It wasn't that she was mistreated exactly. It wasn't as if she were excluded purposefully. It's just that she was slightly out of place. Upon becoming an orphan, very sadly and inconveniently, she was cast upon her uncle's good graces. He took her in. For that she was grateful. However Bess was just one more girl added to his covey of daughters to find a husband for, a task that kept him looking grim for much of the time whenever he noted females about. Bess tried to stay inconspicuous and out of the way as much as possible.
"How much did uncle settle for me? Was it a goodly sum?" she asked bitterly.
One day when she was coming out of a shop tiring of her aunt who was still inside inspecting gloves, she ran into the vicar's nephew, Merritt. He was just outside the door.
"Good day, sir," she stammered. Just looking at him swept away any other words in her head.
"Is it true? Are you engaged to Sir Benson?"
Bess looked down and whispered, "Yes."
Merritt grimaced before he finally said, "If there was any way, any way at all that I could use to rescue you, I would. Even if I had to ruin you so you'd have to marry me, I'd run away with you to be wed, I'd do it." He sighed, "But it would not have the Lord's blessing breaking His commands." He put out his hand on her arm and added, "Believe me, I would do anything if I could, but I have no way to support you. I have yet to find a position in a kirk, and as a second son, I have no inheritance." He looked seriously down with his chocolate brown eyes pouring warmth into her.
"I've heard tales of his temper. He'd kill you, and probably kill me too, if we tried to run away. I thank you for your desire though to care for me."
"His temper is widely spoken of. But even if I desire you, want to care for you, which I do, it is not enough, is it?" They were still whispering back and forth.
She shook her head no, as tears glazed her eyes. "It means ever so much that you've said this to me though."
Her aunt came out scowling. "I did not realize you had left the shop, Bess. Hello, sir. If you don't mind, we'll be on our way."
Bess looked back once more and saw him watching her as she had to walk away quickly.
The huge man said, "Donna worry, lass. The Good Book tells us 'dain' by yer neibor as ye wad he'e yer neibor du by you.'" His Scottish brogue was heavy, but she understood.
As soon as the door was shut, she took off her filthy gown and exchanged it for a shapeless dress of a commoner. There were leather boots and wool stockings as well that came close to fitting. She added another cape to wear under her cloak which had dried by the fire. It was much colder here. Bess was amazed that she had not frozen to death after laying in the wet hay, in wet clothes, with the wind whistling up through the cracks in the cart.
"Eh, lassie, ye maun be cauld," he worried and brought out another wool blanket.
It was again a cart, this time to be pulled by a small donkey. Three sheep were waiting to be loaded and tied to the sides. "If you'll crawl on up there, we'll toss some dry hay, then add a couple sacks of feed to tuck ye in so the sheep won't step all over ye. You'll be safe at the castle. The master is afraid to show his face there again, that's fer sure and certain. The menfolk would rise up ag'in 'im. They would seek justice and make sure he was never seen again after some kind of an accident or other, probably involving cliffs and rocks and ocean below, might happen. I think ye'll make a bonny shepherdess, no doobt."
He went on, "Oh, yer sure to fall in love with the highlands, lassie. Their beauty is unsurpassed. Clans have fought over this land for as long as in any one's memory. At least for now, it is peaceful, Guid be thank'it.. We just want the crown to leave us alone to worship as good Presbyterians, and not force the Church of England on us. Many have already gone over to Ireland to escape their suppression. But nay, I'm too old, as are Peg and Peter. We're happy here in our homeland and will die here. Be ye ready, lass?"
"Hello, dear brother. I'm blythe to see ye, me ain flesh and blude. What have ye brought to yer old sister? We wasnna expectin' ye to come. But come in, come in," the old woman urged.
"Ahh, tis but three sheep I thought ye could add to yer awn flock, but tis a more valuable cargo I brought ye to take care of. Ye can come out now lassie." Bess carefully climbed out of the cart being watchful of her broken wrist and ribs.
"Hello," she tried to put a smile on her weary face.
