THE GALLOWAY FLAIL
When Wat and I found the cave empty, immediately we began to search the hill for traces of the lost ones. For some time we searched in vain. But a little to the right of the entrance of the cave the whole was made plain to us. Here we found the bent and heather trampled, and abundant stains of recent blood, as though one had been slain there and the body carried away. Also I found a silken snood and the colour of it was blue. It was not the hue, for that is worn by most of the maids of Scotland; but when I took it to me, I knew as certainly as though I had seen it there, that it had bound about the hair of Maisie Lennox. Though when Wat asked of me (who, being a lover might have known better) how I knew it for hers, I could not find words to tell him. But it is true that all the same, know it I did.
So we followed down the trail, finding now a shred of cleading and again the broken bits of a tobacco pipe such as soldiers use, small and black, till in our search we had rounded the hill that looks into the valley of the Cooran. Here at the crossing of the burn, where it was smallest, we found Anton Lennox's broad blue bonnet.
It was enough. Soon we were scouring the hilltops as fast as our legs could move under us. We travelled southward, keeping ever a keen watch, and twice during the day we caught sight of troops of dragoons, moving slowly over the heather and picking their way among the hags, quartering the land for the sport of man-catching as they went. Once they raised, as it had been a poor maukin, a young lad that ran from them. And we could see the soldiers running their horses and firing off white pluffs of powder. It was a long time ere the musket-cracks came to us, which must have sounded so near and terrible to the poor fugitive. But they hit him not, and for that time at least he wan off scot free. So presently we saw them come back, jeered at by their comrades, like dogs that have missed the quarry and slink home with their tails between their legs.
But neither one of our poor captives was among them. So we held fast and snell to the eastward, passing along the skirts of the Millyea, and keeping to the heights above the track which runs from the Glenkens to the Water of Cree. It was near to the infall of the road from Loch Dee that we first gat sight of those we sought. It was not a large company which had them in charge, and they marched not at all orderly. So that we judged it to be either one of the Annandale levies of the Johnstone, or Lag's Dumfries troop of renegades.
But as we came nearer, we marked quite clearly that they had two prisoners, tall men, one with some white thing about his head, and in the rear they had six or seven other men, mostly on foot. Coming nearer we could also see a figure as of a young maid upon a horse. Then I knew that the dear lass I had watched and warded so long, was surely at the mercy of the rudest of the enemy.
We were thus scouring along the moor, keeping a wary eye upon the troop and their poor prisoners, when Wat's foot took the edge of a moss-hag where the ground was soft. As it pressed the soil downward, we heard a sudden cry, a wild, black-a-vised man sprang up with a drawn sword in his hand, and pulling out a pistol ran at us. We were so taken aback at the assault that we could scarcely put ourselves upon the defence. But ere the man came near, he saw that we were dressed like men of the hills. He stopped and looked at us, his weapons being still pointed our way.
‘Ye are of the people!’ he said sternly.
‘Ay,’ said we, for I think Clavers himself had owned as much, being taken unawares and unable to get at his weapons.
‘I thought I saw ye at the General Meeting,’ he said.
‘We were there,’ we replied; ‘we are two of the Glenkens Gordons.’
‘And I am that unworthy outcast James MacMichael.’
Then we knew that this was he who, for the murder of the curate of Carsphairn (a mightily foolish and ill-set man), was expelled and excommunicated by the United Societies.
‘I will come with you for company,’ he said, taking his bonnet out of the moss-bank into which Wat's foot had pressed it.
Now we wanted not his company. But because we knew not (save in the matter of Peter Pearson) what the manner of the man was, the time went past in which we could have told him that his room was more to us than his company. So, most ungraciously, we permitted him to come. Soon, however, we saw that he knew far more of heather-craft than we. Our skill in the hill-lore was to his but as the bairn's to that of the regent of a college.
‘The band that we see yonder is but the off-scourings of half a dozen troops,’ said he, ‘and chance riders that Cannon of Mardrochat has gathered. The ill loon himself is not with them. He will be lying watching about some dyke bank. Ah, would that I could get my musket on him.’
So we hasted along the way, keeping to the hills in order to reach the Clachan of St. John's town before the soldiers. We went cautiously, Black MacMichael leading, often running with his head as low as a dog, and showing us the advantage of every cover as he went.
Nor had we gone far when we had proof, if we wanted such, of the desperate character of the man in whose company by inadvertence we found ourselves. We were passing through a little cleuch on the Holm of Ken and making down to the water side. Already we could see the stream glancing like silver for clearness beneath us. All of an instant, we saw Black MacMichael fall prostrate among the rocks at the side of the cleuch. He lay motionless for a moment or two. Then, without warning, he let his piece off with a bang that waked all the birds in that silent place, and went to our hearts also with a stound like pain. For though Wat and I had both done men to death, it had been in battle, or face to face, when blade crosses blade and eye meets eye, and our foes had at least an equal chance with us. We had not been used to clapping at a dyke back and taking sighting shots at our foes.
