A final offering for National Storytellers’ Week
I hope you enjoyed my previous contributions to National Storytellers’ Week: A Mammoth Conflict for the Stone Age Detective and Pigs in Mud. Both are extracts from my unpublished novel, The Stone Age Detective, This story introduces the hero of my two self-published volumes of Highwaypersons, although I did not include it in full in either book. I hope you will enjoy it as a bonus if you have read either Debts and Duties or The King’s Justice. If you haven’t, then it will give you a taste of what the books are like.
The horse trotted up the track leading up to the ridge between the two Rhondda valleys. He was coming from Maerdy in the Rhondda Fach, the Little Rhondda. His rider looked big on him, but although he was six feet tall, he was not heavily built and a Welsh Cob can carry more weight than many a bigger horse. Where the track forked, the rider chose the narrower arm heading further up, rather than the main track to the farmhouse he could see on his left. The track was steeper now and the horse slowed to a walk and his rider leaned forwards to ease the weight on his back, steadying himself by taking a handful of mane but giving with the reins to let the animal stretch his neck down and forwards. At the top they felt the blast of the cold wind as they were no longer shielded by the ridge. In fact, there was probably nothing between them and Ireland to hold back the weather. The man let the horse stand still to catch his breath for a minute, but did not let him get his head down to eat grass. He had not finished his journey. He looked along the ridge at the cottage a few hundred yards away and wondered why the track did not go there more directly. He had often wondered why anyone would have built a dwelling on top of the ridge where it was so exposed, instead of just below the top, like the farmhouse. His musings were interrupted as the horse began voluntarily to continue the journey. He let him go on, first at a walk, then at a trot, until they reached the cottage. It seemed so quiet that it could have been deserted, but for the furious barking of a terrier. As the rider looked around, a boy of about seven or eight appeared from round the building. “Prynhawn da!” he greeted the stranger.
“Prynhawn da!” He replied. “Good afternoon! Is your father around, or your mother?”
“Who are you?”
“My name is Gwilym Rhys. Your parents know me.”
“Did you used to live by ‘ere? Me Dada days this all used to belong to the Rhys family, even the big ‘ouse by there.” He pointed back down the valley to the farmhouse Gwilym had passed.
“That’s right. We lived there for a long time. Me, my father, his father and so on. That’s why they call it Penrhys. Rhys’s Top. After we had to leave that house, we lived here for a time. Now we’ve not even got this. I just wanted to see it and see how your family were getting on. Please go and tell them I’m here.”
A woman’s voice called out from behind the rider, “What do you want?”
He turned in the saddle. The boy began to repeat what the man had just told him.
The man doffed his hat and said, “Prynhawn da! Good to see you, Anghared. Where’s Davydd?”
“Is that you, Gwilym Rhys?” she asked as she stepped closer, peering at his face. “I ‘eard you’d gone for a soldier. Never was any good at farming, isn’t it?”
“I did join the Army for a time, but I’ve been back for over a year, now. By the way, call me Gwilym if you want, but I’ve got used to being Billy. It’s what the English call you if you’re name’s William, see?”
“There’s going up in there World, is it? Where’s my manners? Best get down off your horse and come in for a bit. I’ll find us something to eat and we can chat a bit. Iwan! Go tell the others we got company, so we’re ‘aving tea early, see. Go on!” The boy ran off shouting to his siblings who were probably out of earshot.
Anghared invited Gwilym to put his horse in the lean-to they used as a stable, among other things, before taking him into the house. She hotted up some lamb stew and made a big pot of tea.
Billy looked around. He remembered living in that cottage and visiting it many times before that. Sad as it was that his family had lost it, it was good to see it lived in again. Anghared had done a good job of making the place home. He had known her and the man she married, since they were all children. Her father and her future husband had worked for the Rhys family at times. Anghared was thinking similar thoughts. She asked, “I’ve ‘eard lots of things about you and your family. What really happened? Why did you all leave?”
“We got into debt. After my father’s creditors took the farm, he rented this place for a couple of years. Rhona and Dai worked here with him and I did when I got back from the War. It did no good. We never made a living. Dada’s in prison for debt and I’m working as an ostler at the Coach and Horses in Cardiff. So’s Bethan. Well, not as an ostler. She does just about everything else there apart from cooking.”
