Larry was first published as an ebook by,the now defunct, Mattu Books, and is now on the lookout for a new home.
The cover image was taken from hoardings on the site of the old St. Peter's School, Ardrossan. Painted by local schoolkids, I thought it to be a fitting front cover for the novel I was in the middle of creating.
Sadly, the mural is no longer there, having been replaced after deterioration by a coastal landscape, which, incidentally, has provided the cover for the follow-up to Scoosh, and possibly others of my efforts.
Feel free to pass comment on Chapter one.
At thirteen years of age I was suddenly too big for the chimneys, having been rescued on more than one occasion when stuck fast. I still have the rope marks to show for it and a few more besides. Since I was considered too young to run a sweeping gang, my next employment was to be in the mine, all settled for me by my father, a miner of some twenty five years.
I had no choice nor say in it and admit to dreading the day, fearfully dreading it. My thoughts on the matter were these. Whereas a chimney had two holes, two points of entry or exit; I had always felt safe enclosed in one up until my sudden expansion in all directions. A pit, however, has only the one point of entry and that was my worry; so much so I had the night sweats from pondering upon it.
The town crier gave me plenty of warning, in fact, gave the whole community plenty of warning. The Impress men were advancing to rural areas on a recruitment drive to crew the Royal naval fleet in support of the war. I'd heard all the stories of men being offered the shilling by the Press Gangs and having enlistment forced upon them if they dared to refuse. I also knew there were certain age limitations they were obliged to observe. Since eighteen was the lower mark of those boundaries, I felt safe in the knowledge I was much too young to be considered for a life at sea.
My last ever shift on the chimneys was spent walking from house to house with the foreman, Arthur Seat, a goodly soul who did me no harm in his employ and who expressed regret at losing his best ever worker to the mining company. We canvassed for chimneys to clean and shook hands on the stroke of noon, my tenure at an end. I made arrangements to pick up my wages on the morrow and gave an account of myself around several business premises in a last ditch attempt to escape that hole in the ground; sadly, to no avail.
On the morning, I wheeled my baby sister, Beattie, in her carriage to Arthur's house and picked up my remuneration and a small bonus which had been hinted at. Beattie was crying and on coming closer to her I sensed she was in need of a change. Having nothing to change her into and being too far from home to be able to endure her wailing and her stink, I trotted towards the market, aunt Bless would fix her for me. I was quite capable of doing it myself but as I say, I had nothing to change her in to.
I very often wonder at what became of Beattie, of how long it took someone to come to her rescue and change her out of the shit she lay in. I only stopped to observe two large rats embroiled in what looked like a fight to the death and was assailed from behind. A sack was positioned over my head before I was bound and cudgelled, much to my disorientation.
I sensed the busy harbour before ever I laid eyes upon it. A man in uniform visited the house in which I was imprisoned, me and about twenty others. He offered the shilling and no one accepted, every man bemoaning his fate and giving excuses as to why they shouldn't be sailors. I myself quoted whatever law had been handed down through folklore regarding the recruitment age. When my plea fell on deaf ears I offered the bribe to the leader of my captors, a weather-beaten rough of about forty years. He took me, still bound, outside to the back yard and asked what money I could gather for the bribe. I offered the wages tucked safely in my pocket and he helped himself to it. I knew right there and then I was destined to be a sailor, especially when he delighted in turning my legal beliefs onto their head. Apparently, it was permissible to enlist apprentices to the service.
I was then given the choice. Either volunteer, in which case I would be granted a signing on fee and could apply for an advance on my navy pay. Or, I would be pressed to service. Half of the men took the shilling, myself included, the alternative didn't sound so very attractive.
Apprenticed yes, and to no less than two men at that. The ship's surgeon was one and the ship's cook was the other. One thing I soon felt assured of, I would be properly fed and maintained health-wise.
I signed on as Lachlan Dougal, my own and my father's Christian name although I had been Larry since a young age. My mother's maiden name was Dougal and I adopted that, suggested by one or two of my fellow captives, I think I was already planning my escape from the service.
With my advance I was advised to purchase a hammock but the sail-maker overheard this advice and offered to furnish me with one at half the cost. This I took him up on and it served me well.
Both of my masters were rum soaked sots but to their credit they looked out for me. When my first two days at sea were blighted by seasickness the cook greased my throat with pork rind, keeping hold of one end and making me swallow it down; it had a strange, soothing effect once I became somewhat used to it. The surgeon took it upon himself to educate me, teaching me
to read and write along with basic manners to observe. I also learned to sew.
Not sails as you might imagine but human flesh, injuries sustained through the hostilities or mere accidents as the crew went about their business. Before long I could skin, gut, clean and cook all manner of animals, the cook only had to demonstrate once and I had it. Much the same with the surgeon, I watched and learned and sometimes questioned his administrations. He dined at the Captain's table and could ramble on at length about what was discussed there, where we were bound and why along with general talk of our movements. This was when he had rum in him which was most of the time, day or night.
I slung my hammock in an alcove by his cabin with the thought I'd be reasonably safe there, he was an officer and as such, commanded much respect.
My first three weeks in the navy were spent circumnavigating the British Isles and picking ever more crewmen up. I remember the surgeon making complaint to the captain as we left Preston's waters, having taken on several convicts. In his experience, his argument suggested, these men were shiftless and tended to carry the Typhus, better known as jail fever. When the captain dismissed this suggestion, I was warned to keep a safe distance from the men in question, I didn't need the warning, however.
Fresh air, that's what struck me first about life on the oceans. I had been up and down chimneys on a daily basis for the best part of six years and my lungs must have been clogged with soot. The fresh air served as an elixir of sorts, I couldn't see it to drink it down but I felt I could swallow it whole.
That's not to say I was afforded a lot of time in it as my duties compelled me to be below decks for most of the day, the galley served as a surgery in times of conflict and was my regular place of work. In more peaceful hours, I would steal onto the open decks for a breather, and to observe the theatre of drills amid the various duties inflicted upon the ratings.
The only piece of equipment issued to me was a paring knife, which I immediately claimed to have lost. My hammock had several pouches sewn into it for personal storage and I secreted the knife in one of them; other crewmen had muskets, swords and knives and I didn't wish to be left out. The cook found me another and warned any further loss would be deducted from my pay.
