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Rated: 13+ · Other · History · #1959492
In which events are set in motion over a few wretched cows.
A Few Wretched Cows
By Steve Wilds

The Debatable Lands, Scottish Borders, October 1591

There were ten of them on the road: eight men, a boy and their gaffer, and they drove ahead of them cattle numbering a dozen-and-two. They marched on through the gloomy afternoon and into a rain spittled evening, then drew off the road to a hidden camp ground that men used on journeys such as theirs. Ragged tarps kept the worst of the rain off them and a fire steamed damp off their clothes. Their weapons remained within easy reach.

The borderland moors slowly surrendered to the gathering night, their rough tussocks and clumped heather swallowed up by the infinite darkness, and soon their world was reduced to a speck of flame in an unmade universe with all they knew huddled around it.
In the darkness one of the cows lowed and lowed again.

“Go see to her,” the gaffer said to the man across the fire. The man nodded, pulled his coats about him and disappeared into the black.
The man stood with his back to the fire until he saw the cattle where they'd hobbled them, then he picked his way through the tussocked grass to the cow who moaned again. He put a hand on her snout to calm her and reached underneath to her udder where he found it solid and hot. He crouched and squeezed a teat until it issued liquid, and the cow struggled against her hobbling rope. The man rubbed the liquid between his thumb and fingers and stood to calm her again. The milk was thick and sticky, and it gave off a pustulent stink. He wiped it on his breeches and trudged back to the fire.

“She's nae better,” he said.

The gaffer nodded. “Aye, I reckoned as much.” He lobbed a sod of dry peat onto the fire and sparks spiralled into the heavens. “Boy!” the gaffer snapped. “Take her o'er to yon pool. The watter will do 'er good.”

The boy bobbed his head and stood up.

“Not the near one,” the gaffer said. “The Devil's in that un. Take her into the hollow below. T'aint far.”

The boy bobbed his head again and turned toward the dark.

“'Ey!” the gaffer barked and the boy faced him from the gloom's edge. “And take them two bullocks down an' all. They were both a-froth afore we stopped.”

The boy took a jealous look at the fire and then was gone.

“Ye reckon she'll be right for the rest o' the way?” the gaffer said to the man across the fire.
“Aye, I reckon,” the man said. “Ye reckon Armstrong'll take 'er?”

“He'll take 'er, foul milk an' all,” the gaffer replied. “She's meat on 'er if naught else.

“And his bairn?” the man nodded into the dark where the boy had gone.

“We're stuck with that 'un,” the gaffer said.

The man grunted and reached into his sack. He drew from it a brown apple and began sucking at it's over-ripe flesh.

Out in the dark, the boy picked his way down the slope having taken a wide route away from the pool that the gaffer had said the Devil was in. He saw his path through the edge of his vision and navigated the clumps and tufts and ankle-snapping sink-holes by instinct. The three cattle followed him, trailed on a rope that passed through each of their nose-rings, and the sick one faltered only a few times.
The ground first softened and then squelched and the boy stopped at the pool's edge. He tugged the rope until the cattle caught the water scent then he stood by as they lapped at its black surface. He kept the rope taut and waited for the cattle to finish.

As he waited, the boy thought he saw a shadow slink through the barely seen reeds across the pool. He swallowed and put a hand to his dagger. He chased away thoughts of the Devil come up from his pond above and whispered instead a prayer. He wrapped the rope around his hand and made ready to move away.

Again he saw it, this time accompanied by the rustle of heather against boots. He took a step back, keeping the edge of his eye on the reed bed, when a rough hand clapped over his face and lifted him off his feet. The tip of a dagger worked its way under his cowskin jack and the boy kicked and struggled. The blade punctured him and slid under his chest, grinding bone along its length, until it split his heart. The boy fell limp and the hand released him. His body flopped to the ground and the last drawn breath gurgled out of him.
The boy's killer picked him up by an arm and a leg and slung him out into the deep heather as if he were a lamb died of scrapie. The commotion startled the closest bullock and it slipped free of the rope to flee into the night.

“Catch it!” the shadow hissed.

