An homage to Lorena McKinnet’s version of the song.
Jumping at the loud report of the barn door slamming against the wall, Bess looked up from her work, pitchfork of dirty straw paused in mid throw.
“Where is she?” her father demanded. “I know she’s here!”
With a grimace, Bess tossed the straw onto the pile in the center of the stabling area. Planting the fork, tines down, on the floor, she wiped a wisp of black hair from her forehead. “Where’s who?”
“Don’t play games with me, girl,” the man growled. Stepping closer, his eyes darted about the interior. “Amos said he saw her horse not a mile from here. And everyone knows if she’s near, she’s with you.”
Bess waved at her surroundings with an exasperated sigh. “Apparently everyone knows wrong, Papa. D’ye think I’d be mucking out stables if Brigid were here?”
He eyed her with no little suspicion. “Aye, I’ve heard that particular tale before only to find the hussy stealing kisses.”
Gasping in outrage, Bess threw the pitchfork down. “She is not a hussy!”
“Aye, she is!” her father bellowed, overriding her indignation. “And a robber to boot. If she keeps loiterin’ about here, she’ll bring us all to ruin!”
“No, Bess!” Her father held up a warning finger. “Mind me now. If Brigid comes sniffing around, turn her away.”
Black eyes snapped petulantly. “Brigid isn’t a robber, Papa. She only takes what the king steals.”
The man rolled his eyes. “Taxes that we pay in gold,” he reminded her. “And when it’s gone into her pocket, the King’s men march through and take even more to make up the difference.” Seeing he wasn’t getting through, he threw up his hands in disgust and turned away. “Blast it, Bess! There’s a pretty price on her head and lots of folks hereabouts could use the gold.” Whirling around, he pointed at his daughter. “Especially seeing as she causes our troubles to begin with!”
Bess ground her teeth and looked away.
Cursing, her father spat on the ground. “Gods be damned, you’re as stubborn as your mother…”
“God rest her soul,” the young woman echoed.
“If you see Brigid McGoshen, you steer clear,” he ordered. “If I think for an instant you’re disobeying me, I’ll have you wed to Jendy the cobbler before the end of the week.”
Bess gasped at the threat, opening her mouth to argue. Seeing her father’s expression, she thought better of it and closed it with an audible click.
Nodding at her decision, the man scanned the interior once more before stalking away.
Long moments passed before Bess went to the door. Seeing her father enter the inn, she stepped outside and drew it closed. With a sigh, she regarded the loft. “He’s gone.”
A head popped up from behind a pile of hay. Straw festooned auburn hair and dark brown eyes twinkled. “Will I be invited to the nuptials, ye think?” Brigid asked.
Snorting, Bess watched her lover swing down the ladder and drop lightly to her feet. “Not bloody likely,” she swore. “Jendy bathes once a year if that. I’ll not wed a pig.”
“Ah, now don’t insult pigs, lass. They’re much cleaner than the cobbler,” Brigid laughed. She dusted hay from her clothes, brushing at the velvet coat and doeskin pants. Her arms were suddenly full of woman and she hugged the dark haired beauty.
“Papa is serious,” Bess said, snuggling close to gain strength from the woman who held her. “I don’t know how much longer things can remain, love. Sooner or later, you’ll be caught or I’ll be sold to the highest bidder as a brood mare.”
“Then we’ll have to see that doesn’t happen,” Brigid assured her, stroking her lover’s back.
Bess sighed, relaxing. “And how are we to do that?” she asked, voice muffled. “You’re wanted, an outlaw with a price on your head. We’ll never have anything together as long as you follow your wild ways.”
“And here I thought you liked my ‘wild ways’,” the redhead insisted. Her attempt at levity fell flat and she tightened her hold. “Just once more, my bonny Bess. After tonight I’ll have more than enough to book passage for both of us to France with plenty leftover to buy land.”
Encouraged, Bess pulled back to look into deep brown eyes. “Truly?”
Brigid smiled. ”Truly.” She bent close and kissed the brunette. “But I’d best leave now if Amos is flapping his gums.”
Bess tightened her hold. “When will I see you again?”
“If all goes well, I’ll be back at daybreak.” Brigid shrugged. “If poorly, I’ll lead them on a merry chase. Look for me when the moon is high. We’ll elope like in those stories you’re always reciting.”
They kissed again, pouring all their love and devotion into it to stave off the loneliness of their separation. Voices in the dooryard caught their attention and they broke away.
Brigid winked and smiled, the promise of forever on her lips as she eased to the rear of the barn and disappeared through a shuttered window.
Sighing, Bess picked up the pitchfork and set to work. The night would be long; best wear herself out so she could sleep.
In the wee hours, Bess lay awake on her narrow bed, fully dressed and a bundle on the floor beneath the window, ears alert for the sound of hooves that did not come. Dawn arrived with no sign. Downstairs, she could hear her father stomping about and knew that it was past time for her to be up as well. With a worried sigh, she rose and made her bed, stashing her belongings underneath.
