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Wednesday, March 8, 2017

HIDDEN in the HIGHLANDS



 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.

Since she was the oldest of her cousins, Bess supposed he would dispatch her first.  Yet, when a suitor was arranged, he was paired with Anna, though she was eighteen.  Another young man who was hovering about became attached to Della, who was but a mere seventeen.  Thus, not many were surprised when poor Geniva was promised to another, as long as he was willing to wait a year to be wed.  Instead of losing dowries, it was whispered about that her uncle was profiting from these arranged marriages. 

As for Bess, she had come to his household without a dowry, without anything except what she could pack in a very small trunk.  Whatever her father had owned was sold to pay his debts, or perhaps to go into her uncle's coffer.  As a female, she was not privy to these things.  She was just the poor relation.  At nineteen, she knew her time was at hand.  Her uncle would not keep her longer than necessary, especially if he could make a profitable match. 

Bess was alert to every visitor who crossed over her uncle's threshold wondering if each one was marriage material, whether she was willing or not.  None had appealed, but one man sent shivers down her back.  It had been a dinner party.

Anna with her husband were there.  Della with her new husband likewise attended.  Geniva's betrothed was also included.  The vicar and his visiting nephew made pleasant company.  The nephew had just finished his studies and was looking for a position.  As a second son, he had to find his own way in the world.  But the other one, the silent man in grey let his eyes speak volumes, none of which had anything good to say.  The young vicar's nephew watched the man closely, but his efforts to draw him out were withered by a look.  Only her uncle was able to engage the man in a few words.  It was like he was a boulder in a stream of conversation as it flowed about him.  Obviously, he felt all were beneath him. 

As the dinner went on, Bess noticed that if she so much as looked at or spoke to the young man beside her, their other visitor's visage became hard until he was beginning to look enraged.  It totally unnerved her.  Her uncle did not seem to notice.  Afterwards, the vicar and his nephew took their leave early.  The young man's dark chocolate eyes looked at her with concern before he left. All he said was, "Take care," glancing then over at the glowering guest. 

Her uncle shut that man in his study, and Bess was beginning to have a sick feeling in the pit of her stomach.  It wasn't the first time she had encountered him.  She and her cousins had just come out of a shop in the village a fortnight ago,when the man stepped into their path rudely without giving way.  He had just stopped and stared at Bess before she went around him.   Somehow she just knew he was someone to avoid at all costs.  Yet, here he was. 

She was the last in her uncle's household still needing to become betrothed.  The man made it clear to all that he was made of money, from his gold cuff links, to his ivory topped cane, to the heavy ring upon his finger and wearing expensive clothes that would make any dandy weep with envy.  Surely, that was not all her uncle cared about.

As Anna was leaving she whispered to Bess, "My husband says that he is a dangerous man.  Be careful, dear cousin."

When Della said her goodbyes, she clung a little longer to Bess' hands and whispered, "Father ought not to be considering him.  Do your best to sway him otherwise, sweet cousin."

Then as Geneva's betrothed was helped into his cloak by the butler, he nodded his head toward the study and then shook his head in a warning causing even more chills to go up her spine as if the man was not scary enough.

Bess tried to hurry up the stair case before having to see him again, but the study doors burst open and her uncle called her down.  He was beaming like the cat who ate the rat. 

"It is settled, Bess dear.   Sir Benson will post your banns this coming Sabbath.  He is so taken with you that he does not wish for a long engagement.  Everything has been agreed upon in a satisfactory manner." 

Bess could hardly breathe and began to waver, but her aunt stepped up to steady her.  Her eyes finally were pulled over to his leering gaze.  She was sure he had begun to foam at the mouth like a rabid animal that he was.  That was the last she saw before everything went black.

Her aunt arranged for the seamstress to come and take measurements.  A whole new wardrobe was to be made that would be fitting for one in her position, a soon to be baroness.   When her aunt stepped, out the seamstress asked politely to whom she was affianced.  The woman blanched and almost sucked in the needle that she'd been holding between her teeth when she told her.   

She lowered her voice to an urgent whisper.  "They say he's been married twice before and both brides met untimely deaths, I'm sorry to say."  Her eyes spoke a dire warning, but her aunt walked back into the room just then, and Bess was not able to ask any more.

