Summary: A year has passed since the mysterious day Gentleman Jack was last seen, riding hard toward Exeter. But that wasn't the only strange thing to happen on that fateful October day...
Info: With huge thanks to Catspaw for suggestions and a cracking beta. This story is dedicated to everyone who has ever said something nice about it, for anyone who recc'd it, nominated it or voted for it. Thank you all so much.
The London Evening Post - Tuesday October 8th
On Friday last in the county of Wiltshire the renowned highwayman, GENTLEMAN JACK was apprehended by a company of the King's men after a daring chase. He was taken captive riding hard on the road to Exeter, whereupon the arresting constables bound him hand and foot and carried him straight away back toward Tyburn where he would be hanged.
GENTLEMAN JACK has lately been revealed to be the son of Patrick O'Neill whose land in Dungannon, Ireland was seized by the crown several years since. GENTLEMAN JACK, who was born Jonathan O'Neill in that same parish, waylaid Mr. Edward Durwood last week demanding his money and pocket watch. When Mr Durwood challenged the villain with his real name, O'Neill took his leave most politely after asking after the Durwood family's health, but not before he had relieved the victim of TWO HUNDRED POUNDS and some silver.
According to the arresting officers, O'Neill continued an insolent and profane discourse while being escorted, which caused the party to become DISTRACTED. O'Neill has always worked alone and his guard were expecting no impediment on their journey to the hangman. In this they were tragically mistaken.
While passing near the village of Zeals, a distraught woman approached the party, begging them to accompany her as she had discovered a desperate man asleep in her wood shed, the spoils of his night's work still strewn around him. The poor woman had locked the door, trapping the villain within, and come running to the highway, hoping to find one of the King's constables and claim a reward.
Whereupon the party divided themselves with two of them following the local woman's directions and two remaining with THE PRISONER.
The guards were taken by SURPRISE when a man dressed all in black stepped out from the cover of nearby trees and demanded that GENTLEMAN JACK be released into his custody. Having been caught unawares, one of the guards had already been relieved of his weapon, and the villain had his own pistol pointed at the man's head.
The first constable, fearing that he would lose not only his charge, but his life, drew his blade and held it to O'Neill's throat. Without hesitation, the unknown desperate turned and fired, wounding the constable in the leg, at which his comrade fled the scene. The masked man then proceeded to disarm the unfortunate constable, and release O'Neill. He then tended to the constable's wound, cleaning it and binding it and advising the man to seek a physician at his earliest chance.
In the ensuing confusion O'Neill and his accomplice made good their escape. The wounded constable reported that GENTLEMAN JACK had seemed in very ill temper despite his rescue, and that he could be heard berating the unknown villain over some distance as they left the scene.
In light of these recent developments, people of means have been advised to take utmost precautions when undertaking use of the roads. The reward for the capture of GENTLEMAN JACK has been increased to FIVE HUNDRED POUNDS accordingly, with an extra ONE HUNDRED POUNDS for information which might lead to the apprehension of his UNNAMED ACCOMPLICE.
Sadly the villain who had been locked in the wood shed by the excitable local woman had already escaped by the time the constables arrived, much to the lady's disgruntlement having had her heart set on the reward money. It has been supposed that this may have been O'Neill's right-hand man, but this has not been confirmed.
The Salisbury Herald - 16th October
A gentleman of the parish of Zeals has been reported as missing. Dr Daniel Jackson, a bachelor formerly of Hampton Heath, has been absent since Saturday last. It is unclear whether the unfortunate gentleman has met with an accident as no remains have been found and nothing has been taken from his house. His solicitors have been informed, but as the doctor has no closer relation than a distant cousin it is not known how his estate will be disposed of should he be declared dead.
The Salisbury Herald - 25th March
It is now some six months since the physician, DR. DANIEL JACKSON, late of Zeals, was last seen. Despite enquiries to all former addresses and acquaintances, no trace of him has ever been found. It has been conjectured that the good doctor fell victim to of one of the HIGHWAYMEN who traverse the London road, as his disappearance coincided with an unusual series of events in October last.
His solicitor has refused applications from distant relatives to release Dr. Jackson's estate, citing a document he has in his possession, the contents of which he reports constitute an alternative arrangement which will come into effect at a pre-arranged time.
Should any reader have information pertaining to the Doctor's whereabouts, please contact the Editor.
Dear Mrs. Treagus,
I hope this letter finds you in robust health, though I know not how long it might take to reach you. I gather from those more knowledgeable than myself that ours was one of the last vessels to set sail before the winter storms prevented safe passage. I can attest that if the voyage had been any worse than that we endured, it would take a strong soul indeed to undertake it willingly.
I pray that you passed the long dark days of winter tolerably and that Mr. Treagus had no recurrence of the distressing affliction of last year. I trust you found my instructions and the necessary medicine should that misfortune have occurred.
