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Set in south-east England in the 1700’s, the six stories in this collection take you into a world where a battle was being fought between the Excise-men and well organised gangs smuggling tea and other luxury items into the country. It was a battle that, for now, the Gangs were winning, and one Gang, and one Man would stand out as the undisputed leaders – Arthur Gray and the Hawkhust Gang,
Gray however, had a challenger, a younger, more violent man. An enforcer to whom torture and murder was just a way of protecting the gangs assets, and the fact that he enjoyed it was a bonus. Thomas Kingsmill.
So, enter this world, this world where murder was common and often went unpunished. Where “The law” meant the law of the Gangs. And where speaking out put your life in danger, your family threatened,your property robbed. All done in the name of “Free Trade”.
Never has a cup of tea been so exciting!
March 1745. Grinstead Green, Sussex.
Jacob Pring tied up his horse outside the “King’s Head” inn, its hot breath making plumes in the chill air. He stretched; easing his joints after his long, hard ride from his home in Beckenham, and went inside. As the middleman between the smugglers from the south coast and customers in London, he sold on most of what was brought in on the cutters to merchants and traders desperate to avoid paying the rising taxes imposed by the government, not without profit for the gangs and himself personally.
Not being on a coach road, the drinkers in the bar were mostly local farm labourers, and Pring was well aware that he was considered a stranger – the looks as he walked through the bar left him under no illusions. Finding a quiet spot by the fire he sipped his pint, carefully watching the other drinkers, looking for anyone he recognised. His gaze fell upon three men who had walked in behind him, their heads down, looking as out of place as he felt. Studying them for a while he soon recognised one of them, or thought he did. Blanching, he beckoned the barman over.
“I’m due to meet Major here in a while, can you get a message to him?” he asked.
At the mention of the name the Barman’s manner changed, and he became friendlier. He followed Pring’s gaze across the bar briefly, nodded and went into the back room.
Over the other side of the Inn, the three men sat nervously drinking, keeping themselves to themselves. “I don’t see why we didn’t take him on the road Matthew. We could have had this all done by now,” the first man grumbled.
“We are here, Thomas, because I have heard a rumour that the East country men are meeting here,” the leader of the three asserted, scanning the inn for signs of trouble. “The idea is to listen, to find out what they are planning, and report back. Nothing could be easier. We can get them all later on.” Matthew Francis replied. He had just been appointed to his role as bailiff, and was determined to be effective and change the way things were done with regard to the smuggling.
“What’s the point of this?” Thomas Flood replied. “They will have us the moment they come in; you think that we haven’t gone unnoticed?” He had served as a riding officer for many years, and his experience had made him a lot more cautious. The third man stayed silent, his hand gripped on the cudgel beneath the table, ready for trouble.
“Relax, they will be off guard,” Francis said, full of a confidence that his companions lacked. “We will sit here, inconspicuously, and listen to them prattling on, their guard will be down. When they leave, we can make our own way back, and can use their gossip against them. “
“We had better hope that the Kingsmill brother’s aren’t with them, especially Thomas,“ the third man spoke finally. As an ex-smuggler, he had experience of the gang first hand. “If he is with them, we will not escape with our lives. We had best take Pring now, quickly, and be on our way.”
“Relax, Ritchie, they will not do anything in full view,“ Francis replied, his tone intended to be reassuring, but came out as condescending to the other two men “Anyway, who is this Thomas Kingsmill? He will bow to the rope like the rest of them in time.” He continued.
Flood replied quickly. “Kingsmill is the most capricious of them all. Self appointed Judge, Jury and executioner of all who oppose him and these East countrymen. I say we move, now.”
“He’s right,” Ritchie said. “And, as to attacking us in full view, well, this is their territory. Even to make the arrest now, we run the risk ….”
“Nonsense. The common people are decent and law-abiding. They will applaud our efforts to bring these men to justice.” Francis paused, and stood up, “But, I concur. We will take the man Pring down to the local magistrate; see that he is locked up. Maybe he will talk if suitable pardon is offered. “
“We should tie him to his horse and take him back to London,” Flood said, pulling the other man back to his seat. “The magistrate here will bail him and he will be back home before we are. There is not one man in these parts who will hear our case. Too much money is at stake.”
“Are you suggesting that those who we entrust to enforce the law will allow themselves to be bought by trinkets and baubles?” Flood replied, astonished by this state of affairs
Ritchie turned his gaze from the window, where he spotted a large body of men in the distance, their approach lit by torchlight. “I suggest we abandon this folly and get away while we can. Pring’s friends are on the way.“ He stood up, and made to leave.
“Sit down man, lest you draw attention to yourself,” Flood said, pulling his comrade back down roughly. “All this talk and we have missed our chance at Pring. We will just bide a while here, listen out for their plans. Then we will have something to act on later. They will hang themselves from their own mouths.” Not sharing his optimism, the other two men shrunk back in their seats.
As he drank, Pring nervously watched the door. He was worried that the messenger’s news had caused Major to change his plans, and avoid the Inn, leaving him to the mercies of the preventative men. He breathed an audible sigh of relief as the door opened, and in walked Major and Kingsmill, each carrying a vicious looking horsewhip, followed by fifteen or so men, all bearing cudgels or pistols. Pring stood up, pleased to see them at last. A nod passed between them, as they walked over to where the three men were sitting, surrounding the table while Major pulled a stool across and sat down. He took the drink that the serving woman gave him, drained it in one long draught, before studying the three men intently.
After what seemed like an age, he spoke, softly, but the menace still showed through. “Looks like you gentlemen need to drink up. You’ve outstayed your welcome,” He looked across at the other Gang members before smiling. “Come; let us help you to your horses.” He stood up and nodded, and the three men were gripped tightly and half dragged through the door. The other drinkers just carried on drinking. This was Hawkhurst business, and you didn’t interfere unless you wanted to be next.