Being illiterate at the time, I had no way of messaging home to my family. I had an older brother who disappeared for a week once and I would presume they would consider the same folly of me. As weeks passed my father at least would realise my fate, why else would I abandon my sister, a helpless baby? I was now one less mouth to feed but by the same token, my wages would be sorely missed.
I forced myself to put all thoughts of home far from my mind, resigned to my fate at once and, with no shore leave at my command, I knuckled down to it.
I built my physique through the hard work of loading stores, handling sacks of flour and sides of meat to their respective places of conservation; vegetables too, and they came by the sack hundredweight, heavy work.
Sailors were a smelly lot, living in cramped conditions and with little chance to bathe, they would take on a rank odour after only a couple of days at sea. I myself had been taught cleanliness if nothing else and was more used to a bath after a day in the chimneys, I wasn't allowed over the door otherwise. To maintain this habit I would draw a large bucket of fresh seawater each morning before work and go through my ablutions by the chute used for disposing of food waste, of which there was seldom much.
We left Belfast after taking on more stores and more convict sailors, bound for America and the war. A flotilla of fourteen ships with my new home 'HMS Millport' as flagship, the Captain having been rounded up to Admiral while in Belfast. He held a party for his officers to celebrate his promotion and I attended as galley boy, my duties were to see everyone's goblet was charged. With copious amounts of rum and beer on offer, the surgeon cornered me and bade me run a bottle down to his cabin, impressing upon me that it was no one's business but his and mine. Of course, I imbibed slyly myself over the course of the evening and retired later with a few tots under my belt, some might say a little squiffy.
The pain coursed through my body like I had been shot. The second mate stood by my hammock with his trews around his ankles, his
thumb halfway up my arse and my balls cupped by his hand. It took me a second to realise what was going on and my reaction was to slip the paring knife from its sheath and lash in the general direction of his face. His squeals alerted the surgeon and I was prevented from causing any further damage my true intention being to kill the fucker.
When things quietened somewhat and it was established the scenario held no blame on my part, the surgeon cautioned the brute and proceeded to stitch up the hole in his face. During this while, I cautioned the man myself, telling him I had been aiming for his eyes and on my oath, wouldn't miss if ever he came upon me again. He saw the truth in my words; saw it in my eyes and in my resolve.
The surgeon again cautioned him on his future behaviour and let the matter rest. I didn't agree, but I was a lowly apprentice with no powers of sway.
The cook recognised my agitated state and I spilled forth with the story, happy to have someone to confide in and happy enough now to leave it at that. Not so the cook. He told three people of the second mate's misdeeds and by noontime word was about the ship, any buggerers entertaining thoughts of molesting the cook's apprentice would end up poisoned, or dead, or worse; now I felt better.
It didn't take long for it to reach the Admiral's ears and I was escorted to his quarters, fearful I might be in line for a few lashes of the cat for striking an officer. Admiral David James Thom had more about him than that, and, being a fair man, listened to my testimony and that of the surgeon before demoting the second officer and offering me a position as his cabin boy. This had me all of a quandary as I had by now settled into my present role. I spoke up, pronouncing my illiteracy, remembering Beau Nydall, his present cabin boy, had been taking notes at the previous evening's soirée .
Being able to cipher was apparently a necessity of the post and I had no qualifications in that direction. So it was, I stayed below decks. Beau sought me out and shook my hand, the story was he matched up to his name which was why the Admiral requested the change-over.
Four days out and the wind forsook us, leaving the fleet becalmed to a standstill. The intense heat caused the salted meat to bubble and rot rapidly, at once smelling worse than the worst of the sailors on board and I was made responsible for its disposal. Hundreds of huge fish, sharks, devoured the foul meat as soon as it left the chute; they had no qualms about eating it. What dry foods we had were rationed but I had first rights to it, porridge oats being the main part of my diet since infancy.
We were becalmed for all of four days and when the winds took to blowing again they took us south instead of west, heading for the South Americas instead of the North and the war.
I had imagined my earlier seasickness to be over with, mere teething problems in becoming acclimatised to the motion of the ship but I was proved wrong, with a vengeance. We were tossed around like a cork in a fast flowing stream, anything which moved had to be battened down securely to
prevent accidents and experienced seafaring men gave up the contents of their stomachs to the wild seas. One minute we were atop the highest of waves and the next we were surrounded on all sides like someone had dug a hole in the ocean and dropped us in. I truly believe it was at that point I found my sea legs and was never happier than to have eventually escaped it alive, myself and many others. The creaking timbers of the ship added to the intensity of our ordeal, sometimes it sounded like we were coming apart at the seams.
Mile after mile of coastland passed us by and I questioned of the cook as to why we couldn't stop and take on stores. I was told we were off Cuba and wouldn't be made welcome, he guessed we were bound for Belize, where Britain had allies.
Belize it was, although I saw nothing of it, only the shoreline by day and lights by night. We took on stores including live animals and this is where I learned to kill and butcher such, alien to me at first but soon I thought nothing of it.
Whatever news of the war Admiral Thom took on board had him itching to become involved and we departed Belize in all haste.
One day out and we intercepted a small French fleet. France was allied to the Americans and we engaged them in a skirmish the likes of which I had never imagined, despite tales recounted by veterans. We took several hits and much damage was visited upon us below decks, most caused by splintering wood. The first operation performed on the large galley table was to remove a spike of wood from the upper arm of an infantryman who looked no older than I was. To free it I had to pull on the bloody end while the surgeon pushed it
right through with two blows from a mallet. The soldier's screams weren't the
worst I ever heard, but they were the first for the purpose of extreme pain and
still live with me.
The noises of the war above were deafening but with the busy times we were having it was easy enough to put them out of mind. Wounded after wounded came in a procession, minor injuries for the most part then one man dragged himself in with half of his arm hanging off. He went into a faint as soon as he made the table but I still had to hold him down as the surgeon took the saw to him.
I was handed the severed limb and told to dispose of it. At the chute, I looked out and saw my first glimpse of a sea battle with other ships in our flotilla pounding out round after round of cannon-fire. I didn't have long to gaze upon it, my presence being required by the operating table.
