“The Bayman’s Song”
From Silver’d sea,
She called to me,
Me Selkie o’ the Bay,
An’ I to her, am
Ever bound to
Pine away for she
On Moonlit shore,
She danced for me,
Me Selkie o’ the Bay,
And I will dance
Find me way to she
Under Dancing Lights,
She dream’d o’ me,
Me Selkie o’ the Bay,
And I of her,
Will ever dream
Till she’s return’d t’ me.
Yet, in the Morn’s
Their shackles I can see ~
A Company across the Sea
Holds Destiny for me.
An’ if that Company
Should deem it so,
As ha’ been done afore
To rend me from this land o’ hers,
And the Selkie I adore,
Ah’m doomed to be,
From her, I fear,
From Silver’d Sea
It was cold with a bitter wind that cut through the overcoat of the thin figure huddled against the side of the draughty barn, but the boy paid it little mind. Better to be cold and alone than back inside the house facing his master. He should go in the barn and draw from the warmth of the animals, but he knew Mr. Balfour would be coming soon to check on things and then he would be trapped alone with the bastard, and he would surely suffer more taunting when the old man saw his reddened eyes. He never let anyone see his tears—never—least of all Balfour. It was a great shame anyway for a lad of thirteen to be crying. He angrily wiped at his face and cleared his throat.
But it was futile. The emotions would come regardless of his efforts. To leave all he had ever known—his Orkney homeland—scared him. Even if life with the old man was harsh, leaving still scared him. Anger welled up in him as he remembered the smug, satisfied look on Balfour’s face when he gave him the news. God, how he hated the man, fool that he was. Balfour possessed neither intellect nor compassion; his only goal in life was to build his farm to pass on to his sons, and he had no qualms about trampling on an orphan to achieve it if he thought it necessary. It wasn’t just the boy who despised him, either. No one in the village much cared for him, although they didn’t know the half of it. Balfour was petty and selfish, and his wife had danced a thousand dances to avoid his wrath. And more often than would be hoped, the boy had seen that wrath poured out in full measure on the poor woman.
The boy’s thoughts turned to Mrs. Balfour and he felt his chest heave; it was her quiet presence that had helped him endure the years he had spent with them. She was the typical sort of long-suffering woman one often finds attached to such a man, and even if her husband didn’t knock her down to size with his harsh words and the back of his hand, her penchant for getting pregnant every other year kept her in her place. She had also the misfortune of producing more daughters than sons, much to her husband’s chagrin. Another boy adopted into the family might have seemed a blessing, had the lad’s arrival not been under such trying circumstances.
The Balfour’s had lost one of their two sons, the oldest and most favoured one no less, to a fever three springs before. In fact, several of their children had been afflicted at once, and it seemed for a time that they might lose more than one child, but in the end only the boy had died. Mr. Balfour had been hit particularly hard and questioned aloud how it could have been that God take his son and not his daughter. From the depths of her grief, Mrs. Balfour had recognized the slight paid to Liza, her second child, a sensitive but sturdy youngster who dared to live while her brother had died. Liza too, conscious of her father’s fragile state, worked hard to make up for the error of her gender and took on more than her narrow nine year old shoulders could bear.
As luck should have it, the Presbyterian minister happened by to visit the grieving family. A solemn and devoted man always alert to God’s glorious opportunities, the Reverend quickly surmised a need when the frail little girl, Liza, eyes still hollowed from the fever, served him tea while all the others sat and stared dully. She had a mournful quality about her that touched him, and since he had just learned a few days earlier that another youngster had lost the last of his kin over in Evie, he felt it incumbent upon himself to intervene. He had brought the grief-stricken young boy to the equally stricken Balfour family home and made a fine job of convincing Mr. Balfour that he would do well to take the child in. Mr. Balfour, proud as he was, recognized the need for such an arrangement and agreed to it, but on his terms. The boy would sleep in the lean-to, and would provide his own things. He was to get only room and food from them, since they could scarcely afford any more, and he would be a good boy that stayed out of trouble and would pay his way in labour. If he didn’t bide, Mr. Balfour assured him, he would feel the hard end of his boot kicking him out.
Young Andrew Halcro, barely ten, had stood stoically and nodded his head, setting in motion a pattern that continued up to this day, the day he had gotten the news. No matter what Mr. Balfour had sent his way, he would never let him see its effects.
A violent shiver convulsed Andrew’s body. The damp and windy cold of Orkney was legendary, but the islands north of Scotland were home to hardy folk who had endured the rule of both the Norse and the Scots. They endured, and so would he. He would have to go in soon, so it was with great relief that he heard the clumping of boots over the hard ground heading towards him. Andrew heard the creaking of the stubborn barn door and heard Balfour’s curses as he struggled to close the door behind him. Now was his chance. He quietly walked out from behind the building and made his way quickly to the house.
Only Mrs. Balfour noticed the boy’s puffy eyes, but compassion stayed her tongue. She wordlessly handed him a bowl of warm porridge and resisted patting the boy on the head.
After his initial act of kindness, the minister had paid very little attention to the young charge he had placed in the Balfour’s care. However, had he visited more often, he might have regretted his act of goodwill. Mr. Balfour took some pleasure in having a youngster bound to him in servitude, and since the boy had obviously little if any opportunities to leave over the years, the older man took full advantage of the slave labour he provided. Andrew took the greater share of the garden work, in addition to minding the chickens and the scrawny cows in which Balfour took such great pride. Since Mrs. Balfour was not well, he often helped cook and clean as well as minding the children. In short, there was little, if anything, that the boy was not on call to do.
Mrs. Balfour however took a shine to the boy immediately, and since he too had recently known the soul-crushing grief of losing his kin, she made efforts to care for him. This was not easy to do since she knew that any favour she showed the boy would anger her husband and make things worse for the youngster. So she learned subtle ways to show her appreciation, slipping him an extra blanket on cold nights, and letting him sit before the smoking peat fire when the mister was outside. But there was little comfort she could really offer for the sadness he had known, and she could hear him some nights sobbing in the draughty lean-to, and her heart ached.
Liza too grew much attached to the solemn boy. She thought he was the most beautiful boy she had ever seen and even asked her mother if she thought he was one of the selkie folk—a selkie bairn, cast ashore, perhaps? Her mother had shushed her, afraid that Mr. Balfour would overhear and find some way to punish the boy for daring to be spoken of in such a way.
In her heart, though, Mrs. Balfour wondered the same thing, since the lad possessed a delightful combination of thick dark hair and wide dark hazel eyes, with the fairest of skin. He also had some air about him that she couldn’t quite put her finger on; it was as if he lived in another world, and was only here against his will. Fortunately for him, he was a sturdy boy despite his slight figure, and quickly proved himself a hard and able worker. He fast gained her respect and all the more as he was able to endure Mr. Balfour’s increasing demands on him without complaint. She longed to speak for him, to protect him from her husband’s ready hand and cutting words, but she was ill-equipped to defend herself and her children from him, let alone the young newcomer. But in her own way she practiced kindness. Knowing that were he to be kicked out of the house, as Mr. Balfour threatened fortnightly, Andrew would have nothing for all his labour, she took it upon herself to save the occasional coin for him. She had carefully hidden it away, telling no one, not even Liza.
And now this winter, the winter before Andrew turned fourteen, the minister had occasion to remember the boy again. A man had come to the village to speak to the clergy. He explained that he represented the Hudson’s Bay Company, the fur trading company that operated across the ocean in North America. He was looking for young men that might join the service for an indenture of five or seven years—and did he know of anyone that might want work? The Reverend promised he would give it some thought, and as he ushered the well-dressed man to the door, he remembered in a sudden flash the Halcro boy and thought he might do well for such a position. He told the man so, and promised to send him to Stromness and the Hudson’s Bay Company office that spring if the boy was so inclined. The man left some information with him, and left immediately for the next parish.
At first, Mr. Balfour resisted the idea of Andrew leaving, and then thought better of it. The boy had lately showed signs of real sullenness and over the years had somehow managed to get Mrs. Balfour and her children on his side. And there was a glint in his eye and litheness to his figure that made Mr. Balfour wary. Andrew had established a reputation around the village of being a fierce fighter, and although he had never so much as talked back to him, Mr. Balfour feared what might happen if the boy decided to turn on him. Sending him away might be just the thing to regain his position in the family. Besides, Liza was stronger now, and his younger son had grown enough so that he could take on some of the responsibilities of the farm. Yes, Mr. Balfour said, sending him across the ocean would be a good idea.
Andrew, just coming in from chores, was surprised to see the minister sitting at the table with Mr. Balfour. He was asked to sit down and the minister laid out the prospect for him. He gulped and fought back tears. Despite the minister’s assurance that this was a good opportunity for the lad, Andrew had no interest in travelling to some foreign country. As bad as Mr. Balfour was to live with, Mrs. Balfour and the children were as close as he would get to family. And, despite his toughened exterior, he was still a boy who had experienced too many upsets and was raw and ragged inside and resistant to change.
Mr. Balfour noted the despairing look on the boy’s face and was assured that his decision to send him was right. Had the boy looked happy, he might have reconsidered. He told Andrew in no uncertain terms that he would be going, since he no longer felt it was his responsibility to feed the orphan. The Company man had said they liked to hire boys of sixteen but would make exceptions for boys as young as fourteen, so as soon as he reached his fourteenth birthday that spring, Andrew would be walking to Stromness to sign up. And, he added, Andrew might feel grateful, since Mr. Balfour had a sister there that he could stay with until the ship left port. As always, Andrew took his fate with all the dignity he could muster, but that night for the first time in nearly a year, Mrs. Balfour heard the boy quietly sobbing when he thought everyone else was asleep. Heartbroken, she let herself cry silently, the tears she so often held back wetting the bedding beneath her.
“Andrew.” Mrs. Balfour had called out softly that evening after the minister had left. He was heading to his bed, but stopped and came back into the main room.
“Aye, Mrs. Balfour?”
She waved him in close.
“Nane o’ the bairns ken yeir going, aye? Nane o’ them hairt the minister when he
came an’ I ne’er said nothin’ yet.”
He nodded slowly.
“Aye, so then ye’ll have me tell ‘em?”
“If ye would tell the older ones … I tink some o’ them will take it harder than others.” She gave him a significant look. He understood. Liza.
