Taken by the Highlander – Flora Ferrari

Fighting is the only thing I seem to ken, the smell o’ a man’s sweat in the air and the tang o’ blood on ma’ tongue. Tis the same stench whether on the field o’ battle or on the street, and I’ve had ma’ share o’ both. But today is different. I’m no’ on the battlefield nor on the street…instead, I’m fighting for ma’ supper… the man everyone wants to beat…The Highland Hustler… Angus Ross, the infamous bare-knuckle fighter. I left ma’ home to fight wi’ Charles Stuart at Falkirk Muir and then on to Culloden when I was no more than a boy, and I came home defeated but a man. The battle changed me forever, and life would ne’er be the same again. I couldnae bear to work the land like ma’ older brothers. The land is harsh in the Highlands, and every year is a battle wi’ nature. It killed ma’ father and turned ma’ mother into an old woman too soon. By the time I returned home, the old farm was gone, ma’ mother dead and ma’ brothers emigrated from the land ma’ family had worked for hundreds o’ years. Wi’ mother gone, there was no reason for them to stay, and they moved out into one o’ the towns. Or so I guessed. When I returned to the croft, it was neglected… windows already broken and exposing the shabby interior to the wind and the elements. Old Fraser Anderson was the only man left, too old to change his ways and would probably die there. He told me that ma’ mother had died and brothers were gone.

There was nothing left for me, no’ that I wanted to stay. I had no family, no friends, nothing…just the clothes on my back…ma’ belted plaid and woollen coat were almost everything I owned and only a few shillings in ma’ sporran. I spent many a night out in the open. It was no’ really a hardship looking back, I was young and had spent many a night on the hills as a soldier, but without proper shelter or food, I ken I wouldnae last out the winter, and I headed for Inverness, keeping out o’ the way o’ the redcoats… being arrested as a Jacobite and wearing ma’ plaid would hae surely seen me transported o’erseas, ne’er to see ma’ beloved homeland again. On the first night in Inverness, I got drunk spending ma’ last few coins on cheap whiskey and then into a fight wi’ two men for calling the Stuart a coward that saw me bloodied and beaten, but I came out the best. Years o’ fighting for ma’ life had turned me from a gangly young lad into a beast o’ a man that dinna ken his own strength. I had knocked out both men wi’ a couple of blows o’ ma’ fists. I remember, I sat in the gutter, rubbing at ma’ bruised knuckles wondering what was to become o’ me. Call it chance or fate, good or bad, I dinna ken, which, but a man approached me from the bar and offered me lodgings. I was wary at first, a strange man in a strange place, but what choice did I hae? He pulled out a grubby card from an even grubbier waistcoat pocket and handed it to me.

It merely said, Charles Menzies. Aberdeen. Taking the card back immediately, he placed it once again into his waistcoat pocket and proceeded to tell me that he owned a booth in a travelling show and was looking for men like me. I was still unsure, but let him take me back to his cheap boarding house, where he gave me supper and ale and let me sleep on the floor. There was a small fire in the room, and although the floor was hard, I slept like a babe until the next morning. When I awoke, the fire had been remade, and there was a basin o’ warm water to wash myself wi’. Charles Menzies was out but soon returned wi’ some lowland clothing for me to change into. The redcoats were still milling about Inverness, and he said I had been lucky not to be caught. O’er a small breakfast, he said he owned a fighting booth, a carnival attraction that saw men try to beat his prize-fighters. One of his men was getting a bit long in the tooth, and he was looking for someone to take his place.

He had been impressed with ma’ fighting skills and said he was looking for a man just like me. I shook ma’ head at first. After ma’ years o’ fighting for ma’ country, I wasnae ready to make a career o’ it. I can still hear his words. It was a very generous offer. The only other options open to me were general labouring, hard work for a pittance, and I would still hae to find me some lodgings. I nodded, and we shook on it, and the deal was done. The Highland Hustler was born. Charles Menzies kept ma’ plaid and had it cleaned. I wore ma’ belted plaid in the makeshift boxing ring, bare-chested and ma’ face painted in blue…I was unsure, wondered what the English soldiers would make o’ the ‘Highland Hustler,’ but now the Stuart was gone, Charles said it made more o’ a spectacle for the audience, like a freak show, an oddity from the past.

At first, I felt a bit foolish, but I soon got to like it. In the ring, I felt like somebody, rather than a nobody without kin or home. Some of the audience cheered me, others booed me, it was all part o’ the show, but the fighting was genuine. Big men, usually drunk men, would put down a shilling to fight me, in the hope of doubling their money, but more importantly, knocking out the Highland Hustler. I soon saw how Charles made his money, apart from the entrance fee to watch the spectacle, Charles also took bets on the side. At the end o’ the week, he would share some o’ his illegal gains wi’ his four fighters. I had ne’er been so well off. For a while I enjoyed travelling on the road, the travelling folk are a queer bunch and every night after the fair had closed, I would drink myself stupid on the cheap whiskey and ale and sleep until mid-morning. ‘Tis a good life for a young man. Yet despite having money in ma’ pocket ma’ heart was lost.

