To The Far Blue Mountains
My horse, good beast that he was, stood steady, ears pricked to listen, as were
When a man has enemies he had best beware, and I, Barnabas Sackett, born of the
fenland and but lately returned from the sea, had enemies I knew not of.
The blackness of my plumed hat and cloak fed themselves into the blackness of
the forest, leaving no shape for the eye to catch. There was only the shine of
captured light from my naked blade as I waited, listening.
Something or somebody was in the forest near me, what or who it might be I knew
not, nor was I a believer in the devils and demons thought to haunt these
Devils and demons worried me not, but there were men abroad, with blades as keen
as mine, highwaymen and creatures of the night who lay waiting for any chance
traveler who might come riding alone … to his death, if they but had their
Yet the fens had trained me well, for we of the fens learned to be aware of all
that was happening about us. Hunters and fishers we were, and some of us
smugglers as well, although of these I was not one. Yet we moved upon our hidden
ways, in darkness or in light, knowing each small sound for what it was. Nor had
wandering in the forests of Raleigh’s land among the red Indians allowed my
senses to grow dull.
Something lurked, but so did I.
My point lifted a little, expecting attack. Yet those who might be waiting to
come at me were but men who bled,
even as I.
It was not attack that came from the darkness, but a voice.
“Ah, you are a wary one, lad, and I like that in a man. Stand steady, Barnabas,
I’ll not cross your blade. It is words I’ll have, not blood.”
“Speak then, and be damned to you. If words are not enough, the blade is here.
You spoke my name?”
“Aye, Barnabas, I know your name and your table, as well. I’ve eaten a time or
two in your fen cottage from which you’ve been absent these many months.”
“You’ve shared meat with me? Who are you, then? Speak up, man!”
“I’d no choice. It is the steps and the string for me if caught. I need a bit of
a hand, as the saying is, and the chance to serve you, if permitted.”
“Serve me how?”
He was hidden still, used as were my eyes to darkness, yet now my ears caught
some familiar note, some sound that started memory rising.
“Ah!” It came to me suddenly. “Black Tom Watkins!”
“Aye.” He came now from the shadows, “Black Tom it is, and a tired and hungry
“How did you know me then? It is a time since last I traveled this road.”
“Don’t I know that? Yet it is not only I who know of your coming, nor your
friend William, who farms your land. There are others waiting, Barnabas, and
that is why I am here, in the damp and darkness of the forest, hoping to catch
you before you ride unwitting into their company.”
“Who? Who waits?”
“I am a wanted man, Barnabas, and the
gallows waits for me, but I got free and
was in the tavern yonder studying upon what to do when I heard your name spoken.
Oh, they kept their voices low, but when one has lived in the fens as you and I
… well, I heard them. They wait to lay you by the heels and into Newgate
He came a step nearer. “You’ve enemies, lad. I know naught of them nor their
reasons, but guilty or not they’ve a Queen’s warrant for you, and there’s a bit
in it for them if they take you.”
A Queen’s warrant? Well, it might be. There had been a warrant. Yet who would
know of that and be out to take me? We were a far cry from London town, and it
was an unlikely thing.
“They are at the cottage?” I asked.
“Not them. There’s a bit of a tavern only a few minutes down the road, and they
do themselves well there while waiting. From time to time one rides to see if
you are about at the cottage, and I think they have a man in the hedgerow.”
“What manner of men are they?”
It was in my mind that my enemy, Captain Nick Bardle of the Jolly Jack, was out
to take me, but he himself was a wanted man, and he’d have no thought of
“A surly lot of rogues by their looks, and led by a tall, dark man with greasy
hair to his shoulders and the movements of a swordsman. He seems the leader, but
there’s another who might be. A shorter, wider man … thicker, too … and
older somewhat if I am to judge.”
My horse was as restive as I. My cottage was less than an hour away … perhaps
half that, but the night was dark and no landmarks to be made out. My situation
was far from agreeable.
