Taste my New Book
Taste Blood in the Heather: Rumours, Rebels and Rogues, the fourth and final instalment in my series Highwaypersons. I have already posted a series of excerpts from Garden Secrets, a short story set in the interval between books III and IV involving Helen de Clare and Charles Butler, two of the characters who have provided much of the drama, romance and humour in the series. Now read an excerpt from the book itself, where the hero, Billy Rhys, has to deal with a problem involving a boy soldier under his command. It also involves his nephew Llewellyn and his comrade Thomas, who both accompany him in most of his adventures. This should give you a taste of another aspect of the series.
Chapter 3: Youth’s joys and sorrows.
Fie, my lord, fie! A soldier and afeard? – William Shakespeare (MacBeth).
For Billy, the morning had also been interesting. While he had been preparing his company for the colonel’s inspection, he had discovered they were a man down. He ordered roll-call. The missing man was the boy-soldier, Adam Grant, who had been trying to round up the horses the previous afternoon. A few enquiries revealed that he had been unhappy and his comrades suspected he had deserted. Billy soon discovered that all the lad’s possessions had gone. Then someone said that a horse was also missing. Billy had no choice but to report all these things to Colonel Murray at the start of the inspection. Murray reacted predictably by sending patrols to look for the absentee along all the main roads leading away from Inverness.
Billy found Grant’s comrades far from informative and he gathered three of the Welshmen who had joined the Borderers with him, some two years before: his fifteen-year-old nephew, Llewellyn, Sergeant Morris and Private Thomas Thomas. He took them into a store and they sat on ammunition crates as they discussed the problem. They slipped from English into Welsh and back at times without noticing. Morris said he had found the boy keen and intelligent. He had had hopes he would make a good soldier. Llewellyn said, “That’s the trouble. He was too keen. Too quick to answer questions or correct anyone when they were wrong. People didn’t like it. He was a bit weedy too, and got picked on. He didn’t make friends either and he was the only one that came from Edinburgh, so he didn’t have any obvious pals.”
“Didn’t you notice, Sergeant? Didn’t you put a stop to it?”
As Morris hesitated, Thomas spoke up. “They didn’t do much when the sarge was around – or you – and even when he did stick up for the lad, it seemed to make it worse. They said he was the sarge’s favourite, like.”
Billy furrowed his brow. “Edinburgh? Is that where he’ll have gone? Or has he any kin or friends nearer?”
Nobody knew. Morris said, “It’s a long ride.”
Thomas said, “I wouldn’t fancy all that way on an ’orse. I’d sooner walk!” The others knew that Thomas had been a soldier for a long time, but had been a sailor before that. He had never worked with horses. His cheeky, cheerful and rather casual manner disguised the fact that he was competent at most things required of him as well as being big, strong, tough and worldly wise, which was why Billy had found him useful on many occasions. However, one thing that defeated him was riding or handling horses.
Llewellyn said, “What if he’s hoping to get a ship?”
Morris replied, “Why take a horse? It’s not too far to walk into the town and to the harbour. Stealing a horse only gets him in worse trouble if he’s caught, like.”
They sat in silence until Billy’s eyebrows nearly disappeared into his wig as the answer struck him. “If he’s clever, he might have taken the horse to get the searchers looking in all the wrong places. Let’s go to the harbour. Oh! Morris – you’d better take care of things here. Three of us should be more than enough if we’re right. I hope we are. I want to get to him before he’s dragged in front of the colonel – or worse.”
Llewellyn looked puzzled. “What?”
Thomas answered, “If he runs, they might shoot, isn’t it?”
A taste of authority.
In the harbour, there was only one ship preparing to sail. The three soldiers boarded, ignoring protests from the crew, one of whom ran to fetch the master. He was a little man, dressed more like a Royal Navy officer than the skipper of a small merchantman, in a smart blue coat with a yellow sash and white breeches. His bicorn hat looked too big for him, resting on his ears. Billy said, “I’m looking for a deserter. A lad of thirteen with fair hair. Have you taken on anyone like that today?”
The man spoke slowly with a refined Scots accent, “I don’t know. I’ll have to check the list.”
