“If you can’t see anything, pass the glass.”
Roland Flounder’s voice hissed like wind through dry summer grass. He snatched the telescope from Valentine Rudd’s unwilling hands then screwed up his eyes as he raked the place where the sky should meet the North Sea. Thick cloud obscured the moon just as planned, but sighting the lugger was all the more difficult.
“And what can you see?” Valentine asked with a sneer, confident Roland’s eyes were no better than his own. Some-times his partner’s all too knowing attitude irritated him. They almost looked the same; three inches short of six feet, strong in arm and stockily built, with long unruly brown hair that curled round long faces. They also had the same brown eyes that watched the world around hawkish noses above almost identical lantern jaws. And yet they were completely different. For as many generations as they could remember, Roland Flounder’s family had been agricultural labourers for a succession of tenant farmers on the cliffs above Saltburn, all the children born to live in tied cottages in the hamlet by the shore.
In contrast, Valentine Rudd’s family was of the sea. The tides seemed to regulate the pulsing of blood in their veins. On nights when big storm driven rollers crashed up the beach, no male Rudd could sleep soundly, tossing and turn-ing in bed, almost as if the churning ocean also disturbed long forgotten memories of Rudd ancestors battling through typhoons in the China Sea or Jamaica hurricanes, ploughing through the Roaring Forties or weathering Cape Horn, or even the more familiar North-Easters on the Yorkshire coast which every Rudd knew all too well.
Valentine peered at Roland. Always so sure of himself. Tonight, Valentine’s own uncertainty was a snake of fear that uncoiled restlessly in his gut. He stared into the darkness, listening to the waves breaking below, hissing and sucking at the shingle at the beach’s edge. They had the best view of the bay, perched a few feet below the crown of Cat Nab which poked up from the shore some sixty feet into the sky like an extinguished volcano of soft clay.
Below, along the fringe of the beach ran a row of cottages, woodsmoke from dying evening fires homely in the night air. To their left the shamble of pantiled roofs petered out where Saltburn beck emerged from the woods to slice across the sand to the sea. Beyond, a cart track twisted up the west cliff into a patchwork quilt of fields belonging to Rifts Farm. Spring crops waved uncertainly above the tumbling slopes of the sea banks running some three miles to Marske above broad sands as flat as a mirror where it was said lords from Skelton Castle used to race their chaises, hooves pounding the damp sand at low tide.
On the other side, their right, where Cat Nab swooped down to the east, yellow squares of light still glowed from the Ship Inn, the breeze-blown sign groaning like a stubborn donkey. Beyond, another ragged line of cottages perched on climbing slopes, standing guard over the tiny crescent of white sand which ended in a solid rock wall. Huntcliff rose sheer, a lion’s paw resting on the North Sea, curving pro-tectively round Saltburn Bay. The cliff’s sentinels, a horde of screaming cormorants and herring gulls were squeezed onto impossible ledges to roost out the night until the grey dawn started another day’s never ending hunt for food.
“I can’t see a ...”
His voice died as Valentine’s hand chopped sideways for silence. He cocked his head, straining to distinguish the sound again over the tumbling surf. “Someone’s coming.”
Both lay tense, Roland’s hand stealing to the dagger thrust in his belt. Valentine tapped his shoulder and pointed to the right. A man was climbing Cat Nab toward them, stumbling over the rough grass, something large hanging from his right hand. Valentine cupped a hand about his mouth in mime. Roland’s teeth gleamed for a second in the darkness as he grinned. Silently, they pressed close to the damp earth, invisible on the hillside.
Valentine lay motionless, the salt breeze in his nostrils. He loved the sea. Back at least to his great-great-grandfather, the Rudds had been fishermen or merchant mariners. Either way they had scoured a living from the sea, and the present generation, he and his father, supplemented that hard earned income on nights like tonight, helping to bring ashore the tubs of brandy and geneva. If his step-mother discovered he was out on the Nab, keeping watch for the smuggling, she wouldn’t hesitate to flay him with her tongue, making life a misery. But the men knew. Women did not understand these things. It was something he had to do. It was exciting and he thrived on that excitement. But there was fear too...
