Being the short tale of how Sergeant MacIan came to own a tobacco pouch with a strange history to it.
1st November 1746
“Och, we may as well make ourselves comfortable. That rain isn’t going to let up any time soon.” Sergeant Angus MacIan of Edinburgh’s Town Guard gave a slow shake of his grey head as he closed the shutters on the darkness and torrential rain sweeping across the filthy cobbles of the High Street outside the crumbling walls of the guardhouse. Crossing the long, narrow room he tossed a few more coals onto the roaring fire and swung an iron kettle over the dancing flames as he scratched at his neatly trimmed beard. “We might as well ha’e a mug o’ tea if we’re confined to barracks,” he chuckled as he joined the two men sat at the battered table which dominated the centre of the room. “And while we wait for the kettle tae boil I think I’ll treat myself to a wee puff on my pipe.”
“Do you really have to?” Captain Charles Travers laughed as he watched his veteran sergeant pull out an ancient leather pouch from the pocket of his regulation issue redcoat. “At least open a window or you’ll be choking us with the stink of that tarry old rope you insist on smoking.”
“Rest easy, Charles,” the third figure said with a smile. “I happen to know that my wife passed Angus a pound of the best Virginia tobacco just this morning.”
“That she did, Mr. Young,” MacIan nodded happily. “I’ve told her she doesn’t need to be wasting her money on all an auld goat like me but she’ll no listen.”
As he sliced off a sliver of tobacco and began to rub it into loose strands Robert Young’s eyes fell on the pouch of faded green leather with a few coloured glass beads still stitched into place. It was obvious that at one time there had been others forming an intricate pattern but most had long since been lost. “Is that you pouch you got in the Colonies?” he asked.
“It is. Made by the natives and gifted to me by a beautiful girl,” mumbled the veteran, his eyes twinkling briefly at some memory rekindled by the question and making him look, for an instant, much younger than his fifty-seven years of life.
“And if I remember correctly, you have promised to tell us one day the story behind how you came to have it,” Robert said with a raised eyebrow. “If we’re going to be stuck in here avoiding the worst of the weather, this might be the perfect time to hear the tale.”
MacIan hummed and hawed while his companions pressed him to talk. Finally, with a resigned sigh, he acquiesced. “Very well, I’ll tell you, but be warned, it’s a tale of murder and blood, of spies and betrayal, and an innocent young woman who found herself at the mercy of a band of heartless men. I, to my shame, was one of them.”
“Aye, me.” He tamped down the tobacco into the bowl of his chipped clay pipe and lit it before speaking again. “We had been sent from the slaughter yards of Tournai, Ypres, Mons and Malplaquet to bolster the resolve of our colonists in Boston who were being harried by the French and their native allies in Acadia.”
“Acadia?” asked Charles with a puzzled frown. “That’s a long way from a glen in the Western Highlands.”
“That is was. Aye, the French colony of Acadia in New France, as it was called then. If we thought that being sent across the Atlantic meant that we would be safe from shot and shell we were soon proven wrong.”
“You can never trust the French,” Charles nodded with a smile. “So you and your friends were pitched from the frying pan of Europe into the fire of America? So how does this end up with you having that faded old baccy bag?
“If you would be good enough to pour the tea, sir, I’ll tell you.”
By the Rivière Dauphin, Acadia, New France
10th August 1710
Heavy raindrops dripped from the thick leaves which were failing to provide any real shelter for the seven British infantrymen and one Frenchman gathered below the broad boughs of the trees forming a narrow wooded fringe by the dark tidal waters lapping the shore fifty yards from where the soldiers crouched. Two miles to the south a small fishing boat, one of the few to avoid being captured by French pirates, patiently awaited their return having carried the small party from the British city of Boston to the large sheltered body of water named Basin de Port Royal deep in enemy territory.