“It's gone,” the boy's killer whispered back. “Ye can chase it if ye've a mind to; I'm gannin' wi' these uns.” He picked up the rope and slunk away, drawing the remaining cattle with him. The sick one lowed in protest but a jerk of the rope had it following.

The shadow crouched and waited for a few minutes then slipped away after its companion.

The boy, eleven years old and dead ten years older than most who were born, lay twisted and still in the heather, hidden both by the dark and the moorland. So it was along that border between England and Scotland, and so it had been for ten generations or more. It was a harsh country which neither the English nor the Scots Crown could claim nor control. The families and clans who survived the constant wars between the Crowns had become a law unto their own; they rode in bands to rob and to kill and take whatever made them stronger. They cared little for who they rode over and this was their law. Reivers they were called and they sowed the Border Marches with blood.

On the other side of a hunched, barrow-like hill, tucked in the lee of a hidden crag scarcely a mile beyond the cattle drivers' camp ground, another band huddled around a fire of their own, waiting for their scouts to return and for morning to follow them. There were seventeen in their party, accounting for the pair who had recently murdered the boy, and they were at ease in that rough night and rough land.
Their captain sat on a stone chewing beech nuts and spitting their husks into the flames, and the rest of the men sat or lay in sombre silence attending to their own doings.

The quiet was broken by the sound of things moving out in the invisible heather. The reivers took hands to their weapons and stared into the gloom.

“Tis us,” a voice said from within it and the men untensed. The scouts waded into the camp with their prizes strung behind them. The captain looked the cattle over.

“How many more?” he said.

“A dozen,” the scout replied. “One of 'em loose.”

The captain nodded. “How many men?”

“Nine now,” he said. “All of 'em a-foot”

The reiver captain snorted. “Ye know 'em?”

“I seen their gaffer at the assizes. An Elliot by my recalling.”

“Elliots a-foot on the dale road, eh?” The captain stared into the fire. He fed a beech nut into his mouth and watched the crackling flames as he chewed.

“Come morning,” he began at last, “we'll take 'em up. Elliots are naught this far south.”

The reivers nodded and muttered in agreement.

The boy's killer tied the cattle rope off and settled by the fire with his hands toward it. They were piebald with the boy's blood which dried now in the flicker.

The reivers settled into their cloaks as the rain slung down and night grew deeper, and the sick cow lowed unhappily in the dark.


And so neither the boy nor his wards returned to the drivers' fire.

After a time the drivers grew nervous of his absence and their gaffer spoke for them to find him. In the dark, lit by brands which flickered into being all manner of fears, the boy's stiffening corpse remained unfound. The lone bullock, however, wandered to them as they searched by the forbidden pool. They took it as good enough and headed back to the camp.

“Then 'tis clear,” said the gaffer upon their return. “The Devil has him took.” With the sun still hours over the hills, the party gathered their effects and rejoined the road. With eyes widened and pits dripping with shivering sweat, they marched on northward nudging their remaining cattle ahead as if to hide behind them from the blackness they trudged into.

In its time, the sun struggled aloft and the darkness shifted into greyness and then into a drizzle-soaked morning with cold mist at its middling periphery. The light softened the country not one bit, and with the shadows it also scattered the cattle drivers' superstitions; but neither did it soften their mood. Night was the Devil's time but the day belonged to man - and no prayer would drive him away.

The drivers nodded with fatigue as they went and they fought to keep their wits and eyes about them, staring into the fog for sign or sight of who else might lurk there, then drifting into the marching slumber before jerking back to the moment for a few more minutes.

At mid-morning they came to a stream crossing and the gaffer called a halt. The cattle, frothing with thirst and tiredness, lined up along the edge of it and lapped at the water with their thick, salivate tongues, and some of the drivers crouched beside them to rub cold water into their faces and eyes to bring alertness. Others, too tired to be concerned with the dangers there may be, simply curled up on the peat to steal what little sleep they could. The gaffer and another man stood by an upright stone and watched into the looming grey.

“How d'ye reckon Armstrong will take his bairn bin gone?” asked the man.

“I don't reckon on it at all,” the gaffer said.

“Maybe ye should. The laddie were pledged to us in good faith.”

“Aye, he were pledged to learn wi' us,” the gaffer said. “An' if he'd learnt, he'd be here to speak for hisself. Armstrong'll see it no different.”
“Hopin' ain't ye?” the man said.