I'm sure I don't have the eloquence to express the wonders my friend and I have encountered since our arrival on this continent nigh on a twelvemonth ago, though I could wish it to be otherwise. This is a land both terrible and beautiful to behold, and we have both come to love its wildness. We have encountered all manner of extraordinary creatures and seen the night sky burn with colours undreamt of. All of nature's bounty seems to have settled squarely upon this corner of the world, both animal and vegetable. The mountains are higher, the rivers broader and swifter, and the skies are wider than any I ever saw.
We have learned much since first we set out from St. John, although how we survived those first few months as na•ve as we were, I know not. The living here is quite hard and not at all like life in Zeals. The winters are brutal and without adopting some of the habits and wisdom of the native peoples, it would be impossible to remain here with any measure of comfort at all. I have begun to learn some of their language, though this has been hampered by each separate group having its own dialect. My faltering efforts seem to amuse them as much as it amuses my companion, but I remain undeterred. In all, I find it completely fascinating.
We have both adapted to the climate quite admirably. We overwintered in a small trading settlement some distance upriver of the coast before continuing our explorations inland. I must confess that I am surprised to find that I have a taste for this adventurous lifestyle after so many years of my former vocation. Of course, my friend has been a great asset to have along as companion, and he is quite thrilled to think that there are further adventures to be had.
We propose to see out the winter here, then journey still further come springtime in order to chart some of the wondrous landscape, but in truth it is the joy of discovery that quickens our steps and lightens our loads. Each hill we climb and river we cross presents us with new challenges and further choices, new vistas and exciting finds. I do not think we shall ever tire of it. We have, by accident, stumbled upon a new world where our names matter less than our intentions and where we can be most content to grow old in one another's company. We are, in short, quite perfectly happy.
And so, dear Mrs. T, I have fulfilled my end of our bargain, and have assured you of not only our safe arrival, but of our satisfaction with our new life. As if my cheerful report has not already informed you, we will not be returning to England. Please indulge me and keep faith with our agreement. It is my wish that you should sell the house and all and any possessions remaining in my former home and use the revenue to make your life less arduous. The money is yours to distribute as you see fit, though I must insist that you set aside some for yourselves for I fear that otherwise your good nature will see others comfortable and leave yourself wanting. My solicitor has in his possession a letter to this effect.
My friend says to tell you that you would fit quite well in this place for there are all manner of fearsome and unholy creatures to be found here. Please forgive his impertinence and accept my assurances that he speaks most fondly of you on occasion. A glib tongue has always been his recourse when fearing his tender heart might be in peril of detection.
And so I must finish now if I am to catch the boat with this message in the morning. Be well, Molly, and know that we will never forget your kindness or cease to be grateful for your friendship.
The light failed early at this time of year and Daniel abandoned his attempts to reread his letter by the last rays of the autumn sunshine. It would be twilight soon and from his desk he could see out of the window to the last few brave leaves, stark scarlet and gold, clinging on boughs of brown and grey. Molly would forgive him for any errors or omissions he thought as he folded the paper and sealed it.
A stamp of boots announced Jack's return, and Daniel quickly covered the contents of the table that doubled as his desk with spread palms to prevent it from being scattered by the blast of wind that accompanied him.
Daniel rose to his feet when the door banged shut behind Jack and turned to give him a welcoming smile. Jack's cheeks were reddened by the cold and wind and a fur cap covered his head, leaving manic little tufts of hair to escape around its circumference.
Jack paused in the act of unwinding his scarf and regarded Daniel with a wary eye. "What?" he asked, a smile playing around his own lips in return.
"Is it snowing yet?" Daniel asked slyly. Jack had been confidently predicting imminent snow for three weeks now and seemed undeterred by the weather's stubborn refusal to comply.
"Tonight for sure, I reckon," Jack replied, obviously knowing he was being teased by the certainty with which he spoke.
"Oh, for sure. Still, it looks cold out there," Daniel said, moving to the stone fireplace and adding another log to the cheery blaze.
Jack dumped his hat, scarf, mitts and coat on Daniel's desk and moved quickly to envelop him in a vast hug. Daniel yelped as Jack pushed his cold nose into his neck and tried half-heartedly to escape, but Jack had him held fast. "It is cold out there," he mumbled into Daniel's skin with icy lips, "allow me to demonstrate."
Jack smelled like damp leaves and wood sap and fresh sweat, and Daniel could endure a little chill if it meant that he could breathe in the strong, masculine scent of him for a while, so he folded his arms around Jack's neck.
"I can think of a couple of ways for you to warm me up," Jack suggested with an extra squeeze that made Daniel's ribs creak.
"What? Chopping wood hasn't sufficed?" Daniel asked in a scandalised voice. "Damn!" he added when Jack growled at him. "I was considering an early night as I have to get up at dawn to catch Andersen on his way downriver. I thought I'd get down to Fournier's before the heavy snows; we're running short on a few things. And I have a letter to send."
Daniel unwrapped Jack's arms from around him and then unceremoniously shoved Jack's outerwear off the table and recovered Molly's letter, holding it up for Jack to read the address.