The British soldiers had been secretly set ashore on French soil, far behind the border, between the tiny hamlets of Beliveau and Robichaud less than a mile from the French fort of Port Royal. Had anyone happened to see the huddled figures they would have seen nothing to identify them as soldiers of the United Kingdom as people were slowly coming to call the newly formed union of nations within the British isles. No redcoats hung on their bodies, no cockaded black tricorn hats, no white crossbelts or gaiters. These figures grimly staring through the endless drizzle towards a single story cabin of logs and thatch set a few dozen yards from the edge of Robichaud were anonymous assassins.
One of these figures, dressed as were in the others in buckskin jackets and trousers, pointed a dirty finger towards this cabin. “That’s the place,” he said in a harsh whisper revealing a strong French accent. “It is a poor tavern, not one I would wish to drink in but it is there we will find your spy, may God have mercy on him for he can expect none from me.”
“Frenchie, yer a cold hearted sod,” Sergeant Peter Flynn, the hard faced man by his side said with a dark grin. “But ye ain’t wrong. He’s crossed the line once too often and orders is orders. Our lords and masters have passed their judgement on him, we are just doing what we are told. He ain’t to sell another secret.”
The youngest member of the party, a pale faced solider barely out of his teenage years suddenly felt very far from the safe hills of home in the western highlands of Scotland. It was a home he had ran away from when the girl he loved had laughed at his proposal of marriage. To be sure it had felt like a reasonable thing to do at the time: a young man’s pride is easily hurt by rejection and the excitement offered by a career in the army had seemed the perfect escape from his sense of shame. Little more than a year later he had reason to ponder the sense of that decision. It had been a time of mud, blood, gut rending terror and abject misery in the killing fields of Flanders where a United Kingdom, still only a handful of years old, and her allies fought an endless war against the French.
Swallowing down their nervous lump in his throat he said in a quavering voice, “Sarge, I thought we were meant to be taking him back with us?”
The hard faced man curled his lip as he looked at the youngster. “Listen Goosey, me boy, we was told to make sure Monsieur Theodore Flaubert doesn’t go spilling any more secrets. That’s what we is going to do, all right?”
The young man’s face seemed to grow even paler at the unwelcome nickname being spat at him in a harsh Cockney accent. He had been lumbered with the title ‘Goosey’ due to their French guide’s habit of pronouncing his name as ‘Hangoose’ rather than Angus. A habit his comrades had quickly seized on and used to his discomfort ever since. His discomfort was not eased when another soldier hissed a warning, “someone’s coming.”
All sank lower into the mud below the trees and watched as a young woman wrapped in a heavy hooded cape to ward off the rain hurried along the dirt track from the village and entered the cabin. “Who the ‘ell that’s then?” the sergeant growled towards Francois their guide.
The middle aged man gave a Gallic shrug, “it will be his new wife. He arranged for her to be shipped over from France only last month. He had never laid eyes on her before she landed,” he chuckled. “She could have been like the cow’s ass, non, but she is a beauty, oui? Oui, she is a beauty, far too pretty to be wasted on a swine like Flaubert.”
“Why ye ain’t told us about her before? You said that he would be alone!”
Francois shrugged again. “Alone. With a wife. What difference does it make? We are still going to silence him, no?”
“But what about her?” Angus asked feeling a sick knot form in the pit of his stomach.
The sergeant’s face turned towards him, his lips parted in a smile revealing several missing teeth. “Her? I think that Flaubert has been so good as to allow for us to have a little bit of pleasure to mix with business!” His grin contained not a flicker of humour as he added, “time for you to lose yer virginity, my boy. You weren’t planning on saving yourself for your wedding night, were ye?”
Suppressed snorts of laughter were barely contained as young Angus MacIan squirmed in embarrassment. Any reply he thought to make was cut off by a dismissive wave of one hand and the hissed words, “keep yer noise down, scum. You’ll have the whole bleeding Froggie army down on our necks. Keep quiet till it gets dark and then we can all have a taste of tender French pie for our supper.”
* * *
MacIan burrowed as closely as he could into the shelter of the broad tree trunk and did his best to avoid the rain trickling down the back of his neck while cursing his luck. As the daylight slowly faded towards the approaching night he considered his life. He had thought that the carnage he had seen after the slaughter of Maplaquet was as miserable as he could feel but sitting here in the incessant drizzle, waiting to commit what he could only think of as murder, was far worse.