We commandeered three French vessels and sent two more to their watery graves. Now we were seventeen strong and had come through
our first conflict. Despite structural damage to almost every ship, we were all
considered to be seaworthy and the mood was buoyant.
With that sight of all the open wounds and blood, the slaughtering of an animal was as nothing now. It was food and as such, invited little remorse from me in its killing. The first animal I butchered was a large boar. I stunned him with the mallet, tied his back legs together, hooked him up to the pulley and slung him over the ship's side. I then had to sit astride a plank and cut the beast's throat, the ensuing blood attracted several sharks and I viewed them while I waited for the blood to let. I think they were disappointed there was nothing more on offer but I wasn't in the business of feeding sharks. The cook assured me there was some good eating in them if they could be caught.
Each ship had taken on prisoners of war and it was my duty to see those on the Millport were fed. A bucket of gruel is all I was permitted to serve and with no utensils. The French went at it with their hands regardless, much as I would have in their position. One of them puckered up to me and I split his lip for him before he could take it away, he didn't do it again.
They were taken ashore in Belize and we set sail for the war once more. This time we made it without incident and joined up with many more ships of our persuasion. Battles ensued, running battles with smaller fleets and smaller ships. The Admiral was at his happiest in the thick of things and we had no choice but to go along with him. This meant the operating table saw its fair share of patients. At day's end we blacked out the galley's portholes and carried on with our stitching by candlelight. Five men were killed when the cannon they manned took a direct hit from an enemy ship. The cook and
myself had to stitch every orifice of their bodies before the sail-maker encased
them in their shrouds, adding a cannonball to make them ready for burial at
Six months of chasing and fighting passed by quickly. We would sit offshore in safe waters to take on stores and make repairs to the ships. One French prisoner made a bid for freedom and was hit by musket fire before he reached the water. His friends, who had looked to join with him. had a sudden change of heart and were no trouble in being taken ashore. The cook was allowed abroad to select stores and, try as I might, I couldn't beg an invitation to help him, much as he would have welcomed it.
My best ever day at sea came after seven months afloat. My former assailant had clawed his way back through the ranks after a series of mishaps to other officers and was then third mate. He took some shot to the knee and the surgeon removed it so he was still able to limp about. A week later the wound turned septic and he kept quiet about it until he couldn't bear either the smell or the pain.
I sat on his upper leg while the surgeon selected his saw. The man had a stick to bite down on but seemed intent on having a few words to say. I removed the stick just as the saw hit bone and he screamed like a Banshee. The surgeon bade me return the stick but I clumsily dropped it to the sawdust and the blood. I wanted the bastard to scream and both he and the surgeon obliged me. He fainted away before the job was done but I'm sure he felt most of it, I was happy enough now I didn't kill him when it had been my clear intention before to do so.
All was quiet so I put the leg on a hook and went fishing with it, securing a fine young shark after only a few minutes. I ripped the fish open before anyone could see what I had used for bait and added shark steaks to the menu. The cook was right in saying they were fine eating, even Admiral Thom agreed on that.
In quieter times we could hear cannon-fire from shore-side to remind us the war wasn't only at sea. No one seemed willing to tell us who was winning but as long as I was in one piece I didn't much care. A young rating died in his sleep of fright, he had been subject to the nightmares and one of them had been so strong and vivid it had stopped his heart, this according to my master the surgeon. I stitched him up and was about to throw his clothes away when I happened to look down at the rags I was wearing; I had lived and worked in them since my capture. I tied the man's clothes into a muslin sack, joined it to a rope and let it drag to our rear for fully twenty minutes. When they dried they were bleached clean and I felt human again when I changed into them. From then on I collected an enviable wardrobe and was able to trade for all manner of what I took to be necessities.
Another perk, many sailors wore an earring of gold and this was removed by the cook or by myself, whichever of the two stitched the man up, a naval tradition of sorts to pay for the funeral; although at times I wondered if I would ever live long enough to spend it.
My education gathered pace, the surgeon was a good teacher and professed I was an equally good pupil. Most of my reading material happened to be medical journals so I was learning a skill as I went along, both hands on and cerebrally.
By my crude calculations my fifteenth year anniversary came and went while still at sea, twenty two months without touching dry land. It had been said when I was captured that the sea would become an habitual way of life if I lived long enough and chose to embrace it, and so it appeared to be. I thought less and less of home but still hankered for freedom and dry land, any dry land.
One major drawback was the fact that I had never learned to swim, a topic raised by a recovering able seaman one calm day. His testimony was I should count myself lucky for the fact that I couldn't swim. In theory, if the ship went down I would surely drown before either the sharks or the cold could avail themselves of me. My own instinct was, I couldn't very well swim to shore if the chance ever came.
The surgeon gave me writing tests where he would dictate passages from a journal and I would commit them to paper. My mistakes became fewer and he advised me to remain quiet about my education or the Admiral might carry out his earlier planned exchange with lazy Beau, I heeded his words.
Finally, I was ashore, although heavily guarded throughout. I had a pocketful of gold earrings in case an escape opportunity presented itself but it wasn't to be. I was told we were in Canada but all I knew for sure it was perishing cold, with snow the likes of which I had never encountered. My suggestion that we should butcher the animals on shore and sell off the hides was accepted by the cook and we split the money between us. Strangely, it was American paper dollars but neither of us cared; it was unlikely we'd be in a position to spend it for a good while.
From Canada, we went looking for the fight again, fully laden with ammunition and larder goods. Three weeks later we were caught up in a pincer movement comprising vessels from the American, Spanish and French
navies. They had sailed from the port of New Orleans and split up prior to
surrounding us near to the Jamaican coast. Only three ships escaped the ensuing melee, all with great loss of life. We limped to a safe haven, all the while burying the dead at sea and patching the wounded as best we could. The Admiral assessed the damage to each ship and decided the Millport was the ablest of the three. The other two vessels were then scuttled and I felt sad to see them disappear into the sea.
With all hands needed to make repairs, the cook and I were sent ashore for supplies with only two armed guards. I was given fair warning of the excursion and its circumstances so I left the ship wearing two of everything except for shoes, I felt this would be my best or only chance to abscond.
