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Waggoner’s Warning

Waggoner's Warning

 It was a dark winter’s night when all on the moor was coated by a thick frost which sparkled in the still moonlight, the small inn was unusually quite with just a few local packmen and waggoners sat around the smoky peat fire. It was on such nights when the moormen would speak of memories and deeds which happened along the remote tracks of the wastes. One old packman had just related the story of how he had come across a stray ass that had lost its train, as the man knew not from which direction the animal had cometh he used the old tradition way of re-uniting a lost ass with its owner. This was to pull up some dry rushes and tie them around the animal, then set fire to them which would send the poor beast pelting after its lost train. That old story always got a good laugh and a free pint for the telling. It was after the cider jars had been re-filled that one waggoner cleared his throat and began his tale.

A couple of weeks back he was sent by his master to fetch a load of supplies from the various shops in town and as it was a twenty mile round trip it meant an early morning start of four o’clock. This was not as bad as it sounded because the two horses knew the road well and this meant the man could lay in the back of the covered waggon and regain some of his lost sleep. After about an hour the waggoner was suddenly jolted from his slumbers by the cart juddering to a halt, immediately he grabbed his whip and cracked it above the horses heads. Amazingly this had no effect and so he grabbed the lantern and went to see what was wrong with his team. The chill morning air made him draw his coat collar tight, or was it the chill air that made him do so? He could plainly see by the sallow light of the lantern that the horses were in one heck of a panic, their flanks were trembling as if trying to shake off a cloud of flies. Both animals were snorting clouds of warm breath into the clear morning chill whilst staring intensely down at the road ahead. The waggoner held his lantern high in an effort to see what exactly was in the road and was scaring his horses. Peer and blink as he might the road ahead was empty, nothing, not even a fallen tree or a stray dog, all around was still and silent. He pulled a dry, withered apple from his pocket and tried coaxing the horses from their invisible shackles, they were having none of it which left him only one course. The crack of the whip rent the still air and when the bee sting of its end jabbed into the nearest animals flank both horses leapt up in unison. You would of thought they had just leapt a gate by the height the beasts jumped and on landing they lummoxed down the road at top speed, it was about a mile before the horses eventually slowed down to their normal plod. It took an age for the waggoner to catch up with his team and when he finally did he could see that the horses were still in a kittle, foam flecked and trembling the poor animals were still clearly terrified of something. By the time the old waggon creaked into town the lanterns were being lit and the smell of cooking hung heavily in the streets. This was one time when the old moorman wasn’t sorry to see and hear the hustle and bustle of a busy street. By the following morning the waggoner was feeling the effects of the previous night’s ale and along with this the events of yesterday combined to convince the man to stay an extra day – just in case, in case of what he knew not.

It took him took him another day to assemble his cargo and on the third he sent off home, as the old waggon clattered and groaned along the track he suddenly recalled the events of his outward trip. His heart sank at the thought and he silently prayed for no repetition of those goings on for now he had a full and very expensive load which he didn’t want to lose. Eventually the waggon came to the fated spot and on doing so the waggoner cracked his whip just above the horses ears, the cart jolted as they leaned into their harness. A wave of relief washed over the old waggoner as his team relentlessly plodded on as if nothing had ever happened, all was well with the world and God was in his heaven.

A couple of miles from home the old man stopped at his local in for a bit of newsin’ and to catch up on what had happened since he left. Mostly it was the usual gossip, old so-and-so was found drunk in the hedge, farmer what’s his name lost ten sheep on the moor and the old dear from bottom cott has a new ‘lodger’. In the end the old waggoners mind began to drift off into a world less boring but just as it reached there a bit of news brought it tumbling back to reality. Two days ago a packer had his train stolen and was murdered into the bargain, apparently his brains was spilled all over the road. The old boy was now listening intently, from what was said the location of this tragic event was exactly the spot where his team had jolted to a halt three days previous. It took a lot to rattle the waggoner but this news shook him rigid, “If they ‘osses had gone scat after the murder I ‘ud ‘ave minded nought about ‘un, by they jumped afore the man ‘us ded, a praper mysterious event I tell ‘ee”, the old man reflected.

This story relates to the moorland tradition of believing that horses have a sixth sense with regard to tragic events. It was said that if death was lurking on the road not even the  waggoner’s magical twitch would control an afeared team. It also illustrates why in the early days the packhorse men would travel in teams of trains, often they carried valuable loads and large amounts of money. Clearly a lone packer was an easy target for anyone intent of relieving him of his coin and load.


About Tim Sandles

Tim Sandles is the founder of Legendary Dartmoor

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