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Deeside Tales
Chapter X


IAN ALLANACH (continued)

STALKING A SHARPSHOOTER

ANOTHER incident of the war, in which Ian was himself the principal actor, was generally introduced by some one asking how many of the French he supposed he had slain during the campaign. This question, which made the girls of the party stare at him as if he had been an ogre, was generally evaded by himself, but when pressed, notwithstanding that he fenced for a time, it usually led to the following story—

“Weel, ye see, i’ the heat o’ a battle ye dinna ken how many ye kill, or gin ye kill ony ava*. Ye maun do your duty, obey orders, an’ fire awa’ as well as ye can into the ranks o’ the enemy. There’s sae mony fiian’, an’ sic a smoke, an’ stramash, that ye canna tell what effect your shots hae.”

“Ah, but Ian,” some pertinacious questioner would insist, “at a begonet charge ye cudna be in ony doubt”

“That, indeed,” the old soldier would reply, still warding off a question that he had evidently no pleasure in answering, “that, indeed. But the French didna often stan’ up when we charged wi’ the begonet Ony way, it is the pairt o’ brave soldiers to drive a9 afore them in a battle, whatever be the consequence till himsel’ or tae ithers; an9 I canna see that there is ony sin in a man doing his duty as bravely as he can. Only ance had I to do wi9 a business that I9m no vera clear abgut whether it was richt or no."

All the boys in the company would here eagerly shout— "Tell us the story, Ian; oh, tell us the story."

“Weel, laddies, though I’m nae vera proud about it, I’ll tell ye how it happened.

“Ye maun ken that the French didna always meet us in fair field as at Fellinghausen, but sometimes they wid get into a fortified town, an’ try to keep their hold there in spite o’s. Now, a fortified town is like this99—and here Ian with the charred end of a splinter of firewood, called a caunle, would sketch upon the hearthstone the fortifications, and the manner of approaching them by means of trenches.

“Weel, ye see," he would continue, pointing to a particular part of the draught, “as we were working in there ae time, some way or other there wis aye some o9s shot every day, an9 naebody cud fin9 out how it could be. Every plan had been ta’en to protect us f ae the French sharpshooters, but somebody wis aye killed, an9 naebody kent how the shots cud get into the trenches. At lang last it was found out; an9 how do you think it wis? Ane o’ them had got intil a thick tree, an9 wis firan9 at us out among the branches.

“Aweel, the day after it was found out, it was our company’s turn to work where the danger wis; an9 just when we were drawn up, afore we were marched intil the trenches, the Captain, he says, "Is there anybody here who has shot a deer in the forest? Naebody made answer."

“I’m sure, Ian," someone who had known John in his ante-military days would remark, “I’m sure, Ian, ye were a good han’ at that ance—why didna ye speak out, man?"

“A body shu’dna be ower rash answeran’ onyhow,” Ian would reply with a show of Scotch caution in the remark, “an’ I’m thinkan’ I micht hae been as weel to hae hadden my tongue a’thegither.

“Howsomever, after waitan’ a little an’ naebody speakan’, I steps forward, an’ says I, ‘Captain, I have,’ says I.

“Follow me,’ says the Captain, an’ then he tak’s me out ower a bit, an’ pointan’ to a clomp o’ heich auld trees near a mill, says he,

“‘Do you think you could stalk these trees?’

“What’s in the trees, Captain?’ says I.

“‘Well,’ says he, ‘I am much mistaken if the French sharpshooter who is killing so many of our men is not commanding our trenches from the top of one of those trees there; and if you think you could stalk him, and bring him down, I promise you it will not be forgotten to you.’

“‘I don’t like the job, Captain,’ says I, ‘for though I have stalked the deer, they’re different Pae sharpshooters. Howsomever, I’ll try, Captain,’ says I.

