Written by Steve Cox
Tom adjusted his uniform and noted again the lurid yellow of his jacket. He strode up to the wagon and checked that the money chests were all securely bolted to the metal slats across the wagon bed. The six wooden boxes were made of pale fresh timber, around 3 foot by 2 foot by 1 foot in size. Each one, reportedly, had a carefully packed stock of Pennies, Shillings and Sovereigns, and was screwed tightly shut. Tom checked that none of the wax seals on the lids showed signs of tampering.
He looked round at the group of men in dull, buff coats busy with their preparations to leave the courtyard of the small inn. A sergeant earned a decent wage in the Parliament’s Army: Tuppence a day more than this lot but only when his political masters thought to pay him. He'd had to use his own money to buy his black-brimmed hat and Sergeant’s scarf, as well as this coat that cost only a third of a proper buff one. The dye must have been wrong but the London mercer assured him that one month on campaign would see it fade to a veteran beige.
The 40 soldiers were split into a section of twenty-four Pikemen and another of sixteen Musketeers. Pikemen wore a sleeveless leather jerkin, similar to Tom’s buff coat, but almost neutral in colour as the dye washed out and left weathered suede held together by patches, wool stitches, and stains. Beneath the coat most wore linen shirts, visible as sleeves, peeking between the buttons and eye loops of the coats. Grey breeches hung limply to the knees where leather thongs or linen ties pinched the material together. Linen or wool stockings covered the lower leg and the hobs of once-stout shoes clopped loudly on the courtyard cobbles. The Musketeers were dressed similarly, but their sleeveless coats were tabards with front and back stitched together so that they had to be slipped over the head. This meant no eyes, no buttons and less expense for the regiment.
Tom could see the breath of each man being exhaled into the grey morning air like the pale smoke from muskets fired in a volley. He looked up to check the wagon team was fully awake.
‘Come on, lads. Shake yourselves. I want every man fully awake right from the start. This is no time for daydreaming.’
‘Right, Sergeant. But shouldn’t we wait for Colonel Ward’s cavalry to return before we set off?’ The wagonmaster had reflected Tom’s concern.
‘We will wait, Myers. But I want to be ready to move at a moment’s notice. There's too many Royalist sympathisers around here for us to be complacent.’
‘Our Captain Hightower seems pretty complacent, if you ask me.’ Came a voice from behind Tom.
‘That’s enough, Clark.’ Barked the Sergeant. ‘Just do as you’re told and keep your trap shut.’ Tom couldn’t afford any insubordination when they were in such an isolated position.
The small knot of cavalrymen huddled around the stable was no help either. Their Corporal didn’t acknowledge Tom’s authority over his men.
Captain Hightower, as usual, was still at breakfast, which was bound to take a long time as it was his practice to sample the full breadth of the food menu and quality of the wine cellar. Tom was used to arranging the details for the day’s march; often the Captain wouldn’t catch them up until lunch time, but today he felt uneasy. Maybe he should speak to the Captain or his servant of his fears, but he’d never yet got any sense from his captain before breakfast.
Tom had spoken to Colonel Ward over an hour ago, just before the squadron of cavalry left the inn after the innkeeper's staff brought news of Royalist horsemen nearby. The Colonel hadn’t bothered to wake Captain Hightower but entrusted the infantry and the wagon with the army’s pay to the Sergeant. It was clear he looked to Tom to see that it was kept safe.
Tom climbed up to the innkeeper’s room in the roof of the two storey building. No-one was around and he picked his way through the discarded furniture and clothes to the far, eastern end where he could look north through the single window, down to his left where the road crossed the stream. The track, for that was all it was, looped down from the village half a mile away to the stream and ford close by the inn and then skirted the buildings to their west and south. A second track circled the inn by which wagons or horses could rejoin the main track after exiting from the eastern gate. Grazing fields stretched, undulating from the track away from the inn towards a line of trees some half a mile away. On the western side of the main track, opposite the inn, was a marshy area of willow and poplar trees. After passing the inn the track snaked away between tilled fields towards the hills, a few miles to the southwest.
In the cold morning light it was obvious to Tom that it had been foolish to leave the main road connecting Guildford and Portsmouth, but that was what they had done two days ago at Milford. Colonel Ward had wanted to avoid as many “events” as possible in delivering his charge to Parliament’s Army and this included sneaking away from the high roads whenever he heard reports of large groups of men or horses using the road up ahead.
They had tiptoed away from Milford, due south, rather than southwest along the King’s highway. And they had stumbled into a landscape that none of them knew, of marsh, of woods and of surly people who were bound to gossip to any Royalist nearby that a plump prize was staggering around, lost in the wilds of Hampshire.