The day was long and harsh, despite an unusual warmth for early fall. Bess continued to ponder her lover’s safety. Obviously things had gone poorly. Nothing short of the Gates of Hell would stop Brigid from keeping her promise and even that would merely slow her. Visions of auburn hair darkened with blood filled the woman’s mind as she went about her daily chores.
Throughout the day, rumor came in with travelers that a highwayman had been killed the previous night. Others said the robber hadn’t been killed but had escaped, riding hard westward. In either case, the area was awash with redcoats. It remained to be seen whether they were searching for the perpetrator or simply ensuring there were no accomplices.
Late in the afternoon, a troop of men marched up the road, led by an officer on horseback. Bess swallowed her fear, ignoring the pointed glare from her father as she went outside to take the horse for stabling.
“Well, what have we here?” the officer asked, sliding off his saddle. He handed the reins to the dark woman, grabbing her wrist and looking her over with a proprietary gaze. “You wouldn’t happen to be Bess, would you?”
Heart thumping, Bess nodded. “Aye, captain. My father owns the inn.”
He leered at her, raising an eyebrow. “Rumor has it that you prefer a certain redhead to masculine company.”
The brunette twisted hard, pulling her wrist free and rubbing at the soreness. “I don’t know what you’re talking about,” she said, voice shaking. “Will you want stabling for your horse or no?”
The officer’s pleased grin grew wider and he winked. “I think we’ll be staying a bit, yes.” Turning to the troop, he called, “Fall out! Get yourselves inside and have an ale or two. We’ll wait here.”
Obviously happy with this turn of events, the two dozen soldiers chattered back and forth as they stepped out of formation, most heading for the old inn door. Three remained outside, preparing and lighting pipes, lounging on a bench.
Under the captain’s watchful eye, Bess took the horse to the barn, fighting the urge to bolt. Once inside, she led the animal to a stall and sagged against a post. Brigid had done it now. What with the plentiful reward for turning her in, someone let their friendship be known.
Good Lord. What will happen if she returns before they leave?
The soldiers stayed for hours as afternoon sunlight gave way to darkness. They drank ale by the keg it seemed, getting more and more rowdy with each empty tankard. Following their captain’s lead, they teased Bess incessantly, taunting her with rude remarks about the woman they were looking for, discussing loudly what Brigid was like in bed and whether or not a man could tame her. Through it all, the dark woman remained silent, hoping to keep them appeased by her passive manner long enough to slip away after bedtime.
Such was not to be the case, however, when her father made mention that it was time for his doors to close.
“I think not,” the captain said, waving a negligent hand. “We’ve business with your daughter and mean to see it through.”
“Bess is a good girl,” the innkeeper insisted, face reddening. “You’ll leave her be!”
Raising an eyebrow, the captain smirked. “Aye, I’m sure she’s good. It’s her friend that’s better. Lock up and bank the fire, keep. Your daughter and three of my men will be going upstairs.”
Unable to argue with two dozen muskets, the innkeeper bit back his reply and did as he was told. His eyes, fearful and angry, glared at his daughter, daring her to contradict his earlier statement about her friend’s ability to cause them trouble.
The captain ordered several men outside to watch the area. With mocking chivalry, he offered his arm to Bess, laughing when she refused and stalked up the stairs. He and his men followed.
Terrified of what was coming, the dark woman nevertheless kept her chin held high as she entered her room. It was even tinier with three soldiers and the captain inside and it took everything she had to not be cowed by their presence.
“Aye, this will work well,” the captain said, opening the shutters to her window and looking out at the moonlit road. “Very well, indeed.”
With quick words, he ordered her gagged and tied standing to the foot of her bed. On a lark, he placed a pistol along her side, aimed just under her right breast, lashing it to the bedpost, as well. His men took up places near the window, muskets primed and ready. When all was finished, he smiled with satisfaction before dousing the candle and leaving the room.
Hours passed in the darkness, the men hardly whispering to one another as they took turns at watch. Through it all, Bess stood tall, praying her lover wouldn’t return this night. Perhaps, if they were unsuccessful, the soldiers would move on come morning.
In the meanwhile, she struggled quietly with her bonds, attempting to free herself to no avail. The rough rope abraded her skin, cutting through as she twisted, the blood serving to ease her movement with its lubrication. Bess continued through the pain, glad of the gag that kept her from crying out. Unable to free herself, she was at least able to move closer to the pistol until eventually, her finger lay on the trigger.
The moon was high when the sound of striking hooves came up the road. A sob welled up in Bess’ throat, knowing that only one person would be out at this hour. Swallowing hard against the knot in her throat, she stared hard at the soldiers, wondering why none of them heard.
As the sound grew louder, one cursed quietly and elbowed his mate. Soon all three were awake and ready, one peering from a corner of the sill as he watched the road for movement.
By now, all the soldiers had heard Brigid’s approach, those inside as well as out. She would ride right into their trap, expecting her love to be waiting with open arms. Her blood would spill on the road, shining in the moonlight.