As soon as Black MacMichael had fired, he lifted up his hand, cried ‘Victory,’ and ran forward eagerly, as one that fires at a mark at a wappenschaw may run to see if he has hit the target. Yet Wat and I went not down nor took part with him, but we held our way with sore hearts for the wickedness of this man.
Presently he came out and set after us. He cried ‘Hoy’ many times for us to wait for him, but we tarried not. So he took to running and, being a powerful man and clever with his feet, he soon overtook us.
‘What is the push?’ he cried, panting. ‘I hit the skulker that watched for us from behind a rock. I keeled him over like a dog-fox on the hillside. See what he had upon him!’ And he took from off his shoulder a very remarkable piece of ordnance which I shall presently describe.
‘We want neither art nor part in your bloody deeds, James MacMichael,’ I answered him. ‘Take yourself away, till the Lord Himself shall judge you!’
He stood still as one astonished.
‘Gosh,’ he said, ‘siccan a fash aboot killing an informer. I wad kill them a' like toads, for my son John that they hanged upon the dule tree of Lag. I would slay them root and branch—all the Griers of the wicked name. O that it had been Mardrochat himself. Then indeed it had been a fortunate shot. But he shall not escape the Black MacMichael!’
The murderer, for indeed I could not hold him less, clapped his hand upon his breast and looked up to heaven in a way that made me think him crazed.
‘See here what I hae gotten aff him?’ he cried again, like a child pleased with a toy.
It was the instrument known as the Galloway flail. It had a five-foot handle of stout ash, worn smooth like an axe haft with handling. Then the ‘soople,’ or part of the flail that strikes the corn on the threshing floor, was made of three lengths of iron, jointed together with links of iron chain, so that in striking all this metal part would curl round an enemy and crush his bones like those of a chicken.
‘Stand off,’ I said, as he came nearer with the Galloway flail in his hand; ‘we want not to company with you, neither to share in your iniquity.’
‘I daresay no,’ he said, frowning on us; ‘but ye will hae enough o' your ain. But I'll e'en follow on for a' that. Ye may be braw an' glad o' the MacMichael yet, considering the errand ye are on.’
Nor had we gone far when his words proved true enough.
We went down the cleuch, and were just coming out upon the wider strath, when a party of Lag's men, for whom no doubt the dead spy had been gathering information, beset us. There were only half a dozen of them, but had MacMichael not been at hand with his terrible weapon, it had certainly gone hard with us, if indeed we had not been slain or captured. With a shout they set themselves at us with sword and pistol; but since only one of them was mounted, the odds were not so great as at first they seemed. Wat was ready with his blade as ever, and he had not made three passes before he had his sword through his man's shoulder. But it was otherwise with me. A hulking fellow sprang on me with a roar like a wild beast, and I gave myself up for lost. Yet I engaged him as I best could, giving ground a little, yet ever keeping the upper hand of him. But as we fought, what was our astonishment to see MacMichael, whose company we had rejected, whirl his iron flail above his head and attack the mounted man, whose sword cracked as though it had been made of pottery, and flew into a hundred fragments, jingling to the ground like broken glass. The next stroke fell ere the man on horseback could draw a pistol. And we could hear in the midst of our warding and striking the bones crack as the iron links of the flail settled about his body. The next moment the man on horseback pitched heavily forward and fell to the ground. MacMichael turned with a yell of victory, and rushed upon the others. One stroke only he got as he passed at the dark, savage-like man who was pressing me—a stroke which snapped his sword arm like a pipe staple, so that he fell writhing.
‘Stripe your sword through him! I'll run and do another!’ cried the Black MacMichael.
But the others did not stand to be done (small blame to them), and soon all three were running what they could over the level holms of the Ken. One caught the riderless horse, running alongside till he could get a chance to spring upon the back of it, and so galloped back to the garrison at the Clachan of St. John.
MacMichael sat down, panting as with honest endeavour. He wiped his brow with calm deliberation.
‘An' troth,’ he said, ‘I think ye warna the waur o' Black MacMichael an' Rob Grier's Gallowa' flail.’
Yet there was not even thankfulness in our hearts, for we found ourselves mixed yet more deeply in the fray. Not that this broil sat on us like that other business of the dead spy behind the heather bush. For these men fell in fair fighting, which is the hap of any man. But we saw clearly that we should also be blamed as art and part in the killing of the spy, and the thought was bitter gall to our hearts.
men of the moss hags
125th anniversary 'slow reading' serialisation.