Liza would be very sad, Andrew thought the next morning as he left the kitchen and made his way back to the barn to start on his morning chores. He had known for some time that she loved him and had taken to getting all tongue-tied whenever they were in the same room together. He was a bit embarrassed for her, actually. At first it made him feel strange … she was as close to a sister as he ever had. But he had come to accept it. He loved her dearly and thought that she would grow out of it eventually. Certainly nothing would come of it—that much he knew. He viewed her as a sister, and besides, he would never tolerate having Balfour as a father-in-law. He shuddered. No, he had always dreamed about getting out from under that tyrant and making his way back to Evie where he was from, start fresh so to speak and … well, what he really wanted was land of his own. He figured he might work on someone else’s land for a time, work his way into his own patch of earth, his own land tenancy. It would be years and years, though, before anything like that might happen, if at all. He had no kin left to help him along.
Lost in thought, he missed seeing a figure walking in his direction before she was right beside him. He jumped.
“God, Liza! Ye scairt me half out o’ me skin!”
“Sarry Andrew.” She cleared her throat. “Mither tald me to come an’ find ye. She said ye had summat to tell me.” She turned her hopeful eyes up at him and then glanced quickly down again. Oh, thought Andrew, this’ll be hard, no denying it.
“Aye, well, I suppose that’s right.” He took a deep breath. “Liza, I’ll be leaving here come this spring.”
Her head shot up, a look of horror on her face. She lost all her shyness.
“What? Why? Whar’s ye going? Why?”
Andrew’s eyes prickled with unbidden tears. He blinked to wipe them away.
“See ye’re fither …”
“Me fither…I shoulda known!”
“See …” he repeated. “Ye’re fither and the minister whar talking and it looks like ah’ll be joining the Hudson’s Bay Company over in North America.”
Her face blanched white, and her eyes began to fill with tears.
“But…whar’s dat mean? Will ye be gone long? Will ye be comin’ back?”
Andrew swallowed the lump in his throat, but still his voice cracked when he spoke.
“Don’ know, Liza. I don’t know anything. I only just hairt tales of Hudson’s Bay, and nane o’ them made much sense. I dinnae ken much about it fir real. I suppose it’ll be a long time before I can come back. Sounds like I have to be there about five years or so at first. The minister said many men stay for longer after that.”
Liza cried out and rushed at Andrew, nearly knocking him over in a sudden embrace.
“Ye can’t go, Andrew, ye just can’t. We’d mess ye terribly and … what will we do without ye?” She was sobbing. He couldn’t stop the tears from welling in his own eyes, and they splashed down on her soft brown hair.
“I’ll write to ye, all right?” She turned her tear-stained face up to him.
“Aye, ye mean it, really?”
“Aye. I’ll do me very best.”
She started to sob again, so hard that he could hardly make out her next sentence.
“I love ye, Andrew.”
There was nothing he could say, so he just patted her on the back and wished that he could cry freely, too.
After explaining everything to Liza, telling his friends would be relatively easy, but he was in no rush. He had too much on his mind, anyway. He was brim-full of questions, and no one he knew would be able to answer them. The black hole had opened up again in front of him, and if he was lucky, he could contain it until he made it to his bed each night.
He thought of not going, of course. Maybe, he thought, maybe I could head out for work in Evie earlier than I’d planned. Maybe some farmer would need an extra hand. But as soon as he took that line of thought to its logical conclusion, he knew it was impossible. Things were so hard for farming families, they had little enough to spare for a boy like him. It was a lucky thing after all—and well he knew it—that the Balfour’s had taken him in when they did. Times had been hard for crofters for as long as he ever knew, and he had tasted the bitterness of hunger enough times to loathe the thought of choosing it as his fate.
He could, he supposed, head to Orkney’s biggest towns of Kirkwall or Stromness for work, but he would face the same uncertainty. He’d had little experience with sea life, so he hardly knew if it were the life he would choose. He knew of a few older blokes who had headed out to sea on great ships, bound for trade in exotic places.
No, no matter how he looked at it, it was the same situation he had struggled with since his grandda died; with no kin to take him in on goodwill and no real work to be had, he was stuck. The best thing for him would be to take this chance. It would pain him something terrible, but so would anything else. He was no longer welcome at the Balfour’s, plain and simple.
He went about his chores dully. The whole week had turned greyer than the bleak weather of the late winter. Mr. Balfour was watching him closely, harping on him as usual but now with a wariness that confused Andrew. At night, he noticed the man took care to pull in the latch, and dark circles began to form under the man's eyes.
In fact, as if it were possible, Mr. Balfour had become even more surly than usual. He snapped at everyone and everything. Even Thomas, his only son and the apple of his eye, could do no right, even at the tender age of eight. Mrs. Balfour’s lips were pursed more often than not, and a heavy tension hovered over the household.
Andrew thought it odd. He thought the old man would have stepped lighter since he knew his burden would be leaving in six weeks or so. Andrew shrugged it off and stayed to himself mostly. Liza, despite her declaration of love, was avoiding him. He didn’t understand that, either. He would have liked her to talk to him a little. He would miss her and her sudden coldness was mystifying to him.
He hadn’t quite worked up the nerve to tell any of his chums. But after a full week of wallowing in his own misery, and fear that rumours might reach them first, he knew it was time.
Saturday nights were usually when the Balfour’s, along with most folks, prepared themselves for the Sabbath morning with the labourious task of bathing. One after another, they bathed behind a blanket strung up in the corner nearest the peat fire. It was a chilly affair in winter, and all the children could be heard balking and carrying on as their mothers scrubbed vigorously behind grubby ears. Yet each would emerge from his or her bath transformed from filthy little urchins to beatific cherubs, ready for more internal absolutions the next day.
It was Andrew’s job to haul buckets of water from the well to the house to be heated over the fire. The Saturday after he had first heard his fate, however, Andrew had slipped out to tell his buddies the news. He had left plenty of time, he thought, to have a wee time with them and be back in time for his arduous water-hauling task.
Billy Glup couldn’t believe it. If ever anyone longed for adventure, it was he. He was always the first one to get into trouble and had led his friends down a merry path more than once in the past few years. But none of them were as bound to stay put as cheeky Billy. No father and a mother who needed him to run the plot of land they called a farm. He had two little sisters, too, neither of which could take his place. He was the only one Andrew knew of who prayed daily for a step-father. It wasn’t likely to happen, though, since his mother was known for having a sharp tongue and a backside the size of a barn—not to mention a moustache that put most of the men of Harray to shame. It was a wonder, Andrew had always thought, that she’d caught someone long enough to have any bairns at all. Andrew had never known Billy’s father, but rumour had it he died young, hanging onto the hope that heaven would be too big for her to find him in the afterlife.
“Whew! Imagine that! What an adventure! I hairt thar’s folks over there that’d take the beating heart right out o’ yeir chest just fir the fun o’ it!”
Charles Flett, another of Andrew’s chums, was wide-eyed and stopped picking at his teeth long enough to nod in agreement. “I hairt that too … I hairt that the Hudson’s Bay Company’s just an excuse for stealing young boys away. Maybe to work fir pirates on the wicked southern seas!”
Andrew’s heart nearly failed him.
“Whar’s that?” His mouth went dry.
“Aye, that’s what I hairt. Makes sense don’t it? I mean remember that John Ballantyne? Warn’t he just fifteen when he left?” The other two nodded. “And have ye ever seen him since?” It was true. No one had ever heard from him again. John had been an orphan too. It sent shivers down his spine.
Billy turned saucer-like eyes, filled with deliciously horrific possibilities in their brown depths. His voice was sepulchral.
“What ye gonna do, Halcro?”
Andrew gulped and then overcame himself, suddenly angry at his companions. He shook his head.
“Don’t believe it, that’s what!”
“But what if it’s true?” Charles prodded.
“But how can ye ken that?” Charles and Billy were staring hard at him.
“Why would the minister put orphans up to that? He must ken summat about it.”
“Ain’t he the one what put ye with the Balfour’s?” Billy asked, eyebrows raised nearly to his hairline.
Andrew looked flatly at his friend.
“Then ye need to say God’s in cahoots too, ‘cause he sent ye to live with yeir mither!”
“Oy! That’s it! I’m sick t’ death about folk nagging on my mither! She’s me mither … ye take that back, y’hear?”
“Well then, stop it with yeir trying to scare me an’ all!”
Billy snorted. They looked at each other warily and then broke into wide grins.
“Deal,” they each said in turn.
The raised voices had caught the attention of Charles’ older brother, Thom, who came out of the house.
“Whar’s going on out here? Am I gonna have t’ break up a fight? Again?” he added. He was a head taller than them and all three looked up to him more than anyone they knew. He’d had adventures of his own, working at a shop where he made trips to Kirkness and Stromness to get new stock.
“Ye kent anything aboot the Hudson’s Bay Company, Thom?”
Thom’s eyebrows raised. He’d seen a strange man walking out of the shop a few weeks past.
“Aye, a bit. Why?”
Charles cut in. “Halcro here’s going to join the Hudson’s Bay Company!”
“In only a few week’s time, too!” Billy added, not to be outdone. Andrew scowled ferociously at them.
Thom grew serious. He looked at Andrew.
“Is this true, Andrew?”
“Aye, it’s true.” His voice cracked.
“Well then, what a lucky sod ye are after all!” The three friends looked at each other, profoundly surprised.
“Well, I know of a man who went with the Company years ago and came back as rich as a king!”
“What?” all three exclaimed.
“Oh aye. It’s a great chance for ye, Halcro. I know it’s a bit of a shock, but it’s better than anything here by far, trust me. I’ve even thought of going meself, but I got too much here what’s needs looking after.” Andrew felt his heart lighten immediately and grinned.
“Tell me everything ye ken, will ye?”
“Sure … come inside and we’ll get ye all a cup of tea and I’ll tell ye all I ken about the matter.”
Sometime later, when Charles’ mother began ordering about for water for baths, Andrew shot out of his chair.
“I gotta get home now or Balfour’ll have me strung up fir sure!”
He beat a quick path home, but when he rounded the corner of the barn, he could see the bastard standing there, arms crossed, his face a mask of rage. Andrew’s pace slowed; he would not have that trow get the better of him. He looked at him and said in a firm voice.
“Sorry, sir. I lost track of time. I’ll get the water bucket …”
The older man howled. “Ye lazy, no good piece of shite. Whar’ve ye been? What ye been up to?” He cuffed Andrew upside the head. “Ah’m sick o’ yeir attitude, y’hear?” Spittle flew from his mouth as he spoke. “Ah’m gonna teach ye to mind yeirself.”
