Read an Excerpt
American SpiritA Story of American Individualism
By Roger Smith
iUniverse, Inc.Copyright © 2013 Roger Smith
All right reserved.
Chapter OneThe Dawning
March 26, 1603
Hope is brightest when it dawns from fears. Sir Walter Scott
Young William Andrew shivered as he pulled a thin, torn, and dirty tartan plaid closer to his chesta shield from the icy blasts that swept relentlessly across the moor. He was angry at himself as he stumbled along the frozen, rutted path that served as a major thoroughfare between London and Edinburgh. I should have hurried through my chores. I'm always trying to do more than time allows. Now tis pitch dark, and I've yet five miles to go. This is no place to be after dark. He imagined reivers, lawless raiders that plagued the land, in the darkness around him. If they find me, they're apt to hang me like they did the laird's son two years ago. What was his name? Nigel Scott. That's right. Nice lad he was too, and he was sixteensame age I am now. Even though I'm only the son of a poor farmer minding my own business, they would suspect me of some mischief. What would it be like to be hung? Father says you go fast if your neck breaks in two, but if it doesn't, you swing and slowly twitch and gasp for breath until you finally lose consciousness. Scary!
He hurried his pace a bit and tried to force the fear from his mind by reflecting on yesterday's sermon. Reverend MacKenzie preached on the meaning of the story of how Martha got upset because she was working hard to prepare a meal while her sister, Mary, sat listening to Jesus. Jesus said, "Martha, Martha, you are worried and troubled about many things. But one thing is needed, and Mary has chosen that good part, which shall not be taken from her." During their four-mile walk back to their little farm near Jedburgh, in the Middle Scottish March, or border district with England, his father, Malcolm, and older sister, Isabel, had debated different perspectives of the story and the sermon.
"I would have been upset, too, if I was cooking and cleaning for visitors, and my sister was sitting there like a knot on a log. Ye would think Jesus, who talks about love and kindness so much, would have told Mary to get up and help her sister, instead of taking her side," Isabel stated firmly.
William smiled, picturing his father's furrowed brow as he slowly thought out his reply to his strong-willed daughter's statements. His father had spent his entire life scratching out a living from the worn-out soil of the Scottish lowlands. Like many of their neighbors, he had seen enough woes to dim any expectations he once had of a good life on this earth. Even if the weather cooperated and he had good crops, his winter stores were not secure from invading English armies or reivers from the MacGregors, the Campbells, or other clans who received no blackmail payment from Laird Scott, the man who owned their land. His wife died in childbirth last year, and only William and Isabel had survived childhood of the six children she had borne previously. The Catholic Church in which his father was raised offered little spiritual comfort for poor tenant farmers and seemed only to care about enriching the priests and the Church they served. Like others in lowland Scotland, he and his family embraced the reforms of the Scottish Church led by the fiery preacher John Knox espousing that mankind's only hope lies in reading the Good Book, living the best he can on this earth, and awaiting true happiness in heaven.
"Isabel, I 'spect ye know more of the Bible than me since ye learned to read it in Laird Scott's school," Malcolm replied, choosing his words carefully, "but it seems to me Preacher MacKenzie is right. Martha was bitter because she was so busy worrying about her problems. Like a lot of people, she overlooked Jesus's promise of an everlasting life. Mary's life was sweeter because she listened to Jesus and was happy because she knew she had a blessing that can't be found during our miserable lives here. Don't ye know ye mother is enjoying that promise right now up in heaven?" he concluded, squinting as he looked upward into the cloudless sky.
"I reckon I do, but that don't mean we can't try to make things better as long as we are here, does it?" replied his soon-to-be-wed daughter as she thrust her arm through that of her dear father, leaning her head on his shoulder as they slowly walked. "I just don't want to go through life with a frown, waiting for something to get better. Tis true, life is hard, but I think we can have a wee bit of heaven here on earth, and Jesus knew that. I think if people liked listening to him so much, he must have been a smiling and happy man, not some old sour puss."
Just then, William stumbled over a stick that had fallen from a tree overhead, and it jolted his mind back to the present. My goodness, it's cold, he thought as the relentless wind whistled by his tingling ears and, despite his best efforts, penetrated his thin clothes to his skin. He felt gooseflesh forming on his chest, and his fingers and toes were starting to numb. He needed to get out of the wind, if only for a few moments. Long waves of low, gray clouds floated quickly over his head with a sliver of a moon and faint stars flashing intermittently among them. There ahead in the gray twilight was a low place in the dark moor. Must be a creek there. I'll get a sip of water and hide under the leeward bank for a while, then press on to Jedburgh.