My good friend and business associate, Captain Brian Tempany, was aboard our new
ship, awaiting my return for sailing. It was off to the new lands across the
sea, and for trade with whom we could. And perhaps, for Abigail and me, a home
A Queen’s warrant is no subject for jest, even if he who had sworn to it was
dead and the occasion past. The warrant should have been rescinded, but once in
Newgate I might be held for months and no one the wiser.
Once back in London, Captain Tempany might set in motion the moves to have the
warrant rescinded, or my friend Peter Tallis might, but to do that I must first
reach London and their ears.
“Go toward the cottage, Tom, and be sure all is quiet there, and along the hedge
as well. Then come back along the track and meet me. Lay claim to a boat.”
“I’ll do it.”
“A moment, Tom. You spoke of a favor?”
He took hold of my stirrup leather. “Barnabas, it is hanging at Tyburn if I’m
caught, and it is said that you are lately home from the new lands across the
sea, and that you sail again soon. There’s naught left for me in England, lad,
nor will there ever be again. I am for the sea, and if you’ll have me aboard,
I’ll be your man ’til death.
“If you know aught of me you know I’m a seaman. I’ve been a soldier as well, and
am handy with weapons or boats. Take me over the sea and I’ll make out to stay
There was sincerity in him, and well enough I knew the man, a strong and steady
one, by all accounts. To be a smuggler in Britain was to be in good company, for
the laws were harsh and many a churchman or officer was involved in it, or
looking aside when it was done.
Our fens in Cambridgeshire and Lincolnshire were havens for smugglers, for there
were many winding waterways by which a boat could come from the sea, and a score
of towns the boat could come to with no hint that it came from the sea.
“Think well of what you ask, Tom. It is a far land to which I’ll go. There be
savages there, and forests such as you’ve never seen. It will be no easy time.”
“Whenever was it easy for such a man as I? The scars I carry speak of no easy
times, lad, and however bad it may be it will be better than the steps and the
noose, and that’s what awaits me here.”
When he had gone I sat listening for a time, untrusting of the darkness, but
heard no sound for the slow dripdrip of raindrops from the leaves. Black Tom
would be a good man in Raleigh’s land … a good man.
My horse started of his own volition, impatient of standing, and sheathing my
sword I let him go, then loosened the flap of my saddle holster on the right
side. As we drew near the tavern I turned my mount to the grassy border along
the track that we called a road.
A tall man who moved like a swordsman? A man with black and greasy hair? I knew
of none such.
Before me appeared the lights from dim and dirty windows, and I remembered the
tavern. An old place, with a stable for horses. The door opened and a man came
into the darkness as I drew rein. He closed the door behind him, and I waited.
He stood a moment, then went around the house to the stables. After a moment he
emerged, mounting the horse he led, and turned along the track ahead of me. At a
respectable distance, I followed.
This must be the man who would ride to the cottage to see if I was about. Would
Black Tom mistake him for me?
My stay at the cottage need not be long. It was a thing of sentiment as much as
business that had brought me back, for the feeling was on me that I’d not again
see the home my father had been given for his service in the wars. My father was
Ivo Sackett, yeoman, soldier, first-class fighting man … a decent man, too,
and as good a teacher as he was a fighter.
There was William to see, for he would care for the land whilst I was gone over
the great waters, and we had a few small matters to speak of. He was a man to be
trusted, but in the event something happened to him … after all, all men are
My father had schooled me well, and although he left me a fine stretch of
fenland, I had no desire to remain there, nor had he wished me to. He had
trained me well in the use of arms, of which he was a master, and taught me
better than he knew of reading and writing.
“Lad,” he would say to me, “I know a weaver who became a great merchant, and the
men who rode with William the Norman had only their strong arms and their
swords, but with them they became the great men of the kingdom. For some men an
acre and a cottage are enough, but not for you, Barnabas. I have tried to fit
you for a new life in the new world that’s coming, where a man can be what he’s
of a mind to be.”
This cottage and the land in the fens was what my father had done. Now was the
time for me. Deep as was my affection for the cottage and the fens, I knew there
was a broader, wilder world. I had my father’s contempt for the courtier who
suspends his life from the fingertips of those in power, looking for morsels. I
would be beholden to no man.