In the end it was made easy for me when both guards made off to join up with the regular army. Which army, I would never know, but I was a free man from that moment and the cook shook my hand then wished me good luck. He wouldn't be bolting, his life lay out to sea in wartime or in peace, that was about the size of it. He emptied his pocket of gold rings and gave me the coin he was to use for the supplies, he would tell the purser he had been robbed and that I had been slain trying to protect him, a kindly man for that.
Now, I was in a strange land without a friend in the world, apprehensive but excited at the same time.
I took refuge in a barn and lived off raw hen's eggs for two days while I worked on my strategy, no clues on my next move becoming apparent to me.
In the dead of the second night I had a visitor. All I could make out was eyes and teeth but decided it was simply a refugee like me and fell to sleep again. In the morning I had forgotten about it and was half way into the clearing on my way to breakfast when I heard rustling in the straw.
My paring knife was with my belongings, such as they were, and I was
defenceless. A youth of about my own age stood up and showed me the finest set of teeth I've ever seen. He was black as coal and with his first words he called me 'Massa', then asked me to share the eggs.
They weren't my eggs to share but I did as he asked, whoever they did belong to didn't seem to care much about them, my gain and their loss.
My new friend's name was Oswald Moses but had been Oz or Ozzy to everyone who knew him. A fellow escapee, he had seized his chance and buried himself in a hay-wagon to make good his escape. That was two days earlier, much like me so I felt we had an immediate bond, a common thread between us. I introduced myself with my given name, Kynn, Larry Kynn. If the militia went looking for Lachlan Dougal, that would be fine by me; I was no longer he.
Oz had been born into slavery and branded to show he was an owned man. At almost sixteen years of age he decided he'd had quite enough and used a visit to the market for his getaway. Now, we were in cahoots and at once clueless as to how we should go about things, we would surely stand out as unbefitting for the terrain, I would at least.
Between us, we came up with the idea of master and slave to help us look the part, to help us blend in.
We attracted some looks but were left alone as we sought to leave the coast behind us. I felt there would be a chance I would be looked for if the cook couldn't convince the officers I had perished and Oz Moses felt much the same of his ex-master.
Oz knew horses and chickens but right then we had neither. He had witnessed men flogged and hanged for the theft of both when I suggested we should help ourselves.
As it was, and Oz drew my attention to this, my gait from having been so long at sea gave the impression I had just dismounted from a horse after days in the saddle, so that in itself went in my favour; even though I had never been astride such a beast. I knew of their insides having butchered one in times of dire need but so far, I wasn't a rider. This was rectified after two days of walking and foraging for food when we came upon what looked like an abandoned farm. We found horses and pigs in the barn, all appearing dishevelled and forsaken, the chickens to the rear seemed fine enough
in themselves. The house held two rotting corpses and stunk to high heavens. We agreed to rest there, buried the bodies, of which we could only tell were of
either sex through their clothing, and aired the shack to rid it of the smell.
Oz said words over the markers and I eyed up the fattest of the pigs, we would
eat well and no mistake.
With full bellies and with the horses turned out to pasture, we lit a fire outside and reclined to watch the stars. I told Oz of what I had learned of them from my time at sea, how they could be navigated by and how the earth we stood on rotated on its axis. He was genuinely interested and we learned more of each other in that relaxed situation.
A fine breakfast of chops and eggs found us fighting fit and Oz set about showing me the ways of horsemanship. I couldn't believe how high up I was but that was soon to prove the least of my worries. A snake spooked the animal and I was carried at a rate of knots in whichever direction the horse chose to traverse. He didn't show any sign of tiring so I reluctantly baled and broke an ankle in the process. Oz found me cooling the injury in a small brook, as recommended in the best medical journals, and left me there while he tracked my missing mount. It was dark when he returned for me
and I was reluctant to take to the saddle again. Seeing he was an excellent
horseman, I rode tandem with him and we led my now subdued mount back to the farm.
After two days I decided my ankle was only sprained and the bruising had been slowed by the cool stream. So it was I took to the saddle again and, watching Oz closely, soon felt I had mastered the art sufficiently to call myself a horseman.
We spent three weeks on the farm, eating chicken and eggs and pork until we were truly sick of it. Not so sick we wanted to leave the place but the war could be heard creeping ever closer, it was time to move on. I salted some pork, raided the pantry for flour, sent the remaining pigs and horses loose and we set off for who knew where, anywhere away from the sounds of war.
We passed through towns where conflict had obviously visited before us and must have given off the impression of master and slave with two horses each and with Oz travelling that respectful distance behind me. In the open country -side we went side by side and bantered all the while but in populated areas we observed the norm. People would doff their caps to me and sometimes hiss words like 'Niggra’, at Oz. He explained this behaviour to me and I was at once appalled that men could treat other human beings in such a way. I assured Oz he was in no way inferior to me, he was my friend, my only friend on this earth and my equal as such. He cried real tears at my proclamation of friendship, claiming never to have imagined in his wildest dreams hearing this from a Massa, a white man.
Seven days of travelling in a roundabout way found us in Baton Rouge, which appeared to be strangely unscarred by what appeared to be going on elsewhere. We dodged a platoon of cavalrymen and I decided it was bath-time for both of us. The laundrywoman wouldn't allow Oz into the adjacent bath house but I told her he would be using my water when I was done with it. She wasn't happy with that either but I gave her a glance at a gold earring and she let it be.
The bath felt good, better than good, the woman took my clothes for the wash and furnished me with a newspaper to read while I soaked. I was almost to sleep with the relaxing ambience when a commotion outside the drape alerted me. Oz was being told to shuck his clothes by a gruff sounding man and I didn't much care for his manners. With no clothes to hand and
no towel, I leapt from the tub and gathered up my paring knife to investigate
the row. The man held a large knife on Oz and when I appeared at the drape and took his attention, Oz made to move away from him. Too slow, the man stabbed blindly with the knife and embedded it in Oz's upper leg. I was upon the man in a flash and easily had him cut from ear to ear, being splattered with gushing blood for my trouble. The laundrywoman screamed and I snatche up a towel to protect my modesty.