"What 'ave we got here, Robert?" The woman exclaimed. Jest, luik at her. Saw ye ever sic a one so frightfully beaten?" Suddenly sucking in her breath she said, "Is she another of the master's wives? For shame on him. He's already done in too and now he aboot kilt another lass. Well, he won't be showing 'is face up here. He's an oonsanctifeed brute. A heap o' fowk wanna have it, whether he's a peer or not. The man would meet a terrible accident that's for certain."
"The trowth's the trowth, neither mair nor less." Robert said.
"What ye think we oucht to do, Robert?" the old man called Pete finally rasped. "We donna have what it takes to take care of a fine lady, ye know."
"Hoot, husband, I kon mair aboot that than ye. I houp I hae a bit notion o' it. Dinna I take care of her leddyship hersel' afore?
The one who brought her spake just then. "I told her she'd make a bonny shepherdess. Young Daniel can show her what's she's to do. Jist give her a room and feed her. She's escaped and has no desire to return to England, ain't that richt, miss??"
"Yes, thank you. I'll try not to be in your way. Taking care of sheep is something I've never done before, of course, but it can't be as hard as waiting for my husband to come back to beat me to a bloody pulp. I'm made of hardy stuff, and will do better as my broken bones heal, that is."
"Ye poor lassie. May the devil take the man who did this to ye!"
"Ay, but there's a richt an' a wrang way t' go aboot it," Robert said. "Weel, it'll be aboot time for me to be gauin' hame in the morning."
After a warm bowl of soup, she was shown to a small room. It had a bed and not much else in it, but that's all she needed. After washing in a bowl of warm water, she fell sound asleep. The kind older gentleman who had brought her here had already left in the morning before she could thank him again. But a young lad was at the breakfast table. He stood and pulled off his cap when she came in.
"Hello, you must be Daniel. I hear you can turn me into a shepherdess."
With a twinkle in his eyes and a grin on his freckled face he said, "Aye. You'll make a fine one, I'm thinkin'." Suddenly he lost his grin and scowled, "but not until ye heal up from the windle straw who tried to break ye. The sheep can wait a few more days to meet ye."
"I don't suppose ye know yer way about a cook fire do ye, lass?" old Peg asked.
"No, to be honest, but I can learn," she said smiling up into the kind face.
"Oh, verra well, I've got lots I can teach ye, if yer willing."
"That would make me happy," Bess said.
Bess asked the man Pete, "Are you a factor here?"
"Noo. He's more of a grieve, a farm overseer." His wife answered for him. "Aigh, but it's a peety he wasna 'foreordeent to be one. But we're happy with our lot."
"Is yer head stuffed with wool, woman? Sech nonsense," Pete growled.
"Daniel, lad, did ye see the three ewes that Robert yer lucky deddy-brought us? You can paint our mark on 'em then add 'em to the flock this mornin'."
"I saw 'em when I greeted my lucky-deddy before he left. I'd say that at least one of 'em will throw a lamb this spring, if not all three. I'll bet that was a mingin' ride for ye lass." With that the men went out to the barn.
Bess smiled not knowing way a 'mingin' ride' was.
Once out of the woman's hearing, Pete said, "It was a generous thing for Robert to do bringing the lassie as well as the sheep. I won't be saying nothin' to her, but even if that bampot of a master doesn't dare come here, he might send one of his men, those eejits, to nose around. As soon as she's better, I think we'd best set her up in one of the shepherd houses and keep her out of sight of the neighbors as best we can too. We don't need a lot of prattle about a new shepherdess suddenly appearing." Pete took protecting her seriously.
"I agree. At least until we're sure that he's satisfied she's not here," Daniel answered. I'll watch over her when she's out on the moors and won't let any strangers come nigh her."
"I know ye will. Yer a good lad, Daniel. I thank yer mother and father for letting ye come to help us old folk out. I seem to get knackent more as time goes by."
"I love it here, ye know," he heaved a satisfied sigh.
