The Man with Downcast Eyes
Harry was a sweet boy. His smile was like a warm, sunlit morning at the break of winter.
And yet somehow he ran with the bad men, as the under-runner of the Eastern ruffians.
He’d never gotten drunk but once, and then he was so thoroughly overwhelmed by the experience that he swore off drinking altogether. He was no good at cards either: his honest face always betrayed him.
Despite these disqualifications, Harry owned his role with the ruffians. He cooked for them, ran their little errands, and covered for their games. That was what he called it anyways, when they would go out and raid a farm or kidnap a horse.
“Any luck last night, Osvald?”
Osvald walked into camp and threw his satchel on the ground. Harry smiled with closed lips and continued stirring the brown stew. Osvald sat at the fire while five others joined him for the morning meal. Any further questions from Harry only inspired grumbling answers from the downcast faces, like black smoke seeping from rotten wood forced to burn. Finally, Osvald lost his temper.
“It’s bad enough Red demands so much. I don’t know where those run-down farmers got back-up from, but they sure ain’t from around here.”
“What if we hit up the Rechus Estate?”
Osvald’s face smoldered darker.
“We’ve visited them half a dozen times this summer. Any more and we’ll push our luck next year. Besides, they probably have soldiers now, too.”
The men shuddered. Harry began serving stew and offered a bowl to Osvald, who sniffed the brown concoction.
“Is this the best you can do?” he asked.
Harry bit his lips, shoulders tense. Osvald chuckled, then took the bowl and began to dip his spoon, only to splash the hot stew in Harry’s face. The men laughed. Osvald threw the bowl on the ground and kicked it.
“Let me know when you cook something worth eating. I surely haven’t tasted it.”
Harry wiped his face with his shirt and tried to pull the overcooked vegetables out of his patchy beard. But Osvald wasn’t done. As he toppled the cooking pot, the others jumped out of the way of the brown stew spilling on the grass and into the fire. Then he let out a guttural yell. Harry stared at his wasted work with eyes wide and shoulders knotted. His lips were so tightly clenched between his teeth, he would feel the indents the rest of the week. Finally, he lifted his hands up softly and started walking away.
“Where you going, Harry boy?” Osvald taunted. “Off to see Esmeralda?” he laughed again.
Harry went to the tent and gathered his knapsack. Osvald never gave him any coin, but he had a change of clothes, a blanket, and the knitted woolen cap he’d bartered from the gypsies. He rolled everything up and stuffed it in his sack. His stomach lurched hungrily inside him. He had waited for Osvald’s return instead of eating breakfast. Quivering, yet determined, Harry started walking. He was used to walking; that wasn’t the problem. The problem was leaving.
He hadn’t run away since his uncle beat him when he was fourteen. Then he met Osvald while stealing bread. Over the last six years, he’d seen the ruffian phase through many different moods. Whenever it got bad, Harry would go for a walk. Last year, he wandered the fields for a week but came back when he couldn’t catch any rabbits. Today, he knew he had to keep walking. Last time Osvald got this mean, he nearly killed a man. Harry didn’t want to be it.
Harry’s footsteps led him towards the creek. He washed his face and changed his shirt. The water eased his thirst and stirred his hunger. The chill in the stream made Harry shiver; winter would be here soon.
Most years, the ruffians would migrate to the mountain caves near the Sagian Castle. As much as Harry loved living in the mountains, he knew if he fell back in with Osvald nothing would change.
He wished he could find Esmeralda. Traveling gypsies had passed through three years before, and with them a beautiful, young dancer. Harry had gawked until he drooled and Osvald had never let him forget. When Harry learned her name, he said it over and over, even whispering it to himself at night before he fell asleep.
Despite this fancy, Harry’s thoughts waned practical; winter was coming, he had no coin, no shelter, and no food. His uncle would be harvesting this time of the year, and Harry remembered the extra hands they’d hire to get everything in before frost. With this in mind, Harry started walking towards the nearest farm. If they turned him away, he’d keep walking and asking. Frost was on its way though. He’d only have a few days.
With this resolve, he quickly pulled up some wild parsnip and washed the roots in the stream. The water’s chill warned him again. With nervousness in his heart and the wild root to eat, Harry started walking.
The first farm he came upon had children playing outside the cabin. When asked where their parents were, they pointed to two small figures in the distance. Harry chewed his fingernails as he approached. The man and woman, covered in sweat and hay, looked up from their work as he came close.
“What kin’ I do fer ya?” the man asked. The woman assessed him apprehensively.
“Well, I …” Harry paused. “I was wondering if I could help with harvest.”
The man looked at his wife.
“In exchange fer what?”
