The English Civil War set Parliament against the King. Castles like Skipton and Bolton were centres for Royalist opposition in the area while the Parliamentarians were never far away. The castle and nunnery ruins mentioned here are fictional.
The bullet whizzed past his head and landed with a dull ‘thwack’ in a tussock of grass by his left knee. Ralph attempted the impossible by trying to flatten his body even further into the rough grass of the pasture he was now trapped in. If he hadn’t been so gut-wrenchingly scared he would have been cursing his stupidity in thinking he could creep up on the Parliamentarian camp unnoticed. There was talk of a break out from the besieged castle and an attempt to overwhelm the opposition camped out in the nunnery ruins so of course there were extra guards on lookout duty today.
The one who had Ralph pinned down was armed with a matchlock musket and was no doubt at this very minute repriming the flashpan, carefully closing the lid and blowing on the glowing end of the rope ‘match’ which would shortly be flicked down into the pan, igniting the gunpowder and sending another deadly lead ball in his direction. Ralph moaned quietly and waited with his eyes screwed tight shut. Moments passed. Ralph knew that the soldier was probably waiting for him to move. Why waste lead when patience might make the next shot deadly.
More moments passed. Ralph opened his eyes and knew he had to do something. The soldier might actually be walking towards him at that very moment. He also knew that if he could only escape the next bullet then he had a precious few moments while the soldier struggled with ramrod and powder flask, to make it to the nearest stone wall, but only if he ran like the very devil was on his heels. He took several short deep breaths and as he did so, felt around for something to throw. His fingers touched a nice big dried-up piece of cow dung. In an instant he rolled, flung the cow dung up in the air then leapt to his feet and sprinted for the wall. The matchlock roared but luck was on Ralph’s side at last and the bullet missed him as he hurled himself over the wall. Hitting the ground on the other side both his hands and his knees paid the price and he was dripping blood as he scrambled to his feet.
Now the guard was shouting and others were joining in, but Ralph wasn’t stopping and he set off down the river bank as fast as his legs could carry him. He was young and fit and knew that with a head start, none of the soldiers would catch him, since they spent most of their days drinking and eating themselves silly. They also weren’t locals and didn’t know all the little paths and shortcuts that he did. He was right and he made it across the river ford and back home with no sign of pursuit.
His mother was waiting for him on the doorstep looking both worried and angry. One look at his dung stained clothes and bleeding hands and knees told her all she needed to know. His mission had failed. She sighed and led him indoors to bathe his scrapes.
The problem was that they were desperate for salt. The pig was to be butchered next week, they couldn’t afford to feed it any longer and had a piglet ready to take its place anyway, but without salt to cure the meat it would all go to waste. The siege at the castle meant that most merchants were giving the area a wide berth and the situation was getting desperate.
Ralph had found out that some weeks before, the soldiers at the nunnery had ‘detained’ a wine merchant and his stock and that in amongst the wine was a delivery of salt. This was no use to the soldiers so it was now sitting in the great tithe barn, there for the taking should anyone be daring enough to attempt it.
It was just Ralph’s luck that his brother Ingram had been laid up with a fever the day they’d planned to try, and on his own and with the soldiers on extra alert, well, it hadn’t worked and Ralph was lucky to have escaped with his life.
With his hands and knees cleaned up, Ralph left his gloomy house and wandered along the village to see Stephen Peart’s new house. Last month, Stephen had had his ancient timber farmhouse completely dismantled, and now he was having a magnificent stone one built in its stead. Stephen was getting rich supplying meat on the hoof to whichever side happened to be winning that week and his new stone house was the cause of much envy in the neighbourhood. He wasn’t alone of course. Over the watershed, other farmers were doing just the same thing. Soldiers needed meat and the lush green pastures of the valleys hereabouts were perfect for growing it.
Stephen’s wife Alice was standing in front of the new farmhouse sadly examining the remains of her little herb garden that had been crushed flat by the builders. She smiled when she saw Ralph walking up and wished him good day. She noticed his damaged hands but in these troubled times knew better than to ask how he got them. Instead, she told him all about Stephen’s next big delivery of a cart full of oats and a dozen steers to the Parliamentarian camp at the old nunnery. She said that Stephen was at his wits end because the lad that normally helped him with the ox cart had run off to join the Parliamentarian army having decided that they were going to be the winning side.