Still wrapped in the towel, I explained events to what passed for the law in those parts and my story was then corroborated by the witness. I stated self-defence since the Niggra was my property and found no argument. Oz remained absolutely silent, despite the knife still sticking in his leg. I cleaned myself up and tended to his wound myself, I had the experience.
Again, Oz didn't once whimper as I removed the weapon and stitched his wound good for him, using equipment found at the homestead where we lodged for a time. Into the bargain, I availed myself of the man's boots, finding them to be a perfect fit. Oz claimed his hat although he washed it thoroughly in my bath water before wearing it; he also kept the knife as a trophy.
So, I killed a man, without thinking and without blinking. Perhaps it should have disturbed my conscience but no such thought entered my mind, it was him or me; or rather it was him or Oz, my friend and travelling companion.
We rested ourselves and the horses for two days to make sure the wound wasn't in any way infected, eating well although seldom together. Slavery was very much in evidence and I was mindful to observe the protocol of the land.
One evening, a pup, a small bundle of fur, nestled at my feet as I tucked into a large steak. I trimmed the fat off and cut it small before feeding the animal, admiring her propensity to chew well before swallowing. When I left the table the dog followed me and, try as I might, I couldn't put an owner to her; it was as if she had appeared from nowhere. So it was, two became three; the little barrel of a thing became known to us as Keg and we had another travelling companion, another mouth to feed. At first she ouldn't keep pace with the horses however slowly we went and I draped her over the pommel of my saddle. The horse didn't appear too happy at first but the two soon became good friends.
On closer perusal of my newspaper, I decided our best path would be down through Florida to the very tip and hope to sail across to the comparative safety of the Bahamas. The fighting was everywhere but according to the newspaper, less concentrated along our intended route.
As we rode, Oz explained what went on when the man spied him sitting outside the bath house. Slaves were regarded as no more than marketable goods, and as such were often ordered to disrobe so that a potential buyer could view their fitness, and even their breeding potential. The man in
question should have had the good manners to approach me as Oz's supposed owner, and to barter outright with me. His ignorance cost him his life, a hard lesson in etiquette indeed.
From Baton Rouge we set off towards Mobile in roughly a straight easterly direction. I was puzzled by the heavy army presence and consulted with the newspaper once again as we hid out for the third time in the one day from a passing troop. I was reasonably new to reading and was afraid I might have misinterpreted the script. I scanned and scanned until I was sure I had taken it in correctly.
With no further need for the pages, I was about to rid myself of them when I happened to glance at the date atop one. It was two or more years old by my calculations. Louisiana, and Baton Rouge in particular, had taken on the mantle of a central headquarters for the French and American soldiers. Luckily, we found ourselves on the outskirts of the place and had encountered no hostilities.
A rethink on our destination was now called for. Oz only had knowledge of the plantation he had fled from and of his travels with me. I, however, had scanned maps while at sea and knew Mexico to be in an almost straight line to the west of us. I put it to Oz, and of course Keg, both made appreciative noises and we turned about in mid stride.
We fished a small river and came up with a few fine specimens but had to extinguish the fire as soon as they were cooked for fear of being discovered. Keg alerted me to a couple of trapped rabbits and I left the trapper with a rabbit's foot in each before slinging the prizes over my horse's neck. We had some desperate land to traverse and any food would be welcome. Keg only rode with me when she was tired. She could only have been three months old but was growing at an alarming rate. At night, she would sleep with the horses if we had a roof, but if we were outdoors she would curl up with me. Late one night into early morning, she gave out a low growl and left my side. I heard the rattle of the snake's tail and knew him to be close by but there was no sign of Keg in the dim light. I can only assume she distracted the serpent away from our camp because the next thing I heard was her low growl again and a struggle of sorts. Moments later she dragged the thing in and dropped it at my feet. With little or no food at our disposal, we breakfasted on the Devil's servant; not tasty as such but nutritious all the same.
The same thing happened two nights later, nearer dawn this time, Keg left my side again and we heard a yelp. Not a dog’s yelp but that of a human, we looked up to find ourselves surrounded by native Indians and one had Keg by the scruff, blood dripping from his hand.
Some were in military outfits, French colours by my reckoning. The one with the dog spoke and Oz jabbered back at him in a mixture of French and English. I picked out a few words from my time spent with the prisoners of war. I then tended to the wounded Indian's hand after using sign language to retrieve Keg. Surprisingly, they turned and left us to it, with Keg nipping at their heels, only giving it up when I called to her. The Choctaw Indians sided with the French and American armies against the British and Oz told them he was a free man and travelling with the man who freed him to join up on their side. That's why we were left alone and that's why we broke camp in all haste, a close call by any stretch.
We put some miles between ourselves and that place and lost more time hiding from anyone Keg sensed approaching, her awareness being much sharper than our own.
Following a well beaten path, we came to the mighty Mississippi river. Sign told us this was a fording point and Oz didn't hesitate in leading his two horses into the slow moving waters. I followed suit after perching Keg on my saddle, keeping a firm hold on the pommel as my horse swam us across. Keg fell in when we were almost to the far bank but happily doggy paddled alongside us, I do believe she was enjoying herself. I was happy to reach dry land.
We found ourselves in swampland and had to tread carefully, the dog leading the way and seemingly deciding which was the best of the ground. By nightfall we were still in dense woods and agreed a fire wouldn't be too much of a beacon to anyone. I didn't notice Keg leaving me but on awakening I discovered three dead snakes by the embers of the fire, she was earning her keep and no mistake.
The low warning growl came as I baked the snakes in the relit fire and Oz took off behind the trees. A fellow gave out a call as he entered the camp, arms aloft to show no malice intent. I quietened Keg and bade him sit across the fire from me. He carried a crude bow and arrows but I could tell he wasn't an Indian. His language was partly French and partly something else and Oz startled him when he addressed him from behind. He soon regained his composure when he saw he was in no danger and expressed no surprise at a black man and a white man travelling as equals. Oz again did our talking for us as I finished the cooking and shared the meal four ways. If Jacques knew he was eating snake, he didn't let it bother him, gratefully accepting his share of the meat and going at it with a relish. He informed us there weren't many soldiers between our present position and the Texas border which came as good
news. He also offered to guide us from the swamp for our showing him the
kindness and this we accepted readily.