Bess did try to speak to her uncle later that day, but he waved her off.  "Preposterous.  Feelings of fear and even dread are common to inexperienced young women facing the expectations and intimacies of being wed.  He is a respected businessman and I have found no fault with him."

"But, my father would never..." she tried again.

He pushed her out of his study and shut his door but not before growling, "Say no more.  Your father is not here, and I have been left the task of seeing to your marriage."  The case was closed and she was doomed.

The next few weeks, her aunt became more nervous by the day saying things like, "You can't listen to the gossips, Bess."  or "He has a lovely place, not only the one here in London but an estate in the country, not to mention up in the Scottish highlands, but not to worry.  They say he never goes there."

"Why not?" she managed to ask.  The first she had spoken anything about her betrothed.

Her aunt looked away with a guilty blush creeping up her neck.  She was, after all, her father's own sister.  She should look guilty.  "I'm sure I don't know.  It is rather far after all and is known for its harsh weather.  Be glad you will be here closer in London."

"How much did uncle settle for me?  Was it a goodly sum?" she asked bitterly.

This drained her aunt of any milk of human kindness, and she rose back up to her haughty self.  "You ought to be thankful.  You?  Bess, a baroness?  It's is a marvel.  Many a girl in your circumstances would be grateful for being offered such an unheard of step up in society.  At least you have a pretty face which helped thrust you forward, no thanks to your father for squandering your dowry," she sniffed as if suddenly Bess was a piece of garbage to be stepped around. 

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 days refused to linger, but marched forward towards the day of her wedding.  Her gown was lovely, the only beautiful thing about the day.  Anna said she was a vision, but her eyes were all sympathy.  Della said, the gold threads in her gown were reflected in her hair, but her eyes were cast down unable to meet her own.  Geneva just looked at her and ran way crying into her handkerchief.  Her aunt had her dressed and at the door of their church early.  Since the groom was already there, he insisted on proceeding though most of the villagers who had been invited had not even left their warm hearths yet to come to the wedding.  After the quick exchange of vows, the village children hoped the groom would toss coins as was the custom.  They were sadly disappointed.

As they drove away in another direction, Bess ventured to ask, "Aren't we going to my uncle's house for the wedding breakfast ?"

He sneered in an ugly manner.  "No, of course not.  I won't have to stoop to darken your uncle's door ever again."

Though her aunt had prepared a lovely breakfast for after the ceremony, Sir Benson refused to attend even though it was in his honor.  Bess felt nausea, and said no more.

It was past the dinner hour when they finally arrived at his country estate.  A bent old man scurried out of the gate house and unlocked the chain so they could enter.   The sun was shining, but a chill crept in nonetheless. 

The house was opulent, but cold.  Bess saw that there were a scant number of servants, and thought it odd that they had not lined the steps to greet her, their new mistress.  Bess noticed  immediately that there wasn't another woman among them unless the cook was a female, which she didn't know.  No one smiled even though she was Sir Benson's new bride.  No one looked her in the eye even, except one who should have kept his eyes cast down instead of sweeping across her with a look of lust.

"Enough, Bean.  She's not for you.  Keep to your maids, if I haven't had to dismiss them all  again because of you," her husband barked.

"Whatever you say, Sir Benson," but his leering grin was anything but subservient.  Just then her new husband back handed the man across the face knocking him down.  Then he kicked him viciously while he curled on the floor.  "You'd better listen to what I say, Bean, if you know what's good for you."

The man was rolled up like a sow bug and only whimpered, "Yes, sir."

Her husband did not so much as look at her, but grabbed her by the arm and dragged her upstairs to bed.  Afterwards, as she lay alone in a pool of her own tears, Bess thought, surely this is not what was spoken of in Proverbs when he said, "There are...things which are too wonderful for me, Yea, the way of a man with a maid."  She had always thought it was to be a wondrous mystery that was promised in the Good Book.  

At first Bess had a difficult time remembering all her husband's rules.  But as his fists enforced every infraction, she learned quickly trying always to stay a step ahead of his wrath.   They had not even been married a month when his full fury was unleashed on her.  Evidently, she did not return from the kirk as soon as he wished.  Perhaps the fiend would kill her now, and she wondered if she even cared.

When she finally woke, her wrist caused her to cry out in terrible pain after trying to use it to sit up.  She clutched it to her chest.  She found she was still in her husband's study.  Slowly she stood and looked wildly about to see if he was coming back to finish her off.  She jumped when the butler walked by.