Bess learned every thing there was to know about chickens, from feeding them, to collecting their eggs, to wringing their necks and plucking their feathers. She even learned how to make a few dishes out of them as well. But she tended to scorch and burn the veal as she turned it on the spit in the giant fireplace though."
Old Pete had already sat her down and explained how someone might come poking about looking for her. He showed her a few good hiding places in the castle and insisted that she not leave anything out that would prove she was there. She was a little nervous when he went on to say that she'd probably need to begin staying in one of the small shepherd huts soon.
Daniel introduced her to the sheep dogs. "They'll do most of yer work for ye, and a crackin' job of it too. I'll teach ye a few commands. We don't have too many predators except the eagles that swoop down and snatch up the wee lambs. If ye run at them with yer staff, ye can scare them off, if it's not too late to save them."
Bess shuddered. "Are there any other creatures out there I should be aware of?"
"There's the highland cattle who graze usually near the loch, but I'll take care of them," Daniel informed her then went on. "You might come across a few deer and a stag. It's a small herd due to poachers. You see, with the master away, they've become bolder. There's not much Pete and I can do to catch them. But don't worry about the deer. They'll bound away when they see ye."
Bess felt ready to begin the next week. Her bruising wasn't quite as painful, and Peg had wrapped her ribs for her bringing some relief. When she walked beside Daniel and finally looked up from the trail, she gasped.
"This is so very beautiful! Oh my. I can see why you love it here. They stood in almost a quiet reverence for a few minutes.
"I'll take ye to the shepherd's hut. It will shelter ye at least until the danger is past. As fer that, if I know a stranger is aboot, and I can't get to ye fast enough, I'll play this on my flute," and he played a few piercing high notes of a snatch of a song. "That should carry and reach yer ears. I won't be leaving ye alone out here," he winked and grinned. "I've never had a shepherdess to look after before. We'll put the verra sunsheen back in your cheeks. We''ll hing aboot with fower fittet animals the lee lang day."
The small stone house was primitive, but sufficient. Bess was a beggar, not a chooser. Daniel showed her again how to make a peat fire. Then he took her to an even smaller shelter. "This is where I'll be staying, but if there's danger, jist rin ye to it if it's closer."
"We'll most of the time eat our supper in our huts, but if the sheep graze close enough, we'll stop in the castle and sit at the table with Peg and Pete. Peg often sends Pete out with some vicktools. I'll help ye do the cooking in yer house if ye like. I can turn a good rabbit on a spit since I'm quite handing with my slingshot at knocking them doon." He grinned as if he hadn't a worry in the world but where to pick up the next stones for his slingshot. So just like that Bess became a shepherdess.
"As long as the castle donna fall down on our heads," Peg grumbled.
"It's stood for all these centuries, there's no reason it won't last a few more, at least the main part we're in," Pete assured her.
"It's just a shame that the master doesn't see fit to take care of what he's got. It could be brought back to some of its glory that I remember as a girl, sure enough."
"Well, I'm just happy that he stays away and lets the castle alone," Pete said.
Daniel then went on to say where the sheep were now grazing and how they'd come across the herd of deer. "There's hardly any left," he said. "Only aboot ten or so at the most. It's a peety."
"I have only seen one stag as of late, the one with the irregular points on his antlers. How aboot you, Daniel?"
"Jist the one." If he goes missing, we'll have to investigate. It would take a long time to replenish the herd if that happens."
"That's borrowing on tomorrow's worries," Peg said. "There is some talk however of a lassie walking the moors, but some say she's a ghost," she grinned revealing her many missing teeth. "I didna said isnae to discourage their talk. It might keep them away if they think we've got an a
spirit floating o'er the heather."
They all got a good laugh at that.
"Maybe it's a good thing that I sewed that white dress that makes me look like an apparition," Bess smiled.
"It comes from all the tales told about the haunts from the castle ruins. Those stories have been told from one generation to the next. We Scots are a superstitious lot alright," Pete added. "Ay, it's jist a blither of nonsense."
"I still keep a sharp eye out for a leprechaun, meself, and his pot of gold, of course," Daniel chuckled. Bess laughed along with the others.