Valentine shrugged his thoughts aside and concentrated on the present. Below on the flank of Cat Nab, the newcomer was silhouetted against the indigo sky. He climbed on, grunting with effort, lungs wheezing. He stopped, uncertain, then began to quarter the seaward face of the Nab, searching. Valentine waited until he came within a yard, then signalled. Roland made a trumpet of his hands, shattering the night with the shriek of a startled owl.
The stranger, startled, staggered sideways. “What the...?”
Valentine lunged upward, grabbed and dragged him down into the grass. “You make enough noise to wake the dead, Tommy.”
The newcomer stopped struggling. “For God’s sake, Val, you s-s-scared me. It’s not f-f-funny,” Tommy Tiplady stutt-ered. “Mr John wouldn’t be happy if he knew you was fooling around when there’s work to be done.”
“Shut up, Tommy,” Roland said.
“You took your time fetching that lantern,” Val accused. “What if we’d spotted her before you got back? Mr John would have taken his crop to you then.” After a moment’s silence he added: “You’d best light and cover it, so it’s ready. What’s happening down there?” He gestured towards the Ship Inn.
Tommy rummaged in a pocket of his threadbare frockcoat for tinderbox and flint, holding the storm lantern between his knees. “The ponies are ready in the yard. The men are in the bar, waiting on Mr John’s word.”
Valentine could easily imagine the scene. He had witnessed it before. Nobody messed up Mr John’s plans. Any hesitation or mistake would be punished by exclusion from the next few runs, and that could mean the difference between eating and starving, the way the fish were running this season. Mr Richard John was as near a perfectionist as any man Valentine had ever met. And his care in planning and flair for organisation had made him rich. So the stage was set. Men and ponies were ready. Soon the message would be carried along the pannier paths to villages far inland.
“John’s cow has calfed,” it would say…
“Lights off the port bow,” the first mate pointed. “Send word to the Captain.” As the cabin boy turned to go below, the mate checked the chart in the dim glow of the binnacle. He nodded, unconsciously shifting his weight to compensate as the Morgan Butler rolled beneath his feet to the rhythm of the inshore swell. He glanced up at the sails, grey in the gloom and fat with wind as they drove her westward along a parallel course to the shore. “Tighten that brace!” he called then turned to the helmsman. “Take her two points north; the tide’s pulling her in.”
“I like a cautious man,” a voice growled, then chuckled. “When needs must.”
“Good evening to you, Cap’n,” the mate smiled, twisting to look over his shoulder as Josiah Brown closed the companion hatchway.
“And a profitable one, too,” Captain Brown added with a grin, looking for’ard to take in his lugger’s condition all in one practised glance. Morgan Butler’s transom lifted, timbers creaking, masts swinging in a lazy arc as a shore-bound wave rushed beneath her keel to leave a trail of white froth bubbling from her forefoot. Then her bowsprit began the swing toward the open sea, obeying the helmsman’s adjustment. Ashore, the cluster of lights slid onto the stern quarter.
“Skinnengrave,” the mate offered unnecessarily, well aware his commander knew the Yorkshire coastline so well he could sail it blindfold, smelling his way from harbour to harbour.
“Aye t’is, well enough,” Captain Brown agreed. He had large dark eyes below bushy eyebrows, and his strong jutting jawline gave him a stubborn determined look, a dangerous man to cross. When he glowered he conjured the illusion of enough strength to splinter a marline spike with his bare hands. But within seconds, a wicked gleam could spark in his eyes and his laughter would roll forth, as jovial as the landlord of an inn.
Which in a way he was, every square inch of cargo space aboard Morgan Butler crammed with more hard liquor than most landlords had ever stored in their cellars...
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