Harry switched feet.
“A place to stay?”
The woman took another glance at him, then glared severely towards her husband, who turned to reply.
“We ain’t got room or food for any freeloaders. Could ha’ used your help two weeks ago but that crop is in.”
Harry bit his lips and nodded.
“Do you know anybody who needs help?”
The wife shrugged and gestured East.
“Thar is the Rechus’ farm but I don’t know if they’ll take any hands this late in the season. Where ya from anyways?” the farmer asked. Harry switched his feet again and thanked the man and his wife. He could feel the woman’s stare prickle the back of his neck as he walked away.
The next farm over let him work the afternoon and even fed him dinner. When Harry asked if he could stay the winter, the farmer shook his head.
“I’ve got to ration my stores for my family. I don’t have enough for another mouth too.”
Harry looked down at the bowl of stew ladled out for him by the farmer’s wife, who smiled kindly. She poured a bowl for her husband.
“Thank you, Martha.”
The farmer sipped his stew and stared into the rough-hewn table.
“Tell you what,” he said.
Harry looked up.
“Help me with harvest for the next three days,” The farmer paused again. “If you work hard enough, I’ll walk you over to the Estate.”
The farmer dug into more of his stew. Harry chewed slowly, hesitant.
“I know the stable master there,” the farmer continued, scraping up the last of the stew with his wooden spoon. “If you’re lucky, he’ll need help with the horses.
Harry forked the bale and spread the clean straw around the stall. Brinker, the stable master, was a terse man, but kind enough for Harry. While he wasn’t too keen on shoveling manure, and the days were much longer than when helping Osvald, Harry was glad for a place to sleep, a mess hall in which to eat, and a sliver of coin at the end of the week.
“You certainly do have a rebel way about you.”
Harry turned to see Henrietta smirking at him from the door of the stall. Hands on her hips and a mischievous glint in her eye, the young kitchen maid was the darling of the single men on the estate, and even occasionally, those who were married.
Harry smiled at her. Something about the way her curls peeked out of her bonnet always fascinated him. She was almost as pretty as Esmerelda and twice as bewitching.
“You have nothing to say to me?” she retorted, referring to his bashful silence. Harry shrugged and stared at her a while longer until she huffed away with impatience. Three hours later, when Harry finished shoveling and bedding the stalls, he was still thinking about the flounce of her skirt as she darted away.
When Brinker came in with the young pair of geldings he was training for the carriage, Harry curried their coats and cleaned the harness, just like he’d been taught. For Harry to not have any experience with horses before, Brinker had been very generous with both lessons and opportunities to practice. While Harry didn’t realize how much he’d been trusted with, he did appreciate all the learning.
Dinnertime came, and as it was Friday, Brinker invited Harry to eat with his family. Brinker’s wife, Marielle, was a vivacious woman and together they had a daughter, Georgette, who was just old enough to wear long dresses.
“So where did you live before this, Harry?” Marielle asked over chicken and gravy. Harry stumbled through describing his Uncle’s farm and the little he could remember before that. Georgette made faces as Harry told his story, which only made him more nervous. Finally, Brinker asked Georgette about what she learned that day and the impetuous child launched into a full narrative about learning to crochet doilies with Beatrice, the first housemaid.
Harry breathed a sigh of relief and dug into his generous helping of Marielle’s tender chicken. Brinker did his best to listen to his daughter expound on the different crochet stitches and the importance of flattening the doily, but seemed equally relieved when Marielle asked her husband about the progress of the geldings. Harry listened closely as his overseer explained the incremental progress of Lord Rechus’ animals.
When dinner was over, Brinker read to his family from the book of truth. When the chapter was finished, Marielle stood up to begin cleaning and preparing for the next day. Georgette helped her mother for a while, then disappeared outside to see her friends before bedtime.
Harry thanked Marielle for dinner, then wandered about the courtyard, watching the soldiers play handball before the sun went down. When the soldiers left for bed, Harry went to his cot in the storeroom of the stable. The fading light from the windows glinted against the saddle he’d cleaned that afternoon. He wasn’t sure how warm it would be come snowfall, so he was glad for a fireplace.
The first frost came, and so Harry’s days continued. Henrietta teased him regularly, as she did every man who would give her half a second of fancy. Brinker rarely spoke, except to show him the finer points of horse care. Friday dinners with Marielle and Georgette continued, with Harry learning more about both horsemanship and crochet.
In the mornings, Harry would open the side gate in the estate wall behind the stable for Brinker to take out the geldings to train. Then Harry would ready the next animal for practice. Feedings and cleanings and wheelbarrows of manure filled his mundane days, while Henrietta baked biscuits and the soldiers walked the walls, guarding against the ruffians.