“There’s a mercy! For the guests, like. She was the worst cook in the Rhondda. You two never belonged on a farm, like your brothers and Rhona.” The children came in and she introduced Billy to them. There was a twelve year old girl and two boys younger than Iwan. The boys found it hard to grasp that Billy and Gwilym were the same name. Their sister, Anna, said she remembered the Rhys family but not Billy or his sister Bethan. He explained that that was because they had both gone away about the time when she was born. Bethan had accompanied her husband to the War.
Anghared asked, “You didn’t mention your eldest brother, Rhys. Where’s he?”
“He rowed with Dada about everything. Rhys was right, really. Dada was always a good farmer, but hopeless with money. After Mama died, he never managed to make ends meet. Rhys had lots of ideas, but Dada wouldn’t listen. In the end he left home. Went working for a farmer in the Swansea Valley first, then went away to the New World, or the Americas as some say. A place called Pennsylvania. Owain’s working on a farm by Maerdy. He seems happy. I’ve just been to see him. He told me you and Dafydd had taken on this place. Good luck to you, but we think you’ll find it’s hard work and not very rewarding.”
She dished up the stew. Billy was glad she had cooked it and not his sister. Anghared was a capable woman in lots of ways, which was just as well.
She said, “I think you’re right, about it being hard work! But what about Rhona? Where’s she?”
“Oh, she’s working for the people who took over our old farm. I can’t visit her so often. Her employers don’t make me welcome. Come to that, they haven’t made her welcome either, but she’s determined to stay. Says it’s where she belongs. Well, that’s us, but what about you? Where’s Dafydd?”
“He’s gone to sea.”
“Gone to see who?”
“No! Gone to sea. To be a sailor!” Anna laughed. Iwan and the younger ones looked confused. Anghared continued, “This must be the third time. Each time he stays away longer. When he comes back, he never seems to have any money. I dunno what he spends it on. Other women I expect!”
“I’m sorry. He was a good worker. Took to farming better than I did”
“I sometimes wish it was you I’d married. Remember when we were, you know, very friendly?”
“Yes, but I went off to war soon after that. I’d have had to leave you, unless you wanted to follow the Army, like Bethan. Mind you, she enjoyed it, most of the time. Had lots of fights with camp followers. You know what she was like!”
“Yes! She was a fighter all right. Me and her ‘ad a few fights. Well, more’n a few, like. Even though we was friends. I was taller but she was as strong as me.”
“It’s a good job you’re strong, if you’ve got to farm here without a man. Except this little one!” said Billy looking at Iwan.
“You’re right it js hard, although this little man does his best, and the girls too!”
Iwan said, “Dada’s a sailor. He used to be a soldier. He had a red coat. Were you really a soldier with a red coat?”
“I really was a soldier, but I never had a red coat. I was in the Artillery. I fired big guns. We had black coats. I think if we had worn red coats they’d soon have been black from the smoke coming from the guns. When was your father a soldier?”
Anghared said, “Oh, it’s just that he was in the Militia once. His red coat’s still here. When he’s home he talks about rejoininng it, but he always goes to sea again first.”
Iwan looked very pensive and said, “There’s lots of redcoats round here.”
Billy looked puzzled. Anna said, “We keep seeing them going up and down the Rhonnda. Both vallleys. It’s the Militia. The Lord Lieutenant is having a war on crime. He thinks there’s a highwayman living here somewhere. They say he’s called Merlin.”
Her mother snapped, “That’s rubbish! I’ve been ‘earing about some ‘ighwayman called Merlin since I was a little girl. This fellow would ‘ave to be an old man by now. Every time anyone’s robbed they shout about Merlin. Lord Roberts, the Lord Lieutenant probably thinks there’s one man doing all the ‘crime round ‘ere, so if they catch ‘im there’ll be no more crime. Fool!”
Billy smiled but looked embarrassed. Anghared said, “What is it? Don’t tell me you know all about it?”