“How many new sailors have you taken on today? This isn’t a big ship. Surely you’d know?”
He drew himself up to his full height, which was noticeably less than that of any of the three soldiers. “I do not like your tone. Remember I am the master of this ship. I do not answer to you.”
“All right. Have it your way. I’ll have the ship searched from one end to the other before you can sail.”
The master said, “It’s ‘bow to stern’ or ‘from the top of the mast to the bottom of the hold’ – if you do not mind my saying.”
Billy thought that was the sort of pedantry that had made Grant unpopular, but when he got no further response from the master, he said, “Right! Thomas – fetch the rest of the company and prepare to search the ship. Tudor – go to the harbourmaster and tell him the ship is not to sail until I say so. Remind him I am a servant of the king in case he forgets.”
The two soldiers saluted and disembarked. As they marched along the harbour, Thomas said, “I don’t know when I saw Billy come over like that. He seemed as bad as that ship’s master. Could’ve been a general!”
Llewellyn chuckled, “He can play a part when he has to and he’s often had to. By the way, since it’s a bluff, let’s not go too far. Let’s go back and say everything’s in order.”
As he had watched them depart, the master had sworn under his breath and made a fuss over checking the crew-list before one of the sailors had said, “Beg yer pardon, Master, but dinna forget the passenger. He’s aboot the right age and all that.”
The master scowled at him. Billy said, “I think it would save a lot of time if I could see the passenger.”
The sailor raised an eyebrow. When the master hesitated but nodded, the sailor disappeared through what looked like a hole in the deck. A few minutes later, a teenage lad climbed onto the deck. He looked terrified when he saw Billy. He began to run towards the gangway but collided with Thomas coming back the other way, who grabbed him and said, “Calm yourself, bach! We’re not gonna hang yer.” Llewellyn had to wait for them to finish struggling before he could get aboard.
Turning to the master, Billy said, “Did you say he was a passenger?”
“What of it?”
“How much has he paid you?”
“Not much. I felt sorry for the wee laddie.”
Grant stopped struggling with Thomas and spluttered, “Not much? I had to give you a guinea.” Some of the sailors looked surprised. The master showed no emotion.
It was Thomas’s turn to splutter. “Where were ye taking the lad? China?”
The master tried to look as if he had not heard. A sailor replied, “Aberdeen. That’s where we’re bound.”
Thomas scowled. Billy said, “Give him his guinea back. He’s not going anywhere.”
“I do not refund money once it has been paid. It is not my fault that the laddie is not coming.”
“Do you want me to arrest you for harbouring a fugitive?”
“You have no right! Besides, how was I to know he was a fugitive?”
“I’ll let you explain that to the magistrates.”
Thomas added, “I’d like to know what the ship’s owners’ll have to say an’all.”
The man handed a guinea to the one who was no longer a passenger, saying, “You redcoats are as bad as a shipload of pirates. You will not let a man make an honest penny.”
Thomas laughed as he escorted Grant off the ship, followed by Billy and Llewellyn.
Billy asked Grant, “Where’s the horse you stole?”
“I didn’t steal him – I’m no thief. I left him with the farrier and said if I didn’t come for him, he could give him back to the regiment when they take some others to be shod. Anyway, I thought his shoes looked a bit thin.”
They marched to the farrier. The horse was tethered outside the forge. Billy asked if he had been shod. He had not. The farrier considered the shoes to have a few more weeks’ wear in them. Billy checked and agreed. “Sorry to have troubled you. We’ll take him back with us now.”
The farrier said, “Are ye no going tae pay?”
Billy stared at him. “But you just said…”
“Aye, but he’s eaten his fill o’ my hay. I’m no made o’ money ye ken.”
“The army will pay when they use your services next.”
As they left, Llewellyn said, “I didn’t see any spilled hay where the horse was standing.”
Billy replied, “We are surrounded by criminals. Now, the runaway and I need to talk. And I need a drink. Llew, will you ride this animal back to barracks and tell them to call off the hunt. I suppose you want a drink, Thomas?” Thomas’s smile answered that question.
A taste of army life.
