The second installment of a twenty part Sunday Serial. Hal has an outing with his father which he hopes will propel his prospects towards a more meaningful life.
A step along the road
The day I want to tell you about started in the most peculiar way. It had a singular ending to boot, but more of that later.
My father woke me early one September morning. It was dark outside and I took a while to discern that he was looking at me with high excitement and a degree of expectation.
“Look lively, Hal. Today you will join me as we go to the cattle fair!” he said.
At the age of thirteen, I was delighted to be making the journey to market for the first time. It was a sign of my growing maturity and also I felt my father was placing trust in me. I had been a keen student of our small herd of cattle, particularly as we were trying to produce greater amounts of beef from them. I could – and would – talk to anyone near and still enough about the ideas of breeding by selecting the right stock to achieve this. Ned grew rather vexed whenever I attempted to discuss cattle with him; although he was able to present an interminable discourse about horses at the slightest excuse.
This was my first foray into the practical world of actually choosing the livestock with which I could prove my theories about selective cattle breeding. My father and I mounted a horse each and headed towards the east, where the sun was beginning to spread a glow along the horizon. I was excited to see the world beyond our farm; it was not something I had done a lot. My excitement grew as we travelled further, making our way along the lanes in the inky dark.
It was a chilly morning, with the signs of hoar frost on the brown leaves. We spoke in hushed voices, my father insisting that we remain quiet. My ignorance at that stage meant I was unable to say with any certainty why we should be quiet, instead believing we might be showing consideration for those still in bed. I was to learn more about the real reason in due course.
Finally, our destination appeared before us, although it had fully become morning by that time. The town we were headed towards stood out proud. The church and grandest civic buildings stood out atop the hill the town was built upon. However, we were not going all the way into the town. The fair was held by the marshes at the foot of the hill and it was to the fairground that we made our way. Finally, the last trees fell away and I could see our destination.
Across the flat area of grass, there was a patchwork of pens made up by hurdles, arranged just so across the centre of the allotted space. This was full of cattle, from large bulls to impudent young bullocks. But whatever the age, quality or requested price of the beasts, they all added to the noise and to the overpowering smell. My father was watching me with a small smile on his face.
“Do you think you will be able to find me a prime bull amongst that, boy?” he asked.
“I would hope so,” I told him, my eyes roving the seemingly limitless pens in front of us.
“Let us eat first, then do business,” he said. We made our way to one of the nearby stalls to eat a pie and drink some ale.
My day was spent in various degrees of delight as we wandered the stalls. I delighted in the raucous, bustling atmosphere and revelled in the rather unrefined way in which everything was conducted. Many could not show any self-discipline when it came to the ale and their stumblings and babblings amused my youthful self greatly. I am now immune to the antics of the inebriated as, alas, I see many wretches leave my hostelry insensible by the end of the night.
I grow weary and wish I had the vitality of those youthful days once more.
Our business concluded, and a bull selected, we began the slow plod back on our faithful horses. Whether it was the ale or fatigue, our progress was much louder down the lanes on our return journey. The shadows began to lengthen as we passed each mile. Soon, they began to predominate and it was eerily misty. A chill settled in around my kidneys.
He was out in front of us, near enough to touch, before either of us had seen him. He was dressed as if he should be a fine gentleman, save his mask and the pistol he waved.
“Stand and Deliver!” he cried.
My father showed pale even through the dusk light. His eyes flickered between the man on horseback in front of us and me. I discerned that he felt guilty and also deduced why had been so quiet on our outward journey. He had been wary of alerting highwaymen or robbers along the way. The indiscretion of our noisy return passage became apparent to me now. My heart pounded in my ears and for my part, I knew it was all I could do to sit still and not turn and flee.
“I am sorry, sir,” my father said. “We have little. We have been to the fair and our money is gone.”
“Perhaps I might find a little if I were to search you for purses or jewellery?” the highwayman countered. “Or if I cannot steal anything of value I might accept a life as reasonable reparation.”
He calmly levelled his weapon, pointing the muzzle directly at my father.
The word escaped me before I knew I was speaking.
It was spoken softly, almost a whisper. But it was enough to cause the highwayman to turn smoothly, almost as if he were dancing at a ball. He seemed to take enjoyment from aiming at me instead.
“Please…” my father began.
But he was interrupted by another figure, coming up close behind us. The darkness had masked his progress, the mist had dulled any noise he had made. But now he was close, the singing of his voice, fuelled by many an ale, and the clank of money in his purse was clear enough to hear.
The highwayman lowered his pistol, a broad and joyful grin across his face.
“Begone,” he said, jerking his head down the lane. “I think I have a more profitable way to spend my time.”
“Thank you, sir,” my father said and we spurred our horses on away from the scene. Whether the masked man heard his thanks or not, I cannot tell. The road was empty and only the slightest stirring from a nearby thicket revealed the villain’s whereabouts.
We rode on for a mile in silence, only speaking thereafter in hushed tones. Once the fear had subsided, I was rather ashamed to realise that I admired the highwayman. His bold manner, his dashing appearance but most of all his power had all impressed me greatly.
Quite rightly, I did not let any of this become known by my poor, shaken father, but instead resolved to keep it hidden.
My path, I decided, lay in the far safer world of our farm, especially the cattle.
If you missed it, please follow the link to enjoy Part One.