Sometimes Harry would see the lord and lady of the estate, both of them very reserved individuals. One of the first things Brinker had told him was to never, ever speak to them.
“Lord Rechus is the king’s brother and his lady is from the royal family of Engels,” he explained. Harry did as he was told.
Winter came on strong that year.
Harry woke up in the feed room every morning with icy breath and numb feet. The evening fire never lasted much past midnight. Marielle knit him a second pair of socks, which Harry wore underneath his old threadbare ones.
Then one day, something unusual happened.
“What are you doing, Harry?”
Harry looked up from shoveling manure inside the stall to see Henrietta leaning against the doorframe like a lost kitten. He smiled sheepishly and chucked his shovel load into the wheelbarrow.
“I’m just taking out the winter grain after it’s been used,” he said, hoping for a smile. Henrietta’s reaction was anything but.
“That manure is sickening,” she replied, with a dramatic roll of the eyes. “It’s a wonder you can stand doing this every day,” she continued with a slight feign of admiration. “Are you sure you didn’t come to the estate just to sniff us out, you little rebel?”
Harry blushed and stammered something about the cold before turning back to shovel his beloved stable apples.
“I’m sorry, Harry.”
He looked up again to see doe-eyed Henrietta pining for forgiveness, with arms entwined and hands clasped like a thieving wild vine.
“I meant to come and ask you something, but I started off all wrong.” Her black lashes fluttered over golden brown eyes. Harry leaned against his shovel.
“What do you need me to do?” he asked.
“I need to get outside the wall but I don’t want to bother the gatekeeper,” she said as she unwound her arms to play with her fingers. “Can you let me out through the side gate?”
Harry looked down and shuffled his feet. Only Brinker had the key, and Harry dared not ask him for it.
“I … can’t, Henrietta.” Harry’s face turned beet red. “I’m sorry.”
Henrietta’s coy disposition withered like a garden abandoned to winter.
“Fine,” she said, voice brisk with anger. “See if I flirt with you anymore, filthy vagabond.” She whipped herself away from the door frame so fast that her skirts flicked above her ankles, revealing thick leather boots.
Harry clenched the handle of his shovel and bit his lip. He remembered watching his aunt work his uncle over, and had vowed he would never let himself fall for someone so flighty, yet here he was mooning after a girl that had nothing but her own interest at heart. He let out a sigh and went back to shoveling.
The next morning, Beatrice came out to ask Brinker if he could ride to the village to fetch the doctor. They led the horses into the stable as she explained that the soldiers protecting the farms had been ambushed the night before. Harry helped Brinker hitch up the second-best carriage while the maid went on about the wounded men with great dramatics.
“These ruffians get worse every year! Who do they think they are, threatening our farmland and children? Stealing food from the mouths of those who break their backs to get it! One day, justice will be served!”
Brinker motioned to Harry to join him in the driver’s seat. Harry balked at the invitation, then realized it was an imperative instruction. Beatrice continued emphatically as Harry climbed in.
“You be careful now, Mr. Brinker. Those ruffians are still out there and Lord Rechus wouldn’t want to lose you an account of a pair of hooves and a fancy wagon.”
Brinker grimaced. Harry gripped the wooden rim of the seat as the carriage rolled out of the stable. Beatrice followed them and requested two of the soldiers to join them. The courtyard gravel jostled both the carriage and Harry’s stomach as Brinker directed the horses to the main gate. The brisk air rushed their faces as the geldings picked up the pace. Now outside the estate, Harry looked back at his new home.
Short, stone walls surrounded the main house, servant’s quarters, barns, and stable. Well-tended bushes, which graced the walls in summer, were now shriveled to brush under winter’s assault. While Harry felt no particular fondness for the lord and lady, or the house staff and soldiers who mostly ignored him, he was grateful for Brinker and his wife, Marielle. She’d mended the hole in his woolen cap and had knit him a pair of mittens for the mornings. Harry wore them now.
Harry looked ahead. The frosted dirt road was tired and worn underneath the hooves of the geldings. Brinker kept his expression taut, while his hands gently guided the lines. The soldiers sat behind them, silent and alert. Empty fields held hostage by snow and frost lay beside the open road. Harry caught himself staring into the wooded copses and thickets, searching for any sign of man or beast. He expected at any moment to see Osvald appear and rush the carriage. The wind rustled the dry, frozen wood, but no face appeared.
The sun was a third of the way in the sky when they finally reached the village doctor. Harry and the soldiers waited with the carriage while Brinker went inside and came back with the aged physician.
