"Oh, for God's sake, not again!"
The wagon lurched as the horses strained to pull it from the mud, but sank back almost to the axles as they relaxed. The rain had increased to a torrent, blowing in waves from the northwest, and the fields on either side were barely visible. Ahead, a stand of trees adorned the brow of the hill promising shelter, but first they must release the wagon from the mud. The soldiers put their weapons down and straggled forwards, muttering amongst themselves. Retrieving the planks from the cart, they heaved to push them under the wheels.
Fifty yards away at the edge of the trees, a man watched from the undergrowth. His long, graceful moustache drooped in the rain and his hair was caught up in the brambles above him. He wriggled back through the bushes before scrambling to his feet and retrieving his bedraggled hat from a nearby branch. He looked up at his companion. He was some twelve inches taller than him with a thick, bushy beard.
"Thomas, we'll never have a better chance!"
"That captain worries me; he's still on his horse and armed," growled Thomas.
A tall, elderly woman with striking blue eyes and straw-coloured hair appeared from the wood. Clad in men's breeches and a hooded cloak, she strode across towards the two men. "Is something wrong?"
The short man twirled his moustache, and then nodded in the direction of the wagon. "They're stuck again. All the weapons save the captain's are in the mud, five yards behind the wagon."
"Then let us take advantage! Be ready to move," announced the woman before turning on her heel and disappearing back into the undergrowth.
The man shrugged, took his horse's reins from his taller companion and leaped aboard. Thomas waved towards a group of men huddled under an ancient spreading oak tree in the middle of the copse and followed suit. The men all moved their mounts out from the shelter to stand beside Thomas, who had moved close to the road.
After two minutes, the woman emerged onto the road from the trees further up, seated on her horse stark naked save for her cloak and gun.
"Dear God Almighty, what is the woman doing!" grunted Thomas. Ahead, the soldiers saw her and stopped their work. Two men ran to scramble through the hedge whilst three more ran back to their guns.
"You men! Get back to work!" directed the officer, still blissfully unaware of the woman on the hill above him. Water dribbled down the side of his face from his hat, which by now was completely soaked through.
The naked woman calmly directed her horse into the centre of the road and forwards until she was directly behind the mounted captain. "If you don't mind, gentlemen, I'd like to relieve you of some of your burden."
The captain whipped around in his saddle, and then was almost unhorsed as he took in the elderly naked woman pointing a gun at his chest from a range of six feet. Most of his remaining men were grinning, but the three who had reached their guns had brought them to shoulder and were aiming at the intruder.
"I think not, madam, you have but one shot and there are seventeen of us." Slowly, he began to remove his own pistol.
"This is indeed the case, sir. Indeed, three of your men have their muskets pointing vaguely in the right direction. But my friends have more shots, and our guns have not been lying in the mud!"
The branches rustled with hidden movement. The officer's smile first twitched and then vanished. He released his pistol as the diminutive highwayman, then Thomas and the rest of the gang moved their horses forward from behind the trees, guns pointed at the soldiers.
"In the interests of your personal survival, may I suggest, sir that you throw your pistol onto the road and dismount at this point?" instructed the highwayman.
The officer looked from the highwayman to the naked woman, and then carefully climbed down from his horse, keeping his hands in clear sight.
"And the pistol?"
The officer carefully removed the pistol with his fingertips and dropped it onto the road.
"Excellent. Oh, you might point out to your men that wet and muddy matchlocks rarely if ever work, but just in case of an accident, and in the interests of their own well-being, they should put their weapons back into the mud."
The captain glanced back at the three men and nodded. One by one, they dropped their muskets and raised their hands in surrender.
"Now, if you and your men would care to line up alongside the hedge, it will enable us to conclude our day's business and be on our way."
The soldiers slid down into the muddy ditch. One man tripped over and landed headlong in the water, another slipped near the top and tumbled onto his comrades, almost knocking them over. The officer stood his ground until the highwayman waved his gun, and then he too scrambled down into the ditch.
"We're doing very well, but perhaps if you sir," he indicated the officer, "would remove your sword belt very slowly and carefully, we could all relax a little more."
The officer undid his belt, grasped the scabbard and tossed it up the bank. The highwayman turned to instruct the remainder of his gang.
"Moll, please put your clothes back on. You're supposed to distract the soldiers, not us!"
A wave of laughter erupted from both sides, and Moll, still grinning, started to dress. The highwayman turned back to face the soldiers in the ditch while Thomas took the bags from the robbers' horses, and removed the rags that had filled their bags. Rapidly, the men set to work filling them with coins from the pay wagon.
"Done. What do you want to do with these wretches?" asked Moll, who had donned a long dress, incongruously ornamented with a weapons belt.
"Oh, we won't harm them, unless they force us to. But we do need to delay them a little." He pondered a moment and then turned to address the prisoners. "Take off all of your clothes."
"I shall do no such thing, sir! This goes beyond the bounds of proper warfare!" responded the captain.
"This is not warfare, captain, this is highway robbery. Take off your clothes unless you have a desire to be the sole fatality of this little exercise."
Grumbling, the captain doffed his coat before removing his shirt. Shivering, he glanced back at the highwayman who negligently waved his gun. Grudgingly, he removed his boots and hose, then his breeches and stood glaring defiantly at the highwayman.
"See? Did that hurt? Now, John, take all their clothes and carry them half a mile up the road. Drop them in the hedge and return."
By the time John returned, the bags were slung over the horse's rumps. The small man leaped back into the saddle, followed by the remainder of the robbers. He wheeled his horse around to address the young officer shivering naked in the ditch.
"Farewell, sir. You should feel grateful that it is today we stopped you, for today we are naught but civilians plying our trade. Tomorrow, I ride to join my Regiment in the Kings Army, and had I been in uniform, your fates would have been somewhat different, as would the fate of your cargo."
"Do you at least have the courtesy, sir, to tell us by whom we have been robbed?"
The highwayman paused, then resumed.
"We will tether your horse to a tree down yonder. You will notice that we did not take all of the money, nor did we rob you personally. So you can retrieve your clothes, and then take your wagon back to town, where I am sure you will find a suitable inn!
"As for our identity, it is not my place to identify my colleagues. But I, sir, am Captain James Hind."