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WELFORD MILLS, 1833
Guiding his horse to the top of a grassy knoll, young Lord James Ellerby toured Hardwick Manor and its grounds. The baron hadn’t gone far when he heard the scraping of wheels against stone, and he jerked around to witness a curricle emerge from the stable yard in a rush.
Walter, James’ younger brother, stood on the flimsy bouncing floorboard of a carriage, urging his horses from a trot to a run as he dashed pell-mell toward the manor’s gate. Walter wasn’t thinking of his safety or oncoming traffic. His friend Henry Thompson clung to the side rail, looking anything but confident.
“Walter, stop!” James yelled, though he was certain the noise of the racing curricle prevented his words from carrying to the fourteen-year-old boys. James’ heart pounded as he watched, fearing dire consequences. Had Walter learned nothing from their father’s accident and death a year ago?
Then James heard the jiggling equipage and thundering hooves of an approaching coach coming down the London road. He turned to stare down the hill at the large vehicle as it sped toward the Torrin Bridge—and Walter’s emerging lightweight carriage.
James shouted again, but to no avail. He was too far away.
As Walter’s carriage and the lumbering coach disappeared behind the trees, a great cacophony of crashes and screams rent the air. Heeling Tetley to a gallop, James’ heart pounded in double time. Within moments, he jerked to a stop in front of the bridge.
The road was empty, though the wind was filled with the high-pitched terror of the horses. Snippets of foul memories flashed through James’ mind. He saw the ruined body of his father in the wreckage of a different accident, his neck bent at an impossible angle.
In near panic, James called again. “Walter! Henry?” Guiding Tetley to the edge of the road, he looked down into the gully.
Walter’s curricle sat to the left of the bridge at an awkward angle, but still on its wheels. The boys were wide-eyed and motionless on the bench, but otherwise appeared unharmed. The horses stood at the edge of the river. The shrill sounds of their distress abated as Henry crooned soothing words of comfort from his seat.
Walter looked up, meeting James’ gaze. The color slowly drained from his brother’s face and he swallowed convulsively. “I … umm … I…”
James exhaled a tortured breath and then huffed in relief. He wanted to shout at, pummel, and hug his brother all at the same time. Instead, he turned Tetley to the opposite, considerably steeper, bank of the Torrin.
The momentum of the near collision had propelled the larger carriage down the slope on an angle. It had almost overturned and now hung precariously. Mire covered the doors. The coach’s horses were knee-deep in water, but other than being spooked, looked fine.
And then, James saw a figure on the ground—a very still figure. His stomach clenched and he jumped from Tetley, scrambling and slipping down the muddy slope in his haste.
A young woman lay on her back in the shallows of the river. Her face was pale, and long strands of brown hair floated beside her. James’ view was partially obstructed by two squatting men at her side. One was only visible from the back. His great coat dropped from his broad shoulders to blanket the mud. The other man had a smudge of blood smeared across his cheek; his face was unremarkable except for a scar on his chin.
As he stepped forward, James’ path was suddenly blocked by the coachman. The man’s pockmarked face was flushed with anger, and his black-and-gray peppered head jerked in agitation.
“Is she all right?” James asked, indicating the figure in the water.
The coachman stared past James to where Walter and Henry watched from the roadside. His eyes narrowed. “Not to worry, sir. Her’ll be right as rain in a tick.” His harsh tone contrasted sharply with the reassuring words; he didn’t even look toward the unconscious young woman. It left James unconvinced. “I needs ’elp rightin’ me coach,” the man said. “The sooner we gets this here coach of mine up, the sooner I can gets her to a doctor.”
Glancing at the figures by the water, James frowned and then nodded. “Time is of the essence.” He turned back to his brother and his friend. “Get down here!” he shouted, trying to instill authority in his tone. He pointed to the far end of the coach deeply embedded in the mud. “When I say so, push. And push hard!”
It was no surprise that Henry was the first to move, rushing through the mire, though Walter joined him quickly enough.
“Hitch your horses to the back,” James told the coachman. A lord expected compliance, even if he was only twenty years old and newly endowed with authority. “And get her out of the water!” he shouted to the men by the river.
At first, the men showed no signs of hearing. Then, without rising, one leaned over and slowly pulled her closer to the shore, into the mud.
“Are you sure she is all right?” James asked again. The words almost stuck in his throat. Memories of his father’s broken body churned his mind yet again.
“A’ course, sir,” one of the passengers said. His cheek was red and bruised.
“Who is she?”
“Don’t know.” The man stood. “She got on at the Ivy in Ellingham. Didn’t exactly introduce herself.” He turned to the coachman. “Hurry up, man.”
The coachman bristled. He had already unhitched the horses and rigged a line to the back of the coach. “You could always get your arses up here an’ ’elp!”
The bruised man looked at the coachman with something akin to disgust, though he did take a position opposite to James, behind the coach door. The other man stayed by the water, nominally watching over the injured young woman.
James anchored his hands and shoved his shoulder against the filthy coach. His face was so close to the wood that he could almost taste the paint. Sweat trickled down his nose. He took a deep breath as much from disquiet as to prepare for the weight of the large coach. He shouted and the four men pushed while the coachman bellowed and pulled at his horses.
The coach was old and top-heavy; bandboxes and trunks clung to the back, adding to the burden. The horses, nervous and fatigued, were almost at their limit. Then James felt a budge, a slight movement upward. James strained further and yelled to the others to push harder until, at last, the coach defied gravity and came to a standstill on the crest of the road.
Leaning over, hands resting on his knees, James gulped at the air, trying to regulate his breathing. Suddenly, the road was a hive of activity as half a dozen field hands converged on them.
“You needs ’elp, Lord Ellerby?”
“Yes, Sam.” James nodded as he straightened. “Could you get the team hitched? They need to get to a doctor.”
Copyright © 2019 by Cynthia Ann Anstey