“I had nae sooner said the word than I began to rue. But it was noo ower late, an’ so I made ready, an’ set out “Ye may be sure I took terrible care, creepan’ f’ae ae hillock to anither, syne at the back o’ a dyke or a hedge till I got in among the trees. There wis ae thing I hadna to notice that wu’d hae spiled me wi’ the deer—I hadna to notice the win’, and that helpit me some. Teetan’ roun’ an auld stump, what shu’d I see but a chiel wi’ three guns hangan’ on the branches aside him, gey weel up the tree, an’ gloweran’ sharp the way o’ our trenches. I thought my vera heart wid loup out, it was duntan’ at sic a rate. It wisna fleg; but I thocht I wisna muckle better than a murderer to snake upon a man that way, an9 shoot him as gin he had been a craw; I thocht it wisna richt Nae but I was puttan’ mysel’ in about as muckle danger as he was in, but for a’ that—.

“I got ready three times an’ aye rued, an9 took down the gun f’ae my shu’der again. At last, thinks I, this'll no do ava’. I'll gie him a chance. So I steps out ahint the stump where I wis hidan’, an' cries up to him, *Tak’ tent, my billy,’ an’ wi’ that I fires at him. Down he came to the gran' wi’ a thud that wu’d hae killed him though he had been a wild cat, let alane a man.”

The boys at this point in the narrative generally gave vent to their hitherto restrained feeling, by shouting,

“Well done, Ian 1 quite right, quite right! the scoundrel had no business there. Ye gave him a better chance than he deserved. He didna cry to you when he was shootan' you i' the trenches, ‘ Tak' tent, my billies.' ”

“Maybe, laddies, maybe,” the old soldier would continue, “but I never let my een see him, but off I gaed as fast as I cu’d rin, an’ as good need had, for I was within range o' the French guns.

“When I got back, the Captain calls me up, an’ says he, ‘Well done, my brave fellow, you will be relieved from trench duty to-day, and here’s a guinea to enjoy yourself.’ I never heard onything mair about it It wisna lang after this when peace was made, an’ we were ordered home, or maybe I micht hae got promotion.”

The boys of the present age, daily surfeited with glowing accounts in their penny or halfpenny newspapers, of sieges and battles where half a million soldiers are engaged, and where the slain of a single day are more in number than the old Duke of Brunswick ever had under his command, may think that their fathers must have been easily amused when in their boyhood they listened with such absorbing attention to Ian’s trifling tales of war. But neither the men nor the boys of the present generation ought to suppose that the military deeds of our fathers were either less heroic, or are less interesting because of the smallness of the armies in which they served, or the primitive character of the arms they used. Individual heroism is most apparent when the numbers are few; and indeed it requires less courage in a man to march to an attack surrounded with ten thousand fellow soldiers, than when he forms one of a thousand, even though the enemy be proportionally small; and the interest attaching to an engagement, in which personal valour is sought for, is in the inverse ratio of the numbers engaged, just as a duel is a more sensational event than the battle of Gravelotte.

Nor ought we to hold of little account the art and means of war in ages past, lest judging so we may be so judged; for who knows that the soldiers of a hundred years hence may not think as little of the battle of Sedan, where a hundred thousand men were made prisoners, of the sieges of Strasbourg, Metz, and Paris, and of our engines of death, chassepots, mitrailleuses, and rifled artillery, as we do of the tattle of Fellinghausen, and the old flint musket? Anyhow, the backward glance may speed the onward march. Nature’s powers are not yet exhausted. If so much had been done in the century past, it will be to our and our children’s disgrace if as much more be not done in the century coming, not, it is to be hoped, in the invention and improvement of engines of destruction, but in the elevation of our race, in the spread of knowledge, and in the cultivation of the arts of peace; so that in the eyes of future generations the history of our wars may appear the monstrous outcome of the savage passions of an ignorant age, and men may marvel how, for the settlement of petty disputes of our rulers, we should have abnegated the function of reason, and in imitation of the most savage of the brute creation bent all our energies to the barbarous expedient of sweeping each other from the earth.