But he stepped in and said, "He's left for London and will be gone for at least a couple of days, miss."  The man would not even look at her.


She studied him trying to understand what he was trying to convey as he held her cloak out for her.  Her thoughts were clouded by her pain.  Bess was unable to even take a deep breath.  He'd probably broken a rib or two.  All she knew was that she had to leave all, to escape.  She took her cloak and ran, as best she could, to the stables. 

"Hello, miss.  How can I help you?"  The man had a glimmer of sympathy, perhaps even kindness in his eyes.

"I must leave."

"Not easily done, my lady. If you take one of his horses, he'll have you strung up as a horse thief."  He rubbed his chin.  "The Scottish highlands.  The master knows better than to ever show his face again on his property up north or the villagers will rise up and give him worse than he gave to their wives and daughters.  You'd be safe there, but you'd better hide quickly because his loyal man is walking this way.  Burrow under the hay.  Haste, now."

"Who are you talking to Howard?  Is the lady about?"

"You know how I mutter to myself when the weather turns wet like this and me bones protest.  Have you checked the house?  I know she came back from the kirk quite a while ago, before the master left in a hurry for London."

The man under her husband's thumb, laughed.  "Of course he lit out of here.  Doesn't he always run off after he beats his wives?  Well, mercy be upon her if she tries to get away.  You know what happened last time one of them tried it."

"Hmm," was all the stable man said.  "She's probably hiding in a wardrobe or under a bed somewhere."

"I'll go look some more."  He walked away calling over his shoulder, "If you see her, let me know.  It won't do her a bit of good to run."

It was quiet for awhile.  She heard the scratch of the pitchforks tines as he cleaned the stalls.  Finally, he said very quietly, "It's best you stay where ye be for richt now, my lady.  I've been trying to think of the best way to get ye north.  Yer safe fer now as lang as ye hing aboot the stable under the hay.  Bide a wee bit longer.  I've a nephew who drives an oxcart with produce he sells at the large market in the village north of here.  I'll ask him to come by for ye tonicht to hide ye in his cart.  He can't take ye clear to Scotland, but we've got more cousins all along the way we can ask to come to yer aid.   Surely, we can help ye go north bit by wee bit."

"Thank you, kind sir.  However it be, I'll be grateful."

"His father wasn't like him, ye know.  I've been here on this estate since I was a wee lad working alongside me own Da.  But it was a dark day when the old master dee'd and Sir Benson inherited.  Disna the Scriptur' itsel' say 'the hert o' man is deceitfu' an' despratly wick'it: who can know it?'  But, whateve' ye do, donna git up if you value yer life.  He has spies ever'wher'.  I'll be goan hame to me own fire soon, but will send my nephew over to get you as soon as it's dark.  Trust Guid and have ye no fear.  Jist haig aboot the stable fu' o' fower-fittet animals.  Hoo, they're a site better than some wid two fit.  I'll tell me nephew to whistle something soft so ye know it's him."

By the time she heard someone whistling, she was in intense pain and shaking from the cold.  Bess tried to get up, but was almost too stiff. 

"Me cart is right outside the door.  We must hurra' now before someone up at the big house sees us, though it is not unheard of for me to stop by with a sack of potatoes and cabbages."  He picked her up as if she was a sack of potatoes and laid in the back of the cart on another thin bed of hay.  He tried to be gentle, but Bess still sucked in her breath from the dizzing pain. "Sorry, my lady.  Cover yer face with yer cloak so I can toss more hay on top of ye.  Ye have to be verra quiet, especially if someone stops us."


The ox began plodding out to the open road.  Bess had never been so thankful for an old ox cart in her life.  As much suffering as she was enduring, at least she would put some miles between this place of horror and herself.  The idea of running back to her uncle's crossed her mind, but a woman had not many rights.  For all intents and purposes, she was a man's property, and she had no faith that her uncle would allow her back even as badly beaten as she was.  There were cases in the paper she'd heard of where a man was brought before the law for cruel treatment of his spouse, but it was rarely done. 



Bess did not even know the name of the man in whose cart she rode.  If caught, he risked his livelihood and would be thrown into prison, undoubtedly.  She prayed for him even more than she prayed for herself.  Her life wasn't worth much any more, but he probably had a cottage with a wife and children waiting for him, depending on him. 





