care of the first, and his fists the second, he reiterated mentally, preparing himself for that sequence of events.
He only regretted that while he had had the chance he hadn't thought to instruct Annie to get through the opposite door as soon as they made their move. Maybe she would be wise enough, or frightened enough, to do that anyway.
"Thank you for your kind offer," he said aloud, those decisions having been reached in a matter of seconds, "but I'm afraid it is quite beyond repair. I've sent for another coach."
"From the inn?"
The man behind spoke for the first time, drawing Ian's attention to him again. There had been some nuance of amusement in that question, and Ian hesitated, wondering what these two knew about the inn. Obviously, if they even knew it's location, they knew more than he did.
"From a friend's house," Ian lied. "He lives only a short distance away."
"And what be your friend's name?" Torchbearer probed.
"I can't see how that could possibly be of any concern to you," Ian said, injecting into his tone the freezing censure he had heard often in the voice of his father, the late Earl.
"Don't want her ladyship to get cold, now, do we?" The man's eyes slid past Ian to examine the girl he sheltered behind him.
"Then i suggest you close the door and be on your way," Ian said. "Our friends will be arriving at any time."
"Nobody on the road," the man denied. "Maybe you ain't telling the truth about what's going on. Maybe you be carrying this young lady off from the loving bosom of her family. Maybe a little rescuing is in order 'ere.
And I'm just the man to be doing it," the nearer of the two boasted.
He started forward and Ian raised the pistol, both gloved hands wrapped around it, holding it steady, his finger on the trigger. He pointed the weapon directly at the man's midsection, and the sight of it stopped his motion. Ian was thankful to see that the barrel didn't waver, despite the cold.
"We don't need you here," Ian said. "I suggest the two of you remount and go about your business."
"No call for the popper," the man said, taking a step backwards, away from the muzzle of the pistol. Some of Ian's tension eased at his retreat. "We was just trying to help."
"We don't need your help. Be on your way. Both of you."
The man's eyes locked on his, holding there for perhaps half a minute. He was obviously trying to gauge Ian's strength of purpose. Or his courage.
Ian resisted the urge to let his finger tighten around the trigger. Unfamiliar with the mechanism, he had no way of judging at what point it would discharge. Actually, he acknowledged, he had no way of knowing it would discharge at all. He blocked that possibility from his mind and concentrated instead on convincing the villain before him of his willingness to shoot.
"They had a fire at the inn," the man said unexpectedly. "Could be a long time 'afore your servants get back."
"I told you they have gone to borrow a coach from a friend."
There was a sound from the other one, a noise suspiciously like the snort of amusement that had come from the groom when Annie had slammed the door. And suddenly, with that sound, everything fell into place.
These two, typical of those who frequented the public rooms of the scattered country inns, had probably overhead John or the groom asking about a carriage for hire.
Obviously that request had been denied due to the unsettling effects of the fire or perhaps even because it had been the livery stable itself which had burned.
In any case, these scavengers must have heard enough to work out the location of the stranded travellers on whose behalf his servants were enquiring. Or they had heard enough to know in what direction to search for the disabled coach. Then they had hurried here on horseback, beating the rescue team.
It was quite possibly that they loitered at the posting inns, hoping for just such a situation. Ian Wondered how many travellers had fallen prey to their schemes.
"We'll be on our way then," the man with the torch said. "Since you won't be needing our services."
His eyes again shifted to Annie. He smiled at her, revealing the blackened hole of a missing front tooth, before he stepped back, lowering the torch. He began walking towards the horses and his companion, the wavering light he carried revealing both as Ian watched from the still-opened door of the carriage.
Just before he reached his mount, the leader threw the torch into the side of the roadbed. The flaming arc it made through the night drew Ian's eyes. Unconsciously they followed it's flight and landing. The fire sputtered and sizzled a moment in the snow before it went out, plunging the area into darkness.
Ian's gaze refocused quickly on the place where the two men had been standing just before the scene had faded into the surrounding black. As he waited for his vision to adjust, he strained to keep track, by sound alone, of what they were doing.
How will Ian defeat these two annoying humans?
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