“He knew the chances. If he were precious of  'em he never would ha' pledged the boy,” said the gaffer.

The man took a few paces away from the stone and unfastened his breeches. He took out his pizzle and released a heavy stream which splashed his boots and trickled over the dirt to join the brook.

“That may be as so,” he said as he pissed, “but it dinnae mean he'll take us losing the bairn wi' a pinch.”

The gaffer said nothing, instead he turned from the man and walked along the stream to the cattle. One of the bullocks didn't drink, instead it stood gazing across the road and into the moorland fog. He noticed its ribs were starting to show and a crust of rheum had begun to form under the arcs of its eyes. Dried matter streaked from them, following the line of its jowl to the edges of its mouth.

“Gaffer!” the pissing man shouted, though he pissed no more.

“Gaffer!” he called again and the rest of the drivers picked themselves up, having heard the urgency in his voice. The gaffer walked back to the man and the others gathered up their weapons.

As he closed on the man, the gaffer saw what alarmed him. Shapes in the mist; men mounted upon hobelar ponies, some with lances held a-crook, all wearing the round metal cap of the reiver. They approached, following the stream to where the road crossed it.

“Easy, lads,” the gaffer hissed at the drivers who had gathered behind him.

The gaffer stood by the pissing man who was now fastening himself up, and watched as the reivers emerged from the mist. Their hobelars were spattered with bog dirt and muddy water, and their leather jacks were dull with the filth of many days out in the country. They splashed along the stream until their captain stood his pony ahead of the gaffer. He remained mounted while his men spread out around the drivers. Neither did they dismount. The gaffer licked his lips with a dry tongue and glanced at his quaking party. The cattle looked on with stupid curiosity.

“Where go ye?” the reiver captain said.

“Liddesdale,” said the gaffer. “For the truce day.”

“That's two days hence by this road. Some would say ye've no sense at all for marching it.”

“We've a letter of passage,” said the gaffer. “From Collan Armstrong hisself.”

“Show me.”

The gaffer slung his pack to his front and drew out a square of damp parchment, then crossed to the captain to offer it up. The captain took it and passed it to the man on his left who examined it through narrowed eyes.

“Aye. It's frae Armstrong,” he said at last.

The cattle drivers shuffled on their feet and looked away as the captain cast his eye over them.

“We ride for Graham,” the captain announced. “Armstrong holds no sway o'er us.” He settled his gaze upon the gaffer. “What say ye to that?”

“I say ye'll incur the feud with Armstrong if harm comes to us. Or to his cattle.”

“And what of it if Graham minds no such thing?”

“Then more'n one of ye'll die with us today.” The gaffer put a hand on his sword-hilt and met the reiver's eyes.

The reiver captain spat, drew his horse-pistol and shot the gaffer through the head. The gaffer's cap spun away and brain matter spattered the men behind him. He fell to the ground in a pose that only dead people can lie in. Half hidden by the pistol smoke, several drivers pulled out swords and daggers, and the rest stood in static fascination at what was happening.

The reivers nudged their ponies forward with swords drawn and cut the drivers down where they stood, then two broke off to gather the shot-startled cattle while the remaining reivers stepped their ponies around the fallen and stuck them with lances until their moaning and twitching was finished.

When the last driver was still and the cattle were settled back to drinking, the reivers dismounted and began stripping the dead of everything they carried. They took their swords and knives, their boots, their belts and whatever few coins they carried. They cut the jacks off those who'd had them and rinsed the blood out in the stream, then they did the same with the breeches to wash out the filth left in them by death-drained bladders and emptied bowels.

Then there were the personal effects: a keepsake here, a blackened Bible there, a few pewter tinderboxes, a handful of charms woven from straw and heather; one man had a bag of over-ripe apples and another kept a rosary worn shiny and finally fruitless. Their pots and pans, their leather mugs and coarse-lathed bowls, their meagre provisions of carrots and neeps and dried-out tufts of mutton, all were gathered up too.

The drivers' goods were wrapped in their cloaks which the reivers fashioned into panniers and hung from their saddles.

