Highland Fire

By: Elizabeth Thornton

Suddenly, a small herd of red deer came leaping from the crags to cross the road, almost within touching distance. The startled horses plunged and reared, unhorsing two of the riders. Men cursed as they strained to bring their mounts under control. One horse got the bit between its teeth and bolted in the direction from which they had just come.

“Stupid beasts!” yelled one of the unhorsed troopers, shaking his fist at the tails of the departing deer.

By the time they had righted themselves, Rand’s coach had disappeared into the gloom cast by the tall stands of pines flanking the road. Before long, they would have only the light of the moon to guide them.

“Let’s push on,” said Rand. “My coach has outstripped us.” What he was thinking was that something must have startled those deer.

As if answering the question in his mind, the blast of a hunting horn pierced the silence. Almost simultaneously, up ahead, shots were fired and an unholy din broke out as though the hounds of hell had been let loose.

“Ambush!” yelled the captain of the dragoons, and men reached for their pistols and dug in their spurs, urging their mounts forward.

When they came out of the trees, they saw them—a dozen Highlanders, some on horseback, some on foot, milling around the coach. Rand was immediately struck with the impression that they were young men all, like a crowd of rowdy schoolboys up to some deviltry and enjoying themselves immensely.

“Redcoats!” The man on the box cried out the warning, and his comrade cracked the whip. The coach lurched, then took off like a rocket.

Before the dragoons could check their charge, a volley of shots whizzed over their heads. The thing was over before they could get their bearings. Highlanders leaped away over stone dikes and crags or were swallowed up in the trees. The troopers fired at random. Nothing moved. No one cried out.

“After the carriage!” On command, the dragoons rallied and went thundering off in pursuit.

Before long, Rand fell back. A moment later, he turned aside and, using the trees for cover, retraced his steps toward the Feardar Bridge. At length, in the shadow of two tall pines, he halted.

He was almost sure that no harm would come to his coachmen or the sole occupant of his carriage, who happened to be his valet. If the Highlanders had really wanted to hurt them, they would have made their shots count. This was mere mischief-making and on a par with the sport young bucks got up to when they were at a loose end, as he should know. Still, it was a dangerous game when firing pieces were involved, and if he was their target, as he presumed he must be, he meant to nip it in the bud.

His patience was rewarded. First, he saw shadows flitting across the road, then he heard laughter, subdued but recognizable for all that. Men were on the move, converging on the bridge. Keeping well out of sight, Rand closed the distance between them. It was no surprise to him when ponies were led out. They were in the middle of nowhere. Men must have some means of getting back to their homes.

More shots, this time coming from the direction of the river, then moments later the hunting horn sounded. The men on the ponies were jubilant.

“Right lads, it’s done. Let’s get the hell o’ here,” said one.

As the riders dispersed, Rand chose his quarry. He was in luck. The last to leave was a mere boy. He wasn’t going to hurt him, not in any way that counted. If it proved necessary, however, he would box the lad’s ears. That ought to loosen his tongue. And he aimed to do more than that. A boy of such tender years had no business meddling in men’s affairs. When he was finished with him, the stripling would be glad to go back to playing with his toys.

Once she reached the open moor, Caitlin allowed her pony to have its head. Morder was Highland bred, sure-footed and agile, which more than compensated for a lack of speed in this treacherous terrain. Even without the moon to light their steps, the mare could find her way to the shieling blindfolded. All Caitlin had to do was point her in the right direction.

It was only natural that her thoughts would dwell on David. According to Jamie MacGregor, the young major had saved his cousin’s life at the cost of his own. She was not surprised at the manner of his death, and tried to take comfort from the conviction that there was no one David revered more than his cousin Rand.

She missed David. There were no words to describe her grief. He was the only person to whom she had dared unburden herself. They were both odd “men” out, David had once told her, preserving their little secrets from the world. It was this, more than anything, which had drawn them to each other.

So lost in thought was she, she grew careless. She was more than halfway home before she became conscious of being followed. She wasn’t afraid, not at first. She’d half expected something of the sort. MacGregor was curious about her, or at least he was curious about the lad he knew as “Dirk Gordon.” The trouble with Jamie MacGregor was he was getting too big for his own boots. He had seen a bit of the world; he’d served with the Gordon Highlanders at Waterloo, and thought himself a cut above the lads who had never been out of the glen. He wasn’t very good at taking orders and she wondered if it was because he was a MacGregor or because he’d risen to the rank of corporal in the British army.