But whatever may be the prevailing sentiments and manners of society on Deeside fifty years hence, with such tales as are above narrated could an old soldier beguile to a whole neighbourhood the dullness of the longest winter evening fifty years ago. This, however, was not to last for aye. “Old age,9’ as the proverb saith, “does not come alone;” and with Ian’s increasing yean came infirmities of which, in his nightly wanderings, he did not always take proper account

One night about Christmas, when the ground was hard with frost, and the paths treacherous with ice, Ian was returning home, late but quite sober. With the aid of his trusty pike-staff, his constant companion in these nocturnal peregrinations, he had managed to overcome the difficulties and escape the dangers of the road, till just before his own door, when, probably feeling himself more at home and getting less guarded in picking his steps, his foot slipped, and from the fall he received, he dislocated his shoulder. For some days he could not be made believe but that his injury was slight, but at length he was prevailed on to send for the doctor, if only to ascertain what was the matter. On being informed that his shoulder was out of joint he replied, “Doctor, I suppose you can easily mend it”

“I must tell you, Ian,” said the Doctor, “I fear it will now be a difficult operation for me, and a painful one for you. You have been too long in sending for me.”

“Just do your duty, Doctor,” replied the veteran, “and never mind me.”

After several ineffectual attempts, the Doctor resolved to send for a brother practitioner to assist him, which caused a delay of some days more, the residence of the nearest medical man being then at Kincardine O’Neil, twenty-two miles distant On his arrival, and in consultation, both expressed a fear that Ian might not be able to endure the operation. As yet Sir James Y. Simpson had not discovered the valuable ansesthetical properties of chloroform; and it is questionable whether Ian would have considered it quite soldier-like to submit to such a method of evading pain, even had it been known. As it was, the medical men knew not well what to do; but one of the neighbours to whom they had stated their difficulty, suggested that they should set Ian to give an account of the battle of Fellinghausen, adding—

“When ance he’s fairly intil the battle, I’se gie ye my lug if he cares a button what ye dee wi’ his airm.”

As this, however unlikely to answer the expectation, was the best thing that could be done in the circumstances, they set about it

“Well, Ian,” said the Doctor, who knew his peculiarities, “this is worse than anything that befel you at Fellinghausen.”

“Maybe sae,” replied Ian, “but it’s little to what happened to mony a biaw lad. Fie 1 fie! Doctor; gin ye had seen Fellinghausen I Ah, fine do I mind that nicht i’ the middle o’ summer, when after we had ta’en our supper,” and so on, the Doctor by well-timed remarks exciting unwonted warmth in the narrative.

The dislocation was not reduced without the greatest efforts; but Ian never once interrupted his story, or allowed an expression of suffering to escape his lips. The first use to which he put the restored arm was to extend it in imitation of Keith, calling out at the same time, “Steady, my Highlanders; there’s help at hand.” Though the time of the medical gentlemen was very precious, lan held them there, as the Ancient Mariner the wedding guest, till the whole story was told, with the addition of an indignant denial of “ Boners ” superiority as a general to the Duke of Brunswick.

Ian survived this accident many years, and told his war tales as usual, but he now less frequently went abroad at night Though his iron frame had withstood the wear of ninety winters, his life might properly be said to have ended with his return from the Seven years9 war. To fight his battles o’er again was the delight, almost the business, of the rest of his days, and grew upon him as he advanced in age, till the scenes of memory had become to him more vividly real than those of sense.

At length his last battle story was told, and about the year 1833 he capitulated to the universal conqueror, and was laid with his kindred dust in the sweet churchyard of Crathie. Though a patriot to his heart’s core, he has shared the fate imprecated by the poet on “the wretch concentred all in self.” He was the last survivor of his family, and few, if any, now living can point out the spot where his ashes repose. There, “unwept, unhonoured, and unsung,” requiescat in pace.


 


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