Colonel Ward and fifty barrel-chested cavalrymen, each armed with a pair of pistols as well as a long sabre, had ridden off towards the hills, trotting silently away from the late winter dawn.
Tom peered once more at the track down which the colonel had dissapeared, willing his eyes to see the men returning. But everything was quiet. There was the usual chattering of birds in the woods behind but nothing moved on the road ahead. No farm labourers were in the fields and no donkeys or wagons were using the track. Why weren’t there labourers sowing seed or breaking up the frost-shattered earth in readiness for the warm spring weather? It was too quiet.
Ten cavalrymen had remained at the inn. Maybe they should be sent to find Colonel Ward? Tom wasn’t sure. It was one thing to be in an isolated position with a small group of men. It was quite another to be responsible for the money sent to pay an army. No. Captain Hightower needed to be involved. It should be his decision.
Even as he decided this Tom knew that the captain was not up to the task. But if Tom acted alone and things went wrong he'd be in deep trouble. At times like this there is a lot to be said for being a lowly Private.
The light was getting stronger now and Tom could see more details through the window. He picked out movement on the slope just below the village. It seemed that a group of men was forming on the track and moving down towards the inn. Tom didn’t wait. He moved back to the stairs.
‘Corporal Stannard! To me. To me.’
The Corporal arrived at the bottom of the steps at the same time as Tom, but they bounced off each other without damage.
‘Stannard. Take three men and secure all the exits from the inn. Lock all the staff in the pantry. Do it now. I think there’s an attack coming.’
‘Yes Sergeant.’ Stannard had already motioned to the three nearest men to follow him and he made off towards the kitchen.
‘Clarke! Get over here, quick.’
Clarke moved less quickly but was soon beside the sergeant.
‘Go into the upper room in the main building and see what’s happening in the fields at the back of the inn. Tell me what you see.’
Two men were sent with Clarke. Tom then turned to the protection of the wagon.
They had tried to hide the reason for their journey but he had to assume the men moving towards the inn knew the prize they were closing in on. The wagon would be useless in a headlong flight and Tom discounted the idea of riding away from the inn. They had to stay and fight. And they had to win. There was nowhere to run to and he couldn’t leave the wagon’s cargo.
Tom strode across the small courtyard and was joined by Myers who received orders to remove the payboxes from the wagon. The remaining men were now spreading out through the buildings taking up positions picked out for them when they arrived at the inn. Myers unhitched the two horses then backed it up to the bolted doors at the western end of the courtyard.
Tom re-entered the inn then knocked at the dining room door before kicking the bottom edge. Having loosened the door he stepped into the room. Captain Hightower was reclining on a bench beside the stack of logs fuelling a fire. His breakfast of cheese, cold meat and fresh bread had just been placed before him on a table cluttered with bottles. He scowled at the Sergeant. The captain wore a stained orange shirt with thin hoops of red along each arm. His fading brown breeches hung limp as he stretched out his legs towards the fire while his riding boots stood warming beside the fire and his stiff, wide-brimmed hat lay on the pile of logs.
Tom brushed past the buff coat hanging from a peg with his sword belt, orange Officer’s sash and gorget. ‘Sir, we are about to be attacked. There are men moving towards us from the village across the stream.’
Tom’s tone was urgent but Captain Hightower was not a man to be hurried.
‘Good morning, Sergeant. There’s no need to burst in on a fellow’s breakfast, now is there?’ The captain’s nasal voice grated on Tom, especially when used in this languid manner.
‘I’m sorry, Sir, but this really is important. I wouldn’t disturb you unless the situation warranted it.’
‘You handle it, Tyler.’ There was an irritated edge to his voice now. ‘Post the men and keep me informed. I’ll inspect your dispositions when I am ready.’ Then having broken open a pheasant pie he added, ‘Where’s Colonel Ward? Why can’t he just chase the fellows away?’
‘Colonel Ward rode out with most of his men over an hour ago, Sir.’
The Captain’s jaw muscles stiffened but his manner remained one of bored indifference.
‘I’ll be out soon. And you’d better have everything under control.’
Tom nodded respectfully and left the room. In the courtyard Myers had unscrewed the pay boxes from the wagon and his team of wagoners was ready to carry it to wherever it would be safest. They all looked to Tom for orders.
‘Take it all into the inn. Give your respects to the Captain and ask if his servant would take charge of it until we know where we stand.’
Tom scanned the courtyard to see where his men were. He had sixteen Musketeers, but three were in the upper room. Corporal Stannard and two Pikemen were rounding up the staff and the other twenty-one were spread out around the courtyard. Myers and his three wagoners were now inside the inn. Corporal Gorringe with his nine fellow cavalrymen looked on haughtily at the scurrying foot soldiers. But Tom needed every man. He approached the tough, leather-clad Corporal.