The clear, cold water tasted wonderful, and the gurgling sound of it rushing across the stones took William back to his childhood days when he and his cousins would play in the brook near their house for hours. He huddled under his plaid in a section of the bank that the quickly flowing stream gouged out as it meandered toward the River Tweed. Overhead, the roots of gorse and heather penetrated through the thin soil and brushed against him as he rested in his damp respite. At last the wind was not howling by, and he felt some feeling returning to his hands and feet as he rubbed them briskly. The treeless moor was a lonely, scary place, but there was also something peaceful and comforting in its emptiness, he thought, gazing upward at the twinkling stars.
Suddenly, What's that? Hoof beats? It was his worst fear! He cowered further into the bank, which suddenly was not nearly deep enough to offer any protection. Should have moved further away from the path! How foolish!
It was too late to run. His best chance was to lie silently, and through some miracle, the riders might be so focused on keeping their swift mounts in the rutted path that they would gallop past him with no notice. William held his breath as the hooves pounded the muddy route toward him. He pulled the thin, dark plaid over his face so that he could see out through only one eye. Around the bend toward the stream rode a single rider at a gallop. Quite strange! he thought. No one ever is out here at night, on horseback, alone!
He could hear the deep pants of an exhausted horse. His rider likewise exhaled loudly as he slammed into the saddle with the horse's long stride. As they approached the stream, William saw the right front foot of the horse strike a large stone. As the other foot tried to absorb the shock, it slipped in the mud, and the poor horse slammed chest first into the steep bank only a few feet from William. The rider fell from the saddle but was thrown on the opposite bank by the horse's left rear leg, which struck the man's head with a dull thud. William heard a thump as his body slammed hard into the dirt across the stream from his hiding place.
He didn't know what to do. His thoughts came fast. I'll run. He won't be able to chase me. No, I must help him, especially if he's hurt badly. But, what if he's being followed by more of his band? Or, what if he's being chased by avenging reivers, and they catch me helping him? They'll surely have the March Warden hang me! William's head was spinning. "God, help me!" he muttered as he scrambled to his feet.
He listened carefully between the howling gusts of wind. He could hear no more hoof beats, so if the man was being chased or if he had a group of raiders with him, they were not very close behind. The rider-less horse stood trembling on the bank above the rushing stream. His eyes were wide with fright, but he stamped his feet, indicating that he had not broken a leg in the fall. The saddle on his profusely sweaty back was superbly made of tooled leather, and attached was a leather saddle bag with brass latches, the sort one would never ordinarily see in the Borders. The horse itself was the most beautiful black stallion William had ever seen. The rider must be of nobility, and in all likelihood, he was Englishor he was a cut-throat who killed the owner and stole his horse!
The rider lay in a crumpled pile with his feet and legs submerged in the shallow stream. His face was partially in the water as well, and he groaned painfully with each breath. William wondered how he would know if the man actually died. With hands trembling, he turned the torso over and cleared the dirt and blood from the man's face. At last, he could make out some of the stranger's features in the dim grayness of the night. He was a handsome, middle-aged man with a well-groomed beard and the fanciest clothing and boots that reflected this man's noble status, although mud-splattered and wrinkled from an obviously long ride. His eyes were wide with fear, yet he seemed exhausted with fatigue. He tried to raise a hand and point northward, but the hand fell back by his sword, and he could only groan unintelligible mumblings with each breath.
William raised his head a bit and dragged the man's feet and legs out of the water and onto the narrow, mud and gravel shore next to the stream. Blood oozed from a jagged gash on the stranger's forehead, so William dipped the corner of his plaid in the stream and daubed the gash tenderly to help clean it and stop the bleeding. He considered what to do next. The man was at last taking longer breaths, and the groaning was subsiding. William assumed that the breath was knocked from him, but other than that and the cut on his brow, the man appeared to be all right. Surely he would have drowned in the small stream had William not been there so quickly. Miraculously, his mount had remained close by, grazing on a tuft of grass among the prickly gorse on the side of the path above the bank, his nostrils still wide, and his sides panting from his hard ride.
"Looks like ye'll be fine, sire, other than that nasty cut there above ye eye," William assured him nervously, as the man blinked his eyes several times and then focused on him. He hoped to get the man on his horse, on his way, and get himself to the Kerr's bawn before any more excitement.
The stranger forced himself to sit up, and William noticed that as he did so, his right hand moved slowly to the hilt of his dagger. In a flash, the dagger was out and pointed at William's chest! He could feel the tip of the sharp blade penetrating his ragged plaid and resting against his bare skin. Will I feel the awful pain of the penetrating knife before I die? he wondered breathlessly, his eyes wide with fright.
"Who are ye, and why are ye here in the middle of the night?" the man shouted coarsely. "No man of any good would be here in the moor so far from town, on such a bleak night. Ye think ye might rob some unlucky traveler as myself, eh? Too bad for ye, since ye got someone who doesn't give in so easily!"
William was as scared as he had ever been. He should have run when he had the chance and left the stranger to die. Now he would pay for his mistake with his life. The man drew back the dagger to make the fatal thrust.
