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Harper's Egypt


When you travel out of Derry towards the setting of the sun, you come upon a wild country that seems to have been passed over by the hand of time, a land of fiords and glens, of towering mountains and dark vales, a land of dark sky and dark earth. A traveler should count it as no great surprise if a cromlech of ancient stones rises before his eyes, erected long ago, for reasons that are not forgotten, for this is a land that remembers the old ways. It seems a land unfit for normal folk, designed for heroes beyond the normal run of humankind, and for terrible creatures out of the shadows that we all dread, the darkness beyond the fire's feeble light. One almost expects Lugh, son of Kian, the Sun God himself to appear on the road before you in all his splendor, and you wonder with a sense of dread if the steps behind you aren't those of Balor of the Evil Eye himself. It is a land larger than man, and the folk you may meet, and they are few; show a toughness and an inner strength beyond what might be expected of common folk. And if you ask one of these folk what part of Ireland you tread upon, as like as not, they'll tell you you're in Donegal.

And it so happened that on a dark and misty February night in 1798, two men of Donegal were at work. At least you'd hope they were men if you came upon them, and not some evil spirits of the night, for their heads were hidden under white flour sacks, in which two holes had been cut for their eyes. They were "Whiteboys," and the business they were about that night was the houghing of Lord Glenthorne's cattle.

One of the two was very tall, and he listened with deference to the other, shorter, squatter, who spoke in a deep, no-nonsense voice.

"Like we worked out before, Padraigh. I'll do the deed, you keep watch. And keep a ready finger on that thunder-box."

"Yes, Da."

The shorter of the two, who Padraigh had addressed as his father, took out a sharp knife from his belt and made his way up and over the gentle grassy slope, where a number of sleepy cows idled, gazing at him with stupid cow eyes.

Padraigh clenched the coachman's blunderbuss he held in his arms and gazed into the darkness. The gun was packed with a load of nails and scrap iron. There was no range to it, but any shooting tonight would be done at close quarters, and it would do murderous work if it came to that. He had practiced more than once with it in the glens behind their farm. The moon was but a sliver in the sky, and the clouds were heavy, as they often were in Donegal. He could see no more than light and dark shades of gray against the blackness, but he strained to detect any movement.

From over the hill came the first cow-moan of anguish. Padrigh winced a little under his sack. His was a gentle soul, and the hamstringing of a dumb animal was nothing he took pleasure in. But the cattle were grazing on land that could feed many a hungry Irish family. Land they were barred from for as long as Lord Glenthorne figured he could rake in more money from raising cattle than from tenants' rent. Houghing was a way to tell him that as long as the Whiteboys had anything to say about it, he'd make no money from these cattle. And it would go on until bloody Lord Glenthorne in his bloody English manor house took his bloody English cattle back to bloody England where they bloody well belonged.

Padraigh heard a rustle in the gorse and whirled, his weapon poised. A raven flapped into the dark sky, black against deep gray, its "caw, caw" like the call of a banshee. He gulped uneasily. Ravens were bad luck, or so said all the old stories. And with this night's work, bad luck was most unwelcome. But then he heard, far off, the hoot of an Irish Small Owl. He sighed in relief. It was rare good luck to hear the hoot of a Small Owl. Or so the old stories said.

Padraigh dearly loved birds.

He relaxed a little, tuning out the bellows of the cattle, and listened to the sounds of the night, the chirping of insects and birds. Many was the night he had spent out of doors, trying to tell one call from the next. Perhaps tomorrow night -

Abruptly, he heard his father's startled curse, and then the squat figure came barreling over the slope of the pasture, to hurl himself down beside Padraigh. Without being told, Padraigh brought his blunderbuss up to his shoulder as his father unhooked a similar weapon from his belt. They crouched down and trained their guns on the grassy dell before them as the sound of hoof beats suddenly tore apart the peace of the night.

Over the slope, dark against the dark sky, came a dimly seen figure on horseback. Padraigh heard a shout, and saw the gleam of moonlight on what might have been a gun. He fired, the recoil of his weapon solid against his shoulder, heard the scream of a horse, saw it rear and then the curse of a man falling to the ground. But behind him came two more, and the sound of more behind them. Padraigh's father fired now, the flash of his blunderbuss' muzzle orange in the darkness, with more screams of men and horses, more bodies falling.

Padraigh heard his father's hiss in his ear.

"Make for the bog, now!"

No further words were necessary. Both knew that the best they could hope for if they were caught was a noose around the neck and a dangle from the nearest tree. It would only be a few seconds before their attackers sorted themselves out. They ran as if all the devils of the Sidhe were on their tail, making for the peat bog they knew lay at the bottom of the slope. The moist squelching beneath their shoes told them it was near. Earlier, they had checked to make sure it was shallow at this end. Without hesitation, they hurled themselves into its brown depths, ducking their heads beneath the muck, so that a passerby would have noticed only two brown lumps in the morass, as they stuck their eyes above the surface. No sooner had they peeked out than a horde of horseman barreled over the slope, guns firing, shouting out curses on all Whiteboys. Looking around for some sign of motion, the posse made its way across the downward slope, in hope of catching the two rebels on foot.

The moon was very low in the sky before Padraigh and his father emerged from the bog, covered in peat from head to toe, looking for all the world like a pair of kelpie-spirits. Padraigh spoke first.

"I'm thinking that was closer than I liked, and that's for sure."

His father grunted.

"Sheriff Bastard Browne's men, for certain. But there was more of 'em than I've seen before, and they seemed to know just where we'd be."

As they proceeded home across the dark countryside, Padraigh, with the irrepressibility of youth, forgot their near escape and began to see how many night-bird calls he could recognize. His father left him to it, as he scanned the countryside for any sign of their pursuers. And though he walked next to his son, he was alone with his thoughts.

The Sheriff's men had never come this close to catching them before. And there were other things, militia moving in the countryside, and news of uprisings planned in Wexford and Wicklow, down south. He had a feeling that any Whiteboy work from now on was going to be far more dangerous. Maybe too dangerous, at least for Padraigh.

Donal Harper was worried.

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