Gwyllm sat on the hard, cold steel of the cell bunk and tried to think. How was he going to get out of this jail and save his life? If he escaped he would become an outlaw in Lancaster County. More importantly now, how was he going to escape?
By the noon hour the constable’s men had finished erecting the scaffold. Gwyllm thought how his father had probably worked to saw the heavy beams that had been knocked together into the makeshift gibbet in his years at the mill. He decided that in the coming afternoon he would take in everything he could about the jail and try to come up with a plan to bust out when the opportunity arose.
“I’m guilty of nothing but being a trusting fellow,” he thought. “Why should I just let them kill me when I still have life in me?” Gwyllm decided that he would rather die in a fight for his life than let a corrupt system strangle him at the end of a rope. He would supply no spectacle for the thousand or so residents of Swansea aside from his defiant escape.
On the far wall of the tiny jail, behind the jailer’s desk, was a weapon rack. Billy clubs, knuckledusters, and a couple of double-edged short swords, hung in their scabbards, supplied the jailers in case of trouble. If Gwyllm could break free when the guards opened his cell for inspection, he could grab a sword from the rack and fight his way into the streets. He would commandeer a horse and make a run for the Neutral Zone. It was a dangerous plan, and the jailer was armed at all times.
One thing he was glad of was that he wouldn’t have to face gunfire. Most of the guns in the former United States had been confiscated back in the Harris Administration, over four hundred years ago. When the power went out, and finally with it all industry, there was no new supply of ammunition. Black powder weapons were still known, but shot and gunpowder were almost impossible to find. Humanity had sunk back into the stagnation of the Middle Ages, though here and there could still be found relics of the past. Now a sword might need sharpening, and it may break, but it doesn’t need to be loaded and sure as hell wouldn’t blow up in your hands like some of the decrepit old firearms were wont to do.
“Where’s the prisoner?” A stern voice roused Gwyllm from his pondering. “We’re here to see the condemned man for ourselves.” Three uniformed men, soldiers from the Duke’s Army, stood at the jailer’s desk.
“The lad is locked away securely awaiting his date with the hangman,” the jailer answered.
“It’s a shame to hang a good strong boy like that when he could be of service to the county. We have here papers of general manumission and conscription, signed and sealed by the Prime Minister himself, allowing us to take any condemned prisoner from any district of the county for lifetime service in the army. The large lieutenant, shortly cropped hair, standing half a foot taller then the old day jailer, fished a scroll out of his belt pouch and presented it to the confused civil servant.
The jailer carefully looked over the document and checked the validity of the seal. Yes, it was real gold leaf. “I will have to get approval from the constable for any release of prisoners.”
“None of your time-wasting. The patrol is moving out. I have thirty armed men right outside in the street who give me approval enough to take anything I want from your podunk village,” the lieutenant barked. The two soldiers accompanying the officer placed their hands on the hilts of their swords, as if to reinforce their leader’s words.
“Very well then, it’s on your head. You may be sure a complaint will be filed at the county offices about your insistence on this breach of procedure,” the jailer replied. He took the keys to the cell from a peg on the wall and walked over to the holding area where Gwyllm stood clutching the bars of the cell door. The jailer turned the key in the lock with a click. Gwyllm pushed the door open and walked out to stand with the soldiers.
The jailer replaced the key ring on its peg and started rummaging around in a drawer for some paperwork. “You’ll need to sign the writ of release before you can leave with this poacher boy,” he said.
“To the seven hells with your paperwork, clerk. We ain’t signing nothing,” the lieutenant swore. The soldiers gave Gwyllm a big slap on the back and then pushed him out the jail door into the streets where the convoy awaited. The lieutenant turned his back on the bewildered jailer and slammed the door as he walked out to join his men. Looking Gwyllm up and down he said: “Get in the back of the chuck wagon recruit. You’ll not be marching with the rest of the men until we get you fitted with some proper marching boots,” the lieutenant growled. Gwyllm crawled into the back of the covered wagon, which was filled with vegetables and two live bound pigs, no doubt all of it confiscated from his family.
The lieutenant mounted his war horse and shouted “Sally ho!” to the men. The patrol assembled into ranks and began marching behind their leader. The drivers cracked their coach whips at the horses drawing the three wagons and the whole platoon was soon moving down the road towards Lancaster City, still two days off.
Despite all the commotion and the small crowd that had gathered to see what was happening, the constable was nowhere to be found. Gwyllm settled in to the back of the wagon, wedged in next to a sack of corn meal, and watched as the streets and decrepit buildings of Swansea slowly disappeared behind the branches and leaves of the overarching trees. He was out of jail at least, but he had no idea what was to become of him. Was it true? Was he in the army now? And what of that bastard of a corporal who had set him and his family up for this mess? These were all questions he knew would be answered in time.
The patrol marched on through the low wooded hills until the sun began to sink in the west. Gwyllm, tired from his sleepless night in the cell, nodded off until the wagons stopped by a small stream and preparations were begun to set up camp for the night.
“Alright boy, get out of that wagon and report for duty. You’ve been sitting on your ass all day. It’s time to work.” Gwyllm opened his eyes and saw a familiar face, the corporal from the day before who had brought the contentious leg of venison. He sneered at the man, but thought it best to hold his tongue. If he had been confused before, waiting to be hanged for something he never did, he was doubly confused now. He climbed out of the back of the wagon and stood facing the corporal.
“No shoes I see. They took you in your sleep last night I suppose. Follow me to the supply wagon and we’ll get you fitted out with gear. You’ll stand watch with Gundry tonight and start to earn your keep. You’ll need a weapon as well, though I doubt you know anything about using a sword. Gundry is pretty handy with a blade, I’ll tell him to clue you in on some basics.” The corporal led Gwyllm to the supply wagon and the sargent got him provisioned with proper boots, a leather jerkin, a black, genuine US Army helmet, and a well-worn short sword and scabbard.
Gwyllm, now in a makeshift, ragtag army uniform, carrying a heavy steel sword at his side, stood in front of the corporal, awaiting his orders. He had the sense to say: “Sir, reporting for duty, Sir!” smartly when he turned to the gentleman, who had been watching him as the sargent helped him don his gear. Gwyllm didn’t know what had happened to his family, and he wasn’t sure what was happening to him now. He only knew that this was to be his life, which was better than the grave. All this had happened in the last 24 hours, and it was only a month since his eighteenth birthday.