As they set about this, their ponies supped at the stream and chewed on the stiff and bitter grass that grew beside it. The cattle eyed them with suspicion but the ponies paid them no heed.


The reivers swayed in their saddles as their hobelars picked their way down the hillside over the soft and uneven ground, and the cattle struggled oafishly behind them. A narrow brook babbled beside them, almost lost in the expanse of heather and within its own gouged banks which were clogged with thorny gorse and dead bracken stems that waved like the spears of some impish army. The sun sat high and far, a silver disc half hid in a mottled sky, and it shed a scant warmth which the Solway breeze carried away on salty airs. Liddesdale sprawled out below them, the Lord's tower at the head of it and the truce day gathered a politic distance hence.

Earlier in the day the March Wardens, one each from Scotland and England, had approached the site with their soldiers behind them, the assurances had been given and the gathering assembled. With them came all manner of folk; tinkers and tack sellers, purveyors of rough-bread and grain liquors, livestock traders and pony breeders, high-ranking men of the riding families who came with deals and agreements, and ragged women who came to sell that which God had given them. Stalls and stock pitches were set up, fires were lit, and tents and tarps were made up in huddles according to the families that set in them, while the dogs of every family chased and yapped and tumbled and copulated between them in one great, joyous pack.

The sounds of revelry greeted the Graham riders as they entered the gathering, or such as passed for revelry in those parts, and they rode on through a melee of drunkenness and commerce and murders setting themselves up to be committed on a different day. They made their way toward their kinsmen's pitch, passing close to an encampment of Armstrongs where Collan Armstrong shared a skin of drink with a gaggle of his men. The captain saw him and led his party closer still.

Collan Armstrong turned to the riders and his companions did likewise, their eyes hooded with suspicion and mouths set thin. He glanced at the cattle that lumbered behind the riders and saw Elliot's brand that marked their flanks. He spat a wad of phlegm into the grass and stepped out into the riders' path.

Collan Armstrong was old for a Borderer and age had weathered him to something akin to stone. His lank, iron hair hung loose about his shoulders and he wore a beard that still held some black. Of all his features it was his eyes that told the most about him. One was milky and blind, scarred by an old wound which jagged white from his temple, but the other remained dark and vital and shone with an animal intelligence that would suffer no lie or reproach.

His family dominated from the Solway Firth to the hills beyond Liddesdale and they respected neither Crown. Like Collan Armstrong himself, they were known throughout the Western Marches for their strength, their hardness toward enemies and their loyalty to old friends. For generations Armstrong and Graham had been at odds, two powerful families circling each other like a pair of dogs all a-snarl.
“Them was to be my cattle, Graham,” Collan Armstrong said to the captain.

“Yet I drive 'em,” the captain said.

“Aye, yet ye do.”

“So they's my cattle, nae?”

Collan Armstrong fixed the captain with a grim expression. “And what o' them that drove 'em before ye?”

“What do ye reckon, Armstrong?”

“I reckon they were found by yon road a day and a night since, wi' naught of a breath between 'em,” Collan Armstrong replied. “An' one of 'em weren't found at all.”

“That road is a hard one. If Graham don't take 'em up on there, Irvine will, or Lowther or Ainslie,” said the captain.

“Nae, they's have better sense than to violate a road passage o' mine,” Collan Armstrong said. “Has Graham?”

“Elliot's gaffer said somethin' of a guarantee,” the captain said, his eyes steady on Armstrong's. “But folks say all manner o' things afore they're taken up.”

“An' what said his note?”

“Ye'll forgive me havin' nae ken o' words,” the captain replied.

Collan Armstrong remained silent.

“So have ye a bill for the Wardens on the matter?” the captain said.

“Nae, I've no bill, Graham.”

“Aye, I reckoned as much,” the captain said. “There's naught ye can do. Not this day.”

The captain turned his pony away and rejoined his men. He  passed a few words with them and bitter chuckles rose out of the party. As they rode away Collan Armstrong called out and the captain halted and turned in his saddle.

“I'll send a man to ye in a wee while,” Collan Armstrong said. “He'll give ye trade for 'em. The price will be fair.”

“I'll reckon on that, Armstrong.”

“Aye, I expect ye will.”

