The Perilous Journey Begins
A Magnificent Epic of Seven Tragically Entangled Lives
by Rich Ritter
The New Voice of the American West
Dunnet Head Lighthouse, the Highlands of Scotland
Gordania Sinclair twisted vigorously against the cool ground near a patch of heather until fresh grass slithered between her toes, bathing her feet in clean dew sparkled by the slanting light of a fresh morning. After gyrating comically for nearly a minute, she bent down to examine the green blades that now appeared to grow from the tops of her feet. She scrunched her face to focus her observation. Although a young lady of thirteen, she had nonetheless failed to lose any of her tomboyish fascination with the smallest details of nature, including—to her mother’s unfailing horror—insects and frogs. Especially frogs. Once she kept a frog in a box beneath her bed—until her mother discovered it and forced her to return it to the wild land where it belonged. This unfortunate incident had not deterred her. She still sought the tiny amphibians when away from the house, and often concealed one or two of the creatures in a secret pocket she had sewed into her favorite play dress (while feigning interest in sewing to please her mother). But no longer a child, and growing in wisdom and maturity with each passing minute, she also released the frogs and insects—and whatever else she had collected—before returning home.
Duncan Sinclair prompted his daughter to make haste in a tone both stern and good-natured. “Please keep up Gordania. I intend to return to the lighthouse before noon to check the electric arc, and at the pace you are presently keeping there is no chance we will complete our journey by dinner.”
Gordania looked back to fully assess the progress they had made since the conclusion of breakfast. Against a distant glaze of rain-grayed clouds she could still distinguish the top of the lighthouse above a smoothly-sloping hill: the black-painted dome, triangle-faceted glass above the orangey-yellow base, corbelled balcony, trellised railing, and a smidge of the gently tapered white cylinder below. When she squinted, she could also discern the top of one of the slit windows, trimmed in the same orangey-yellow as the base, just below the balcony. They had probably travelled only a thousand feet in ten minutes—a leisurely stroll at best. Ignoring the tender blades of grass growing between her toes, she ripped her feet from the ground and accelerated into a gallop. She arrived at her father’s side before he could speak again. Forgetting the reason for her sprint across the heathered slopes, she burst out, “Are you going to let me shoot today, father? You said I could shoot soon. You said it last week when I asked. Is today soon enough?”
Duncan lifted his 12-gauge side-by-side percussion shotgun to his shoulder and reached down for his beloved daughter’s dirt-smudged hand. Gordania rubbed her hand clean on the folds of her dress then raised it to his waiting grasp. She probed his expression for a positive reaction to her question. A grateful mariner had purchased the gun from John Dickson & Son in Edinburgh in 1857, and had presented it to the lighthouse keeper of Dunnet Head as a gift of honest appreciation. Duncan could not have afforded the finely-crafted gun on his meager lighthouse keeper’s salary. “I suppose it is soon enough today. You have, after all, demonstrated a measure of patience beyond your age. But I only have seven rounds left, and we must return home with a bird for dinner. Therefore…I think you should fire the shotgun twice, because the first shot will surprise you, and the second will not.”
Gordania released her father’s hand and clapped with excitement. “Can I load it too? I want to learn how to load the gun before I shoot it.”
“What has God given me? Only two daughters and no sons, but a daughter who wants to handle a man’s shotgun just like any son. I must be especially blessed.”
Gordania did not understand the comment. “Can we shoot now?”
“Not yet, my special blessing. We are still within sight of the top of the lighthouse, and your mother, should she climb up to the balcony and use the telescope, would not appreciate seeing her oldest daughter participate in this particular activity. I think we must walk a half-hour or more, until neither lighthouse nor mother are within view.”
Gordania brightened. “Then father, let us please hurry, for you must return to the lighthouse by noon.” She rushed away from Duncan, glancing back several times to confirm the briskness of his pace, her final glance to the top of the lighthouse searching for the glint of the telescope lens.