I had that same queer feeling in ma’ soul as when I returned to the empty croft. Surely there was more to life than fighting and drinking? It’s was a pleasant September day outside, and I could see the tent start to fill. O’er the years Charles has made improvements, and the stage was now theatrically swathed wi’ purple velvet, but the fighting was the same, the gambling was the same, and the drinking was the same. I have had to keep fit o’er the years, and despite the alcohol, I still cut a fine figure for a man o’ forty. I had thought many times o’ leaving, but the money I should hae saved had all been spent on whisky and gambling. With ma’ soul lost, I had filled it wi’ all manner o’ vices, and the card tables were the worst, meaning I could no’ quit for a more comfortable life. Perhaps it was time I should start to change ma’ ways, but what for…? I can see the drunken men swarming around the now fuller figure o’ Charles Menzies. He must be well o’er sixty but still has the enthusiasm for lining his pockets. I can see a young woman protesting wi’ her husband. He is younger than me, a mop o’ red hair and beard and his face a matching red wi’ all the ale he has drunk.

He waves a shilling in Charles’s face as he pushes his woman to one side, the price ne’er increasing in o’er twenty years, so profitable is the gambling on the side. I hope he will be my opponent… I want to punch that smug look straight off his face. Fighting has become a sort o’ a drug to me, another reason I stay. When I’m in the ring, facing a man that has something to prove, thinking he can knock me down, I feel a change wi’ in me. I canna explain it. Tis like all the baseness rises to the surface, and I feel a power run right through me. And then this anger, this constant fight rears its ugly head and I clench ma’ fists, not satisfied until the man before me is lying bloodied on the floor beneath me. Afterwards, I feel tired and almost ashamed o’ myself for being such a beast, but it leaves me hungry for more. Perhaps I am no good for any society but this, decent folk wouldnae welcome me. I hae become something I canna control… I am called to the ring, the group o’ people having paid their threepence entrance fee, all looking to get their monies worth.

The red-haired young man stands before me, and I am glad. The crowd is shouting, and I see Charles hurrying to take the last few bets. The young man seems to hae some support in the group, and Charles always makes the stakes well in the favour o’ the opponent, to ensure that men and their money are easily parted. “David…” The young wife o’ ma’ opponent stands white-faced at the edge o’ the ring and calls out to him. I pity the poor woman, but it canna be helped. There are no’ many women in the place, a few o’ the travelling people come to cheer me on, rough women who can handle their ale better than most men. Tis then that I see her. A young lass on her own is pushing through the crowd toward the front. Her hair is dark and loose and falls in curls around her shoulders, her dark eyes darting around the place, looking for a space in the crowd. She is well dressed and no’ the sort we usually attract.

For a moment, her eyes find mine, and in that second ma’ old heart seems to skip a beat. There is something in those young, honest eyes that makes me feel something I thought I had forgotten long ago. For a moment, I feel at peace, a peace I hae no’ ken since I was a boy. The lassie is beautiful, and I feel a strong attraction for her. I even feel a stirring in ma’ loins, beneath ma’ woollen plaid, ma’ male instinct pulses through ma’ veins. Somehow, I ken that I must hae this lass. The bell rings out for the fight to start, and I am pulled back to reality. Ma’ head is still spinning from looking at the lovely young lass, and it takes me a second to get ma’ bearings again. David, the redhaired lad, is already prancing around me, jabbing me tentatively wi’ his fists. Now he is facing the famous Highland Hustler, he doesnae look so brave, and I see the fear in his bloodshot eyes, can smell it in the air, sour and acrid like cat’s piss.

I can see the pale face o’ his wife from the corner o’ ma’ eye, and a sudden empathy flows through ma’ heart. I hae ne’er felt sorry for ma’ opponents until now. I clench ma’ fists in a moment o’ weakness, still aware o’ the lasses dark eyes upon me. I take the first jab, but it lacks ma’ usual power, I need to concentrate. There is some commotion at the ringside- I glance quickly – the dark-haired lass is arguing wi’ a lad, probably her brother as there is a strong resemblance and he is pulling her away, towards the entrance o’ the tent. Ma’ heart sinks, for some reason, I ken that I canna lose this lass. If she steps out o’ the tent, I may ne’er see her again. There is only one thing for it. I see the blow coming, but for once in ma’ life, I dinna dodge it. For a small man, he packs a mighty punch, and I feel the blow and let the full force knock me o’er.

I see Charles face as I hit the deck, this will be a massive loss for him. The crowd is cheering, and the young man is looking on in amazement. Even the colour has come back into his wife’s cheeks. In a way, I am glad, if only for her. The mighty Highland Hustler is down! Now there is only one thing left to do, get out o’ here and find the bonnie young lass.

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