The Summer of 1705, Scotland
“Life is what you make it, son,” my father said, leaning back in his favourite chair, feet up, watching me clean puke off the tavern floor while the crowd of drunken fishermen jeered. My father is known as MacTavish. He’s a rather stout man with a curly black beard, a pock-marked face from a bout of smallpox, and fierce brown eyes that suggest angry authority. With my mother, they own the tavern at the fishing village near Torrport, Scotland. I glanced up at Father after he offered that lump of wisdom, and muttered, “Thank you for the advice.” But in my mind, I was thinking that if I had any say in the matter, I would not be doing this on a fine Saturday evening in summer.
Early next morning, I was still grumbling under my breath as I sorted through the tavern kitchen slops looking for edible bits to feed the many cats who lived in our village. I could hear them meowing insistently out back and if I didn’t hurry, they’d soon wake-up Mother and she would not be happy, especially since Sunday was her one day of the week to sleep-in.
Our guard dog Jo-jo dutifully escorted me out the back door to the waiting mob. Our cats always made me smile. There was Squint, an old brown tabby male with one eye, who’d been around so long Mother said he was the original tavern owner. He is the only cat allowed inside and when my little sister Leana was sick with the chickenpox last month, he hardly left her side. Then there is Duff, a large, short-haired ginger who always has an opinion, and Midnight, a sweet-tempered black female who loves hunting at night. Making up the rest of crew are Sandy, a curious Siamese male who likes to follow me around, and his adopted sister Cali, a feisty calico with ripped ears who looks and behaves nothing like Sandy. Along with Jo-jo, they are the crew of the good ship HMS Gallant, and I, Sir Jocki MacTavish, of the grand town of Torrport, am her famous captain. Or so I imagine.
Duff yowled as he does when hungry, and Sandy almost tripped me as he ran between my legs. “Good morning crew, ready for more adventures?” I laughed knowing they would spend the day snooping everywhere looking for rats and mice, and on a good day receive kindly pets and perhaps some treats from the villagers. Duff yowled again and the chorus of meowing becoming even louder as I set their pan down. Five heads dove in, the meowing instantly stopped, replaced by loud purring and munching. I knelt beside them and touched each in turn, saying their names and encouraging them to be good and brave. Most would raise their haunches and tail in response and purr more loudly when their turn came.
Meanwhile, Jo-jo was being a very good boy, sitting expectantly, hoping he was next. He’s a very handsome Rottweiler we found abandoned on the docks four years ago. Thick strings of gooey drool were oozing from both jowls, making him look silly. The second pan I brought was filled with scraps of bread, meat, vegetables and gravy, all for Jo-jo. I set it in front of him and looked into his eyes. He didn’t move a muscle and seemed to be holding his breath. Then I told him he was a good boy and that he could have his breakfast. With a few great gulps, it was gone! It’s amazing how fast that dog can eat.
I watched my happy crew finish breakfast. As their captain, I gave my first order of the day, “Men…and ladies…you may resume your shore-leave but be back aboard ship by no later than six bells this evening.” The cats were cleaning their faces and Jo-jo his bottom. I assumed everyone understood, so I saluted and took the pans in for washing.
Cats and dog fed and the morning fire stoked, I took the remaining slops out the front door to toss in the harbour. It was a grey blustery day with whitecaps splashing the dock posts and unrelenting waves rocking the little wooden fishing boats. There were two merchant ships in port, one was a sloop at the pier beside the ship supply warehouse. I’d heard it arrive late last night. On closer inspection, I could see odd markings on its prow, as though the ship’s name had been painted over. I also could see that there was the brigantine, still anchored off the rocky promontory called Signal Hill, where fires are lit to guide ships home in bad weather. That brigantine is the Silver Fin, owned by Captain Kidd Jr. It had just returned a few days past.
I turned back toward our tavern, a two-story stone building encrusted in moss and lichens and roofed with a thick layer of mouldy thatch. It’s well-situated on the main pier of the fishing village and used mostly by fishermen and sailors. We’re open for business from noon to midnight, six days a week, with Sundays off for rest and to honour the Lord. But Sundays offer little rest for me because I must attend the church service in the morning, then study the Bible for much of the afternoon, then there are all the usual chores to keep the tavern ship-shape, as we sailors say.
Usually on a Sunday morning early, no one is up but me, but this morning I could hear men speaking by the sloop. I was curious, more so since I could see that several of them were armed with long muskets. Very strange too since I remember last evening Mother saying she was disappointed they didn’t allow them shore-leave. She was hoping to sell them many meat pies and pints of ale.
I set my slops pail by the front door and casually strolled closer to the sloop. Usually no one pays much attention to us boys, so I was able to get quite close before one of them shouted in a threatening voice, “Hey, petit garçon sortez d'ici!” It sounded like French. I wasn’t sure what he said but the tone was clear. I wasn’t wanted there. So, I smiled and offered my usual good mornings and turned back to the tavern, but not before catching a glimpse of some other sailors, in their tattered smocks and baggy trousers, carrying something into the warehouse. I picked up my slops bucket and slyly went to the privy that sits beside the tavern. I knew from experience I could get an unobstructed view of the sloop and the warehouse by looking through a crack in the privy door.
From within, I watched as they unloaded four small wooden chests adorned with fancy metal fittings, each chest was no more than two feet long by one foot wide and deep, and requiring two strong men to carry it. When they finished, the sailors went back on board and nothing happened for several minutes and I thought I should get back home and clean the kitchen, when out the front door of the warehouse appeared a man, smartly-dressed in a blue uniform decorated with gold braid. I assumed he was the ship’s captain and noticed he was carrying a leather pouch under one arm when he turned to speak to the man who followed him. That man was Mr. Fyfe. He owned the ship supply business in Torrport proper and the warehouse here in the fishing village. It made perfect sense. The merchant ship likely was selling supplies to Mr. Fyfe. But I thought it strange that the ship was so well-guarded; and what could be in those small chests that it took two men to carry each one? I was pondering this when I remembered someone telling me that it’s only a mystery because you don’t know the whole story. So, I left the privy and returned to my morning chores and gave it no further thought until later, but by then it was too late.