Northern Lights – Episode 08

Lilias presented an alarming spectacle as she ran gasping, her shawls flapping, along Arbroath’s streets and wynds. Townsfolk she encountered skipped smartly aside.

“Where’s the fire?” some cried indignantly after her.

Fisher women wailed.

“Michty, dinna say another ship’s foundered!”

Lilias shoved them aside and ran on, fired by one urgent purpose – to fetch Jeremiah Cuthbert, Alec’s master. Would she be in time, and could she prevail upon him to intervene?

She looked around her, unfamiliar with this part of town. The smiddy must be nearby, but where?

She heard the clang of iron and followed it, falling into the smiddy yard on the point of collapse.

The smith and Ezra, the wheelwright, were in the yard repairing a cart. Startled, they turned.

“What ails ye, mistress?” Jeremiah cried.

Lilias explained in a few faltering words.

He frowned.

“The lad’s fifteen and serving an apprenticeship. They’d no right to him.”

“So I said, but they swore they could, since the Navy’s short o’ powder-monkeys.”

He groaned.

“Alec a powder-monkey? That’s a death sentence!”

He flung off his leather apron.

“Ezra, see to the lady.”

He ran from the yard.

The wheelwright guided Lilias towards a bench.

“There, mistress, sit ye down. It’s noble work ye did to save that fine loon.”

Lilias could not rest. The smith might be too late! She hugged the shawl round her shoulders.

“Alec’s no’ saved yet. I’ll no’ count my chicks till the fox leaves the roost.”

Ezra nodded.

“There’s little can be done once the lad’s taken aboard the impressment vessel, but I place my faith in Jeremiah Cuthbert.”

The wheelwright sat beside her, eased a clay pipe from under his cap and a tinderbox from a pocket. Tamping baccy from pouch to bowl, he expertly struck spark to tinder.

Lilias found the flavoured smoke comforting.

“The smith called me a lady,” she said aloud, in wonder.

Ezra took the pipe from his lips.

“So he did,” he agreed.

*  *  *  *

Alec Cargill gave up hope after Lilias left. He did not blame her for taking fright. These were powerful men.

The press gang found the old woman’s flight hilarious.

“See the auld hen run cackling back tae the roost!” the leader scoffed,

His men jeered. It was more than Alec could stand.

“My grandmother was brave to stand up to you. There was no need to treat her so rough and rude!”

They had the grace to look shamed. Enforced recruitment of men and boys to a dangerous life aboard a man-o’-war was considered necessary by Naval authorities to compensate for losses, but those given the task of enrolling new recruits were not completely heartless.

“The old woman’s brave, right enough,” the leader conceded. “If you have half your granny’s spunk you’ll do well i’ the Navy, lad.”

They marched Alec along the breakwater towards the waiting cutter. The harbour was deserted. Canny fishermen battened down hatches and kept out of sight when it was rumoured the press gang was in town.

At the end of the breakwater Alec’s captors sat him on the ground.

“The rest o’ the gang will be here soon wi’ a catch o’ recruits from the pub, then we’ll be off. Cheer up.”

Alec shivered.

“What is a powder-monkey? If I’m to be one, I should know.”

The gang nudged one another. Their leader spoke up, straight-faced.

“Well, laddie, it’s not admirals that win battles, though they get the credit. Nay, it’s the speedy wee powder-monkeys. They run wi’ gunpowder cartridges from the ship’s magazine below the waterline up to the gun deck, supplying the gun carriage crews.

“It’s powder-monkeys that keep King George’s cannons firing broadsides faster than Napoleon’s. If you run fast like your old granny, you’ll be fine.”

Alec frowned.

“Gunpowder’s dangerous!”

“Aye, you’d not want to meet sparks from a French broadside while ye were running with it, or else –”

“Boom!” the men howled in rowdy unison.

They were enjoying teasing the laddie so much that the blacksmith’s arrival went unnoticed till the big man stood in their midst.

“I’ll thank ye to release my apprentice.”

Lucy Crichton

Fiction Editor Lucy is always on the look-out for the very best short stories, poems and pocket novels. As well as sourcing enjoyable content, she enjoys working with our established contributors, encouraging new talent, and celebrating 155 years of 'Friend' fiction!