Keg crept over to where the horses were grazing and stretched out for a sleep and we all fell silent, there was much less of an urgency to our journey at that point.
Jacques led the way with Keg between us and himself, she wasn't taking any chances, friendly as he seemed to be. Suddenly, she veered off to one side and a moment later Jacques held his hand up for silence. He loaded his bow and Oz drew his knife, he had been practising throwing it at every given opportunity and had become quite adept. One wrong move from Jacques and it would have found its way to his heart and no mistake.
There was no need for any panic of the sort as Keg worried a young boar towards us and Jacques felled it expertly with a well-aimed arrow.
A word with Oz and we changed course, it would appear Jacques lived close by. I cautioned Oz and Keg to be wary and we followed the man for a good mile to a clearing and a rough and tumble cabin.
There were signs a woman had been in the surround and Jacques explained his Indian squaw had died of the fever, he now lived alone. He marvelled at my skills with the butchery and Oz more or less talked him through how I went about it. I boiled up the offal as a treat for Keg but first offered it as humour to Jacques and his laugh resounded throughout the woods.
Before the offal cooled, Keg provided yet another boar for the kill. A larger beast this time, it wanted to fight with the dog but couldn't bring the attack anywhere near her. Jacques took two arrows to kill it and I invited him to go through the butchery process, stopping him once or twice to demonstrate.
With a roof over our heads, we stayed for four days and ate well. Jacques offered to buy Keg but it was only a polite enquiry and he was in no way offended at my refusal.
When it came time for us to move on, Oz hugged Jacques greatly, yet another white man had treated him as an equal and he was quite overwhelmed with the emotions. I myself hugged the man too, although he smelled much like an old sailor; Keg let him pat her head and she even waggled her tail to him.
Clear of the swampland and with dried meat aplenty, we made good mileage, finding less of a population to wonder at us until we felt it almost safe to forget about the war. When we did visit through a settlement or township, we kept up with the master and slave pretence to good effect. Even Keg seemed to know of it and stuck to me instead of spending her time between us as was her norm.
Another newspaper, more recent than the last one I read, showed me the error of my ways regarding the hostilities. Baton Rouge was a hotbed for the skirmishes and I discovered our intended path would have been futile, almost suicidal if we had carried it through. To make matters worse, if we had made our suggested destination we would have walked into a certain treason and desertion scenario; myself at least.
According to the pages before me, the Bahamians were in deep with the British and I should have realised this from where we sheltered after the rout by the French fleet. At once, I counted myself lucky and blest.
Two days into Texas and we ran out of food. Even Keg came up short when she went out to scratch around for us and we took employment at a ranch to put something in our bellies. Mostly dust, but we were fed after a fashion, and after a hard day's endeavour chasing cows. The rancher baulked at taking Oz on at first but when he saw what a good horseman he was, his worry calmed. Being black, he was only on half wages and half rations but the old cook was as black as Oz, if not blacker, and looked after him no end. Keg showed her breeding and herded those cows better than the best cowboys on the ranch. She attracted another offer for her ownership but I wouldn't part with her. I suspect I could have sold her off and waited at a distance for her to catch me up on the trail, but that would have been dishonest; the option was still there for desperate times though. I slept in the bunkhouse with Keg at my feet but Oz had hard ground for his bed and this didn't sit easy with me one bit. I told myself it wasn't for too long but the comfort had me lingering in the place.
It all came to a head when I was sent to town for supplies, being the only literate person of the crew. Keg rode in the wagon with me and it all went fine until a drunk aimed a kick at her as she waited patiently outside the store. I heard her snarling and went to investigate, finding the man wielding a knife and about to strike at the dog. I didn't hesitate, Keg was for taking him on, as game as she was, but I stuck my paring knife in the back of his neck and ripped it upwards to where his brains should have been, this, according to my knowledge of the human anatomy. He died without letting too much blood and I had killed yet another man, again without remorse.
I then found the laws in Texas to be quite different to those in Louisiana and was quarantined in a barracks and charged as a murderer, my pleas of self-defence and of protecting my property falling on deaf ears. Keg sniffed me out from behind the wall and I sent her to fetch Oz, hoping she understood what I was commanding. As I languished, I wondered just what a Negro could do in my defence, provided the dog actually managed to bring him close that was.
I must have slept because it was dark outside when I heard the commotion. Then, a long blade appeared through the slats of my prison, inches from my face and closely followed by a rope. I threaded the rope across a baton to another hole made two feet away and waited for the horse to pull; knowing by then what was afoot. The entire barrack wall came apart but I was loose and looking for my mount, astride and away before the alarm could be raised.
Although we had wages lying at the ranch, we put some distance between us and the settlement, even managing a laugh after an hour's riding; the Devil alone knew why we were alive with all that was going on.
Texas was vast, or at least gave the impression it was so. We must have travelled for eighty miles without seeing a human soul, one that was alive in any case. Plenty of sun-bleached bones which Keg delighted in investigating for the marrow, but without much fortune. Snakes aplenty, too, and we didn't starve, Keg honing her hunting skills as part of her daily routine and a real comedy to watch her go about it.
At last we came upon a settlement and immediately found work on another ranch. We gave an account of ourselves as experienced cattlemen and to our delight were afforded the same wage and accommodations. The Negress cook had a daughter and Oz had his head turned for a time until it became apparent she was off limits. The word was she was being saved for breeding purposes and no surprise, I had stirrings myself whenever I had the pleasure of her company, which wasn't very often. She had eyes only for Keg and
the dog unashamedly played her up on it, showing off her intelligence.
We found a cow with a broken leg at round up time and Sulk Malkie, the ramrod, asked me to deliver it from its misery. We had a food wagon with us since we were so far out on the range and I was partly in charge of it, having given an account of myself as a cook. I showed my skills with the knife and we ate steaks with our beans. I stripped the tail for Keg and she amused us with her efforts to bury it for safe keeping. Again, I boiled the offal as her treat and she sat patiently as it cooled. The other cowboys treated Oz as an equal for the most part, going so far as to shake his hand when he rescued one of them from the horns of an unruly beast, we felt at home among these men but still harboured thoughts of Mexico and beyond, discussed regularly at evening's rest.