‘Corporal. My respects to you. We're likely to be in a tight fix shortly. Men are moving towards us from the village.’
‘What’s that to me, Buttercup.’ The Corporal smiled. ‘I can see you're predicament but it looks like you’ve got everything covered. And if the Captain can’t be arsed to get a move on I don’t think we need be too hasty, do we?’
Tom ignored the insult and tried to reason with the man.
‘I need your men to find out what’s happening out there. You can ride up and down the road and let us know what we're facing. Maybe the men ‘round here have a strange way of starting work. Maybe they're all on their way with gifts for our illustrious Captain. But just maybe they intend to slit our throats before they settle down to breakfast.’
‘Bring me some orders from the Captain and we’ll oblige.’ Was all the reply he got. Tom looked into the bovine stare of the Corporal’s eyes. There was nothing for it. Captain Hightower needed to take charge.
He marched back across the courtyard scowling at everyone and everything. The rectangular courtyard had buildings on two sides; the two-storey main inn and kitchen was to the north and a couple of dozen yards away, on the south were the stables and servants' quarters. At either end, the courtyard was shut off from the outside by a wall with a strong, ten foot high double door. The western end was bolted and barricaded by Myers’ wagon. The gate at the opposite end could still be used for a sortie by the horsemen. It stood closed and bolted with three Pikemen milling around looking through the cracks in the timber.
Stannard met Tom at the entrance to the main inn.
‘The innkeeper and his servants are under lock and key, Sergeant. We’ve locked the three doors on the stream-side and there are two more at the back of the stables that are now secure. There’s still plenty of ways a man could creep in though.’
The main weakness in their position was the number of doors and windows on the stream-side of the inn. The small doors could be breached easily by a determined man and the windows had shutters for protection but nothing more. The stables had only one small door and one double door to the outside and both of these were of solid timbers. The first floor windows overlooked the track and adjacent field and were shuttered, like those of the main building.
Tom knew that in order to place his men he needed to know how many enemies were approaching and from which direction.
‘Barricade those doors out to the stream and get pikemen watching each of the windows on the ground floor. Then get up to the top of the stables and see what’s happening outside.’
Stannard hurried to carry out the orders and Tom walked inside to see the captain.
Captain Hightower was still at breakfast but the surrounding bustling had put him in a restless mood and he had only picked at the food placed before him.
‘Ah, Sergeant. What news? Is Colonel Ward back? Have you found these fellows are only hunting rabbits?’
‘Not yet, Sir. I’d like to send Corporal Gorringe's men out to ride up and down the road. They should be able to tell how many attackers we’re up against.’
‘Of course. But do you mean that we don’t even know if we're being attacked yet? You seemed so sure a few minutes ago.’
‘Our errand is very grave, Sir. And we are few. I think caution and suspicion are our friends more than the innkeeper or the locals.’ Tom got the orders for the cavalry and left the room. He didn’t mind if the Captain dawdled some more. But he felt everyone would be needed very soon.
‘I’ll report anything new immediately, Sir.’ He kicked the door to jam it shut and headed back to the courtyard.
‘Sergeant’ Tom was hailed by Clarke as he stepped out of the building.
‘Bad news. There's groups of men coming this way and there's horsemen gathering behind them.’
‘I dunno. Maybe forty or fifty men on foot and, say, twenty or thirty horsemen.’
‘What about the other side? Who’s watching the road south?’
‘I am, Sergeant.’ Stannard was right behind him but Tom hadn’t realised he was there. ‘The road to the south looks clear but Myers has seen some movement by the stream beyond the poplars.’
Tom, Stannard and Clarke joined Myers standing on his wagon, peering over the heavy inn gates. It took only a moment to see that there was movement in several places only fifty yards beyond the large trees on the opposite side of the track. A group of maybe forty men were picking their way towards the edge of the track.
‘My troopers won't do any good trotting up and down the road with them skulking in the trees.’ Corporal Gorringe had joined the group and looked sternly at Tom.
‘I agree’ he replied. ‘Best for your men to hold the stables. Check the downstairs barricades but station yourselves in the rooms above where you can fire down onto anyone approaching the inn’.
‘I’ll need to keep a couple of men downstairs looking out for the horses, but I’ll do as you say.’ Gorringe said as he headed for the stables.
There was little time for more talking. Five Pikemen reinforced Myer’s wagoners holding the western gate and Tom headed to the main building to join the musketeers and report again to the Captain. The battle was about to start.