When David Balfour’s father dies, the only inheritance left his son is a letter to Ebenezer Balfour of Shaws, his brother and David’s uncle. Mr. Campbell, the minister of Essendean, delivers the letter to David and tells him that if things do not go well between David and his uncle he is to return to Essendean, where his friends will help him. David sets off in high spirits. The house of Shaw is a great one in the Lowlands of Scotland, and David is eager to take his rightful place in the family from which his father, for some unknown reason, separated himself.
As he approaches the great house, he begins to grow apprehensive. Everyone of whom he asks the way has a curse for the name Shaws and warns him against his uncle. When he arrives at the place, he finds not a great house but a ruin with one wing unfinished and many windows without glass. No friendly smoke comes from the chimneys, and the closed door is studded with heavy nails.
David finds his Uncle Ebenezer even more forbidding than the house, and he begins to suspect that his uncle cheated his father out of his rightful inheritance. When his uncle tries to kill him, he is convinced of Ebenezer’s villainy. His uncle promises to take David to Mr. Rankeillor, the family lawyer, to get the true story of David’s inheritance, and they set out for Queen’s Ferry. Before they reach the lawyer’s office, David is tricked by Ebenezer and Captain Hoseason into boarding the Covenant, and the ship sails away with David a prisoner, bound for slavery in the American colonies.
At first, he lives in filth and starvation in the bottom of the ship. The only person who befriends him is Mr. Riach, the second officer. Later, he finds even some of the roughest seamen to be kind at times. Mr. Riach is kind when he is drunk but mean when sober, whereas Mr. Shuan, the first officer, is gentle except when he is drinking. It is while he is drunk that Mr. Shuan beats Ransome, the cabin boy, to death because the boy displeased him. After Ransome’s murder, David becomes the cabin boy, and for a time his life on the Covenant is a little better.
One night, the Covenant runs down a small boat and cuts her in two. Only one man is saved, Alan Breck Stewart, a Scottish Highlander and Jacobite with a price on his head. Alan demands that Captain Hoseason set him ashore among his own people, and the captain agrees. When David overhears the captain and Mr. Riach planning to seize Alan, he warns Alan of the plot. Together, the two of them hold the ship’s crew at bay, killing Mr. Shuan and three others and wounding many more, including Captain Hoseason. Alan and David became fast friends and remain so during the rest of their adventures. Alan tells David of his part in the rebellion against King George and of the way he is hunted by the king’s men, particularly by Colin of Glenure, known as the Red Fox. David is loyal to the monarch, yet out of mutual respect, he and Alan swear to help each other in time of trouble.
It is not long before they have occasion to prove their loyalty. The ship breaks apart on a reef. David and Alan, separated at first, soon find themselves together again, deep in the part of the Highlands controlled by Alan’s enemies. When Colin of Glenure is murdered, the blame falls on Alan. If they are...
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caught, they will both hang. They begin to work their way to the Lowlands to find Mr. Rankeillor, their only chance for help. They hide by day and travel by night. Often they go for several days without food. They are in danger not only from the king’s soldiers but also from Alan’s own people, for there is always the risk that a trusted friend will betray them for the reward offered. However, David is able to learn the meaning of loyalty. Many of Alan’s clan endanger themselves to help the hunted pair.
When David is too weak to go on and wants to give up, Alan offers to carry him. They finally reach Queen’s Ferry and Mr. Rankeillor. At first, Mr. Rankeillor is skeptical when he hears David’s story, but it begins to align so well with what he hears from others that he becomes convinced; he tells David that his father and his Uncle Ebenezer both loved the same woman, whom David’s father won. Because he was a kind man and because Ebenezer took to his bed over the loss of the woman, David’s father gave up his inheritance as the oldest son in favor of Ebenezer. The story helps David realize why his uncle tried to get rid of him. Ebenezer knows that his dealings with David’s father will not stand up in the courts, and he was afraid that David came for his inheritance.
With the help of Alan and Mr. Rankeillor, David is able to frighten his uncle into offering him two-thirds of the yearly income from the land. David does not want to submit his family name to public scandal in the courts, and he knows he can better help Alan if the story of their escape is kept quiet, so he agrees to the settlement. In this way, he is able to help Alan reach safety and pay his debt to his friend.