His mind wandered back to the night he and his comrades had been sitting in a decaying roadside tavern a few miles from the outskirts of Bruges when the order came to pack their bags and head for the coast. Without ceremony they soon found themselves on a ship for England. Two days kicking their heels in a barracks in Portsmouth had given way to them being ordered aboard a warship bound for New England where the colonists were demanding action be taken against the rampages of the French and their native allies. Unlike many of his comrades he had suffered no crippling sickness during the long voyage across the ocean, a single blessing in what had otherwise been a miserable few months. The endless training of local militias had been a thankless task but a more pleasant duty than the occasional forays into the backwoods where danger hid behind every tree. French regulars, their colonial militia and the savages were almost always somewhere out there. Their presence unknown until a musket barked or an arrow whistled by an ear. These skirmishes rarely lasted more than a minute or two but it had been long enough to lay a man in a lonely grave. It had been one of these skirmishes in an unnamed wilderness where MacIan had killed his first man: a Frenchman wearing a combination of regular uniform and native buckskin. He had stared down at the man’s face afterwards feeling sick inside. During the mass battle of Malplaquet he had stood in line with his regiment firing at a line of French infantry with no idea if he had hit anything or not through the clouds of gunsmoke which wreathed the field of conflict. Here he had aimed, fired and saw him fall. When the French withdrew he had advanced cautiously until he stood over his victim. There was nothing remarkable about the man, he seemed to be in his thirties and until a moment earlier had been a living, breathing person. Now he was nothing but a corpse among the trees. Staring at the blood staining the dirty white uniform jacket left him feeling sick. It was that same stomach churning feeling he was experiencing now as the drizzle grew ever heavier into a torrential downpour. The weather, at least, was something familiar to a Scotsman. The atmospheric misery fitted his mood perfectly.
His dark brooding was brought to an abrupt halt as a hand dropped on his shoulder. “Move yersel’ Goosey,” the sergeant said in a low hiss. “It’s time to make a man o’ yer.”
* * *
Like vengeful wraiths the soldiers and their French guide flitted through the shelter of the trees, eyes constantly watching in every direction as lights began to shine from within the houses of the village of Robichaud just a short distance away. Figures scurried through the gathering darkness of the village, each one of them making the British soldiers freeze for an instant before moving on. The hurried movement of the villagers was down to the weather, not a desire to avoid drawing fire from Redcoat muskets. It took only a few tense minutes to reach the rear of the tavern which bordered the trees and in the last of the dying light was found to more closely resemble the yard of a failing farm. Several decrepit sheds and outbuildings, all of wood, stood on either side of a square area of stinking mud containing a small pen for some pigs and piglets nearly ready for market. Their grunting and snuffling was more than enough to cover the sound of heavy boots slithering through the sucking mud as the men cautiously advanced on the rear of the cabin, wary eyes on the shuttered windows for the first hint of discovery.
Using hand signals only the raiders were directed to advance around the side of the tavern with every ear cocked for any sound of revelry from within. Francois, the guide, had assured them that with today being a Sunday there was little likelihood of any villagers wishing to be seen inside. The village priest, he told them, took a very dim view of both the tavern and those who may think to frequent it on the Sabbath.
With backs to the cabin wall they edged forward knowing that should a villager’s eyes turn in their direction there was a risk they could be seen in the light of the single lantern hanging by the closed door to the tavern. Francois wasted little time in extinguishing this light casting the scene into darkness. Now the only light was that which crept out from below the door itself. The sergeant, his ear pressed to the door could hear voices from within in rapid French which meant nothing to him, what did matter was that there were more than two voices. A woman could occasionally be heard along with the louder voices of two men. “Three of ‘em,” he hissed over his shoulder as he hefted his musket, ready to unleash death although discharging it was the very last thing he wanted to do. Silence was more important than anything else. A gunshot would bring unwanted attention down on the tavern, and attention was the very thing he most wish to avoid. Behind him he heard everyone shuffle quickly into position and only when he was sure that all were in place did he test the door. A simple latch secured it and it lifted silently to his touch. “GO!” he barked as he pushed the door wide and rushed inside, musket to his shoulder as its blackened muzzle swept back and forth around the small room to find two middle-aged men sat a table but no sign of the girl.