The sun arced higher above the eastern rim of the peninsula and warmed patches of the rolling hills through breeze-scattered clouds. When they had hiked exactly thirty minutes to the second (Duncan confirmed this with his English pocket watch), he announced, “Gordania, come back. We have gone far enough and it is time for me to fulfill my promise. And, if we are lucky enough, a red grouse or ptarmigan will arrive in time for the shooting lesson and we shall kill two birds with one stone.” Duncan reached into the ragged canvas bag strapped over his shoulder and removed two cartridges and percussion caps. When Gordania arrived, he instructed her to hold out her hand. “Here are percussion caps and cartridges for your shooting lesson. Take the shotgun in your other hand. Mind the weight of it.”
Gordania accepted the shotgun with her left hand, pulling it quickly against her chest. “It is heavy, father, but not too heavy for me.”
Duncan smiled. “Maybe you are indeed my son in disguise. Now, since you have no shoes, brace the butt of the shotgun on the toe of my boot and pull the rod from beneath the barrels.” Gordania dropped the cartridges and caps into her frog pocket and extracted the rod. “Good. Place one cartridge in each barrel and ram them all the way in with the rod.” When she began pushing the rod into the first barrel to set the cartridge, Duncan helped guide it.
“Father, I can do it without help.” Gordania completed the task and then shoved the second cartridge into place.
“Good, my delicate Gordania. Now take the shotgun in both hands, pull the hammers back until they click in place, and press a percussion cap onto each side. Mind the triggers so you do not pinch a finger.” Gordania struggled a bit with the caps, but completed the work successfully under Duncan’s amused and patient supervision. “Well done my little tomboy. Take care to aim the gun away from me. Shooting your father would prove more difficult to explain than a mere shotgun lesson. Now we are ready to shoot. Should we kill a rock, or wait for a plump grouse to wander by?”
Gordania’s patience had ended. “We should shoot a rock, because who knows when a grouse will show up, and you must return to the lighthouse by noon.”
“An excellent point.” Duncan pointed toward a grassy outcrop of weathered boulders. “Set your feet like this. Press the stock firmly against your right shoulder. Lean forward a bit. Very good. See the small bead at the front of the barrels? Do not aim with it, but use it to point to the rocks. Now…hold the stock against your shoulder…set your finger gently on the first trigger…good…now squeeze your little hand…lean forward…squeeze…squeeze…squeeze….”
The finely-engraved John Dickson & Son side-by-side percussion cap shotgun recoiled violently against Gordania’s petite shoulder as pellets spewed from the barrel in an explosive roar. The blast threw Gordania back against her father. Duncan, anticipating this very result, caught his precious daughter with one hand and the shotgun with the other. He quickly stood her up. “Now you know what it feels like. Do you still want to take the second shot?”
A fresh tear rolled down Gordania’s cheek as she rubbed her bruised shoulder. She sniffed before answering, “You said I could have two shots.” She reached out for the shotgun and Duncan let her take it.
“Yes I did, and you will. You know what to do. Let’s aim at the patch of heather to the right. Do you see it?” Gordania prepared for the promised second shot, and to Duncan’s amusement she set the butt against her left shoulder and placed her left hand on the triggers. “A splendid idea to try the other side.” Gordania sniffed again and squeezed the second trigger: this time she did not falter. The blast chewed up the ground a few feet in front of the heather patch. “A bit low, but still a splendid shot.”
Gordania trembled after she lowered the shotgun from her throbbing left shoulder. “I will do better when you let me shoot again.”
“I have no doubt you will. But now we truly must make haste to find a succulent bird and kill it for our dinner. And with only five cartridges left, I must take care not to miss.” Duncan reloaded the shotgun and slung it over his shoulder. “We should head back to the lighthouse and hunt along the way. Would you like a bird hunting lesson as well?”
Gordania nodded. “Yes father. I would.”
“Is the pain in your shoulders tolerable?”
“You will probably feel the soreness more tomorrow morning, but it will toughen you for the next shooting lesson. But let’s not worry about it now. We have work to do if we hope to enjoy a grouse dinner tonight—if we are lucky enough to find one.” Duncan turned in the direction of the lighthouse and began walking with the measured strides of a hunter.