"We're aboot to the village, miss.  I'll be setting up to sell me garden truck, then I'll take ye to another cousin who can find a reason for business going north.  Nothing would make us so happy as to help a lassie escape the villan's clutches."  Jist lie ye low a little longer, and then I'll let ye git out for a bit before hiding ye agai' and moving on."  He shoved an apple down into her hand.   "Here's a wee bite of something to eat, but ye'll have to wait until ye can sit up, afore we can give ye a drink and something else to sup."   He turned away, "Good morning, ladies.  Have ye come for my plump potatoes or my ruby apples or my crisp carrots today?" 



Bess dozed off as her benefactor sold his wares in a sing-song voice of cheer.  The sun was coming out, warming the chill she'd felt clear down in her bones.  But thirst made her feel even worse than being buried in the hay.  Her wrist burst on fire with searing pain anytime she even slightly moved.  It was probably broken.  She'd have to ask for a board and some rags to doctor it as soon as she could.  At least it wasn't her favored hand. 



When they stopped again, the nice man helped her out of the cart.  One of her eyes was somewhat blackened she could tell, and her jaw was tender.  Bess was sure she was black and blue all over, quite a sight.  He whistled.  "The beast almost kilt ye, miss!  I wuss I saw the beerial o' h'im maken' for the kirkyaird."  He said other things under his breath as he helped her stand.  She felt woozy.  After making sure she had something to eat and drink while hiding in the shadow of a barn, he said, "I'll be back shortly.  I'll go advise me cousin that he has a delivery to make up north.  We'll take ye cousin to cousin clear to Scotland, I promise ye that.  We're a loyal bunch whose ev'r spoke the language of Wallis."


A huge man walked out to the barn beside the kind man who had brought her this far.  With just a nod to her, he hitched up an old horse to a rickety wagon and started pitching hay into the back.  A woman came out with a sack of provision. 

"Do you think you can tie my wrist up with a board, mum?  I think it's broken." 

The woman clucked her tongue and gently cupped Bess' cheek.  "Ye poor lassie.  God has a place for devils like that 'im, and it ain't with Him in heaven.  God be with ye."

"Thank you.  You've all been so kind.  If we are stopped, and I'm discovered, I'll say that I snuck into your wagons, and you did not know I was there."

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.


The big man nodded and gently lifted her up onto the hay and began covering her up again.   "I'll be stacking some firewood around ye that I suddenly have found I need to deliver to my nearest cousin up north.  Make yerself as comfortable as ye can.  Donna worry, I've put a board in to keep the wood from shifting back on ye.  If someone comes looking for ye, don't worry.  They won't find ye in this woodpile."

Sure enough, near dawn, a horse could be heard pounding closer and closer. The rider hailed her driver.  "You there.  Have you seen a young woman on the road?"  "What's in the back of your wagon anyway?"

"No woman.  It's firewood I'm selling in Gretna Green."

"Can't you sell back where you're from?"

"I suppose, but I can get a better price for it up ahead.  Is the lassie you're looking fer yours, sir?"

"Bah, it's the master's wife.  She's run off.  He'll be spitting fire when he comes home and finds her gone.  There will be the devil to pay.  I'm just trying to find her before then to save my own hide.  He'll unleash the hounds and will flush her out when he gets home if I don't find her first."

"Glad I donna have yer problem, man.  Keeping on the good side of me wife is ticklish enough."  The men shared a laugh, and the man on horseback rode on ahead.

Bess could breath again.   "Just keep yer head down, and we'll get you there, lass. He spoke in a low voice.  "Donna ye worry none." 

The man pulled to a halt in a barnyard.  Dogs were barking and chickens were squawking and someone called a greeting.  "What brings ye north, cousin?"

Her driver walked off, and she could not hear the exchange.  She wondered how they would hide her next. 


Chickens?  Crates of them.  She was allowed to stand for just a few minutes in the dark of the barn drinking refreshing water and eating a bite of bread and cheese before being asked to crawl into another cart.  She turned to thank the man who had transported her this far, but he was busy throwing the firewood out beside the barn.  She supposed it would appear suspicious if he went home with the firewood still in his wagon.  Once again, she was covered with hay.  Then the smelly crates of clucking hens were stacked around her.  Bess gagged.  How could one feel so thankful and be so sick at the same time?  The last thing she needed to do was retch.  It would give her away and be extremely painful to her broken ribs. 