The men, frozen in their seats, stared in horror as the room was suddenly filled with grim faced silent figures all of whom aimed muskets in their direction. For a moment there was complete silence before one of the seated figures recognised a single face. “Francois Dubois, t’es un salaud!”
“Ta gueule, crétin!” Francois spat back, his hand pulling a wickedly long dagger from his belt. “Who is your friend?”
Flaubert scowled and spat a gob of phlegm towards the turncoat. “Degage! So you have sold what is left of your stinking soul to the Anglais branleurs. I always knew you were a dog.”
Sergeant Flynn looked back and forth at the rapid exchange in French. “What’s ‘e saying then?” he demanded.
Francois shrugged. “He is being most rude towards you and your men, mon ami.”
Sergeant Flynn shook his head. “I don’t care ‘bout that. Who’s the other bloke, and where’s the girl? MacIan, get through the back room and find her. Seeing as this is your first time in enemy territory I’ll be all Christian and let ye have first dibs up her skirts.”
MacIan, his anxiety growing by the moment crossed the room, careful to keep well out of the line of fire as some of the others moved forward to secure and gag the men who were now their prisoners. A part of him still believed that things could end without bloodshed but even as he reached the door to the back room his hopes were dashed. Francois’s knife moved in the flickering candlelight and Flaubert’s companion jerked in his chair as his throat was slashed wide.
Swallowing down the sickness which threatened to spill from his mouth he sent a prayer heavenward and pushed open the door to find himself in a small bedchamber. Also present was the female he had seen earlier as she crouched low by the bed with terror plain on her lovely face. It was clear she was even younger than he was and it was also clear that neither wished to find themselves in this position.
“Who are you? What do you want?” she managed to stutter out as she sank deeper into the scant sanctuary of the bedside. A single candle and a low burning fire provided the only illumination in a room containing only a bed and two sea chests of clothing.
MacIan could only shake his head in ignorance of her language. “I dinnae speak French,” he said with a weak smile, and finally realised that aiming a musket towards her was doing nothing to lessen her distress. From the room behind him he could hear Flynn and Francois questioning Flaubert with angry words and punches thrown.
“Good God, no. Scottish…” He struggled for the correct word. “Écossais.”
Her brow furrowed as though struggling to tell what difference this made to her predicament and failing to find any which helped her. “I speak little,” she managed to say in English, albeit with a very thick accent that he struggled to decipher but was at least not completely foreign to his ears. “What you do to me? Please, not hurt me.”
“I’m not going to hurt you, lass,” he was quick to reply, all the while feeling sick at the knowledge of the fate which awaited the girl once the others were finished with Flaubert. After his throat had been cut he knew that the same death awaited her. But that would only be after his comrades had enjoyed using her body to spend their lust upon. Even the thought of that made him feel even worse than before. Behind the door opened and one of the soldiers stuck his head into the room.
“You got her then, good. Flynn said to take yer time, Goosey,” he said with a leer as his hungry eyes fell upon the shaking figure trying to hide beside the bed. “Ooft, she’s a tidy bundle. I’m looking forward to getting mesel’ some of that soon.” He gave a dark chuckle. “Her feller ain’t talking yet but he will. Flynn and that French git know how to make tongues wag. Once we know what he’s been telling the Frogs about us we can move on to the pleasurable part of the evening.”
“Flynn still means to…” he stuttered to a halt and he looked helplessly from the man to the girl.
“No witnesses, Goosey. Ain’t the done thing to go leaving people to spill their guts about who was here. No, Frankie boy says he can make it look like it was the savages what done it so no’one will ever think it was us what was ‘ere.” With another lingering look he left the room closing the door behind him.