Gordania ran to her father’s side and then slowed to match his pace. “I know we will be lucky today, father.”
♦ ♦ ♦
A few minutes before the sun reached its noonday zenith, and after several hours of good hunting, Gordania and Duncan walked along a gravel roadway toward the stone wall that enclosed the Dunnet Head Lighthouse and grounds. Gordania carried a large grouse by the neck over her shoulder and played with two frogs in her secret pocket. Her shoulders still ached, but she didn’t care. The roadway soon reached an opening in the wall flanked by whitewashed stone pillars, each topped with pyramids of stone stained by years of salt spray. The wall to the right turned at the pillar and continued along the side of the road in a sweeping arc terminating easterly of the lighthouse at a small gable-roofed building near the 300-foot sandstone cliffs of Dunnet Head. The wall to the left shot off in a perpendicular angle to the road and traced a gentle curve until it reached a small stone structure westerly of the lighthouse. Gordania released the frogs in a grassy puddle, and then touched every third stone on the top of the wall as she ran ahead of her father.
Whitewhiskered Erskine Mackay slathered another brushfull of whitewash down the jamb of the only window at the front of the gable-roofed building near the cliffs. The assistant lighthouse keeper spotted Gordania’s approach along the curved wall in his peripheral vision. He addressed her without looking away from his work. “I see, Miss Gordania, that we are counting stones again in the usual pattern. And I see as well, although I mustn’t turn my head to look more closely, some sort of feathered creature carried over your shoulder.”
Gordania counted the last stone and touched the bucket of whitewash with her toe. “Father shot a fat red grouse for dinner, and he only used one percussion cap and cartridge. The second barrel is still loaded.”
Erskine lowered the dripping brush and admired the bird. “Why yes, it is a fat one, and should make a wholesome dinner for all. But tell me little Gordania, how you know so much about the shotgun? I do not recall when sporting guns became of interest to little girls.”
Gordania scrunched her face. “I’m not little, Mr. Mackay. I’m thirteen, and father said I’m a young lady now.”
Erskine plunged the brush into the bucket and swirled it around to saturate the stiff bristles. “My deepest pardon, young miss. I can see you are surely a young lady. My remarks about the shotgun were poorly chosen.”
“Father showed me how to shoot it. I got to load it and everything. But he said not to tell mother because it would make her unhappy. I shot both barrels at a rock and a patch of heather. I almost got the heather.”
Concealing his amusement, Erskine lifted the brush to the wall and continued his work. “I see. But do not worry. Your secret is safe with me. I shall take it to my grave. You have my solemn word.”
Just before Duncan arrived Gordania said, “Thank you Mr. Mackay.”
Duncan balanced the butt of the shotgun on his toe. “Thanks for what?”
Erskine answered before Gordania could say anything. “Why, I was expressing my admiration of the lovely bird you bagged this morning, and Gordania was thanking me for my observation. She also told me you got it on the first shot. Quite a feat, if you ask me.” Erskine winked at Gordania when he had finished his little deception.
“Yes, we had a bit of luck today. And we shall all enjoy the day’s luck at dinner tonight. Now Gordania, take the bird to your mother. She will wish to admire it as well.”
“Yes father. I know it will please her to see it.” Gordania skiphopped past Erskine and the whitewashed building and ran to the stone wall between the courtyard northwesterly of the lighthouse and the plunging cliffs above treacherous Pentland Firth. She continued touching every third stone as she raced along the wall, counting rhythmically in cadence with each footfall. She found her mother pinning a bed sheet to the sturdy clothesline Duncan and Erskine had erected last summer. Rose Anne Sinclair, Gordania’s younger sister by six years, rolled around in the freshly cut grass beneath the windflapping clothes. Gordania held up the plump red grouse as high as she could reach. “Look what father shot with the shotgun. It only took one shot and he’s still got one shot left.”
Fyona Sinclair struggled against the freshening afternoon breeze as she pinned the last corner. She bent down to observe the bird more closely. “My, and isn’t this a fine bird. And who do you suppose will pluck it and cook it for dinner?”