Bess couldn’t have that.
Drawing her last breath, the woman closed her dark eyes and pressed the trigger.
The pistol cracked, deafening in the small room and loud outside the inn. Hearing the report, Brigid pulled up her horse and spun around, assuming someone was shooting at her. It had been hell evading the King’s troops; they were everywhere between here and Dunbury. She wasn’t surprised at an ambush set in the village of her birth. Her elopement would have to wait until things died down.
As blood pumped from the wound in her chest, Bess heard her lover’s horse riding away and smiled. “I love you, Brigid,” she whispered.
Morning dawned cold and clear. Brigid pulled her cloak away and stretched. She had spent the night in a copse of bushes a mile from the inn. What little pursuit came was easily put off but she didn’t want to get far from Bess. She’d made a promise and intended to keep it. Her saddlebags were full of gold and there was a ship waiting on the coast.
Climbing from her makeshift bed of leaves, she took care of her personal call before straightening her clothes. Undoing her braid, Brigid ran a brush through her hair and redid it, tying it with a leather thong. She stared at the distant road in thought.
A short time later, she was on her horse, riding for the village. She stayed off the road and kept her eye open for more redcoats, not wanting to get caught so close to realizing her goals. Looking for news, she guided her mount toward her uncle’s cottage, circling once to be sure it was safe before approaching.
“Brigid! Is that you?” her uncle asked as he set down the axe he’d been using to chop wood. “We’d thought you’d be long gone by now!”
Puzzled, the redhead smiled. “Not likely, uncle. I’ve yet to collect my most precious treasure from the village.”
He raised a grizzled hand in warning. “Don’t go there, Brigid! There’s naught but death. A troop of redcoats has been there since yesterday and I’ve heard they killed the innkeeper’s daughter.”
Brigid felt the air leave her lungs as surely as she’d been punched in the gut. “W… what?” she demanded, grabbing her saddle horn for balance.
“The innkeeper’s daughter, Bess. She was shot last night. The smithy’s son just came with the news.”
Remembering the shot that warned her, Brigid swallowed hard against a stomach gone sour. She couldn’t catch her breath and knew she was going to throw up. Sliding off her horse, she stumbled a few feet away and proceeded to do so.
Bess was dead. The shot was she. She’d found a way to warn her lover of danger and it killed her. Brigid had killed her.
“Brigid?” her uncle asked gently. “I know you were good friends with Bess, but you need to get out of here. The troop is still there and word has it they mean to kill you.”
Wiping her mouth, the redhead stood, eyes flashing in anger and recrimination.
Her uncle stepped back, mouth forming an ‘o’ of surprise at her fury.
“Do you have a musket?”
The captain sighed in frustration. They’d all but had the highwayman in their grasp only to have her spooked by that bitch of a girl. It was a good thing she was already dead; it saved her from any further torment he might have devised as punishment.
By now word was out of her death. Chances were good Brigid would hightail it away since there was nothing keeping her here. Cursing, the captain ignored the dead woman laid on one of the tables with her weeping father at her side. He stalked out to his men in the dooryard.
“Form up!” he barked. As his men fell to, he frowned in thought, wondering where to begin his search.
The noise of the troop gathering hid approaching hoof beats. As the two dozen men stood at attention, a lone horse and rider came around the bend in the road and bore down upon them. Thinking nothing of it, the captain prepared to give the order to march.
He almost felt the shot before hearing it, his mouth open to yell at his men. Vaguely surprised, he saw a soldier’s face disintegrate and another fall before they scattered, grabbing at their muskets. Looking down he saw a spot of blood on his jacket and wondered how the girl had bled on him when he’d been downstairs the night before.
Weakness assailed him and he fell to his knees, feeling the ground thunder as hooves came closer. Musket fire echoed eerily in his ears, fading in and out as smoke belched from his soldiers’ barrels. He finally realized he’d been shot and slid sideways, crumpling to the ground. Looking up, his last sight was a redheaded demon bearing down with sword flashing.
There was no way Brigid could kill them all. She knew that. But she was going to kill as many of the murdering bastards as she could before dying. Her uncle’s musket and three pistols took out three of the redcoats to include the captain who’d ordered her dear heart dead. Pushing her horse forward, she was able to trample two more and behead another.
She didn’t know how many times she’d been hit. It seemed she ached everywhere, blood pouring from her stomach and arm and shoulder. A musket ball grazed her cheek and she felt the warm trickle of blood soaking into her collar as she raised her sword once more. But her arm was weak and she could barely hold it up.
Slumping in her saddle, Brigid tasted blood on her lips. “Bess, I’m coming.”
She didn’t feel the jolt when she landed on the ground nor hear the continuing musket fire. Brown eyes wide, she saw the inn door slowly open and her lover step out, dressed in her Sunday best with her black hair loose about her shoulders.
Bess smiled in welcome. “I love you, Brigid,” she whispered.