The canopy of trees was thick, and afforded no real direct sunlight. The two sentries at the guardhouse didn't mind this duty very much. The day never got really hot, and they received their orders twice a day and one change of guards at sunset, and sunrise every day. And they came like clockwork. The only real excitement came once a month when King Antoine's tribute came through the gate. It always arrived at the same time, in a great big coach with five guards, not including the driver.
At the guard post the tribute was taken, in plain sight of all present, from the coach. The strongbox was opened to certify that all the money was in the container. Then it was handed over the border, and placed in a big metal box. A latch was closed on the box then the box was taken aboard another coach, the one with the Blackpool crest on the door.
This ritual was performed. Then all those present who witnessed the transfer signed a parchment certifying that the money was passed. Then, the coach from King Nation waited while the Blackpool's coach vanished down the road. Then, the drivers and the guards went back to where they came. This finished the transfer for another month.
The most excitement came when one month, the strongbox broke open and spilled the money all over the road. Every penny had to be accounted for or it would be the head of the entire squad. Fortunately, it was all recovered.
This month, the duty was not any different. The two guards paced back and forth in front of the tall striped guardhouse. Then they stiffened as they heard the horse's hooves, and the rattling of the massive carriage. They stood at attention, their spears at their sides, and watched the coach get larger as it approached. There were five riders on horseback accompanying the coach. Their bridle and saddles made a very noisy racket.
One sentry raised his hand. "Halt! In the name of Prince Blackpool!" he shouted. The carriage came to a noisy stop.
The driver was annoyed at this greeting. It was ritual with them, but totally unnecessary, as they knew him well, even recognized his uniform well before they knew it was him.
The Riders dismounted just as the Blackpool's carriage arrived. It had the same five riders with it. The drivers waved at each other, smiling.
The riders saluted each other, and the order was given. The door was opened, and the strongbox was removed. The latch was undone, and the lid flipped open. Inside were two bags of gold, five bags of silver, and three bags of gems, the usual. The guards all stood around, nodding in agreement. The parchment was signed, the money loaded inside the metal box, then placed aboard the big black carriage. The men saluted each other, then the big black carriage turned away from the guard post and returned down the tree-lined road. The driver of King Antione's carriage looked down at the two sentries. "Know what?" he said.
The two guards looked up at him. They both slowly shook their heads.
"They don't pay you enough for this."
They both smiled as the horsemen mounted their steeds. Then the entire set turned, and went back down the road from which they came. In a moment, the guardhouse was quiet, save the sound of the birds in the canopy above, and the wind whistling through the leaves.
The two guards looked at each other. One signed. "He's right, you know."
The big wagon was turned sideways in the road. Its load was very heavy. Tyler had managed to break off the wheel, and the entire set was leaning heavily to port. It threatened to spill its load of horse manure all over the road. The wheel was lodged under the cart, and from all appearances, the cart was stranded in the very center of the road. Farther down the road were two big Clydesdale's grazing on the grass on the wayside. Tyler had just thrown a tankard of water over himself. He watched as the Big Black carriage, and its five-man entourage approached the scene. He looked as if he had been trying to fix the wagon.
About fifteen feet above him in the massive arm of a big camphor tree sat Coulter, Usagi, and a 25-foot coil of rope. Accompanying them was a burlap bag. They too, watched the carriage approach the scene below.
Coulter was in a black cape. His hat was pulled down over his eyes. Usagi was in a black garment that fit her almost skin-tight. Her ears were tucked away, and her eyes looked out of one small slit in the hood. Her entire face was concealed.
Below them, the carriage arrived, and the plan went into action.
"Ho Good Men! You have arrived just in time!" Tyler extended his arms and smiled broadly.
"What is your problem here old man?" asked the captain of the guard.
"Well, I suppose I have myself to blame. I did not fasten this wheel securely enough, and it came off. Wouldn't you think it would happen when I was hauling this vile load."
"Well, hurry and clear it off the road. We are on the Prince's business."
Tyler laughed quietly and took a step towards them. "Well, I have been trying that very thing, but I would have to unload the wagon, and I did not bring a shovel. However, I do believe that six strong backs would succeed where my lone efforts would be doomed to failure through this entire night."
"We cannot. We are on the Prince's business."