The rider I followed was slowing down now as he drew nearer the cottage.
He drew up suddenly, listening, but sensing he was about to halt I had myself
pulled up close under a tall hedge, and he could not see me.
He stared down the road behind him for a long time, then he started on, but I
held my horse for I had a feeling he would stop again. And he did so, turning in
the saddle to look back. After a moment he started again, seemingly reassured.
When he was near the lane that turned down the slope to my cottage, he drew up
and dismounted. Purposely, I let my horse take two steps that he could hear.
Instantly, he froze in position, staring toward me. But I sat silent, knowing he
was worried—frightened a little, or at least uneasy—and this was what I wanted.
He led his horse into the opening of the lane leading to my cottage, and what he
saw or failed to see satisfied him, for he mounted again. But he rode on to
where he could look toward the water side of my cottage, and then it was that I
started to hum a tune and walked my horse toward him. He was around a turn of
the lane but he heard me, as I knew he would, and as I turned the corner I saw
him, halberd in hand.
“Ho, there!” I said, not too loud. “Is this the way to Boston?”
“Ahead there, and you’ll see the marker.” He leaned toward me, peering. “You
came up the track?”
“Aye, and a start it gave me, too! Something was there … I know not what. I
spoke to it, but had no answer, and came on quickly enough. Damn it, man, if
that be your way, be careful. I liked not
the smell of it.”
“Aye, a fetid smell … as of something dead. I saw no shape or shadow, but …
have you ever smelled a wolf?”
“A wolf?” His voice rose a little. “There are no wolves in England!”
“Aye … so they say. Not wolves as such, I suppose, but I have smelled wolves
… not your ordinary wolves, you understand, but huge, slinking creatures with
ugly fangs. Bloody fangs! And they smelled like that back there. Have you heard
of werewolves, perhaps? I sometimes think—”
“Werewolves? That’s just talk … campfire talk, or talk by peasants. There are
no wolves in England, and I—”
“Well, I’ve had a smell of them. That was
in Tartary where I went for Henry the
“Henry the Seventh!” His voice was shrill. “Why, that’s impossible! It has been
almost a hundred years since—”
“So long?” I said. “It scarcely seems so.” I leaned toward him. “Werewolves! I’d
know that odor anywhere! The smell of graves opened! Old graves! Of bodies long
dead!” Pausing, I said, as if puzzled, “But you said King Henry the Seventh was
nearly a hundred years ago?”
“Nearly.” The man was edging away from me.
“Well, well! How time goes on! But when you have passed, you know, when you’re
no longer subject to time—”
“I must go. They await me at the tavern yonder.”
“Ah? A tavern? I was tempted to enter, but you know how it must be. When I enter
the others leave. So I—”
“You’re mad!” The man burst out suddenly. “Crazy!” And he clapped his heels to
his horse and raced away.
From the hedge there was a chuckle. “He didn’t know whether you were crazy or a
ghost, Barnabas.” Black Tom shivered. “On a night like this a man could believe
anything out here in the dark.” He gestured. “Come quickly! We have a boat.”
Down the lane I rode, with Black Tom trotting beside, hanging to my stirrup
leather. There was time for only a glance at the cottage, dark and silent, its
small windows like lonely eyes. I figured William was at the hut, some distance
away. I felt a twinge at my heart, for the cottage had been my boyhood home,
this place and the fens. Inside was the fireplace beside which my father had
taught me my lessons. No man ever worked harder for the future of his son,
teaching me all he could from what he had seen and learned.
No more … my father was gone, buried these several years. A wave of sadness
swept over me. I started to turn for another look …
“Quick! Barnabas, into the boat! They come!”
It was no common boat, but a scow, and I took my horse quickly across the plank,
and we shoved off upon the dark, glistening water. We could hear the hoofbeats
Looking back, I felt warm tears welling into my eyes. It had been my home, this
cottage on the edge of the fen. Here I had grown to manhood, and here my father