The man was wild-eyed. Andrew had started backing away. He looked over Balfour’s shoulder and saw Mrs. Balfour and Liza, terrified, the younger ones clinging to their skirts. They had all been crying, that much was sure. He had a pang of guilt that it was his tardiness that had caused such a commotion. When he saw the look, Balfour cuffed him again,
“Don’t ye be looking to me bairns now! Ah know what ye’ve been planning … I could see it in yeir eyes … ye got ideas against me and me kin now that ye’ve got nothing else to lose, now don’t ye?” Andrew opened his mouth to protest, but Balfour wasn’t finished.
“What were ye planning, Halcro? Poison? A bloody knife in the dark? Or was it to burn us all to death in our sleep?” With every gruesome suggestion, he jabbed Andrew with a knobby finger in the chest.
Andrew didn’t know what to do. He couldn’t believe the man would think he would do such a thing. Hadn’t he always been respectful? Had he ever so much as glared at the man to his face in all that time? He had always been meek, even when all he wanted to do was knock the bastard’s leering face—not even for himself, so much as for the missus and Liza’s sake.
“What are ye talking about?”
Balfour gave a harsh laugh.
“Ye ken very well what ah’m talking about!”
“No, I don’t. Ah’d ne’er do anything to harm this family!”
“Oh no? Then whar’s ye been?”
“I was telling the blokes where I was heading!”
“Liar!” Balfour spat at Andrew’s feet. “Ye’ve known for a week now and ye’re expecting me to believe that one now, are ye?”
The man was insane. Andrew was getting really frightened. Balfour had been petty and selfish and mean, but he had never been so far gone in the head. By this time they were halfway across the yard, Andrew having evaded no more than a jabbing finger and his maliced tongue. He was running out of room to back up; he would be hitting the side of the barn soon enough, and no doubt he would get a beating worse than any he had known when he got in there.
Not this time, he thought. He stopped backing up. It surprised Balfour, who was indeed heading to the barn to teach the boy a thing or two.
“Ah’ll not be going in the barn this time.”
“What? What did ye dare say t’me?”
Andrew cleared his throat.
“Ah’ll not be going in the barn.”
“Oh aye, ye will!”
Andrew just shook his head. No. He was no longer this trow’s whipping boy. He would sooner sleep out on the cold damp earth than suffer a beating again at this man’s hands just to keep a leaky roof over his head.
“Then ye’ll get yeir beating in front of everyone!” He swung an arm to grab at Andrew who stopped it neatly. He knew the strength of Balfour; it wasn’t great. But as always, Andrew’s real advantage was pure speed and a knack for knowing just where his opponents' weak spots were. In truth, it had been a combination of natural ability and the necessity of defending himself. He'd been watching fights for as long as he could remember, whenever he'd been lucky enough to come across them, and was a quick study, soaking up everything he could to learn. His interest had served him well; no one who had ever seen him fight could believe it. He would have his opponent down before the bloke could get his fist up for another swing.
And so it was with Balfour. Before the man knew what had happened, Andrew had neatly tripped the old man and he lay on the earth shocked and madder than hell. He scrambled up and shot a closed fist at Andrew’s mid-section. Andrew shifted just in time and landed a shot just under Balfour’s ribs. It knocked the wind out of the man and he fell to his knees gasping for air.
“Now ye mind this Balfour,” Andrew hissed into his ear. “I’ve no mind to harm any of ye, not even yeirself, though ah’ve got reason to. But listen here. Unless ye leave me alone for the next few weeks till ah’m gone, I will harm ye, sir. And if not now, then later, when I come back a wealthy man. I dinnae aim on forgetting any wrong that might be had to me or to t’others, understand?”
The air had trickled into Balfour’s lungs during the boy’s speech. Andrew could see the hunted look in Balfour’s eyes.
Balfour nodded. Andrew would be on guard, of course, but something told him that old Balfour would bide.
Indeed, Balfour’s humiliation scared the man sufficiently to bide his time until Andrew left. The remaining weeks went well, considering the fact that Andrew’s stomach churned constantly at the thought of his impending future. And while they were deeply saddened that Andrew was going, Mrs. Balfour and Liza were equally, and silently, glad that he had stood up to the mister and knew that, for a time at least, things might be better because of it. Balfour was nothing if not superstitious, and his wife supposed that he worried now that, dead or alive, Andrew would haunt him for all the pain he had put the boy in over the years. It also gave her strength to have seen her husband bested by a boy … he was not invincible after all.
Andrew’s confrontation with Balfour changed something, though. He knew that he could never stay in Orkney. He knew that this was an opportunity like no other. He squirreled away time to talk to Thom again, to get him to tell him everything again and again. It was reassuring.
When the day finally arrived to leave for Stromness, Mr. Balfour made himself scarce. Andrew was relieved. He would finally be able to thank the missus for her kindnesses without fear of her husband listening in.
“Mrs. Balfour …”
She smiled a rare smile at him and he noticed her eyes were bright with unshed tears.
“I just wanted to thank ye for yeir kindness these past few years.”
She brushed her hand through the air.
“Pshaw! I should have done more for ye … ye’re a good lad, Andrew Halcro. Ye came to us when we needed ye most and ah’m grateful to have had ye here yeirself.” Liza was crying softly behind her. “Liza here was fortunate to have ye come when ye did, ain’t that so Liza?” Liza’s crying grew louder.
“Now, now, child.” She patted her daughter’s shoulder. “What was it ye had to say to him me dear?”
Liza hiccupped and paused her crying momentarily.
“Just that we …” her hand swept to encompass the other children, some with tears, some solemn, “... we want to thank ye for all yeir kindnesses too. Ye’ve been like a brither to us all and…and…well, just that. Thank ye and we will ne’er forget ye.” She stepped back and resumed her weeping. Her mother instructed them to shake his hand, but when she stepped forward herself to shake his hand, something was in it. She embraced him and as she did, she whispered in his ear.
“Hush now. Here’s a bit ah’ve been saving fir ye fir some time. Don’t tell anyone about it, but maybe it’ll give ye a little comfort on yeir way. Just in case ye need it.”
He nodded into her shoulder, and when he stepped away from her, tears were rolling down his cheeks unabated. His eyes thanked her and she smiled again.
Backing away, waving ‘till he though his arm might fall off, he felt a surge of gratitude; at least some folks in the world cared for him and wished him well. When they were finally out of sight, he turned his back on Harray and never looked back.
The semi-retired Chief Factor John Turnor stretched his legs out under the desk, and yawned so widely that he felt his jaw pop. It was good to back in civilization, but it did lack some of the adventure of the Bay. A long lost memory suddenly filled his mind and he shuddered, a flush of longing overtaking him. Indeed, his body sometimes betrayed him since despite its age and the illness that had forced him to leave active service, he sometimes felt himself a young man in love with a bewitching Indian girl. That girl would have seemed as foreign to those around him, as though she were from the moon. No one he knew in Orkney might understand the deep affection he still felt for her, and he regretted that he had been forced to leave her and their children behind. He would have written her letters had she been able to read, but then again he thought it best to make a clean break. He comforted himself by having a colleague pass along a bit of allowance to his former wife on his behalf. But that was as much as he could do, he reasoned. They were as far apart as two people could be, and there was no hope of changing it. He had come back to London, and as soon as he was well enough, he had been posted as a recruiter in Stromness. He finally felt the benefit of all his years of hard work, bought himself a house, and had quickly attracted the attention of several widows. In order to assuage his grief over his Indian lover, or wife as he preferred to call her after the custom of the country he had worked in for over two decades, he had married one of the prettier ones who was now pregnant with his child. Yes, life was good but for the nagging feeling that some great wrong had occurred when he had left the Bay.
A steady stream of young recruits had been coming through his office in the past few weeks. The gentlemen who ran the Company with a tight fist from London, which everyone called the London Committee, had given orders that they find at minimum sixty young recruits that year. The Company was expanding further inland rather than limiting themselves to the confines of the Bay posts, and they needed a workforce to match it. He'd had strict instructions of the sorts of young men to hire. The Company was tired of the London boys who liked their drink too much and were inclined to complain if they felt themselves being mistreated.
The London boys were no match for the toughness of these Orkney youngsters, nor their poverty. In fact, the London Committee was focussing more and more attention on Orkney for their recruiting, since the lads here were in worse shape for paid work. If they could handle the rough winters of their homeland, they’d stand a fighting chance of doing so on the Bay. Over the years, the Orkneymen, as they were called, had gotten a well-deserved reputation for being sober and hard-working, even if they tended to stick to themselves. It certainly had seemed that way to him, too. And what more could the Company ask for than hard-working young men down on their luck?
So far recruiting had been fairly easy, with many good candidates coming right to him. This morning had been different, though, and he decided to put his mind at ease before he left for home. The two young men who had visited his office today seemed odd, and that set him on edge. It should have been a simple matter of signing them up, since they seemed eager enough to do so then and there. But something had stayed him from pulling out the documents to sign. He had told them to come back on the morrow and he would draw up the papers.
Turnor had always believed that the best place to start when a person wanted to get to know someone was the clergy, and he knew that the Episcopalian minister in the town would hold nothing back. The Reverend was a pompous man, prone to tirades about this and that, and he delighted in an audience. He was also someone whom Turnor had learned to avoid if he did not have an afternoon to spare. With a sigh, Turnor grabbed his hat and overcoat and carefully locked the door before making his way to the church.
The Reverend was so delighted to see him that it took a good half hour before Turnor could ask his question.
“Reverend, I had summat I wanted to ask ye about. A bit of information about a couple of blokes that came by this morning.”
The minister's ears perked up.
“Oh aye? Whar's that now?”
“Weill, they weir young, but had a look about them that were odd. They was verra nervous and wanted t’ sign the papers quick. They weir summat evasive when I asked them questions about their work experience and they refused to tell me where they weir from. They said they weir from here and there. I might've taken them fir tinkers, but I dinna think they were. They certainly weirna selling anyting.”
“What makes ye say that?”
“I dunno, their clothes were poor, but they did not dress as tinkers and ...” he shifted uncomfortably. “They seemed alone, somehow. I canna explain it.”
“What were their names?”
“Weill, the one's name was Swanney; he weir about sixteen years old, I'd say. The other older bloke must've been nearing twenty years old, gave a name of Henry Isbister.” He paused, then added, “But I heard the one named Swanney call the other one Allen. Leastways that's what I thought I heard. They were lying about something, that much I know.”
The minister thought about it for a few seconds and then a look of recognition crossed his face. His eyes turned intense. Turnor unconsciously took a step back.
“Allen, did you say? What did he look like?”
“Ah'd say he weir a surly looking sod, dark-haired, all freckles and biggish too. Not over-tall, but thick.”
