Highland FireBy: Elizabeth Thornton
Men returning from the wars had found their homes burned out and their families taking shelter in neighbors’ byres and stables. Some were not so fortunate. They made their homes out in the open, like the Highland Gypsies. With the harvest in and winter fast approaching, men with families to feed were at their wits’ end.
A young lad, a fledgling in the company of eagles, moved among the men, dispensing a welcome draught of uisge-beatha to ward off the chill night air. On his head he wore a bonnet with an eagle’s feather. The green and blue plaid around his thin shoulders was pinned with a stag’s-head pewter broach, proclaiming him a Gordon. As with every man present, tartan trews were molded to his limbs. Of them all, he was most truly the Celt—dark, small-boned and lithe, like the Highland ponies tethered to the rowans by the banks of the burn.
“Here’s tae a warm Highland welcome tae his lairdship.” Jamie MacGregor, a great redheaded fellow with dancing dark eyes, grinned and, throwing back his head, drank lustily from the proffered leather bottle.
Men laughed, but one voice cautioned, “There will be no bloodshed. Ye heard Daroch. Our purpose is to scare the sassenach awa’.”
“We’ll no scare the likes o’ him,” retorted MacGregor. “I’ve seen him in action, at Waterloo. Did I no tell ye? The man’s a bloody hero. The bastard dinna ken what fear is. If we’re wanting tae drive him awa’, it will take more than the welcome we hae laid on for him. This is mere child’s play.”
There was a general muttering and grumbling, which quieted when young Gordon spoke up. “The man doesna lack sense, so ye hae oft told us, MacGregor. And this is only the beginning. The Randal may be fearless, but I doubt if his guests are all cut from the same plaid. If it’s hunting they want, we’ll gie it tae them, only they’ll be the quarry and we’ll be the stalkers.”
No one disputed the boy’s words. For one thing, he was only repeating what their leader, Daroch, had told them. For another, in spite of the paucity of his years, the boy’s opinion carried weight. Theirs was a hard life, and even at the best of times, many a bairn went hungry to bed. Young Gordon had showed them a way to stave starvation from their doors. He had offered them shares in a thriving business venture. They were smugglers and dealt in contraband whiskey—Deeside uisge-beatha. It was a profitable business, as every man there could testify—if he was caught. There was little likelihood of that, however. Daroch’s young kinsman not only knew the terrain like the back of his hand, he also had the uncanny knack of knowing when and where the patrols would strike.
Speculation about the lad was rife. Some said that he was Daroch’s half brother, and he had been raised by the Gypsies until a year ago when Daroch learned of his existence. Others, observing his dark skin, shook their heads and vowed that the lad was in truth a Romany. What was known for certain was that Daroch watched over the youth like an eagle with its eaglet. When there was trouble, as there sometimes was, the men knew to look to young Gordon’s safety first or they would bring Daroch’s spleen down on their heads.
“I should hae stuck the bastard with my bayonet when I had the chance.”
“When was that?” The boy was only half listening to the disgruntled young Highlander who had joined him to check on their tethered mounts.
“At Waterloo. God forgive me, he looked so braw, so much the Randal, I would hae followed him to the gates o’ hell.” MacGregor shook his head and would have said more if his eye had not been caught by the glisten of something on the tips of the lad’s lashes. Long, they were, and curling like a lass’s.
“Ye were with the Gordon Highlanders?”
The boy moistened his lips. “The Randal had a cousin. David would be his name. He died at Waterloo. Would ye be knowing how it happened?”
Beardless, too. The lad was younger than he thought. “He saved the Randal. I saw it with my own eyes.”
“What did ye see?”
“The young major. He turned back and plucked the Randal from under the lances o’ the French cavalry. He was a brave man. How old are ye anyway?”
The boy’s shoulders stiffened. “Old enough,” he said, and threw out cockily, “And how old might ye be?”
“Eighteen,” said MacGregor, grinning hugely. “Now that is old enough, as mony a bonnie lass between here and Aberdeen can tell ye. Can ye say as much?”
The boy’s eyes flashed before he turned away to examine the girth on one of the ponies.
A hand fell heavily on MacGregor’s broad shoulder. “Stop tormenting the lad.” Todd Crombie was Daroch’s gillie and second in command.
“Lad?” said MacGregor querulously. “He’s only a bairn. He should be hame in his cradle. Tell me, is he weaned yet, for as sure as hell, he’s no had his wick—”
“Enough!” roared Crombie, and his hand tightened around MacGregor’s throat. “Mind yer tongue around the cub, or it will be Daroch ye answer to.”
MacGregor, who had a temper of his own, and had the strength of three Todd Crombies by his own reckoning, was too surprised to throw off the older man. He was thinking that there was more to young Gordon than met the eye. He knew very little of the lad, having but newly come home from the wars. One thing, however, was certain. Daroch and his gillie treated the lad as though he were a babe in swaddling clothes.