Outside the three were roughly thrown to the ground, pistols trained on them while Major and the two Kingsmill brothers shifted the grip on their horsewhips, and began circling the stricken men. These whips were cruel, with sharp metal prongs pushed into the leather so that every time they hit, they cut deep into flesh, leaving deep wounds. At a signal, the three men started to wield those whips launching blows on to the stricken men, their cries of pain merely encouraging those to harder and harder blows. All the while, their comrades were cheering them on.
Pring, meanwhile, had slunk back into the inn and ordered another beer. If the truth be told, he disliked the violent side of the people he had chosen to work with, despite not backing away if the circumstances called for him to join in. He was quite happy waiting until the rest of them were finished, as much as he enjoyed their company, their capacity for violence shocked him on occasions. It was ironic that the worst of these was the man above all that he regarded as a friend – Tom Kingsmill.
Meanwhile, outside, the torture inflicted on the poor men carried on. Two of them had been dragged off and tied semiconscious onto their horses, but the ex-smuggler had a very different fate waiting him. As the horses were untied and whipped on, carrying their unwilling passengers along the road, the gang turned their attention on the prone man. “I recognise you, Ritchie Mann.” Kingsmill said. The prone figure looked up at him, grimacing through the pain. “Aye, I know you. You were with us a few months back; the fuck up at Bulverhythe wasn’t it?” The man shook his head; this was what he feared all along, recognition. Kingsmill turned and faced the rest of the men, pistol in one hand, his horsewhip in the other “This man, gentlemen, is the worst of all the Revenue. A man so craven, so much a turncoat, that he brings Kings men down upon us, leads them here, into our heartland, and after all the coin he earned off us.” He paused, accepting a proffered flask of Rum.
“Well, friends, here is what we will do.” He announced, taking charge of the situation. Major stood aside, recognising the younger man as the effective number two in the gang. “I say that the boat we are about to meet will have another passenger, at least until it is halfway back to France.” He leaned over, and dragged the man up by his hair, “Well Richard? What say you? Is that how we should deal with such treachery?”
Mann stammered through the pain. “M…m …mercy. Tom. My Wife, My Babbies….”
Throwing him back to the ground, Kingsmill aimed a kick at his face, his boot making contact with the man’s nose which exploded with blood. “Hiding behind your wife’s petticoats now Richard?” he sneered as he aimed another kick, this time at his kidneys. “Tie this to its horse, and we’ll take it with us.” He sneered, before walking into the Inn to fetch Pring.
Four hours later, the men arrived at their destination, the estuary of the Cuckmere River. Mann was unceremoniously cut from his horse, and shaken back into consciousness. Groaning with the pain, he raised his head from the ground to see Kingsmill sitting in front of him, holding a pistol in one hand, smoke curling from a clay pipe held in the other.
“Cutter will be here soon” Kingsmill said after taking a puff on the pipe. “It will be full of our goods that we paid for. Just like the one at Bulverhythe was before Christmas, “ He stood up and walked closer to the prone man, who tried to raise himself up. Kingsmill put one foot on his raw back, pushing him down into the stones on the beach. “The run that you cost us when you and Bob Pollard decided to leave your posts and let the preventative come right in.”
“I…we…never.“ Mann stammered. “They had us, No time to warn you with a pistol pointed at my head” He was rewarded with a further stamp on his back.
“And so you join them?” Kingsmill sneered. “Unless you were with ‘‘em then as well?” he walked around the stricken man, before pressing the muzzle of his pistol against the man’s cheek. ”That was why they knew where to come, like they knew where to come tonight, wasn’t it. You and Pollard…”
“Pollard was.” Mann yelled. “Pollard was with ‘em all along, but not me, I only joined ‘em when they threatened me with the rope. Please, want could I do?” the fear in the man’s voice was evident.
“You joined ‘em. You led ‘‘em to us. That is enough,” Kingsmill replied, He stood up, and called out to the men waiting on the beach. “Well lads, what do you think? We owe Bob Pollard a visit, soon as this is done. But what about this here?” He kicked Mann in the kidneys, the man curling into a foetal position in a vain attempt to ward off further blows. Closing his eyes, as if accepting his end, he began to mumble the Lord’s Prayer, as if to be sure of a place in heaven.
“Tom, he’s had enough. “ Major called out, anxious to see this brought to an end before the cutter arrived. Kingsmill turned round to look at him, Pistol still cocked and ready, causing the older man to blanch as he realised it was now pointing at him.
“You reckon I should let him go eh?” Kingsmill shouted back, eyes blazing with anger. “Let him just get away with his treachery, what will that say?”
“I couldn’t give a fuck whether he dies or not. Just end it one way or the other and let’s get on before his screams alert more trouble. Half of Seaford can hear him I reckon.”
Pring walked over to the other two. He had sat away from the stricken man, despising the torture, but now he felt he had to step in. “Major’s right Tom.” He indicated out to sea, “The cutter will be here soon, just do what do have to, let’s get on. We have work to do. For the love of God just end this torment one way or the other. The man has suffered enough.”
Kingsmill looked around at the other’s faces, and realised they all felt the same way. Sighing he stared out to sea, in time to see a flash from the vessel they were expecting. Seeing this calmed him down, and he walked over to his victim, placing his pistol on the back of the man’s head and firing without a second thought, the shot echoing around the beach and off the cliffs. With casual indifference, he walked across to the sea, ready to receive the Oilskin bags filled with the precious cargo of tea.
Major and Pring eyed each other with a shrug, leaving Mann’s body cooling on the beach as they joined the others and got to work.