“Did he have a thick brow?”
“Aye, he did.”
The minister jumped up.
“That's the one that done murdered a wee child a year ago! Allen Bruce was his name! Folks had stopped looking for him!”
Turnor felt sick. The Reverend was gathering his coat and hat.
“Where is he now?”
“I ... I dinna ken where he be, but he's coming back tomorrow!” He paused. “I've been here for a season already and ah've never heard of it. How's that? A murder? And they kent who'd done it?”
“It was a tinker boy, and maybe it were more'n a year now. No one much cares for the tinkers, 'cept for what they offer for trade, but no one likes to hear that one's been taken like that, and all the more so because it was just a child. The kin were so broken up about it that they stuck around for ages looking for the child. When they pieced it all together, they knew who it was. Bruce is an itinerant himself, worked in a shop for a bit, but disappeared at the same time as the child. When they found the body ...” The Reverend shuddered. “We've never seen him since. I am surprised you'd not heard of it, though. That's why some of the tinkers have been sticking around these parts more often than usual. They're waiting to find the devil who did it. If'n they get their hands on him, there won't be need of a trial, that's for sure.”
Turnor nodded. He knew why he hadn't known of it. He'd been travelling for a better part of the time since he'd come here, and the rest of the time had been spent wrapped up in his young wife. A shiver ran over him. He'd known something was amiss with the two strangers, and he was certainly glad he had followed his gut to the minister's door.
“What can I do then? I'd like to help.”
The minister opened the door for him.
“I'll come by your place as soon as I've talked to a few folks.” He clapped Turnor on the shoulder. “And thank ye for telling me. The last thing we needed was for him to start anew elsewhere and never pay for what he's done.”
The next day was perhaps the most intense day Turnor had had since he had arrived in Stromness. The minister had indeed come by and asked him to wait for the young man to come back to the office. Turnor's insides were churning; he hoped he wouldn't give anything away and spook Bruce into running.
A contingent of townspeople waited for the boys, and when they came around the corner and saw the crowd descending on them, Allen Bruce had turned on his heels and ran in the other direction. A few of the men were quicker, though, and dragged the kicking figure out of view. The other young man, apparently surprised at his friend’s sudden departure, looked horrified. He'd started to run after them, but was quickly turned back by a number of the heftier fellows.
“Now, then! Go on your way if'n ye dinnae want trouble o' yeir own!”
The youngster nearly fell as he staggered away, a look of desperation at the townspeople now dispersing, when his eyes fell on Turnor. He made his way to the door of the office from where Turnor had been watching.
“Sir, I'd like to sign those papers for me and me friend now.”
Turnor was shocked at the lad's boldness.
“Would ye not rather come back when ye find out about yeir friend?”
“No, sir, I'd rather just sign them now.”
Turnor sighed. He had no good reason to send this one away. No one had seen him before and besides, he was nearly just a boy himself, even if he looked full-grown.
“Well, I can set you up alright. Ye might as well come inside.”
The youngster looked ashen, but he followed Turnor inside. Turnor pulled open his drawer and the contract he had begun the day before.
“I'd like to sign for me friend, as well, if'n ah'm able.” The boy's chin was in the air, defiant.
Turnor was incredulous, but not without some compassion for the youngster; it must have been quite the blow to see his friend dragged away like that.
“Well, now laddie, I dinna see how I could do that now. He needs to put his own mark on the paper for legal purposes. Also, the minister seemed to think he was up to some criminal activity, and the Company wouldna be so pleased if I passed someone like that into their territories, now would they?”
A look of realization dawned over the boy's face, but he quickly turned stony-faced. Turnor didn't notice; he was searching for his pipe. The morning had been a bit of a corker, and he needed a puff. He continued, looking up again at the boy.
“Anyways, we are full up for our quota. I daresay you're the very last one we can take.” He had lied, but he thought it might cheer the youngster thinking he had been lucky enough to get on himself. It was a sorry thing to lose a friend, but he'd make plenty in the place he was going. Turnor smiled, not unkindly.
“You'll soon forget about your friend well enough. There'll be plenty of other things to occupy your mind.”
Swanney said nothing, just bent his head to sign the papers where Turnor pointed. But when he looked up, Turnor caught his eye briefly and didn't like what he read in the short glimpse of the younger one's expression—hatred. There was no other word for it. It didn’t sit right with Turnor, but it had been so fleeting, and he had so little reason to turn the lad away, that he simply had to watch him walk out the door.
Turnor decided he needed some fresh air. He made his way to the door, deep in thought, and nearly jumped out of his skin when he caught a sudden movement from his right. He had a fleeting thought that it might be that Swanney fellow, come to take revenge on him, but relaxed when he saw it was only a boy standing there with some papers in his hand. Clearly another recruit, though at first glance he looked too young for service.
“Ho there, my boy! You gave me a fright. Come out of the shadows there. You must be looking for summat!”
The lad cleared his throat, nodded and stammered a bit.
“I … I come about joining the Hudson’s Bay Company.” The name sounded awkward and formal.
“Well, now, you look a bit young for our purposes. We need lads of at least fourteen.”
“Aye! Well, I am sir … turned fourteen just two days past.”
Turnor squinted his eyes. He found that hard to believe.
“Do you have some sort of papers to prove it?”
The boy stuck out the papers he held in his hand.
“I know I look young sir, but a man came to me village, and I have papers here to say I am coming …” The boy’s voice trailed. Turnor was reading the papers. Sure enough, the boy was fourteen. His name looked familiar. He shook his head.
“You’re right, my boy, but I wonder if this is a good decision. Why not come back in a year or two when you’ve got some whiskers on those cheeks of yours?”
The boy’s eyes clouded.
“Ah, so it’s that way, is it? You don’t have any place else to go?”
The boy seemed not to trust himself to speak, and shook his head. He looked miserable. Turnor’s voice turned brisk,
“Well, then let’s get you inside and see what we need to do to get you on that ship!” There was no use turning him away. Turnor hoped this opportunity would serve the sad youngster better than life had apparently dealt him thus far.
Neill Swanney had been wandering for nearly four hours waiting to hear about his friend, Allen Bruce. It didn’t look good. The townspeople had him and didn’t seem to have any intention of letting him go. Time was running out.
That Turnor fellow had turned him in, of that much he was sure. Find another friend! He didn't get it. Nobody could get it. There were no other friends like Allen, not one. How was he to go anywhere without him?
At first he had thought that he would just go back to Turnor and intimidate the older man into signing Allen on before they could prove he had done it. In his fevered brain, he thought this was a perfect plan and made his way back to the HBC office, sticking closely to the buildings, trying not to attract any attention. Everywhere he looked, people were talking. Talking, talking, talking. And everywhere he heard the name of his friend on strangers' lips. He had rounded the final corner for the office, but he had stopped short. Turnor was there, but he wasn't alone. He was ushering a dark haired boy into the office. He would have to wait. He didn’t want any witnesses.
They had thought they’d be in the clear. Damn the man, Turnor. Swanney's hands had opened and clenched, opened and clenched again and again. He was so angry. He wanted to pummel the pompous twat till he begged for mercy. It was supposed to be so easy, just go in and sign the papers then clear out of town until the ship arrived. Then having to wait overnight! It was unheard of, since everything had led the two of them to believe that the Company was eager to hire young men like them. Well, maybe not exactly like them. Or rather, like Allen. He was different.
Neill hadn’t known that much about Allen’s past since he had only just met him the previous summer. He had admired the way that his newfound friend managed to live on his own in an isolated crook of the rugged coast. Allen had built himself a shelter of sorts, invisible until one was right in front of it. But Neill had stumbled across him as he was wandering about one day; it had been fate, he thought. Allen had been suspicious at first, nearly beat him to a pulp, but then again, who could blame him when he was trying to hide.
Once Neill had gained his trust, Allen had explained that he and his stepfather had a row wherein the old man, who had been a cruel master, had cast him out. The stepfather had accused him of terrible things, he said, and had ever since been searching for him to do him in. So that’s why he was hiding.
Neill had understood, since he too had suffered from the harsh treatment of his own father. He himself had recently up and left his father’s home, heading for his cousin’s home in a neighbouring village. His cousin had hidden him when his father had come to find him, but relations between Neill and his older cousin had soured quickly. When Neill came across this stranger living on his own in the wild, he had quickly turned his mind to joining the recluse. He had returned to his cousin’s place to collect his things, told the older man where to go in no uncertain terms, punching him in the gut to seal the deal, and turned his back on his kin forever. He was sick of being told what to do. At fourteen, he had been larger and stronger than most, and he felt he was owed more respect than he got.
The two of them had settled into a good routine. Neill could find occasional work, though it was hard to come by and he often had to walk long distances to find any. As winter set in and they both realized how difficult it was going to be to maintain themselves, a lucky chance meeting with a man working for the Hudson’s Bay Company seemed to give them the boost they needed. It seemed that the Company was recruiting for the next summer to go over the sea to North America. They couldn’t believe their luck. A way to get out of the country and make money, no less! They filled the cold, dark winter nights with dreaming about it.
Allen understood Neill completely. He told him that he deserved better out of life than having useless folk stand in his way. One day, when Neill had been out stealing from a nearby farmhouse, he came face to face with an old man who brandished a walking stick at him. It surprised even Neill himself when a rage deep within him exploded. He left the man in a heap on the cold ground and stole the old-timer’s woollen hat while he was at it. It made Neill feel good to exert his power. It was as it should be, and no old man was going to stand in the way of him getting food for his friend. Allen had clapped him on the back when he returned with the goods and congratulated him on his new hat.
It had seemed forever ‘till the man led the boy out of the office. Turnor was smiling and the boy looked relieved. They shook hands and finally the boy left. He walked right by the spot where Neill was hiding, so he got a good look at him. If it weren’t for his clothes and his cropped hair, the boy would have looked like a girl—a pretty girl. Neill could feel his face flush.
Turnor was about to close the office when Neill stopped him with a hand on his shoulder. Turnor looked surprised and when he saw who it was, his look turned wary.
“Aye? What is it then, young man?”
“Sir, it seems my friend has been mistaken for someone else. So,” he nearly paused in his lie but plunged ahead, “I was wondering if ye might write up a contract for him … for when they find him innocent and he’s free to go.” Unconsciously, Swanney had moved in towards the older man. Intimidation came easily to him.
Turnor was no fool and stepped back, raising himself to his full height. Forgetting the lie he had told Swanney earlier, he lied again.