The inn had a name in Gaelic, which Billy later discovered meant The Anchor. Inside, Billy and Thomas drank whiskey whilst Adam Grant said he was teetotal and satisfied himself with water. Billy asked why he had run away. The boy started to speak, but began to choke and burst into tears. In between sobs, he managed to say, “They’ll hang me as a deserter, whatever happens now.” After a few more sobs he added, “I’m so unhappy, I don’t care. If I can’t escape, I want to die. I hate the army.”
Billy waited until the failed deserter had composed himself before asking, “Why do you hate the army?”
“Everyone hates me. They all do their best to make me unhappy and they succeed.”
“Sergeant Morris doesn’t hate you. He says you’ve the makings of a good soldier. You’re keen and clever. Llew doesn’t hate you. You just annoy him at times.” Billy chuckled, “He annoys me at times, as does Private Thomas, but I don’t hate them.”
“They call me a girl because I’ve got fair curls and I’m skinny. They say I move like a girl too, except when I march. I can do that all right.”
“That’s something. That and being keen and clever. Not bad. Why did you join?”
“My father died and mother couldn’t support me and my younger brothers so I had to get a job. I heard the Borderers were recruiting and I heard they’d got mortars. I’d heard of mortars and wanted to see for myself, because I was always good at arithmetic and I thought it’d come in handy firing cannon or mortars.”
Thomas interrupted, “You’re right. You learnt fast. I mean, I’m a good gunner, but it took me years to learn it.”
Billy asked, “If you were poor, how could you afford to go to school?”
“Father was a schoolmaster. We were all right when he was alive but he got a fever and died and we had no other money coming in.”
A taste of whisky.
Billy sipped his whiskey as he pondered the situation. Thomas drank his quickly and asked if Billy wanted another.
“I wouldn’t mind – as long as you pay this time.” They both laughed. Grant looked puzzled.
When Thomas came back with the fresh drinks, he said, “I don’t reckon we want to see young Grant dance at a rope’s end, do we?” Billy shook his head. Grant sniffed and wiped his eyes on his sleeve. Thomas continued, “Captain Rhys, didn’t you say you told the lads to get them horses in last night? And didn’t the horses run off before they could?”
“That’s true, but what’s it got to do with our problem?”
“If Grant went off after them horses, he’d only have been obeying orders, isn’t it? And he’d need summat to ride after them on, wouldn’t he?”
Billy smiled. “I like it.”
Grant looked even more puzzled. “But you didn’t tell me to go after the horses today. And they wouldn’t have gone into the town.”
Thomas groaned. “Listen, lad, when you’re in the water you grab any rope they throw at you, never mind any ifs and buts. I should know!”
Billy laughed. Trouble and Thomas had a long and close association. “I’m not surprised you got lost, not knowing the area too well. Just try to listen more carefully when someone gives you an order. You just used your initiative. That’s a fine thing. I wish more soldiers had it. But there’s a time to use it and a time to do exactly as you’re ordered. You’ll learn. I did. Thomas might yet learn.” Thomas pretended to look shocked. The boy still looked far from happy. “What’s the matter now?”
“I know you’re being kind, sir, and so’s Private Thomas, but I’ll still have to go back to being bullied in the barracks.”
Billy studied his drink. “Good at arithmetic, eh? What about writing and spelling?”
“Oh, yes! I’m good at those too.”
“Hmm. The army isn’t only about firing guns and stabbing with bayonets, you know. There’s a lot of paperwork to be done. Officers have to do a lot. So do sergeants. Some officers have a company clerk to do a lot of it for them. He’s usually a private. It means keeping records and accounts. They still have to march and drill and go on parade, but they spend most of their time behind a desk. Would you like that?”
“I’d like to give it a try.”
“Good. Start today. I’m fed up with all the pen-pushing and so’s Sergeant Morris.”
“Is this all right? I mean, will it be allowed?”
“Colonel Murray is not a cruel man. If I show him a way out of our problem, he’ll take it. He won’t want a hanging. And he won’t want you to desert again. Not that you have, of course.”
That’s not quite the end of the chapter, but if you want any more you had better buy the book, you have had a good taste of it now.