In spite of the juggling of the crates in the cart, the chickens settled down unless they hit an extra deep rut, then they'd squawk.  Bess even sleep on and off.  She wondered how many more times she'd be switched before she reached this place in the highlands of Scotland.  Was it really true that her husband was afraid to return?  Would she be safe there?  Anywhere would be safer than back at her husband's English estate.

First it was garden produce, then firewood, then chickens.  Now it was pigs.  Bess was just a little afraid and hoped their pens would hold. She hardly had time to thank each of the men who had risked everything to help her flee her abusive husband.   Her body ached, especially her ribs and wrist, but the swelling had gone down in her eye and she could see a little better.  The new misery was a heavy downpour.  A wool blanket was thrown over her but she was still soaking wet through and through.  "Sorry, my lady.  I may be able to give ye a ride, but I can't control the weather."

"No matter.  I appreciate what you are doing for me."

Bess had plenty of time in the last few days to ponder her life.  She had no idea what lay ahead.  The only thing that was certain was what lay behind her, and there was no going back.  He would kill her, she had no doubt.  Such rage was blood thirsty.  How did a man turn out so evil, she wondered?  No matter how hard she shivered, or how much pain she was in, it was worth it all just to survive. 

The last stop, they felt safe enough to let her come in to sit by the fire and get warm as the story of the cousin's brigade was told.  An old man looked her over and said, "I think I have a few sheep that I've been meaning to take up to the castle."  As she thawed out, Bess was sure she smelled of all the creatures she'd shared carts and wagons with.  It certainly was not the life she'd expected when she'd left her father's house to go to her uncles.  What would Anna, Della, and Geniva say?
She wondered if they knew she'd gone missing yet. 

She stood and thanked the men and said, "I don't want you to get caught helping me, so I'm ready to be hid in the hay again as soon as you're ready."

"At, I daursay yer about me Margaret's size, I believe.  I have her wool dresses and such in the chest there.  You'd be a sight warmer than in that fancy gown, my lady.  Why don't you change in here while we get the sheep ready to load."

Bess blinked back tears feeling such overwhelming gratitude to these kinfolk who risked the ire of her husband, though she was a complete stranger.  "Thank you.  You are very kind indeed

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."



"A shepherdess?"  It was an astonishing thought.

"It might help explain yer suddenly popping up.  Young Daniel can teach ye all ye need to know. He's trustworthy as are Peg and Peter at the castle. Since they are getting up in years, almost as old as I am, Daniel has gone to help them..  Peg is my sister, ye see.  I'm young Daniel's lucky-deedy, an' he is me grandson.  He's taken over the sheep for Peter who's hobbled up much of the time anymore with sorrow in 'is bones.    You can help Peg some, I'm sure, but you'll be mostly on the hillsides with the sheep.  You won't be running into too many fowk asking question out there, as long as ye bide yer time awa' from the village."


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?"

"Thank you for everything."  She got in, she hoped, for the last leg of her journey.  She rolled up her dirty gown to use as a pillow and was soon fast asleep finally warm in the woolen clothing.  She didn't know how she'd avoided lung fever as chilled as she'd been for days on end all shivering and wet, with bruises and broken bones.  Only by God's grace had she survived it all, and by the help of His good people.


They arrived at a castle mostly in ruin.  It's majesty was still evident though.  She saw that a portion of it still stood undisturbed as an elderly couple came out the huge door and waited on the steps.

"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.



One night as they happened to be gathered at the kitchen table in the castle, Pete spoke of the latest village gossip.  "There's only been one stranger around about, and it seems he was just the king's man making sartain we weren't having services at the kirk that weren't the Church of England's.  It's a peety.  Now we donna have any services at all.  It was a sad day when the vicar and most of his congregation up and moved goin' across the water  to Ireland, jist like that.  But what's a man to do when the rents hae been raised so high and a Presbyterian vicar is not allowed to preach in his pulpit or even teach?  It's a shame is what it is. But Peg and I are too old to leave.  As long as the master leaves us alone, it is a good life.  We sheer his sheep, and send 'im his money.  That's all." 

"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.

"Whereas thou hast been forsaken and hated...
I will make thee an eternal excellency,
a joy of many generations."

Ay, he thought, the Good Shepherd takes care of His lambs.







































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