“I’m afraid I just signed up the last recruit for the season. Just left my office, in fact.” He motioned in the direction the young man had gone. “Your friend is out of luck for this season.” At this point, had Swanney been a likeable boy, he would have patted him on the shoulder, but nothing could induce Turnor to do so now. “But I’m sure that if he is found innocent, he could try again next year. I’ll likely still be here myself, in fact. He’ll have to come then.”
He watched the young man’s face carefully. It had clouded over and he looked dangerously close to exploding. He gave Turnor a hateful glare. Turnor matched it with a firm stare that brooked no argument. He hadn’t spent a lifetime on the Bay to be put out by this youngster. It had its effect, and Swanney finally averted his eyes and nodded at the ground.
Neill felt rage stirring in him, hounding his feelings of frustration and near despair, but he suppressed it. If there were a chance that Allen might make it for next year, then it wasn’t worth him ruining his own chances for being hired. Beating the recruitment officer would not likely help either of them.
And now this—his one and only friend held by those self-same useless folk. What did they want him for? Had he not beat that old man and been stealing for half a year he might have been bolder about asking around, but he felt too self-conscious and worried about getting on the ship. He dare not return to their shelter in case Allen was released. He would want Neill to be waiting for him. Finally, he pulled a boy into the shadow of a building.
“Gerroff me, ye bastard!” The boy was struggling.
“Shut up, ye fuckin' whelp. I just wanna ken whar’s going on with that Bruce fellow!”
“Weill, get your bloody hands off me and ah’ll tell ye!”
Neill released his hold.
The boy’s eyes were wide. It had clearly been an exciting day for him. He blurted it out.
“Seems Bruce was the one what murdered a tinker boy here two years past. I knew the boy too…was only nine years old he was and his mum and da had just died of fever. They caught him once, they did, with the blood on his hands, but he escaped. They’ve been looking for him forever!”
Neill stepped back, shocked. This couldn’t be. But deep down, he knew the truth of it.
It didn’t matter. He cuffed the boy on the back of the head.
“That’s a fuckin' load of shit!”
The boy glared at him and took off, cursing at him as he ran.
Neill paced. If it were true, there was no way his friend would be released any time soon. That meant that he would never be hired for the Hudson’s Bay Company, either—not ever. He couldn’t imagine that the Company was willing to hire murderers, no matter how much they wanted workers.
He stopped cold. It wasn't just a matter of not getting hired. They'd hang him. He'd be dead before the ship even came to port.
It was as if the ground had dropped out from under him. He could hardly breathe.
Swanney didn’t know it, but Turnor was coming very close to ripping up the contract that sat on the edge of his desk. But the thought of this strange young man stalking the streets waiting for his chance of revenge on him, or worse, on his young wife, did nothing to comfort Turnor. Better to send him over with all those other men. They would straighten him out in a hurry. Let him fail over there and come back of his own will. When the boy finally left, Turnor breathed a sigh of relief and took a different route home, just in case he was being followed.
He would soon be someone else's problem.
Andrew walked away from the office, filled with mixed emotions. He felt relief that he had signed the contract, as some of the uncertainty of his future was secured, and he wouldn’t have to face going back with his tail between his legs, begging for someone to take him in. That Turnor fellow had painted a solid picture of food, clothing, shelter and a career that seemed almost too good to be true. What kept the bile rising in his throat, however, was the fact that all these good things would take place across the ocean, in a strange land far from everything that was familiar. Had he longed for adventure like Billy had back home; he would have been overjoyed at the prospect. But as it was, he was battling to keep the nausea at bay, and worried like anything.
Staying with Balfour’s sister was enough to drive a person overseas, though. It was uncanny how much she looked like her brother, so much so that he had done a double take to see the man in a skirt with long, greying hair pulled back in a frayed bun. The walk to Stromness had been peaceful, even surreal. The weather had been beautiful and the wind that was ever present had warmth and the smell of the sea to it. For a time, he simply was alone, free to think and wonder at the rugged beauty of his homeland. He even forgot his troubles now and again, though every time he reminded himself of his destination, his stomach would act up and he would have to leave a bit of his breakfast on the side of the road. He wished desperately that he could just walk and walk and end up in some good place free of worry. He would have walked forever, except eventually the road he was traveling on ended in Stromness and he had to give up his daydreaming and find the home of Balfour’s kin.
And what a shock that had been. To see Balfour in female form did a number on his tired brain. Mrs. Heddle, for that was what she was called, looked put upon when she was forced to answer his repeated knocks. Andrew could hear caterwauling in the background. There had to be half a dozen children inside. She opened the door and he was momentarily speechless. The pause did nothing to endear him to her.
“Aye? What is it?” she’d said.
“I … ah’ve come …” He cleared his throat and she looked at him impatiently.
“So ye have, and who are ye now? Whar’s ye want? Not selling nothing now are ye?”
He shook his head quickly.
“No ma’am. Me name’s Andrew Halcro and ah’ve been living with yeir brither, Mr. Balfour, for these past few years and …” He handed her a note that the minister had written for Mr. Balfour, explaining the situation. She looked at it confused and then called over her shoulder.
“Harold! Get’s here, will ye?” She looked back at Andrew. “Ain’t much good to me since I never had a hand at reading. HAROLD!” He could hear someone making their way to the door.
Andrew plunged on.
“Ah’ve been sent to work fir the Hudson’s Bay Company and …”
Harold Heddle had made his way to the door and smiled at Andrew.
“And whar’s this about, dear?”
Andrew noted the pipe in the man’s hand. She shoved the paper into his other hand and he took a moment to read. When he was finished, he looked up, pleased with its message.
“Weill now, appears the lad is to stay with us for a time!”
“Whar’s that?” Mrs. Heddle was not so pleased. Andrew heard screeching in the background and a child about four years old came racing around the corner, followed closely by an older boy brandishing a stick. Mrs. Heddle barked out an order and she watched the two boys slink away before turning to her husband.
“And how are we supposed to manage that ah’d like to know? Who put him up to this, I wonder?”
“Yeir own brither, dear! This boy’s been working for him for a few years now. And he’s here to join the Company”
“Ah bloody hell! How long will that take?”
“Dear, mind yeir tongue now, there’s children about.”
She rubbed a weary hand over her face. She looked Andrew up and down. He was hungry and exhausted, but he kept his chin up and had a friendly look on his face.
“Well, there’s nothing for it. Ah’ll be having a word with me brither next time I hear from him. Ye can sleep here, but mind ye behave and help out as ye can. With any luck at all, ye won’t be here too long.”
Mr. Heddle frowned at her.
“Now, now, Mrs. Heddle. T’aint the boy’s fault now is it?”
Mrs. Heddle didn’t respond but stepped back to let Andrew in. Had he anything left in his stomach it would have insisted on coming up, but as it was, it chose that moment to growl loudly. Mrs. Heddle sighed.
“Weill, I guess ye’ll be needed some food, too. Come on, we’ll gets ye some.” Andrew had thanked her and commanded his stomach to bide.
And now here he was, a whole afternoon stretching before him, an indentured employee of a fur-trading company as famous as any. In defiance of his weak stomach that still churned now and then, and to avoid returning to the Heddle’s home, he decided to mark the day by some sort of celebration. It was high time to spend those precious pennies that Mrs. Balfour had given him. He made his way into a promising general goods store. Turnor had told him that the Company would supply him with Company issued outer clothing that he would work off with his wages, but Andrew knew that his pennies would do him no good in his pocket overseas. He thought he might as well start with a pair of boots, since the boots he wore pinched his feet and were so patched and leaky that he might as well have run barefoot to Stromness.
The man behind the counter watched him suspiciously, viewing his poor clothing as a sign of a derelict character. When Andrew explained that he was heading off with the Hudson’s Bay Company, though, the man’s attitude changed completely. It seemed that he had a cousin who was working with the Company and was suddenly more than happy to help the boy out. Andrew described what he was looking for and showed him how much money he could spend. The man’s brow furrowed as he studied the money.
“Well, that ain’t much if ye need new boots, but I have a pair of used boots here that a man brought in a few weeks ago. They look as though they’re plenty too big for ye, but they might make do.” The man went into the back and returned with a pair of sturdy boots. They were in fact several sizes too big for Andrew, but the man offered a pair of woollen socks for a discounted price, and Andrew thanked him sincerely. With the socks, the fit wasn’t so bad and he thought it might be useful if his feet kept growing anyways. He said as much and the man beamed.
“My pleasure. Now mind ye come back tomorrow and I’ll have a letter for ye to bring with ye to pass along in the event that ye'll meet me cousin.”
Andrew promised and happily donned the boots and clumped out of the store.
A completely frivolous idea popped into his head, and Andrew veered towards another shop. He made his way in and headed over to the counter where several bins of sweets beckoned. He felt awkward and shy when the lady asked him if he would like to buy a sweet. He nodded. He hadn’t had any candy since Christmases as a young boy. He pointed to a large, dark ball.
“Them there are new, dear. They change colour and flavour as ye suck on them.” He gulped. That sounded delicious. And it was big enough that it would last for some time. She laughed at his expression.
“Ye dinnae get sweets very often, ah’m thinking.”
Andrew shook his head.
“Ah’ll take one of them, please ma’am.” He gave her one of his remaining pennies and she smiled at him kindly.
“Enjoy it, m’boy!” He was about to leave when she called him back. She reached under the counter and brought out a piece of buttered bread. He looked puzzled.
“It was part of me dinner, but I’m not hungry. Would ye like it?”
Andrew hesitated. He was very hungry.
“Please take it,” she said quietly. “Ye look like ye could use it more than me.”
He thanked her as dignified as he could. She grinned and he smiled back.
“There now, just seeing ye smile was worth it.”
He thanked her again and left the shop.
He ate the bread as soon as he got outside, but he waited until he was out of sight of the store to put the candy in his mouth. It was so sweet and delicious that he stopped in his tracks and closed his eyes to savour it.
When he finally made his way back to Balfour’s sister’s house, he was pleasantly full and feeling mildly hopeful that the course set before him was going to be manageable at least. The dread he had worked himself up to for the past few weeks had, he realized, prepared him for the worst, and anything less than that could not help but be a relief. He was almost at the house when he changed his mind and headed down to shore. He spent the rest of the day there, basking in dreams of the good things he would buy with all the money he would be making.