“Many a season of summer, the ruffians have come and gone, but this is different,” the physician observed. “This is the first time they have come out in winter, which means the rats couldn’t thieve enough to store away. Confounded scoundrels…” he muttered under his breath.
Brinker nodded in agreement. The physician continued.
“I’ll never forget when they ransacked the Kepner farm. Tied up the farmer and his wife and emptied the barn. Then when they were finished, they untied the wife and burned down both the house and the barn with the farmer inside.” The physician clenched his jaw. “Poor woman had to sell the land. Now she helps my wife with the laundry every Thursday. She’s never been the same.”
Harry bit his lower lip and said nothing. He remembered a few times when Osvald and the gang would return from a raid smelling like smoke. And all the while before, he’d thought they were stealing from those who had plenty more than they needed, not regular people.
Harry thought of the Rechus estate and how much extra they had. Then he thought about Brinker and Marielle and Georgette and Beatrice and their families and how they all depended on the Rechus’ for their living.
It was then that Harry realized there only were regular people.
Harry and the soldiers kept the same sharp lookout on the road back to the estate. The wind blew and the brush shook, but no one troubled their return to the estate.
As soon as the gatekeeper shut the doors behind them, the doctor sprang from the carriage to tend the wounded soldiers. Brinker and Harry got down from the driver’s seat and led the geldings into the stable, where they undid the harness and began brushing their coats.
A scream went up from the great house. Smoke billowed from the kitchen. Men ran and women shrieked. Brinker and Harry stood at the entrance of the stable. Brinker turned to Harry.
“Stay here. Make sure nothing happens to the stable. If it catches fire, let out the horses.” Then he was gone. Soldiers drew well water, then formed a bucket line to get it to the flames. Harry finished brushing the horses and put them in their stalls. Then he crawled up into the hayloft. From there, he could see both the roof and the animals. The noise outside began to die down, enough that Harry was sure the fire was out. He wondered about Henrietta.
Then he heard another sound, a voice both strange and familiar.
“… we’ll stay here until dusk, then pounce when they are tired and unaware.”
Osvald! Harry listened in closer.
“I’ve taught all of them the layout of this place, and they know where to go. It helps to have the kitchen maid in your pocket.”
“That pretty one with the curls? Good going.”
It was a deeper voice that spoke, heavy like a blacksmith’s tool and twice as cruel. Harry didn’t recognize it, but looked closely through the floorboards and saw the tangled red hair of a tall, robust man. Osvald had told stories about Red, the ruffian leader, but this was the first time Harry had seen him in person.
“She’s pretty easy, too.”
“Well, I might just have to try her out myself.”
“Nuh, uh … she’s mine. I haven’t tasted lips that sweet since the traveling gypsies.”
“Is that so? Well, maybe you’ve forgotten who owns you…”
Red’s heavy voice got a little bit deeper and a little bit sharper. Harry watched closely as Osvald pulled himself a little bit taller in the presence of this threat. More ruffians had snuck in and milled about the stable, peeking into the stalls and looking bored.
If Harry jumped down, he wouldn’t stand a chance. He stood and looked about the hayloft. The carriage house! He tiptoed quietly through the bales to the single window. The glass panes formed a large square. He looked back through the hay and heard the low voices of the gathered ruffians, then he looked back to the glass. He began pressing his hands against the panes, but the craftsmanship held firm. Harry resigned himself to sitting in the hay, listening to the muffled sounds of the growing mob.
While he wallowed in apathy, a gnawing fear grew that terrible things would be done if he did not warn the estate. Harry started to his feet, his insides shaking. He pressed against the glass again, harder and stronger this time. Desperation outpaced his fear.
Outside the window, Harry saw Georgette milling about, playing with her friends. Harry thought about what Red and the others might do to her if they followed through with their plans. Panic jolted his stomach like thunder without rain. Biting his lips and clenching his fist inside his mittens, Harry threw a punch to the window pane which shattered the glass and stirred the voices of the ruffians.
“Who broke that? What did I tell you about making noise!” Osvald shouted angrily as the men looked at each other bewildered.
Heart pounding and hands shaking, Harry pried out the remaining window panes and set them on top of the hay. Then he crawled through the opening and jumped down onto the carriage house roof.
Georgette saw him from the courtyard.
“Harry! What are you doing? Why are you on the roof?” She shouted. Harry motioned to his mouth for her to stay silent and pointed furiously inside the stable. The girl’s face widened with fear and she ran to tell the soldiers.
By this time, the ruffians had climbed up into the hayloft and found the broken window. One of them recognized Harry and started throwing the panes of glass. Shards splattered across the roof as Harry ran and jumped to the ground.