“I do know an old highwayman who is the one they used to call Merlin. He’s still at it, at least sometimes, but … well… there’s something I think I’d better tell you. I mean, we’ve known each other a long time, haven’t we?”
“Well, I have been doing a bit of… er.. . robbing coaches and things. I’m trying to pay off the debts to get Dada out of gaol and maybe get the farm back. I can’t think of any honest way of doing it.”
“You must be joking! You? I could believe that of my Dafydd sooner than you. You was always honest.”
“Times change. We change. Look in my saddlebags!” They all looked. They were filled with gold, silver and copper coins plus an assortment of jewellery.
When she had recovered from the shock, Anghared said, “I know you need to ‘elp your father, but I wouldn’t mind if you left some of this ‘ere. We are finding it ‘ard to manage, just like you did.”
“Of course. In fact, I wouldn’t mind leaving it all here for now. Nobody will be looking for it here. I could come back for the jewellery when I’m ready to sell it. Help yourself to the money when you need it. Just not too much at once. It’ll look suspicious. That’s how a lot of them get caught. I learnt that from the one they call Merlin. By the way, I call my horse Merlin as a bit of a joke. He is good at helping me disappear. Not by magic, of course, just by moving fast and also by looking inconspicuous, being a dull bay.”
“What’s incon… what you said?” asked Iwan.
“Inconspicuous!” said Billy, slowly. “It means not easy to notice. Like a rabbit or a hare. You often can’t see them until they move. They seem to be similar to the countryside around them.”
It started to rain. It lashed against the windows and the roof. The door rattled as the wind shook it. Billy was not looking forward to riding through that. Penrhys was so exposed. Anghared looked out of the window and guessed what her guest was thinking. “You’re welcome to stay the night, unless there’s somewhere you’ve got to be tonight.” she said. “Or some woman you want to be with!”
“There’s nowhere I’d rather be than here just now! What could beat such good food and charming company?”
“You’re a bit of a charmer too, isn’t it? You always was! Not that I’m complaining!” She smiled at him and poured some more tea while Anna began clearing away the dishes. She called out over her shoulder, “Listen boys! I don’t want to get up too early tomorrow. Nor does Mr. Rhys. All right? There’s nothing that can’t wait except feeding the horses. You do that anyway. Just feed Mr. Rhys’s horse, Merlin, when you feed our Mari. Anna can milk the cow as usual without anyone having to show her what to do. Rjght Cariad? Right! When you’ve done that you can get on with breakfast. I’ll get mine and Billy’s when we’re ready.” She turned to Billy and added, “Since Dafydd’s been away, they’ve all been really good. I’m so lucky!” He was impressed that she considered herself lucky when she had such a hard life. He was also impressed at her unspoken invitation to share her bed. He hoped that was what she was implying. He soon found his hopes were fulfilled. Amply.
In the morning Billy and Anghared lay awake together, relaxing. They had been awakened by the sounds of the children getting up, but had not let it disturb them. Billy was feeling good. He had had a successful day followed by a good night. Anghared was feeling good too. She was delighted at Billy’s generosity. She wondered if he had suspected that she had slept with him out of gratitude or obligation. Well, she was grateful although not obligated. She and Billy had flirted when they were in their early teens, before he went away and she married Dafydd. She still found Billy attractive and had been wondering whether he felt the same about her. She no longer wondered. She did wonder whether any of her neighbours had seen her guest arriving or would see him depart. Although she had no near neighbours, people living in each of the Rhondda Valleys could notice anyone going up one of the tracks leading to her cottage. She knew there were whispers every time a man visited her when her husband was away. Why not give them something to whisper about?
The bedroom door burst open and Anna shouted, “They’re coming! Get up!”
Billy was almost dressed before he heard Anghared asking, “Who’s coming? What’s the matter?”
“Redcoats. Lots of them. From both sides!”
Billy could not see any redcoats from the window, so he went to the door. No. Was the girl imagining them? He stepped outside and began walking along the track. Then he saw them. Dozens of them, coming up from the Little Rhondda. He looked again in the opposite direction. More redcoats coming from the Big Rhondda. He tried to think of a plan. Quickly. He rushed back into the house. Anna said, “I’ll saddle your horse for you!”