And so it was that even the irritated sighs of his hostess that night when he arrived late and woke the baby did nothing more than make him want to hasten the ship’s departure. Besides, he had to hide his new boots and candy since he could hardly explain how he had got the money for them. Late at night he pulled out the candy and sucked on it for a few glorious minutes before carefully wrapping it back up in his clean handkerchief. Even at that late hour he could hear the missus scolding her husband in the other room and he scowled. Living with the likes of the Balfour woman too much longer would be enough to make him long for adventure on the high seas, come what may.
As he had nothing except what he could carry with his own two hands, there was little in the way of preparing for the trip. He had been assured by Turnor that all of his living arrangements, food and the like would be supplied by the Company on the ship, so he spent the next day roaming the town. He had only one penny left, and since he might as well spend it as save it, he carefully chose a small notebook and a brand-new pencil.
One of the things he had longed to do was write down the poetry and song that filled his head. He luxuriated in the clean sheets of paper, hardly daring to mark them, but when he finally did mar their pristine whiteness, he could hardly stop. He wrote in the tiniest of scripts, knowing that this would have to last him a long time. It was a relief to secret away and pour his thoughts onto paper. He silently thanked his mother again for teaching him to read and write. He wrote to expel the deep emotions he kept hidden away. His mother had always said he was a sensitive soul, and as a very young boy he had taken this as a compliment, since his mother had meant it as such. She fed his imagination with all the tales and songs she could muster. They would sometimes compose impromptu songs together; it was she who filled his mind with tales of trows and selkies and all the mysteries of otherworldly things in both Orkney and Scotland alike. She claimed the Bible was just fine for stories, but she preferred those of magic and mystery, everything considered. She also had an intense interest in the healing arts and all the lore behind them, and more than once Andrew was subjected to some horrific tasting tea amid reassurances that it was good for him. He tried his best to stay healthy and tried to hide when he felt poorly, since he dreaded her remedies. Despite this, it had also given him comfort knowing that she could heal him. But she couldn’t heal herself, and it was that fact that constantly haunted him.
He couldn’t put words to it, but when his dark moods hit it was as if his whole body mourned. It convulsed him and he would have to find a quiet place where he would roll up, squeeze his body tightly and wait until the feeling passed. After the adoring attention his mother had paid to him, life with his grandda had been difficult enough, even if the old man had cared for him. He didn’t dare say it, but he longed for the touch of another, just the physical reassurance that an embrace would afford. He was not without the ability to overcome the dark moods in time, but they exhausted him. He felt childish when he curled himself up, but it seemed the only way to ride out the grief. He thought at least he had learned to suppress the outward expression of his loneliness, and he liked to imagine that he hid it well.
Andrew didn’t have long to wait. One day after he had met with Turnor, the Company ship had arrived and the dock was in an uproar. Apparently it was earlier in the season than usual, and the town was abuzz with merchants crating up the wares they had already sold to the Company. Andrew was fully aware of his lucky break; had he waited even a few days he might have missed the ship entirely until the next spring. He was surprised when Turnor told him that the stop at Stromness would be short, maybe only a few days before it headed out for sea.
“It’s the last stop, see?” Turnor explained as he walked with Andrew down to the dock. “From here it’s sailing clear to Hudson’s Bay with nobbut seabirds for company.”
The day he boarded the ship was one he would never forget. The vessel was every bit as majestic as he had imagined, though he hadn’t counted on the smells below deck. His work began that day, as the new recruits were made busy hauling crate after crate of goods onto the ship. Andrew asked one of seamen what was in those crates and he shrugged,
“Just the usual stuff … things to trade …” The man pointed at the barrels that were being rolled and heaved onto deck. “And water.” No one paid Andrew much mind, and they all seemed anxious to get the work done and get on shore, so he kept to himself the rest of the time.
“Hey, watch it!” A rough young voice grunted as Andrew stepped backwards while holding a heavy crate.
“Mind where ye’re heading!”
Andrew apologized with barely a backwards glance and began down the stairs. He had only taken one step down when he felt a nudge in his back. He started to lose his balance, and the crate nearly slipped from his sweaty hands, giving him countless slivers he would pay for later. He managed to right himself and turned around as carefully and quickly as he could to see who had pushed him. All he saw was the retreating back of a youth with reddish hair. Bastard, he thought. Since others were heading up the ramp towards him, he decided to let it go, but by the time he had reached the ship’s belly, he was fuming.
Swanney saw the boy from the day before, the one who had shaken Turnor’s hand, on ship. He looked young, and scrawny, too. In his state of mind, worn to a ravelling with worry about Allen, it didn’t take much for him to make the connection between Allen being denied the job and this youngster getting it instead. Anger bubbled up inside him. And there he was, the upstart, struggling with a load that Allen could have doubled. It wasn’t right, he thought. It just wasn’t right. This was not what should have happened at all, and now he would have to wait a full year to see his friend again, if at all. Fever was taking him over and he gave into it. This worthless child took Allen’s job away from him and away from Neill, maybe forever. By God, he would make the lad pay for this injustice, if it was the last thing he did. Just then the boy brushed against him as he made his way to the stairwell. With great deliberation, he reached out with his fist and gave the boy a shove. Laughing to himself, he turned away quickly and strode back to shore, not even waiting to see the boy stumble. Actually, he thought, this could be fun.
The happy thought quickly dissipated, however, when he learned later that day that the ship was to leave in the morning. He had hoped there would be more time. Neill still didn’t know where to find Allen. He needed more time. He was kept so busy on the dock, and he was worried enough about being noticed for his own misdemeanours, that he hadn’t found it easy to ask around. For all he knew, Allen could have been freed or escaped again and in hiding. What if he had headed back to their place?
Desperate, he had waited till nearly dusk to threaten a small group of boys to find out where they were keeping the prisoner. They had been terrified, but they came back with the information after all. He made them take him by the back routes to the small building and a make-shift gallows behind. How was it that he had never seen this place before? There were too many people around; he would have to come back under the cover of darkness. He managed a rough “thanks,” veiling a threat to keep their mouths shut about him, and the boys ran off as fast as their dirty legs could carry them. Neill found a secluded place nearby and crouched down to wait ‘till nightfall.
It surprised him when he realized he had slept, but he was glad he had passed the time so quickly, because now it was pitch black. He made his way through the opaque streets until he came to the place the boys had shown him. He hoped he might find a window, but the thick stone wall was solid. Frustrated, he pounded the wall once, hard, with his fist. Faintly, he heard a voice.
“Whar’s that? Is that you, Swanney?” It was muffled, but he could hear his friend clearly enough to make out what he said.
“Yes, it’s me, Allen!”
“Bloody hell! Ye gotta get me outta here!”
“I’ll try, but it doesn’t look like there are any breaks in the wall and …” Neill stopped. Was that a footstep? Allen didn’t hear it obviously because he called back, loudly,
“Get me out, get me out, get me out!!” Allen was frantic. Neill hit the wall twice, hoping Allen would get the message. They weren’t alone. He held his breath. There it was again. Oh shit! There was more than one. He dare not yell back, but Allen was beside himself in one of his rages.
“Neill, get me out of here… whar’d you go? Don’t leave me here! They’re goon t’ hang me!” Neill’s mouth went dry. It was as he had feared. The town would not tolerate that sort of crime, even if it were just a tinker, especially when it was committed by someone they had discovered to be … well, like Allen, and they wanted blood. He had run out of time. He could hear the quiet footsteps; they were near the corner. He had to get out of there. He quietly ducked around the opposite corner, only to run full body into a man a good head taller and much broader than himself. Before he knew it, he had been flipped onto the ground and the bloody lout had one heavy knee between his shoulder blades.
“I got ‘im!” the man shouted into the night, slightly breathless as he tried to contain his captive’s writhing figure. Neill felt the pounding of boots as several men rounded the corner. A short stocky fellow got there first, though from Neill’s vantage point all he could see was a pair of worn boots and an equally tattered pants cuff. Someone had lit a lamp.
“Bloody hell! That was good luck! Flip ‘im over so we’s can take a look at ‘im.” The large man drove a fist into Neill’s side to make him more amenable to the idea, and then turned the gasping fifteen year old over. The lamplight spilled onto Neill’s face.
“He’s the one. I saw ‘im lurking around this evening. Me boy told me what he looked like too, and that’s ‘im.”
The big man grabbed him by the ear, twisting it slightly.
“Now, what’s a lad like you doing around here?”
Neill didn’t answer. The man twisted a bit harder. Neill winced.
“I … I …” He didn’t want to deny Allen Bruce as his friend, but he didn’t quite know if he should admit his connection to him either.
“You … you…” the shorter man mocked. “Ye was here to break yeir friend there out of jail now, warn’t ye!”
Neill nodded, miserable.
“Well, now maybe ye didn’t kent this’n but that devil in there murdered me nephew he did, and he’s goona hang for it in t'morning! Now ye’s come along and wreck'd me beauty sleep for the hanging tomorrow. I ain’t none too pleased about that I assure ye!” The man kicked him in the side for good measure and spat not too far from his head. “Any friend of that trow is an enemy of mine, mark ye! If ye weren’t involved in the ordeal, I beg ye’re pardon, but ye’re best bet is to clear out of here and never show ye’re ugly face again, ye hear?” Neill nodded.
That was it. There was nothing he could do. His ship left in the morning, and he knew he had to be on it. There was no future for him here or anyplace else in Orkney, and Allen was utterly doomed. There was no use in risking his own life for a slim chance that some miracle would happen to save his friend. He was as good as dead already. He told the men he’d go and they would never see him again. The big man got up and let go his hold and Neill stumbled away, choking back the desperate sobs that threatened to undo him.
Elizabeth Ferguson looked down at her work. She shifted and a stream of tiny glass beads rolled off her lap. She groaned.
“It's no use, Mother!”
Mary Ferguson looked up from the pot she was stirring.
“What do you mean, my girl?”
“It's no use. My fingers are too fat and clumsy. I'll never be able to bead like you.”
Mary's eyes twinkled, and she gave her daughter a rare smile.
“You will learn. Your problem is that you have no heart for it.”
Elizabeth harrumphed and picked up another bead. It was true. She had no heart for it when she could be reading or running about like she had as a child. She still wanted to play, and no number of moon times would seem to make her grow up. Her mother knew this, of course, and was gentle with her daughter’s efforts at working. It seemed funny to both of them that she had spent so much of her youth wishing she was a woman. She had watched the other women enviously as they talked and gossiped while going about their many tasks. She had not seen what they did as hard back then, and the little tasks she had been given to do, like scraping the hides to give her mother’s arms a rest—or so she had said—had been but a bit of fun and never very onerous. Her mother had always praised her efforts in her quiet way, patting her young daughter on the head and sending her on her way. Elizabeth in turn was always proud of her small effort and left with a feeling of pride and accomplishment.