The Graham captain turned back to his men and they rode to where their kinsmen camped. They met with jeers and insults followed by hearty embraces, then tied off their ponies and set about the truce day with careless enthusiasm.

None of them noticed a rider gallop out of Armstrong's pitch to leave the gathering by the Eskdale road.

Later, the moot was called and the principle business of the truce day began. The March Wardens read out the bills and made their judgements: thirty men of varied Scots families were jointly fined £39 for their part in a string of raids against Routledge; a group of Routledges were fined for various misdeeds along the line rivers; a cold trod was granted to Johnstone against Maxwell which led to an uproar that was quelled by Scots soldiers while their English counterparts watched on with measured indifference, and later Collan Armstrong gave oath to clear a riding of Nixons who stood accused of a raid against Atherington which everyone present knew they had done.

The day's business fell to minor bills and the onlooking crowd thinned and returned to their pitches and stalls. The afternoon bled away and the gathering settled from anarchy into aftermath and preparation for the lifting of the truce in the morning.

And so the sun slunk toward the western hills, burning orange among the clouds that hung there and lighting them like forge-fire into streaks of glowering red with edges tempered to shining sharpness. From that way Armstrong's rider returned, his pony lathered and tongue a-loll, and with him came several others who accompanied a rattling, trough-bottomed cart. They drew onto Armstrong's pitch and the cart then lumbered across the gathering ground to where the Grahams were camped.

The Graham captain came out to meet it, his jack hanging loose on its laces and his sword stowed elsewhere.

“Ye'll be Armstrong's man?” he asked the driver.

“That I am.” Armstrong's man stepped off the cart. “I've trade for yon cattle.”

“Have ye now?”

“Half-dozen bushels o' barley grain an' a purse to twelve shillings a head.”

The captain eyed the sacks on the cart.

“Ye care to shew me the coin?” he said. “Or am I to take ye on faith?”

The Armstrong man slipped a goatskin purse from inside his coats and passed it to the captain. The captain tipped the contents half into his hand, measuring them by eye before he returned them to the purse and tucked it inside his jack.

“An' ye can keep the cart,” the Armstrong man said as he set about unhitching the pony from it.

“It'll make for firewood, I suppose,” the captain grunted.

The Armstrong man gathered up the pony's tack and harnesses and fastened them together in a neat bundle that hung about its neck. He hooked a hand through its cavesson strap and gave the captain a queer look.

“Have ye no place to be, Armstrong?” the captain growled.

“Aye, I reckon I do.” Armstrong's man led the pony to where the cattle were tied and unfastened them from their post. The captain watched after him as he took them across to Armstrong's pitch, then he called for men to unload the cart. Satisfied with the day's doings, the captain went off to attend to other matters.

His men began hauling the barley sacks off the cart and stacked them by the side in the lee of the breeze. They had all but one off when the man on the cart-bed held up a hand for them to stop. He drew back the tarp that covered the bed planks and then slid a couple of them aside. Beneath them, in the trough-bottom, he saw the bloodied edge of a woollen shawl. He lifted another plank and looked at the men. They stood staring at what lay within, their faces stern, their bodies still.

“Fetch the captain,” someone said.

Collan Armstrong leant against the hurdled fence of his stock pitch looking out across the gathering while his man examined the cattle.
“This un's milk's gone tae bile,” the man said, “an' they two's goin' the same.”

Collan Armstrong hissed between his teeth. “I should'ae give him three bushels an' eight a head,” he said. The words came with none of his attention, fixed as it was upon the Graham riders who gathered in a knot conspiring and glancing back with hard expressions. The man stepped over the cattle rope and joined Collan Armstrong at the stock fence.

“The trade for my boy was fairer,” Collan Armstrong said.

“I still reckon ye've taken it too far for a truce day,” the man said.

“If it were just Elliot's lads an' the cows, aye, but this is blood for blood now.” Collan Armstrong spat into the churned up mud. “It'll get wild frae here between they and us.”

The man picked at the hurdle with his thumb. “It's a long time coming,” he said at last.

“Aye, so it is.”

Behind them, one of the sick cows snorted and shivered in its skin; whether in judgement or witness neither man knew.
© Copyright 2013 Steve Wilds (gibbonici at Writing.Com). All rights reserved.
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