Sometimes a body comes across a gold coin heaved up in the peat left over from the Vikings, but I hanna heard of it happening ere since I was a young lass, meself, yonks ago," Peg added.
"And here all I thought I was supposed to see were sheep," Bess teased. So the days turned into months. When the rain came down hard, Daniel insisted that she stay by the peat fire in her little hovel. He was kind like that. But when the sun came out it was glorious. It was one of those days that she was walking down from a summit when she heard the strident notes from Daniel's pipe.
Bess ran. His hut was closer, so she went in and barred the door. The dogs had thought it was a game and had followed her home leaping and barking at her heels. In a few minutes, Daniel called out to let her know he was there. She opened the door to him.
He was out of breath. "Pete came hobbling as fast as he could to tell me that the master's coach was seen in town and was headed this way. The men are gathering now to run him off, but you need to stay here behind the barred door. Maybe you should keep one of the dogs with you too."
Bess couldn't believe it! Her knees became weak so she sank onto her bed. "I thought I would be safe. Maybe, should I go to Ireland?"
"That doolally will be taken care of soon. The men in the village won't have an animal such as the likes of him around to endanger their daughters like the last time he was here. Donna worry. That numpty will be taken care of."
A shiver ran down her spine thinking of what was left unsaid. Her husband had been warned not to return or else. He most likely would meet an untimely end in some way that would look like an accident. There were plenty of cliffs to fall or be pushed from here in the highlands.
"I'll go and see what's aboot, and come back to tell ye. Just stay put." With that, Daniel was gone. The dog at her feet whimpered then climbed onto the window seat and fell asleep with one ear cocked listening.
She felt sick and her hands were shaking. Her wrist had healed, but she couldn't use it very well. It was weak and could still send an aching pain. Her ribs, however, were much better. She bore no other evidence of her abuse. Bess could not even think of going back to her husband. It just could not be.
Daniel finally came back, and she cautiously opened the door to him. "Good news, lass! Your husband is no longer the laird! I must tell ye though, he was frightfully murdered for roughing up someone else's lumber, (concubine). He was a real zoomer (a person of erratic disposition), alright. You are safe from him at long last. We did not let on, however, that you are here, a stouter (a very attractive woman) like you. The new laird has come to inspect his properties. He is quite taken with his castle in the highlands and is in quite a fidget about it. He's talking with Pete on how they could restore some of it. It doesn't look like he'll be moving on soon."
Bess was speechless. She looked at the fire and said, "He truly is dead?"
"Yes. It is true."
She sighed, then burst into tears.
"Ahh, I thought you'd think it was good news. I sure did not think you'd be crying on me now." Poor Daniel's ears turned pink in his embarrassment.
"It's just that I am so very relieved," she finally gained control. "Sorry. It's just all so shocking. I guess as far as this new man goes, he will just believe I truly am a shepherdess working on his estate. There shouldn't be a problem right? I mean, I'll do my best to avoid him, like I won't go up to the castle and I'll hurry off another direction if I see him coming, but there should not be any trouble, will there?"
"No, but we'll put our heads together, Peg and Pete and I, and try to figure out what we should do aboot ye," Daniel said. "The man seems nice enough. He's young and enthusiastic aboot the place. He sounds like he's not fond of London."
She took to riding the one and only horse so that she could stay in the far pastures during the day. Daniel took the horse back before sunset for her. Sitting by herself at night, she continued sewing. She was up to three dresses now, not counting the hand-me-down wool clothes that Daniel's grandfather had bequeathed her. They felt good in the winter, but it was warming up now as spring was about to slide into summer.
Bess just went about her business of herding the flock. It left her plenty of time to think. She thought she saw the man from a distance once, so she hurried down a steep hillside out of sight. Peg sent Pete out with a sack of provisions on a regular basis. It broke up the monotony of her meals, for which she was thankful.
The thought of going back to her uncle's home with its relative luxuries went through her head. But, no. It was his fault that she'd been married to that monster, and there was no guarantee that he would not do it again. This was a simple life. It was her lot in life now.