Now, here she was, a child no more, and expected to carry her share of the load as befit a young woman. She had heard some of the other women chiding her mother for allowing her daughter to learn all the English man’s ways. “Spoiled her for working,” they had clucked. Her mother had ignored the comments for the most part, and was secretly glad that her daughter had proven herself so smart. George Ferguson, Elizabeth’s father, had told her that their daughter had taken to reading like he had when a child, and though he might not admit the extent of it to the other men of the Fort, he adored the inquisitive child. His love for Elizabeth’s mother was such that he did not speak of it, but he was happy that Elizabeth seemed more English than Cree. Had she been a son, he would have tried sending his bright child home for a more formal education. He knew of another officer who had tried sending his son to a boarding school in England. The son had returned prematurely, but had become a clerk at Prince of Wales Fort on the north-western shore of the Bay and was reportedly well respected for all that. George thought it was a sign of the future. His younger sons by Mary seemed more Indian than English, and he was not so hopeful that they would be candidates for such an education. Shame that such a bright mind could be wasted on a daughter and not granted to a son. It was what it was, though, he would often remind himself, and there was nothing for it. And so he doted on his daughter and enjoyed spending time with her.
Elizabeth was blissfully unaware of her father’s secret thoughts, and only knew that she loved her father. As she sat there, looking at her failed attempts at beading, she thought she was better suited to reading and writing. She wished that she could visit her paternal homeland, but she knew that it was impossible.
She could hear some of the women picking up the bone scrapers to work on a hide stretched between the logs of a drying frame. They were laughing at something, and she thought, rather ruefully, that the gossip sounded a lot different now than it had to her as a child. Had they not had the chance to visit and work with each other, the load would have been too hard to bear, or at least that was how it seemed to her as she rubbed her sore arms at the end of each day.
She looked past her mother to where her brother, Matthias, lay sprawled in the shadows of their tipi. He was so lazy, it infuriated her.
“Look at him! Mother, look at him. He's sleeping again.”
A frown temporarily creased Mary's brow. The young man worried her, too. His constant illnesses had meant that she had been too soft on him. He didn't seem to care about anything. Still, Elizabeth need not point it out all the time.
“Men don't work like women, little wolf. They are hunters.”
Elizabeth snorted. Small consolation, she thought, when the only thing Matthias had caught was a tough old grouse last winter—and that done by accident. Her friend, Daniel, had told her about it. No one had seen whose had hit it, so he claimed it for himself and the others had let him take it. She would have said something, but something about the set of her mother's shoulders made Elizabeth bide her tongue.
Matthias’ poor health had kept him with his mother for two extra seasons. At least he had seemed abashed about it. But still, he did nothing to ease their mother’s load, except to gather firewood and cart water after much nagging when she was otherwise busy. It was as if doing any women’s work would be a further blow to his manhood, damaged by his inability to hunt. The fact that Elizabeth was considerably stronger and had rarely been sick was starting to wear on Matthias, and she had noticed him trying to downplay her increasing work load, mostly by making snide comments about women’s work being less important than men’s. This had been accomplished out of the ear shot of his mother, so Mary had no idea of it, or of the growing enmity between the two siblings.
Later that day, after she had given up with the beads, she caught him watching her friend, Magdelene Isbister, who was pounding berries into a pulp for mixing with dried meat. Elizabeth laughed to herself. Magda, as Magdelene was known, was a pretty sight to be true, and the pounding motion displayed her assets to full effect, but she would not be interested in Matthias. As soon as the bitter thought came into her head, she regretted it. Matthias could not help his situation, and he would have trouble finding a mate of any worth because of it. Deep down, she still cared for her brother; his attitude came from feelings of shame rather than hate. She checked her thoughts and changed course, now hoping that Magda might give him a glance after all.
Before that could happen, though, she heard her mother calling the two of them and she started up guiltily. He saw that she had been watching him and scowled at her. She gave him an apologetic smile and they both headed in the direction of their mother’s voice. But before she reached her mother, she knew why she had been summoned.
The Company ship had arrived
The ship had finally docked at Albany, earlier than had been expected. There had been no need to stay with the ship bound for York Factory, the Company's original fort and central headquarters for the North American operations. One of the Company men muttered “Thank God” under his breath, and then explained that he had no wish to fight with the mosquitoes and midges at York at that time of year. Nor did they get more than a glimpse of the well-fortified ‘Jewel of the Bay’ otherwise known as Prince of Wales Fort on the northern shores of the Bay, though Andrew would have liked staying there since it looked solid and majestic when everything else around seemed so foreign and wild. Fort Albany, the Chief Factor in Stromness had told him, was his stop, and Andrew was glad after all that there was no delay at York. And he was none too sad to miss what were apparently legendary sized bloodsucking flies of the northern Bay.
He was anxious to be off the ship, though, just as were all the other men. The excitement of ship life had worn off quickly, and Andrew wondered at the seamen who lived on the ships as a matter of course. The sea was wild and beautiful, to be true, but there was nowhere to go on the ship and no chance of being alone. Only sitting in the crapper gave him any peace, and that was broken more often than not by rough pounding on the door as someone shouted him to hurry up. At night when he climbed into his bunk, and felt the waves lurching about beneath him, he retreated into his own world, his back to the others and feigning sleep. It was too dark then to write and he wouldn’t dare bring a lantern to bed even if he were allowed, since he blanched at the thought of what the other men might think of his little notebook with his deepest thought poured out into verse. No, he'd had a hard enough time of it proving to them that he could work as well as the next to have them find him to be a poet. He would never hear the end of it. So though his hand itched to record his thoughts, he resigned himself to reciting them in his head at night.
One thing that had bothered him more than the stench of the bunk quarters, the lack of privacy and the keeling of the ship was another recruit—the one who had pushed him down the stairs that first day. Andrew got the oddest feeling from him, something he couldn’t quite put his finger on but was there, tangible as the ugly grin of the older boy’s face whenever Andrew looked his way. He learned quickly that the boy’s name was Neill Swanney, and some of the others had muttered about him being in some shady business with a murderer that had been caught in Stromness. It all gave Andrew an uneasy feeling. Swanney was a big fellow, and looked as though he could swing a fair fist, but Andrew wasn’t worried about an actual fight. He had fought bigger lads than this one and come out the victor. No, it was something different with this one. It was like a slow, festering thing and Andrew wondered where it was headed. There was something slightly evil in the leering way the boy looked at him and the way he slunk around the ship. Other men there had noticed, too, that when work needed to be done, Swanney seemed to disappear. When trouble broke out, Swanney was there with his sickly grin, happy to see strife. He hoped he was wrong, but he figured that Swanney had singled Andrew out in particular. It puzzled him since it made no sense—he had done nothing to the older boy—but he stayed on his guard and avoided the bloke as much as possible.
There had been plenty of other young recruits on board as well, and Andrew thought that they might be all right, but several of them had signed up together and so were well suited to stick to themselves in smallish groups. Most were a sight older than him, too—at least by the looks of them. Seems Turnor had done his best to find older lads after all. Some of them were prone to calling him “The Youngster,” and one even went so far as to ruffle his hair, which irritated him to no end. He didn’t get the sense from any of them that they wanted him around, though had he given them a chance to test this theory, he might have found it to be wrong after all. He had set his mind to loneliness, and that is what he got himself. The older boys liked him well enough, even if he did seem a bit standoffish, and even remarked amongst themselves that he was a good, hard worker. One of the more insightful recruits, Silas, said aloud that he thought Halcro must have to fight harder than most on account of his looking downright girlish, and the others agreed. They knew he was an orphan like many of the others, and they speculated that his wounds were still fresh. So they left him in peace, collectively and silently wishing him well.
The voyage had lasted the better part of two months before there was any sign of land. It was something that Andrew thought he would never forget. He had just finished mopping the bunk quarters when he heard the call “Land Ahoy!” From overhead, he had heard the sudden pounding of heavy boots racing across the wooden planks and felt the ship tilt slightly. He dropped the mop and hurried up the steep stairs to the deck. It was a disappointment at first, since the steer-master had seen land through his spyglass, and it took nearly half an hour before he could honestly say he could see it, too, with his naked eye. They had to slow down as well, since they were passing a pair of huge icebergs. One of the other men explained that those icebergs were as dangerous as any mid-sea storm since they were much larger underwater than above, and many a ship had broken up in clear sea and sky after ramming into the underwater ice. Andrew had heard of this before, but when he saw the icebergs for himself, he could hardly fathom how large they must be underwater. The sheer beauty of the things took his breath away, even more than the frigid air that whipped under his hood and froze his nose and cheeks. They were brilliant white and milky green with shots of the clearest blue he had ever seen.
Swanney had noticed the wonder on Andrew’s face.
“Well, I guess bairns would let their jaws slack open like that, shit-head.”
Andrew's head whipped around and he looked the bully right in the eye. He opened his mouth to speak, but before he could retort, another voice was heard from the deck.
“If the young master is so wordly-worn that he ain't amazed by such a sight as God ever created, then ye'll have to tell us of all the wonders ye've seen in your sarry life, ye little fucker.”
This response elicited a laugh from everyone within earshot, and a few muttered curses at Swanney. No one cared for the swaggering bully, and by contrast, the Youngster was hard-working and kept to himself.
No one else seemed to notice the murderous look Swanney shot at Andrew. A chill rippled down his spine. There could be no good end to this hostility.
The sight of land had been a relief to be sure, but when Andrew asked one of the others when they would be stepping onto it, the other man laughed and said it would be a good many days yet.
“We’ve just hit the tip of it, lad; we’ve got to get into the Bay yet. The fun’s not over yet. We’ve got more ice to see to as well.”
Andrew felt his hopes, which had risen to dramatic heights, plummet.
“And ye’d better pray too that we don’t get locked in! That damn ice can come in so quick, ye nearly canna see it happen afore ye’re stuck like a bloody stone in it! Could be a good many weeks yet afore we get to Albany.”
The news depressed Andrew more than he wanted to admit. Rations on board had been slim to begin with, but were getting smaller since they could not dip into the goods destined for the Forts unless there were dire enough circumstances to warrant it, and his rations were especially meagre since he was so young and the men seemed to think he needed less on account of his not doing so much of the work. That was a load of horse shit, he would think at the end of the day as his stomach growled uncomfortably. Truth was, while on the one hand they gave him less to eat, on the other they worked him harder than the others, thinking it would go a long ways to “making him a man.” He had heard the Company men talk of the fresh meat and fish that was waiting for them on the other side of the ocean, and Andrew could not help but hope it was true.
