved quick enough to kick the knife out of Hartford’s hand.
“Hand me that whisky woman. This hurts like bloody hell.”
Margaret slid the bottle down to him and reached for the other pistol left on the table.
“Looks to me like you don’t have much choice anymore, Grant.”
Grant continued holding his foot and drank from the bottle. Branson found a rag and threw it at him so he could stem the blood flow.
“I’d say you have backed me into a corner, there Missy. I am forced to accept your offer.”
Margaret continued negotiating until he had finished the bottle. “I didn’t know you would want to get shot. I should have brought a full bottle of that.”
Margaret knew she had enough arsenic in that bottle to kill ten people. Why wasn’t he showing any effects?
He was now harmless and totally disarmed with missing toes and arsenic in his body.
“I guess we don’t have a deal. You have not seemed very interested.”
Finally, Grant started howling in pain clutching his stomach.
“You’ve poisoned me, Margaret. You bitch.”
“Yes, I have.”
Margaret waited through the howling and doubling over in pain. When the retching started, Branson told her to leave, and he would do what needed to be done.
As Margaret entered the coach, she heard a pistol go off. She ran back and saw Branson adjusting Hartford’s body to look like a passed out drunk. He leaned him over the table in his own vomit and closed his eyes. He set the empty bottle on its side, nearby. He replaced one pistol in his holster, left the other on the table, and returned the knife to his boot. Branson doused the lantern and emptied the oil so it could not be lit. He set the only burning candle opposite of Hartford, so there was no light showing on his spine, where Branson had just fired toward.
Margaret was at the door watching. Branson was walking the room to make it look the best he could that the man was passed out and not dead.
“Branson, you’ve got it. Let’s go.”
Margaret and Branson disappeared into the night running. Margaret tripped over a dead branch and fell. She instantly lost her breath. Her rib was broken this time. Branson carried her in his arms to the coach.
“Miss, I’m going to have to whip this team to speed, so hold onto that side of yours. We’ll be home in no time. Good job, Miss. I was amazed. Don’t ever offer me anything to drink.”
Margaret smiled and tried to laugh but couldn’t. It was over. John was safe. That’s all that mattered. She would go to the detective tomorrow and confess.
Branson pulled the coach to the stable. He carried Margaret upstairs and poured her a requested scotch. He would have had a whisky, but there was no bottle. He settled for scotch instead.
Margaret asked Branson to run downstairs and fetch her pain medication, which he did.
“Branson, look out the window. Is there a light burning in the office?”
“Yes, and there is a carriage there plus Mr. Higgins’ buggy. I suspect it’s Mr. Bell’s driver. That would mean that Captain Lenox is with him. I can only assume the revenge group is readying to kill a dead man.” Branson let out a chuckle. Now, that it was done and passed, he felt the strain lifting off of him. They had survived.
“You know, Miss, if you don’t mind me saying, that was a damn fine plan you had. You really frightened me when I heard you begin to talk through the door. I had planned to come back and retrieve you.”
“I know that Branson. As a gentleman, you would most likely be too protective, putting yourself in further danger. I had to surprise you as well.”
“That was planned?”
“It’s a good thing women don’t fight wars, that’s all I can say. You are quite unpredictable.”
“I think that’s a rite of passage for women,” Margaret tried to laugh again, and still couldn’t. The clock over the mantel struck eight.
“Miss, what would you like me to do?”
“Do you think your Guv could be waiting on you?
“It’s possible. We didn’t discuss the time I would be bringing you back from the hotel.”
“Maybe you should go and announce yourself. You may get to kill him again,” Margaret was forced to chuckle even through the pain.
“I doubt that. I don’t think he’ll leave you alone in the house. He will insist that I stay, but I best go let him know we’re back, so he can tell me that.”
“I’ll be fine just sitting here. Go ahead.”
Branson set down his drink and walked to the office.
Branson knocked lightly on the office door and then opened it. The room was silent with five men sitting around the desk. Nicholas was there to lend his coach and however else he could help.
“I’m back, sir. Do you need me?”
“You have two pistols, Branson?” John asked.
“Yes, sir but they need to be loaded.”
“Go load them and come back. I think we can return to our original plan. Nicholas will stay with Margaret and Branson can drive the one coach. This way we won’t stand out with a buggy and two horses.”
Branson left and went around the house rather than through it. That would not have been normal. Branson thought the Missus would know what happened when Nicholas arrived.
John stood staring out the window, looking at his home . . . their home, still upset from the day and how he treated Margaret. Something strange was there about the house. He kept staring at it.
“Something wrong, John,” asked Adam.
“I’m not sure.”
Nicholas came to the window.
“Could Margaret have gone to bed? There are no lights on.”
“That’s it. Margaret hasn’t found where they all are. I’m not sure she’s tall enough to light them manually. Even if she were tall enough and knew where they were, lifting her arms over her head is her most restrictive movement.”
“John, do you want me to go over now? Mason has six men on the ground, but if she’s just sitting in the dark because she can’t light them; that is rather sad, don’t you think?” Nicholas used that tone, knowing something had come between them today.
“I’ll go,” offered Fred.
John was feeling worse by the moment, and it was being compounded by the task at hand. Tempers were running high, at least for him.
“I’ll go,” John said.
John entered the parlour and shouted for Margaret.
“I here, John.”
He found the first light and lit it. Margaret had a drink in her hand. His feelings worsened. Kneeling at her feet, John picked up her hand and kissed it. No words were said. He went to embrace her, and she shied away. John stood. He had never felt so torn apart and lonely.
“Nicholas will be over soon to stay with you. I am going out.”
“Good hunting,” Margaret said as he walked out the sitting room door.
Branson brought the coach around. Margaret struggled to her feet, really feeling the pain now that the adrenaline was abating. Poor Branson, she thought. What a secret he had to keep. He must feel very low for what she had asked him to do. Now, it looked like he might have to repeat it.
Under the lights of the mill yard, the men gathered by the coach door. She saw Frederick, pull a pistol from somewhere and check it, returning it to somewhere within his clothing. Nicholas was standing there talking with them. No doubt, wishing them luck, promising John to take care of her if anything happened, she thought. The men entered the coach, although Maxwell opted to ride in the box with Branson. Margaret watched it slowly pull through the gates.
The pain was intensifying, and the pill was making her drowsy. She made her way to the sofa and laid down. She never heard Nicholas come into the room.