"William Andrew!" he blurted out nervously. "I'm a farmer's son from Master Benjamin Scott's land. I'm not a robber, my lord. I'm on my way to fetch some lambs for my laird. I was trying to get under this bank here and get out of the wind. Please don't hurt me. I'll go my way and promise not to breathe a word to anyone about this!"
The man's grip on the knife tightened even more, and William clinched his teeth, shut his eyes tightly, and braced for certain death.
The hand holding the dagger hesitated. "Ole Ben Scott, eh?" the stranger mused, his tense face relaxing as he asked the question. William thought he even saw a smile. "That old reiver still around? I counted him as dead of old age or murdered years ago. Evidently, if what ye say is true, he's still a stern taskmaster, to send his tenants out in the middle of the night to fetch some sheep."
William was speechless. He watched the man grab a root and pull himself slowly to his feet as he sheathed his dagger.
"Did ye happen to see which direction that vile horse wandered to?" asked the stranger, still gasping to catch his breath. "And could ye help me get to the main road to Jedburgh?" he continued.
William was finally able to exhale. He couldn't believe he was still alive! His brain started to clear. Judging from the man's countenance and his clear speech, William discerned this was no ordinary manEnglishman or Scotsman. He carried himself with a noble pride. His ability to speak so casually and logically despite the harrowing episode revealed confidence and courage William had never witnessed.
He ignored the man's questions for a moment, fixed his eyes on those of the stranger, and asked, "Who are you, my lord?" He knew if his father had been there, he would have rebuked him for being so brash.
The stranger laughed. "Ye Scots never cease to amaze me! Ye are not intimidated by rank, are ye, my lad? I've been in London so long I had forgotten how it is up here. No English boy ye age would think about asking a lord his name. He would bow his head and try to slink away in the shadows as quickly as he could!"
He raised a strong gloved hand and patted William on the shoulder. "Help me up this muddy ledge, my lad, and I'll tell ye my story, but I haven't much time."
"Aye, m'lord!" replied William as he scrambled up the slippery bank and extended a hand to the traveler. He then retrieved the big stallion, grabbed the harness, and led the horse to his owner, who William noticed had trouble walking. He must have hurt his ankle or knee in the fall as well.
"Ye know the way to Jedburgh, my lad?" the man queried.
"Oh, yes, sire. There's only two forks, sire. Left at the first, right at the second."
"Very well, then. Help me in my saddle. Then clamber up behind me. I've been in the saddle two full days nowcome all the way from Londontowne. I'm tired and could use the company, as well as someone who knows the way."
William couldn't believe it. A nobleman would offer a peasant a ride on such a splendid mount? How could he resist?
He gingerly placed the man's good foot in the stirrup and helped him into the saddle. He noted, despite his injuries, how easily and naturally the man sat on the beautiful horse. What a thrill it would be to own such an animal!
"Come on. Up wi' ye now. Can't keep King James a waitin'!" laughed the man as he held out his hand to swing William onto the horse's back behind him.
William laughed too, assuming it was an old joke that the nobility used with one another to mockingly show their importance.
William thankfully noted that the man kept his horse at a slower pace than before the fall, and he began his story: "My name is Robert Carey. I've spent many years in service to Queen Elizabeth on the English side of the border. Recently, though, I've been back in London. The queen became seriously ill last week, and she died late Thursday night. I left at dawn, and I've been underway since. I had arranged for horses to be stationed at various towns along the way to Edinburgh; my next one is waiting at Jedburgh. I'm going to Edinburgh to deliver a message to the king."
William couldn't believe the words he was hearing! The man whose coat he was clinging to was none other than Sir Robert Careyformer warden of the English Eastern and Middle Marches. Everyone knew him. He was one of the few wardens who held respect on both sides of the border. He was able to keep the nobility in check and in his favor while controlling the lawlessness as much as anyone could have done. The warden's job was almost impossible.
Most of them, even if they began with good intentions, became quite corrupt, but Sir Robert managed to remain both a courageous and honest man. William's parents and the other men on his laird's property spoke with utmost respect for this Englishman. To Scots, especially those in the upper part of the lower social class (called the middling or middlin' sort), character meant far more than one's position in society.
Sir Robert continued, "Ye see, young man, Queen Elizabeth, God rest her soul, died with no heirs to her throne." The stranger seemed to be composing his thoughts as he continued, "Virgin queen, indeed!" he muttered almost inaudibly to William, chuckling to himself. Then the nobleman continued, "So, your King James the Sixth, the queen's nephew, will soon be our King James the First! England and Scotland will be one, and centuries of fighting will be over! Ye life will be vastly different than any generation before ye, and ye, Mr. William of Scott, will have opportunities that ye ancestors could only dream of. But, it will only happen if we can get the rightful king back to London before any number of papist-loving Catholics get to the throne through the back door first!
Excerpted from American Spirit by Roger Smith Copyright © 2013 by Roger Smith. Excerpted by permission of iUniverse, Inc.. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.