After a week had gone by, Bess began to relax. She was climbing up the hill as the fog was rolling in one day thinking how good a peat fire in her little hovel would feel. Quite unexpectedly, she came across the man. "Oh!" she cried.
He whirled around and stared, "Bess? Is that you, is that really you or am I seeing a ghost?"
Bess gasped, "What on earth are you doing here, Merritt? Are you going to be the new vicar in the village?"
But the man closed the gap between them and clasp her tightly to his chest. "I thought I'd lost you. We all thought you were dead. I've been blaming myself all this time for not doing something to have saved you from that fiend." They both were crying.
Finally he loosened his hold on her and wiped his eyes with his sleeve. "You are the most beautiful vision I have ever seen. So you are the illusive shepherdess? It's quite becoming to see you in the full bloom of health out here on the highlands." He still held on to her as if she would disappear if he let her go.
"Hands off, man. We don't allow sech treatment of our womenfolk. There's nothing wrang, I hoop?" Daniel came and squeezed between them much to Merritt's consternation, especially when Bess began laughing.
"It's alright, Daniel. This man is my friend." She smiled up at Merritt to erase any doubt.
"You know the new laird?" Daniel asked with his mouth gaping. "Weel, won'ers 'ill never cease."
"You're the new laid?" Bess squeaked. "You?"
"I hate to claim the monster as a relative, but it seems that a long line of kin who would inherit ahead of me, have all died off leaving just me. I was the last man standing. I had no idea that day that when we met that I was related to Sir Benson."
"Not your older brother?"
"No, he is my half brother, my mother's son. This came through my father's side."
"And the vicar?" she asked.
"He too is related on my mother's side, so you see, I inherited the lands and the title. Rather shocking isn't it."
"I am so very happy for you," she said. They were walking arm in arm over the heather towards the castle with Daniel bobbing along with them.
"How do ye know this man, lass?" Daniel finally got a word in.
"Merritt, excuse me, Lord...what is your title exactly?"
He laughed, just call me Merritt, if I may call you Bess."
"Anyway, he was at the dinner party when my uncle arranged my engagement to Sir Benson. Merritt tried to think of a way to keep me from having to marry him."
"Perhaps, I should have tried harder, " they exchanged a long look.
"There was nothing he could do," she explained. "My uncle was set on the marriage as was my husband."
"How did you end up here without anyone knowing what happened to you?" Merritt asked.
Bess and Daniel laughed. "It seems there's quite a clan of Bruce's that have kinfolk clear from the man in our stable, I mean, at your estate, all the way up to here. I rode with farm produce, firewood, chickens, hogs, and sheep covered with hay to hide me. But they all risked their livelihoods and safety to help me escape. Daniel's grandfather was the last man who brought me to the castle."
"But why a shepherdess?" he asked.
Daniel boasted, "We did it to keep the lassie safe. We were afraid her husband would send a spy here, though we knew he, himself, wunna dare show his face around here or the mob would make quick work of him. Pete, Peg and I just dinna want someone coming to the castle and finding the lass there. So, she's been with the sheep, just like I am, staying in the shepherd's hovel.
Merritt said, "Would you mind going on ahead to tell Pete and Peg that we found each other?"
Daniel took off at a run grinning. "Sure, I'll leave you two alone, alright."
Merritt turned back to her and drank in her whole being, her golden hair, her cheeks in bloom to the sparkle in her eyes. He pulled her to himself again, saying, "Oh, Bess, you don't know how happy I am to have found you safe hidden away up here in the highlands." Then he cupped her cheek and said, "It would be my greatest wish, never to be apart from you again. Would you marry the new laird of the Castle Turnstone?"
"Yes," she said with shining eyes, "I would love..." That's all she needed to say, as he sealed it with a kiss.
Back at the castle, after young Daniel had run up out of breath to tell them about the new laird and their shepherdess, old Pete went back to reading the Bible that the master had neglected. He read Isaiah 60:15, causing a smile played around his lips as he thought of their shepherdess.