“Goosey? What do they mean to do to me?” The terror in her voice was clear to hear and twisted at his heart.
“Don’t call me that,” he said as gently as he could. “My name is Angus.”
“Angus,” she nodded, making a better job of pronouncing it than Francois ever had. “I am Arabella. What happen to my husband?”
“Him through there? He’s been selling French secrets to the British and British secrets to the French. Now he’s been caught out.” MacIan could only give a helpless gesture. “You understand? He has been betraying your country for cash.”
“I am not surprised,” she spat. “Theodore, t’es rien qu’un petit connard!” Her eyes, a startling deep blue looked beseechingly towards MacIan. “Am I going to die?” The look on his face answered her question as she broke into heartbreaking sobs.
“Arabella,” he said as he placed his musket against the door and hurried across the room to kneel by her side, one hand gently stroking her shoulder in a weak attempt to comfort her. “Listen Arabella, I swear that no’one is going to harm you. I swear it.”
Her tear filled eyes looked up at his for proof that he was telling the truth. From the determined look in his eyes and the firm set on his lips he was being honest with her. Small hands grasped his arm. “You swear it? Please, Angus…”
“I do Arabella,” he replied with a firm nod of his chin. But how? His mind raced for a solution. He couldn’t smuggle her out through the room where the others were questioning her husband. If he lifted her out through the window it was likely one of those keeping watch from the tavern would see her before she got ten yards. She would either be caught, shot or stabbed. Any of which would likely be enough to raise the alarm in the village and see the British running for their lives. Even if they managed to evade capture he knew that his life would be left hanging by a thread for betraying Flynn and the others. None of them could be considered close friends. He simply hadn’t been through as many fights as they others had. Their sense of camaraderie meant that he was still an outsider in many ways and that meant he could not let her escape without risking his own life. As his brown eyes looked towards the tear streaked face he knew he could not stand by and watch while she was raped and murdered. He just couldn’t do it. It was one thing to kill a man in the heat of combat but this? This was no different than grabbing a girl off the street and butchering her in cold blood. Butchering? An idea was forming in his mind. “Wait here,” he whispered to her as he got to his feet. Crossing the room he opened the door a crack, just enough to see the bloodied face of Flaubert as Flynn and Francois continued to work on him. Those not watching this performance were nailed to the shuttered windows, their full attention focused on the village for any risk coming from that direction. Biting his lip he looked back to Arabella. She was still hunched down by the bed, her wide eyes looking at him with a mixture of hope and abject terror fighting for dominance. “I have an idea,” he said quietly as he hurried back to her. “But I don’t think you’re going to like it.”
“Yes,” he smiled grimly.
* * *
From the doorway MacIan watched round the partially opened door as the grim scene involving Flaubert drew to its inevitable conclusion. Flynn, satisfied he had learned all he could from the traitorous Theodore Flaubert nodded to Francois. The Frenchman smiled happily and his knife went to work.
As Flaubert’s body finally stopped its spasmodic twitching all attention turned towards the bedchamber. Now was the moment MacIan had been dreading. Pulling open the door he stood there, his buckskins running with blood, a bloody knife hanging from his hand and a devilish grin on his blood spattered face. “Sorry, I got tired of her fighting me,” he said as he wiped the blood from the sharp blade on his sleeve.
“Hells teeth, what you bleeding done?” Flynn gasped at the horrific figure standing grinning maniacally at the raiders. Striding forward he only got as far as the doorway before even he was forced to a halt. The bedchamber looked like something from a nightmare. All he could see was blood. Blood on the floor. Blood on the walls, even blood dripping from the roof. Yet worse than this was the figure on the bed with skirts hitched up about her knees and dress ripped and slashed to ribbons. Blood soaked the girl and the ruined remnants of her clothing. Her pretty face now all but hidden by the wash of blood splashed across it. Flynn felt his own stomach lurch at the spilled entrails draped from the girl’s belly to hang over the side of the bed.