Our idyll was shattered when a surly hulk of a man, new to the company, took something of a dislike to Oz. We tried to ignore it and others backed us against the man when he gave vent to his prejudiced views. I kept Oz close to the food wagon as my assistant but the fellow wouldn't be quieted and it came to a knife fight on his second day of employment.
I stood by to back my friend but there was only ever going to be one outcome. Oz was as strong as an ox and splayed the brute open from groin to neck. His eyes told of his disbelief but his mouth gave out only guttural noises as he lay dying.
The ramrod and the men rallied to us, buried the fellow without ceremony and swore to a man he had never joined our company. Oz now had two knives, having laid claim to his victim's blade; I took his hat as it was in better shape than mine.
We lit out for the ranch to collect our pay and to say we were moving on. The rancher shook both our hands and offered work if we ever passed through again; genuinely grieved to see us leave his employ.
As a curious person, I asked Oz if he felt any remorse for his actions and he answered his feelings on the matter were as mine had been, kill or be killed and the Devil take the loser.
Once more on the loose, we took our bearings from the sun and continued westward on a diet of dried beef provided by the black cook, and snakes provided by Keg.
Many more miles passed without incident or sight of human life until a signpost told us Houston was thirty miles to the southwest of our position. In dire need of a bath and a more agreeable diet, we made the decision to detour slightly and visit the place.
Five miles from our destination, we heard the familiar sounds of war. We didn't care who was fighting who or for why and skirted past the so called civilisation, happy now to remain dirty and hungry, alive and relatively safe.
We took shelter in a large forest, the edges of which had been felled for building, or more likely for the war effort. Deep into the woods, we lit a fire and waited for night to fall. Keg disappeared towards the edge and returned shepherding three big geese, the largest of which was necked, plucked, cleaned and on the spit before it knew it was properly dead. The other two were allowed to keep their feathers on for the time being and draped across a high branch away from predators; dead, of course.
Troops passed by the woods before dawn or perhaps it was already dawn beyond the trees. Either way, we let them go on their march before breaking cover and putting some distance between Houston and ourselves.
Indians. Friendly Indians this time and of no affiliation. We bivouacked with them and learned more of the land in three days than we ever did, mostly which vegetation was edible. They followed the buffalo and killed only what they could eat or make use of in the way of pelts. Again, not to show off or to glorify myself, I demonstrated my prowess with the knife and was rewarded with a crest of feathers to signify brotherhood.
It felt strange to leave their camp but the time was right to move on. I had stirrings for some of the younger females of the tribe and Oz admitted to the same. Keg found play with their dogs and seemed as reluctant as we were to leave.
I had a growth of facial hair and did nothing to discourage it since looking older than my years added credence to the act we had of master and slave. Through populated areas, whether townships or mere settlements, we adhered to a well-rehearsed plan whereby Oz would follow me and
not ever raise his eyes to a Massa. If ever he was uncomfortable at these times
he didn't once let me look upon it. My own discomfort came appeased whenever we left such situations and Oz would assure me it was for the good of our own welfare, he knew well enough we were solid friends as ever could be.
In a downpour, we came to an occupied homestead but wouldn't approach for fear of alarming those inside. Keg was pining for something and had bloated with weight of a sudden. I wanted to rest her and would have rathered she was inside while I tried to fathom what ailed her. It rained all night and in the morning we saw a young black girl leave the house to tend the animals. Keg was shivering bad and I had no choice but to make for the house and ask for shelter. The girl spied us and ran hell for leather inside to report, but we kept our hands in plain view to avoid panic.
A tousle haired white woman met us on the step and I asked to stable the dog in the dry, a request which she readily granted.
Keg fell to sleep almost immediately and the woman offered warm food and comfort to me and my niggra. Her husband had either been conscripted or had run off to join the war, she wasn't quite sure which. She told the girl to boil water both for me and my boy and led me into the large kitchen.
Oz was directed to the rear of the house and the lady, Letitia, spilled forth with her story quite matter of fact. She took my clothes as I bathed and replaced them with some belonging to her husband. After a fine meal of rabbit stew, I checked on Keg and found no change in her. Oz and I went to fixing some corral fencing which was amiss then chopped wood for an hour or so until we were called for yet another meal and cold lemonade. I sat with Keg for a while and Letitia joined me, saying she hadn't enjoyed a man's company for a goodly while; she was maybe ten years older than me but a more pleasant looking woman I had never encountered. I covered Keg up at suppertime and was again invited to the house to eat; Oz was to dine in the rear with Shanna, the slave girl.
After supper I made to leave for the barn but was invited to sleep at the house, Letitia saying she felt safe with me around. My surprise to find I was expected to share her bed soon dispelled when she unashamedly disrobed before helping me out of her husband's clothes. Although I had no experience in such matters, I do believe I gave a fair account of myself since Letitia woke me three times in the night to bring her more enjoyment. At dawn, she disappeared and very soon I could smell chicken frying. With no good
reason to be lying in bed, however comfortable I found it, I was dressed in a
trice and beside her in the kitchen. She told me to check on Keg and I found the reason of her malady, four tiny pups making the noise of ten or more in an
effort to feed from her. Oz joined me with a grin a mile wide and I took it to
be for Keg's well-being, but he couldn't wait to confide he had lain with Shanna. We embraced to show all of our joy and I pointed it out that Keg had
beaten us both to the pleasures.
We chopped wood, repaired the outbuildings and the house roof and hunted food for the pot, Oz's prowess with the knife bringing kills in abundance. Letitia admired my own skills with the knife as I demonstrated my technique at butchery.
One of the pups died soon after birth and Keg set about rearing the other three as best she could. At two weeks old they began to show their characters and I swear they had all of their mother's instincts and traits. With regular bathing and feeding, we felt somewhat human again and dared to think we were settled for all time.
The woodpile grew, the land was tilled and the larder was chock full, our feet were well and truly under the table for a surety. Added to this, my skills in the bedroom, going off the appreciative noises from Letitia, came on in leaps. One rainy day we found ourselves sheltering in the barn and went at each other like rabbits, believe me, in the middle of the afternoon. We simply felt the compulsion and let the hens and pigs enjoy the show.