“No! A man on a horse will be an easy target. Thanks, but I’ve a better idea. Put a set of harness on him. Never mind if it fits or not. Then lead him, slowly, down the track towards Maerdy. When you meet the redcoats, tell them you’re doing some work down below somewhere, and keep going, all the way to Maerdy and don’t come back until it’s safe. Iwan. Please go down towards the Big Rhondda and tell the redcoats that there’s a man here who’s holding your mother and sister hostage. Tell them to be careful otherwise you’re afraid he’ll hurt them. Of course, I won’t, but just tell them. Then keep away from the house until they’ve gone. Anghared, can you lend me that red coat of Dafydd’s?”
The boy and the girl went off and their mother gave Billy the red coat. He had a quick word with her before he put it on and went into the lean-to, taking his saddlebags with him. He hid them among a pile of straw, away from the animals. Then he waited. He heard a redcoat call out from a distance, “Are you there, Mrs. Harris? Are you all right?”
Anhared looked out of the door and pointed towards a wooded part of the slope running down towards the Big Rhondda. “He’s gone! Get after him, and you’ll catch him!”
The officer gave a few orders and four men went up to the cottage whilst the main body turned away and made for the woods. Meanwhile at the other side of the ridge some of the soldiers took hold of Anna and began pushing and pulling her around and laughing. She pretended to be falling, then sprang up, dodged her tormentors and scrambled onto Merlin, urging him into a canter. He responded so sharply that she would have come off had she not hung onto the collar. She had not put a bridle on him, because the pony’s bridle was so small it would not go near him. The rest of the harness was a bad fit, but it just about went round him satisfactorily. She had been leading him on a rope headcollar. She had little control over him, regarding both speed and steering, but did not worry. She let him pick his way along a narrow sheep trail at the side of the ridge. By the time he was breathless enough to stop, they were well clear of the few redcoats who had tried to pursue them. She dismounted and let him graze for a few minutes while she tried to make out what was happening in the distance. As she had hoped, she had created enough of an incident for an officer to halt the column and ask what was going on. The ensuing argument wasted time.
At the cottage, the four soldiers went in and searched, finally convincing themselves that Anghared had been telling the truth and not hiding their quarry. Billy slipped out of the lean-to and made his way down the hill towards the wood. One of the militiamen called out something unintelligible to him. He replied by pointing straight ahead and shouting, “Is that him?” thus causing the nearest dozen or so men to move in that direction. As soon as he reached the wood, he turned downhill and kept on until he reached the main road. Before breaking cover, he removed his coat and hung it over a branch. He then walked casually along the road until he came upon six redcoats who had been left behind in case “Merlin” tried to double back behind their comrades.
When one of them challenged him, he said, “I’m from Pontypridd, see. Name’s Ivor Williams. Looking for work. People back there in Porth told me there’s a woman round ‘ere working a farm by ‘erself. I ‘oped there might be work there, see?”
“Right now, we’re not letting anybody pass. We’re hot on the trail of a highwayman. The notorious Merlin. Once we’ve caught him you’ll be welcome to go up there and ask for work. Could be lucky I suppose. Better stay ‘ere for now, mind.”
“Oh, yes! I’ll stay with you. I don’t wanna get into any trouble like. I’ve ‘ad a long walk, so I don’t mind resting a bit.” He sat down on a grassy bank at the side of the road.
By noon the militia had given up the hunt and Billy strolled up the track to the cottage. Merlin was grazing with the Harris’s pony and their cow in a small paddock behind the lean-to. Anghared was relieved Billy was safe. She had been worried when Anna had told her of her encounter with the Militia, but the girl assured her that she had never been in any real danger. Then they all had a good laugh, especially when Anghared told Billy that one of the searchers had tripped over something while exploring the lean-to. It was a saddlebag, but he never investigated. He just assumed the floor was uneven, which it was.
Lunch was more lamb stew. That afternoon Billy helped Anghared and her children with a few chores around the farm. Anyone watching from below might have thought she had given him a job. When it was dark, he retrieved Dafydd’s red coat. That night Billy and Anghared enjoyed themselves even more than the previous one. And their lie-in was not disturbed.