"Then good sir . . . " Tyler smiled. " . . . we will be here for quite some time, will we not?"
Three minutes later, Six men had tied their horses to the carriage, and they all lined up next to the cart, and were lifting it. Tyler was working slowly reconnecting the wheel.
Behind them, Usagi was being gently lowered on the end of a rope to the top of the carriage. Once she was there, she hopped down off the side, and entered the vehicle.
She then took a small pry bar from her belt and popped the lock off in one smooth move. The metal box came open, and the strongbox within gave her no trouble as well. She then unhooked the rope from her waste, and gave it a gentle tug. The rope disappeared out the window. She turned to the box, and one by one, she tied a string to each bag, looped it, and set it by the window. She glanced out at the repair crew.
Tyler was bumbling with a greasy cotter pin, and was tolerating curses from the captain.
Usagi tied the little sacks to her belt just as the burlap sack appeared in the window. She took the sack, and placed it in the strongbox, then closed the lid on it, then secured it in the steel box. She then caught an odor. She smelled her hands. "Yuckk!" she whispered. She tugged on the rope, and Coulter pulled her up into the tree. As he pulled her into the canopy, Usagi climbed the rope, and in a little under five minutes, the deed had been done.
Coulter and Usagi watched as Tyler finally fixed the wheel. He laughed out loud and patted the captain on the shoulder. "Thank you my friends. I will be home now to have that fine roast my wife is making for me!"
The captain looked down at the greasy handprint on his immaculate uniform. "Go to blazes you old goat." He turned to his men. " Come on." He shouted.
Tyler watched the men mount up. He waved and smiled as they went on their way.
"Coulter." Usagi nudged him.
"What was in that sack?"
"The same thing that is in that cart." Coulter grunted.
"Oh . . . " she whispered.
Anna sat behind the counter counting the day's receipts. Outside the moon was full and it's azure light bathed everything in it's soft glow. Inside the bar, the chairs were upside down on the tables, the floors were drying from having been mopped, and the fire was going out.
She finished counting the money, wrote down the figure, then added it up.
'Not bad for a Wednesday night' she thought to herself. She took the money, placed it in a leather bag, and stood up, stretching and reaching for the ceiling. She bent over and was about to blow out the candle when she heard a tapping at the door. She looked up and saw Usagi's silhouette at the window. "Anna, Let me in." she heard the familiar voice.
Anna picked up the candle and went to the door. She threw the bolt, and Usagi entered the room. She went straight through the room and stopped at the door leading to the back room. She turned and looked at Anna, who stood there looking back at her. "Thank you Coulter" Usagi said. "I get my pay tomorrow?"
Anna jumped at the sound of Coulter's voice. Of course little friend, First thing."
"Good night Anna." Usagi said, and she turned and disappeared through the door.
Anna looked at Coulter's frame as he stood in the doorway. "You startled me." She said to him.
Coulter removed his hat and stepped into the room. "I have to ask something of you."
"Well come in. What can I do for you?"
"I can't stay. I have to get back." Coulter opened his cloak and produced a big velvet bag. It looked heavy. He set it down on the floor. "Please disperse this where it will do some good." He whispered. He then turned on one heel, and disappeared into the moonlight.
Anna watched him as he disappeared into the shadows. She looked down at the bag on the floor. Closing the door, she reached down to pick up the bag. It was very heavy indeed. Anna hoisted the bag onto her hip, then took it to the counter. She opened it, and spilled the contents out onto the top.
Inside were two bags of gold, five bags of silver, and three bags of gems. Anna recognized the embroidery on the sacks. It was the royal crest of King Antoine.
Anna gazed at the money on the counter. Her mind began to race. Had Coulter robbed her husband's coffers? Why did he give it to her? What was on his mind . . . ?
Then she remembered. It was the first of the month. Antoine had paid Dirk Blackpool's money for leasing the lands today. She saw the captain assembling the men for the delivery.
Then she realized what had happened. Coulter had robbed Dirk. Oh for the love of God, what was he getting into here? She smiled. "That sneaky . . . " she whispered. She took the money sacks and put them back in the bag. Then she went into the back room, locked the door, then placed the money under her bed.
Tomorrow, she knew what she had to do. She knew of three families that could use a little extra cash.
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