Ralph’s heart leapt. Everyone in the village knew how good he was with the oxen at ploughing time and so he gladly volunteered to help Stephen the following week. Back home he slipped through the main room downstairs to the end parlour where his brother was lying recovering from his fever. He had brought him a pitcher of spring water from Nanny Spout. Alice had given it to him telling him to bathe Ingram’s face with it and let him sip as much as he could take. The pure, clean water was bound to do him good. Ralph did as instructed and his brother seemed refreshed afterwards and whispered for him to tell him what had gone wrong that morning at the nunnery.
A week passed and Ingram was back on his feet and ready to help Ralph put his plan into action. That morning, Ralph was at Stephen’s farm before dawn, hitching the two great oxen to the cart, now filled with sacks of oats. Ingram was helping Stephen with the cattle, one of whom definitely didn’t want to leave the familiarity of its field and was refusing to be driven anywhere but backwards. Eventually they got it sorted with the help of Stephen’s two dogs and the use of a large ash stick and the whole procession started off down towards the ford.
An hour and much cursing later and they were waiting at the nunnery gate while the guards checked the load in the cart and the one with the matchlock looked suspiciously at Ralph. He hadn’t actually been close enough to get a good look at his face in the fields last week, but he knew there was something familiar about him. Ralph smiled though he didn’t feel like it and reminded him that his father was the village blacksmith and that he had brought his iron breast plate in only last month to be fixed after it had got cracked during a skirmish. Ralph had been working the bellows for his father that day. The soldier was from London and he and his father had talked about the great parliamentarian armoury there where identical helmets and swords were turned out in their dozens, day and night.
The soldier remembered him then and they were quickly allowed in to deliver the supplies. While Ingram and Stephen drove the cattle off to the fields down by the river, Ralph stirred up the oxen and plodded with them through the nunnery ruins to the tithe barn. The barn doors were already open and swallows were darting in and out in the sunshine. Ralph had been in the barn several times to help with the threshing, but he never ceased to be amazed at the huge size of the building with its ten giant bays and soaring wooden beams.
He managed to turn the oxen and they slowly backed the cart into the nearest bay. He then hurriedly checked round outside the barn door. No one was in sight. The soldiers were all nervously patrolling the perimeter of the nunnery grounds and he was alone. He had to work quickly because Stephen would be along any minute to help unload the oats. Ralph sprinted the length of the barn, checking each bay as he went and there it was, at last, a wooden barrel, full to the brim with rock salt. He’d already stashed an empty barrel on the ox cart when Stephen hadn’t been looking and now he raced back to get it. It bounced and creaked as he rolled it down the length of the barn and Ralph prayed that no one was within earshot. Rolling the full barrel was quieter but much harder and once back at the cart Ralph’s heart sank because he knew that he simply wasn’t strong enough to heave the full barrel up into it. Panting he sat on the barrel and could have cried except for the fact that at that moment Ingram hurtled through the door and nearly made him jump out of his skin.
The bad-tempered bullock had broken away from its brothers and was even now crashing through the Parliamentarian camp. It had been helped on its way by Ingram poking it in a tender area with a thorn branch when Stephen had his back turned. The confusion had allowed Ingram to dash off to give Ralph a hand and the pair quickly heaved the barrel into the cart and under a pile of empty sacks at the far end. The oats unloaded, the brothers hurried back to help Stephen who was having to apologise profusely to the camp cook whose cauldron and its contents were now scattered on the ground thanks to the rampaging bullock. The cook was another Londoner and he was cursing Stephen in a very colourful manner using a whole range of words that were completely new to the brothers.
Stephen was clearly going to be there some time and out of the corner of his mouth he told Ralph and Ingram to get on their way as quickly as possible before the rest of the soldiers came back and got so annoyed at losing their lunch that they impounded the oxen and the wagon in payment. Ralph and Ingram set off gladly and got past the guards with no difficulty.
Back at the village, the salt safely stowed in the larder the boys were heroes. Father sat them by the open fire and got them to tell their story twice over and laughed so hard he choked on his beer and mother had to wallop him on the back. For a moment they all forgot about the Civil War that was setting brother against brother and father against son. Even the pig looked pleased, but then he didn’t know what the salt was for!