The soldiers organized themselves around the stable. A skirmish broke out as the soldier’s cut off the trickle of ruffians sneaking in through the side gate. Horse screams pierced the air. Horrified, Harry saw Brinker look towards the stable with an expression of angst.
The soldiers started in place and looked to their commander, who shook his head solemnly. The young man seemed equally startled but forced himself to stand and study the stable with its captured invaders. Suddenly, he jerked his head, the open window drawing his gaze. He paused for a final moment, then took action.
“Stand your ground and take no prisoners,” he whispered loudly. “Ericson! Come with me.” He snapped to a soldier who looked particularly lithe. “We’re going to make them come out.”
A few more orders and a ladder was brought. The young commander leaned it against the carriage house and climbed up while carrying a flaming torch. His comrade climbed up behind him, also carrying a lit torch. Together, they reached the top, pulled up the ladder, and leaned it towards the open window.
Another horse scream went up from the stables. Brinker froze, then grimaced and trembled with rage. The young men on the roof did not hesitate with their plan.
The commander climbed the ladder up towards the open window. He peeked in, then reached down to where his comrade handed him the first torch. Throwing both of them into the hayloft, he then scurried down the ladder. They were lowering the ladder to get to the ground when a cry went up from inside. The stable doors opened, the ruffians poured out, and the fighting began.
Harry backed away from the fighting until he saw Brinker at the well, filling buckets with the butler. Brinker looked at him with grim determination.
“Are you ready to earn your keep?” he asked. Harry paused. “Come with me, we need to save the horses.”
Harry’s stomach shook as he followed Brinker towards the stable. The soldiers were making progress killing the ruffians and Brinker grabbed a sword for himself and Harry. Somehow, they made it past the skirmish and into the stable. The horses were screaming.
Fiery hay was already filtering down from the loft into the stalls. Brinker and Harry hurriedly unlatched the stalls and the horses started running. They found two of the horses stabbed to death in their stalls. As Brinker stood and started to weep over the atrocity, Harry looked to the rafters, which were engulfed in flames.
“Come on, we have to go!” he shouted. Together, they ran towards the entrance where the skirmish was dying down. Fallen ruffians lay at the feet of the soldiers, who continued their defense. As he and Brinker ran towards safety, something jutted out in front of Harry and he tumbled to the floor.
Strong hands grabbed his ankles and dragged him into the feed room. When they put him on his feet, Harry saw Osvald’s fist headed towards his face. Punch thrown, blow taken, and Harry was sprawled out on the dirt again.
“So … this is what you do for me, after I take care of you all those years.” Hands grabbed his shirt and lifted him to his feet to repeat the exercise. After a few more punches, Red stepped in.
“Alright, that’s enough.”
Osvald threw one more blow which decked Harry to the ground with blood streaming from his nose. Different hands grabbed him this time. Red lifted him up and wrenched his arms behind his back. Osvald shoved a dirty rag in Harry’s mouth, then ransacked the storeroom to find rope. The two men tied his mouth and wrapped his limbs in short order. Once Harry’s feet were tied, Osvald finished his game and shoved Harry to the floor one last time. A final kick to his groin and the two brutes walked out of the storeroom, shutting the door behind them.
Osvald and Red ran to escape the burning stable. By now, the soldiers were hauling water towards the fire as the ruffians bolted through the courtyard.
“Get them! They’re the leaders!”
Osvald and Red tried to climb up a building near the wall when the butler swung a wood post. The perverse brutes fell to the ground unconscious, and the butler continued swinging.
“You have tormented us long enough!” he shouted. And so it was they met their end.
The stable was covered in flames as the innermost bales of hay lit on fire. It was now late afternoon, and everyone was so busy fighting the flames that no one noticed Harry was missing. Until Georgette went looking.
“Has anyone seen Harry?” she asked. The butler shook his head. She sought out Brinker. “Father, have you seen Harry?”
“I haven’t seen him since we freed the horses,” he replied. “I thought he ran out with me.” Brinker turned to look towards the stable. “But maybe he didn’t get out.” His reserved demeanor turned frantic.
Shouts and cries for Harry soon echoed over the whole estate. The soldiers fighting the fire began hacking into the unburned portions of the wall, venturing into the burning building.
They finally found Harry passed out in the feed room. Two soldiers picked up his roped, brutalized body and carried him to safety. Marielle was the first to tend to his puffy eyes, while Brinker undid the knots. Georgette stood beside her parents, sobbing.
“Is he going to live?” she cried. Marielle looked towards her weeping daughter.
“Yes, child,” she said. “And he will live to be a braver man than he ever dreamed he’d be.”