Ben Stokes knelt to pick up another
peice of firewood. Nearby, his little cottage stood waiting.
Joshua Collins had given him title to this little section of land
a year ago, soon after that terrible winter.
"Ben. Ben Stokes." He looked up, peering into the dense woods, searching for the owner of that voice.
"Wh-who's callin' me?" he asked hesitantly. For months he had heard Mr. Barnabas' voice in his mind, calling out to him. A rustle in the bushes brought the big man to his feet, his heart pounding out of control until he recognized the features of the man who emerged. "Peter Bradford? That you?"
"Yes, Ben. It's me." He looked tired and travel stained.
"What're ya doin' back here? I thought you and Miss Winters were goin' out west-"
"It's Mrs. Bradford now, Ben. And we did."
Ben shook his head. "Why'd ya come back? Where's Miss-I mean Mrs. Bradford?"
"She's still in the wagon out on the road. She was worried about Daniel-"
"He had a bad fever awhile back," Ben told him. "But he's better now. Better'n she'll be if someone sees her."
"I know, Ben," Peter acknowledged with a deep sigh. "But I didn't know what else to do. She was worrying herself sick."
"If she stays out on the road, someone's sure t'see her. Best bring her to the cottage and I'll fix some tea."
"Thank you, Ben. I'll be right back."
She was sitting huddled deeply
into her hooded cloak, trying to get warm. "It's alright,
Vicki," Peter assured her, climbing into the wagon beside
her. "Ben's there."
"Did you ask about Daniel?" she wanted to know as he set the wagon into motion, turning it toward the narrow path toward the cottage.
"He's fine. Just like I said he was. Ben's waiting for us."
"You're lookin' well,"
Ben told her as Peter lifted her from the wagon.
"I am," she assured him, entering the cottage ahead of him. "Ben, where is Barnabas? Peter tried to contact him, but -"
Ben turned quickly to pour the tea. "Uh, Mr. Barnabas left for England right after the two of you left."
Her pretty face became reflective. "Oh. Of course. I'd forgotten." She looked around the warm little room. "You seem to be doing well."
"The land's good," he told her. "And I've learned to read." He know that news would make her happy.
It did. She smiled widely. "That's wonderful, Ben. Did you teach yourself?"
He shook his head. "Mavis Beecham-she works up at Collinwood as a maid. She taught me."
Before Vicki could ask about the softness in Ben's eyes when he spoke the woman's name, Peter returned. "The horses are taken care of. Are you certain we're not putting you out, Ben?"
"Not atall," he assured them. "I'm glad for the company. Don't get much-'cept young Daniel on occassion."
Vicki looked up at him. "Would it be possible for me to see him, Ben?"
He rubbed his stubbled chin, uncertain. "I don't know. He still thinks you was hanged as the witch."
"All I want to do is see him. To know for myself that he's all right."
Peter knelt beside his wife's chair and placed a hand over hers. "If Ben doesn't think you should, Vicki-"
"I don't have to talk to him-" she began, only to stop when Peter put a finger to her lips.
"Look, you're tired. The trip was a long one. We can talk about it in the morning."
She looked at his concerned face, then nodded. "Very well. Good night, Ben," she said, standing and turning toward the door that Ben had pointed out led to the bed room. Vicki stopped and looked at Peter. "Aren't you coming to bed?"
"I'll be right in," he told her. "I just want to talk to Ben about something first." He waited until he was certain she couldn't hear his softly spoken words. "Do you really think she could be in danger, Ben?"
"There are a lot of people in the village who still believe she was the witch," Ben told him solemnly.
Peter's jaw tightened momentarily. "We'll be leaving tomorrow, then. I won't risk losing Vicki again."
Vicki awoke early, well before either Peter or Ben, and dressed quickly. Ben, sleeping on a cot in the front room, stirred when she opened the door, but his eyes never opened. Taking a deep breath, she set out along the path, carefully drawing the hood of her cloak forward to hide her face. Hopefully Daniel would be out on one of his early morning walks as well, she thought.