Our comforts lasted all of ten weeks until a preacher man visited, almost catching me in an embrace with Letitia. As it was, she had a glass of cold lemonade in her hand and explained me away as working for my supper. He was obviously aware of her situation regarding her husband and had her indoors and kneeling in prayer to save his soul. On his departure, the
mood had changed considerably and I knew the road beckoned once again.
I gave Oz the option of staying with Shanna but he would have none of it; his thinking being, where I went, he went. Keg followed his reasoning and we prepared to leave. We kept a bitch as companion to Keg and gifted the two dog pups to Letitia. She kissed me goodbye but was truly full of remorse for having sinned against her husband, however much it had pleased her at the time.
The pup, Rattle, had to ride with me when tired, much as Keg had done. Oz named her for showing the same instinct for attacking snakes, although to my knowledge she had never yet encountered one, her favour for the pastime being demonstrated through toying with a rope from an early age.
It wasn't too long before she proved her value as a huntress, but with one slight difference. The snakes she brought into camp were still alive. Again, like Keg, she spent equal time between Oz and myself but looked upon me as the pack leader. The live snakes were delivered to my feet and I had to be wary of them; thankfully, Keg was alert to the situation and would finish the serpents off.
Rattle quickly grew to be taller than her mother but with a similar temperament, they were indeed good company for each other, and for us.
We continued westward and hopefully away from the war, although sometimes we heard the cannon. Once we heard the sound of the marching drum and laid low until it went into the distance, no point in looking for trouble since we had enough of our own to deal with.
Now, Austin loomed large before us and we braved our luck with an entry at dusk, coming upon a sprawling mass of wooden buildings and tents we at first took to be army quarters but in the end turned out to be makeshift housing for miners and itinerants such as ourselves. We found a livery stable and bedded the horses in before seeking out an eating place and a wash-house in that order; mindful of the fact that we stank to high heavens. No one gave us a second look which was fine by our reckoning. The dogs kept to heel and didn't
bother with anyone but their masters, ever alert to any danger which might
befall us. They sat to the rear of the restaurant with Oz and were fed scraps
while I went at a large steak. On finishing, I ordered another and wrapped it
for my friend, no one blinked an eye and the place seemed more relaxed than
anywhere we had visited in the past. For all that, we slept with the horses and
continued on our way at first light after more steak, and eggs; Mexico still
being our favoured destination.
We took the road south out of Austin to skirt the approaching drummers and came upon a traveller who advised us to continue on that same path towards San Antonio. It was untouched by the troubles and as civilised a place as he'd ever had the pleasure of visiting. I thanked him for his report and, being the curious person I am, asked why he left the place if this was so. Imagine my astonishment when he revealed he was returning to his wife, Letitia, and his homestead; having left to seek his fortune elsewhere. I couldn't say for sure if it was my own Letitia he spoke of but the area he described as leaving fitted well with my memory of the place. Also, his build matched mine and I recognised the name he used for himself. I pressed no further, hoping he would put our encounter from his mind by the time he arrived home. One thought nagged at me and it was this. We left two dogs behind the very spit of the two we had in tow, that would be sure to jog him and no mistake. Oz had further comment for me to ponder when we parted company with him; I was
standing in the very clothes he had left behind.
The road to San Antonio was the busiest of paths we had travelled this far, mostly with traders and loggers. This found us more relaxed in our vigilance and we paid a price for it one night as we made camp. Three horsemen rode in, giving the customary call before doing so and we bade them dismount. They were armed with swords and muskets but that was a common sight to behold so we paid it no attention. Ten minutes later another four men gave the same call and before we knew it we had muskets trained upon us all around. Keg and Rattle growled but I chased them from camp with a sharp command in case they became injured or killed. They did my bidding but I knew they
wouldn't be far off.
We were trussed back to back and our possessions were ransacked. The leader of the bandits, for that's what they were, left two men to keep an eye on us and took the others in search of further bounty. Being almost dark, the men checked our ties and settled by the fire in the sleeping position. The dogs appeared from the undergrowth as I was trying to remove my right boot with the left. When my trusty paring knife came loose from my efforts, I bade Keg bring it to my hand. One of the men stood to piss and we all froze, but he didn't even glance in our direction. As soon as the knife was in my hand I went to work on the ropes, at the same time entreating Rattle to go hunt snakes.
Before our circulation came back to normal she returned with a live snake, the size of which would have frightened any other snake I had ever seen. I told her to take it to the fire and she did so, dropping it between the heads of the two prone bandits and letting out a yip as she did so.
They were on their feet with a yell and running in different directions, one directly towards us. Oz took a boot to him and I slit him from ear to ear before he fell. The dogs stopped the other in his tracks and we fell upon him with our fists until we grew tired. While we were debating what to do with him he made a bolt for freedom and Oz settled the matter with a fine throw of the knife, placing it square between his shoulder blades. We propped both men where we had been tied and broke camp, with three horses each now and more arms than we knew what to do with.
From that day forward we let no one set foot in our camp without one of us first taking cover for insurance, the dogs did the same.
San Antonio was all the traveller said it was and more. Established buildings and an affluent air about the place gave it the stamp of prosperity. It also had a printed newspaper to boast of and I read all four pages at the one sitting. One full page concerned the war and invited men, men regardless of colour, creed or previous allegiance to sign up to the American army. My heart sank when I noted the date atop the page; the enlistingofficers were to be in town not two days hence.
We made the most of our time there, sold the bandit's horses and saddles and ate heartily. Baths for us and for the dogs who stank as bad if not worse, it was hard to tell. We loaded our spare horses with dried goods and had a gun-maker demonstrate how to load and fire the muskets so we felt better prepared than we ever did; I had observed the practice when at sea but had never once physically attempted it. I also visited the whorehouse but didn't stay long as the wretches inside would have had to pay me for my services, they were so unappealing.
Another two groups of bandits chanced their luck with us as we travelled westward again, nine men in all and only one lived to tell of it although he had Oz's best blade embedded in his lower back when he rode off at pace. We profited from them by trading their horses and saddles to, of all places, an army out-post, we had a good old laugh at that happenstance. Then, after so many weeks on the road, there it stood before us, the Rio Grande; with Mexico beyond, beckoning greenly.