Liquor flowed freely, though, and Andrew was smart enough not to let it get a hold of him. He figured it was best to keep his wits about him. He did not like that Swanney fellow. From that first day loading the ship he seemed to have it in for the younger Andrew, and he was a big lad, too, at least a stone heavier. Andrew had no wish to confront him three sheets to the wind. So, when all the other men set to drinking, Andrew would quietly sip at his cup, hoping no one would notice how little brandy he was consuming, and still keep his head. He had learned a lot during those times, though he thought if his mother could hear the things he had heard she would have had a fit right there in her grave. He fought his tendency to blush since he knew that such a penchant would do him no good in a drunken crowd. He stuck to the shadows and watched … and listened.
On the night they had first spotted land, some of the older men who were returning after a time at home talked wildly about the women they had left behind on either side of the Atlantic. Wesley, one of the more seasoned clerks, had a foul mouth, and it only got worse the drunker he got. He was not an Orkneyman like so many others aboard ship. He was from London, and his accent was thick. Most of the others had to strain to understand him at the best of times, and when he was drunk he was barely sensible. Andrew thought him funny, but steered clear of him whenever possible. He was lewd as he bragged about the three women he had at his bidding, one at York and two inland, and with land sighted he was in full bawdy swing. “They wantsh me bad, I tell ye … and I’s like ‘em that way … do jes bout anyshing me cockshtand wantsh.” He pointed in the direction of his pants. Clearly he was thinking about it right now. The man turned his yellowed eyes to some of the new recruits and wagged a dirty finger at them. “Promish me lads that ye’ll git youshelf an Indian squaw whens you git thar … they gives ye whats ye need.” With that he took a swig of brandy and keeled over into a heap.
Thankfully they made the last leg of the journey in less time than the Captain had figured, and the mood aboard ship was boisterous. Everyone was anxious to step on dry land and leave the uncertainty of ocean life to the mariners.
It had been clear and sunny for much of their journey along the coast of the Bay, and as they entered James Bay where Fort Albany was situated, the coastline came into crystal focus. Rising out of the wilderness was a small piece of civilization, with real wooden buildings and people swarming down to the shore. As they drew closer, Andrew could see, beyond the wooden structures and past the palisade that surrounded a section of the fort, a quantity of unusual structures. He asked one of the men what they were. The man looked at him funny and then realizing he was serious, answered in kind.
“Those there are the Home Guard and those things are their houses. They call them tipis.”
“Pardon? Tippys? Home Guard?”
“Ah! Now those ye'll be getting' to know just fine soon enough, laddie. Them there's the Indians what stay close to the post. Most of 'em have husbands and fathers in the Company. That's how they're known—the Home Guard.”
The older man paused.
“Tippys?” Andrew asked again, tentatively.
“Tee-Pee.” He drew out the word. “Like a tent of sorts … the Indians can put those up quickly and take them down even faster. They’re handy things them tipis. Course, ah’ll take a log house over one of them any day but then again ...” He gave a conspiratorial wink and nudge. “Ah’ve had some of me best times in some of those tipis so maybe ah’s like ‘em better after all!”
Andrew managed a laugh, but looking at the older man picking at his teeth, he tried to erase the image of him in a tipi even if it were with a savage. He shuddered, but thankfully the man, who had started picking in his ear, didn’t notice.
The ship had barely set anchor before the men aboard were bringing the goods and new recruits ashore. Harry Sutherland had rushed to the shoreline when he had heard the call, even broke off a little tête-à-tête with Martha, the Cree girl he had taken a shine to these past few weeks. She was a bit of fun, even if she couldn’t speak much English. He couldn't even pronounce her name, so he called her Martha after a sweetheart he had had back in Stromness years ago. But the language gap was of little importance since between her broken English and his negligent Cree, they managed well enough for their purposes. It was shocking, he thought, how little talking was actually necessary, all things considered.
Harry’s insides were tight with excitement and nerves when he saw the ship for himself. He half-hoped still that his brother, Malcolm, might have taken his advice and joined the Company. The other half of him knew Malcolm would not come. Or rather, his mother would not let him. The baby of the family, Malcolm was her last son at home and would have been hard-pressed indeed to convince her to let him go. Harry loved his mother, but a feeling near to abandonment and jealousy threatened to drive away his jubilant mood. It was not exactly jealousy of Malcolm himself, who happened to be his favourite sibling, but just of circumstance. Having Malcolm here would have been a taste of home. He had pledged to God that he would give up brandy for a year if He could arrange for his brother to come.
But as the new recruits cautiously looked around as they disembarked from the ship, the reality came crashing in around his faint hope. No Malcolm. Harry studied the new men; it was a large group this year. Most were young, sixteen or seventeen years old, he guessed. Then someone else caught his eye. He was a youngster who looked no more than twelve standing there, trying to look nonchalant but failing miserably. Had it not been for the slight sign of hair on his smooth cheeks and chin, the lad could easily be mistaken for a very pretty young girl. He had curly dark brown hair and eyes that seemed to take up most of his face. The lad sensed eyes on him and turned to look Harry in the eye boldly, challenging. Harry was taken aback. Here was an intelligent and feisty one to be sure. Harry grinned at the lad and the lad, though turning red, gave a small grimace that Harry took to be a smile. The youngster looked away and all the men were quickly put to work hauling all the goods to the Fort. It will be a busy day, thank God, Harry thought, and there’ll be a dance tonight to celebrate. Harry thanked his lucky stars that he had not given up brandy quite yet.
Sutherland was not the only one who made note of the young recruit with the dark eyes. Elizabeth, breathless after having raced her friends to the shoreline, caught herself up short when she saw all the men swarming the shore. Slowing her breathing, she took time to study the faces of the men. She had hoped her father’s friend John Turnor might be on board, home from his leave, but she saw no sign of him. Father would be disappointed, she thought. He was hoping his health might have recovered enough to return. Turnor was also the father of her Home Guard friends Sarah and Jacob, and she knew that they were anxious that he return. Their mother had received no news for two years and this past summer had found a mate inland. Sarah and Jacob had over wintered with their mother inland and she had refused to speak to them of Turnor. There was no way of knowing if they would ever see him again. Sarah had not been so close to her father as Elizabeth was to hers, but she knew that both of her friends felt the loss of their father keenly.
Disappointed, she made to turn away, but someone caught her eye. A young boy, she guessed about her age or maybe a bit younger from the slightness of his figure stood on the dock, apart from the other men. At first she could not see his face, only his figure silhouetted by the dazzling sparkles of water that lapped onto the shore. She could only see his movement—a dark shape in a wreath of light, but she could not tear her eyes from him. He bent over to pick up a crate and began the ascent to the Fort behind her. Men all around were swearing and puffing as they hauled the load up the slope, but she was oblivious. She had a sudden urge to see this mystery figure, so she backed away from the crowd to await his passing by.
When the boy finally came within her field of vision and was not blocked out by the sun, another man stepped in front of him, barking an order and shielding him from her view. She moved quietly closer. And then she saw him. Her heart seemed to leap into her throat. He was so beautiful, fresh faced and whole, when all around her clumped bandy legged, raggedy men whose rank breath and hairy faces made some of her childhood friends cringe with delicious horror at the thought of kissing one of them. Not this boy. His face was pale, she guessed as much from hunger and fatigue as from any natural colouring, and contrasted with his dark curling hair and large eyes made him a sight to behold. She noticed that she was not the only one making eyes at him. Magda, who had claimed this morning that she did not like to run anymore, had finally caught up to her and noticed the lad herself.
“Who is that?” she murmured.
Elizabeth felt an unaccustomed wave of possession over the young man. Magda was a flirt and forever one step ahead of her more staid friend. Elizabeth gave her head a shake, silly to feel this way after only one glimpse of the boy. She answered truthfully.
“I don’t know, but he is beautiful.”
“Mmmhmmm,” Magda purred. Once again, Elizabeth resented her friend’s easy way with men. On another occasion, she might have admired Magda’s comment and laughed, but not this time. Just as she was about to turn away, the boy looked their way, passing over her without seeing anything. He was definitely exhausted, Elizabeth concluded, and she vowed to put the lad out of her head.
The Fort loomed before him and Andrew, carrying a heavy crate of who knew what, looked all around but felt like he saw nothing at all. It would all come into focus he knew, but he felt overwhelmed and anxious at that very moment. The hill was steep and he felt his legs, unused to the solid ground after what felt like years at sea, wobble and buckle under his load. He righted himself, willing his rubbery legs to move methodically up the path. All around him he could hear the bustle and curses of the men unloading, and he did notice crowds of brown-faced folk, the like of which he had never seen before.
Part of the Fort had a palisade around it made of skinny unpeeled logs. The gate was propped open to reveal a wide commons area, ringed by log structures. Andrew was instructed by a man standing at the gate to bring the crate to a warehouse set back from the gate by a good fifty paces. He made his way to the open door of the warehouse and was overwhelmed by the musky smell of fur that pervaded the building and trailed out with the men as they carted large furry bundles past him and down to the ship. Andrew was wondering if they were to unload the entire cargo in one go before any of them had a chance to eat or drink or take a piss. His reverie was broken by a friendly voice.
“Don’t worry, lad, they jest want t’get some done afore dinner.” It was that burly character, the one who had smiled at him down at the dock. The man put out his hand,
“The name’s Harry.”
Andrew gave him a look and then grasped the man’s hand and shook it quickly.
“Andrew. Andrew Halcro. Pleased to meet ye.”
“Likewise, I’m sure.” The man went and picked up what looked like a heavy bundle of furs. Andrew took the cue and tried to heave one onto his back. They were heavy, and Harry chuckled.
“Best grab one of them there bundles instead, lad.” He pointed to a smaller bundle of glossy black. Andrew swallowed his pride and hoisted the new bundle onto his back. Harry made no comment but headed out the door beckoning with his head for Andrew to follow.
“So ye must be from Orkney, aye?” Harry asked as they made their way through the gate.
“So is I.” He grinned. “Been here nearly five years now. Two more years to fulfill me contract, but looks like I might stay a mite longer after all that.”
Andrew stole a glance at Harry. He seemed a likeable chap, and Andrew hoped that Harry’s intention to stay on longer than his seven-year contract was due to good conditions and not to any other considerations. At the dock, Harry was called away, but not before the young man gave Andrew a chuck on the back and a warm “Welcome to Albany” with a friendly grin.
This time, Andrew smiled back.