Upon finding Vicki gone, Peter woke Ben, then took the same path that she would have, sure she was in search of young Daniel Collins. The air was clear and very cold, but Peter never noticed in his worry that Vicki might be seen by a villager.
If he had known what was happening
farther up the path, his worry would have increased ten-fold.
Vicki stopped upon hearing a noise, pausing to look behind her.
The path was clear, and she took a deep breath of relief-only
to scream upon turning back around. Her path was blocked
by a tall, blonde man.
"Well. Hello there," he said, smiling.
"H-Hello," Vicki said, starting to turn away.
But he moved quickly to block her way again. Startled, Vicki looked up again, and her hood slipped. His blue eyes searched her features that were now only partially hidden by the hood. "You're
Victoria Winters, aren't you?"
"Victoria Winters. The townspeople thought she was a witch. I heard they hung her a year ago-but there were people who insisted that she wasn't destroyed. That she escaped."
"No, I'm not. You match the description too well."
He grabbed her arm to prevent her leaving. "I mean you no harm, miss. I don't believe you were the witch. I'm just curious about a person who helped you-Peter?"
Peter came up the path at a run, having heard Vicki's cry of alarm, and pulled Vicki from the man's grasp. "Leave her be, Hawkes."
The blue eyes flashed in anger. "Well, well. Peter Bradford. If I had known you had returned with the lady-"
"I thought you left Collinsport, Hawkes."
"I received word that a mutual friend of our had come to grief here. You do know that Danielle is dead, of course?"
"Yes. Yes, I heard. We have to be going," he told Vicki.
Hawkes remained where he was. "Where are you staying?"
"It doesn't matter. We won't be there much longer."
When they were away from the man
he'd called "Hawkes", Vicki stole a glance at Peter's
set expression. "Who is he?"
"His name is Jeb Hawkes. I knew him before I met you."
"He doesn't like you."
"No. He doesn't. And the feeling is mutual."
"What did he have to do with Danielle Roget?"
"He was a friend of Phillipe Cordiay. He believes that I helped Danielle kill Phillipe."
"Then-his seeing me could be a problem."
"A bad one," Peter agreed.
"I'm sorry, Peter," she said, hanging her head. "I've made a mess of things."
He drew her to his side. "It's all right," he said, trying to reassure her, fully aware that Vicki's life was in danger.
Ben was waiting for them at the
cottage, and stood in the doorway after ushering them inside,
watching in case someone had followed them. Finally he turned
to the couple, watching as Peter got a cup of water for Vicki.
"Are you all right, Mrs. Bradford?"
"I-I'm not sure, Ben," she said quietly.
Peter smoothed her dark hair. "She was seen, Ben. Did you know that Jebez Hawkes is back in Collinsport?"
Ben nodded. "He's a bad 'un. Came back a couple of months ago. Right after-" he hesitated, his eyes on Vicki.
"I know about Danielle, Ben," she told him.
"Well, Hawkes, he was upset that you weren't around. He still thinks you helped her kill Cordiay."
Peter looked at Vicki. "We'd better leave now, then."
"Not durin' the day," Ben insisted. "Best wait 'til dark. Not as much chance of bein' seen, then. You'll be safe here-" He pulled on his heavy wool coat.
Peter frowned. "Where are you going?"
"Into the village t'keep an eye on Hawkes. If he's the one who saw you, it'd give him pleasure to spread the news."
When Ben returned, it was dusk.
"I hitched up your horses," he told them, a sense of
urgency in his tone. "The wagon's waiting."
Vicki pulled her cloak around her as she and Peter moved toward the wagon. "Did you see Hawkes, Ben?" Peter asked.
"Not t'speak to," Ben told him. "But he was there. The villagers know she's back in the area."
"Then we'll leave now." He lifted Vicki into the wagon, then jumped up beside her. "Thank you, Ben."