Jack took the note and held it toward the window, squinting slightly as he made out the letters. "Oh!" he said finally, his eyes flicking up to Daniel and then back to the letter, his face suddenly serious. "Is this...?"
Daniel nodded quickly, saving Jack the chore of having to put his query into words.
"Has it been a year already?"
"Almost," Daniel explained, catching a taper from the fire and using it to light the two lamps that they spent their evenings by. The golden glow softened the evening shadows, giving Daniel a sudden, familiar rush of wellbeing and satisfaction.
"So... that's it? No place to return to in England anymore?"
"No," Daniel agreed.
"Any regrets?" Jack asked, not meeting Daniel's eyes. His question was casual, friendly, but it was long past the time when Jack could cover his feelings with a flippant line.
"Not a one," Daniel told him honestly.
Jack hummed in response, bent to pick up his clothes and hang them on the pegs by the door. Daniel knew this for the distraction it was, and that this was the only aspect of their new life that Jack struggled with. Daniel assured him in as many ways as he could that there was nothing he would change if he had the choice presented to him again. He loved his life here, loved the beauty of the landscape and the challenges of making a living from their environment. He cherished the freedom they shared that came with their distance from the closest trading centre and revelled in the intellectual stimulation of their adventures and the people they met. He had told Jack that that alone was enough, and the fact that he also had Jack in his life, in his bed and in his heart was simply a bonus. But still it played on Jack's mind, Daniel knew, and it probably always would.
Daniel had thought long and hard on how to assure Jack of his happiness, and it was natural for him to show his delight in their new circumstances from his own happy smiles and his enthusiastic engagement with their environment. It was less simple to remind Jack of how content Daniel was with his company; indeed, Daniel went out of his way to express this whenever the opportunity arose. And a little reinforcement might be just the thing to wipe the brooding look off Jack's face.
"Dinner shan't be ready for a while," Daniel said, as guilelessly as he could manage.
Jack shrugged, missing the point entirely. "I can wait, particularly if it is anything like last week's caribou surprise." He grinned slow and lazy, and raised an eyebrow, inviting Daniel's ire.
Daniel decided to oblige him, even if it hadn't been what he'd had in mind. "Well, you're welcome to take over all the cooking, but it's you who insists on this draconian equal division of labour." It was true; much as it pained him to admit it, Jack was the better cook. He seemed to have an innate sense for when to stop adding salt, when one herb would taste better than another, and how long to simmer dishes before they became inedible mush.
"Fair's fair, Daniel. Unless you wish to invite the saintly Molly out to take care of us here, it's just me, you and caribou stew."
"She'd soon have you straightened out; it would probably do you good," Daniel retorted acidly.
"Oh, I think you are doing an admirable job on that, sir," Jack smiled, "Why, I haven't held anyone up at gunpoint in a twelvemonth or more." He looped his arms around Daniel's waist, somehow inveigling his cold hands beneath the layers of Daniel's clothing. "It's all down to your impeccable example and your loving heart."
"Well, I'm sure you're right," Daniel huffed, trying not to sound breathless from the chill of Jack's fingers tracing patterns on his back.
Jack kissed the skin behind Daniel's ear, murmuring, "Although you did look convincing, not to say exceptionally fine, as a gentleman of the road."
"As I recall, that was not your opinion at the time," Daniel said rather stiffly, easily treading the path of a well-worn argument.
"I was simply taken unawares, Daniel."
"You called me an ass."
"I assure you, it was the shock." Jack tugged Daniel closer, blowing warm breaths against his neck and making the hairs on Daniel's arms stand up.
"And an imbecile."
"For which I have sincerely apologised and made amends. Although, if you feel I am in need of further penance..."
"Undoubtedly," Daniel replied, took Jack's head between his hands and kissed him, slow and sweet. He let Jack move them before the fire and followed him when he went to his knees.
Jack's lips were still cold, but his tongue was hot and certain, and Daniel chased its path as it flickered against his teeth, capturing it, stroking against it before losing it again. He pulled at Jack's sweater, getting it off one arm, but getting tangled by Jack's own attempts at undressing him. Jack cursed. Daniel laughed. It took them much longer than it should have, but eventually they lay curled together, skin to skin, soothing each other with lazy strokes and knowing touches.
"Are you cold?" Jack asked as he leaned over Daniel, pink faced and solicitous as he moved to cover Daniel with his own body warmth.
Daniel thought about it for a moment, and if he were honest then the chill did seep through the hide rugs on the floor, and although his left half was warm and tingling from the fire, his right side was equally as prickled with cold. But the sensations were insignificant against the drag of Jack's body on his, the feelings of contentment and happiness he'd known with this man. In this little wooden house that they'd repaired with their own hands, that stood among the trees on a low hill above a river with mountains on three sides, on the other side of the world from all he'd ever known or imagined, Daniel had found a warmth he'd never thought to experience.
"No, not at all," he said simply, and noticed the first heavy flakes begin to fall outside the window. But then Jack kissed him again and began to trace chilly fingertips slowly down the line of hairs on his stomach, and the snow slipped Daniel's mind completely.