Gordania forced the grouse up a little higher until she could no longer tolerate the ache in her shoulder. “Do you think it will make a good dinner? Father said you would admire it.”
“I do admire it. And would you and Rose Anne care to help me pluck it?”
Gordania glanced over at Rose Anne, now attempting to stand on her head while leaning against the clothesline post. “I would like to help pluck it, but I thought I would play for a while since I’ve had a long day of hunting.”
“A long day of hunting? I see. Yes you may play for a while, but first we will have a bit of lunch, and then you must take Rose Anne with you when you play. Your sister is very fond of you, and I believe she would enjoy your company.”
Without expressing any special pleasure in the task, Gordania agreed obliquely. “She will have to keep up if she wants to play with me. I plan to run fast today.”
Fyona touched Gordania’s tangled hair. “Of course. But you might slow your pace a bit. Do you want me to brush your hair before lunch?”
Gordania shrugged. “Not today. I like my hair the way it is.”
♦ ♦ ♦
Swallowing the last of her bread and milk, Gordania pushed away from the heavy wood table and jumped from her chair. She darted to the front door and tugged at the massive wrought-iron lever until the door swung open and afternoon light flooded the room.
Fyona clapped. “Gordania Sinclair! Do not forget to take Rose Anne with you. Remember our conversation before lunch.”
Gordania skittered to a comical pose just as her dirt-smudged toes bumped against the stone threshold beneath the doorway. She turned slowly, very slowly, until she could barely distinguish her mother’s form on the opposite side of the table. “I told you I plan to run fast.”
“Nonetheless, you will sit patiently, without fidgeting, until Rose Anne finishes her lunch, and then you shall take her with you.”
Erskine Mackay coughed and tapped his pipe on the table. “And while you are gallivanting around the highlands of Dunnet Head this afternoon, you might keep a lookout for Andrew Sutherland’s missing Border Collie. I ran into him a few days ago, and he told me the dog had been acting strangely before disappearing altogether.”
Unusual for Duncan, he betrayed a modicum of anxiety. “Acting strangely? And then disappearing altogether? Very odd, Erskine. Very odd. Maybe Gordania and Rose Anne should play near the lighthouse today.”
Erskine sucked the pipe into his whisker-rimmed mouth and spoke between puffs of bluish smoke. “Don’t think there’s…anything to worry about, Duncan. The Border Collie is…naturally strange in my view. I’ve actually seen one spend…an entire morning herding the ocean waves. And with a couple of sheep watching the whole thing from the hillside.”
“I see your point, Erskine, but I still think—”
Fyona broke in. “Gordania knows how to handle herself around dogs. I don’t think there’s a reason to worry. She just needs to keep a lookout like Erskine suggests.”
Rose Anne had drained her glass of milk when Erskine first mentioned the troublesome Border Collie. She had stood by the table during the entire dog conversation, her hands folded neatly behind her back. “I’m ready to play now. May I leave?”
Gordania jumped across the stone threshold. “Yes. Let’s go Rose. We have a Border Collie to find, and not much time to find it.”
Fyona pressed her hand against her chest. “Oh dear. Maybe we shouldn’t have discussed the dog at all.” She reached across the table and began collecting plates and cups. “You may go play Rose Anne, but do not lose sight of your sister. The two of you must stay together.”
Gordania and Rose Anne fled the house and the endless slow-eating-tea-sipping-pipe-smoking-dog-conversation of the adults. They ran along the curved stone wall at such great speed that Gordania did not have time to touch every third stone. They ran through the first pair of stone pillars and then the second. They ran out into the grassy wilds of Dunnet Head far beyond the protective stone walls of the lighthouse grounds. They ran and ran and ran until they could run no more. Gordania collapsed into the soft grass near an outcrop of jagged boulders. Rose Anne arrived a minute later and crumpled next to her older sister with a melodramatic swoon. Together, as Gordania had promised her mother, they gazed up to the gauzy clouds and sprinkled blue skies above Pentland Firth. They listened to sea birds squawk far beyond the rugged cliffs. They felt the salty breeze flowing in from the crashing ocean waves puff against their cheeks. They sniffed the fragrance of nearby heather and grasses.