"Will you be all right, Ben?" Vicki asked, concerned for his welfare even now.
"No way anyone'll ever know you were here," Ben assured her. "You don't be worrin' 'bout old Ben. You just take care and get away."
The wagon had only gone a few miles
when the sound of rapidly approaching horses reached Peter's ears.
Looking back, he could must make out the large group of riders,
some carrying torches.
Vicki, having turned herself, grasped his arm. "Peter!"
"I see them. Hold on," he warned, urging the horses into a gallop. It was a dangerous and foolhardy thing to do on the deeply rutted roadway, but Peter had no choice.
"They're gaining on us, Peter!" Vick cried, becoming more frightened by the moment.
Suddenly, without warning, the wagon jolted to a stop, leaning at a sharp angle, the wheel spokes broken. "We'll have to make a run for it, Vicki," he told her.
"We can't," she said, near tears.
"We have to," Peter insisted, half carrying her to the nearest path into the woods. "Let's go."
Vicki could hear the angry voices
of their pursuers, and ran as hard as she could until Peter pushed
her down beside a tree. "If we become separated, go
to the Old House and wait for me." His eyes were on
the path behind them.
"Why would we become separated?" she asked.
"I'm going to try and lead them away from you, then circle back.
"No, Peter," Vicki insisted, shaking her head. "We go together or not at all."
Peter started to argue, then heard the men again-closer this time. "Then let's go."
The number of men was fewer than
it had been on the road, Peter thought, catching sight of the
group. As he and Vicki neared Widows' Hill, he realized
why. From the other side of the hill, he could see the other
half of the group.
"Peter!" Vicki said, grabbing his coat sleeve. "We're trapped!"
He started to turn and comfort her, but was grabbed roughly away from her side by the man who had taken his place as jailer. "Let me go!" he insisted.
"Once the witch is truly dead," someone said.
"She's not a witch!" Peter exclaimed.
"She must be. Only a witch could be alive after being hanged-after finding some poor soul to take her place."
"I wasn't sure before that she was guilty," another man declared, "But I am now."
"Please," Vicki cried, "Let us go. We'll leave-"
"Witches have to be destroyed," the jailer said.
Peter ceased his struggle to free himself. "What are you going to do to her?"
"There's only one sure way to destroy a witch," the man said, taking a torch and stepping toward a terrified Vicki, "And that's to burn her."
"No!" Vicki cried, shaking her head and backing away as Peter began to struggle even harder than before. "Run, Vicki!" Peter yelled. "Run!"
She tried, but found her way blocked by a semi-circle of men, all wielding torches. One touched the flame to the hem of her dress, setting it on fire. Vicki screamed, and turned in the only direction left open to her. She was so close to the edge of the cliff, she thought. It would be better to die that way than to burn to death. She refused to look at Peter as she took a step and disappeared over the edge toward the jagged rocks below . . .
screamed, suddenly finding himself free as the men's hands fell
from his arms. He ran to the edge of the cliff, looked down
at the rock strewn water, knowing that she was gone. He
turned back to the men. "Murderers! You're all
murderers!" he caught a glimpse of a tall, blonde man
near the back of the crowd. "Hawkes!"
Jebez stepped forward. "If I were you, Bradford, I'd leave Collinsport. Now."
"Not yet," Peter said, shaking his head. "I have some unfinished business." Without any warning, Peter grabbed Jebez' arm, swinging him around and over the cliff, quickly releasing his hold. Jebez fell,clawing desparately at the crumbling ground and then he was gone.
The jailer grabbed Peter again. "Should've hung you for murder a year ago. You'll be stretchin' that rope for certain now."
Peter closed his eyes and allowed himself to be led away from Widows' Hill. Without Vicki, he no longer cared to live . At least he had finished Hawkes. He wouldn't mind going to the gallows with that knowledge. Jebez Hawkes would never trouble anyone ever again.