MacIan with a shrug wiped some of the blood from his face. “I’m sorry, Sergeant. I didn’t mean to spoil everyone’s fun but the little pig wouldn’t just lie there and take it. I got a bit annoyed,” he added with a giggle.
Flynn shook his head in disbelief. “Remind me not to annoy you, eh MacIan.” He couldn’t force himself to look at the girl again as he rapidly closed the door on the ghastliness within. He swallowed down the threat of bile in his throat and said, “well then, looks like we’re done here. Flaubert ain’t going to be selling any more secrets to the Frogs, and we ain’t getting our turn with Madame Flaubert either thanks to this stone cold killer.” His hand clapped MacIan lightly on his back. “Just try and clean some of that blood off before we get back on the boat. I don’t want to be reminded of what I’ve just seen all the way back to Boston.”
Within minutes the tavern was abandoned to the corpses inside while the raiders fled through the night. Less than an hour later their boat was heading downriver for the Basin de Port Royal and the open waters beyond.
“You murdered her?” Robert Young gasped in horror as MacIan concluded his tale.
“Of course I didn’t kill her,” the grizzled veteran chuckled. “She could hardly gift me this baccy pouch if I had killed her, could she!”
“So what did happen then? If even a man like Flynn thought you a heartless killer how did you fool him?”
MacIan rolled his shoulders, puffed on his pipe as his fingers gently stroke the beads on his tobacco pouch. “He saw what I wanted him to see. I did promise Arabella she wouldn’t like my solution, and she didn’t, but she went along with me. It cost her two of her fine young piglets that were due for the market. I went out the window, stunned them with my musket butt and then decorated the stage, so to speak, with their blood and guts. She wanted to scream but forced herself to lie at peace while I covered her in all manner of bits and pieces. I had to make it look so horrible that no’one, not even Flynn would want to get too close to her. Anyway, it worked perfectly.”
“So how did you come by the pouch?” Captain Travers asked, a bemused smile on his lips. “I thought you said you were all back on the boat to Boston?”
“I was. A month later the regiment was back in Acadia to strengthen the resolve of the militia and marines during the invasion of Acadia. Port Royal was besieged, the outlying villages all abandoned at our advance. The French fort fell after a few days. The troops and civilians were allowed to take ship for France if they wanted to leave.”
“And the fair Arabella?”
Again MacIan chuckled with real humour. “She had landed on her feet. You see the other man who was there that night had arranged to buy the tavern from Theodore Flaubert. The bold Theodore knew that his card had been marked by the British, and the French were starting to ask questions as well. He knew it was time to head for pastures new. They had just signed the deal before we turned up. Arabella was busily putting the gold the other poor sod had paid in the strongbox below the bed. With her husband dead, the new owner also dead and the gold in her control she discovered that every cloud has a silver lining. The first thing she did was burn the bill of sale. After that she had raised the alarm, only once we were long gone as per the agreement we had reached. As for Arabella, well, all she found was sympathy on every side. Understandably she wanted to sell the tavern, which she did within a few weeks, so she got the value of the property twice over. And lost nothing when it was burned down along with most of the village during the invasion.” MacIan puffed happily on his pipe. “Anyway once Fort Royal had surrendered I saw her one day as I was walking the streets. By then no’one thought to call me Goosey any more. It was MacIan. I had a reputation as a ruthless killer. A man not to be crossed at any cost. It served me well all through my army days, and it was all based on a lie. Anyhow, back to Arabella. I saw her, she saw me. She took me aside to thank me for saving her life and told me her good fortune. I was delighted for her. As a gesture of thanks she gave me her purse. She kept the gold inside, right enough, but we can’t have everything.” His finger tapped the pouch. “And here it is. All these years later.”
“What became of her?” Robert asked with a smile.
“A wealthy widow? The world was her lobster. With Fort Royal in British hands and renamed Annapolis she decided to move on herself. The last I heard was that she was happily married to one of the richest merchants in Boston and ruled an ever growing family with a kindly hand.”
“A far cry from a sordid death in a log cabin in Acadia.”
“Aye indeed. She was happy with her lot, and I was happy with my baccy.”