“I know what we should do.” Gordania sat up and searched the meadows to the west. “We should look for frogs. I had two nice ones this morning, but I let them go when we came home from hunting. I need to find some more.”
Rose Anne, eager to please her older sister, agreed with enthusiasm. “Yeah. We should look for frogs.”
Their energy restored by the brief respite in the comforting grass, the girls ran up the gentle slope of a nearby hill. When they had both arrived at the top they shielded their eyes from the subdued brightness of the afternoon sky and searched for likely frog ground. Gordania spotted a small loch about 500 feet from the base of the hill. “There’s a good spot to look for frogs, especially this time of year.” The girls bounded down the hill toward the loch, nearly stumbling into each other twice. When they arrived at the edge of the water, Gordania fell to her knees and muddied the front of her dress. Rose Anne did the same and both girls crawled around in expanding circles. Gordania dug around in a thick clump of wet grass and pulled out a small frog. “I’ve got one. And it’s a nice size too. He’ll fit perfectly in my secret frog pocket.”
Rose Anne stood, mud dripping from the hem of her dress, and skipped over to admire the frog. “He’s a nice one. I hope I find a nice frog. But I don’t have any place to keep it like you do. I wish I had a frog pocket.”
Gordania held the frog close to study its thumbs. “Maybe I’ll sew you a frog pocket too. Mother likes it when I sew. But first we should look for some crickets. They like crickets. They like grasshoppers too, but I think they like crickets more.”
Rose Anne tilted her head to observe the frog better. “I can look for crickets. I’ve found them before.”
Gordania slid the frog into her secret pocket. “Good. Then let’s get started, because I have to help mother pluck the grouse before dinner and we don’t have much time. She said you could help pluck the grouse too.”
The girls ambled beside the southern boundary of the loch, their heads down, searching for crickets and grasshoppers. They had explored for several minutes, and had found three crickets and a grasshopper, when the rumbling growl of Andrew Sutherland’s wayward Border Collie surprised them. Rose Anne froze, but Gordania spoke to the collie in a soothing voice. “Hello collie. I hear you’re lost and looking for your home. Maybe we can take you there. We know where Mr. Sutherland lives.”
The dog inched forward and woofed ominously.
Gordania grabbed a handful of Rose Anne’s dress. Rose Anne nearly tripped on Gordania’s feet. “Nice doggie. You just stay there. We’re going to leave you alone now.”
The collie lurched forward several steps and snarled.
Gordania pulled Rose Anne behind. “Rose Anne, I think you should run home now. I’ll follow you in a minute, but I want you to run and not turn around. Do you understand?” Rose Anne nodded; tears began flowing down her pinkish cheeks. “Alright then. Run! Run now!” Rose Anne tripped and stumbled to the ground. Gordania quickly yanked her back to her feet and pushed her hard in the direction of the lighthouse.
Incited by the sudden movement, the furious collie charged them both. Gordania turned and the angry dog bit deeply into her stomach and ripped away a ragged patch of dress and skin just above the frog pocket. Gordania grabbed the dog around its neck to allow Rose Anne time to escape. The dog twisted in her grasp and bit into her neck. Gordania held the animal tightly and the dog tore another chunk of flesh away. Blood poured from the wound in her neck. Blood oozed from the gash in her stomach. Gordania waited until Rose Anne had vanished over the top of the hill, and then kicked the dog as hard as she could. The dog growled one last time before scampering away.
Gordania rested several minutes before standing. She felt woozy when she straightened up. Blood drenched the front of her torn dress and dripped down her legs. She reached into her secret frog pocket and pulled the frog out. The limp creature had survived a direct attack by the dog, but had then drowned in Gordania’s blood. Gordania dropped the dead frog and a few blood-soaked crickets into a puddle and began walking in a wavering path back to the lighthouse. She wondered if her mother had begun plucking the plump red grouse when the first raindrops of an approaching squall dampened the distant hills.