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Brian E Cross

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A Barrel Of Rum
By Brian E Cross
Saturday, November 26, 2005

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On a hot, humid summer day a walk across Suffolk heathland produces unusual consequences

The heat had been building up all morning and my tiny room in the inn’s attic was stifling; I felt I was breathing in soup. I headed downstairs needing air but outside it was almost as still and stale, just a flutter of a breeze.
Standing surveying the greying shroud of the heavens I thought I heard thunder rumble. But I needed to walk, needed to think. My personal problems close to getting out of hand I’d come to this country backwater for a break.
At the crossroads I took the lane towards Thorpeness, my brow already clammy from the oppressive heat. The trunk road carried most of the traffic but unusually not a car passed me by. The only vehicles that did being the horse-drawn variety – novelty rides aren’t unusual in these parts but I remember thinking some convention must be taking place.
I reckoned that getting trodden on by a horse wasn’t much less painful than being clipped by a car and so I took the sensible option, I headed off road, into the heath land, following a narrow twisting track which wound between purple heather and bracken; the air was thick and still, and it seemed to me that the only sound carried on the limp breeze was the occasional rustle of coarse grass.
I’d progressed about a mile towards the coast when I came across the sheet of paper. It was entwined in bracken and like a blot on a landscape that was spotlessly clean. Litterbugs seemed scarce so I felt a sense of responsibility in retrieving the waste – only I hadn’t reckoned on what I’d find –
“THIS DAY – 1st JULY 1735
A reward of ONE HUNDRED POUNDS is hereby offered for information leading to the capture of smugglers terrorising this district and the forfeit of their contraband. Contact the undersigned
Signed J.Tabbs – for H.M. Customs Preventatives.”
I frowned, looked across the heath, puzzled at how the reward poster could have ended up entangled in the bracken – from the museum in Aldeburgh perhaps? But who’d drop it here? And it could hardly have blown three miles.
There was something else though – the parchment seemed new, the ink hardly dry – I prodded it tentatively with my forefinger and it left a slight stain.
Part of the convention perhaps, I recalled the column of chaises that had galloped past me – some kind of festival that I hadn’t heard about?
Yes of course, what else could it be?
‘One hundred pounds friend – a fair reward I’d say – ah but smuggling is the scourge of our times, aye – so it is.’
I spun in shock at the deep voice, I could have sworn there wasn’t a soul in sight but he stood before me, a portly man dressed in boots, breeches and a yellow waistcoat.
‘I’m sorry,’ I said, ‘you startled me – I’m afraid I don’t follow.’
‘Parson Prendergast my man,’ he looked me up and down as though I were an oddity, from my clean-shaven chin, checked cotton shirt to my stonewash jeans and then swiped the back of his hand across his nose.
‘Of course you understand, I don’t abide by your clothes but you hardly look a dimwit – smugglers, my man. They’re running amok – we must stamp them out – we must stamp their evil out!’ His voice rose as I became aware of a developing rumble, but deriving from the ground rather than the skies.
I realised I’d been standing on a broad parched track and along it like grey mist, dust started to rise from the east.
And then I saw why – the horses and carts I’d seen earlier were returning, but this time at a furious pace, bearing down towards me. Convention or no convention, I thought this was stretching it a bit.
I turned back to the parson but he’d disappeared so quickly he might have been vaporised.
My heart was keeping pace with the horses’ hooves as they charged closer, two horses and one man to a chaise, perhaps a dozen carriages in all and each one laden with barrels.
The leader glared down at me, his dark eyes the only prominent feature in a heavily bearded face; suddenly he pulled sharply on the reins, his horse whinnied and the chaise slithered sideways alongside me, only inches away.
His mean eyes were fixed on the poster I still held, ‘I’ll take that my friend.’
I shook my head aghast, I felt like I’d been hauled from the audience into the midst of some crazy pantomime.
He lowered his head towards me, ‘It’s either that or I plant a bullet in your skull – now which would you prefer?’
I smelled the alcohol on his breath, saw his rotted teeth, the lower set ground to stumps. Some pantomime –
‘Look,’ I said shakily, ‘there’s playing games but there are limits.’
‘Games – games, you think I jest?’ He turned incredulously to his chums; the collection of riders and chaises had encircled me – from beneath his black frock he drew a blunderbuss, ‘Listen, folks in these parts know better than to cross us,’ his frown seemed to split his forehead from temple to temple, ‘was that your intention – is that why you’re holding the poster?’ The weapon was an inch away from my nose and perfectly still, ‘If you’re not our friend you’ll be counted as foe…’
‘Okay, okay,’ I shoved the poster into the big chap’s free hand, held my arms aloft. I’d play the daft game their way, because it was a game in the loosest sense – the intimidation was as unbearable as the humidity.
I glanced at the barrels in his chaise, ‘Trinidad 1734 was printed in black. Very authentic, I thought.
But I breathed a huge sigh of relief as they sped off with just a grunt from the big chap. I mopped my brow and headed straight back to the inn.
I was just in time, thunder and lightning was crackling across the sky and large drops of rain had begun
to fall. But at least I was back to reality; at any rate I assumed so
I opened the door to the inn and greeted the cellar-man as he came up from the basement; he looked at me oddly, nodded, hoisted a barrel to his shoulder and proceeded back down the cellar steps. It was an old wooden cask, stunk of age. I glanced at the inscription –
Trinidad. 1734.

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Reviewed by Jane Rodway 11/28/2005
I really enjoyed this, was waiting for more- your historical details are great, and Suffolk is such a nice area, you really brought me back there. I also love Highwaymen stories and I was sure someone was going to say, "your money or your life". Excellent work, would love to read more.

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